October 2, 2015
I had a very enjoyable meal at Cedars Lebanese Restaurant on Churchgate recently – here’s my review of it for the Leicester Mercury:
One in four of the population of Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee. If the UK had received the same proportion, there would be 16 million.
I bring this up because somehow it seems to chime with the philosophy of Lebanese hospitality explained in the preamble to Cedars‘ menu. This tradition, it explains, stems from when the Levant developed as meeting place for European and Asian trade routes. “As Lebanese, we offer our guests the best food and comfort that we can afford…which generally consists of a variety of dishes and can always be produced at extremely short notice.”
The reference of course is to mezze, the variety of small dishes to be consumed in leisurely fashion over conversation that is familiar throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a familiar approach at the burgeoning number of Turkish restaurants around Leicester. Can I give you chapter and verse on how precisely Lebanese mezze differs from the Anatolian style? To be honest, no.
But what I can say is that the mezze at Cedars stands up well to similar offerings around the city. In fact I’d say there’s a wider range of flavours on offer here and they pack a bigger punch. A lunchtime visit for the mixed mezze platter for £7.50 featured some excellent food with a pleasing variety of textures and flavours. Should you be on your own, this is definitely the way to sample the range on offer. It features eight items from smooth, nutty hummus drizzled with good quality olive oil through to savoury filled pastries such as sambousek, stuffed with delicous minced lamb given a sweetish edge with a hint of cinnamon and fattayer, an oven-baked filo pastry with sharp minerally spinach, onion, lemon juice and pine nuts.
More sweetly spiced lamb was contained in kebbeh, a little parcel wrapped in bulgur wheat and deep-fried, and there was more sharpness from the parsley, onion and tomato salad tabouleh and from vine leaf rolls filled with rice and herbs with lemon juice. Probably the only element I didn’t really warm to was the moutabel, grilled aubergine puréed with sesame paste, lemon juice and garlic. Despite a sprinkling of sumac this was a bit bland and I wasn’t keen on the “scrambled egg” texture.
On a quiet lunchtime the relentless Europop was a bit of an irritant and the staff were busy rearranging the back part of the restaurant rather than paying much attention to me, but the food definitely warranted a follow up.
Our self-selected mezze at an evening visit was even more impressive. Superbly grilled chicken wings came with French-influenced aioli – a powerful paste of whipped-up garlic and olive oil. We also loved the foul medames, tender broad beans and chickpeas with lemon juice and garlic, and the feisty sujuk, densely meaty little sausages in a mild chilli and tomato sauce.
We shared one main course too, a mountainous mixed sharwama, with piles of spiced, sliced and roasted lamb and chicken along with rice, salad, pickles and flatbread. The spicing dominated the flavour of the lamb somewhat but this was all good flavoursome stuff.
Unlike the majority of the new breed of Turkish restaurant, Cedars is licensed and has a fairly extensive Lebanese wine list, including the divine Chateau Musar. On this occasion we limited ourselves to a Lebanese pilsener, a mite sweet to my taste but good to try. We wrapped things up with refreshing mint tea and some nutty pastries.
I would imagine Churchgate must have it challenges when running a restaurant but Cedars has survived a good few years now. I can see why and it deserves to be far busier than it was on our visits.
September 29, 2015
I was able to get out to Hallaton this weekend for the launch party of the Bewicke Arms. I’ll keep most of my powder dry for when I get to do a proper review but the bottom line is that this lovely country pub looks to be back near the top of the list of Leicestershire pubs worth the trip.
It’s looking smart, it’s got the beers, it’s got the views, and now it’s got the food too. Consultant chef Tom Cockerill has developed the approach with head chef Glen Cowl, who helped make The Red Lion at Stathern into the County’s Dining Pub of the Year last year and this, and they will be cooking in a signature style of good quality, honest food with a strong, and genuine, local and seasonal ethos. At the launch party we enjoyed some tasting portions of top-notch fish fried in Grainstore bitter batter, herby sausages with impeccable buttery mash and crispy onions, pizza with locally-foraged wild mushrooms and some wonderful deserts including divine buttermilk pannacotta with figs and crème brulee with rich lavender shortbread.
