A feast at Hambleton Hall

November 13, 2018

Notwithstanding upstarts such as John’s House, the benchmark for fine dining in Leicestershire and Rutland remains Hambleton Hall.  And last Saturday night I was privileged to join in a private dinner there to celebrate my friend Tara’s 40th birthday and, gentle reader, it was completely stunning.

Bad blogging I know, but I’m not going to give you a blow by blow account  – we were having far too much fun for me to turn on work mode – but let me just offer the menu here:

 

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So many of my favourite ingredients here and every one of them was prepared, cooked and presented brilliantly. Here’s a few of my highlights – as ever it can be the littlest thing makes a dish memorable:

  • little crisps of Jerusalem artichokes that captured that flavour to perfection
  • a sublime canape of celeriac with celeriac with black and white truffle. I clocked a couple of spare ones as we left the bar to go to our table. If you think I asked around to see if anyone else wanted them, you are very wrong.
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  • little beetroot macarons (left) that supplied wonderful earthy intensity to match with a creamy horseradish ice-cream.
  • an immense scallop – I’ve had smaller fillet steaks – with foaming green lemongrass broth.
  • the unexpected synergy between immaculate duck breast and spiced black beans, and the sweet/sour citrus of kumquat.
  • a white chocolate truffle with superb cherry interior.

In truth it was all excellent and served with quiet elegance by a brilliantly marshalled troupe of young waiters who glided in and out in choreographed fashion, leaving us to have the time of lives and enjoy the wonders before us.

It’s  no accident that Hambleton Hall  has the longest retained Michelin star in the UK. It was an absolute joy to be there – massive kudos to chef Aaron Patterson,  restaurant director Graeme Matheson and their respective teams.

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Queen Victoria Arts Club

November 11, 2018

Dinner at the Queen Victoria Arts Club in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter on Thursday. The capsule review is that it’s a lovely place, we had some good food, but it’s clear neither the kitchen nor the food are fully up to speed yet.

One of the key reasons for this is that they lost head chef Steve Durham just before opening night in Mid-October and it’s currently unclear whether he’ll be returning. They’ve got in some emergency help and I’m assured “issues have been resolved and a firm plan is in place”.  However there were some very basic errors.

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Photo credit: Saul Morgan

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First off though , it’s a splendid environment. I enjoyed the sophistication of the dark green colour scheme and there’s a pleasing sparkle from immaculate glassware and cutlery. The view from the big windows across Orton Square to Curve is a really superb urban vista. Just to confirm, the venue’s restaurant is open to the public while other areas, including meeting rooms and an elegant but cosy basement bar, are either bookable or for use by members as they develop a membership scheme.

Some people seem to have got the impression it’s super-exclusive, but in fact the restaurant is not all that expensive and they want to attract regular, repeat custom not just special event dining – the opening menu sees starters around £5-8, main courses £14-£18.  I started with roast salmon, a small but perfectly cooked piece of fish which should have come on a slaw of shaved apple and fennel with dried tomatoes. However it actually came with some dabs of lime mayonnaise and  sugar snap peas, which should have been the accompaniments for our other starter of a salmon fish cake, which in turn got the slaw. So, three weeks after opening neither the chefs or the wait staff picked up that the dishes had got swapped somehow. The fishcake and slaw were both very tasty though.

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photo shame: me

A further issue came in that there was no offer of a wine list until we chased it up sometime after ordering. I ordered a white wine for the fish but it didn’t show up – eventually I chased again and it came just as I was finishing. The waitress was most apologetic, blaming some communication problem between her tablet and the till – not good enough.

Looking at the menu I was attracted to “lamb with peppercorn sauce” – I asked about the cut and the waitress thought it was loin, turned out to be shoulder. However, it was some of the best shoulder I’ve encountered in a long while, tender and well-flavoured with a terrific sauce. A fondant potato was technically excellent – combining the roast and poaching processes to perfection.  The vegetables were beautifully prepared and cooked too – though there was nothing to suggest they were “lightly pickled” as described on the menu.

