I have to say that lockdown has affected me more than I thought it would. I live alone so having a daily walk and going to the supermarket a couple of times a week is my normal routine anyway so no change there. The only difference has been my not able to use public transport to get into Leeds, and even if I had, there was nothing there to review, the theatres and restaurants all being closed. I have also been secretly working out at home and have lost over a stone in weight since being put under house arrest. This has made me ponder on packing this reviewing lark in altogether and remaining in my new, comfortable routine.
My torpor and pessimistic view of the world outside of my bubble was enhanced by my deciding to edit my other website the-eat-is-on.com which is a guide as to where to eat lunch in Leeds and has taken about four years to compile. There are just short of a hundred entries and I needed to find out how many had survived lockdown in tact. I was able to check on most of them on-line by consulting their websites and social media pages but there were several where I was drawing a blank and so resolved to venture into the City to have a stroll around and see what was shaking. By the time I had done, it was I who was shaking. According to my Health app I walked over eight miles of city streets and sadly found that some of the eateries’ closures had turned out to be permanent. So, there I was, hot, tired, depressed and desperately in need of some cheering up.
I had chosen Thursday, 30th August to go on my City Safari as I had booked to attend the first Chow Down at Temple Arches which was organised by Chapter 81, New Citizens and Leeds Indie Food with the assistance of CEG, the property company who owns the venue. Chapter 81 and Leeds Indie Food have done so much to help the Leeds independent food and drink businesses over the past few months that I felt I really needed to go and offer my support, along with a few quid, to help get the ball rolling again for the street food vendors who have been especially hard hit by the lack of venues at which to ply their trade. I would like to make it clear at this point that I paid for my own ticket and food and drink as, whilst not exactly rolling in money, I was not going to deprive those present of a single penny of potential income. I also wasn’t offered a freebie, but in this instance I would have refused it anyway.
Chow Down is normally a behemoth of an event with at least a score of stalls and hundreds of hungry, thirsty punters. I had been to the inaugural one two years ago at the magnificent Piece Hall in Halifax which was very impressive and so successful that last year there was another venue added, the even more magnificent Lincoln Cathedral. The plan for 2020 was to repeat and enlarge by increasing the number of weekends at each site. We all know what happened in March and so everything was put on hold. With the recent relaxing of the lockdown conditions it was decided to swing into action by executing Plan B, except that there was no Plan B so Simon Fogal and his team drew one up and, within a few weeks Chow Down at Temple Arches was born.
Although there were only four food stalls, along with Laynes Coffee and a large bar, the choice of food and drink covered all bases, especially the pizzas – see what I did there – and meant that with careful planning a small group could sample everything on offer. The socially distanced tables had to be pre-booked and paid for so that exact numbers could be accommodated. On entering the site we checked in by showing our e-ticket and were led to our designated table. The admission price included a pint of Asahi Lager so entry was, in effect, free. There were also choices of a cocktail or soft drink.
The safety of both customers and staff was obviously paramount as the tables were well spaced and the ordering of food done via smartphone using our QR reader on a code fixed to the table beneath a freshly cleaned perspex screen on the freshly cleaned table top. The app which appeared on the screen led you to the menus of each of the vendors and a couple of touches placed the order and facilitated payment. The nosh was delivered by a team of suitably protected waiting staff who were, without exception the most irritatingly cheerful and helpful crew you could wish to meet. How am I supposed to make jokes when there is nothing to complain about!
I have been using the term ‘we’ as tickets are only sold in multiples of two. This meant that, being Billy Nomates, I had to think on my feet and so I approached the venue via City Station where I managed to kidnap a victim who was lurking on the concourse. Once I had administered a drug to calm her down she came quietly and I think that I might just have got away with my hostage taking for the evening. A liberal supply of lager and food did the trick when the medication began to wear off.
We began by ordering Mezze from Middle Feast to share as an appetiser. It was described on the menu as being for 2-3 people to share as nibbles. It was a bit more than nibbles, comprising garlic hummus, muhamarra (red pepper and walnut dip), baba ganoush (burnt aubergine dip), zatar flatbread, pickles and sticky harissa chicken wings. The pickles were in the form of slaw, a couple of cloves of garlic, a green pickled pepper and a couple of small red pickled chillies infused with dynamite! A really great, relaxed way to begin the proceedings.
After troubling the bar staff for a couple more beers we perused the other menus. My companion, whose heady cocktail of chloroform and lager meant that she didn’t want to spend too much time staring at a screen, stuck with Middle Feast ordering BBQ Chicken Shish Kebab. This was 48 hour buttermilk marinated chicken, skewered and cooked on a fire and served in freshly baked flatbread with pomegranate slaw, burnt chilli sauce, green tahini and hazelnut dukkah. I was granted a piece of chicken to try which was so delicious I immediately knew that nicking a second one would mean that she would immediately call the police.
I cast my net a bit wider and ordered Mbuzi from Nyama Choma, a Kenyan themed food. It is 12-hour roasted kid goat in African Guinness and spices served with smokey pilau rice, Kachumbari salsa and chapati. From the sauce options I went for lime mayo. This was so amazing that I had almost finished it before I realised I hadn’t taken a photograph. You will just have to take my word as to how good it looked. I am obviously out of practice at this reviewing malarky.
The other food carts present were Little Red Food Truck and Igloo Pizza. The bar stocked a range of draught beers and cider including those from Northern Monk and North Brewing Co. There were also canned beers and cider along with wines, spirits, cocktails and soft drinks.
It was good to know that we were being well taken care of during these strange times, one side effect of this was that the portable toilets were absolutely immaculate and thoroughly cleaned after each use. The hand washing and sanitising facilities were also spot on.
On my way to the loo I did notice that man’s best friend was catered for and, should you have arrived on two wheels as opposed to four paws, that there was a bike park.
Once again, Chow Down has surpassed all expectations and I am sure that the remaining nine weeks of its tenure at Temple Arches will be incredibly successful. They deserve it to be. It just shows what can be achieved at short notice with a bit of imagination, a long list of contacts and huge amount of skill, commitment and passion.
Chow Down at Temple Arches continues for the next nine weeks and tickets, at £10 per two people plus a small booking fee, are available at chowdownevents.co.uk They give the use of a table for three hours and I suggest that you book well in advance as this first weekend appears to be sold out already. The food traders will be different each week so that means that you can go several times with no two visits being the same. The opening times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 11.00am to 10.00pm and Sundays 11.00 to 9.00pm. There are family sessions on Thursdays 11.00am to 3.00pm.
Must go now as I need to get my new friend back to the station before she sobers up and realises what has happened.
All photographs by Stan Graham