I’ve reviewed the Olive Branch before on here and I suspect many readers will have been there themselves, but I went again for the Leicester Mercury recently and it never hurts to publicise good places again. Here then is the Mercury review which appeared last weekend:

The Olive Branch

Main Street
Clipsham
Rutland LE15 7SH

01780 410355

Cost – Three courses à la carte, around £28

Food served: Mon-Friday 12-2pm, 6.30-9.30pm
Sat 12-2pm, 7-30pm
Sun 12-3pm, 7-9pm

8 out of 10

The Olive Branch (pictured last Autumn!)

The Olive Branch (pictured last Autumn!)

Many people in Leicestershire and Rutland who take their food seriously are likely to have made it out to Clipsham and The Olive Branch. It’s a fair old schlep over from the city to this far corner of Rutland but for a pub so heavily garlanded with the industry’s top accolades, an hour’s drive through glorious English countryside doesn’t feel too much of a hardship.

Over the last 16 years the pub has gone from a boarded-up shell to last year being named pub of the year in the Good Pub Guide. It was recently the Michelin Pub of the Year and for 12 years even held a Michelin Star. It was a break from tradition from the tyre people to give a star a pub with such a relaxed informal style – heaven forbid, they don’t even have tableclothes. It didn’t please everybody, but it was a recognition that good cooking existed outside the temples of gastronomy.

We went over on a Monday night, which in some places of course is chef’s night off. But sometimes that’s the night you need to go, and indeed one of our party was a himself a chef on his night off – and he deserves to eat out when he can. You would hope though that a place of this quality was not about to let it’s standards drop just because it’s a quiet night after the weekend.

The first thing to note is what a beautiful building the pub is now. A terrace, a pergola, a dovecote, lovely stonework and slates – it ticks every country pub box there is. Inside there’s a warm welcome and an atmosphere that is calm, civilised but still distinctly pubby. I loved the little touches like the little chalkboard on your table with your name (assuming you have booked).

Pumpkin seed bread to start with was lovely. Our starters included pea and broad risotto, which our chef – naturally perhaps the most critical among us – enjoyed though he thought maybe it was 30 seconds underdone and lacked much in the way of promised toasted pine nuts. Hot-smoked salmon was a lovely piece of fish, and well matched with carpaccio of red and golden beetroot with a horseradish cream. It seemed to typify the Olive Branch approach, fine food done with style but without the need to over-elaborate or strive for novelty. Ham hock croquettes were tasty, well made and imaginatively paired with sweet peppers and scorched baby gem lettuce.

The mains again reflected that notion of the food, not the techniques or fashion, taking the lead. You could have had a Leicestershire ploughman’s with pork pie and Sparkenhoe’s fine red Leciester, or a prosaic-sounding chicken, leek and mushroom suet pudding. I suspect both would have surpassed expectations, though we all went for more overtly restauranty options. A taste of pork featured succulent pork belly, herby sausage and peppery black pudding, all brought together with super-intense gravy. The dish also featured a marvellous fondant potato that been simmered with cider giving it sweetish edge and a contrasting sauerkraut with apple and pine nuts. A pleasing and well-compiled plateful. Roast salt marsh lamb went down very well with our demanding chef, paired classically with some ratatouille and, more adventurously, very tasty chorizo hash browns. Our third main was a fine piece of cod, though there was some concern over whether a madeira sauce would be too rich for fish. In fact the dish was well-balanced with gnocchi and parsely puree and the sauce did not overpower.

Deserts included a fine mango parfait – though the advertised honeycomb and “white chocolate aero” seemed to have been replaced with some spun sugar and bruléed marshmallow. This was possibly the only example of Monday night syndrome. The dish was fine but the changes should have been explained. A bread and butter pudding made with danish pastry was inspired – rich and sweet. I couldn’t understand my friend’s decision to ask for marmalade ice-cream to be replaced with pistachio but some people are odd like that. The exotic vanilla flavouring of tonka bean crème brulée probably isn’t to everyone’s taste but paired here with rosewater shortbread it created a headily fragrant desert.

Friendly, calm service made for a very relaxed evening eating distinctly superior food. If you live to the East of our region, lucky you. If not, you should definitely consider The Olive Branch when you fancy a drive out to the country for a fine meal in a fine pub.

I think it is now in the public domain that the O Bar on Braunstone Gate, which hosts the  the Smokehouse restaurant, is to be sold off.  Sad news because it was a real bit of quality in an area of town that needed it. Chef Liam Watson has done a fine job in building a properly original venue there and as I understand it the restaurant is trading profitably, but the rebranded O Bar has failed to bring in the punters for its upmarket craft beer offering.

