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.
November 25, 2013
I ran into Aatin Anadkat of Maiyango at last week’s Winter Food Festival at Leicester Market. He was buzzing over the prospects for his business – “these last few weeks it’s like I’ve had a shot of adrenaline” he told me.
Aatin launched the restaurant when not long out of University. It was stylish, cosmopolitan and offered something new for Leicester. Over the last decade Aatin and his colleagues showed considerable savvy and skill to not just secure the restaurant and bar, but to develop the City’s smartest boutique hotel, a banqueting operation running out of the St Martin’s House by the Cathedral and a Kitchen Deli on Highcross St.
So when his long-term head chef and friend Phil Sharpe left last month to set up on his own at The White Peacock, it was naturally one of the occasions when you drag out that old (apparently erroneous) notion that the Chinese word for crisis equates to “danger and opportunity”. So, hence the adrenaline.
The opportunity to refresh the operation has seen the appointment of Nick Wilson as head chef. He is a hugely experienced chef but appears to be a great fit for Maiyango. At a tasting session last week he provided a mightily impressive debut for a group of experienced and hard-to-please diners.
Things started off with Maiyango’s typically inventive cocktails (chilli and lemongrass mojito, star anise-flavoured oriental julep) and canapés including an exceptionally gorgeous cod and chorizo samosa. The starter of a smooth sweet potato and chipotle veloute gave a real tingle to the tongue but was brilliantly paired with a cooling mango salsa and crunchy kohlrabi bhaji.
“We’re not doing fusion food.’ said our maître d’. “We say this is modern European food with influences from the East”. Fusion cooking doesn’t have a great name, but with food this good I don’t really mind what you call it.
Next up came distinctly Eastern tandoori paneer and vegetable skewers with carrot pickle, sag aloo salad and a belting cherry tomato jam. Well cooked, with nicely balanced flavours, this was another winner. Then came what I think most people thought was the star dish of the night – perfectly roasted cod with a seared edge, rich and smooth celeriac puree, crunchy aubergine crisps, wilted spinach and fantastic mussels with a lightly curried creamy broth. Great cooking and a very well-conceived dish. To serve at least 30 people more or less at once and get things so right suggests Chef Wilson has very quickly got things right in the kitchen.
The main course of duck was a showstopper but for me had one or two elements too much. The duck breast was great, the hash of duck leg in a sweetish/sourish sauce was really great. Cayenne potatoes could have been a bit spicier and a bit crunchier, and while the bok choi and date puree both worked, another puree (squash?), orange and vanilla syrup and a smear of tapenade seemed to take the focus away from the main event of the dish. Some of the combinations worked in the mouth, others didn’t.
Desert featured a cardamom and white chocolate brulee. Cardamom can be a bit of a beast used in delicate puds, but I thought the balance here was spot on and the result was totally delicious.
Overall then - very good cooking, well-composed dishes, served up by well-trained and charming staff. I spoke to several people afterwards who said they’d always enjoyed Maiyango but had maybe got a little bored of the menu – and they were now eager to come back and try again.
No doubt that will music to Aatin’s ears. For Leicester diners, it seems the shot in the arm provided by a bit of friendly rivalry could have rich dividends.
Update:30/11/13 – …and congratulations to Maiyango for winning both Hotel of the Year and Taste of England Award in Leicestershire’s 2013 Excellence in Tourism Awards
November 18, 2013
Regular readers may remember me enthusing last year after being invited to try a set of new dishes prepared by celebrity chef Aldo Zilli for the San Carlo group. Well, happy days, it’s happened again.
Like many leading chefs, Zilli found there was a limit to the punishing hours required to keep restaurants at the top of their game. So he sold up to spend more time with the proverbial and to concentrate on consultancy – hiring out his knowledge, expertise and compelling passion to others. The fit with San Carlo seems a really genuine one. At our lunch in Leicester this weekend he called the group’s founder Carlo di Stefano “a genius” for building up a £60 million turnover business and keeping it in family hands, making it nimble and responsive as a business partner. There’s seems to be genuine admiration and respect on both sides.
So he’s now styled consigliere to the group – a trusted adviser dispensing disinterested guidance. This includes popping up to Leicester on occasions to inspire the chefs, present new dishes and generally give everyone a lift. This time round me and a few other local food writers got to share in the bounty.
