Eating at Highcross

June 27, 2014

If you’re in Highcross this weekend and looking for a bite to eat, I think I’d head off to an independent café or restaurant. However, if you’ve always wanted to try one or other of the chains there, this could be the time.  The centre’s Summerdine promotion sees tastings, freebies with a foodie bingo game and discounts such as 25 per cent off food at Pizza Express and 20 per cent off at Nando’s, Yo Sushi and Coast to Coast. Visit the website for details.

Next Monday also sees the opening of Red Hot Buffet, which at £2 million is possibly the biggest ever single investment in a Leicester restaurant. It’s located on the corner of the High Street and the Shire’s Lane entrance to Highcross, where the late, unlamented Litten Tree pub once was. I remember this business when it was first set up in Nottingham, and this branch is the first to open since serial restaurant entrepreneur Luke Johnson’s Risk Capital Partners (oh the romance!) bought the business. It’s great that people want to invest in Leicester and that 70 people now have jobs serving the 420 covers, but this all-you-can-eat Italian, American, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and British restaurant will need to be a lot better  – an awful lot better – than its counterparts I have visited in Leicester if it is to tempt me in.  Actually I think it probably will be.

I hope people like it, but most of all I hope that its effect is to draw in more potential diners to the city centre, rather than to hoover up all business. Dinner with a large glass of wine bottle of wine on Friday night is £20 – cheap, but of course it’s only a bargain if it’s any good.

Also coming soon to Highcross is Byron, the upscale burger joint beloved of George Osborne (but I won’t hold that against it), Chimichanga – which served meh-Mexican food on Silver Street for a couple of years, Stone Baked Pizza and the Australian juice bar Boost.

 

 

 

Grainstore Brewery Tour

June 10, 2014

Many of my pals could not organise a piss-up in a brewery. Fortunately Jamie is not one of them – and he did the honours by getting us all out to Rutland’s Grainstore Brewery, a handy 10 yard stagger from Oakham Station.

BeerThis was a perfect way to spend one of those awkward post-season, pre-World Cup Saturdays when you’re really not sure what to do, but you’re definitely not going to Highcross. Grainstore put on a range of tours – we went for the full monty which, for £20 involves a little film, a comprehensive tour of the building and introduction to the brewing process, a tutored tasting, an excellent ploughman’s lunch and, oh, yes, two hours free beer.

Grainstore is a kind of in-between business, bigger than the new breed of micro-breweries, but still tiny on a national scale. Located in a fine old Victorian building it still has the basic layout of an old tower brewery and an engaging feeling of an overgrown brewpub mixing modern equipment with bodge-ups.

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Our tour guide Iain was a lovely host, even if some of his jokes had a well-worn feel about them. He was funny, well-informed and exhaustive, and it was pitched well for the beer enthusiast. I came away with a greatly enhanced view of what goes into making a pint. What was particularly pleasing was to see how the “waste” products such as spent grains and excess yeast get put back into the food chain with other leading local food producers such as Northfield Farm, Hambleton Farms and Hambleton Bakery.

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Grainstore has around 10 ales, around six of which were available for us on the day. I liked them all but found a relatively narrow flavour palette – there was strong family resemblance from the dark Rutland Panther through the hefty 1050 bitter, the session ale Cooking, and the lighter Gold. They went down very well with a ploughman’s featuring local stilton and red Leicester, bread from Melton Mowbray, pickles from the allotmments over the rail line, and of course, pork pie.

So if that sounds like your thing  – highly recommended.

 

 

 

I received invitations to both lunch and dinner at the Queen of Bradgate yesterday. Given the relative rarity of such events, I accepted them both.

