What would you expect from a restaurant called Crafthouse? Something a bit nubbly and homespun, I'm guessing. Perhaps a modern take on an alehouse, with a craft brewery attached, furnished with old beer crates scavenged from a skip by Kirstie Allsopp.
Well think again. This week's venue is the very opposite of authentic and homely. Perched on top of the busy new Trinity Leeds shopping centre, Crafthouse is a shiny, wine-and-diney affair, the first out-of-town opening from D&D London, the upmarket restaurant group formerly known as Conran.
In their pomp, Conran/D&D were canny colonisers, early into on-the-up London areas like Butler's Wharf and Shoreditch. But this is odd positioning indeed. Trinity Leeds is a mid-market mega-mall, stuffed with mid-market chains like Yo! Sushi, Giraffe and Wagamama. To open a smart restaurant here is like grafting a Rolls-Royce hood ornament on to the bonnet of a Renault Scenic. Though given that D&D is now backed by the private equity arm of Lloyds, the move has more to do with property development and imperial ambition than the burning desire to bring a unique dining experience to Leeds.
As is the custom with these high-up, high-end restaurants, Crafthouse tries hard to ignore its infra dig neighbours. There's a designated lift to waft diners up the side of the building so they don't have to mingle with any shoppers. Whether arriving by stairs or lift, though, first impressions are dismal. The deserted reception area feels basement-ish despite being on the fifth floor, like a nightclub caught unawares the morning after.
The restaurant itself, a light-flooded glass wedge, is generic in the way glass boxes on top of statement buildings tend to be, with the view doing most of the lifting. Expensive, masculine materials – rippled plains of glass, a long marble counter lined with zinc, polished black wood – give a muted, executive-club-lounge feel, and there's a not-very-private dining room in a glass box, looking about as convivial as Alan Sugar's boardroom in The Apprentice.
Nor do the waiters look comfortable, in their tight tweed waistcoats and jeans. "The lobster thermidor is off," we're told as we're handed our menus. Aah, nothing like a good old northern welcome.
On the restaurant's website, the executive head chef promises 'good honest food, cooked properly'. Our starters are a long way from that. From the à la carte menu, breaded duck egg, still flumey with uncooked albumen, is a Scotch egg without the Scotch, served with grilled baby artichokes as oily and acid as something flipped from a jar. Confited duck, from the set menu, has the slightly rangy taste of turkey three days after Christmas. But worst of all is a spinach pancake, swimming in wallpaper-paste bechamel rank with uncooked flour. It should never have been allowed to leave the kitchen. Or perhaps it has been lurking there since 1982 with the lobster thermidor, waiting to pounce.
Another retro offering, devilled veal kidneys, comes with a big bowl of tagliatelle for self-assembly and finally delivers some decent, well-balanced flavours. Keeping up with food trends by installing a Josper oven, the kitchen rather misses the point by sending out from it a couple of slices of viciously salty gammon steak, draped over sautéed potatoes. Sea bream, baked in paper and served with a dollop of ratatouille, is a meagre main, our waiter having dissuaded us from adding a side order. This may be a shopping centre, but there's little upselling going on.
The clientele are a mixed bag; a few business lunchers, a table of smart younger people photographing their food, but mainly groups who are dressed up to the nines, including a smattering of what can only be described as dolly birds, their bare legs as brown and glossy as the teak bar stools. "Is this the poshest restaurant in Leeds?" I ask my guests, who have eaten here before. "It thinks it is," one of them replies, "but it's a bit fur coat and no knickers."
To prove the point, my meal ends with a 'gold bar' – a glossy slab of ganache-robed chocolate biscuit dotted with gold leaf. But though desserts show more finesse, they come too late to rescue a disappointing lunch. I should point out, in fairness, that the poorer dishes all came from the cheaper prix fixe lunch menu. But at £22.50, it isn't that cheap. Add a noodly, jazz-funk soundtrack and the overall impression is a bit off. There's no sommelier in evidence, no maître d', no feeling of a proper welcome, of hospitality.
Conran restaurants always used to attract flak for being big and showy and a bit soulless, but at least they generally worked. Crafthouse feels like a ghostly colony of a former imperial power with mission creep, a made-up restaurant to match its made-up name.
Crafthouse, Level 5 Trinity Leeds, 70 Boar Lane, Leeds (0113 897 0444). Two-course set menu from £18.50; à la carte around £35 a head before wine and serviceReuse content