We started with some wild mushroom and truffle crostini, followed with more of the sensational garlic and chilli squid I enjoyed last year. This, said Aldo, was the best selling dish at his Zilli Fish restaurant and you can see why – incredibly tender squid with zingy chilli and crunchy little flakes of garlic (simmered in milk for five minutes apparently – takes some of the fierceness out.) We were even given a little master class in preparing the squid for grilling.
Another little demonstration focused on making chocolate pasta – a savoury version that would be later served up with a phenomenally rich and gamey hare ragu. Then there was fregola (pasta from Sardinia – kind of like giant cous cous) served up with langoustines and clams (plus a generous grating of bottarga – intensely-flavoured cured cod roe) and simply grilled Dover sole with butter, spinach and capers.
Zilli’s dishes seem to sum up what’s great about Italian cooking – great ingredients, done simply and cooked either fresh and quick or long and slow as needed. These and other dishes will be appearing as specials on San Carlo’s menus over the winter – and at lunchtimes in the shared, small-plate “cicchetti” format that is increasingly successful at other restaurants in the San Carlo group.
November 11, 2013
Having already given quite a decent big-up to The Smokehouse pop-up at Leicester’s O Bar, I suppose I was a little nervous about it being a bit of a let down.
Fortunately, turns out I needn’t have worried. Aside from the pretty basic and uncomfortable seating, five of us had a gorgeous lunch there on Sunday. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow review – the venue is already getting plenty of positive coverage - but the long and the short of it is that here was very good, down-to-earth flavour-led food at fair prices. We enjoyed pulled pork, 12-hour brisket with house rub and barbecued chicken with smoked bacon rub – all of them really showing the benefit of the long and slow treatment.
I really loved the sides too – smoked fennel and aubergine salad with sweet raisin puree was a complete revelation, fennel and jalapeno slaw was lip-tinglingly good while delicious barbecue baked beans seemed to have had a hearty slug of maple syrup to give a sweet edge. Opinions were a little divided over the salt baked potatoes, baked in a pastry crust, but I certainly felt they gained something from the treatment.
Pick of the deserts was an absolutely stonking sticky toffee pudding with a salted caramel bourbon sauce. Definitely recommend finding space for that if it’s on when you go.
The craft beers were great, you’re even offered tasting if you’re unfamiliar to what contemporary brewers are doing. I had the Camden pale ale, and it was a good match for the food on offer.
Staff are lovely too and generally you want to thank everyone involved for giving it a go. I’m sorry there’s no pictures, but anyway this isn’t pretty food to be admired on the plate - it’s food to get stuck into and enjoy. You should try it while it’s here. I’m certainly going back.
November 1, 2013
Pizza is, supposedly, fast food.
But sadly too many people think that means fast food of the megachain variety to placate boisterous kids or calm the late-night munchies. But it’s really just fast in that done right it’s simple – dough with two or three quality ingredients cooked in under two minutes at an ultra-high temperature. The Italians know this and it’s the Americans who by and large have fed us the ersatz cheez’n'herb stuffed crust, ham and pineapple abominations.
Which brings us to the pizzeria Peter and that’s enough in Loughborough (I haven’t grasped the significance of the name, but no matter). This team of Neapolitans have made it their mission to “cure” the injured image of pizza. And after last night’s visit I’d say the patient is well on the way to recovery.
Sited in what was the old Crown and Cushion pub in Ashby Square, it’s a lovely place with cured meats hanging from the ceiling, herb plants adorning a huge communal slate table (from which we could tear a few bits of basil), an open kitchen, wafts of truffle oil and a happy buzz. It was a bit grim to have pass through some of the staff having a fag on the doorstep, but once inside not a foot was put wrong.
The pizzas were just heavenly. And here there is a qualification to the fast food thing – because Italy is also home to the Slow Food movement and these pizzas qualify as slow food too as they are made from sourdough which has been left to breathe, rise and develop flavour for at least 28 hours. The bases are thin enough to bubble and scorch as they cook, but with a beautiful textured crust giving a little more bulk and flavour.
