I had a few hours to kill in Leeds, so, with a hot restaurant tip from a friend, I took myself for a dinner.
Leeds, much like most big British cities, is an inside out nightclub on a Saturday night. Beer-dappled plaid shirts and shrieking, sequined frocks take your eye. Various Lynx stinks fill your nose and so many heels click-clacking on pavement that it sounds like horses. To turn left off the boozy bustle of Boar Lane onto Central Road is a relief. Its relative darkness and serenity are exciting in a different way. There’s still things going on, bars and restaurants, but they’re all enticingly tucked away. You escape a road where you’d go to buy a McDonald’s and end up on one where you’d go to buy a Mogwai.
Little Tokyo looks like a takeaway from the outside, but as soon as you’re inside it’s like a Japanese restaurant theme park. It’s got everything you could ever want. Low, reddish, twinkling lighting over tables and chairs set into the floor. The other furniture is made out of big, wonky solid slabs of carved wood. There are ponds and streams full of enormous fish and there’s even a bridge. It’s busy and bonkers, everything’s a bit worn and the clientele are a happy, tatty, human mixture of shapes and ages. I felt ever so at home. I love it when places don’t feel uncomfortable to eat alone in. Especially when you’ve got a gravy stain on your jumper but you’ve worn it anyway because it’s new.
The menu was a dense tome, heaving with gasp-worthy, tummy rumble-making treats. Imagine Wolf Hall, but a menu. There were amazing-looking bento boxes, where you got a mixture of all sorts. I’d have been all over that in another mood, but I wanted to take my time, rather than get everything all at once. It wasn’t Christmas yet.
There was sushi but it was freezing outside so that didn’t feel right. There was even a worrying ‘anglo-set’. Nigri with ‘ham and cheese’. What? What sort of mouth-pervert is choosing that filth? If you’re someone who gets omelette and chips from an Asian restaurant, I hate you. Grow up. Even if you’re a baby. Especially if you’re a baby. I don’t kick off because I can’t get a bimbimbap in Greggs so don’t do the opposite. I know you’re out there, because this is supply and demand and these insane things are still on menus. It’s not the ’70s anymore, you can’t claim ignorance, get a mouthsectomy.
I ordered a ‘chrysanthemum cold tea.’ Hoooweeee. It was certainly something. Flavour wise is was completely new to me: intense, sweet and curiously fruity. I couldn’t work out if I loved it or if it was disgusting, like the very first time you ever got a proper look at a twig and berries. It was best described as: Agh! Urgh. Oh, it’s lovely. Is it? Yeah. I think so.
I was having a vegan day and there was heaps to choose from. I went for ‘flame grilled eggplant’ to start, one of my favourite vegetables ever. It turned out to be a plate of skewered, whole baby aubergines with a dipping sauce. The skin was scorched and charred, which burst as you bit into it, releasing the gooey, caramel insides. The dip was volcanic, a smoked plummy oil full of chilli flakes. All together it was such a powerful, spicy slap around the cake-hole that my weird, sickly drink complemented it. What a fluke.
For mains I had a vegetable Yaki Udon which put Wagamamas to shame. It had more brilliant vegetables in it than there are national treasures in Love Actually. There were onions, carrots, pak choi, sweet peas, baby sweetcorn and courgettes, all still crunchy and full of their own flavours. The mound of giant noodles sat in an inky, mushroomy sauce, which had soaked right into giant bits of spongey tofu. There were water chestnuts, all juicy and nutty, but the stand out bit for me was the lotus root. I’d never tried it before, it looked like wet, transparent mouse cheese. It tasted all at once (in a mellow way) of turnip, nuts and bamboo shoot. Scrum. And there was more of it than I could demolish.
On the table was a tiny, laminated card advertising the restaurant as a venue for birthday parties. On the back it said ‘Sing together birthday songs’ and ‘Helium balloons.’ Sounds like the next Chipmunk film.
It wasn’t at all cheap at £18.33, but I didn’t feel anywhere near ripped off either. I’d had a long, fun and delicious time and best of all, an adventure.
Little Tokyo, 24 Central Road, Leeds, LS1 6DE
Tel: 01132 439090
Opening Hours: 11.30am – 10pm (every day)
No accessibility, steps here and there even on ground level, steps to basement and toilets on mezzanine level up a narrow stairway.