Cafe Delhi

April 24, 2018

delhi chaat

Samosa Chaat

Another month, another leading Leicester Indian restaurant launches a brand-extension vegetarian branch.

After the launch of Kayal’s stunning Herb, the well-established, high-performing Memsaab in Highcross has launched Cafe Delhi in the highly competitive environment of Melton Road. Memsaab is themed around ladies of the Raj, and the new restaurant also has a thoroughly worked-through theme, in this case the street food scene of Delhi.

There’s been no shortage  of vegetarian food in the area, from Bobby’s  – which had legendary status even when I rocked up in Leicester in 1983 – to numerous sweet marts doing a fine line in bhajis, dhokla, samosas and other sweet and savoury snacks. Cafe Delhi though is a lot smarter than most though. It’s got a handsome blue (teal? turquoise?) and gold colour scheme and plenty of fun retro prints with an open kitchen behind a big window at the far end.

The menu is broad and more, erm, pragmatic than the relatively purist Herb. So here there are plenty of “soya” dishes and contemporary streetfood favourites such as Nepali momo, Manchurian dumplings and even Chip Butty inspired by , well, let’s say Yorkshire. I’m assuming most of it either is or could be made vegan if you leave out the yoghurt, but you’ll obviously need to check.

We had a quick lunch today and the food was terrific. Light and  fluffy idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes) came with an amazing sambhar – richer and sweeter than most – and coconut chutney. Samosa chat is probably the dish I dream about most away from Leicester and this was a hugely enjoyable one. The balance of soft pastry, nicely spiced chick pea curry, crispy vermicelli, cooling yoghurt and sweet tangy tamrind is heavenly. A tandoori roti was one of the best breads I’ve encountered for a long-time – beautifully soft and flaky. The masala chai, coming in a beautifully decorated tea pot,  was a bit too reserved for me – I like it pungent and fragrant.

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Service on weekday lunchtime was a bit too laid back for our liking – our dishes came five minutes apart and staff seemed a bit preoccupied – but I’m definitely going back.  Chaats and snacks are around £3 to £5, with a range of curries and veggie tandoori kebabs at £5/6.  Especially appealing seems the thali at £10.95, served up on crescent-shaped copper thalis which fit snugly around your plate.

Cafe Delhi
47 Melton Rd
Leicester LE4 6PN
0116 266 5500

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The Head of Steam

April 5, 2018

Last night I was at a pre-launch evening for the Head of Steam, a big new pub on Market Street that opens tonight.  Run by Hartlepool brewers Cameron’s, it’s an intriguing initiative that shows how the more enterprising of the pub companies are responding to the changing market.

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There’s now 18 pubs around the country branded as Head of Steam, all of them marked by a really good range of draught real ales, cutting edge craft beers in keg, and some exotic Belgian and European specials too.  Leicester is no exception, with the current draught selection including – obviously  – a couple of Cameron’s own ales including their flagship ruby bitter Strongarm, plus local brews from Framework, Charnwood and Langton. Craft beers include the extraordinary hazy, full of tropical fruit pale DDH Engima Ekuanot from cult brewers Cloudwater, who also supply a Baltic porter, plus  various lambics, saisons, IPAs and wheatbeers.  Gratifyingly there are screens displaying information about the beers available and beer matching suggestions on the food menu  – there is an effort to actually sell the beer here, not just have it as window dressing.

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So far, so micropub. But this a big old barn of a place spread over two floors and which is a mile away from those cosy ale and conversation places that have made the running in the industry recently. There’s music, fruit machines and a few familiar lagers here too. There’s also a big cocktail and hoptail menu which were going down well last night but I don’t really hold with them so I stuck to the beers.

food1There’s plenty of restaurant space and a big food menu – burgers, pizzas, multicultural tapas and a few specials.  On this evidence it may not be worth a special trip but it’s perfectly competent pub food to soak up the beer. My chicken Milanese was crisp where it needed to be crisp and tender where it needed to be tender and harissa spiced salmon was tasty enough, though no great subtleties of flavour.

