March 6, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
March 2, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
February 27, 2014
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”.
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.
“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.
February 4, 2014
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?
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.
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.
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.