Prison food never tasted so good – Underground, with We, the Animals

Eating out
A review of the Underground pop-up restaurant at Leeds Town Hall, by We, the Animals.

The bright, white paint on the walls was cleaner, and the lighting perhaps a little softer, than it might have been in the past, but this was definitely a prison cell, a prison cell transformed for one weekend only into a pop-up restaurant by the food collective We, the Animals.

It was a strange evening right from the start, from the time we spent sat on the steps outside the Henry Moore Institute, watching Friday night in a northern city grind into action under the last part of the day’s blazing sun, that strange crossover time where the workers either leave, or join the party people as they start to emerge for a long evening and late night.

We tried to spot others who knew the secret that the Town Hall held that night, but there didn’t seem to be any. It crossed my mind that we might be alone, or that this was going to be a complete disaster, as these pop-up things can at times be. The signs were encouraging, though – I’d spotted an advance party from Laynes Espresso lugging gear towards the Town Hall, so I knew that at least the coffee was in good hands.

The first surprise was that there really is a jail under the Town Hall. When I’d booked tickets to this We, the Animals event (I nearly typed ‘gig’, then … would a pop-up restaurant ever be a ‘gig’?), I’d suspected that the ‘jail’ part would be a conceit of some sort, maybe a cleared-out storage space in a dark Victorian basement that was pretending to be something it wasn’t, but there was no doubt that this place had seen service as a correctional facility.

The iron rings on the walls spoke volumes about the way Victorian inmates were probably treated, and the cell door had a certain heft to it that screamed of tolerating no nonsense.

We the Animals, Leeds

It isn’t a large prison –  just a series of three small cells in the basement, down a small passageway next to the main steps and underneath a huge stone lion, its face eroded by the wind and rain. These cells saw service as late as the early nineties, used as an overflow drunk tank for much of their later years, probably because they’re conveniently close to the city’s busiest bars, but before that, they were holding cells for people waiting for the magistrates above ground.

The stories those walls could tell …

Each of the three cells, a makeshift bar and the corridors connecting them all together were decked out in bunting made from the pages of a Dickens novel, and lit gently with rope lights and candles, transforming the austere brick, with its harsh edges and brutal, claustrophobic architecture into something altogether warmer, more welcoming, more … unexpected. but with an edge of the eerie about it.

We sat in the middle cell with six or seven other people, at a large table that filled the room. And then the food started to arrive … homemade bread with peppery radishes and butter cut through with sea salt, a gazpacho of heritage tomatoes, as crisp, cold and clean as the cell’s whitewashed walls, spring onions, scorched on a griddle and served with a Calcot style sauce, Coeur-de-boeuf tomatoes of such phenomenal quality that the anchovies and marjoram laid on top of them seemed like a distraction.

It continued … raw courgettes with lemon and borage, skewers of lambs liver, crusted with cumin, fillets of mackerel, cooked quickly on a huge bed of bay leaves, the scorched leaves smelling of both the garden and the sea, pig’s ears, sliced into thin strips and deep-fried, lovely, crisp, gelatinous chunks of fatty meat.

We emerged from the cell and climbed the steps right to the top of the clock tower, and stood in front of the huge clock faces and gaze over the city’s rooftops as the sun started to set, bathing Leeds’ skyline, a mix of Victorian grandeur and modern bravado, in the blue sheen of twilight.

We the Animals, Leeds

Back downstairs, there were bowls of cherries on ice, madeleines and fresh berries, strawberry gazpacho and Laynes’ beautiful coffee, served with a description of what it was and where it came from.

The menu was geared towards the season, and it matched the hot day perfectly, full of light and clear flavours and textures, so much resting on the superb quality of the ingredients. This was a masterclass in the idea that sourcing the best and cooking it simply is the basis of any successful meal.

It’s hard to write about We, the Animals and get across the brilliance of it all … the combination of location, and presentation, and service, and food. It must have been a hard act to get right – so many things that could go wrong cooking for so many people in such an unusual environment – but it went like clockwork, a slick, well thought through and professional experience.

We, the Animals left me inspired by their cooking, by the way that they juggled with flavours and how they sometimes just left ingredients alone to speak for themselves, and how that was just exactly what was needed.

I was stunned by their ingenuity in presenting a menu as good as this in a venue as unusual as it turned out to be.

That took courage, and that’s to be admired and celebrated.

We the Animals, Leeds