As local readers won’t need reminding, we’re about to enter the first Leicester Restaurant Week, Nonetheless, here is a reminder.

There are now some 30 venues signed up and offering a range of special menus for the week 18 to 24 October. Typically these are two or three course set meals at an appealing price point, some from regular menus but some offering something special.

I went to the launch event last week at the lovely Sonrisa and it was great to hear from Simon Jenner of organisers Leicester BID that they had worked with participating venues to avoid simple discounting. The idea is not to just take the hit on margins in order to get people in, but to find a way to highlight your restaurant in a sustainable way – something widely affordable that could get people in and remind us of why we love going to restaurants.

Blanc at 76

With that in mind, here’s a few offers that look particularly appealing. The Knight and Garter are offering a special LRW menu of three courses for £20 – my pick being beetroot-cured gravlax with avocado and dill creme fraiche and fennel and caper slaw, followed by pumpkin and sage tortellini with goats cheese and spinach sauce, finished off with sticky toffee pudding. Then there’s an intriguing five course taster menu from Blanc at 76, a pop up restaurant within Granby Street bar Loka, which features the like of cod with roasted onion dashi and smoked potatoes. Orton’s, the brasserie in the Cultural Quarter, are going the extra mile and doing special dishes with wine matching each night of the week – for example Saturday 23rd sees a venison and Argentinian malbec, on Thursday 21st it’s monkfish with cauliflower textures paired with a white Rioja.

Among the other participating restaurants are Kayal and Herb, Merchant of Venice, Sonrisa, Tandem, Chutney Ivy, Bodega Cantina, &Kith, Peter Pizzeria and Arabic cafe Dama Rose.

For the full range of offers go the week’s website www.leicesterrestuarantweek.co.uk

Afternoon tea with an Arabic twist at Dama Rose

Mitsuki

October 8, 2021

It’s great to report on the opening of another Japanese restaurant in the city. Even better, it’s on the London Road, walking distance for me. Best of all, it’s really rather good.

Mitsuki is opposite Saxby Street, in the site that housed Uighur restaurant Karamay before it relocated down the hill a bit, and another Chinese restaurant that got caught by the nightmare of 2020. So it’s a small venue, and you are all quite cosied up when it’s busy, which it has seemed to be fairly constantly since opening two weeks ago. It’s done out with lovely pink cherry blossom and parasols but retains a simple zen feel.

The menu is wide with all the regular varieties of sushi and sashimi, gyoza, tempura, ramen noodle dishes, rice bowls, even a few curve balls such as beef rendang – don’t know if they get in lemongrass and palm sugar just for that. Nonetheless on our visit it seems the kitchen is up to the task – everything we had was nicely done, some of it really lovely.

The restaurant is licensed and there is a very short and simple drinks selection, and we started with glasses of Japanese plum wine – served over ice and absolutely delicious. Then along came the ‘deluxe’ sushi and sashimi selection – featuring salmon and avocado maki rolls and a variety of nigiri. The latter in particular were fantastic – the saba (mackerel) outsanding, both aesthetically delicate and shimmering and terrific on the palate. There was a good range of flavours and textures across the selection – lightly torched sea-bass, crunchy and salty tobiko (flying fish roe) and of course heat from ginger and wasabi.

We also enjoyed pair of crispy duck hirata buns – soft and squidgy bao – with duck dressed with sweet and salty eel sauce (made for eel dishes, not made from them!). Then we had main course dishes of smoked duck and kimchi ramen and a teriyaki chicken rice bowl. Both delivered umami in spadeloads – the ramen with a rich pho-like broth and plenty of well-flavoured meat, the chicken being sweet, sticky, generous and moreish and coming with excellent miso soup. There were nice touches like a crispy leek chiffonade too. It was maybe an error to order the rice bowl following all that sushi but every morsel was still happily tucked away.

I can’t tell you too much about the background to the restaurant – it was too busy to have more than a quick chat with the manager but it seems they are new to Leicester and beginners in the restaurant business. The kitchen was running smooth and efficiently though and they have clearly hit the ground running. Call me shallow, but it seemed significant that the majority of the clientele were young and good-looking types – not just me and Gill, of course – and the buzz was that of a modish North London joint that had just had good write-up in Time Out.

We spent £50 for two, but this is a place where you can just as easily pop in for a quick sushi lunch or a bowl of something filling for a tenner or less. It’s obviously a good sign when you leave a restaurant having peered at everyone else’s dinner and planning your next visit – soft shell crab hand roll, octopus rolls and prawn tempura currently on my mind.

Leicester Restaurant Week

September 13, 2021

After what seemed a successful BrewBeat festival last month, BID Leicester has now announced further plans to help get things moving again in the city by launching Leicester Restaurant Week.