My partner’s main was a terrific dish – moist, flavoursome roast chicken with a very well-balanced cream sauce with wild mushrooms and tarragon. It came sitting on some wonderful roast garlic mash – again a well-judged balance of flavours.

A word on the wines – a NZ sauvignon blanc (when it came) was excellent and the Chilean carmenere was a great match with the lamb. Looking at the well-stocked bar it does look the drinks offering is sorted at least.

A desert of a blackberry bavarois with charlotte russe cake was a bit under-flavoured, though a quince sorbet with it was excellent. I don’t think it benefitted from all being put in a glass with the sorbet on top – made it a bit hard to savour different elements of the dish.

It’s tough for any new business and losing one of your major assets just as you open must be a stressful experience. But if it’s to bring in the local businesses and the creative types who you’d think will be it’s main clientele, QVAC will need a period of stability and some sharper service.   At the moment I’d have to put it in the “promising” category.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little saddened this evening to hear that The Orange Tree group, a long-standing provider of lively, independent venues for Leicestershire, has sold up to the brewery and pubco Charles Wells.

The four venues  – Leicester, Loughborough and Nottingham’s Orange Tree bars and Loughborough’s Kelso will continue to trade until the spring, when conversion to Well’s “Pizza, Pots and Pints” format will begin. The brand focuses on cosiness – with wood-fired ovens proving pizzas and one-pot comfort food dishes in ceramic pots. Bedford-based Wells has around 200 pubs, most in Southern Central England.

The news follows the sudden closure at the weekend of The Clarendon, the popular Clarendon Park pub where I have seen many glorious Leicester City victories (going four up at Derby in the first half springs to mind) as well as the failure to beat Stoke which sent us down to the third division, a moment which until this wretched weekend seemed to be the worst moment in our history.  High rents and rates and a lack of support from the pubco are blamed by the tenants. It’s not clear what’s happening yet but it could re-open under new tenants in due course. Very sad to see a proper pub being treated this way.

 

 

As some Leicester readers may have picked up, the remarkable Gelato in the Square event returns to St Martin’s Square this week. This time with added support from the likes of Leicester BID and companies Agrimontana and Carpagiani, it will be even more significant for Leicester.

GelatoThe weekend of 26/28 October will see a truly a truly world-class gathering of top makers from UK, Italy and the USA, including hosts Antonio and Daniele from Leicester’s Gelato Village. All the gelatieri are committed to principles of using natural, seasonal ingredients and the theme of “a unique flavour journey” will see them push the boundaries with exciting creations. Among the confirmed creations are “Memories of a Tortello”, with eggs, butter and sage, “Pirandello” with toasted almond, lemon zest and homemade almond and chocolate brittle, and “Year after Year”containing whisky, mascarpone and chocolate and coffee from Sao Tome. There will also be plenty of vegan friendly sorbettos.

As last year there will be special talks and demonstration to highlight how high quality makers perfect their product. It’s a great opportunity for East Midlanders to try something exceptional. For more details see visit Gelato in the Square . [Full disclosure – I’ll be one of the judges picking a winner at the end of the weekend.]

Elsewhere the new Queen Victoria Arts Club on Orton Square in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter has opened its restaurant. The club combines a membership model which provides access to a members basement bar and various booking privileges for its meeting and function rooms,  with a restaurant open to the public. I had a long chat with chef Steve Durham at a launch event and he seems excited by the challenge of running a high end restaurant and catering function in a beautifully restored Victorian building in the heart of the city. He has worked at high levels in the industry and his opening menu features interesting takes on classics of British cuisine – the likes of Brown Windsor soup with beef cheek, pressed pork and smoked black pudding terrine, and venison with chocolate and black cherry sauce. Given it’s position opposite Curve, a pre-theatre menu is available.