The menu is encouragingly short and focused, with eight pizzas. I had tomato, mozzarella and spicy Italian sausage and each element was superb. The tomato paste was the best I’ve encountered – intense flavour from San Marzano tomatoes – while the mozzarella (which we also had with a cherry tomato salad) was encouragingly British. An extensive search for the best lead them to Laverstock Farm in Hampshire apparently. The sausage was high quality, genuinely spicy and very moreish.
Rob had tomato, mozzarella, chorizo and gorgonzola and again each element stood out well. Quick simple, gorgeous food at £6 or £7 a pop – it’s a real winner. I had a desert too, a hugely enjoyable chocolate and pistachio semi-freddo, more of a chocolate mousse in my book, but rich and tasty and served in a sweet little jam jar.
You can tell I enjoyed this place, and now to the best news of all. I have some inside knowledge that another branch should open next year near Victoria Park in Leicester – in fact about 5 minute walk from my house. If you are based in Leicester, I wouldn’t wait though, go and give it a try in Loughborough.
October 30, 2013
News reaches me from Maiyango that they have now recruited a new executive chef to head up their restaurant, hotel and banqueting operation. As reported here recently, Phil Sharpe has moved on – on good terms I’m assured – to run his own venture the White Peacock on New Walk, which opens this weekend. The new chef at Maiyango is Nick Wilson, who trained under Jean Christophe Novelli, eventually heading up Novelli’s Michelin-starred Les Saveurs in Mayfair. He also counts celebrated venues including Gleneagles Hotel and Sharrow Bay on his CV, with more recent jobs at the all-organic Walnut Club in Hathersage, and the Swan at Lavenham in Suffolk.
Maiyango currently has an AA rosette, Good Food Guide listing and a big commitment to showcasing Leicestershire produce. I look forward to seeing how that legacy is going to be built on.
October 28, 2013
It’s great news that Leicester’s West End is about to get a specialist barbecue restaurant – even if it’s only going to last a month. The Pop-Up Smokehouse will be operate from 7 November to 8 December and will bring flavours of the American mid-west and south to the O Bar on Braunstone Gate. It’s an initiative of the Orange Tree group who want to try and bring back a bit of innovation to this part of Leicester’s West End which has suffered a spate of closures. It’s also lost a fair bit of it’s special character since De Montfort University used its muscle to get the Bowstring Bridge removed. The owners sat down with chef Liam Watson, who spent three years with the group at the Lansdowne on London Road, and thought about how to bring a bit buzz back.
I caught up with Liam on Saturday when he was giving away a few free samples at Orange Tree on High Street. “Most of recent investment has gone to the Cultural Quarter in the East of the city,’ he explains “That’s great, but it’s no secret that the West End needs a bit of a push. We had a think about what we could do and tried to come up with something outside the box – something enjoyable that would make a big impact on customers but didn’t involve too much cost.” The answer was a new Green Mountain grill and a pop-up restaurant in a bar that has not previously served food. The inspiration came from a trip to Pitt Cue, the hugely popular Soho smokehouse. “It blew me away,” enthuses Liam. ” And fortunately they’ve now brought out a book with recipes…”.
So what can we expect? Classic, dry-rubbed, slow-cooked, St Louis cut of pork ribs given 12 hours with a hickory, maple and oak smoke. Chicken, of course. But the hugely enthusiastic Liam also wants to be more adventurous, so look out for braised oxtail with smoked oysters in chocolate porter (all the meals are going to be matched with craft ales), beef ribs, pork cheeks and scorched mackerel. For this dish the fish just gets a sousing and then subtle smoke from a blowtorch to crisp up the skin. There’ll be vegetarian options too – “we found butternut squash takes the smoke really well,” says Liam.
After December they’ll have a think about how it all went. Maybe they’ll have to put it down to experience. Maybe they’ll be tempted to try it again and keep popping up at festivals and events. Or just maybe they’ll be encouraged to think about something more permanent. Whatever, judging by the beautifully tender and tasty samples I tried, and the impressive way they seem to have thought this through, the Smokehouse would appear to be well worth a trip (you can book on 0116 255 8223).
Last week the Nottingham Evening Post was boasting about how their city had totally trumped Leicester and Derby in Observer Food Awards. Initiatives like this - as well smarter openings such the White Peacock – are exactly what we need to maintain and improve the city’s food culture.