They are currently in a soft launch phase and the main menu and bar menu are being slowly rolled out in the coming weeks. With plenty of comfy bar space, smart but cosy dining area, big function upstairs and the Hare Pie tearooms across the yard this is once again going to be a versatile and popular place to drink and eat.
Edit – A few more pictures below – courtesy of CoolasLeicester
September 24, 2015
Here’s my recent Leicester Mercury review of San Carlo.
38 Granby Street
0116 251 9332
Open – Mon to Sun 12pm-11pm
I’ll say straight away that I think every city should have a restaurant like San Carlo. A place where the napery is blinding white, the glasses, mirrors and cutlery shine, the waiters are smart and there is a cheerful buzz coming from both the clientele and the open kitchen. It’s the kind of place that lawyers in American films will go for important lunches, the kind of place you take someone to impress.
Some will probably dislike it for those very reasons, swearing by their unpretentious neighbourhood place. But it’s horses for courses and to be frank, we’re not overwhelmed with this variety of sophistication in Leicester. So I had a good feeling walking through the doors on a busy Friday night, to be greeted with a cheery “Buona sera” by a cordon of avuncular Italian men in suits.
The last time I was there it was to meet Aldo Zili, the celebrity chef who has sold off his restaurants and acts now as consigliere to the still privately-owned San Carlo group – a trusted adviser dispensing disinterested guidance, with occasional visits to rally the troops in the kitchen with a bit of stardust and enthusiasm. That visit featured some stellar food, demonstrating what can be great about Italian food done simply and with great ingredients.
Would these qualities still be on show on a regular Friday night? They certainly were evident in our complementary crostini, spread with a creamy anchovy paste delivering a hefty punch of salty fishiness. Even more so in an outstanding starter of marinata di verdure – aubergine, green pepper and courgette thinly sliced, briefly grilled and marinated in fresh mint, extra virgin oil, garlic and chilli. It brought out the flavours of the vegetables beautifully and with some first-rate buffalo mozzarella and well-dressed leaves it was a delight. Another starter of Faggotini San Carlo featured lovely little money-bag parcels of pasta with a light ham filling and a creamy wild mushroom sauce. Not cutting-edge innovation, but none the worse for that.
I’ve heard comments from people who find the service at San Carlo to be somehow arrogant and unhelpful. And yes there is air of “we know best”, but then they probably do and I find it quite a pleasant change to be served by experienced older people who have spent their lives in restaurants rather than keen but gauche students.
More good cooking was on show with a main course of tagliolini aragosta, a suitably bling dish for the surroundings of a half lobster adorning a mound of thin pasta mixed with a lobster claw meat, fresh peas, cherry tomatoes, finished with brandy and cream. Grilled hake was simpler but perfectly done, with a few fresh herbs, some crunchy, thinly sliced sautéed potatoes and a light, buttery sauce. The dish need some extra vegetables, which does start to push the bill up, but the wonderfully crunchy French beans doused in butter were so good I would not have wanted to miss them. The wine list is, obviously Italian, and our bottle of Soave was crisp, dry and elegant – perfect for our fish.
A cheese board was ridiculously huge – including large chunks of good but not exceptional gorgonzola, tallegio and pecorino that no-one could comfortably finish. Smaller hits of something more interesting would have been preferable. Torta sette velli (the Sicilian “seven veils cake”) was rich and decadent, alternating layers of chocolate mousse, sponge and hazelnut cream to great effect
The only real downside of our night was the being seated next to a table of three young women who stared at the phones all night, barely speaking, hardly touching their food and generally doing their best to suck the atmosphere out of the place. But that’s my problem and hardly San Carlo’s fault – the restaurant delivered some fine food in an otherwise lively, smart and enjoyable setting.
September 18, 2015
Earlier this week I was able – very briefly – to join a couple of other local food writers on the Leicester Tapas Trail. This is a great initiative by one of our number – Laura of the blog Extreme Housewifery – who returned from one of her regular jaunts to Spain feeling that Leicester really needed a tapas culture. So she set about trying to create one.
