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.

The Tiny Bakery

February 27, 2014

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Clarendon Park is pleasant little part of Leicester. It’s a densely packed, prosperous area set strategically between the posh bits of Knighton and Stoneygate and Leicester University.

The peace and calm of its shopping area has recently been ruffled by the imminent arrival of a local Tesco. But the independents who still predominate on the Queen’s Road are not giving up. In fact, there’s a heart-warming story of a new opening.

The Tiny Bakery, which opens on 1 March, is in fact located right next to the Megagrocer at 98 Clarendon Park Road. It’s everything Tesco isn’t  – local, artisan, handmade, transparent. It’s founded by Lindsay Abraham, a local woman who’s been baking cakes for friends and for local cafes such as Fingerprints for a few years. She will now be selling her own cakes, and has teamed up with David Belcham, another local baker who supplied local shops with artisan bread using the moniker One Man and his Loaf. He jumped at the chance at moving from a home baker to a small scale commercial operation. Add in a local pastry and patisserie specialist and you’ve got a team of people raring to go to supply people with high quality baked goods.

“Actually, I don’t think Tesco is competition,” says Lindsay.  “We know people are looking for good bread, and if you want lovely bread and beautiful cakes, you don’t go to Tesco”. Quality of course comes with a price and the bread and cakes will be more expensive (but much  better for you) than the Chorleywood loaves and trans fats doughnuts common at supermarkets, but they are sure the demand will be there.

“People will have a choice to make,” says David. “If it’s good enough, people will be prepared to spend a bit more”.

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“The difference is in the taste” – Lindsay Abraham and David Belcham talk bread

Their premises were formerly a chocolatiers and most recently used by a wedding cake specialist. Lindsay has kitted out the rear bakery with commercial mixer, fridge and oven and the front shop is being transformed into a stylish little café. To begin with the shop will be selling “everyday” loaves from Evington’s Ethel bakery, supplemented  by handmade speciality loaves from David, using flour from Leicestershire’s Claybrooke Mill.  Expect wholemeal, multi-seed and rye to begin with, but the glory of this kind of operation is that they can be nimble and responsive – as customers let them know what they want, the bakers can respond with spelt, sourdough, whatever. At least one day a week there will be gluten-free loaves available.

Lindsay will be supplying cakes, cookies, macaroons, meringues and cream cakes and there will also be croissants, pain au chocolate and Danish pastries. There’ll be coffee supplied from the excellent St Martin’s Tea and Coffee, and just a few seats where you can take a few minutes out to relax.

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Kitting out the Cafe

“Clarendon Park already has a great butcher plus greengrocers, delis, chemists and so on. Now it will have a place for great bread and cakes, so it will in effect be a one stop shop – people won’t need to go to a supermarket,” says Lindsay. “It’s what people want. We’ve already got 330 likes on Facebook before opening  – and that’s not just my friends! – and we’re happy to compete on quality. The difference is in the taste.”

* The Tiny Bakery opens on Saturday 1 March. It will be open from 8.30am to 4pm (later on Thursdays), six days a week.

Smokehouse, Coffee houses

February 4, 2014

Liam Watson with his grill

Smokehouse chef Liam Watson

Good news that The Smokehouse  is popping up again from the end of February at Braunstone Gate’s O Bar. Its previous sojoun last November provided hearty American barbecue food with the flair, innovation and quality you are never going to find in, well, Frankie and Benny’s.  I reckon they will get a fair amount of repeat business – including me – and there’ll be plenty of new people wanting to give it a try. It reopens on 27 February.

While I’m reflecting on good news – I reckon there’s a bit of a coffee renaissance going on in Leicester right now. St Martin’s Tea and Coffee is of course now a fully fledged coffee specialist, roasting their own and providing a good range of beans and serving options. We’ve also now got Bread and Honey – a basic but appealing coffee and sandwich stop on King Street serving excellent Monmouth Coffee – and newly opened in Silver Arcade is Deli Flavour. This classy deli (one of the 50 best in the country according to the Independent)  has been well established in Stoneygate for a good few years but now also has a lovely unit on the second floor serving excellent coffee in comfy surroundings with great sandwiches and extensive deli selection including Hambleton bread. Add these to established places such as Café Roma and we’re starting to get a real choice of quality coffee beyond the chains.

