SOMETIMES when you go out to dinner you want silver platters, white tablecloths and waiters in starched shirts. Other times you just want nice, unpretentious food, good conversation and a decent bottle of wine.
It was the latter I was in search of when I rocked up at Leaf with my husband and a pal I hadn’t seen in a while for a post-work, pre-party bite to eat on a snowy Friday night.
But before even thinking about food we had to find somewhere to sit.
Leaf’s raison d'être may be to extol the delights of the world's teas – hence the name – but it has garnered a reputation for great food too. That, combined with its cool vibe, means it is busy most nights… and days, for that matter.
Eventually we spotted a table near the back of the ground floor (upstairs was being used for a private function) and tracked down some chairs to put with it.
Leaf is not big on formality. That said I spotted china plates with the word “reserved” scribbled across them in pen on a couple of tables which suggests it now takes bookings.
I suppose it was only a matter of time given its popularity.
And surely key to Leaf’s popularity is its ability to make you feel at home. The mish mash of kitsch furniture, the cute pictures and pretty wallpaper – it takes me back to childhood teas at my Nana’s. It’s homely meets hip.
When we dropped in it was host to an eclectic bunch of diners. Given its location, Leaf is a natural draw for students but there were also a number of older customers, colleagues enjoying after-work drinks and those, like us, at the start of a night out.
The food is as eclectic as the clientele. Dishes are listed on a huge chalkboard on the back wall or, if you prefer, there are a smattering of menus on clipboards at the bar – which is also where you order and pay for your food.
When we visited there were nine main courses on offer, a mix of fish, meat and veggie, plus three specials. There are no starters as such but a selection of nibbles and a handful of sandwiches too.
After collecting a bottle of Italian chardonnay (£12.95) from the bar, we perused one of the clipboard menus and caught up on gossip.
Oven baked Indian spiced salmon fillet (£8.75), North African stew (£7.75), roast butternut squash salad (£6.75)…it all sounded so yummy and well priced.
We were well down the bottle of wine and well up on what each other had been up to since we last met by the time I made my way back to the bar to order.
My husband went for the Thai marinated steak salad (£8.25) and my pal the beef tagine from the specials (£7.95). I went with my pre-night out favourite – a club sandwich (£7.50).
I also ordered us a portion of lemon and coriander hummus with pitta (£3.25) and some Moroccan chicken (£4.50) from the nibbles menu to come as starters.
A few minutes and much chat later the hummus arrived. Our appetites awakened by the wine, we dived in. It was chunky and herby and tangy.
Unfortunately there was nowhere near enough pitta for the amount of hummus – there was a side of celery but that’s the Devil’s vegetable as far as I’m concerned. A waitress informed us we could order more but there would be a charge. Fair enough, I felt, given the price of the dish.
Just 75p and a couple of minutes later we were stocked up again.
Which was when I realised we still had no Moroccan chicken. I was about to tell our waitress when she arrived with the main courses and an apology – she had indeed forgotten but promised it would be straight out. In other circumstances I would have been disappointed but in the laidback environs of Leaf it didn’t bother me one bit. And anyway it was worth the wait – big juicy pieces of moist chicken delicately flavoured with herbs and spices. It was delicious.
The main courses were similarly successful. I know because I tasted all three.
The steak salad was quite special, the meat tender, rich in flavour and ever so slightly sweet, while the salad had that distinctive Thai taste. I have to say I wasn’t wild about the peaches in it but that’s personal taste.
As soon as I tasted the beef tagine I wished I’d ordered it. It was wonderfully earthy, again with a slightly sweet taste, and the pilau rice was light and fluffy.
My club sandwich was a winner too – and I have eaten a lot of club sandwiches. It was suitably soaked with mayonnaise, the egg was cooked just right – the yolk slightly runny – the chicken tender and there was lots of salty bacon while the side order of fried potatoes was very moreish.
As we worked our way down a second bottle of chardonnay we were joined by another pal and talk turned to the gorgeous cakes in glass cases on the bar.
I persuaded my posse that we couldn’t leave without at least sharing a dessert.
Not brave enough to try the chocolate and courgette cake, despite the waitress’s assurance that it tasted much better than it sounded, I grabbed a chocolate brownie with ice cream and spoons.
We made short work of the warm sticky brick of gooey chocolate – so much for not wanting a pudding.
As the snow continued to fall outside, we left Leaf suitably charged and all ready for our night of revelry.
A little over 12 hours later we were back at Leaf, fending off fuzzy heads with a big breakfast.
I can heartily recommend the eggs benedict… but you know, I never did try a cup of tea!