In the UK there’s been something of an elision between tapas and small-plate dining. We have “tapas restaurants” where you go for a meal. In Catalan and Spanish tradition it’s more about something nice to nibble while you enjoy a drink. So Laura’s plan was to approach independent bars, including those not really thought of for their food, and propose a trial trail that would see them offer a drink and a small dish at £3.
So now we have the Tapas Trail, running from 11 September to 18 October and taking in venues including Bossa, The Exchange, The Rutland and Derby, 33 Cank Street, Firebug and Natterjacks. Each venue has created its own precise offer – the Exchange for example offers a half of ale or lager and a special anti-pasti platter created for the trail including artisan bread and a little prosciutto ham, mozzarella, sundried tomato and rocket dressed with olive oil and balsamic.
I joined in at Bossa, where newly-established in house caterer Roxy’s Kitchen offers something from its wide range of streetfood snacks along with half of West 4 lager. We had a sizeable bowl of warming five bean chilli with tacos, some nicely meaty mushrooms stuffed with grilled blue cheese and some – in truth slightly mushy and under-seasoned – falafel with minty edamame bean dip.
For £3 these are great bargains and might just get us going on the drink-and-a-bite culture which has a lot going for it.
If you see the posters when you happen to be out and about, get stuck in. If you want to plan a visit – might be worth checking here on Extreme Housewifery to check availability.
September 16, 2015
Leaks from Michelin ahead of tomorrow’s publication of their new guide indicates a new Star for John’s House in Mounstsorrel. Fabulous news for chef John Duffin and heartiest congratulations from this blog to him and his team.
Michelin-starred dining is not a pre-requisite for great food but it is a sign that a kitchen is doing something rather special and it’s really great from a tourism point of view that Leicestershire can now claim one.
September 15, 2015
News today that the O Bar and the Smokehouse on Braunstone Gate will finally close on Sunday 4th October.
Good news however that the bar’s current general manager will be reopening a new bar to be known as The Twisted Spoon from Friday 9th October. More news is promised in due course, but I understand the Orange Tree group is looking at possibilities for re-establishing their craft beer and American barbecue offering in another location in the county.
I know that in the short term, Smokehouse chef Liam Watson is looking at going travelling, not least to extend his chef’s education with other international cuisines. I look forward to hearing more from all concerned on what happens next.
September 15, 2015
Just catching up on some of my reviews from the Mercury which I’ve failed to post here. The digested read for this one: good quality food, and sufficiently different and interesting from usual fare to warrant a short diversion to Belgrave Gate.
Everest Dine has been going a few years now. I’ve never actually been though – partly I suspect because it’s slightly off my mental map down at the bottom end of Charles Street and round the corner on to Belgrave Gate. Not even that area’s most ardent defenders – should there be any – could call it the most picturesque part of town. Also, when I ventured to the restaurant which had previously inhabited the building, I did not enjoy the experience.
Having seen Everest Dine’s stall at this summer’s Leicester Food Festival I was prompted to pay a visit though. Not least because they had been hawking the Nepalese speciality momos, gorgeous little stuffed dumplings. The simple idea of pastry wrapped around a filling exists in most food cultures – from the South American empanada to the Polish pierogi, the Indian Samosa and the Cornish pasty. The momo shows the influence of Tibetan food crossing the Himalayas – little steamed buns made with a simple flour and water dough and a spicy filling.
This was always going to be my starter here and they were fabulous – a slippery, delicate covering and a fine minced lamb filling seasoned with some really lively green herbs. With a pokey tomato chutney they were a great way to start a meal. There’s a warning of a 20-minute wait while they are hand-made but on our Saturday night visit there was no delay.
I thought I’d won handsomely on the starter stakes but friends were just as impressed with their Nepalese specialities. Lamb choyla had a pleasant, if to my mind unremarkable, concoction of marinated and grilled lamb with fenugreek and mustard oil, but which was given a big lift by being paired with crispy flat rice. This is where the grain has been dehusked and flattened into little flakes and then fried to make them crispy. It’s popular across the subcontinent and here you could see why – giving good flavour and providing texture.
