A crafty move by the O Bar

October 17, 2014

WP_20141016_18_05_48_ProI was at the relaunch of The O Bar on Braunstone Gate last night – now re-engineered as a specialist craft beer bar. It’s an intriguing move in the context of Braunstone Gate, which spent the 90s as the hip end of town, but in the last decade has lost some of its distinctiveness.

The O Bar, the late-night bar of the Orange Tree group, started to reassert itself last year by using its upstairs as a pop-up American barbecue restaurant The Smokehouse. It turned out such a success it was made a permanent fixture, but that left the downstairs bar “not quite right” according to director Gareth Smith (some might know him as Pugsy). With people travelling from beyond the West End for the food, an improved drinks offer made sense too. Gareth credits his dynamic general manager Phil for the brave decision to go the whole hog and chuck out not only the Carling, but the Becks and the other big brands and go fully on craft beers – for sale in thirds and two-thirds – and real ales.

Along with this chef Liam from the Smokehouse upstairs is now providing a limited bar menu downstairs  – pulled pork buns, kielbasa hotdogs loaded with chilli, onions and mustard, hot wings, ribs and nachos. So far it’s mainly been supplying the overflow from the restaurant but there’s scope to attract non-diners who nonetheless fancy a bite as they sip those fancy beers.

O bar craft beers

Craft beer tasting at The O bar

It’s a brave move because no doubt some will alienated by the unfamiliar beers and, you can’t avoid it, the considerably higher prices. What can’t be denied is there are some really fantastic beers on sale. The sublime Jaipur many people will know all about, but there’s many more – The Capt Ruhstaler Black IPA, clocking in at a hefty 7.6 per cent, looks like a stout but explodes with bright citrussy flavours on the palate. Founder’s All Day IPA is a more quaffable 4.7 per cent but still packs a heavyweight hop punch. Look out too for the burnt-toffee dark lager from Freedom and the Helles and pale ale from the award-winning Sara Barton of Brewster’s in Grantham.

I certainly wish them all the best  – this distinctive independent offering is an important antidote to the safe familiarity on offer in most of the City Centre. And as Gareth said to me in relation to the bar scene:  “Leicester has tended be the poor relation of Nottingham – it’s up to the likes of us to try and address that.”

Marrakech in the Mercury

October 13, 2014

As some of you may know, I have now started writing restaurant reviews for the Leicester Mercury. Doesn’t mean I’ll abandon this blog – but I’ve sort of agreed I’ll put links to the Mercury review page rather reproduce the review in its entirety here. I would envisage there’ll be times when I’ve got more things to say than go in the paper but, equally sometimes maybe I’ll just put the link up. We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, the reviews are in the Saturday edition More magazine supplement and the first one was Marrakech on Highfield Street, Leicester. In a nutshell – tasty, home-style Moroccan food in low-key neighbourhood restaurant.  Go here for the full review.

 

It Hasbean a pleasure

October 13, 2014

I was delighted to meet one of my food heroes last week. I’ve been buying Steve Leighton’s coffee for over five years now, making online orders to his company Hasbean. I ‘m hoping quite a few readers here may have discovered him through the link to the site which has been at the bottom of the homepage since the this blog started.

Not only does he offer a great range of small-batch coffees, often from producers he knows and has visited personally, but he is an instinctive master of social media. His infectious and exuberant enthusiasm shines through all aspects of the business, not least through his In My Mug podcasts – little newsy filmed reports in which he also tastes a coffee of the week.

The occasion of us meeting was Steve’s visit to a party to open the Pocklington’s Walk offices of Rock Kitchen Harris, the Leicester communications business which helped develop his website. I know several of the staff there are regular readers here (Hiyaaa!!) and I’ll return the compliment by saying buying through the Hasbean site is a very simple and well-planned process.

Steve used the occasion to film an episode of In My Mug – see below, though I recognise  it may not mean all that much to those who weren’t there. It does, though, give an idea of the kind of deeply informative jollity he brings to the process of buying your beans.