It’s hard to judge service on a trial night  – aspects of it were quite chaotic but the staff were by and large lovely and seemed well-chosen. They are going to have to sort out service routines quickly but the ambience is good. Given the somewhat grim, anodyne venue the Head of Steam replaces, this is a huge improvement. It’s great to have a big commercial venue with the clout to get some otherwise hard-to get beers and to support small-scale locals – creating more of a market should encourage them to invest and improve.

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Herb
96 Granby Street
Leicester LE1 1DJ
0116 233 2715

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Herb has been a long time coming, but now that it is here Leicestershire should celebrate the arrival of a compellingly beautiful restaurant offering first-rate food from Kerala.

The food happens to be vegetarian, indeed 95 per cent of menu is or can be made vegan, and many dishes – clearly marked – are gluten free and nut free. But omnivores should not be put off – it’s simply great food. End of.

The restaurant is part of the Kayal family – which has four other restaurants including the first one which is also on Granby St around 50 yards away. One of the Kayal chefs, dosa master Ramdas Krishna, had long been pushing Kayal founder Jaimon Thomas to open a vegetarian restaurant that could feature Keralan herbal cuisine. Eventually, with the recent big rise in those moving towards a meat-free diet, the time was right for a place that provides a properly smart setting to showcase such food.

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The property chosen was a former amusement arcade, which has now been transformed into a stunning space which glitters with deep green and copper tones. There’s fishermens’ lamps and copper kettles on the ceiling and other features such as a real-life waterfall and clay-tile artworks, including a jaw-dropping representation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The design spec really has been seen through in great detail.

Some of the food will be familiar from Kayal’s menu but there’s obviously a much wider diversity of vegetarian dishes. Over the course of two visits during the first week I had some really excellent dishes.

 

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The Herb platter featured aubergine, courgette, asparagus, baby sweetcorn, mushroom and tomatoes all marinated in herbs and lightly grilled to maintain a little crunch and maximum flavour. There were also some chick fritters, lightly crisp out on the side, creamy on the inside. Served with herb and coconut chutnies this was a magnificent shared starter for two. Other starters of Sev puri and aloo papadi chaat both combined the tang and sweetness of yoghurt and tamarind with the pleasing texture contrast of crisp pastry. Uzhunnu Vada – doughnuts made from lentil flour with accompanying chutnies  – are substantial enough but remain light and fluffy. Portions are quite sizeable but this was food we just wanted wolf down.

For main dishes you can pick from a wide range of some 20 dosas or uttapams and a similar variety of main course curries, palyas, thorans, biriyanis and more. Some will sound relatively straightforward for the newcomer – vegetable korma, chana masala – but there is much more to tempt the adventurous, such as maybe green papaya stew or pavakka pachadi, bitter gourd with coconut and yoghurt.

I had a beautifully crisp sundhari dosa, where the traditional potato filling was augmented with sweet beetroot and brushed with a red onion chutney. It came with more of those vibrant chutnies and a superb sambhar (the traditional lentil and vegetable stew). Baby aubergine masala was the kind of dish to show a sceptical meat eater to demonstrate that you’re really not missing out. Tender as you like aubergine with tomatoes, paneer, omion and spices in thick sauce that bears the signature flavours of dishes over the road at Kayal. We enjoyed that with a lively, vibrant green herby rice.

Potichoru bijo birinayi was steamed inside banana leaves rather the pastry case as in dumpukht style and was a light, fragrant mix and vegetable and paneer.

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All of these dishes had the appeal of freshly cooked food made with care. There is that underlying Keralan note of mustard seed and curry leaf tempering and plenty of coconut, but there is also tremendous variety of tastes from herbs and from vegetables which are allowed to express their own flavours.

Deserts are worth considering but will probably split the crowd. Kulfis – for once served at an appropriate temperature are crowd pleasers, though dishes such as ada prahaman – rice flakes in a sweet rich dressing of jaggery, cardamon, chashews and ghee – are best left to those with a really sweet tooth (i.e. me).

Herb is fully licensed and the wine list is definitely worth exploring – a glass of the house pinot grigio was lovely and fruity for what can be a pretty bland wine.

