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This lockdown I have enjoyed Leicestershire wine – specifically this spritely, disarmingly fruity rosé (right) from grapes grown just outside the city by Liz Robson at Rothley Vineyard. I’m not a regular rosé drinker but for me this was up with the best of that vineyard’s work, such as their Gundog white and High Hopes fizz.

I’ve come to respect English wine, but what I didn’t expect this summer was to find myself enthusing over Dutch wine. I’ve written before of my enthusiasm for most things Dutch, but it’s tended to be beer, cheese and fine restaurants. Vines? From reclaimed North Sea land that’s great for tulips?

Well that of course drastically, offensively even, misunderstands the Netherlands. The southernmost region of Limburg is quite distinct from (the province of) Holland, with gentle hills, pleasant climate and limestone soil which is suitable for wine making. It’s on the same latitude as England’s south coast (currently also making fine wines) and not that far from the Moselle region in Germany.

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Not  a windmill in sight – the vineyards of Maastricht

It’s said that Napoleon grubbed up all the vineyards in Limburg because he was worried about the competition. It wasn’t until 1970 that the Apostelhoeve vineyard in the city of Maastricht started the modern tradition of winemaking that now sees 180 vineyards across the country.

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As part of a virtual press tour of Maastricht from the comfort of my sofa, I tried a bottle of their 2019 Muller Thurgau. This is one of those hardy grapes like Bacchus that the French will be sniffy about but is a relatively easy to grow, productive grape that is useful for winemakers in less favourable climates. And here they have done a really good job with it – light and bright, it doesn’t hit you over the head with texture or fruit, but it has real character and is a perfect summertime aperitif. It comes in a handsome flute which makes a strong, visual allusion to those hugely drinkable Picpoul de Pinets that now crop up on restaurant lists all around Europe.

Winemaker Matthieu Hulst now produces 110,000 bottles a year at Apostelhoeve, including a Riesling and Pinto Gris, and declares himself “a happy man” as the climate warms and he can start to expand further across those gentle south-facing hills above the river Maas: “We’re now planting viognier, the first in The Netherlands, and who knows, in the future we might even plant pinot noir for a red?”

To be frank, you are unlikely to find Apostelhoeve wines in the UK – it’s all sold to local shops and restaurants. The good news is that you now have a good reason to go and explore this lovely part of the world. There’s a reason Maastricht was chosen for the discussions for the eponymous Treaty – it’s at an historic crossroads of Europe, just 30 minutes from cities such as Liege in Belgium to the South and Aachen in Germany to the East. It has a medieval heart with more protected heritage buildings than any Dutch city other than Amsterdam and its people have an enthusiasm for the good life – hence the many café terraces in its squares and its reverence for fine produce whether it’s wine, cheese or bread and pastries made from ancient-grain spelt flour milled at the 7th century Bischopsmolen water mill in the centre of town.

It’s high on my list for a real visit “when this is all over” – try Visit the Netherlands for more information.

Orton’s Brasserie

August 20, 2020

It’s been nice to revisit favourite places as they start to reopen. And it’s also great to visit a new opening – especially one that seems as well-planned and with as high quality as Orton’s Brasserie.

 

This is located in the building on Orton Square that was the Queen Victoria Arts Club. That stunning conversion of some pretty dilapidated properties had a somewhat misfired launch and never seemed to fully recover until a calamitous falling out with the landlord saw the business – and the successful neighbouring Exchange Bar – closed down.(The Exchange has now reopened).

When Covid struck just as this new business was due to open it seemed fate was conspiring again. Three times the opening was postponed thanks to lockdown restrictions but finally they were able to open in August, and while there have been some changes as they navigated through lockdown, it does seem they’ve hit the ground running.

 

The venue retains the basic shape and an overall feel of clubby sophistication, but the edges have softened a bit  – graffiti artwork by a local artist cover some sound–baffling panels, some soft seating areas have been introduced and there’s a playful design scheme alluding to the “Gorilla in the Roses” headline in the Daily Mirror at the time of Joe Orton’s trial for defacing Islington Library books.

20200819_205148There’s an extensive cocktail menu – and our old-fashioned and negroni were both beautifully sharp-as-you-like palate awakeners.