The King Richard III is bringing back a full menu for the winter months, having gone with a lighter touch chicken-focused menu over the summer. It established itself as one of the very best dining options in the city and if you’ve not been, it definitely deserves a visit. On the menu are starters such as porter-braised potted ox cheek or double Gloucester rarebit with leeks, pink pickled onion and tomato jam. Mains include wonderful March Farm steaks and wild mushroom, squash, chestnut and lentil wellington.

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Nisha Katona

Finally, exciting news that Indian streetfood restaurant Mowgli is coming to St Martin’s Square in the new year. The growing chain has six restaurants in the Midlands and North, with the Liverpool original recently listed as one of their favourites by food critics Marina O’Louhglin and Giles Coren. If Marina likes it, I’m pretty damned sure I will. Founder Nisha Kantona told thebusinessdesk.com that she’d been looking to open in Leicester but didn’t want to go near the big shopping centre – “ I spent a few nights and days in St Martins square – It feels very Mowgli and I loved its feel instantly.” She has also described Leicester as the “bright light’s, big city” when it comes to Inidan food. Mowgli’s menu is wide ranging and massively appealing – it takes in streetfood favourites such as bhel puri and South African bunny chow, vegetarian dishes such tea-steeped chickpeas and meats such as Manchurian chicken wings and a lamb curry simmered with anise, plums and chickpeas. Very much looking forward to this one.

I suspect quite a few readers will have dreamt of chucking in their day job to set up a little food business. Nathalie Salles has done it. And lovers of authentic French choux pastry should be delighted.

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I met Nathalie selling her glorious little sweet and savoury choux buns at Belgrave Food Fair last month under the name Choux’tique. She came to England from France to study product design at De Montfort but eventually tired of the corporate world. It turns out she’s an old friend of a friend and is baking out of her home just around the corner from me near Victoria Park, Leicester.

IMG_4191She’s now on a mission to broaden our awareness of just what can be done with choux pastry – and not least to correct our notion of the éclair. “Here you see eclairs filled with whipped cream – but in France that’s not an eclair! We use different flavours of crème patisserie.”

Her core range then includes little choux buns filled with divine praline or chocolate crème pat, and chouxquettes, favourites back in France but relatively unknown here, which are simply sprinkled with pearl sugar.

Then there are savoury versions – gougères topped with cheese or filled with bacon or, in the case of “le petit toad”, sausage. She’s also now producing non-choux savoury loaves, speckled with ham and olives or sundried tomato and olives. Wherever possible she’s sourcing from local traders – “It’s really good to develop a relationship with your suppliers,” she explains. “And the quality tends to be so much better than supermarkets.”

These treats are beautifully light and very versatile. Whether sweet or savoury they are perfect for a mid-morning break and as snacks or finger food at meetings, parties and events. Nathalie would love to help establish the French tradition of turning up to friends with a little gift of patisserie. Bigger, showstopper items such as Gateau St Honoré a spectacular Piece Montée can also be ordered.

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She’s currently building up awareness at fairs and foodie events and direct sales are taking off too – they can be picked up from Victoria Park Road or orders over £20 can be delivered free within two miles. If you want to give them a try call on 0116 210 8168 or 07974 140515, or check out more information www.facebook.com/tryit.itsfrench or on instagram it’s choux.tique .choux banner

 

 

 

The Leicester Food Hop

October 2, 2018

If you are looking for a easy to way to get a glimpse into some of Leicester’s more interesting independent food venues – the Leicester Food Hop should be right up your proverbial.

The idea is that on one day  – specifically Saturday 13th October – you can buy a ticket and run your own self-guided, self -timed daytime tour around five venues, each of which will serve you up a drink and a tapas-sized dish that will highlight their food.

