December 23, 2016
A couple of quick recommendations for you to ponder over Christmas.
Wakaze is a lovely, easily-over-looked Japanese restaurant at 74 High Street, Leicester. There’s a rash of Far Eastern cafes and restaurants along that stretch and that’s far preferable to more garish chicken shops. Wakaze is a stripped down, modern kind of café run by a couple of entrepreneurial Chinese students from Leicester University who have teamed up with a Japanese chef. Service is quick, helpful and friendly and there’s a smart open kitchen at the back of the room that seems to run with quiet efficiency. Nigiri sushi was very good indeed – especially the mackerel, gyoza dumplings were great and ricebowl donburri dishes warm and comforting. I’ve been a couple of times and am keen to go back to try more.
Regular readers need no introduction to St Martin’s Tea and Coffee and their great daytime food. I had another terrific lunch in there this week – Indonesian pork with char-grilled hispi cabbage. This is one of a number dishes making use of their new rotisserie grill and had unctuous fatty pork with beautiful layers of sweet and sour flavours from spicing, a nutty sauce, black and white sesame, lime, pumpkin seeds and more. There was fiery lime and chilli rice too. I hear very good reports of the vegan version featuring spiced and grilled cauliflower.
I also heard some exciting news from chef Chris Elliman too that plans are afoot for a new project – can’t say too much but Leicester city centre should be a getting a new gastropub next year. Chris headed up the kitchen at General Tarleton near Knaresborough in Yorkshire – a renowned dining pub I would sometimes stop at on journeys up to the North East – and he knows all about doing high quality, straightforward British classics.
Finally, Anatolia on Allendale Road, Stoneygate. When this opened it was a bit of scruffy chippy, at odds with the chi-chi environment around it. Over the years it has morphed into a rather smarter Turkish café but I must admit I’ve given it a wide berth. Last night though we enjoyed some fine Central Turkish mezze – sublime yoghurt-laden aubergine was probably the star but the meat dishes were excellent too. It’s fully licensed and the service is friendly and competent too. It’s a lot less frantic than similar places on the Narb’ and London Road.
December 5, 2016
Over the years a few people have contacted me with talking about getting a street food event off the ground in Leicester. It’s not come to anything – until now.
This weekend saw the launch of Canteen – a monthly event at the LCB Depot in the heart of Leicester’s Cultural Quarter. It has the big advantage not just of an array of hip young businesses on site, but a yard which is accessible to food trucks. Ok, in December outdoor eating is a bit of a challenge, but everything seems right about this idea and venue.
Organised by the energetic and enthusiastic Ahmed Kage, who’s done this sort of thing a lot in Birmingham, the event ran from 5pm on Friday and was free to enter. There were four traders, a DJ and a cocktail bar from sponsors Sailor Jerry. There’s also plenty of indoor space for diners in the LCB lobby and café area.
In-house caterer’s Gray’s were offering triple-cooked chips with a variety oftoppings – Canadian-style poutine, Mexican guacamole etc and a Pakistani chick pea curry version. Out in the yard were Pluk’d , chicken wing and hot sauce specialists who are soon to open a venue in the city; Home Boys, offering Japanese-inspired street food from Nottingham Masterchef finalist Pete Hewitt; and Esmie, a tremendous Caribbean seafood specialist from St Kitt’s via Birmingham.
I wasn’t able to try everything, obvs, but I’ll say the Mexican chips received rave reviews. I did have Katsu Sando from Home Boys, a panko-crumbed chicken breast in a bun with tonkatsu , a tangy, sweet, fruity sauce. It was great comfort food on a cold night but I’d like to try something with some more complex Asian flavours. Having heard the oohs and aahs from friends I also had to try the Doubles from Esmie (below). These Trinidadian favourites are a loose sandwich affair of two pieces of fried flatbread with curried chickpeas – Esmie’s versions was sweet, spicy and completely delicious. I wish I’d had room to try the seas bass fillets, prawns and scallops they were serving up too with rice and peas – maybe another time.
There was a decent post-work crowd in and hopefully more came along later because this was a good opportunity to try some great food in an informal setting. Watch out for more details of January’s event.