The interim food menu is short and focussed on classic brasserie fare. Pricing is around £6 for starters, £12-£16 for mains, We started with a meaty ham hock terrine and a light-as-air chicken liver parfait. The plates were attractively dressed and the accompaniments – a mustard dressing and apple gel with the ham, dabs of orange emulsion, lemon gel and onion marmalade with the parfait  – were intense but well balanced.  It was all technically excellent – head chef Andy is a Masterchef semi-finalist apparently  – and very enjoyable.

 

Mains were similarly classic  – tarragon-infused chicken with a wild mushroom fricassee and belly of pork with salt-baked beets.  Belly of pork has to be done really well to remain interesting and this did the job  – we were particularly impressed with not having to fight with tooth-breaking crackling but could enjoy a beautiful thin layer of crisped-up fat almost like the crunch on top of a creme brulee. The meat was moist and piggy and the beets and carrots were earthy, soft and sweet.  The herby chicken was good too – loved the crispy chicken skin and charred sweet corn especially. Again, good-looking, technically fine dishes served up in good time by a staff team who were relaxed, confident, knowledgeable and genuinely appeared to be enjoying themselves. Indeed the place had a cheerful buzz of the sort I suspect we’ve all been missing dreadfully.

It all made me look forward to the full a la carte menu, to be launched in October (as far as anyone can predict anything these days) and to the daytime tapas menu, featuring the likes of black pudding scotch with remoulade, parmesan and truffle arancini and jersey royals with cashew pesto and charred peppers.

Owner Guy Kersey has plans to develop the basement bar into a gin-focused speakeasy that will feature live entertainment, hopefully linked in with what’s happening over the road in Curve. He claims that theatre-driven business will be a bonus rather than essential to the business plan, but obviously all boats are going to rise if 1,000 people a night can once again be brought into the area.

Nonetheless Orton’s appears on this evidence to be worth the trip into the cultural quarter anyway.

 

 

Eating Out at Herb

August 18, 2020

I’ve been easing myself back into Leicester life by going back to a few old favourites – the ones I missed the most and ones I would miss in future if they were not there.

So a hazelnut cruffin from the Tiny Bakery in Clarendon Park with a divine praline-y filling. A decadent Poet Burger from Crafty in St Martins with crispy onions , smoked cheese, bacon and barbecue sauce piled high on rich, almost-gamey meat (burgers are currently being served at lunchtimes – not just in the evenings).

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And, today, a superb lunch from Herb on Granby Street.

Given the all-too-visible overcrowding during Eat Out to Help Out days at venues on London Road especially, it’s important to stress Herb was civilised, well-run and comforting. Tables are nicely spaced, sanitisation is by the door and staff are masked. We were happy to just sit down, order and enjoy their marvellous vegetarian food from Kerala.

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We started with papadi chat, a riot of tangy flavours from yoghurt and tamarind with texture provided from crispy pastry bites and soft spicy potatoes, and bhel puri – puffed rice, sev (short, crispy strands of noodle) tossed in tamarind chutney with dates and red onion for sweet and sour flavours. Be aware of substantial starter portions here and consider sharing.

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Our mains were a vibrant green cheera paneer, spinach with light and fluffy homemade cheese that was delicately spiced and creamy, plus an outstanding aubergine dish kathrika vazhatiyath, more assertively spiced with ginger and chilli that coaxed a beautiful flavour out of the aubergine especially, but tomatoes and paneer too. Herb’s breads are rightly prized, with bathura puffed up to the size of footballs regularly coming out of kitchen suggesting a high level of technical skill, while the buttery, coiled paratha I had was a superb accompaniment.

This is traditional food of the highest order and you’ve got one more week to try it at half-price thanks to the Eat Out scheme, but you needn’t let that make your decision. What we had today would still have been good value at full price and the people of Leicester, and indeed, the whole region, should be supporting this gem to help it survive well into the future.

[Yawns, rubs eyes, looks around] Well, hello everyone. I think it might be time to go outside again.

Having been caught outside Leicester when the lockdown fell in March, and then again in July, I’ve spent the vast majority of the last four months away in North Yorkshire. Lovely as the moors and coastline are, it’s good to be back home and take a moment to see what’s happened.