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Salt and pepper squid from The Fish and The Chip

The venues involved are The Fish and The Chip, King Richard III, The Knight and Garter, The Parcel Yard, and The Olive  – the Greek street food café on Belvoir Street. It runs between 12pm and 5pm, so you’ve got up to an hour in each venue if you want. Organisers Cool as Leicester will email you a starting venue and suggested route. Tickets are £30 for five dishes and five drinks (small glass wine or half pint of beer) – for details visit Cool as Leicester

The Wheatsheaf at Greetham

September 21, 2018

I’ve been meaning to get out to The Wheatsheaf for a good few years. Leicester-trained chef Carol Craddock had a serious career in London – anyone who has worked with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum is going to be worth trying – and she’s well-known among cheffy circles.

She and partner Scott eventually returned home, as many do, and their unpretentious village pub is in the heart of Rutland’s dining belt – around three miles from other excellent dining pubs including The Fox and Hounds in Exton, The Olive Branch in Clipsham and the Jackson Stops Inn in Stretton. Which makes it a bit of a trek from Leicester but we were delighted we made the effort.

20180919_214142It’s a pleasant vista arriving at the warm Rutland stone building. A little stream flows through the garden and a bevy of ducks quack out a welcome. But it’s an unprepossessing entry into the building – through some basic outbuildings, past a pool table and into the bar and restaurant area. It’s cosy, traditional and basic. The staff are in jeans and trainers, but the welcome is warm and throughout the evening service is friendly, skilled and attentive, creating a relaxed atmosphere. It’s a place that doesn’t feel it has a lot to prove – and in this instance that’s a really good thing.

There is an exceptionally good wine list for a pub of this type, reflecting the Craddock’s involvement in setting up Vinoteca in London perhaps. Sadly a bottle of 2011 Chateau Batailley at £65 was beyond my means but that mark-up is not too bad.

20180919_182651The food is also very good – if it came in swanky surroundings you’d call it fine dining. Doesn’t seem appropriate to use that term here. It’s just generous, stylish, modern British classics done by a chef on top of the job. White onion and cider soup with cheddar was extraordinarily good – a hearty, creamier version of French onion soup, it was deeply flavoured, brilliantly seasoned and completely delicious. Scallops could maybe have been seared a bit more for my taste but the caulifower puree with them was a revelation – packed with flavour – and the crispy bacon very good too.

Main courses of duck and lamb were generous portions and cooked bang on. Rump is my favourite cut of lamb because it comes with a nicely lubricating overcoat of fat, and here the cooking gave me both moist pink meat and a darkly seared, crusty edge. The lamb came from Launde just across the A47 and was very satisfying along with a sizeable pot of warming, cheesy shepherd’s pie. Gressingham duck came with roasted pickled peach – which sounded like a gimmick but was an inspired match.

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We couldn’t manage a desert on this occasion but we did stretch to four brilliant chocolate truffles and a glass of desert Riesling.

So, don’t go expecting either deference, crisp linen table clothes and stylish design or food that is sprinkled in chia seeds and big on vegan options. But for high quality restaurant food in a pub, this ticks a lot of boxes.

Leicester Beer Week

September 20, 2018

I’m a little but tardy here but a quick reminder the today marks the start of the inaugural Leicester Beer Week.  It’s a lovely idea that focuses on special events and special offers that celebrate and promote our local beer culture with  go-ahead local pubs and local brewers.

There’s been a lot of work done by volunteers, not least my pal Jamie Stenson, to get people on board and there are plenty of interesting events. I’m kicking myself for missing today’s “Meet the Brewer” session at the Two-Talied Lion with the people behind the wonderful Cloudwater brews.

For a full listing of offers and event go to Leicester Beer Week

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Baked in Brick

September 17, 2018

Those of you who are regulars at Leicester’s streetfood event Canteen* will be familiar with Baked in Brick. Their street food cooked out of ovens in a Mini Cooper have always proved popular and recently they have been acclaimed as the Best of the Best at the European Streetfood Awards for 2017.

