There aren’t many people who don’t like chocolate in one way or another. As a hot drink in your local Starbucks as you bash away at the keyboard, as a traditional bar when you sit down to binge watch the latest series on Netflix or perhaps you like yours dark with a slightly higher cocoa percentage alongside your favourite single malt. Yes father, I’m looking at you.
Up until a few years ago cocoa and the cocoa bean (as opposed to chocolate) was rarely used in main meals. That was until luxury chocolate producer Hotel Chocolat opened their two UK restaurants: Rabot 1745 in London’s Borough Market and the Roast + Conch in Leeds.
Roughly marking the midway point of our journey home after a few days away and only being a minor detour made the Roast + Conch ideally suited for a break from driving and a bite to eat. Given it would be a Friday in a large city such as Leeds and planning on arriving just as the restaurant re-opened for dinner at 5pm I thought it would be sensible to book in advance. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have bothered. Walking through the door a few minutes early we strolled through the bar area and upstairs to a completely empty restaurant except for the staff. It would remain this way for the duration of our meal – approximately 90 minutes.
Having placed our order, the waitress returned a few minutes later with some complimentary sourdough bread and a selection of spreads. The bread was a touch dry, crying out for some butter. This proved to be a hard task as the cocoa nib butter that came alongside was a solid block and barely spreadable. The intense flavour of the Cocoa Balsamic proved overpowering and it would take the subtler flavours of the cocoa-nib pesto to rescue the bread.
For my other half/co-pilot the starter consisted of a light and airy Yorkshire pudding filled with slices of evenly rare spiced beef perched on a bed of silky smooth white chocolate mash. Not as sweet as you might perhaps think, the white chocolate adds just the right amount of sweetness, making the mash different to most others without taking anything away from the taste of the potatoes. For myself Crispy Pressed Lamb Bonbons. Apart from my partner, who knew something so small could have such a huge impact! The salty taste of the capers, acidity from the cornichons and the peppery notes of the radish all helped to bring balance to the moreish flavour of the lamb. For me personally only serving two of these little nuggets of joy just wasn’t enough!
A main of seared sea bass with a cocoa and sesame crust, a smoked aubergine puree, sweet potato, crushed lime and chilli was superb. Crisp skin, on top and perfectly cooked fish underneath was an absolute dream. The chilli added a manageable heat whilst lime added a refreshing zing after the slight sweetness of the crust and potato. My partner opted for the 9-hour cocoa beer braised lamb that fell apart as the knife glided through the meat. Sat on a rich and creamy celeriac puree and joined by an equally rich red wine jus, we ordered a side of seasonal greens and cocoa oil to help take the edge of.
A second side came in the form of some beautifully cooked chips and cocoa ketchup. Crisp outside and fluffy inside in the chip stakes, probably only second to those of The Hand and Flowers.
Given Hotel Chocolat at its core is a luxury chocolate producer, you’d think that if there was one course they would absolutely nail, it would be dessert. Unfortunately, on this occasion, for me at least this wasn’t the case. It’s no secret I have a sweet tooth. As much as I’d love to be an adult and go for the cheeseboard in a swanky starred restaurant, or a fruit crumble in the local pub, if there’s a chocolate alternative there’s something inside me that will just not allow me to choose anything else. It goes without saying then that the Molten Chocolate ‘Lava’ Pudding was a dead cert from the word go. Upon ordering I was told there would be a short wait due to it being cooked from scratch. Not a problem at all. A chocolate pudding that had gooey chocolate inside accompanied by a cocoa nib ice cream? Take all the time you need.
About fifteen minutes had passed when desserts arrived and boy did they look the part. Unable to contain my excitement any more I dived in, cutting straight through the middle of the soufflé to reveal…nothing. No sign of the molten lava anywhere. After the two previous courses being so delightful it was disappointing to put it mildly. Possible a few minutes too long in the oven had led to the ‘lava’ inside being cooked and becoming part of the soufflé. A shame, especially after the extra wait and the lack of customers but having had this dessert on a previous occasion I know just how good this dessert can be when it’s done well.
I’ll hold my hands up, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph I have now been to both Hotel Chocolats’ restaurants. Would I go back to either again? Probably not. Not because the cooking in either is bad – because it’s not, but because after the first time the novelty has worn off. Would I however, recommend it to other people as an alternative dining experience to what they would probably be used to? Absolutely.