Price-wise, you can eat like a king for around £15 to £20, and there is a range of lunchtime dishes at around £4. All in all, great food – too good to leave to the vegetarians – a great platform for it too.

Lilu

March 23, 2018

I mentioned recently my involvement with the Channel 5 programme Restaurant Rescue which put Leicester restaurant Lilu under the microscope. I didn’t write a review of that visit late year given the somewhat artificial nature of the visit and the fact that maybe it would change once Alex Polizzi and Olver Peyton had given their verdict.

Now though I thought time was right to go back under my own steam and see what has changed. The short answer, is very little. Polizzi and Peyton advised owner Pratik Master to drop his prices and the set price and introduce an a la carte menu. But he and his chef JP are not interested in competing with traditional curry houses. The vision is a traditional fine dining approach but which highlights Indian food. So there’s no long list of curries  but a limited menu – five or six choices of starter and mains – of meticulously plated dishes using fine ingredients.

The pricing does set it apart from more mainstream restaurants – two courses for £35 is a big ask for people who might look at £20 as a more typical spend in an “Indian restaurant”. Oliver Peyton’s argument was that in a set price menu everyone would pick the big ticket items – rack of lamb, soft shell crabs – and he would never make money. Pratik feels that is what set them apart and feels the set price approach gives clarity.

So, what do you get for your money? Complimentary poppadoms may not be that unusual but here there are six distinctive and vibrant housemade chutnies and sauces – the pineapple was especially tangy. And then while we waiting for starters there were two more amuse bouches. A little pani puri – beautifully presented – was a nice little little flavour bomb of herbs and spices and a spiced tomato soup had something of the feel of a hot Bloody Mary. Absolutely delicious.

My starter was a salmon fillet, rather too politely spiced I felt, but that allowed plenty of salmon flavour through. It came on an aloo tikki-style disc (a spiced potato cutlet) with a couple of other cheffy touches of edible flowers and tamarind-infused sauce. It was very good – I don’t want to labour the point but this was not usual curry house fare. Gill’s starter was Mumbai chaat – a street food dish of crispy pastry shells with filling of spiced and herbed potatoes along with crunchy sev – little pieces of chickpea noodles – along with tangy tamarind sauce and pomegranate-spiked yoghurt. There’s a solid tradition of this snack food being elevated to grander surroundings and here your invited to create your own combination at table. It felt fun and it tasted lovely.

We avoided the lamb and the crab – we’d tried them on the Channel 5 visit and had very positive memories. This time I went for the “game of the day” choice which was duck. This was a simply presented but perfectly cooked breast, rubbed with with well-judged spice mix and coming with dabs of fruity yoghurt and bramble gel and a pot of thick, rich chocolate-infused sauce. There was a tower of spicy potatoes and tomatoes t and while each element was fine it maybe needed a more fluid sauce to bring it all together.

Gill’s dumpukht biriyani-based thali was acknowledged as a dish in development but it was a complete stunner. The pastry-encased rice centrepiece, vented with an artfully-folded poppadom was fragrant with rosewater and tender pieces of lamb. Around it sat half a dozen bowls – a great lamb chop curry, a beautifully balanced dhal, okra, yoghurt, tandoori-spiced paneer and crunchy kachumber salad. Oh yes and a little mango lassi too. This was a great showcase for the kitchen’s skill and indeed Indian cuisine in general.

A shared desert was another treat – delicatelyfloral rose kulfi was paired with a quenelle of smooth, dark chocolate ganache on a crunchy chocolate base. A delicate combination well worth keeping space for.

With the little amuses, the blingy wine list, and the refined presentation, all the grammar of contemporary fine dining is here. But this is not a stuffy environment, service is skilled and helpful but the ethos is very clearly focused on customer satisfaction. Pratik himself is a down-to-Earth presence with an infectious enthusiasm for his food.

Lilu does a very capable job of offering a sophisticated version of a cuisine this country sometimes thinks of as just comfort food. It’s not going to be for everyone, not least because of the price, but it’s run with love and is a welcome option for those looking to explore beyond curry house standards.