November 8, 2016
Shortly after yesterday’s post, I heard of another intriguing opening. It’s been whispered for a good few months but we now have confirmation that craft beer and chicken concept Broood (yes, there are three o’s) is to open on King St/New Walk.
The new operators completed on the lease this week for the building that recently housed Sloanes bar and before that Out of the Vaults. Most significantly though, it was home to Vin Quatre (or more commonly Vin IV), one of the first bars that came out of the liberalised licensing regime of the 9os and which has legendary status among a whole generation of Leicester hipsters. It was, famously, hugely busy and massively profitable.
“We want to evoke the spirit that the bar had in the 1990s,” say the bar’s owners with a laser-eye on their demographic “If you are of an age, you will have drunk there – we want you back. No excuses. You’ve got no kids now. You didn’t have any then.”
There is already a Broood in Hinckley – with eight or nine real ales and craft beers mainly from small regional breweries and a food menu that focuses on piri piri chicken, wings in hot sauce, hot dogs and pies. The Leicester branch – which should open before Christmas – could fill the hole left by the demise of The Pub on New Walk – if it goes a step further and can rival the popularity of Vin IV, then happy days all around.
- One more thing as I clear the decks before going off on holiday tomorrow – thanks to Miguel Holmodinho for a tip about Merhaba, a new Eritrean café restaurant on Churchgate. It’s obviously first and foremost a venue for exiles but its not intimidating to others and we had a lovely lunch in there this week. Eritrean food is at core stews and vegetables served on injera – a sourdough flatbread with a soft spongy texture. Typically it’s all served on a big platter and eaten communally.
We had a lamb stew with fairly fiery berbere spicing and spinach with onion and spices – it was different and delicious. It’s particularly delightful as the sauces soak into the bread. There are plenty more things on the menu that I have little idea about but will go back after a bit more research. Meat dishes are around £6-£8, various vegetable ones around £3-£5. Note the bread is available in gluten-free form made with teff grains.
There’s not many reasons to venture down Churchgate nowadays. Lebanese restaurant Cedars and Caribbean takeaway Johnnycakes (of which more in the near future) are two. Now we have another.
November 7, 2016
Liking the look of two openings in Leicester city centre later this month. Veeno is an Italian “wine café” adding to the burgeoning St Martin’s scene. This is a small independent chain which has branches in the usual places that such ambitious concepts expand into – Nottingham, York, Manchester, Edinburgh, Harrogate, Leeds, Bristol and Liverpool.
The business was founded by two young UK-based Italians and their idea was to promote the “aperitivo” culture of nibbling appetisers over a glass of wine. The menu, then, is full of salamis and cured meats, cheeses and breads along with a wine list that is based on wines from their own Sicilian vineyard. These are labelled along the lines of “our driest” “our smoothest” and rather curiously , “for experts only”. The menu has plenty of food and wining matching.
I’ve not been to one of their cafes so can’t really comment on quality but from their online presence the vibe would appear to a slightly mass market Delilah – not such a bad thing .
Also set to open in a couple of weeks is Boneyard. Here the obvious at first glance comparison would appear to be Grillstock, with a focus on barbecue food, cocktails and a “woo! let’s all have mad time!” culture. They will be at 13 Granby St, in what was for many years one of those identikit Italian chains, next to the Nat West Bank.
Don’t know too much about them – all I could really find out was they seem to hold the not inconsiderable distinction of holding the first ever pop-up restaurant night in Nuneaton with an Indian restaurant. Their twitter account describes them as “a multi-cultural meat society with added liquor and DJs – unashamedly fun, brash and exciting”. I can’t say I’ve been impressed with Grillstock so let’s hope this crew have something good to offer.
November 4, 2016
I enjoyed a trip out to Belton, near Shepshed, recently to revisit the Queen’s Head. I found the menu changed a fair deal, with a more simple, classic approach to pub food. Here’s the review I did for the Leicester Mercury:
Country pubs have to bold to survive. It’s not enough to stock the beer and open the doors. – they need to find a strategy that works for them and their staff, for the locals obviously, and for guests who might come in from further afield.
