Donald Watson’s Vegan Bar

November 11, 2022

Given all that’s going on, what a delight to welcome the opening of a really lovely new bar in the centre of Leicester.

Donald Watson’s Vegan Bar is part of the Kayal and Herb group and is actually located within the expanded premises of Herb on Granby Street, though it has its own entrance. First that name – Donald Watson was the founder of modern veganism, indeed he invented the word, and he lived and worked in Leicester for many years working as a joinery teacher. And true to his legacy, all the drinks in the bar are vegan – beers, wines, cocktails and spirits.

It’s taken time to ensure all this, but it does mean that there’s nothing remotely worthy or cranky on show here. Many brands from the interesting end of mainstream brands are present and the bar has tremendous character. The eclectic, magpie approach of Kayal founder Jaimon Thomas is again here present with signature touches such as the Royal Enfield motorbike behind the bar, funky car seats, steampunk tables and statement artworks such as a Platinum Jubilee portrait of the late Queen.

Bar manager Ross describes it as a cocktail bar for grown ups, and he relishes the idea of bring a bit of theatre to the serving of his cocktails. Obviously there’s some synergy with the adjoining – mainly vegan – Herb, but this is very much its own thing and ideal for a cocktail, aperitif or nightcap when having a night out in the city. Or spend the whole evening there of course – vegan bar snacks from the Herb kitchen available. Ross has plans for cocktail making classes, wine tasting, corporate events and so on, making the most of the flexible offer they have with restaurant.

A big welcome them to a fun, sophisticated and highly distinctive new bar.

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I’m breaking my silence here for a quick post celebrating a low-key Leicester business that probably won’t get covered elsewhere.

Evington’s wine merchants on Evington Road is, quite bizarrely but wonderfully, approaching its centenary in 2026. And it’s been run by the same family all that time. It looked maybe as if the run was coming to end as the learned, genial and committed Simon March approaches retirement. But now the company is continuing with Simon’s son Olly coming into the business.

Evingtons

Olly’s first task has been to overhaul the website and that has now relaunched today. It’s nice and easy to search through the shop’s stellar collection of fine wines, including a great selection of ports and champagne. There are images and tasting notes of all wines. In the challenging retail environment of Evington Road (it’s on the corner of Mere Rd), the shop has fairly negligible passing trade. It survives through a dedicated customer base, cultivated through tasting events in the shop and around the county and an online trade attracted by its expertly curated selection of fine and rare wines. If you’re looking for a 1998 Chateau Musar (or the 2000, 2009 or 2010), or the ambrosial 1996 Quinta do Vesuvio port from Symingtons, this is the place.

How much longer the physical shop will remain I’m not sure. It’s definitely worth going now for a visit and a chat with Simon or Olly. It’s a lovely characterful shop and ideal if you are looking for special purchases ahead of Christmas. Also check out www.evingtons-wines.co.uk

When in need of spiritual sustenance my favoured strategy is a drive out from Leicester to Bloody Oaks Quarry in Rutland. This tiny nature reserve is a rare local example of a limestone grassland, making it a haven for some rare and beautiful butterflies and I love it. Here is a gratuitous picture for fellow fritillery fans from a recent visit:

But there are other kinds of sustenance and fortunately Rutland, with its plethora of dining pubs is good at providing that too. On visiting Bloody Oaks last week, I chose to go a further 5 minutes up the A1 to the village of Greetham and to The Wheatsheaf. It’s four years since I reviewed it on this blog and on behalf of Great Food Club, and I’m pleased to say nothing much has changed – from the little assemblage of ducks residing in the car park to the informal welcome and the outstanding cooking from Carol Craddock.

Carol has great experience and a revered standing in the industry from time spent in the Big City. She’s not alone in finding that at some stage in life it’s rewarding to use your skills in a more relaxed environment where you can control the parameters and do what you want without excessive stress. For the people of Rutland that means classic cookery at an accessible price, and where every detail from the sherry vinegar dip and the quite wonderful piquillo pepper and goats cheese butter with the bread, shouts quality.

I picked the Lunch for Less menu and started with Spanish rillettes, a nice twist on a classic with smoked paprika spiking up the rough-cut pork belly and collar meats. Lightly soused vegetables were beautifully done too. Main course was an enormous confit duck leg on a crisp rosti with fresh greens and light-as-air quennelle of whipped horseradish cream. Good technique and deep flavours everywhere.