It’s very clear that whatever occurs next, the restaurant and bar scene will be a very different landscape in the coming months to what had developed in recent years. Closing for good among the chains are Carluccio’s, Cafe Rouge, Coast to Coast, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Bistrot Pierre [Edit 26 August: It now appears after the administration process that the Leicester branch of Bistrot Pierre will now reopen sometime in September] and, most probably, Frankie and Benny’s. Sad news for staff of course, even if the contribution to quality dining of this lot was, let’s say, mixed. What it also means is that, what, at least five hundred covers a night are potentially back on the market.

20200811_135651_resized[27007]For that to happen though, people have to feel safe to go out and of course, have the resources to spend. So I was pleased to take a tiny part in a Leicester BID initiative yesterday to encourage people to recognise that Leicester is open for business. They are making a short film that will be circulated widely next week showing people out and about making the most of the City. My arduous task was to sit in the stylish Indian restaurant Tandem in Highcross, eat their food and somehow look like I was enjoying it.

Given their somewhat disastrous launch period with its seemingly botched, acrimonious and short-lived partnership with Cyrus Todiwala, it’s great to report the food was terrific. 20200811_135659_resizedWe grazed on fat, juicy chicken tikkas – hara, achari and malai – each with a highly distinctive spicing, a creamy chicken korma, an outstanding dum pukht chicken biryani with onions somehow staying nice and crispy even as they steamed under the pastry lid, and a selection of dal and vegetable curries in a thali. In case you’re wondering, you sanitise on entry, have a temperature check and can order by app – all of it seems safe and surprisingly normal.

Good restaurants like this and other independents deserve to pick up custom released by that reduced capacity. Some restaurants and bars are taking their time to reopen, and I don’t blame them at all. Some businesses will feel it’s just not safe yet and others that have built up takeaway and delivery trade to get them through will want to be very sure the business is there before turning again to ontrade (quick shout out to Round Corner Brewing of Melton for getting me through June and July). But more appearing to be opening by the day. Walking home from Tandem in the afternoon I noticed the Lansdowne was now open, so stopped for a quick Leffe and a read of my novel on their terrace (sanitiser on the door, super-friendly table service, payment by card at table). Now, a view of the London Road is hardly the Bay of Naples but sitting having a cold beer outside a bar still felt like very bliss.

Walking around and trying to rebond with my city showed a mixed picture. The Eat Out scheme is clearly working well for some – long queues at Wagamama for example – but  questions remain as to how much it might impact on weekend trade and whether it will just lead to unrealistic price expectations once it has gone away. But it is getting people out again, and that just seems so important right now. I’ll try and do a few reports of new and old favourites in the coming weeks to remind myself and you lot how much enjoyment there is to be had.  For a full list of city venues taking part in Eat Out  see this handy guide prepared by Leicester BID. For others across the county you could try searching by postcode on the official government site. 

So yesterday I had a little day out in Melton Mowbray, primarily for the Tuesday market at the cattle market. It’s the largest town centre cattle market left in the UK, and it’s a terrific place to visit.  And here’s a little (mobile phone) photo essay.

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Visiting the cattle market is first rate theatre – from the patter of the auctioneers to the eyebrow raising of the tweedy, flat-capped farmers replenishing their herds. It’s not just good fun but should really be visited by anyone who eats meat, drinks milk or wears wool. Just to see.  

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On Tuesdays there is the extra attraction of the fur and feather market where you can bid for all sorts of fancy fowl for laying or breeding plus rabbits and the like. There’s also a farmers’ market with some first rate butchers, cheesemongers, bakers and speciality stalls. Good coffee and huge bacon cobs are of course on offer. Then there’s a sizeable bricabrac section too.

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The town of Melton is also worth a quick spin around  – on the day we visited we ran into local legend Matthew O’Callaghan giving a guided tour to a bunch of tourists. Matthew is the man behind the protected status of the Melton Mowbray pork pie and is responsible for the growing status of the British Pie Awards (for which I’m honoured to be a judge),  the Artisan cheese fair and several other events which bolster Melton’s status as the “Rural Capital of Food”. The day-trippers were also to get a hands on pie-making experience in the surroundings of what is becoming another must-visit town venue, the Round Corner Brewery Tap on the cattle market site.

