Kino may be a new restaurant in Leeds funded by Opera North, but it’s much more than a pre-theater venue
We spent most of the evening talking, not about theatre, but about food and especially the difficulty of running a restaurant where everyone wants to eat at the same time and be fed quickly. He told me how hard it was to get non-theater-goers in and that while the food was good, it was hard to make it work.
I note that today Scarborough’s exemplary Eat Me cafe has taken up residence at the Stephen Joseph and appears to be running the restaurant successfully. Maybe renting it out to a restaurant takes the headache out of a theater running a restaurant.
At least that seems to be the thinking behind Kino (the name refers to the venue’s former use as a cinema), a new restaurant located between the Grand Theater and the Howard Meeting Rooms and part of an 18 million investment sterling by Opera North creating an orchestra studio, rehearsal space, education centre, ticket office, refurbished meeting rooms and a 100-seat restaurant.
They did a wonderful job on Kino. Large windows have been installed in the Victorian arches of what was once a row of abandoned shops. Inside, she’s been given an industrial look with exposed RSJs and piping, quartz composite table tops, and modern cafe chairs. Everything is connected to the meeting rooms by a fabulous four-story atrium.
When Kino opened in July, they started out serving simple cheese and charcuterie boards, a sweet way for everyone to settle in. Then in September they invited Sheffield-based MorMor, known for its street food and pop-up restaurants, to take up the first residency. They will stay there until the new year when another operation (they don’t say which one) will take over the space.
The MorMor describe their cuisine as Eastern Mediterranean/Levantine – think dates, eggplant, dukkha, tahini, za’atar, couscous and labneh. The kind of thing you’ll find in any Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook, and who, by a nice coincidence, is on stage next door in the Howard Assembly Rooms to give a talk about his cooking and his writing.
He’d recognize the food here, a mix of small and large plates made for sharing that seems to suit Kino’s laid-back vibe. The case is a little complicated, so listen up. Choose three plates for £18 (two side plates and one main) or four plates (three side plates and one main) for £24.
We calculate that the three of us can eat the whole menu. Our waitress is a little taken aback, “that’s going to be a lot of plates on the table”, she says. We reassure her that it won’t be a problem for us and with a raised eyebrow, she happily enters the whole menu into the iPad slung around her neck.
Then the dishes start coming… and coming. Tabbouleh with pomegranate and baby gem; orzo with fennel, feta, orange, peas and za’atar. A small fresh salad of heirloom tomatoes, peeled then sprinkled with mint and sumac and dressed with good olive oil. The falafels sit on muhammara, a punchy tomato sauce, straight out of the Ottolenghi school, made with walnuts, red peppers, pomegranate molasses, breadcrumbs, seasoned with cumin and Aleppo pepper. We need green vegetables and here is sautéed spinach mixed with maftoul, the giant Palestinian couscous and carbs of batata kezbara – spicy potatoes for you and me,
We make room for succulent dishes that have been cooked over hot coals. Butterfly-shaped prawns in their shells with harissa butter and chilli; skewers of oyster mushrooms, crispy cabbage and chickpeas and skewers of chicken marinated in sweet pepper from Turkish Lombardy and again giant couscous.
Now the table is full of plates as we have been warned and our waiters seem to be having a quiet fun bringing us such a feast, although it is only after ordering that we learn we have been given the pre-theater menu rather than the full dinner menu. What we see contains all the dishes we just ate and many more. Roasted eggplant with dates and almond dukkah; rack of lamb and spiced chermoula; roasted guinea fowl with sumac; chicory seabass. It looks excellent but we are full and satisfied. The only disappointment was the dessert, a lemon tart topped with a vibrant raspberry sorbet. The lemon and sorbet are thin but are undermined by a once crisp but moist and sad batter. I guess it was stored too long in the fridge.
At present, Kino is practically empty. Pre-theatre diners were seated, the same problem Sir Alan reported all those years ago. However, when I arrived a week later I was assured that they had reservations all evening.
The Kino has every chance of succeeding, a prominent place in the street, large windows, where passers-by can see what is happening rather than being hidden at the back of a theater and above all, and this may seem obvious, we eat well. It is not always acquired. We all know a place where billions of dollars have been spent on design and decor only to have the food disappointing.
MorMor’s food was suited to this setting, but it remains to be seen whether, after building a reputation with MorMor, customers will be ready to embrace the change to a new residence in a few months, with entirely different cuisine. Richard Mantle, the managing director of Opera North, said he wanted Kino to be more than a pre- or post-theater venue, but a destination in its own right. So far he has his wish. Kino cracked it.
Kino, 34 New Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6NU
Open: Wed/Thu 5pm-10pm Fri/Sat 12pm-11pm Price: Dinner for two with bottle of wine and service £85