For some that might fine dining, and we’ve got a few of those in Leicestershire and Rutland. For others it might be being part of a chain or maybe linking up with caterers to offer Asian food. That offer will need to be reviewed, tweaked or radically changed from time to time as local and national trends dictate.
The first time I went to The Queen’s Head in Belton, around a decade ago, it was in the fine dining spectrum. Nowadays, it still a smart, stylish pub but the food has been stripped back to a menu of classics that provide a lower price point and probably have a wider appeal. Some of the dishes might sound like they come from an ironic 70s theme pub, but it’s nothing of the sort. The Queen’s Head remains a classy operation under MD Henry Weldon that offers some classic dishes of recent years done from scratch, with good ingredients and done simply but well.
Mind you, as we sat down in the smart dining room to the less than relaxing sound of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid we did wonder if the retro styling had been taken a step too far. Eventually the soundtrack became a bit less frantic but it remained a bit loud for us.
The menu is short and nicely focused. There’s a selection of steaks, cooked over coals on a Berghoff barbecue grill, and classic dishes such as a whole plaice on the bone, beer battered fish and chips and baked camembert.
We decided to go with the flow and start with a prawn cocktail and found it very enjoyable. It was not messed around or modernised – simply good, juicy crustaceans in a tangy mayonnaise, crisp lettuce and fine bread. A second starter was a take on a fried breakfast (below) and showed again that simple treatment of good ingredients can be really successful. This featured a fried duck egg with a rasher of crispy smoked bacon and some wonderful iron-rich, home-made black pudding, all set off with some delightful sweet and fruity gooseberry ketchup. It wouldn’t have satisfied anyone in search of an early morning full English, but it worked surprisingly well as elegant starter.
Being a bloke I ordered the steak and chips, in this case a, 8 oz rib-eye. It was a pretty good – tender, full-flavoured and nicely grilled to medium rare. The fat triple-fried chips were outstanding, superbly crunchy with floury insides they were the perfect antidote for anyone with no time for skinny fries. The little salad of watercress and red onion was excellent too. Our other main continued the retro approach – a beautifully tender chicken kiev, pleasingly oozing plenty of garlic butter which had neither of the common faults of being bitter or just too strong. Served simply with rich, smooth mash and tenderstem broccoli this was food you might reasonably aspire to cook at home but there’s still a pleasure in having it done well by a chef.
Deserts could also have passed muster in the 70s. Mine was a nicely done banana split (below) with all elements present and correct including cream, ice-cream, cherries, chocolate sauce, langue-de-chat biscuits. It maybe falls into the guilty pleasure category, but a pleasure it most definitely was. Slightly more sophisticated but equally as far removed from the cutting edge was a sharp, refreshing lemon sorbet with limoncello.
There’s a nice family feel about the Queen’s Head. Locals were quietly enjoying a beer or two in the separate bar, while there was a big jolly party in another area of the large dining space having a farewell do for one of the chefs.
Obviously there’s a market for people who are looking for good cooking of straightforward, familiar dishes . But there’s also generations who may never have had the pleasure of these dishes and may enjoy them over the latest fad. For all these, a visit to the Queen’s Head should be an enjoyable one.
October 29, 2016
Now that Delilah has got its feet firmly under Leicester’s table, it’s starting to run the wine and food evening events that have become popular at it’s Nottingham branch.
The first one of these themed evenings ran last night and focused on the wines of Lombardy and the Veneto. They were presented with great enthusiasm by wine buyer Rick Tryner, who’s collection is full of wines from owner-managed wineries, often small family concerns in up and coming areas. It means there’s not much at the cheaper end of the market but lots of interesting, full-flavoured exciting wines.
