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.

 

Brunch at 100&Six

August 12, 2019

I continue to hear great reports of 100&Six on Queens Road (reviewed enthusistically here on 23 March) and thought I’d go today to check out the brunch menu. And it’s gone straight to the top of my list for places to brunch in Leicester.

Their take on a full English (£8.50) was simply blissful – sophisticated but most definitely not poncey. It featured pillowy-soft scrambled egg with fresh herbs; sweet honey-cured bacon; proper grown-up hash browns with both crunch and potato flavour; high-quality black pudding with that iron-rich tang of blood; and a tomato and bean cassoulet that would win-over the most harded bakedbeanophobe.

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Gill went down the sweeter end of the menu with the apparently highly popular French toast (£7). And I’m not surprised this dish has won over Clarendon Park – thick, toasted slices of eggy brioche are doused in blood orange syrup and sprinkled with almonds, and it’s completed with skilfully-grilled, sweet and firm nectarines. A really smart, light mid-morning treat, which we made slightly more substantial with an extra side of that honeyed bacon.

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Its a complete delight to find such quality food cooked by a chef with a flair for flavour and a well-balanced approach to innovation.

The brunch menu is served Monday to Saturday from 10am to 2pm and other choices include a watermelon fruit salad, pecan and banana granola, sweet potato fritters with maple, chilli and feta. The full small plate menu is also available from 12pm.

 

 

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My veal chop

One of the saddest events of recent months was the closure of the King Richard III on Highcross Street – a delightful reinvention of a city centre pub with really fine food at reasonable prices. They couldn’t quite get the midweek trade or seemingly convince people with the “country pub in the city” thing.  So it seemed good news that the Beautiful Pubs Collective, who also have the nearby Rutland and Derby and Knight and Garter as well the Forge Inn in Glenfield, have reopened it in partnership with freehold owners Everards.

There was quite an extensive refurb over the spring, but seemingly little building work. The layout of the pub is identical but there is some more theming around the titular monarch and the front room seems a little more “pubby”. Apologies to the designer who probably sweated buckets over pantone swatches to get the right shades, but to philistines such as myself the feel doesn’t seem to have changed much – it’s still handsome and atmospheric. Interestingly the menu hasn’t taken much of a swerve from previous regime either.

The KRIII is now billed as a chop house, one of those terms like ‘brasserie’ that I suspect many people would find difficult to define precisely in words but nevertheless create a very clear mental image. A chop house should be somewhat old-fashioned (wood panelling a must) and provide generous, Pickwickian slabs of meat. The King Richard delivers this in spades.

The menu is shortish and focused (possibly narrow depending on your point of view) and appealing to enthusiastic carnivores. Envisioning a substantial lunch, Matt (from Great Food Club – do join) and I started our lunch with two of the small “while you wait” starters and the first impression was great. Tomato concasse (£3.50) showed good knife skills with finely-diced, flavoursome tomato and herbs on grilled sourdough, crucially served at a good temperature rather than out of the fridge, while truffle-scented polenta fritters with wild mushrooms (£4) were crisp and had well-balanced fungal flavour.

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Barnsley chop with salsa verde

The real appeal seemed to be the grilled meats, cooked quick and hot on the robata grill which remains in the kitchen. And sure enough, the arrival at table of our main courses was a genuine wow moment. My veal chop (£19 – I think prices change with weight as available) dominated its plate imperiously, its huge bone careering off to the middle of the table. It was beautifully charred, and simply dressed with quenelle of rosemary butter and a couple of delightfully sweet/tart miniature plums. It maybe looked like it missed some sauce/gravy but it absolutely did not need it, being tender and juicy enough as it was. Possibly slightly under-seasoned it was still a wonderful thing to demolish.