The concept sees a wide variety of restaurants offering special fixed price menus at £10, £15 and £25 from 18-24 October, along with family offers in this half term week.

It’s an idea that has proved popular in other cities such as Newcastle, where it has run since 2011. Prior to recent events the Geordies have had two each year, with difficult trading periods in January and August turned into some of the busiest weeks of the year. Some 50,000 diners regularly take advantage.

Among the first Leicester restaurants signing up to take part are Orton’s Brasserie, Giggling Squid, Knight & Garter, Kayal and Herb.

“We have seen first-hand the effect that the pandemic had on our city, specifically within hospitality,” said BID Director, Simon Jenner. “Leicester Restaurant Week has been something we have wanted to run with for some time, particularly after seeing the hugely positive impact Restaurant Weeks have had – and continue to have – in other cities throughout the UK.”

You can sign up for more information about Leicester Restaurant Week by going to www.leicesterrestaurantweek.co.uk, and there’s a chance to win a £50 voucher. Any restaurants keen to take part should email info@bidleicester.co.uk

The Pickled Mushroom

September 7, 2021

I wanted to like the Pickled Mushroom. It’s a sort of permanent pop-up based within the King Richard III on Highcross Street – a pub where first Chris and Andrea from Crafty and later Sam Hagger’s Beautiful Pubs collective had run excellent restaurants but just could not garner up enough midweek trade to make it profitable. I liked the look of the menu and had heard good things about the barbecue-inspired food, and anyone launching a hospitality business deserves admiration. As I say, I wanted to like it, but…

We arrive early Saturday evening and sat in outside area. We tried and failed to connect with the QR-code business (I’ve never yet succeeded with this bane of modern bars and restaurants – quite possibly my problem I know) and eventually went inside in search of a menu. We were told someone would be out soon, but ended up having to go back inside to order. We were looking for good filling fare and I settled on a barbecued pork belly flatbread with apple, cheddar and mozzarella, black sesame and rocket, while my partner had a mango and chilli chicken wrap with cashews and Asian slaw, and we shared a portion of crispy chicken poppers.

I found the flatbread a bit grim – a doughy pizza-style bread, gone a bit biscuity round the edges. The toppings too seemed just a thrown together pizza – dry pork belly, melted cheese and an oversweet ketchuppy barbecue sauce. More interesting flavours from apple, rocket and sesame couldn’t compete. The wrap was ok, just a bit of mish-mash of flavours. The accompanying fries were nice and crispy but exceedingly over-salted – we resulted to brushing off what we could of the salt before eating. The chicken poppers, with more of that barbecue sauce, could have been ok – a nice crisp crumb, but the ratio of crumb to chicken was around 50/50, making it unbalanced. These too were over-salted. I’d suspect a ploy with the pub to sell more beer but it seems to major on cocktails – there was one pump with Tiger and a few draft lagers and that was it on the beer front.

Service from young stuff was friendly, but not always competent. We were offered neither cutlery or serviettes and none was available outside – we managed with fingers. Later at home when we checked the e-mailed receipt (another less than ideal 2021 innovation) we realised we’d been overcharged £2.50 on one item.

The chef team here are moving towards a more restauranty menu, claiming wide experience with “renowned Michelin chefs”. The place seemed quite busy but as you can see it didn’t work for me. I kept thinking – how would Crafty have done this?, and reflecting on what a crying shame Leicester didn’t break down their doors when they had this lovely pub.

Look I know we’re not out of the woods yet, but I still want to celebrate life starting to return to our city.

The professional grumps (I’m being polite here) who lurk around below the lines on newspaper websites or infest local neighbourhood forums are only too happy to boast how they never go in to the city. They can’t park for free apparently, plus they might get asked for change by a homeless person, and there are too many people who, ermmm, don’t look like them. Awful I know. They’d rather enjoy the vibrant atmosphere of, well, Fosse Park.

This Bank Holiday Weekend there is a great reason to go back to Leicester city centre, namely the Brew Beat Craft Beer festival in Green Dragon Square. This public space behind Leicester Market will play host to 100 craft beers and 40 live acts featuring a wide range of mainly local musicians. Beers will include locals such as Framework and Charnwood, and some well-known national craft brands such as Thornbridge, Tiny Rebel, Magic Rock. There’s no mention of what I take to be our our most exciting local brewers – Round Table and Braybrooke – but you may well find their excellent brews in the local pubs and bars on the Festival Trail that will be putting on special offers and beers over the weekend.

The Dine in the Square facility that developed during last year’s temporary thaw will be operating, meaning you can order on your phone from a selection of local restaurants (eg Crafty, Sonrisa, Mowgli, Desi Street Food) and get it delivered to your table in the square.

