Dough Bistro was a Leeds institution, but almost 10 years to the day after it first opened, owner Luke Downing has revealed the new concept restaurant that has replaced it – Aperitivo.
Dough Bistro was Luke Downing’s first restaurant, and for a long time, it was his obsession. He’s not a man who shies away from hard work, in fact, you might say he lives to work, since he usually does a 100 hour week. But as his little empire grew, his focus moved from Dough to 19, and more recently, to Vice & Virtue, the city centre restaurant where he now hangs his hat.
As a result, Dough Bistro has taken a bit of a back seat. That’s not to say the quality has dropped, it’s been in the very safe hands of Downing’s partner, Head Chef Laura MacLeod, but the big re-jig they’d been plotting kept getting put off. Enough was enough, and this year they decided to make it happen or let it go.
“We sat down at the start of this year, and we asked ourselves what we wanted to do. If the passion wasn’t there, we could either sell it or redefine it,” Downing explained, but they weren’t ready to say goodbye. “We thought of our love of small plates and going out and really making a 3 or 4-hour occasion of eating out, but at the same time we wanted people to have the opportunity to be in and out in half an hour if that’s what they want.”
That’s where it all began – but it only really scratches the surface, because they’ve changed almost everything about the place. Aperitivo has the same focus on creative cooking and superior service as Dough had before it, but walking in, the only thing that will remind you of its previous incarnation is the bar.
They’ve kept the red brick, but rebuilt it from scratch, coupling it with a black and white marble floor, tanned Italian leather booths and luxurious copper and teal wallpaper. It toes the line between modern and traditional, creating a place where couples can have a romantic meal, but families will be equally comfortable getting together for a delicious feed.
In terms of the food, it’s a much more familiar concept – it takes its inspiration from Italy with pizzas and small plates. Think classic dishes done in their own unique way and modern creations that will challenge you to try something new – this is still one of Downing’s restaurants, after all.
“It’s an Italian inspired restaurant, but we are very much adding some Yorkshire flair, some Yorkshire produce, some Yorkshire ingredients. Our localities are something we are incredibly passionate about, so it’s kind of Yorkshire defined Italian food,” Downing explained. “We’re doing small plates, which are all the fashion now, but we’ve been doing them for 10 years here at Dough. We’re doing our version of Italian, some traditional dishes and some modern, all in small plates, so people can enjoy them as tapas or as a tasting menu or just as a starter. And then we do these unbelievable pizzas with different styles of dough.”
Fresh, local ingredients are at the heart of what they do here. They’re sourcing everything locally, growing it themselves whenever they can. All their fish comes from Ramus in Harrogate, their vegetables come from Deli Fresh in Bradford and their meat comes from Swillington Farm right here in Leeds. They even have specialist small holders for game and venison in Thirsk. But where the recipes demands it, they’ll still be sourcing specialist ingredients directly from Italy, so you won’t miss out on that authentic taste.
But what are you going to be eating? Well, let’s start with the small plates. They first thing you need to know is that they have a huge selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes, so you won’t be short of choice if you want to forgo meat and seafood.
“Vegetarians and vegans, sometimes they get quite a bum deal, but it is something that we are very aware of. My brother and his wife are both vegan, so we pay close attention to that,” Downing told us. “We have a fantastic Tuscan bean stew, so we’ve taken the classic Tuscan flavours and mixed through some beans. We’ve got a great little rhubarb gel, which is quite unusual, but really brings the dish together, it is fantastic.”
You can indulge in classics like Italian peppers stuffed with rice, capers, onion, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes or baked mushrooms with garlic, rosemary oil and vegan cheese. It’s not all traditional though – they also do a very Yorkshire twist on croquettes, served with beetroot chutney.
Not veggie? You can tuck into confit duck leg with bean cassoulet and barley or pancetta with garlic and thyme polenta. The seafood is a real highlight here, and you’ll find plenty of classics, like fritto misto and seared king scallops, served with black pudding, lemon oil and basil pesto.
According to Downing, there’s one dish you simply have to try, but you might need to embrace your adventurous side. “The octopus salad – I don’t know how well it is going to sell, but I absolutely love octopus, it’s one of my favourite things, it totally takes me to the Mediterranean every time I have it,” he confessed. “We do that with some purple potatoes, and it is in a salad with capers, olives and heritage tomatoes, so it’s quite vibrant. They’re really fresh flavours, and it’s got a load of herbs going through it – we serve it in a little plant pot, covered in caviar with pea shoots and micro herbs, so it’s really Instagrammable.”
The pizzas are just as intriguing. They have six different kinds of base for you to choose from – you can go traditional, but why not make things a little more interesting? You could try sour dough, chilli & tomato or charcoal smoked, which it has to be said, is one of the coolest pizza bases you’ll find anywhere, let alone in Leeds. They also do a vegan cashew cheese base and a gluten-free base, for those of you who have specialist diets.
As for the toppings, they not exactly conventional, don’t expect to get your usual ham and pineapple here. They do a wicked black pizza with olive tapenade, charcoal cheese, black truffle oil, rocket and olives – or you could turn up the temperature with their spicy mix of mozzarella, pepperoni, jalapeños, ‘nduja, paprika and Sriracha.
You’ll be washing it down with cocktails or Italian wine. They’ve brought over some of the finest creations from their menu at Vice & Virtue, but it’s their range of aperitivo drinks that really stand out. They’re traditionally pre-meal drinks, and they’re low alcohol, so you can have a few of them without getting tipsy. They have a spritz menu and 8 different negronis, including their signature one, which is made with Campari and PX sherry infused with pistachio.
Finish your meal with a twist on a traditional sazerac, made using amaro, an Italian liquor that’s woefully underused here in the UK – or go for Downing’s personal recommendation, “We’ve got, and this is self-proclaimed, the world’s smokiest Old Fashioned. This is absolutely to my taste, but we are using Octomore, which is one of the peatiest whiskies in the world. We’re serving it with smoked sugar and smoked bitters, which we’ve created in house, then we smoke it in wood chippings from whiskey barrels to make what we believe is the smokiest cocktail in the world. If you like smoky whiskies, it is great.”
Apertivo is a big departure from Dough Bistro, but it’s got the same finesse, and it’s doing something a little bit different. This might just be the excuse you need to head out to the suburbs.
Aperitivo, 293 Spen Lane, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS16 5BD.