October 19, 2013
It may be near a motorway junction, but Burbage does not seem the obvious place to site an adventurous fine dining restaurant. That’s what it’s got in the shape of 34 Windsor Street.
Owner Zeffy Thompson has a background running restaurants in the rather more, erm, zeitgeisty setting of Dubai, while chef Sam Owen gained his chops in Lincoln. They have created an intriguing venue – large, smart, aspirational. It’s not going for an obvious crowd-pleasing approach but creates a stylish welcoming environment for a chef to offer innovative cooking in sometimes challenging combinations.
Take my starter of “pigeon, peach, cornflake and warm yoghurt” for example. I love pigeon, but the dish sounded somewhat, well, odd. Ok, you think to yourself, come on then chef, convince me. On this occasion, he didn’t really. Two beautiful pigeon breasts – cooked pink and possibly sous-vide, no searing anyway - had great flavour, but the other main elements really didn’t add anything. Peach is not exactly a traditional accompaniment and now I know why. Cornflake certainly added texture but was a bit “so what?”. I couldn’t work out any justification for the yoghurt either. Actually the one thing that did do the pigeon a few favours was the unbilled, more conventional woodland berry (elderberry?) dressing.
Our other starters included a very elegant hay-smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish that packed delightful flavours and a “full English breakfast”. This was actually a fairly straightforward rendering of the dish, though done with a fair bit of flair – crispy bacon, sausage, black pudding, fried bread. Innovation came in the form of a kind of egg yolk croquette, some broad beans in a tomato sauce and a mushroom tea. It was the kind of multi-element dish where some things worked better than others – the tea was a bit bland – but had great quality ingredients and was put together with a sense of fun.
You get the sense that some diners may have been slightly discombobulated by the approach – staff gave copious warnings that this dish was served pink, that the rice in that dish would have a crunch because it had been toasted not because it was uncooked and so on. Certainly the main course described as “a piece of lamb” was very pink, and very beautiful, served on top of aubergine with cubes of polenta and pickled onions and under a dome of smoke. We couldn’t find much evidence of the smoked toffee that produced it but this was a satisfying mix of flavours. My pork was a small but excellent cut that was very tender and well matched with excellent spiced red cabbage and spiced plums, though the crumbled nuts didn’t really deserve a place. Duck breast with a variety of carrots and a sauce of lime and vanilla was sweetish but more delicate than it might sound – another lovely piece of meat cooked with flair. One point, these dishes were on the light side – if you hanker after a bit of carbohydrate, you’ll want to order some sides.
My desert veered back towards more familiar partnerships – four “chocolate textures” matched with four versions of raspberry meant you could mix and match fresh fruit, ganache, sponge, sorbet and so on. It was an absolute delight - even the fronds of fennel worked well too. A toasted rice pudding with that bit of crunch, plus plums and almonds, was declared good but not that good, while an apple tarte tatin with blackberry sorbet was fine and delicate.
So, there’s lots to like about 34 Windsor St. It’s a lovely venue, staff were charming, there’s an excellent full menu for vegetarians and the cooking is skilled and adventurous. That said, not everything worked and some of the dishes felt like work in progress rather than really well-worked out statements. Sometimes there just seemed to be an unnecessary striving for novelty, but we left cheerful and pleased someone is giving it a go.
October 17, 2013
Popped in to look at the newly refurbished Silver Arcade which had its official opening today. Brought back happy memories of my early days in Leicester, hanging around in the café, second hand bookshops and Poly fashion students’ Enterprise Allowance start-ups.
It’s a lot smarter now although there’s enough of the old features left to make it recognisable – not least the narrow, vertigo-inducing top floor landing. Not much open in there yet - a couple of posh frock shops and more to our point here, the chocolatier Cocoa Amore which is trading but I think just in soft launch mode right now. Coming soon will be The Atrium restaurant which will apparently be “international tapas and fine dining” and hopefully there will be more food-related stuff.
If you do you go down and have a look, watch out for my friend Charlotte’s shop Eskimo Blue, full of lovely ceramics currently also showcased in her Clarendon Park shop.