The event is an initiative of Leicester BID, which supports city centre businesses, with supporting from the likes of Arch Creative and Steamin’ Billy pub company. It’s free and runs from 12pm to 9pm on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It’s cashless, so take your cards or phone whatever. For full details visit http://brewbeat.co.uk

Mithaas

June 17, 2021

I’ve been away from Leicester for much of the last 18 months of lockdown, isolating with my partner at her home in the lovely North York moors. If I have to name one food experience I miss about Leicester, I would consider the rich, buttery pastries of the Tiny Bakery, the heady South Indian flavours of Kayal , the insanely tasty meat, cheese, chilli combinations of a Crafty burger but would probably settle for the inspirational yoghurt, tamarind and spice mix of a samosa chaat from any of numerous simple but deceptively wonderful cafes and restaurants.

Kachori Chaat

One of the very best suppliers of this treat for well over a decade has been Mithaas on Narborough Road. To my mind this vegetarian venue is one of the unsung jewels of Leicester, and it has now had a nice refurb creating a light, bright restaurant space alongside its takeaway counter of colourful sweets and enticing savouries. We had lunch there yesterday looking out at the lively streetscene of the Narb and tucked into to kachori chaat this time – lentil stuffed pastries doused in cooling yoghurt, tangy tamarind and spicy, garlicky sauces. Totally compelling. Then there was a substantial Mysori Dosa – basically the familiar rice-and-lentil flour masala dosa filled with spiced potatoes but with the addition of grilled cheese. It’s hard to think of anything that’s not improved by the addition of grilled cheese and this is no exception. The accompanying sambhar was extremely good, a velvety sauce with just the hint of texture left from the lentils that form it and a nicely bitter edge from drumstick (an Indian bean-like plant). Then there was a sublime stuffed aubergine curry, sweet and tender in a way you can never quite manage at home, and a huge portion of masala mogo chips, doused in a rich, sweet and sour sauce.

To drink we had a mango lassi and terrific rose falooda, a rose-scented icecream float with vermicelli creating an aromatic desert in a glass.

It was all clear flavours, bright spices and freshly prepared. It contrasted on these fronts with mediocre food the previous evening at the Thai chain Giggling Squid, where the service was lovely but the food in the main failed to offer the zing and bite you look for in South East Asian cooking. Mithaas was also far cheaper. All in all, a great argument for never straying from Leicester for too long.

Sonrisa, Leicester

June 7, 2021

Despite the ongoing jeopardy, what a delight it was to walk through Leicester last week. Bars and restaurants were doing good business, with happy relaxed customers eating and drinking inside and out on a warm evening.

I was on my way to the latest and most high profile opening of the new era – the Argentine-themed Sonrisa. This is hugely welcome for several reasons. It brings back into use the former Allied Irish Bank building on the edge of St Martin’s Square which was renovated beautifully by the deli/cafe Delilah, which sadly closed just before the pandemic hit. Also it’s a vote of confidence in the city and its dining scene as it represents the first venture outside their Birmingham base by the Lasan group. Lasan is the upmarket Indian restaurant that made the name of chef Aktar Islam – who has gone on to Michelin star recognition and celebrity chef stays with restaurants including his flagship Opheem. Islam and his former restaurant partners fell out spectacularly a couple of years back but I suppose that is not our concern here – most importantly we have a lively, big new restaurant that should bring diners in to the heart of the city and which, on this showing, is doing really rather good food.

Lasan has form here in the shape of two Argentinian restaurants in Solihull and Edgbaston under its Fiesta del Asado brand. Sonrisa is in a similar vein – a restaurant bar that wants to create a Buenos Aires vibe that lets you “pretend you are on holiday – if only for a night”. You enter facing a lovely statement bar beautifully displaying its wares and setting the tone of relaxed fun. The room is one big, atmospheric open space, with the balcony familiar from Delilah still in place and it is filled with Latin music. Given the noise and continuing mask requirements it was a bit difficult to communicate with staff at times – a cosy, intimate space this is not – but of course this should change fairly soon.

The menu is mainly small dishes rather than conventional starters and main courses – it takes a bit of getting used to and ordering sensibly for four was a bit of stressful experience at first. There are a few big steaks, of course, but generally the way is to order two or three dishes each, some of which you may want to share, others you can keep to yourself.

Anyway we started with beer and cockails – including San Telmo lager and a really lovely superstar martini complete with a bruleed passionfruit and a side shot of fizz. We’re told the food come when it comes, but our olives and salted rosemary almonds sensibly come straight away with our drinks. I don’t hold with olives but my pals said this big, green Gordal olives spiked with green chillis were among the best they’d ever had. Next up were some wild mushroom croquettes – crispy outside, creamy and flavoursome within and with a lovely little redder pepper relish. They were a good sign.