If you’ve not really understood the appeal of great coffee, I recommend you look at Coffee 101, the introductory course Steve has prepared that comes to you in series of emails over 10 days. I’ll finish by repeating one of my favourite sayings, which also got a run-out at the RKH do, “Life is too short for instant coffee”.

More signs of life on the Leicester eating out scene with news of a pop-up collaboration between St Martin’s Tea and Coffee and chef Chris Elliman of Crafty’s.

The two businesses are taking inspiration from the likes of The Smokehouse and Byron to run a burger and craft beer pop-up at St Martins on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from the end of October for six weeks.

A special blend of beef is being dry-aged by Woods butchers of Clarendon Park which will be handmade into a range of burgers which, it is promised, will showcase the best of local produce. Leading the pack in tasting tastes is El Gordo featuring a beef patty, pulled beef  chilli, Red Leicester, jalapenos and smoked chilli ketchup, all in a brioche bun with pickles. All burgers and fries will cost under £10.

“We’re excited about kicking off Crafty’s in St Martin’s- a cool venue with a similar ethos to our own,” said Chris Elliman. “We both want to offer something unique to Leicester and encourage people to support local suppliers and try something a bit different.”

Andy Hall of St Martin’s said that this “short blast of creativity” fitted his company’s ethos perfectly, adding  “Collaborations between independents are so important for a vibrant Leicester.”

Further details of discounted soft opening nights and how to book will be out soon on social media via @stmartinscoffee and @craftyburgers and their Facebook pages.

 

After the sad failure-to-launch of Leicester’s Market Corner, it’s good to learn there is another attempt at fostering a street food scene in Leicester.

The new Market Hall has a small street food unit facing out towards the market stalls and from this Friday and Saturday (10 and 11 October) onwards there will be high quality street food traders every weekend. Initially there be three businesses there on a rotating basis, starting off with gourmet hot dogs from Harborough-based Big Daddies, and subsequently US-style barbecue from Coalville’s Miss Piggy’s (just back with a hatful of trophies from the European BBQ championships) and high-quality burgers and more from Pick’s organic farm.

"This could get messy..."  - a Big Daddy hotdog.

“This could get messy…” – a Big Daddy hotdog.

I spoke briefly to Jeff Wilson of Big Daddies who was pleased to be adding Leicester to their list of regular venues along with Birmingham’s Digbeth Dining Club and Coventry’s new arts hub Fargo. “What we do is probably best encapsulated as restaurant quality food at street vendor prices,” he claimed. “All our food is sourced in the Harborough area and is home-made  to high standards  – there’s no sweepings, no nasties. We’ll be doing our hot-dogs and a few specials such as Philly cheese steaks and we’ll be doing a currywurst to mark Oktoberfest.”

It’ll be good to have these new lunch options in the city centre and hopefully this will in due course provide a low-cost entry for more businesses offering innovation and quality to offer their wares in Leicester.

34 Windsor St

October 1, 2014

Restaurants, higher-end places especially, recognise that it’s not enough just to open the doors and cook. It can help if your venue develops a personality and offers chances to deepen the relationships with clientele. Special events such as wine tastings can do that.

34 WindsorI was at 34 Windsor St in Burbage recently at a fun evening that offered an intriguing way in to understanding wine. Billed as a Cluedo evening, wine educator Raj Solanki’s approach (left) was to personify grapes – hence Pinot Grigio was Paris Hilton, “an It Girl, of good heritage, can be a bit vacuous, but capable of something more”. He fleshed these out with details of what to look for in terms of colour, acidity, tannins and flavours and invited diners to work in teams to use these clues to identify a selection of mystery wines served with a three-course dinner.

So a light-hearted way of getting information across, and while it wasn’t a food and wine matching event, Raj did set up little demonstrations to show the effect of certain flavours – lemon, chilli, sweet biscuits – on the palate and on individual wines. We were also had our nosing ability tested by having to identify a variety of fragrances in tiny phials.