Also going down very well was “mushroom special” featuring very neat little breaded parcels of destalked mushrooms with the cavity filled with spicy lamb mince, with a tangy tamarind chutney.
As you might be getting the idea, the attraction of Everest Dine is not just that you are getting well-made, well-spiced food, but that for most British diners at least you are getting a new twist on a familiar cuisine. The menu does have a mix-and-match collection of standard curry house dishes tucked away somewhere but there’s little point coming here and not ordering from the Nepali section.
I needed something light as a main course and found it with haravara salad. The chicken, lightly marinated in cream and nuts and roasted in a tandoor, was tender and delicate and a minty, youghurty relish was good but the green salad was pretty perfunctory – undressed leaves with chunks of carrot and cucumber. A dish that needed a bit more thought and effort really.
My friends’ curries were both excellent with lively and vibrant spicing. The meat in the lamb Gurkhali was exceptionally tender, far better than routinely encountered, and was in a sauce fiery with green chillis but which still gave out little hits of subtler spices too. Stir-fried duck with garam masala and cherry tomatoes was more in a Southern Indian style and also packed a lot of heat while keeping distinctive flavours too.
The restaurant is quite grand in style – huge gilt mirrors, large chandeliers, a sweeping staircase up to a function room – but it’s far from intimidating. Service is cheerful but respectful and there’s a family-friendly, unpretentious vibe about the place. If you are in any way bored with your regular venue, or you simply want to sample some intriguing and good quality food, it’s worth a short diversion.
September 3, 2015
I enjoyed a really terrific tasting menu at the White Peacock on New Walk last night, another one of a series of events put on by personal training group UFit Studio. Owner Joe Hanney has worked with Leicestershire restaurants to develop healthy eating menus that helps those looking to get fit or lose weight to realise that they can still enjoy eating out as part of their regime.
In fact I think the healthy eating focus actually shows Phil Sharpe’s cooking at The White Peacock at its best anyway. In recent years he has managed increasingly to focus on clarity of flavours and fine ingredients – you won’t find rich cream sauces or big piles of mash or roasties here. But nothing on the plate last night felt in any way compromised.
We started with a beautiful collection of beetroot carpacccio with crushed toasted pinenuts along with beetroot gel, tomato sorbet, bloody mary shot and a light as air goats cheese mousse. This was fine, light and delicate but in no way mimsy.
Next up, beautifully rare pigeon breasts on a timbale of spinach with toasted sesame and superfood blueberry dressing, followed by seared kings prawns with a mango and chilli salsa and microherbs. We had a little introduction on why and how each dish was prepared with diet in mind but we didn’t convincing – this was great food full stop.
Main course again featured some excellent cooking – incredibly moist and flavourful Cotswold white chicken breast with carrot puree and thai-spicied polenta. Polenta is high in fibre, low in fat and cholesterol, and generally I’ve found very high in dullness. This, though it didn’t looking particularly appealing, was something of a revelation – substantial but surprisingly light, bringing both crunch and airy texture and some great spicy heat.
We finished with a superbly wobbly coconut and lemongrass pannacotta. The lemongrass largely lost out to the coconut milk that replaced the more usual double cream but a really enjoyable desert along with a bright apple sorbet and cherries.
I’m not sure how many of these dishes will find their way onto the regular menu, but as I suggested this is very much the style anyway. A pleasure, then, to eat six such fine dishes and not be bloated.
September 2, 2015
Good to see another smart dining pub opening in the south of the County. The Crab and Cow opens today, 2nd September, in the small of village of Leire near Broughton Astley.
This is the former White Horse, dating from the 18th century, extensively refurbished by new owners Paul, Nathan and Cheryl Burrell and now decked out in de rigueur steely greys and blues. The kitchen is run by chef Anthony Clarke, while front of house is the domain of general manager Nick Broderick who formerly ran a style bar in Leicester but more recently has been back at home in Cornwall running Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow.
