Each step you take through Alea Casino in Clarence Dock bounces a little off the carpet. I wonder if it's part of the sophisticated psychology behind the neon and chandelier chance-palace; a gambling bubble carefully engineered with muzak and bouncy carpets ready to cushion the blow of losing your next month's rent. Or maybe they're just new.
This would make sense. Alea Leeds only opened in September and while I'm sure it's a marvellous casino with its red-soaked environ of both womblike safety and edgy euphoria, it's not why I was there. No, I was making a beeline for the restaurant.
The Bird by Vineet is tucked away in the back corner on the first floor to the right of a bonkers peacock mosaic. It's the first venture outside London by Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star and widely considered one of the best in the country. While Vineet isn't regularly installed in the kitchen, the place very much bears his mark and as such it's not slap-dash boozy curry, but contemporary Indian cuisine.
The actual restaurant is both showy and slick: low hanging lamps and red tube lighting illuminate the chocolate and cream hues of the angular interior design; a grand high ceiling oversees stylishly set tables and an open kitchen stage. It's modern design with a vague feeling of 1980s yuppie aspiration.
The completely affable maÎtre d' sat us at the chainmail window and left us to peruse the options. Vineet's menu is racy south Asian with a few alarming twists (Yorkshire cheese naan? Er...). There's certainly some innovation at play, however the most shocking thing about it are the prices. Even prior to tasting I was impressed – £6.95 for a main? On service and setting alone, this is hard to believe. What on earth can it mean for the food?
Popadoms (£1.50) kicked things off well: light, fragile with a deeply satisfying crunch and served with a couple of sweet fruit chutneys. The starter was a no brainer. The tapas platter (£6 per person) featured six mini Indian snacks presented impressively in stand of cute little cones. The chicken lollipop, despite having an overly child-friendly name, was a bone of brittle spicy batter revealing a lesson in moist succulence beneath. The crispy masala rice are cheesy rice balls – I know, hear me out – with a fluffy centre of gooey, textured, creamy loveliness that was just so right. The fleshy chunks of white fish inside their crunchy tandoori shells, the meaty lamb sheekh kebab with its indulgent cheese centre – there's an obvious danger of these being greasy disasters, yet all were superb.
To follow we overfaced ourselves with a few mains. The lamb biryani (£7.50) was a beautifully baked dish of tender dry lamb and rice under a crust lid. Each grain seemed to have been lovingly coated in a hearty spice mix with a fragrant presence of cardomon throughout. In contrast, the spicy Goan fish curry (£7.95) had its perfectly flaking white fish in a rich turmeric-laden sauce. A proper little hotty, the dense kicking flavours evolved for a good minute after the mouthful.
On the milder side, the saag paneer (£4.50) of spinach and Indian cheese was a creamy, pillowy delight loaded with warm nutmeg, mild spice and a garlicky depth. We mopped it up with a thin, almost artisan pizza-ish onion and coriander naan.
Often with curries there's the temptation, nay the need, to mix it up to mask the flavours in a big spicy sauce blend. But here, each dish was so cleverly constructed and expertly executed that to mix them would be like mixing Mozart and dubstep: wrong.
Thoroughly stuffed but unable to resist the dessert menu, I went for a raspberry delice (£4) which was a devilish layered girder of fudgy brownie, light mousse and a tart raspberry coulis served with a pistachio ice cream. My dining companion Ben is usually scathing but his between-mouthful utterances had been of a “spectacular”, “brilliant” and “flawless” nature all night. He went for the orange and ginger pudding with cardomon custard and ginger ice cream (£4). This soft centred sponge sandwiched between ice cream and custard was a hot-cold tower of Christmas spiced comfort. It elicited yet more uncharacteristic gushing from across the table.
The altogether excellent food totally distracted us, but The Bird By Vineet is definitely in a casino. The music, the glitz, the view of cheesy fire screens and betting tables. By all rights, The Bird should stand on its own, serving food that's thoroughly exciting and astonishingly reasonable.
The prices are less than half those of Vineet's London restaurant Rasoi and around the same as curries elsewhere that have systematically abused my innards. For delicious dishes and stunning value, it's absolutely worth seeking out the back corner of Alea Casino and, if you're feeling lucky, there's always the opportunity for a flutter on the floaty traipse through.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away
sorry last few visits the food was very dissapointing need to do better than one free glass of…Read more
Cool post very informative. I just found your site and read through a few posts although this is my…Read more
This is another good reason to travel. This restaurant is a place to go to. Nice chinese restaurant…Read more
Malaysian tea? I know that India and China are known for that, but I suppose that places like…Read more