April 16, 2015
I was lucky to get a preview of the new Brewdog bar on Friar Lane, Leicester last night – their 27th bar, opening just after the Barcelona branch. What’s good enough for Lionel Messi is clearly good enough for Esteban Cambiasso.
I was really impressed. The bar is nice enough, but the main thing is great beer and great staff who were totally convincing in their interest in the product and their passion to sell it. They have 20 beers on draft, some from their own brewery near Aberdeen and others from a range of small and microbreweries, including those where Brewdog has made investments themselves.
We tried a fair few, starting with Brewdog’s very hoppy pale ale Vagabond which being gluten free is going to please a lot of people. The Boon Oude Kriek was a sensational sour cherry beer, much less sweet and more complex than most bottled versions I’ve had. The 5 A.M. Red Ale was very drinkable and only the Zeitgeist black lager – combining treacly stout flavours with the freshness of a lager – wasn’t really to my taste.
You will see from the graphic above that the beers are strong and expensive. I know there are people out there who will bemoan the craft beer scene as a fad to fleece the foolish and that you can get good beer much more cheaply at a ‘Spoons. I won’t rehearse all the arguments but I would say you’re getting reliably good product here and all those who want to drink different beer in a different setting are welcome to. I’d certainly be content to drink two pints of Punk IPA than three pints of much of what is sold in Leicester.
The whole “we’re so anarchic” schtick of Brewdog can sometimes get a bit wearisome but there is no denying they make compelling beer. What’s more, having criticised Bill’s for the practice of using tips to make up their staff’s hourly rate, I say well done to Brewdog for paying the Living Wage.
Finally Co-founder James Watt – or his press person at least – knows how to get on the right side of us; “Leicester is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and we’re thrilled to be finally setting up a BrewDog home there,” goes the press release.
“We want this bar to serve as an inspiration to microbrewers, home brewers and craft beer drinkers in the region. The passion for great craft beer has taken firm roots in the symbolic heart of England and continues to thrive.”
April 6, 2015
I was back at 34 Windsor St recently to review the work of new chef Arran Shaw. I’d recently interviewed Arran for Great Food Club and he struck me as passionate, serious -minded chef committed to offering adventurous and innovative food which remained a strong focus on customer satisfaction.
For my starter a slow-cooked hen’s egg sat on a crunchy granola-type base, along with sweet sautéd wild mushrooms and a pillow of baked potato foam with “truffle aroma”. Enough there to go wrong but it was a delightful balance of flavours and textures and of cooking techniques. That said I wasn’t convinced about the texture of baked potato foam – it had the flavour but was a little on the gloopy side. Another starter of home cured salmon was a revelation – without a strong smoke or over-salting the flavour of the fish sang out merrily. Beer mustard and red and gold beetroot also delivered strongly but aside from the fish the main point of interest was a slice of remarkably complex Russian black bread. Apparently it has taken several years to perfect this, time well spent because the flavours came rushing out of it.
Lamb with rhubarb was another successful combination, giving an intriguing sharp contrast to the super-sweet lamb rump. The slight bitter notes from the cooked slivers of cucumber added a further layer of complexity. The traditional rosemary flavour was introduced through herby mash. I was further pleased the lamb had not been trimmed within an inch of its life – the fat helped deliver flavour and succulence.
Welsh sea bass fillets were perfect, with crunchy little potato rosti and a mild, smooth and creamy garlic and plum tomato sauce.
Desserts were complex, multi-layered collections but everything felt right. Maple roasted pineapple was inspired and the rich, crumbly coconut sponge with it was a great match. I didn’t get a great deal out the banana and malt ice-cream but the dish worked well and was a great match with the exotic fruit flavours of a glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes. A tasting of chocolate featured a rich nutty, brownie, dark and white chocolate ganaches, a coffee and cardamom ice-cream and chocolate soil – with a curve-ball delivered by a splash of tarragon oil. It all might sound over the top but was a delicate and well-balanced affair.
Dinner was served with good humour by very well-briefed and efficient staff in a smart environment, with even the crockery gaining appreciative comments from my artist guest. With rewarding food like this, 34 Windsor should definitely be on the map for serious diners from all over the county, as well as those poor souls over on the wrong side of the A5.
April 1, 2015
Welcome developments in St Martin’s Square, Leicester. This pleasant area has struggled somewhat as the Shires grew into Highcross but remains an important element in the city centre’s mix.