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They are producing some outstanding brews – I can’t wait for their forthcoming  Donkey Jacket Vermont IPA later this Spring  – and they show an admirably collegiate approach to working with neighbouring food businesses. It’s worth making your visit by train simply to make sure you don’t miss out here (but check for opening times).

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Tandem, Leicester

December 15, 2019

Leicester foodies got rather excited when they heard Cyrus Todiwala had chosen their city to open his new restaurant. Here was a genuine celebrity chef showing confidence in a city that has struggled to support high-end dining. Now that Tandem is here, the excitement looks well-merited.

Four of us had lunch lunch there recently and the verdict all around was positive. Located in the building formerly housing Memsaab on the edge of Highcross, the restaurant offers a range of spaces from cool and elegant dining room, to the clubby Library bar, intimate chef’s table space and sparkly cocktail bar. The menu is a sophisticated take on dishes from all over India, with a particular focus on Todiwala’s own Parsee heritage and on Goan cuisine.

It was good to see that that the kitchen wasn’t striving for innovation, novelty or fashion. Rather it has confidence in its traditions that allows it update and embellish dishes with style. It’s hard to innovate extensively with poppodums but you can ensure that chutnies are bright, lively and full of flavour and that’s certainly what we got here. Then we shared starters of maasli fry, spicy crispy-crumbed fish and deliously earthy beetroot samosas, dressed with a tamarind sauce and served with a teriffic minty chuntey. Mains included a tongue-tingling pork vindhalho, plenty of spice naturally but still allowing complexity of flavours through, and a revelatory lamb dhansaak. I’ve had enough so-so versions of this in curry houses around the country to be taken aback by the velvet-smooth lentil sauce and the great spicing. Lamb fillet was of very quality and complemented by great little koftas of minced lamb and coriander, and the caramelised onion rice was excellent too.

Stand out among our extras were lacey rice dosa which combined softy, plump centres with crispy edges, a real textural delight with another brightly-flavoured chuntey. Onion stuffed rotis were first-rate too.

Service was excellent – unhurried, skilful, attentive and helpful.

The menu is changing fairly regularly to start with at least, and most of these dishes have already moved on, at least until the restaurant works out what works best in Leicester. Looking at the latest iteration though there are appealing items such as the pork assado (Goan-style pulled pork in tomato and red onion gravy) and Rai Tikka (free-range Leicestershire chicken marinated in grain mustard, red chilli, tamarind and coriander.) The restaurant has also now introduced a lunch menu based on mix and match small plates.

Prices are more than your average curry house, but they not grasping and you can see where your money is going, crucially into high quality ingredients and skill in the kitchen. Todiwala said at a launch event he would be present “as often as he could” but day to day quality will be up to his head chef who, he added, had been recruited from one of India’s top hotel chains.

Todiwala also acknowledged the difficulty of launching an Indian restaurant in a city where half the population believes their mother does it better. Nonetheless he has lent his name and reputation to this project and I really hope it succeeds. If the standards seen on this first visit are maintained it could become a regular haunt not just for celebrations and special events but for anyone looking for high quality food.

Tandem, 59 Highcross Street, Leicester LE1 4PG. Tel. 0116 478 4974

 

* Note – For the sake of clarity, I was invited to a launch event for Tandem, but this review is based on a separate,  independently-booked visit and the bill was paid in full.

 

 

ginFor the second in an occasional series of meetings with go-ahead drinks producers in Leicestershire, I went to the tiny hamlet of Brentingby just outside Melton Mowbray. In a converted garage by a converted church, guarded by a gaggle of guard-geese, Bruce Midgely has in less than two years built up Brentingby Gin into one of the country’s most dynamic craft gin companies.

Bruce came from his home city of Durban to play rugby for the Leicester Tiger’s Colts. A sporting career didn’t work out, but he did do extremely well in the oil and gas industry. Once the appeal of expat life in Africa, China, Singapore and beyond wore off, he was looking for something he could put his considerable energy into back in the East Midlands.

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Bruce Midgely with Ayanda – his 10 -plate copper still

Gin not only appealed as an emblem of good times, but he knew it was something where he could utilise his engineering skills. And indeed his self-designed, bespoke ten-plate copper still has become the engine of the business, producing exceptionally smooth spirit. When it came to devising a recipe, there’s no substitute for hard work and Bruce educated his palate with some 300 trial runs using a mini-still. Hibiscus, a common coastal plant back home, was always going to be a key element. But it was the involvement of industry legend Tom Nichols that enabled him to refine and perfect the recipe and also opened up doors in the industry when it came to sourcing rare supplies and entering key markets.