Foodwise the evening featured the delicate, skilful cooking of chef Sam Owen. He learnt his trade in top Lincolnshire restaurants – including Winteringham Fields – and cites the likes of David Everett-Mathias, Sat Bains and Simon Rogan among his inspirations. That much was certainly evident in a technically impressive starter of pear and cauliflower textures, accentuated with flavours of lemon (including little chunks of compressed fruit where the air has been vacuumed out, resulting in an particularly pure flavour) and hay smoke delivered under a cloche.

The main course featured a mountain of deeply meaty “pressed beef” (blade possibly?) with a wonderful little croquette of salted cod. This came with jeruslaem artichokes – which to me looking revolting on the plate but if you can get over that, they add an intriguing earthy taste. The dish might have been better balanced with a bit more than a couple of small spinach leaves, but great flavours. Highlight was a desert with 11 elements of bitter chocolate, acorn and caramel. This combined being technical and “interesting” with straightforward choccy appeal. Actually the best bit for me was the ambrosial acorn panna cotta – extraordinarily creamy and moreish.

Wine events are set to become a monthly event at 34 Windsor St, with a Seresin Estate,  Marlborough, tasting dinner at the end of October. A good way of getting to know this smart West Leicestershire restaurant offering serious, grown-up food.

Chateau Musar tasting dinner

September 23, 2014

It’s been quite a week, culminating in the utter euphoria of the King Power stadium on Sunday. But man can not live by 5-3 wins alone, great food and wine is also pretty vital, and fortunately I had some of that too.

The Chateau Musar tasting dinner at Maiyango kicked off with canapés including crunchy kohl-rabi bhajis and smoked salmon mousseline, with a glass of Musar’s dry and elegant Rosé Jeune made from 100 per cent cinsault. Then Ralph Hochar, grandson of Musar’s founder Gaston, gave us a comprehensive introduction to the history of wine-making in the Lebanon and the foundation of this remarkable vineyard in the Bekaa valley.

Ralph Hochar

Ralph Hochar

It’s an inspiring and fascinating tale, even if he was a bit, erm, thorough for some of those keenly waiting to taste the fruits of his labour and to see how well they matched chef Nick Wilson’s menu. We were to try four vintages of Musar’s trademark red, starting with the 2007 matched to a beautifully spiced rabbit pastilla with a carrot and burnt orange purée. This is the most recently released vintage (the 2006 is not yet ready to be released, we learnt, as harvesting and winemaking were done in less than ideal circumstances due to a little local difficulty with the Israeli army). It was great – rich and spicy though not excessively so, and was in total harmony with the dish. The 2003 was surprisingly different, lighter and more delicate and another great match for our wild sea bass with char-grilled asparagus and a spiced bouillabaisse.

IMG_1246With a main of Lebanese spiced rump of local organic lamb with a smoky aubergine purée,  we had two vintages to compare – the 1999 with its tobacco and leather notes and the awesome 1995. Apparently 10 years ago the tannins in this were harsh, but now it’s just a superb complex wine, still with plenty of fruit but hinting at darker flavours too.

There was a superb dessert of a gooey chocolate marquise with tobacco ice-cream (needs an open mind but seriously enjoyable) and a mouth-tingling salted cocoa nib tuile. The balance of salt, sweet and bitter with a dangerous flavour such as tobacco confirms a serious intelligence at work in the kitchen here.IMG_1248

I didn’t much care for the two whites we tried with cheeses but they seemed to have their fans in the room. Ralph Hochar accepted they were “more difficult for people to understand”. He was utterly charming, but I think that was me told. We finished up with a glass of Musar’s arak,  anise-flavoured spirit distilled from local obaideh grapes and clocking in at a feisty 53%,  but surprisingly clean and smooth. A fine digestif.

What I took away was a sense of just how varied the vintages of a great wine can be and a huge respect for the people who have built this business in such extraordinary circumstances.  This was a great opportunity for fine food and wine matching.