No surprise maybe then the menu will feature plenty of fresh fish delivered daily from Cornwall, as well as local Leicestershire meat and produce. It’s in familiar gastro pub territory but with enough tweaks to hope the food might be quite interesting – beef cheeks in panko crumb with pickled vegetables, Mauritian fish curry, whole Singapore chilli crab, pork belly with smoked mash and burnt apple and steaks with North African and Korean rubs.
“We are passionate about the range and quality of the locally soured produce we use,” says Broderick. “We like to think that our cooking is straightforward and unfussy, allowing the flavours of the quality ingredients we use to shine through.”
August 26, 2015
I really enjoyed a recent visit to Tatra Eastern Corner on Northampton Street, Leicester to review for the Mercury. It had all the positive qualities of a restaurant cooking homely food for exiles. Leicester knows better than almost anywhere else that one of the first things that migrant communities do when they arrive is open restaurants. The taste of home is a vital part of soothing the transition to somewhere new.
At some point, of course, there’s usually a crossover where the host community catches on to what’s on offer. Some of you, for example, may have heard of curry – I’m told it’s becoming quite popular.
And so we come to Tatra Eastern Corner, a restaurant and bar in Leicester city centre that is offering a home from home to Slovaks and Czechs. Whether in 20 years time bryndzové halušky (sheep cheese dumplings) will be as firmly fixed in the nation’s psyche as chicken tikka masala I have my doubts, but it’s clear that there is plenty for all of us to enjoy in the tasty, robust food being offered here.
Slovak food is based on a small number of distinctive dishes which are complemented by influences from Hungary, Poland, Austria and other surrounding nations. You won’t find lamb or much fish, but plenty of pork, beef, cheese and beans. In the main its hearty, peasant food, designed to fuel hard labour in the fields, but it does come with bold flavours too.
I started with a bean and smoked pork knuckle soup. On a day when the English summer was doing a fair impression of a November morning, this was a simple but tasty and warming dish. Red kidney beans in a rich tomato based soup with plenty of strongly-smoked pork, which I would describe as “pulled” if such a voguish term didn’t seem inappropriate for a dish that gave the impression of having ancient roots.
We also had fried Slovak sausage, another delicious way to serve up pig served with bread and mustard that may have looked like the mild American stuff you put on a hotdog but which was seriously powerful. Even better were three other little accompaniments of horseradish, pickled red cabbage and a cracking little beetroot relish.
We washed it down with Czech Kozel beer – which was ok, though the beer snob in me thinks it was probably better before industry giants SABMiller got their hands on the brand. Also available though are beers such as Urquell and Golden Pheasant, various local firewaters made from pear, cherry and plum, and a range of Slovak soft drinks.
Main courses were taken from the slow-cooked section of the menu. Roast pork with sauerkraut was a generous plateful with hefty slabs of tender pork flavoured with mild garlic and matched with nicely sweet and sharp cabbage. There was a sizeable portion of dumplings, sliced like bread and much lighter than they looked, though they still defeated me. Hungarian goulash was tremendous, unrecognisable from the pallid version that would occasionally turn up on British restaurant menus in my youth. A mouth-tingling beef stew in a rich, spicy sauce suggesting shedloads of fresh paprika. This really felt like food prepared with love.
I was lightly teased for being a dumpling lightweight by the cheerful Matthias, one of the team behind the restaurant and who – rather wonderfully – is actually a vet originally from Burundi. He studied in Slovakia, married a local lass and eventually they moved here. By day he works for the Food Standards Agency, by night he helps his wife and the chef run the restaurant.
With walls adorned with pictures of Bratislava and Kosice, the vibe here is clearly Slovak but it feels welcoming to all. It’s worth bearing in mind it is a bar, not just a restaurant, and on our Friday night visit refreshment had clearly been taken by some of our amiable fellow guests. Homely rather than sophisticated, this is definitely a place to try for those with an appetite for something hearty and authentic.