Matt’s Barnsley chop (£16) was equally epic – I’d say a good inch and a half thick but like the veal, cooked impeccably. Head chef Chris Owen has worked in Japanese restaurants before and clearly knows his way around a robata. Sides are extra and we shared a portion of fine, fat, beef dripping chips and some broccoli given an oriental hit with chilli. A carafe of Argentinian malbec was exactly the right accompaniment. Apple crumble crème brulee for pud was straightforward and delicious.

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Previous chef patron Chris Elliman had a background in pub fine dining and oversaw a menu of classic British and European food – a French onion soup still burns brightly in my memory, along with a burrata salad and a simple onglet steak. Encouragingly the food and service here is still high quality, if possibly a little more pricey and smaller in range. Whether this new incarnation can succeed remains to be seen, but on this evidence it deserves to and I’m certainly looking forward to another visit.

It’s notable that while the chain phenomenon has successfully exploited Italian and French cuisines, there’s been less of a tendency for them to replace the British curry house. Interesting then that we have two burgeoning chains opening in Leicester. (You could argue three if you include the exciting news about Tandem – Cyrus Todiwala’s sixth restaurant that will open in the former Memsaab premises in August, but that’s a very different kettle of tilapia).

On 12 August we’ll get Mowgli in St Martin’s Square, the tenth branch of this expanding, generally highly-rated Indian street food cafe founded by ex-lawyer Nisha Katona. First up though is the Tamatanga on Shires Lane in the Highcross. This may only be the third branch – following Birmingham and the original in Nottingham – but it ticks all the hallmarks of the ambitious chain. Big shopping centre location close to other nationally known brands; large space with industrial fans and extractors above; endless piped music; peppy but inexperienced young staff in branded T-shirts following strict service protocols; an aspiration to a “laid-back vibe”; and a quick turnover approach which no doubt suits the contemporary diners who famously don’t want to sit around for hours in a restaurant but of course also enables multiple table-turnings for the operator.

So, Tamatanga doesn’t have have that much to distinguish itself from its near neighbours but it’s press launch last week seemed to impress the bloggerati, so Gill and I went for lunch. For all its casul style – paper menus as table mats, cutlery coming as an “eating kit” prepacked in a paper envelope, the food itself seems a bit pricey. Wraps with “our legendary tama fries” £11ish,  curries with rice or naan from £11.95, upwards, small plates and chaat dishes at around £6. There is though a lunch time offer that means you can get a main course and a soft drink for around a tenner.

No starters as such, food is delivererd as and when ready, but first up for us were small plates of onion bhaji (£4.95) and lamb samosa (£5.45). The bhaji were not good – thickish pucks that were crispy enough on the outside but quite unpleasantly doughy and undercooked inside. We liked the bright-tasting coriander chutney with them though. The samosa were also a bit mixed – the filling was tasty and the tamarind chutney sublime, but while it was good to see thick flaky pastry rather than crisp filo, they were excessively greasy.

We were on firmer ground with our main courses – my delhi lamb curry was a generous bowl of rogon josh with good distinctive spicing and reasonably tender lamb. The ghee-laden naan were pretty good too. A chicken biryani was also well-spiced with plenty of tender meat – if it had been my main dish I think I would have preferred a vegetable curry with it rather than the large bowl of raita but that might be a matter of taste. But for the rather odd addition of a pile of salad leaves this was on a par with the standard popular British Indian.

How much you enjoy Tamatanga might well be down to your choice in restaurants – or maybe just your needs on the day. I enjoyed most of the food and would be happy to try more, even if ultimately I’m likely to prefer a more traditional restaurant environment or the vibrant spicing and textural contrasts of a samosa chaat from the likes of Narorough Rd cafe Mithaas.

A few yards up the road from Bindu Patel’s new venture Sanctua lies Tipu Sultan. It’s hard to imagine two more different restaurants. The latter is a huge, vibrant, blingy affair with sizzling platters of meat flying out of the kitchen. Sanctua on the other-hand offers completely plant-based cuisine in what is probably the most stripped down, relaxing eating environment in the region.