Firstly, St Martin’s Tea and Coffee is further upping both its coffee business and food offering. Last year it hosted a successful pop up restaurant run by Chris Elliman aka Crafty Burger, and now Chris and his partner Andrea have gone into partnership with Andy and Ellie Hall of St Martin’s to take the business further.
As a result the coffee roastery, which does a thriving retail and wholesale business, moves upstairs where there will be dedicated space to run coffee courses and barista training. Space is freed up downstairs for a kitchen refurb which will enable Chris Elliman to revive Crafty Burgers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings with its 28 dry aged beef burgers and craft beers from brewers Purity.
But also this will prompt a step change in the food available at St Martin’s regular daytime café, moving beyond their quality bought products. Chris will now be slow cooking big joints of meat for the likes of mojo marinated pork shoulder for Cuban sandwiches and homemade sausage rolls, salads and relishes such as cucumber ketchup. Chris says he will “champion the best of Leicestershire produce” and can’t wait to get stuck in. Ellie Hall said “We want to say to Leicester ‘Sure you can go to Highcross and have a standardised meal – or you could come to us, eat something a little bit different and have a great coffee. And guess what – it’ll cost you less’.”
You have to admire a manifesto like that. The building closes for refurb from 13-17 April with the new café menu running from 18th April and Crafty Burger reappearing from 1 May.
The other intriguing news is the closure of Pizza Express, which will be replaced by the American barbecue restaurant Grillstock. With two other branches nearby the pizza place won’t really be missed and Grillstock – which has two branches in the South West and one in London seems to be a quality offering.
The Bristol-based business made its name hosting barbecue and music festivals. Whether their current expansion is “organic” or bankrolled by voracious business types I don’t know but it will be interesting to see whether the venue can match both the great flavours and the independent flair of Leicester’s excellent Smokehouse. The core menu is along similar lines – pulled pork, braised brisket, ribs, chicken, slaw and pickles etc – though no sign of the more adventurous and flexible menu that Liam Watson is able to implement at the Smokehouse.
No date yet for an opening on this – “coming soon” according to the website.
March 23, 2015
The Leicester Mercury hasn’t got around to posting my recent review of Peter Pizza in Leicester so I’ll give you the gist of it here. Long term readers may remember me writing enthusiastically about the Loughbourough branch in 2013 and of plans for a Leicester opening.
It finally opened on Valentine’s Day this year in one of our landmark buildings, the handsome Grade II listed Welford Place. This was formerly home to The Leicestershire Club and to a fine dining restaurant, before most recently suffering the indignity of hosting a cheesy 70s disco.
Pizza has also been subjected to indignities in this country and the Italians behind Peter feel on something of a mission to change that perception. These pizza bases are made from sourdough which has been fermented for 20 hours and the other ingredients – which do not involve chicken tikka or barbecue sauce – include Italian sausage made for them locally by Woodhouse Farm, small batch olive oil from an all-female co-operative in Italy, San Marzano tomatoes from the slopes of Vesuvius. The pizzas are blasted in a handmade wood-fired oven for ninety seconds to give a distinctive char.
It’s a compelling story, but there’s more to explain. This feels less of a restaurant more a friendly but slightly gone-to-seed social club. Downstairs there are two rooms – all mismatched furniture and lightweight tables that can be hastily rearranged as different sized groups come and go. Half the walls are just rough plastered, half have wallpaper featuring film posters. I should add I wasn’t too chuffed with our table, it was in a gloomy little corner that need some light. The front room facing down Welford Road is designated the breakfast room where you can start the day with the likes of truffled scrambled eggs or nutella croissants.
Upstairs there’s a big bookable meeting room, a games room for diners with football tables and table tennis, quirky toilets with stalls made from individual garden sheds, and a further overflow room with random features such as those hairdryer hoods from from your mum’s hairdressers.
Enough of the concept, let’s review the food. Trying to ensure we covered as much of the menu as possible, we started with antipasti. There was fiery Calabrian salami, soft and creamy (vegetarian) fior de latte mozzarella, super cherry tomatoes that – unusually in my experience – actually tasted of tomato, piles of mortadella and several varieties of olives. In retrospect though, this was a mistake. Not because the quality of the food wasn’t great but because there was just too much of it and it would subsequently take the edge off our enjoyment of the pizza. At £6.00 a person I’ve no real problem with the value for money but smaller, cheaper plates – or a sharing version – would improve things.