Not only did I demolish these substantial dishes, but given how good they were and the fact that I’m unlikely to get out there again for a while, I went all in for the desert. Again faultless, a spot-on pannacotta, made with buttermilk adding just a touch of acidity and served with a lightly grilled peach and a shortbread biscuit.

At £23.50 it’s considerably less than you would likely pay for three courses at, to pick at random, TGI Fridays in Highcross. Insane. If I’d gone a la carte there’s still plenty of value in dishes such as grilled spiced quail with pomegranate dressing or roast fillet of chorizo crusted cod, arrocina beans, piquillo peppers, artichoke and spinach.

It’s a fair old trek from Leicester I know, but if you’re out in the East or you just find yourself on the A1 and it’s time for lunch, you really should give it a go.

Other than Covid, of course, I’m at a loss as to quite why it’s taken me so long to properly discover Chloe Gourmet. I was aware of Assia’s (aka Chloe) online patisserie business but it’s taken a couple of years to make a visit to her lovely Cank Street cafe. It’s now going to be a regular treat.

Frenchwoman Assia says she has tried to recreate a slice of Paris and sure enough it definitely has that feel with it’s stylish dark décor and hugely tempting array of patisserie and viennoiserie displayed to great effect.

After a simple coffee and macaron last week I was back today for lunch with a friend. Just look at the care and style put into this club sandwich:

And this croque monsieur was simply gorgeous – huge amounts of softly grilled Emmental and mozzarella with turkey ham made for the kind pillowy cheese toastie you just won’t find in an English cafe.

It’s impossible to resist the cakes and we picked an elegant financier stuffed with a raspberry compote and an unctuous pistachio and apricot tart. Lovely pastry, beautifully glazed fruit – yum. I’m saving my absolute favourite pastry – the Paris-Brest – for my next visit but I have very hopes.

The fact that this slice of France replaced the venerable Crusty’s at 10-12 Cank Street says a lot about how Leicester continues to change. Cherish it.

Wild and Furrow Oat Drink

February 10, 2022

God bless the vegans and all that, but not really being of that ilk I’ve been a bit wary of the idea of milk-type stuff made from nuts, grains and so on. But at a visit to the opening event of Pratik Master’s Not Just a Corner Shop 2 in Swithland I met with Miles from Wild and Furrow oat drink and I was a convert at first taste.

Miles and his brother Angus are from an arable farming family, growing crops at Marston Trussell near Market Harborough. He has also worked in the coffee industry and saw the potential for new alternatives to milk, with oats being the most viable. They have nothing against the dairy industry, they are just motivated by the market opportunity for a great product.

The drink is made with their own oats and those from other local selected farms and is basically oats and water mixed and heated, then finessed with a little cold-pressed rapeseed oil and sea-salt. The taste is rich, oaty and creamy – think of the cream around your porridge once it’s had a chance to steep. It is being used in coffee in cafes around the county and can be bought – in returnable glass bottles – in a rising number of delis and fine food stores in the region.

I’m a bit sceptical that it will improve my single origin yirgacheffe of a morning – I’ll give it a go at some point – but I do love it simply as a nice drink, and looking forward to using it on porridge and breakfast cereals. For further details of the business, their philosophy and where you can get the product visit the Wild and Furrow website.

[Some of you might have seen a piece I wrote for Crafty St Martins Instagram account, the first of a series celebrating other fine independents in the city. This is a longer version of that article.]

Not too long ago pizza for many in Leicester meant a strange American bread thing with heavily processed cheese and salami or, shudder, pineapple. That and a visit to a salad bar where you would wring whatever value you could out of the occasion by carefully constructing a tower of wet lettuce, grated carrot and coleslaw.

Thankfully, we do have more options now. A key moment in Leicestershire was the arrival of Peter Pizzeria in Loughborough. Launched by a bunch of Italian slow-food enthusiasts, Peter evangelised their Neapolitan sourdough style, offered informal good times and high quality food sourced locally or from Italy, something they were able to reproduce when opening at Welford Place in Leicester.

Their success has helped develop a customer base for a better quality product and now, as the Covid clouds are at last starting to clear, we’ve suddenly got at least three interesting pizza openings. My first visit was to Martin Brothers new “Micropizzeria” in the suburb of Clarendon Park.