The events involve around 8 wines, matched with generous-canapé portions of food from Delilah’s chefs and using ingredients on sale in the deli. Our evening started with a creamy prosecco (£12.99)- their best selling wine – to go with very posh truffle-scented crisps and nuts. Then an entry level Soave Classico (£7.99) with a brilliant sharp ceviche of seabass. Then two more serious whites – a peachy. very lively 100 per cent Turbiana I Fratti (£18.99) matched with a fantastic lobster ravioli, and an upmarket Soave “La Rocca” from Pieropan (£28.00), which stood comparison with big white burgundies. That came with more excellent pasta – handmade in Italy and imported fresh – this time in a creamy wild mushroom sauce.
Then four reds, starting with a Valpolicella Classico from Zenato (£13.99) – soft and gluggable but still complex – served with lovely little tomato and mozzarella arrancini. Then a Zenato Ripasso (£24 – Valpollicella that has been “repassed” over the used grape skins of an Amarone), a big beast of a wine that was beautiful with strips of rare bavette steak from the Vale of Belvoir. Then for me the star of the night – Marion, a big 2010 cabernet sauvignon from Veneto (£30) bursting with fruit, for which Delilah is the only UK supplier. The rest it seems goes to the USA where it is seen as a rival to those fabled Napa Valley reds. This was magnificent with some Italian cheeses including a 36-month aged parmesan and a sensational creamy number from Beppino Occelli that was wrapped in grape must.
We finished with a sweet red Veronese Recioto della Valpolicella (£22), where selected grapes are dried for three months on wooden racks then pressed and fermented to create a desert wine that is full of fruit and floral notes.
A high-end tasting like this, with simple but excellent food, is yet another feather in cap for St Martin’s. Just a few back I could never envisaged saying this but within literally a few paces we have wines, gelato, burgers, chocolates, gins , cocktails, charcuterie, coffee and cheeses that are the equal of anywhere in the country.
October 19, 2016
People often tell me Leicester lacks a good steak house. There are a couple of candidates- from 1583 on the edge of Highcross to a couple of Halal places catering mainly, obviously, for Muslim communities. They seem to do good business but don’t really appear to have established a name for great steaks.
Now however we have an interesting new arrival in the shape of Middletons Steakhouse and Grill. This is small chain with big ambitions, that started as a gastro pub in the eponymous Norfolk village. But, says MD Steven Hutton, ” changes in the market place saw the fortunes of pubs decline and it became clear family restaurants were the way forward.” They rebranded as a steakhouse and now have branches in Norwich, Kings Lynn, Colchester,Watford and Milton Keynes.
Their Leicester project is a big one – they’ve taken the Grade II listed former Nat West and TSB building in St Martin’s, empty for some 16 years, and invested £1.5 m into converting it into a 200 cover restaurant. It’s a stunning space. A tremendous set piece chandelier dominates the room which is done out with warm red banquettes, and there’s a large mezzanine area that gives you a chance to survey those below you.
I got invited along to try the food on one of three preview nights. The place was buzzing and there was a slightly manic atmosphere, not least around the pass where wait staff queued up as the kitchen struggled somewhat to keep up. With service routines obviously not quite up to speed I won’t comment too much other than to say our young Slovak waiter was a complete pleasure to deal with, though unfortunately one other waitress did manage to throw a side order of mushrooms all over our table. I’ll put that down to third night nerves. In fact despite some frazzled faces on the staff, we didn’t have excessive waits or other issues.
The food though. The menu is pretty mainstream reflecting that desire to be a successful family restaurant and take on some of the well-known chains. We started with mussels (£5.25) done in white wine, cream garlic and lemon which were completely fine. Rather better than fine was “Middleton’s terrine (£5.25) combing pork, liver, cider and herbs and wrapped in Serrano. I enjoyed this immensely – good flavours, good coarse textures, lovely salty ham. It was curious then that the “pickled relish” it came with was a strong traditional chutney of the Branston variety – not unpleasant in itself but far better suited to a cheddar sandwich than this lovely terrine.
The steaks we are not told much about other than they are “carefully prepared at our butchery in Middleton”. I had an 8oz rib-eye (£15.95) and was quietly impressed. Cooked accurately to medium rare it was tender and had a nice char – it wasn’t going to keep the likes of Hawksmoor or Goodman’s in London awake at night but then it didn’t cost £35. It passed muster fine. My choice of Diane sauce (£2) was a good one – well-made and tasty. Fries were good, though the garnish of “roast tomato” was misnamed – it had barely cooked at all.
