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.
I 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.
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.
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.
With 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?:
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.
September 2, 2014
One for wine lovers here – Maiyango has pulled off a bit of a coup by getting Ralph Hochar, a scion of the family behind legendary Lebanon label Chateau Musar, to host a tasting and dinner at the restaurant on 17th September. There will be a six course tasting menu, paired with wines from Musar, at £65 a head. Booking details here
August 22, 2014
I had a good sit down last week with Phil Sharpe, tousled-haired supremo of the White Peacock on New Walk. We had a long chat about his approach to getting involved with local producers and local community groups for a piece for Great Food Club.
We also touched on some interesting aspects of menu development. I visited a couple of times when it first opened and found the restaurant delightful and the food to be beautifully cooked and presented, but lacking a bit of adventure. Flavours were all a bit muted. Phil more or less admitted he played it a bit safe to begin with – he had no day off between finishing his head chef role at Maiyango and opening his own place and so maybe dish development got a little lost in getting everything else sorted.
Some eight months down the line and the reins are starting to be loosened. He sets monthly menus and gives his team a challenge to change and develop dishes over three months, encouraging everyone to look at the strengths of a dish and the potential to refine or develop it.
“We’re also trying out the molecular approach, and our customers definitely welcome us being more creative,” said Phil. “We produced a deconstructed mozzarella tart starter with caramelised onion ice-cream and basil powder – it’s been flying out the kitchen. More popular than scallops even.”
At weekend’s Phil reckons 50 per cent of his customers go for the eight-course tasting menu at £45 which currently takes in the likes of goat’s cheese mousse, kalamata olive crisp, pickled beetroot, pine nut dressing and roasted woodpigeon with apple and stilton risotto, port and blueberry jus,.
It’s good to be reminded that Leicester city centre does offer adventurous cooking and that there’s a market for it. Probably time to give it another go.
August 13, 2014
A very quick post offering congratulations to a couple of local producers. Firstly, Oakham Ales (a Peterborough-based brewery now but one I still think of as local, not least because I often drink their beers in my local bar Babelas) have come second in overall search for the UK’s Supreme Champion Beer at Camra’s Great British Beer Festival with their pale, refreshing, grapefruity ale Citra.
This beer single-handedly turned my mate from a lager-lover into an ale-admirer. It’s a great transitional beer for those looking for hoppier flavours but put off by darker beers.
And then there’s another success for Archer’s Butchers on Queen’s Rd (whose owner Sean – below – can on the odd occasion be found in the bar mentioned above). His hugely popular biltong won a Gold Star in the Great Taste Awards announced this week.
Having a very quick look at the awards, there was more local success in the form of a coveted three Gold Star rating for Northfield Farm’s 21-day aged mutton and single stars for their merguez and pork and herb sausages and for Woodhouse Farm’s Tamworth sausages. A couple of Long Clawson cheeses also picked up awards.
August 8, 2014
Many, maybe most, readers will know about Great Food Club. It’s a great initiative for the East Midlands, providing a great source of information about the region’s best independent restaurants, cafes and food producers and supplying handy discounts too. Founder Matt Wright, for whom I do the odd bit of writing, has produced a short (74 second!) film that explains what it’s all about. Membership is free so if you’ve not yet joined, have a listen to Matt and see what you think.
You can also find out more at www.greatfoodclub.co.uk
August 5, 2014
You may remember a few months back my enthusiastic review of Loughborough pizzeria “Peter and that’s enough” (and I’ve heard plenty of excellent feedback since). At the time it seemed they were close to getting premises for a Leicester branch in Clarendon Park. While access and other problems scuppered that, it seems that they have now secured premises in Leicester – and it’s the magnificent Welford Place.
This former Gentlemen’s Club (from a time before the phrase had seedy connotations) was home in 1990s to a lovely restaurant run by Sarah and Lino Poli. It was a great loss to the city when they retreated out to Kibworth to open Firenze (now seafood restaurant The Lighthouse) and later Boboli. I have particularly fond memories of the venue and being best man at my pal’s wedding there. We serenaded the happy couple with a version of Cotton Eye Joe, led by Leicester music legend Kevin Hewick.
I digress. But I reckon the restaurant has every chance of being more successful than the marriage turned out to be. It may be four or five months before they open, but if they stick to the formula that has made Loughbrough such a success – simplicity, authenticity, quality, fun, value – it will be worth the wait.