* Follow their website or Instagram feed  for some excellent frontline reports of how they are developing dishes – more inspiring than my somewhat pitiful efforts above.

 

 

 

 

 

With so many people now spending most of their day in reach of at least three social media channels, old fashioned blogs like this aren’t great for breaking news. But in case you missed it, there’s been a buzz this week over the return of the much-missed Smokehouse after a gap of nearly four-years.

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To begin with at least, this is just in the format of a pop-up kitchen taking over venues  and catering for events and festivals. Their first announcement of a kitchen takeover at Leicester’s Rutland and Derby Arms on 11th April led to an almost instant sell-out and a quickly-added second night on 10th April is selling fast too.  They are currently looking for more partners who might want to host a pop-up or takeover.

 

Chef Liam Watson, who developed the Smokehouse when it was based within the O Bar on Braunstone Gate, says he couldn’t be more delighted to find out there is still a hunger in Leicester for his brand of gutsy, original, flavoursome food based on his own extensive research and passion for smoking.

To book and keep in the loop for further Smokehouse events, visit their  website, facebook page site or follow on twitter @popupsmokehouse

 

 

Dutch Courage

March 5, 2018

Yeah I know this is supposed to be a Leicestershire and Rutland blog but the way I see it you guys all love your food and drink and can handle a recommendation wherever it is in the world.

I’ve just got back from a work trip to the Netherlands the Dutch tourist board, which was then prolonged for two days courtesy of The Beast from the East and an absence of flights from Schiphol. But the ill wind out of Siberia blew me some luck in the shape of  36 hours in the very lovely town of Haarlem. It’s just 20 minutes west of the airport but it a delightful town well worth a visit if you fancy something a bit more down to Earth than Amsterdam.

There’s an extraordinary market square and cathedral, beautiful canals and first-rate cultural attractions, not least the Frans Hals museum which has the world’s largest collection of this Golden Age painter and Teylers – the Netherlands oldest museum with a collection paying homage to the 18th century Enlightenment. But for our purposes here I’ll focus on the wonderful Jopen brewery.

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Housed in a cavernous  former Church this marvellous brewpub has five gleaming 60 hectolitre tanks behind the bar which furnish forth some twenty of their own beers. These are displayed on huge screens with a scrolling focus on each one giving useful tasting notes and information  – a really big improvement over squinting at a pump clip in the hope of seeing something to help your choice. In Leicester terms I suppose you could think the West End Brewery fused with Brewdog, turned up to 11 on the dial and then evicting Richard III and setting up in the Cathedral.

The Dutch and Brits both had our colonial adventures in the East and both developed the IPA style in order to send beer that would last the long sea journey (the Dutch called theirs ‘duraebel scheepsbier” – try saying it out loud). The IPAs I tried were outstanding. Mooie Nel (the Dutch name for the North Sea) had plenty of fruit and bitterness (6.5per cent) but my favourite was Heavy Cross, a triple IPA with Citra, Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau hops which remained extraordinary fresh and well balanced even at 10 per cent (you can buy 125cl glasses – so think of it as a small glass of a lowish alcohol wine). The Rye IPA St Jacobus also impressed.

There’s stouts and other beer styles too, as well as wines and gin of course, and it attracts a bustling, mixed crowd. You can book tasting sessions (I teamed up with some friendly American expats for mine) and brewery tours, and plenty of people come here for the food too. All in all a great place to which to allocate a day of your visit.   To research your trip, you could try starting here: Visit Holland

 

 

 

 

Conventional Beers

February 15, 2018

I remember a typically droll Daily Mash piece about the local pub that added two draught ales and declared it was having “a festival”. Maybe it was fear of such ridicule that that made the LCB Depot and Gray’s call their event this weekend the Leicester Beer Convention.

20180215_183049In fact though they’ve brought together ten draught beers, four ciders and a range of bottled beers, all made in our fair county. They’ve set it up to coincide with a big weekend of Leicester Comedy Festival happenings.