Lamb cutlets with ribolitta
Secreto of acorn-fed pork

Among our more substantial dishes were a range of grilled meats – a 150g flat-iron steak, lamb cutlets with ribolitta (a broad bean stew), secreto (a tender shoulder cut) of acorn-fed pork with aioli, apricot chimmichurri, potato terrine and pickled shallots. Without exception the meats were beautifully grilled and while we all could have handled more garlic in the aioli, the chimmichurri dressings were banging and the potato terrine was superb – lovely crisp outside but some creamy tenderness further in.

Octopus with potato risotto

From the seafood section the octopus was so tender it cut with a fork and sat on a fine “risotto” of diced potatoes and peppers. Another pork dish of Duroc pork belly was again really tender, well-cooked and with excellent flavour. Truffled chips with aioli were great, although with the potato present in other dishes we maybe didn’t them, but heritage tomatoes with chimmichurri were a good choice.

The wine list was obviously South American heavy – nothing at all French apart from Champagne – and naturally for this visit we picked an Argentine malbec, the lush Porteno from Bodegas Norton which offered plenty of dark fruit heft to go with the meats.

Desserts included a delightful soft polenta cake with a sharp, refreshing blood orange sorbet, a wobbly panna cotta with a sweet strawberry “chutney” and a good take on a sticky toffee pudding.

Orange polenta cake

So we ordered widely across the menu and there really wasn’t a weak link – everything we had appeared to have been prepared with respect and there was good flavours and quality ingredients all around. Where people may have issues with Sonrisa are in getting to grips with the ordering and in perceptions of value from the predominantly small plate menu. That said we ordered freely and including cocktails, wine, plenty of food and deserts all around we ran up a bill of £35 a head which we thought acceptable (we got a discount on this figure as part of their marketing launch).

I would put Sonrisa some way ahead of similar large-scale restaurants – though several of the chains that aspired to something similar have not made it through the past year anyway. All four of us left thinking we would be very happy to come back and try the rest of the menu.

The Cookhouse

May 25, 2021

This has been always been primarily a Leicestershire and Rutland blog but the experience of being out in Newcastle for a meal – in a restaurant! with friends! giving them a hug! – was so lovely I needed to record the event.

The Cookhouse is the Ouseburn district of Newcastle upon Tyne. Many cities have this kind of area – an old industrial area slightly outside the city centre that after years of dereliction has been colonised, gentrified if you must, by craft breweries, restaurants, artist colonies and so. Think the Northern Quarter in Manchester, Kelham Island in Sheffield, Wapping Wharf in Bristol. What Leicester’s Cultural Quarter could be given critical mass and a Roaring 20s pandemic bounce back.

Cookhouse was founded by Anna Hedworth, whose restaurant story is pure early-21st century – architect has a dream to be a chef, runs a supper club, opens a restaurant in an old container (*of course* it was in a container), garners awards and rave reviews, and re-opens in a winningly ramshackle venue on Foundry Lane (none more post-industrial address). Its simple but stylish cuisine and its warm but chilled vibe recently won a restaurant of the year gong from foodwriter and broadcaster Tim Hayward along with comparisons to The River Cafe and even Chez Panisse.

Happy diners

If the above sounds cynical, it’s not meant too. The place really is lovely. The food really is great. It does seem to be the kind of restaurant our times need. No rich sauces, no spherification of something distilled from seaweed, but great ingredients simply prepared and cooked in way that lets them express their qualities and an informal, hang out vibe.

The menu below will give you the idea. I’d like to give you chapter and verse about what we all ate but given the circumstances this was not a “share reflections on the food” kinda meal – it was all about the joy of being back together.

I will say my spatchcocked barbecued quail was spicy, juicy and toothsome. The chargrilled spring onions, while not exactly Catalan calçots, were big, fat tasty ones and a great addition. The farinata – new to me but a Genoese chick pea pancake taking on a polenta-type role – was light and deliciously suffused with herbs, and the whole dish was held together with creamy yoghurt and a light lemon oil. Much of the cooking was done on an open barbecue out on the terrace right behind us – lovely flavours, simple cooking, great food.

Spatchcocked Quail

A quick glimpse at my pals dishes showed plumptious smoked mussels, beatifully grilled bavette steak with wild mushroom and broccoli and invitingly creamy and cheesy potato gratin with truffled crumb. At the risk of sounding trite, this was all very much the kind of food you want to eat.

My desert was a rich and smooth slab of chocolate tart, with herby notes of rosemary and a salty edge from miso all in perfect balance.

Chocolate, rosemary and miso tart

Service was warm and friendly, putting us all at ease. Yes we had to chase up our wine order, but four days into the new order and with a full house I’m hardly going to make an issue out of that.

So a joyous evening for many reasons, and an inspiring restaurant I’d very much like to go back too. Of course I’m looking forward to some Leicester restaurants very soon, although [big sigh] yet again the news today sounds very ominous…

battleroyal

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.

limburg[27160]

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.

apostelhoeve

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.

 

 

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