The cuisine and the beer are a natural match and the Orange Tree group know they have something worth preserving with.  I’m told we will see the Smokehouse reappear somewhere with a larger kitchen and more covers, but in a more promising location. Sadly that is not necessarily Leicester. I hope it is still within reach because I’d love to see how they can further develop the concept.

In the meantime, best wishes to the team and do try and get and down there while you can.

The “Big Question” being polled in today’s Leicester Mercury is not about religious assemblies, the possibility of Greece defaulting or court orders over parental custody of children. Bravely shunning the mainstream news agenda they’ve gone with “are there too many gourmet burger restaurants in Leicester?”.

The question is prompted by news that Five Guys could be opening in that empty former Santander building opposite the main entrance to Highcross. A couple of years back Five Guys and Shakeshack opened the same week in London to a hyped rivalry not seen since the Grea Blur/Oasis Standoff. The two US businesses have become stock market stars just a McDonalds star has started to wane.

I’ve never been to Five Guys, and it may be very good. It’s got a fast food approach to its restaurants, but  manages to price itself well in advance of the lively independents also setting up in Leicester – cheeseburger and regular fries is £12.  With Crafty Burger available three evening a week, and the estimable MeatCure about to open on Highcross Street, I’d like to think Leicester public will deem them surplus to requirements and support local businesses.

Right, now my views on Grexit…not really.

North's Afternoon tea

I will add something though – if you’ve really had enough of burgers for the time being, there’s a more genteel offering being launched by North’s Bar and Kitchen on Hinckley Road. On afternoons from Wednesday to Saturday they are now offering full afternoon tea featuring a selection of finger sandwiches, cakes, scones with jam and clotted cream,and a choice of tea or coffee and the option of a glass of champagne. Booking essential.

North’s has also extended its range of bottled craft beers f6orm Two Cocks brewery, for which it is the only stockist in Leicester. New arrivals include Roundhead, a fine traditional, malty  best bitter made form Cascade and First Gold hops, and which won a Great Taste Award last year.

 

Crafty Burger

June 12, 2015

I thought I’d put up my recent review of Crafty burger at St Martin’s in Leicester. It’s been up on the Leicester Mercury site  but to save you wrasslin’ with the pop ups on that site here it is plain wordpress format – as you’ll see, I think it’s a fine addition to Leicester’s scene.

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Crafty Burger

St Martin’s Tea & Coffee
2-6 St Martin’s Walk
St Martin’s Square
Leicester LE1 5DG

0116 251 2879

Open: Thu, Fri and Sat – 6pm-9pm

Cost – Burger, fries and pint of craft beer £14.

8 out of 10

St Martin’s Tea and Coffee has been one of the most lively independent businesses in Leicester city centre since starting life as a cookware shop. Since then it opened a coffee roastery, then combined the two businesses and opened a cafe, and eventually the cafe swallowed up the cookware business. Then in late 2014 it hosted Crafty Burger, a three night a week pop-up restaurant taking advantage of their fairly rudimentary kitchen.

It’s an indication of how businesses need to adapt to prevailing retail trends but also to follow their passion. Founder Andy Hall found himself more and more wanting to develop the coffee importing and roasting business which was starting to supply many of the emerging independent coffee business in the city. Those people needed barrista training and shiny Italian espresso machines too. Running a cafe alongside this wasn’t always easy.

All of which is the explanation for why Crafty Burger is now a permanent feature on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays. It’s an initiative of Chris Elliman, a man with good credentials as former head chef at one of Yorkshire’s top gastropubs, who with partner Andrea picked Leicester as a likely looking place to start anew.

After the success of the pop-up, the couple approached Andy Hall to go into partnership. They could take over the cafe and relaunch Crafty, freeing him to focus on the coffee business. A refurbishment followed with the coffee business relocating upstairs and a new kitchen installed downstairs.

Elliman has revamped the daytime menu at St Martin’s to make it one of the most interesting lunch time offerings in the city – from slow-cooked Cuban-style mojo marinated pork sandwiches (currently off the menu until they can get the electrics sorted to run all night for slow cooking), to an an extensive vegetarian selection such as a beautiful smoky aubergine dish, spiked with harissa and cooled with feta cheese, almonds, pomegrante, yoghurt and mint. It’s a delicate charmer of a dish that shows the chef is not just about big old burgers.