And I was glad I did, because the food was without exception well-cooked, nicely presented and full of flavour. My lunchtime chilli wouldn’t have done much for the hard-core heat addict, but the slow cooked beef shin was really tender and tasty, coming with zingy guacamole and rich, thick sour cream. Emma’s ham hock and gruyere fritters were well-cooked and flavoursome too, though the main course portion probably need more than the  slight puddle of mustard sauce.

chicken, ham, leek

In the evening  a bigger group of us tucked into the likes of a hefty chicken, ham and leek pie and a beautifully seasoned pork chop cooked with apples, saute potatoes and a light cider sauce. It might sound like the bulky, comfort food of “pub grub” infamy, but these were well-made dishes done with a light touch and a real regard for a balanced plate.  The vegetarian option on the printed menu was perfunctory, but a conversation with staff soon rustled a  couple of further options and those who chose the pasta with asparagus and spring vegetables seemed absolutely delighted with their offering.

lemon bakewellDeserts too were traditional but done with a touch of quality. My pain au chocolat bread and butter pudding was exactly what you’d want when ordering such a dish, while the lemon curd bakewell was another success.

It’s not food that pushes boundaries  then – it’s just really nice, well-prepared food that cares about the diner. It’s very much in launch mode right now  – they are still trying to work out issues such as how to balance the music in the drinking areas and the dining area, and staff were, let’s say, keen rather polished. All in all,  a welcome addition to eating and drinking scene in the city centre and one that has obliterated the memory of its previous incarnation.

(Thanks to Mike for the pictures).

 

 

 

The Queen of Bradgate

May 21, 2014

Excellent news about The Queen of Bradgate. One of a pair of very low rent megaboozers that opened on the edge of the Shires/Highcross development and quickly shut because, well, they were horrible and they were 20 yards from a Wetherspoons. Since then the pair have really stunk out one end of High Street, so it’s marvellous to find the new operators are Moleface, who operate several good pubs in Nottingham including the Larwood and Voce at Trent Bridge.

Have a look at the website and you get the idea. Not groundbreaking but tasty sounding  food that will keep the neighbouring Orange Tree on its toes (though I’m sure there’s space for both). There’s a decent selection of beers too from the likes of Freedom and Meantime Breweries and, locally, Castle Rock and Oakham plus a selection of Belgian and other bottled beers bottles.  I like it that are not calling themselves “fine food evangelists”, just people who like to have good time - when Peach Pub’s The Almanack flounced out of town last year it told us we weren’t ready for a gastropub as cool as them.  Well, we will  see. There were things I liked about the Almanack – I think the new Queen of Bradgate could replicate that and offer more besides.

It’s set to open any day.

Smokehouse here to stay

April 29, 2014

Sorry about the radio silence all – hope to get my blogging mojo back soon. One quick piece of good news today  – the Smokehouse at the O Bar (which  I’ve written about enthusiastically a couple of times now) is to become a permanent fixture. “Customers have really voted with their feet, so we’ve opted to keep the Smokehouse open,” said Orange Tree Group director Ben Hings.

Congratulations then to chef Liam Watson who has developed the American barbecue concept over two periods as a pop-up. He and his new sous will also be taking their smoker out to a number of events this summer, starting with the Westival street music festival around Braunstone gate this coming weekend and the Summer Food and Drink Festival at the Leicester market on  25 may.

Those of you have been enjoying the Smokehouse pop-up might also be attracted to a special Rib Nights event being held on 3 May at The Parcel Yard. Based on US-style cook-offs between barbecue teams this event will see Miss Piggy’s versus the Barbecue Barons.  Miss Piggy’s (run by Scott and Lyndsey Lane from Hugglescote in the Deep South of, erm, Coalville) are regulars on the US competition circuit and are keen to build a scene here too.  There have already been successful events run in Birmingham.

The format of the evening is simply the teams setting up their grills and diners getting ribs from each competitor, plus sides including fries, slaw and bread plus a Pickleback cocktail (whisky and pickle brine apparently). There’s a DJ and close-up magician on hand to build up the atmosphere too and diners will choose the winner on a blinding tasting basis.

It all sounds fun (but note over 18s only and no veggie options). Tickets are £20 plus a booking fee and can be ordered here.

Personally I’m very partial to whisky. Some other people, not so much. But for those who do appreciate the Uisge Beatha, a good tasting taste class is a hard idea to resist.