The pizza menu is short and well-priced, starting with a simple margherita at £6 and then the rest ordered by number. My number two had the addition of that excellent Italian sausage, my friend’s number 7 came with more salami and ham. They didn’t quite have that crisp lightness I remember from my visit to the Loughborough branch but the sourdough and the charring give distinctive tangs, while the non-greasy cheese and the sweet tomatoes are a huge improvement on your standard delivery pizza.
A word for the wine too. No big wine list but a small selection from the same family-owned vineyard in Piedmont. I had a glass – actually it was a tumbler, that’s Peter’s style – of the Dolcetto d’Alba, a soft, medium bodied red with a lovely creamy mouthfeel. There’s no need for a £50 Super Tuscan here – this was fine stuff for a pizza.
At a time when the informal dining scene is increasingly dominated by dull, cynical even, chains who mimic individuality and feign character, it’s terrific to have a place such as Peter. It may not be perfect – I hear service got a bit chaotic on the opening weekend – and it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a true original and it is a delight to have it here.
March 22, 2015
Many readers will be members of the Great Food Club, Matt Wright’s project to highlight and celebrate great independent restaurants, retailers and food producers here in the Midlands. Now for the first time GFC is running an Award programme, giving everyone a chance to vote for their favourite in each of these three categories. There will be shortlists produced for each of the six areas GFC covers (Leicestershire & Rutland, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire & West Midlands) and the writing team at GFC (which includes me) will select overall winners.
You can vote for anyone as long as they based in the Midlands and are not part of a national chain. Note also you don’t have to be a member, though if you’re not, you really should be – membership is totally free and your card gets you a range of discounts and special offers at some 200 of the best food places in the region. More importantly, perhaps, it plugs you into a network of news and information about what’s happening through detailed profiles, newsletters, blogs, recipes and events.
March 10, 2015
I was invited last week to provide a bit of feedback on the new menu at Maiyango. I enjoyed the work of chef Nick Wilson but it seems personal matters have drawn him away to Cambridge and now in charge behind the stove is Salvatore (Sav) Tassari. Recruited with Nick Wilson’s involvement as a possible successor, Sav has recently come to Leicester after four years cooking out in Tenerife but also has experience at a fine dining hotel in Chester and out in Italy.
Before tasting though I was lucky enough to get a further insight into restaurant operations by sitting in on a session with Andy Hall from St Martin’s Coffee who has been charged with coming up with a new blend for Maiyango to grind. It’s great to see quality independent businesses co-operating like this. Andy had high hopes for a El Salvador Salmon Bourbon bean but while it was a complex bean the roast – done back in Central America – had not done it any favours, leaving it lacking body. More promising was a blend from Brazil and Ethiopia.
On to lunch and I was able to sample some of Sav’s dishes – including a seemingly simple but stunning starter of fragrant winter vegetables, including butternut squash, artichoke, beetroots. It’s billed as sweet and sour, but the slight spicing didn’t detract from the earthy essential flavour od the veg. Very impressive mains of a wonderful tender, rare beef fillet with asparagus, mushroom puree and truffle sauce showed really good balance of flavours, not easy with truffle. This impression was backed up by a taste of the steamed wild sea bass, spiced coconut laksa, bok choi, chilli and a refreshing mint relish which gave the whole lift. A desert of a pineapple parfait with yoghurt foam and a foaming cucumber soup was a clever combination – the cucumber was a bit insubstantial on its own but with the pineapple it all made perfect sense.
All in all it seems Sav has understood his brief here and is producing interesting food that continues the house style fine dining with international influences but strong local roots too. There’s plenty of invention and plenty for vegetarians and vegans too.
Coincidentally I reviewed one of Sav’s predecessor’s in my Mercury Column this week. Phil Sharpe opened the White Peacock in late 2013 and my impression is the place is really hitting its stride. We had a lovely tasting menu full of good flavours and confident cooking in a smart, upmarket but relaxed environment. It’s a lovely building too and provides an excellent dining experience in the heart of the city – you can see the review here
One more bit of news, former general manager Mark Barbour has returned to the Red Lion, Stathern, after a gap of nine years. The pub holds a Michelin Bib Gourmand and is the Good Pub Guide’s Leicestershire Dining Pub of the Year for 2015, but owners Sean Hope and Ben Jones recently announced that they are withdrawing from active management to focus on their other venue, the wonderful Olive Branch in Clipsham. Mark ran the pub fron 2002 to 2006 and since then has been training manager for the Bistro Pierre chain, opening its flagship Ilkley hotel, and general manager at the award-winning Fleece Inn at Addingham, West Yorkshire.