Steaks go right up to an 18 oz chateaubriand or a 36 oz rib eye on the bone for sharing, and there are other choices such as jerk or piri-piri chicken, ribs, lamb steak, pork chop, surf and turf and a range of burgers. There’s not much to intrigue any vegetarians who get dragged along here – breaded brie with chilli jam, vegetable and halloumi skewers, falafel burger and that’s about it.
Several dishes are offered “half and half” for the hard of decision-making, and we had a 6oz sirloin with half rack of sticky ribs (£15.50). Again the steak was good, but the ribs were very ordinary – a rather sharp, vinegary sauce and ribs that were redolent of supermarket vacuum packs.
Deserts “made in house by our pastry chefs in each of our restaurants” are the usual suspects – sticky toffee pudding, Eton mess, chocolate brownie, tiramisu and so on. My chocolate pot (£5.15) was thick and overly sweet, with a layer of even sweeter caramel, while a crème brulee (£5.15) was ok but unremarkable.
Wines range from £16 to £50 for a Barolo riserva, and rather curiously they don’t list the country of origin. It may be obvious in many cases but it’s a pretty crucial piece of information. We had a Dona Paula Malbec (£21.95), which I assumed correctly to be Argentine, but wasn’t overly impressed – lacked much in the way of tannins or varietal character.
The opening of Middleton’s is a great vote of confidence in Leicester and it’s terrific to see one of our most impressive buildings come back into use. It’s located right in the heart of a thriving area of independents and the hope must be that it brings more diners to the area and lifts all boats. It may not have the interest for foodie types of the more or less adjacent Delilah’s, Crafty, Cured, Gelato Village and others but it does ok on its own terms and is a welcome alternative to Highcross.
September 30, 2016
You’ve probably got your favourite takeaway. We don’t necessarily look to them for great quality, more qualities of convenience and reliability – I’ve been going to the Jebu Tandoori on Evington Rd for well over 30 years and the recipes have barely changed.
But if you’re looking for a change, give the Thai Esarn a try. I’d heard several recommendations for this humble takeaway on Hinckley Road, Leicester (near the Police Station) and eventually gave it a go. It was lovely.
Run by a group of engaging Thai ladies, they delight in traditional home cooking from North East Thailand and produce great-tasting, authentic food in an open kitchen that they’ll make as spicy as you want. We had terrific starters of toong torng, crispy parcels of minced chicken, prawn and sweetcorn with plum sauce, and fishcakes with a sweet chilli .
Main courses were tamarind duck and the beef dish “weeping tiger” and both were excellent dishes that highlighted the sweet, sour, salty and spicy layering of flavours. The duck was tender breast meat with green vegetables and cashew nuts in that distinctively sweet-sour tamarind sauce.
The beef was so good it had me off digging up recipes that I’ve been trying at home – strips of beef marinated in the likes of lime juice, soy, fish sauce and sugar and with additional dipping sauce. Mine was pretty good, theirs was excellent.
Coconut rice was good sticky comfort food, while a tom sum salad of papaya and finely sliced cabbage was a maybe a bit too drowned in dressing for my tastes but again was a great combination of flavours.
Never been a huge fan of Thai food but I may not just have had very good examples – this has started to convert me.
There should be a full review in the Leicester Mercury tomorrow, Saturday 1 October.
September 5, 2016
So here’s some nice things happening in Leicester.
First off, I went to the launch of Cured at the end of last week. This is the business of chef Martin Powdrill, who previously has worked at the much-missed Smokehouse on Braunstone Gate and is basically offering the bar food within Leicester’s Brewdog. The USp is food that uses Brewdog’s distinctive beers to cure meat and fish. Judging by the tastes we had, this will be a terrific addition to food options in the city centre.
Martin is a young, enthusiastic chef on a mission to transform expectations of curing from the short-cut injected processes used in supermarket produce to exploring the long, slow alchemy of traditional curing. His audition piece with the Brewdog people involved a few simple pickled vegetables – demonstrating the variability of the process and the fact that the simplest items on his menu would be given the same attention as the headline dishes.