But Crafty is the focus of this review and big old burgers is certainly the focus there. I’ll come straight to the point and say that these are mighty fine examples of the genre. Beef is 28-day dry aged and ground and hand-pressed every day on site and the care in selection and in cooking shows. The pleasure is every bit that of a good steak. There’s a half a dozen choices and over a couple of visits I’ve tried the Farmyard Jam, given a sweetish edge from onion and bacon jam with maple, and the Mexican-themed El Gordo with jalapeno and corn relish, chipotle ketchup and Red Leicester. There wasn’t actually a great deal of heat I this but I didn’t want the glorious flavour of the beef overwhelmed anyway. Also remarkably good was the “Krispy Klucker”, a chicken burger made with tasty thigh meat which was beautifully tender inside a terrifically crunchy coating made, it seems, from rice crispies.

The influence of a skilled chef is evident in the qualities of all the extras too. “Pigcorn Poppers” were a delight – succulent little cubes of pork belly in panko crumb with a great relish made from pineapple, honey and chilli. Try and visit with a decent hunger because it would be a shame to miss these. Chicken wings basted in gochujang, Korean chilli paste, are hot, tasty and bang on-trend. A crunchy root vegetable slaw with and sour cream dressing had evidently had thought and care applied to its composition and preparation.

On a first visit fries were disappointingly soggy but this stemmed from a fryer malfunction, and on a subsequent occasion they were actually a highlight. Crisp, skin-on regular fries come with the burger but you can pimp them in a number of styles, and I can certainly recommend the nacho version with avocado, sour cream and jalapenos and the Spanish fries, with pimenton-spiced pork meatballs and garlic mayo.

There’s also craft beers from Purity, including their floral Lawless lager and the hoppy IPA Longhorn. If you fancy a desert they offer a salted peanut and chocolate gelato made specially for them by neighbours in St Martin Square, Gelato Village. It’s totally gorgeous.

You don’t go to a burger place for delicacy, but that’s not to say it can’t be done with flair, skill and originality and you get all of that with Crafty. It’s a lovely setting in the evening and the front of house is run by Andrea with great warmth. They buy local and it’s a quality-led, gimmick-free offering – just the kind of lively independent that adds character and distinctiveness to a city.

Dining on a diet

June 7, 2015

Over the last few weeks I’ve reviewed three burger restaurants plus an American barbecue venue – all very nice but maybe not great for the waistline.

So it was a pleasure to go to a “Dining on a Diet” last week at courtesy of personal trainer Joe Hanney of U Fit studios. I’d written a feature for the Mercury on Joe’s efforts to encourage his clients to realise they can dine out if they want to, even those who are on a strict weightloss regime. Eating out is of course one of life’s great pleasures and any diet is going to be more sustainable if it enables us to keep doing the things we enjoy.

Eating healthy is partly about making good choices  but it’s also about restaurants making those choices possible and Joe Hanney is working with a group of restaurants to try and get healthy dishes established on their menu. That feature was based on a lunch menu at Enderby’s Cini, and this was a follow up event  at a packed Maiyango in Leicester.

Chef Sav Tassari developed a light six course tasting which was a mere 700 calories. Starting with a simple but fiery plum and fresh ginger broth, we moved on to another oriental-styled dish featuring a sizeable piece of pollock seasoned with sesame seeds sitting on a noodle roll and a miso and wakame broth – these two dishes set the tone for a series of dishes which while they had been largely stripped of much in the way of fat or carbs, were still had plenty to excite the palate.

This was seen most clearly in the star dish of the evening – carpaccio of swordfish with a tremendous salad of apple, beetroot, hazelnuts and capers, dressed with foamy chilli emulsion. This was creative, beautiful and full of flavour.

Swordfish carpaccio

Swordfish carpaccio

Next up was a chicken breast poached, I assume sous vide, and flavoured with lime and black pepper. The delight for me of a chicken breast is a nicely crispy skin which has provided a basting a fat, but that wasn’t the style of the evening. Nevertheless the cooking technique had managed to really imprint the citrus and pepper flavours and with a little sweet potato mash and a black olive dressing there was still plenty to enjoy here. We finished up with a sharp, refreshing granita of grapefruit and coriander and a sugar free (though you wouldn’t have known it) mango mousse with kiwi and a banana dumpling.

I’m not about to drastically change my diet, but all of us could do a reminder that you don’t always need  butter, cream and all the rest to make an enjoyable meal.

* While we are here, one more interesting bit of news for Leicester city centre. The old Allied Irish bank in St Martin’s could  it seems turned into a restaurant and deli by Nottingham’s Daliliah.  Many chissits will have made it over to Dalilah’s fabulous deli and if they can mount something of a similar quality and with a similar vibe that would be a huge boost for the city centre.