* Oh and if you think this is all a bit fancy and pretentious, here’s a more humble Middle Eastern recommendation – Falafel Land on Gallowtree Gate. From this tiny little hutch on the edge of what looks a hideous buffet barn, I had today freshly-made crunchy, nutty Syrian falafel in flatbread, with salad and pickles – £2.50. Delicious.

Look, it's my blog and I decide what pictures go in Ok?

Look, it’s my blog and I decide what pictures go in, ok?

Parcel Yard’s local feast

September 18, 2014

Now this I like the sound of.  Leicester’s Parcel Yard is showing signs of moving beyond it’s initial offering of great craft beers and not bad pub grub towards something more ambitious. In early October is staging a “seasonal local feast” with appetising food and drink from within 30 miles.

At £25 a head for an aperitif and  three courses with matching drinks and this sounds a proper deal, at least if the chefs are up to it. Things kick off with a Two Birds gin and tonic, distilled in Market Harborough. First course is a salad of partridge, blackberries and Colston Bassett stilton, with a glass of Fynbury cider from Rutland, followed by a Cottingham venison stew with a glass of Steamin’ Billy’s own 1485 ale, and then Hedegrow crumble with a glass of Brewster’s APA, brewed in Grantham by CAMRA favourite Sarah Barton.

The event runs on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th October. For full details book through the website or call the pub on 0116 261 9301.

Gelato in St Martin’s

September 10, 2014

Good to see some food activity around St Martin’s Square in Leicester. Newly opened in what was once a hip clothes store is Gelato Village, an independent business offering “artisan gelato” – two words some will find tiresomely modish.  But as far as I can tell, Gelato Village seems the real deal in term of offering genuine gelato (basically a slightly lower-fat, softer textured Italian-style ice-cream), that is hand made on the premises (you can see in the kitchen) and uses fruit from Leicester Market for its sorbets.  There’s no artificial colourings, flavourings or preservatives and a refreshing absence of gimmicky flavours.

IMG_1245

You can try up to three flavours in any one of three sizes.  I found the tiramisu maybe a little bland, but the Bonet – named after the famous Piedmontese desert with chocolate, amaretti biscuits, caramel and rum – and the sour cherry ripple were superb. It’s a proper treat, no mistake, and I hope they find people will eat good quality gelato all year round.

I note also that a new fine food deli is set to open in the square – don’t know anything more about it and it looks a few weeks off yet.

All this comes on top of St Martin’s Tea and Coffee seeming to be doing well after it’s transition from cookshop and to fully-fledged café and coffee roaster. It’s got a good vibe going there and I had a great doorstop sandwich last week with soft, pillowy bread and a feisty fennel salami filling. In addition Mrs Bridges continues to offer probably the best café food in the whole city – my brunch the other day of duck leg confit hash on sourdough toast was simply gorgeous.

 

 

 

Dining Pubs of the Year

September 4, 2014

It may only be September, but already we have been given the 2015 County Dining Pubs of the Year from the Good Pub Guide.  No great surprises locally, with the Red Lion at Stathern winning the laurels for Leicestershire and Rutland – its sister pub The Olive Branch,  last year won the overall national pub of the year title.

Many congrats to them and to The Martin’s Arms, just over the border in Colston Basset which won the Nottinghamshire award for the fourth year in a row. Head chef is Bradley Bickerton, who used to work at Watson’s and – if memory serves – The Opera House in Leicester, as well Nottingham venues Tonic and the Nottingham Contemporary. I know Bradley’s mum and have followed his career since he was a relatively humble pastry chef, so it’s great to see him doing so well.

I’ve not been, but Brad says he’s trying to push the level a bit a further still. The style is modern European with occasional nods to current trends such as American smokehouse and fusion.  Off the current menu I’d go for Vale of Belvoir pigeon with Scottish girolles and pickled wild plums, Moroccan lamb rump with chickpea tagine and who could resist this doughnut peach cheesecake?:

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I don’t know where that American ambassador who’s gone home complaining we only eat “lamb and potatoes” was dining, but he should have got out a bit more.

 

 

 

 

 

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