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Building on that success they’ve now opened a restaurant, based at Birmingham’s cultural industries hub The Custard Factory in Digbeth. If you’re ever in Brum and in the market for lunch it’s definitely worth the walk out to Digbeth (maybe 12 minutes from New Street, 2 from the bus station). The design might be a bit edgy, with one of those minis careering out of the walls, but on my visit we found the atmosphere is pleasingly cheerful and unpretentious.

The menu focuses on pizzas from the brick oven in the open kitchen. There’s big bags of 00 flour around the place and mountains of tins of san marzano tomatoes – they take their ingredients seriously and you’ll also find local produce such as Lincolnshire Poacher and Colston Bassett Stilton involved. I had their award winning dish of a calzone stuffed with deeply flavoursome beef shin ragu, wild mushrooms, cheese and basil – it was fantastic, right down to the stilton dip for the crust. A fresh salad with mildly smoked burrata and heritage tomatoes was great too, while salty padron peppers, pan-roasted in the pizza oven were the best I’ve encountered.

As you might imagine there’s a good selection of craft beers – I had the Cannonball hop bomb from Magic Rock (I wouldn’t try going back to work after that one) – and a small but good-looking choice of wines. With such quality at around £10 a pizza, it all adds up to a compelling offer.

 

* Not sure exactly what’s gone down here but Canteen has announced it will be moving to a new venue, while previous host LCB Depot has launched its own event Last Friday to replace it. It starts on 28 September and will run along similar lines to Canteen – streetfood, cocktails and live comedy. Canteen has been promising details of its relocated plans but I’ve not seen them yet.

Update 23/9/18:  The new venue for Canteen is to be The Morningside Arena – home of the Leicester Riders and just off Belgrave Gate. The event seems to be going head-to-head with Last Friday and promises more space and less queueing. Will be interesting to see if the audience can grow to support both events.  Here’s a link to a short  promotional film: Canteen

It seems to be getting harder and harder to run a proper, sit-down-and-have-a-serious-meal restaurant. The Indian restaurant subset is battling the headwinds – Paddy’s Marten Inn, Kayal and Herb have given me lovely meals in busy environments this summer – but the trend towards informal grazing seems to be gathering pace.

Last year in Leicester we saw the fine dining Maiyango morph into the bright and breezy The Fish and The Chip, a fun and high quality take on the traditional British seaside chippy. Now this month the King Richard III suspends its marvellous menu of steaks and  grills and modern European classics for a three month takeover by Crafty Chicks, which could be interpreted as a gastropub take on the ubiquitous chicken shop (note traditional Sunday lunches are still being served.)

Crafty, of course, is the King Dick’s owners Chris and Andrea Elliman’s brand which offers the city’s best burgers over at St Martin’s Tea and Coffee. The core poultry offering here is Crafty Fried Chicken marinated in a spices and buttermilk, or barbecue chicken grilled on the robata grill with their own barbecue spice rub (two pieces £5, whole jointed chicken £18). The sides are pure Crafty – skin-on fries,  poutine, chipotle coleslaw, watermelon with lime, mint, peanut and chilli etc.  It looks brilliant for casual sharing.

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kimchiI popped in at lunchtime and had a very quick sandwich of katsu chicken (£5, above) – panko-coated fried breast with tonkatsu sauce, kewpie mayonnaise and slaw. It was full of Japanese umami loveliness but the flavours were a bit unfocussed maybe – lacking something central and distinctive. A side of cucumber kimchi was an inspired touch – deceptively spicy. I hope to get back soon for some barbecue chicken.

No doubt some of the issues facing  restaurants are down to seasonal issues  – the World Cup played its part and the extraordinary extended hot summer is not doing restaurants any favours. But there are also longer term trends both cultural and economic that make the £25 plus per head meal out an ever harder sell.

Fair play to the Ellimans for keeping nimble and trying to keep on top of the market. That said, I hope in the winter months we get a chance to try more of their wonderful steaks, warming soups and elegant deserts.

 

 

 

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