March 4, 2015
My latest Leicester Mercury review features Bill’s, the newest chain restaurant in Highcross. I can’t say I liked it much. I’d heard positive things about the two first branches in Lewes and Brighton as being bright and breezy places with good food and a sense of individuality. But the marketing guys who took over and have rolled it put around the country seem to have squashed the life out of the food – dull and fairly lifeless in the main. It’s an attractive setting but given the average food you can’t help reflect on style over substance.
I don’t enjoy having to criticise places – and certainly have sympathy with the staff in chains such as this who work hard for low pay and do their best to look after clients. But I don’t have much time for the business. I note for example, that an ‘optional’ 10 per cent service charge is added to the bill at Bill’s and, according to a complaint by the union Unite, this is used to make up staff’s basic hourly rate. Not good.
This tends to be even more galling when you consider that Bill’s expansion is being financed by one Richard Caring, a restaurant and clothing industry entrepreneur worth around £800 million and who loves his country so much he built himself a big house known as the Versailles of Hampstead, but clearly not enough to register himself as domiciled for tax purposes. And while he doesn’t like giving money to the government, he has managed to find £413,000 over the last five years to give to the political party that runs the government. If you want to know more about Mr Caring and his intriguing relationship with HSBC’s Geneva branch, you can find it in this article from that left-wing firebrand publication the Daily Mail.
February 25, 2015
The UK’s all-powerful pie industry has declared next week to be British Pie Week. Now obviously our county is the spiritual home of the greatest of all pies so no doubt Melton will be closing the schools and putting up the bunting.
Actually in all seriousness I am quite impressed by one response to this PR puffery, and that concerns the Orange Tree group and its bar The Lansdowne on London Road, Leicester. Having made a success of the Smokehouse in it’s O Bar venue by giving one of their chefs the chance to pursue something, they are showing further initiative by getting their chefs to develop a special pie night as one of a series of food-led evenings.
On the menu from 6 to 9pm on Thursday 5 March will be the likes of venison and wild mushroom wellington with port jus (£12.50), ox cheek pithivier (£10.50), smoked fish pie with cheddar mash (£9.50), chicken, chorizo and kidney bean in cornmeal pastry (£9.50) and a couple of vegetarian choices including a vegan mushroom wild rice and porter pie (£8.50). There’s even a lobster pie with seafood broth(£14). Pies are all served with spring greens and mash or chips.
There’s a big kitchen at the Lansdowne, huge compared to The Smokehouse, and it’s good to see they are prepared to explore the potential for developing the food offering there. And more good news, Lansdowne has joined the Great Food Club and members ordering main courses on Monday to Saturday can now get a free glass of wine or bottle of beer – for details see here.
February 23, 2015
I had a really splendid meal at the Berkeley Arms in Wymondham last week (it’s around half-way between Melton and Oakham).
Chef Neil and front of house manger Louise met at Hambleton Hall and their pedigree is clear. The pub runs with relaxed skill that makes the customer feel important without any formality.
We started with close-textured but light and springy Hambleton bread with great salty butter. Starters of terrine of ham hock with a sharp, crunchy piccallili and a pork and black pudding paté with apple compote were beautifully made and presented – great technique. A smoked salmon and crab roulade also had salsa of avocado with finely diced cucumber and showed great flavour combinations.
A main of beef fillet had was superb and my braised leg of hare was perfect February comfort food, brilliantly matched with poached pear and caramelised walnuts for crunch and taste. There was a more delicate approach on show with tender loin of rabbit that had been wrapped in spinach and parma ham. The dish looked stunning and again showed a high level of classic skills. Saucing on all three dishes was impeccable.
Perfect rice pudding had a brulée topping and a side of brandy-infused prunes, while a hefty vanilla pannacotta wobbled provocatively, surrounded by pared segments of blood orange.
Highly recommended for those wanting great food in a country pub environment. Booking needed, certainly at weekends.
For my full review in the Leicester Mercury – go here
February 20, 2015
After the good news for pizza lovers with last week’s opening of Peter and that’s enough in the old Welford Place, comes good news for beer drinkers. After a couple of false alarm rumours, there is now confirmation of Brewdog opening in Leicester. They will be sited in what was previously Will’s Bar on Friar Lane in the city centre (sort of round the back of the market). Work starts immediately and it will open in April with some 20 beer taps and a food menu. Also promised are vintage pinball and arcade games.