Brentingby’s core range then started with a London Dry, juniper-led of course but with both floral and spice notes creeping in. It’s complemented by the Black Edition, which boosts up the pepper and piney charactersitics with the additionof the likes of locally-picked meadowsweet. And then there’s a pink gin, not so sweet as many but featuring subtly-introduced exotic floral notes from hibiscus, rooibos and baobab. All three are exceptionally clear, clean and well-balanced.

20191008_152541Bruce acknowledges he was lucky to launch at a time when there was a slight lull in the relentless launching of new gins. With the kudos of a new Tom Nichols gin, he found doors opened to him and when the five star reviews started roling in from bloggers and key influencers such as Diffords Guide, the stockists were keen to give him a go. So ever since, his van is up and down to London where the gin is in big demand in upscale Mayfair bars and retailers such as Harvey Nicks. It’s recently been introduced as a choice for First Class passengers with British Airways.

Some 6,000 bottles a month now leave the tiny distillery, including regular one-off small batches for the likes of old Tigers chum Matt Hampson and his Foundation’s Get Busy Living centre.

Not only is this a genuinely great product, but it’s good to see Bruce is incorporating sustainability into his production. A windmill produces effectively free energy, all water is recycled and even the unusable heads of each distillation are used as cleaning materials.

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Ready to drink pink gin

This one man band is now expanding with the recruitment of a business manager, and the aims are ambitious. In the short term there are new products such as a bourbon barrel-aged gin – perfect for an Old Fashioned – and possibly a vodka and whisky too. The craft gin world’s first ready-to-drink cans are also now taking off. In the longer-term, there’s a parcel of land opposite the distillery that Bruce hopes can be developed into a gin school and a pub.

That would see an already hectic pace of achievement turn into a major Leicestershire success story.

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I was out last night to say goodbye to one of Leicester’s most consistently interesting chefs. Martin Powdrill is off to Hong Kong to take up an Executive Chef position with the rapidly-expanding Piratas group.

I’ve enjoyed Martin’s food from early days in the team at the Smokehouse through to his own food with Cured at incarnations at Brewdog and The Cookie, then the King Richard III and most recently at 100&Six on Queen’s Road. He’s always shown a flair with flavour and technique and an independent spirit to produce distinctive and original food. In Hong Kong he will be heading up the team at the Pirata Meats restaurant and contributing to development at other of Pirata’s diverse range of venues. Fortunately there will be continuity at 100&Six where sous chef Dawid takes over having developed the next menu with Martin. In future we might see some Polish influences creeping in apparently.

I know this blog has at least one regular reader in Hong Kong (hi Nicola!), and I hope anyone in the region gets down to Pirata Meats in Soho and says hello – I’m sure he’d appreciate a friendly face. So best wishes Martin, hope it’s a great experience for you.

The big increase in small breweries is an – almost – unalloyed pleasure. The sense that anyone can make beer has unleashed all sorts of new and exciting beers, and a few duds, pushed of course by the concept of “craft”. The new products come from a range of players – home brewers wanting a business, existing tiny brewers given a new lease of life, well-trained and well-backed start-ups, and bigger brewers finding a way to ride the new wave.

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I’d heard good things about Round Corning Brewing in Melton, but wasn’t sure where they stood on this continuum. A visit to meet the pair behind it has inspired me to think this is one of the best conceived and executed new breweries in the region and one that is making beers right up there with the best of UK.

The company was founded by two Irishman who met in New Zealand. Head brewer Colin Paige is a graduate of the celebrated Heriot Watt University brewing course. Over the last 25 years he has set up breweries and produced award-winning beer in places including Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand. It was in Wellington where he met business partner Crombie Cryan and between them they came up with the idea to create their own brewery. It could really have been anywhere until fate gave them a shove towards Melton Mowbray.

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Colin Paige (left) and Combie Cryan

As it happened a friend had just bought Melton Cattle Market. That’s the largest town centre cattle market in the UK. One that generates some 350,000 thirsty visitors every year, that is a social and economic hub for the farming industry for miles around, and one that is in the heart of a town with a thriving independent food and drink scene. Not only that, but the East Midlands has the lowest level of market penetration by small independent breweries in the UK. Just one and a half pints out of every 100 comes from an indy. So the market opportunity was definitely there.