At the launch event we tried the likes of: sweet maple cure bacon cured in Punk IPA with picallili: terrifically tasty salmon ‘pastrami’ brined in smoked porter; brisket cured for some two weeks and roasted with burnt barley and treacle; an amazingly accurate vegetarian recreation of the pulled pork experience using jackfruit and a fennel slaw; an oriental take on beef jerky using soy, coriander and sesame; and, oh yes, the best pork scratchings ever.
All these dishes have been researched, developed, tested and show real character. ‘m looking forward to going back shortly to try more and urge others to try it too. Watch for the beer matching recommendations too.
Food will be available 12-8pm with a special “hangover club” on Sundays, but Martin hopes to use the large upstairs space at Brewdog for special restaurant nights in the future.
More good news for beer lovers with the imminent opening of the Blue Boar on Millstone Lane, a micropub using a historic name with an interior designed for good conversation and good cask beer and real cider.
On the same road The Rutland and Derby is starting monthly pop-up nights starting tomorrow (Tuesday 6th September) with a pop-up chippy. We’re told to “think red and white check tablecloths, waiters in white aprons and sustainably sourced fish”.
A little further down the line a big presence will arrive in the middle of all this activity with Middleton’s Steak House having its Soft Launch starting around 10 October. This of course is set in the massive wedding cake in St Martins that is the grand old Nat West Banking Hall. I was besotted with that building when I used to bank there – I hope they’ve not ruined it.
September 1, 2016
I had a lovely morning out recently at White House Farm in Keyham, where farmer Matt Stone is producing tremendous raw milk, butter and cream.
“Raw” means unpasteurised, in other words not heated until everything in it is dead. In the past this was a important health measure but it also took away a lot of the taste. Nowadays raw milk can be produced under license and with strict hygiene controls – and so the “old-fashioned” taste is available once again.
Matt comes from a long line of dairy farmers. But after his family farm in Ratcliffe-on-the-Wreake was sold he looked around for somewhere where he could build his own herd. The semi-derelict White House Farm suited his purposes and he and his young family moved in. Initially he was going to do conventional contract milking, but after he was let down, he decided to try something different.
Keeping a day job as a herd manager elsewhere, he and wife Katie have started their own business with just three cows – two Freisians and a Red Poll. Currently everything they make disappears almost immediately through sales at the farm gate and the occasional car booter and farmers’ market to people desperate to get that old-fashioned flavour
The milk has a full flavour and a much cleaner feel in the mouth. “You can use it just like pasteurised milk, though people get through more of it because it’s far more palatable to just glug it back,” says Matt. “People with allergies and sensitivity also seem to find it much easier to digest.”
The cream and the butter too are exceptionally good. The extra thick double cream is perfect with a bowl of local-grown strawberries, while the butter is so good on toast you really don’t want to spoil it by putting on anything else. Note these are ‘live’ products and have no preservatives – they may not last as long as supermarket but, then again, you’ll probably find they disappear more quickly too. .
Many of their regular customers are from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, who crave the produce because “it tastes like it used to back home”. Ironically perhaps, the Brexit vote has also seen a boost with more people thinking about supporting local businesses. Many regulars drive from all over Leicestershire, Rutland and beyond.
The little dairy parlour, immediately adjacent to the cows’ barn and with its simple, traditional equipment like the butter churn is the perfect antidote to impersonal agribusiness and supermarket conformity. The herd will shortly double in size, but this will remain a small business where the farmer knows each of his cows really well.
Stone’s milk is currently available in two litre bottles for £2, the butter at £3 for 200g and cream at £150 for 200ml. You can call in at the farm on Ingarsby Road, Keyham, but it’s best to order ahead by calling on 07883 471865. Watch out soon for other products including ice-cream, yoghurt and buttermilk. For more information see http://www.facebook.com/stonesdairy and if you are a Great Food Club member (and if not why not?) watch too for an offer coming soon.