Ok it’s not the most cosy of venues to spend the evening but this is a great way to help promote local brewers and if you are around and about at the festival Friday or Saturday evening you should pop in and try something. I managed three cheeky halves this evening, including two excellent IPAs,  Nook from Anstey Brewery and Spark from Tollgate. Both of these came in at around 5 per cent and while I like a hop monster as much as the next beardy, these were both more traditional in style  –  clean, fruity and just a little sweet. Even better was the Stout from the West End Brewery, a well-balanced dark beer with hints of coffee and toffee but very gluggable.

 

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Gray’s Mexican dog with pulled pork and fixins.

In-house café Gray’s is putting on decent quality comfort food too – burgers, dogs, loaded fries etc. It opens from 5pm on Friday 16th and from 12pm on Saturday.

If you can’t get along, don’t forget the following Friday – 23 February – is the return of Canteen, the massively successful streetfood night at the Depot. This month marks its first anniversary and traders will include European Street Food Award Winners Baked in Brick and their wonderful chicken tikka, Chinese snacks from Dim Sum Su, a spicy take on fish and chips from The English Indian, gluten and dairyfree panAsian food from Canoodle and grilled meats from Street Souvlaki.

Canteen runs from 5pm and watch out for a Lion dance and other special events. to mark the Chinese new year.

Oh – and yes I realise they couldn’t call it Leicester Beer Festival because there’s already one of those and it’s coming soon…

  • One more thing.  Sadly the vast bulk of my contribution to last night’s Restaurant Rescue ended up on the cutting room floor. The programme makers clearly decided the story they wanted to tell here was about the personality and motivation of Pratik Master rather than the food itself. It was a fairly interesting insight into the restaurant world, though I think Russell Norman’s series “The Restaurant Man” did it all rather better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ok this is no sort of advance notice, but nobody watches TV at the time of broadcast anymore do they?

If you do though, you might like to watch Peyton and Polizzi’s Restaurant Rescue tonight at 9pm on Channel 5. Assuming  we made the final cut you can see me, my girlfriend Gill and fellow Leicester foodblogger Emily join Oliver Peyton at Indian fine dining venue Lilu on Highcross St.

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Oliver Peyton. Not me.

The concept of the programme is to help struggling independent restaurants get back on track. The initial stage sees Oliver (restaurateur and judge from the Great British Menu) turn up with a couple of local food people to do an initial assessment and we went last November. Theoretically we were secret diners, but we were not exactly incognito and indeed we were rumbled the moment we entered. Nonetheless we had a range of clandestine filming and recording devices to capture our impressions. I myself sported some Joe 90 spex complete with tiny camera. Oliver’s job was then to work with Alex Polizzi to diagnose how the restaurant needed to change.

I went to Lilu a couple of years back and, while admiring its ambition, had been a little underwhelmed. More recently though I’ve been a fan of the lovely stuff that is portrayed on their Instagram account (@lilu_fine_dining) – but that of course is pictures, what about the actual food?

Without giving too much away, the verdict of the table was while some of the food was excellent there were issues with menu structure, pricing, and service.  I wasn’t able to go to a “post-diagnosis” meal to see what might have changed, so will be watching with interest tonight.

 

 

 

Heads up on a couple of interesting openings coming up in Leicester. Top of my list is Herb, the new vegetarian restaurant by Kayal on Granby Street.  Kayal has four branches and there weren’t plans for another, but Kayal Leicester had a long-term chef who had been pushing for his chance to focus on vegetarian cuisine. Given the recent big shift towards vegetarian and vegan lifestyles the time seemed right to give him his head.

The new restaurant is a little further down Granby St  on the opposite side from Kayal in in what was Cascade Amusements. The venue, set to open in the next couple of weeks, has massively improved this unlovely building, not least with a stunning piece of artwork that will be the talk of all who see it. Made by Keralan craftspeople is a huge bas-relief artwork in clay tiles recreating the da Vinci painting The Last Supper. The tiles were imported and lovingly reassembled over a couple of weeks and it makes an extraordinary impact – sorry I’ve not yet got a picture of it for you.  The rest of the venue is done out pretty much in similar style and shape to Kayal.