20190920_125219With money raised from friends and family, some £650,000 was spent in kitting out the brewery and creating a simple, down to Earth brewery tap with clear sight to the mash tuns and fermenting vessels. You walk in just yards from the chatter of the auctioneer and are immediately assailed with heady smell of hops.

It’s a proper rural business in the heart of its community, but it’s being done with excellence in mind. The use of water softening and steam for example is not cheap but it does help give the brewer far greater control. ‘So what does “craft” really mean?’ states Colin. ‘In my mind it’s the pursuit of excellence and that’s what we are about. Also balance, innovation and drinkability – maybe overused words in brewing but they can result in great beers.’

20190922_161200Round Corner are currently selling their great beers in 120 pubs and their brewery tap. The core range is characterised by distinctive, crisp beers done very well – no self-consciously wacky stuff, no straining for an elusive, illusory zeitgeist. They include Frisby, a bright, clean lager that picked up a Silver at the International Brewing Awards and Gun Metal, a black lager with a creamy head and counter-intuitively crisp taste which won a Gold and immediately established them as a serious presence. My personal favourite was Hopping Spree, a 6.8per cent hop bomb and among the best in this style I’ve ever tried. With centennial, cascade, amarillo, simcoe, mosaic and citra hops, it positively erupts with flavour.

There are usually a couple of seasonal specials – they are currently coming to the end of Drover’s , a dry-hopped summer pale ale. Watch out soon for something fitting for Oktoberfest. Also coming is another black lager with some barrel aging from a Barbados rum cask, a smokey rauchbier and an oyster stout.

Colin and Crombie plan to grow the business in controlled way. They want to keep their product premium and to continue to exploit their firm East Midlands base, not least by teaming up with other Melton independent food businesses. There are also considerable tax duty advantages to keep the brewery under a certain size. With that big 98.5 per cent of the market to aim at though, here’s a go ahead operation with plenty of scope to grow.

 


 

 

It’s Indian restaurants in all their thrilling diversity that are creating waves in Leicester right now.

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First off we’ve finally got innovative chain Mowgli opening in St Martin’s Square this week after a delay linked to gas suppliers apparently. For their opening week (not including Saturday)  they are giving 50 per cent off, no bookings just turn up, on their varied menu of streetfood-inspired Indian comfort food. I’m especially looking forward to the likes of green ginger & rhubarb dahl, owner Nisha Katona’s dad’s recipe of slow cooked lamb curry with anise, plums and chickpeas, and the house keema curry – minced lamb with roast cumin, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, peas, tomatoes and pulses. All the dishes look to be presented with great style and there is a nice range of options from wraps and snacks to full-on curries. They have also helpfully pulled out dishes to create gluten-free and vegan menus.

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There’s more information on another delayed opening, the highly anticipated Tandem by celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala in the former Memsaab premises in Highcross. There’s a launch event on Thursday 26 September and it should be open to the public soon after. We also now have a first glimpse of the food in the form of a taster plate menu. Todiwala’s Parsee heritage (Parsees were Zoroastrian immigrants to India from Iran) and his commitment to reflecting the wide variety of Indian cuisine means there’s a wider than usual  range of ingredients present, including beef and pork dishes. Highlights look like being Goan pork vindaloo (featuring rare breed British Lop pork), Barbary duck tikka cooked in the Syriac Christian tradition from Kerala, and chicken strips marinated in a green masala, served on a bed of parsee-style pickles. The menu is big on high quality sourcing, much of it (including chicken and breads) is from Leicestershire, but much is from wherever they see quality – beef and salmon from Scotland, organic pork from Devon. I look forward to discovering more soon.

levy_band.pngElsewhere long-time Keralan favourite Kayal is trying something new with live music from one of their regular customers. Dr Miles Levy is a well-known endocrinologist at Leicester Royal Infirmiary with a passion for music. This coming Friday 20 September he will be playing melodic originals and covers with his band The Levy, including some fellow senior health care professionals. Further gigs are being planned for the future. Music is from 7.30pm and booking recommended.

 

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