It’s asparagus time!

May 15, 2015

asparagus 2

I’ve just spent a great morning out at Cattows Farm near Heather in North West Leicestershire with farmer James Ludlam as he brings in the asparagus.  This quintessential early summer crop has become increasingly popular as people discover the joys of seasonal eating and Cattows Farm is one of the very few places in Leicestershire where you can buy it at the farm door thanks to their splendid farm shop.

 

aspagus 6

This 300 acre mixed farm now has four acres given over to asparagus and for six or seven week from the beginning of May it is a useful, labour intensive but high value crop for them. It also helps bring in the public in advance of the soft fruit PYO season in June. The majority of is either sold direct at the farm or used at their popular café – indeed  tomorrow (Saturday 16th) they are even doing an eight course  tasting menu featuring the likes of asparagus pate, pork and asparagus wellington, asparagus risotto and even coffee with candied asparagus. One or two local greengrocers and restaurants also take it but, said James, they have steered clear of the wholesale market and unrealistic demands of supermarkets.

It was great to see such great quality English food being grown, harvested and sold on site and marketed with flair and integrity. Even the trimmings are used as feed for their herd of Herford/South Devon crosses.

If you want to get you hands on a few bunches, you can find Cattow’s Farm on the Swepstone Road, a mile or so out of Heather, which itself is just to the West of Ibstock. The season traditionally lasts to Midsummer Day but is at its height over the next three weeks. It’s a lovely place for a visit with a great café and well-stocked shop. If you’re after a few recipes  – try visiting the  British Asparagus website.  Me? I’m off to knock up some hollandaise…

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Crafty Burger returns

May 6, 2015

Just a quick heads up about Crafty Burger. As I wrote here last month, chef Chris Ellison and his partner Andrea have joined the business to upgrade the cafe’s daytime offering and run Crafty Burger on a permanent basis from 6-9pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

crafty10

I joined some other bloggers at the launch night and was mightily impressed by the burger. I’ve had quite a few  “better burgers” recently as readers of my Mercury column will know and I’d say for pure meaty taste this shaded it.  I was also impressed by some of the sides, including beautiful little breadcrumbed cubes of pork belly.

I’ll save writing more when I’ve been back for another review visit but it’s definitely good stuff. If you are partial to the patty watch out too for the June launch of Meat Cure on Highcross Street. This will be their second branch and I hope they recreate what was on offer at the first venue in Market Harborough. It’s not easy to prise the masses out of Highcross, but these two should give Byron a run for their money.

Brewdog has arrived

April 16, 2015

I was lucky to get a preview of the new Brewdog bar on Friar Lane, Leicester last night – their  27th bar, opening just after the Barcelona branch. What’s good enough for Lionel Messi is clearly good enough for Esteban Cambiasso.

brewdog 2

 

I was really impressed. The bar is nice enough, but the main thing is great beer and great staff who were totally convincing in their interest in the product and their passion to sell it. They have 20 beers on draft, some from their own brewery near Aberdeen and others from a range of small and microbreweries, including those where Brewdog has made investments themselves.

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We tried a fair few, starting with Brewdog’s very hoppy pale ale Vagabond which being gluten free is going to please a lot of people. The Boon Oude Kriek was a sensational sour cherry beer, much less sweet and more complex than most bottled versions I’ve had.  The 5 A.M. Red Ale was very drinkable and only the Zeitgeist black lager  – combining treacly stout flavours with the freshness of a lager – wasn’t really to my taste.

You will see from the graphic above that the beers are strong and expensive. I know there are people out there who will bemoan the craft beer scene as a fad to fleece the foolish and that you can get good beer much more cheaply at a ‘Spoons. I won’t rehearse all the arguments but I would say you’re getting reliably good product here and all those who want to drink different beer in a different setting are welcome to. I’d certainly be content to drink two pints of Punk IPA than three pints of much of what is sold in Leicester.

The whole “we’re so anarchic” schtick of Brewdog can sometimes get a bit wearisome but there is no denying they make compelling beer.  What’s more, having criticised Bill’s for the practice of using tips to make up their staff’s hourly rate, I say well done to Brewdog for paying the  Living Wage.

Finally  Co-founder James Watt – or his press person at least  – knows how to get on the right side of us; “Leicester is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and we’re thrilled to be finally setting up a BrewDog home there,” goes the press release.

“We want this bar to serve as an inspiration to microbrewers, home brewers and craft beer drinkers in the region. The passion for great craft beer has taken firm roots in the symbolic heart of England and continues to thrive.”