And informal wine and spirit tastings are something of a boom industry all over the country. The Drinking Classes is an umbrella group that co-ordinates teams of experts delivering sessions on whisky, gin, vodka, rum tequila and cocktails and me and my pal Kevin turned up to their Leicester session at Will’s Bar at 6pm last Saturday. Run by young mixologist Will – not of the said Bar but of Drinking Classes’ subset the Whisky Mavericks – this was a very pleasant way to start a Saturday night.

IMG_0915 Whisky MavericksLooking at the publicity, Whisky Mavericks seems to be  based on the premise that whisky is seen as boring and needs rescuing from stifling tradition. A curious idea that I never really bought when it was first ran up the flagpole by someone wearing red glasses over 30 years ago. It’s even stranger when you realise that Will doesn’t try too hard to be modish or wacky in any way and in fact just delivers a perfectly mainstream tutored tasting.

It’s entry level stuff, starting off with a fruity punch and moving on to half a dozen drams, representative of some major styles. We started with my favourite Tomintoul, a creamy Speyside single malt, and then moved to the peatier 12 year old Bowmore from Islay – enjoyed with a plain chocolate digestive. Then there was Grants,  Jim Beam Bourbon and a 15 year old Genfiddich Solera.

While he confessed he was more of a gin enthusiast, Will was pretty well informed and kept up a steady supply of historical and cultural background information. Things I learnt included the origin of the name  Monkey Shoulder, that Grant’s triangular bottle was designed to prevent “breakages” in the dockyards and that age-statement whisky may soon disappear as the burgeoning Chinese middle-classes buy up everything available.  Also that the world’s biggest selling whisky is called Bagpiper, featuring a bekilted man in a turban on the table, and strictly speaking is not even whisky as it involves molasses.

So a very convivial hour and half. Can’t say I’d be pulled in at the advertised rate of £65, but there seems to be plenty of Groupon offers around at around the £25 mark – which makes it a pretty good option for a present or just a great activity for a group of mates. More details here. An alternative in Leicester is the monthly spirit tastings run by The Urban Alchemist (who many will know as Roop from Leicester’s Manhattan 34 bar) at Taps bar near the Cathedral.

Kevin enjoys a dram

Kevin enjoys a dram

It was no surprise to see the Smokehouse come back for another run at Braunstone Gate’s O Bar.  The feelgood Southern barbecue food seemed to be a big hit – certainly was with me – and there was definitely something added by the catch-it-while-you-can nature of the pop-up.

Camden Wheat beer  - flavoured with lemon and bergamot

Camden Wheat beer – flavoured with lemon and bergamot

On Tuesday night I went down with Rob  – who hadn’t managed to get along before and was, it must be said, a little sceptical about the whole enterprise.  He was, though, definitely won over and was last seen walking back towards Hinckley Rd getting straight on social media to enthuse.

Camp-fire goodness

Camp-fire goodness

The menu is more or less the same with a few tweaks. Rob had one of the new starters – chicken, potato and sweetcorn hash. It was a big old plate of campfire goodness – with chunks or barbecued corn sliced roughly of the cob all adding to the rustic feel. It was probably over-seasoned, but with flakes of excellent sea-salt so you didn’t really mind – it just made the excellent craft beers even more welcome. I had the scorched mackerel, marinated in a coriander pickle – a more refined dish, with  tasted cured flesh and crispy flamed skin.

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Pulled pork - being chased by a fork

Pulled pork – being chased by a fork

The “Big Smoke” mains are not subtle  – and not meant to be – but you do get hits of intriguing flavours, from coriander to fennel to the divine crunchy pickled cabbage and onions.  I had the pulled pork, cooked for 14 hours, which came two ways – pretty much straight out of the marinade and in chilli con carne form. None of it was overly spicy – more a late-arriving, smoky warmth – and it was all tender and gorgeous. Rob had the sliced brisket (just the 12 hours in the smoker for this one), a mountain of which came in a fantastic brioche bun. I’d say the gravy with the beef was maybe overly sweet but the flavour of the beef still came though and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable dish. We had sides of a potato baked in salt crust slathered in a herby garlic butter  – simply wonderful – and as a concession to our five-a-day, fennel and jalapeno slaw, which seemed to have less smoke on the fennel than I remember but still a great salad.