Patel is a Leicestershire lass but has worked at some stellar locations in London – including Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Gymkhana and Trishna and has staged at La Gavroche. She has recently returned to veganism and it is this , combined with a distaste for the waste she saw at many restaurants, that has set the tone for her highly distinctive first venture of her own.

You step into a small lobby to be welcomed with quiet politeness and then shown into the main room where you are welcomed by gentle birdsong, artworks featuring wildlife, plants chosen for their air-purifying qualities and bare, unlaid tables (dishes are brought to the table with relevant cutlery). There is a menu, but really just for information – you just have the set menu of the week, three courses and amuse bouche at £30 (allergies can be catered for if discussed at booking.).

This of course is a dream for the kitchen – makes it far easier to plan and buy and, crucially for their vision, virtually eliminates waste. If there are any leftovers I understand they are taken back for the chef’s rabbit.

20190615_183020 1The menu currently changes weekly and is themed around a particular cuisine – Patel’s parents have roots in Malaysia and Africa and both cultures have featured in the early weeks,  but on our visit the emphasis was central American. First up was an amuse of a corn cracker with refried beans, salsa and coriander chutney. It immediately raised our expectations – bright spicing, lively salsa, delicate micro-herbs, this was a fine canape.

Next up were two vegetable and soya mince empanandas with chimichurri. Quite why soya mince was chosen I don’t know – not a pleasant texture and no particular taste. Everything else about the dish was excellent though – Patel clearly knows how to pack flavour in to vegetables and both the pastry and the intense green chimmichurri sauce were fine.

20190615_183800Another aspect of the restaurant’s approach to sustainability is to shop at our local market and use produce that is in good condition but may not be aesthetically appealing – to use a term I find irritatingly twee, “wonky veg”. It certainly works here with the main course also impressing. Several terms here I had to google I admit but at its core was pozole rojo – a fiery red broth made with dried chiles and hominy, kernals of maize that have treated with an alkali to soften them up. This was fabulous – complex notes added from “our own secret Yucatan spice blend”.

20190615_184635The usual pork in the dish was replaced with chickpeas and puled jackfruit, a common vegan fall-back which I know divides opinion but I really like for its texture and distinctive mild flavour. There was crunch and carbs from a terrfic fried tortilla, delicious little slices of lime-cured radish, coriander rice, vegan sour cream and even a nod to chef’s Gujarati heritage with sambharo (spiced cabbage). The dish also came with excellent sides of a terrific guacamole garnished with pomegrante and a nutty, garlicky, spicy salsa macha.

Desert was “food of the gods” chilli chocolate pots. I suppose I was expecting a routine mousse with a little bit of chilli, but this was quite sensational. It appeared to be simply melted chocolate with a couple of flakes of dried but this was dreamy stuff, packed with punchy fruit and spice notes. The slightly doughy cinnamon-dusted churros were a disappointment but the memory of that chocolate will live long with me.

20190615_190847“A lot of our customers are meat-eaters [hello!] who are looking to try something something different” said Patel to leading industry publication in June. “I’m not trying to preach a different way of life to them or convert them to veganism. Sanctua is a celebration of vegetables and our customers understand that.”

There will obviously be those who are put off by Sanctua but there are plenty of places catering for those with the love of a steak or fried chicken. For those looking to cut down or cut out meat, it’s great that there is a fine dining alternative for them that takes vegetables seriously.

The Merchant of Venice

June 15, 2019

MOV1New from today on Granby St, Leicester, is an intriguing Italian café that brings an original take to the city’s increasingly competitive coffee market.

The Merchant of Venice, located right by the big crossing that brings thousands of people into the city every day from the railway station, is a Shakespeare-themed venue, complete with original paintings of the Bard and scenes from the eponymous play. There are also several sets of scales should you wish to weigh out a pound of flesh and plenty of other curios and artworks to make you ponder.  It’s a joint development by Jaimon Thomas, the man behind the similarly beautiful Kayal and Herb restaurants, and his friend Basilio a former manager at San Carlo and now coffee supplier for legendary Viennese roasters Julius Meinl.