I’ve not seen a full menu but expect an extensive choice of Keralan food reflecting ayurvedic principles and reflecting contemporary dietary choices and requirements. You may remember Kayal was originally launched as a Karnatakan vegetarian restaurant Halli – if it recreates the quality that Halli showed it will be bound to do well not just with vegans  but with food lovers of every stripe.

I’m also intrigued to see that the old Shakespeare’s Head on Southgates is close to re-opening as a restaurant and bar Shakespeare’s House.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the old pub but did like that it hadn’t been “improved” over the years, preserving its unique 50s stylings. I was pleased  that it was on a CAMRA list of pubs they wanted to see protected.

The Leicester Mercury has given some details of how the new venue is shaping up. In parts it’s still recognisably the Shakies, – the two-bar structure retained, one being the restaurant side. But the classic décor has changed considerably with a strong forest theme. There appears to be some Polish influence to it all with carvings from trees in the Polish mountains and restaurant dishes such as beef cheeks with horseradish puree and  roast duck with baked apple, amandine potatoes and cranberry jam. There’s to be  day- long service, including breakfasts and – inevitably – Bard-themed cocktails.

 

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Inside Shakespeare’s House – from the Leicester Mercury

 

 

 

 

San Carlo’s cicchetti

January 31, 2018

A couple of weeks back I mentioned San Carlo’s switch to a cicchetti menu at their Leicester restaurant on Granby Street. Maybe some will have thought this a move downmarket, towards a more casual, cheap and cheerful approach.

Having been there last night, such fears are very much unfounded. San Carlo has long been one of Leicester’s smartest restaurants – it’s one of the few venues where the cutlery and glassware really shine, the marble table-tops and fittings and decorations glimmer under spotlights and the wall to wall mirrors create both a sense of space and an aura of a place “to see and be seen”.

None of that has changed. It avoids being  blingy though and you simply feel transported to somewhere nicer than the centre of Leicester in January.   The excellent quality of the food has not changed either, it’s just that rather than a starter and mains approach, you select from a wide ranging menu of small plate dishes to share.

On our visit this week there were some jaw-droppingly good dishes. First to arrive at table were some lightly chargrilled avocados  in a completely sublime vinaigrette of olive, capers, chilli and mustard. Also knocking our socks off was a beautifully presented pumpkin risotto – suffused with saffron and truffle and pouring invitingly out of a baked gourd, with a backdrop of a terrific parmesan crisp studded with pink peppercorns  and rosemary.  The flesh of the pumpkin was sweet and soft, and the risotto was faultless. Beatiful fresh spaghetti with clams also impressed.

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Pumpkin risotto

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Charred avocado

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Spaghetti with clams (spot the garlic!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other highlights included mash potato of such astounding richness as to render me speechless. Here was food that could only be conceived and created by people with a deep love of gastronomy  – spud whipped with huge amounts of butter, oil and truffle and lightly grilled with a parmesan crust. An utter dream.

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Mash – but not as we know it.

Cacciuco, a Tuscan fish stew baked and presented  under a carapace of pizza bread was a rustic dish of white fish, prawns, mussels and clams  done with elegance and flair while a monkisfh and prawn spiedini (skewer) was simply done with lemon juice and olive oil.  I say simply  – one of the features of the food was that every dish was dressed copiously and appropriately with fresh herbs, oil, cheese or whatever worked to embellish. Straightforward, but generous cooking. There were one or two simpler dishes  – fritto misto and fried mozzarella balls that registered  as good rather than great but overall this was consistently pleasing food.

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Unveiling the cacciuco

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Cassata

A quick mention for desert too – we shared a plate of delightful cassata, the Sicilian favourite with ricotta, ice-cream, candied fruits, chocolate and  other goodies.

A sparkling environment, run with friendly efficiency by manager Sergio and his team, serving ingredients of high quality cooked with care and respect – San Carlo offers much to the city centre scene.

 

  • We dined as guests of San Carlo’s but all views are my own. Other fine Italian restaurants are available  in the region, for example Sapori in Anstey which, fans of Italian fine dining may be interested to know is staging a special night on 27 February with Michelin-starred chef Vicenzo Gaurino of Spaltanna in Tuscany with live music and six course tasting menu. Details from Sapori

 

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