Brothers Josh and Aaron, along with Josh’s partner Vanessa, have been building a following at events and pop-ups since 2018, most recently with a residency at city centre bar The Two Tailed Lion. Now they have converted a former antique shop on Clarendon Park Rd. Can they reproduce the magic? Oh yes.

The menu is admirably straightforward – a couple of simple starters including a selection of anti-pasti and then around a dozen pizzas that can be customised with extra cheese and vegetables. Their pizza dough is fermented for 48 hours and the style, learnt during a study trip to Italy, is Neapolitan – thin with an airy crust, cooked super-quickly with a hint of char.

I’d previously been impressed by their puntastic “Stannis Burrateon”, with extraordinarily sweet yellow tomatoes and rich and creamy burrata – a little bomb of soft and creamy cheese that quivers inside a mozzarella casing. This time I had Big Frank, with plenty of fior-di-latte mozarella and strips of crispy pancetta and smoked chicken The key note here is quality and balance – everything in fact most High St pizzas are not. The smoke on the meats is delicate but present and there is enough to complement but not dominate the wonderful cheese and pizza base. The wafer thin slices of mild garlic are a delight and there is copious parmesan, fresh basil and a hint of home-made rosemary oil. It all combined so well I’m sure after one particularly pleasing forkful I let out an audible sigh of pleasure.

The brothers’ other key passion is beer and it is also given free rein here. There’s ten judiciously chosen craft beers at any one time – many of them you might struggle to find in a specialist bar. How many pizza restaurants do you know that offer a 16.3 per cent Imperial stout from Denmark? This being a lunchtime visit I picked a 5 per cent pale ale made with aromatic sabro hops from Bristol’s Arbor Ales – it was fruity, hoppy and gorgeous. Coffee was a rich and chocolately blend from El Salvador and while they do offer a homemade tiramisu for desert, I just went with a tasty pistachio cannoli.

This is a small, convivial venue and to keep the neighbourhood feel going, most of the tables will be for walk-ins, though bookings can be made for groups of four. It’s a compelling offer and its hard to imagine this won’t very quickly be taken to the heart of Clarendon Park locals.

Spice Bazaar

January 17, 2022

I’ve heard that many plaudits from the local community for Spice Bazaar at 326 Welford Road, that eventually I had to visit. And I’m glad I did because it is a fine representative of the threatened institution that is the British Indian Restaurant.

Obviously in Leicester we are blessed with a very wide range of “Indian” restaurants, from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, to Pakistani, Gujarati, Punjabi and Nepalese-inspired. But for many of us there will remain a special place in our hearts for the cuisine largely brought in by immigrants from Sylhet in Bangladesh and adapted and refined to British tastes over the last 60 years. Discussions about “authenticity” have limited relevance here – the food of the British Indian Restaurant has wandered down its own evolutionary path and we enjoy it.

When I was reviewing for newspapers I tended to avoid these places, partly because everyone tends to have their favourite that they are devoted to and it felt there was little a reviewer can do to alter opinions. But of course, food can be done badly or well and Spice Bazaar does it splendidly. We started with poppadums and seven different pickles and chutneys – including a sweet coconut relish flavoured with rosewater and a fearsome chilli and garlic one. Then straight to mains – Chicken Dhansak was excellent, with good quality meat and scoring high with the two key elements of a good dhansak of this type, a velvety texture from lentils and a sweet-sour tang from pineapple juice and chunks.

I had Genghis Said, not a familiar name from British Indian Restaurant menus, but combining familiar elements of chicken tikka, moist and spicy, with lamb keema enveloped in a rich and satisfying sauce. Lemon rice was deliciously sharp with, I think, preserved lemons and herbs, matching nicely with our sweet, honey-drenched peshawari naan.

Front of house is run with charm and patience by Abdul Giash, while the kitchen is run by his Dad, who is a bit of a Leicester curry institution, going right back to the days of the old Koh-i-Noor on Conduit Street next to the station. Abdul explained to us how he still roasts and grinds his own masalas.

It is getting harder to recruit both wait staff and chefs with this kind of dedication, plus there is an increasing sense that young people don’t want to sit around in restaurants for an evening, preferring to graze on the go. In a few years there might only be a few “dark kitchens” on industrial estates sending out food on bikes. But for now be grateful for small, intimate and friendly venues like this. Not surprisingly it is popular with locals in its Clarendon Park and Knighton hinterlands, and judging by the pictures on the wall, fans include the Leicester Tigers. Booking is likely required at weekends, but do consider it when next you feel the need.

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

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