Anyone like to give  further recommendations?

Saray Mangal

January 21, 2014

We both sighed as my friend told me about seeing the queues outside the newly opened Frankie and Benny’s at Leicester’s Highcross. Fortunately, we could quickly forget about that because we were going somewhere far more pleasurable.

In contrast to the huge rambling collection of American-type food substance on offer at FB,  Saray Mangal has a small, focused menu that distils the appeal of the Turkish ocakbasi -  the extraordinary aromas and tastes of spiced meats grilled over flames. Similar venues have popped up around Narborough Road (I’ve already praised Sultan)  but this is on Highfields Street, just five minutes from my home and it’s lovely. It’s in the premises of what was the cheap and cheerful L’Aperitivo, and shares some of the good natured bonhomie of that restaurant with the advantage of better food.

Sure it’s not sophisticated, but it is very tasty food by smiling people in a buzzing atmosphere. There were nine of us on Saturday night and the place was packed, mainly with large groups of young women in headscarves having a great time. Our waitress apologised for having to shout a bit to get herself heard, but every order came quickly and correctly and served with good grace.  We started by sharing a couple of the family meze selection - small, but fresh and punchy plates of aubergine salad, cacik (Anatolian herby yoghurt), hummus, stuffed vine leaves, olives, springy bread…you know the kind of thing. Then, arriving when ready, our main courses – basically variations of chicken or lamb, minced or cubed, spiced and flame grilled, and served up with rice and salad or a creamy yoghurt sauce.   Just delightful, and both courses and a soft drink for less than a burger at F&B.

If you want a real slice of Leicester life in 2014, as opposed to a dodgy recreation of a marketing meeting’s version of 50′s Americana, and you want some food that is genuine and wholesome – get yourself down there.

 

One last word on Kayal…

January 7, 2014

I was very cheered to see a fabulous review of Kayal in the Telegraph at the weekend by Matthew Norman. He went, it seems, out of a sense of sympathy after the events of last autumn and the infamous health inspectors’ night out. He was blown away by the food and urged people to go. You can read the full review here - but if you can’t be bothered I’ll give you a few highlights:

- “imaginative and vibrant”(overall verdict)

- “a rich and gorgeous treat” (adipoli aadu)

- “a taste sensation” (soup)

- “majestic” (the masala dosa)

- “spectacular” (the tilapia)

-  “the food is genuinely superb” (the thali)

- charming and astonishing (the service).

What a great result for this lovely restaurant.

 

Kayal

November 28, 2013

I’ve refrained from mentioning events at Kayal, not least because I’m a friend of owner Jaimon and it’s pretty hard to offer totally independent comment. One thing to clarify straight away though, because it seems there may have been confusion – the restaurant is open for business.

As probably most of you know, the Leicester branch made the rare distinction of mentions in the national press, reporting the singular misfortune of hosting a group of environmental health officers to dine, several of whom then went on to get sick.

The restaurant had received a full inspection – after a complaint – at the end of October and received a five star rating for cleanliness, as it has always done. Nevertheless they carried out a deep clean and reviewed procedures. When a couple of more complaints came in the restaurant shut while it worked with the council to get to the bottom of things. They disposed of all uncooked food, hired a specialist hygiene consultant and all staff were checked.

The culprit, according to council tests, were humble curry leaves – ground with coconut, ginger, mango and used in an (uncooked) chutney as an accompaniment.   They served this chutney for eight years but will not do so in future and all such accompaniments will now be cooked.

Jaimon says he has been touched by the understanding and support of Leicester people, including the customers who were ill.

I am happy to continue eating at Kayal, and indeed am reassured that health officers – who get to see a lot of sights in restaurant kitchens – should choose it for their own nights out.

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