MOV5Like most Italians, Basilio is passionate about coffee and this café is very much about Italian coffee culture rather than the American one that dominate the chains. The coffee offering is supplemented by some fine looking Italian patisserie produced especially for them and a short menu of all-day breakfasts, salads and home-made classics such as arancini, lasagne and bruschettas – with vegans catered for too. Eventually this will build up further for evening openings with meals and cocktails but for now the focus is on breakfasts (it opens from 7am) and daytime snacking.  Oh and the Italian brunch menu takes in the classic full English and my “Leicester breakfast” included a first-rate sausage and perfectly cooked fresh mushrooms that suggests that while the menu is relatively humble, they are serious about good food.

I think a lot of people will enjoy cosy catch-ups in this fun and original cafe.

 

 

 

 

 

For a restaurant in an area full of relatively well-heeled potential customers with a keen desire to eat out, Al Maidah on Queen’s Rd, Leicester, seems to have adopted a strange marketing policy.

I’ve never seen a place fly so low under the radar. It’s quite an achievement these days after two months trading to have seemingly no online presence or media footprint whatsoever – no website, no social media, not even a Tripadvisor comment. Yes there’s a shop front, but no menu or other information displayed. It would appear to be Moroccan but what does it serve and how much does it cost? There’s no obvious way to find out, short of going in and sitting down. So that’s what we did.

mintteaIt has all the hallmarks of the family-run neighbourhood restaurant – the kind of place where younger members hang around out front and fight for the control of the music  (pleasant North African sounds) or pop out for extra parsley from the supermarket. It’s quite small and done up with some appealing desert-chic touches – camel trains in silhouette on the walls, miniature tagines on display, and cute little fabric figures with which to pick up the hot handles of your exquisite mint-tea pots. In the bijou upstairs room there’s even a floor-seated area replete with cushions for traditional  laid back dining.

The menu covers the usual suspects of Maghreb cuisine – spicy harira soup, tagines, cous cous and grilled meats, with a couple of specifically Tunisian touches such as the use of molokhia greens.  There are popular dishes such as  a sweet lamb tagine with almonds and apricots and a cous cous royale which contains a bit of everything including merguez sausages. Oh, and main courses are between around £8 and £14. couscous.jpg

We picked a chicken cous cous and a kefte tagine (lamb meatballs), along with sweet mint tea and a mint mojito mocktail (the restaurant does not serve alcohol). Both came delightfully presented and piping hot. The on-the-bone chicken with vegetables and chick peas sat on a generous helping of cous cous and came with a sauce for ladling over. My friend found it over-salty and struggled a bit with some flabby chicken skin but the flavours in the dish were excellent and the chicken very nicely tender. My tagine came enticingly bubbling to the table and proved very good eating  – delicately aromatic spiced lamb in a stew with onions, tomatoes and coriander with a couple of eggs baked shaksuka-style into the sauce. The lightly toasted arabic bread was excellent too.
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Neither dish was particularly spicy-hot, though whether this is concern over timid Clarendon Park palates or simply the chef’s preferred style for these dishes I’m not clear.

The overall dining experience was maybe not as smooth it should have been. Neither the “dish of the day” or the beautiful-sounding fresh Morrocan pastries listed were available.  Trying to put a positive light on this it shows that “freshly prepared” probably means just that, but on the other hand, we were a couple of slightly disappointed diners. Also while our waiter was lovely and helpful, we didn’t get our mojito until we chased it up, and we heard another table say when checking out that they hadn’t received everything they had ordered.

 

 

So no hipster reinvention or fusion stuff going on here – just good traditional, regional, comfort food that many should want to check out. Despite the lack of profile, word does seem to be getting around and there were respectable numbers and a diverse clientele on our wet Tuesday night visit. A weekend trip beckons.

 

 

 

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