The one thing I was looking forward above all to reacquainting myself with was the sticky toffee and maple pudding – and it wasn’t a let down.  Excellent sponge surrounded by the most ambrosial lake of salted caramel and bourbon sauce. As the good quality vanilla ice-cream started to melt into that sauce I was reflecting there was no more pleasureable experience available in Leicester that night (please don’t tell me about it if you think there was).

Oh my...

Oh my…

So newbies or old timers, you’ve got another chance. It will be around for a few weeks – maybe longer if the bookings really fly in – so if it sounds like your thing, don’t hang around. I think you’ll enjoy it. More details here.

The Road to Morocco.

March 4, 2014

I’ve been racking my brains to remember if and when we’ve had a Moroccan restaurant in Leicester. I’ve not come up with anything, so a warm welcome then to Marrakech on Highfield Street.

It opened last week and I’ve not been yet but there are some promising signs. It’s taken a similar route to its neighbour Saray Mangal and is offering a short menu focused on the classics of a particular cuisine. So it’s not pan-Arabic, it’s not con-fusion cuisine, it’s a simple collection of chicken, lamb or vegetable tagines and cous cous dishes, with a few classics such the sweet and spicy pastilla and the warming chickpea soup harira. I had a quick chat with the owner, who seemed down to earth and friendly. And with  mains around £8-11 and a three course set dinner at £13.95 – it looks hard to spend too much.

I’ve never been to the Maghreb but I’ve had some splendid evenings in Moroccan joints in Paris, Bergerac and some other French towns.  I’m looking forward to giving this one a try.

If I had a job, Friday probably would have been payday. Seemed like a good excuse, then, to go somewhere nice for lunch. Leicester’s leading criminologist was also looking for a trip out somewhere nice and so the two of us drove out to Rutland to take advantage of Lunch for Even Less, the annual post-Christmas promotion from a group of top-end places.

The Olive Branch

The Olive Branch

We’d settled on The Olive Branch, Clipsham, a long-term favourite but somewhere neither of us had been for a couple of years.  It’s such a lovely building and the pub inside is run perfectly. It hums with contented diners, a log fire crackles and staff move around efficiently, constantly checking all is well. There are nice little touches  – your name is on a little chalkboard when you arrive at your table, which is then hung behind the bar and becomes your tab. And when a dish was served while one of us was having a comfort break, they immediately offered to return it to the kitchen to keep warm. The kind of service that brings you back.

And the food? Well we sent back six of the cleanest plates you’re ever likely to see. The Olive Branch may recently have lost it’s long-held Michelin star but I don’t think diners could care less. The menu remains inviting, unpretentious British food cooked with finesse and with concern for flavour.

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Devilled whitebait

Stuffed lamb breast with lentils

Stuffed lamb breast with lentils

I started with a cracking little dish of lamb breast with a pine nut stuffing and a lentil stew with sundried tomatoes. The lamb was a classic case of a humble cut delivering big hits of flavour – a real feel-good starter. Neil’s devilled whitebait were perfect – fresh, crunchy, fishy with mayonnaise and braised baby gem.

Mains were classics. I had a coq au vin of such intensity it was all I could do not to pick up the dish and slurp the remaining sauce. Tarragon mash and roast carrots were perfectly done too. Neil stuck with fish and a beautiful fillet of gilthead bream that shimmered on the plate as it sat on a mountain of fregola with a few tempura whitebait.

For desert we both picked trifle and simply sighed with pleasure as we tucked in. Poached Yorkshire rhubarb – still retaining a bit of bite – sat at the bottom and a hefty jamjar with sponge cake soaked in a sherry of real quality (Pedro Ximinez), with jelly and sensibly-judged layers of custard and cream, accompanied a by wonderfully light and fluffy rhubarb sorbet. Blissful.

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Does what it says on the jar

Three courses of food this enjoyable for £19.50 counts as a good deal. There were plenty of countryset types in green gilets so, yes, it’s a little posh (as we left we saw a young barman come out and jump in a sports car – never seen that happen at the Ale Wagon), but it’s not stuffy – it’s friendly and welcoming. And as you leave, you start planning when you can go again.

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