34 windsorI was back at 34 Windsor St recently to review the work of new chef Arran Shaw. I’d recently interviewed Arran for Great Food Club and he struck me as passionate, serious -minded chef committed to offering adventurous and innovative food which remained a strong focus on customer satisfaction.

Arran Shaw

Arran Shaw

For my starter a slow-cooked hen’s egg sat on a crunchy granola-type base, along with sweet sautéd wild mushrooms and a pillow of baked potato foam with “truffle aroma”. Enough there to go wrong but it was a delightful balance of flavours and textures and of cooking techniques. That said I wasn’t convinced about the texture of baked potato foam – it had the flavour but was a little on the gloopy side. Another starter of home cured salmon was a revelation – without a strong smoke or over-salting the flavour of the fish sang out merrily. Beer mustard and red and gold beetroot also delivered strongly but aside from the fish the main point of interest was a slice of remarkably complex Russian black bread. Apparently it has taken several years to perfect this, time well spent because the flavours came rushing out of it.

Lamb with rhubarb was another successful combination, giving an intriguing sharp contrast to the super-sweet lamb rump. The slight bitter notes from the cooked slivers of cucumber added a further layer of complexity. The traditional rosemary flavour was introduced through herby mash. I was further pleased the lamb had not been trimmed within an inch of its life – the fat helped deliver flavour and succulence.

Welsh sea bass fillets were perfect, with crunchy little potato rosti and a mild, smooth and creamy garlic and plum tomato sauce.

Desserts were complex, multi-layered collections but everything felt right. Maple roasted pineapple was inspired and the rich, crumbly coconut sponge with it was a great match. I didn’t get a great deal out the banana and malt ice-cream but the dish worked well and was a great match with the exotic fruit flavours of a glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes. A tasting of chocolate featured a rich nutty, brownie, dark and white chocolate ganaches, a coffee and cardamom ice-cream and chocolate soil – with a curve-ball delivered by a splash of tarragon oil. It all might sound over the top but was a delicate and well-balanced affair.

Dinner was served with good humour by very well-briefed and efficient staff in a smart environment, with even the crockery gaining appreciative comments from my artist guest. With rewarding food like this, 34 Windsor should definitely be on the map for serious diners from all over the county, as well as those poor souls over on the wrong side of the A5.

Welcome developments in St Martin’s Square, Leicester. This pleasant area has struggled somewhat as the Shires grew into Highcross but remains an important element in the city centre’s mix.

Firstly, St Martin’s Tea and Coffee is further upping both its coffee business and food offering.  Last year it hosted a successful  pop up restaurant run by Chris Elliman aka Crafty Burger, and now Chris and his partner Andrea have gone into partnership with Andy and Ellie Hall of St Martin’s to take the business further.

As a result the coffee roastery, which does a thriving retail and wholesale business,  moves upstairs where there will be dedicated space to run coffee courses and barista training. Space is freed up downstairs for a kitchen refurb which will enable Chris Elliman to revive Crafty Burgers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings with its 28 dry aged beef burgers and craft beers from brewers Purity.

craftyBut also this will prompt a step change in the food available at St Martin’s regular daytime café, moving beyond their quality bought products. Chris will now be slow cooking big joints of meat for the likes of mojo marinated pork shoulder for Cuban sandwiches and homemade sausage rolls, salads and relishes such as cucumber ketchup. Chris says he will “champion the best of Leicestershire produce” and can’t wait to get stuck in. Ellie Hall said “We want to say to Leicester ‘Sure you can go to Highcross and have a standardised meal – or you could come to us, eat something a little bit different and have a great coffee. And guess what  – it’ll cost you less’.”

You have to admire a manifesto like that. The building  closes for refurb from 13-17 April with the new café menu running from 18th  April and Crafty Burger reappearing from 1 May.

The other intriguing news is the closure of Pizza Express, which will be replaced by the American barbecue restaurant Grillstock.  With two other branches nearby the pizza place won’t really be missed and Grillstock – which has two branches in the South West and one in London seems to be a quality offering.

The Bristol-based business made its name hosting barbecue and music festivals.  Whether their current expansion is “organic” or bankrolled by voracious business types I don’t know but it will be interesting to see whether the venue can match both the great flavours and the independent flair of Leicester’s excellent  Smokehouse. The core menu is along similar lines – pulled pork, braised brisket, ribs, chicken, slaw and pickles etc – though no sign of the more adventurous and flexible menu that Liam Watson is able to implement at the Smokehouse.

No date yet for an opening on this – “coming soon” according to the website.

 

 

 

 

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