Hambleton Hall

November 29, 2009

For thirty years now Hambleton Hall  has been the pre-eminent restaurant in Leicestershire and Rutland.  When I received a  redundancy payment, the temptation to blow some of it on the work of Michelin-starred chef Aaron Patterson was too strong to resist.   

So it was that Sally and I drove up the Hambleton peninsula near Oakham, a finger of high ground that survived the creation of Rutland Water, and into the magical world of this definitive country house hotel. There’s no getting away from it, this is old-fashioned luxury.  No concessions to modernist chic, it’s all 18th century paintings, ornate drapes, preternaturally squidgy sofas and a roaring log fire at every turn. Staff are numerous and, while veering towards the formal,  extremely welcoming. We took drinks in what I suppose I can only call a drawing room, where the first treats came – a half dozen canapes including little bites of seabass and prawn, quails egg and so on. After ordering we’re invited into the dining room – thankfully no bling, but a quiet elegance, the napkins gratifyingly starched, the  cutlery pleasingly solid.  

First an apology for a lack of photos – I did try but lighting conditions were difficult and I was far more concerned with enjoying the food than getting a decent image.

There are set  menus at £37 and £46 and a tasting menu at £60, but tonight we ventured a la carte.  But before getting stuck in we had a further amuse of jerusalem artichoke soup  – served foaming in a coffee cup it was stunningly powerful. It’s a strong distinctive taste – something of a shock to the palate on the first sip but you quickly get the hang of it and by the time it was gone you were desperate for more. Perfect.  Sourdough and beer bread was excellent and, forewarned,  they even managed to bring gluten free bread for Sally. She started with a simple salad, only it wasn’t so simple – beautiful fresh leaves, trimmed batons of cucumber with a really strong flavour, more quail’s eggs, big shards of a parmesan of rare intesity and a sweet truffle vinaigrette.  I was hoping to revisit the extraordinary langoustines I had on a previous visit, but they weren’t on this evening. My good luck, beacuse the scallops I had were exquisite. The shellfish were gorgeous and sat in the midst of  a epic collection of tastes and textures of onion. A supersweet onion puree, some lightly spiced marble-sized onion bhajees, port-braised shallots, crispy onion rings, and a foaming sauce flavoured with lemon grass. Everything on the dish earnt its place there, contributing in its own right and contributing  to a greater whole.

Hambleton is famous for its game and that’s where I was headed. Hare Wellington was perfect, rich and gamey meat wrapped in pastry with a thick layer of a gamey, nutty pate. Its sauce of prune and armagnac came in a cute little copper pan, as did an additional  “hare bolognaise” – exactly as it sounds. The meat nestled on some greens with bacon,  with further flavours coming from quince puree and superb baby vegetables – carrot, turnip and onions.  Sally’s roast duck breast  was  of the highest quality, with couple of intense, complex sauces  – one from meat juices, one dark and fruity. Oh yes the wine list, you could do some serious wallet damage there if you look too far down the substantial list – we had a glass each of  a full-bodied Alsace pinot gris and a half-bottle of Pomerol which was excellent with the hare.

To follow Sally had sorbets – a stunning-looking plate with I think seven sorbets, each presented a wafer thin crisp of its own fruit – banana, orange, apple, pear, pineapple, rhubarb, and coconut. My passionfruit souffle was a technical tour de force – so light and airy, yet so full of flavour, it was such a pleasure to eat.  It came with a passion fruit stuffed with banana sorbet and a shot glass of passionfuit jelly with space dust topping. 

We retired to the drawing room (not a sentence I generally think to write but no other phrase will do) and settled by the fire to enjoy coffee and superb petitfours, which you are invited to select from  an aged wooden cabinet. White chocolate and raspberry truffle stood out, but then so did the passionfuit macaroon, and the caramel, and the fudge… 

The food and the overall experience were, then, pretty much faultless. Of course by most  normal standards it is ridiculously expensive, but here’s the thing. This was superb quality ingedients and highly-skilled, labour intensive cooking so you can see where the money has gone. I’d go back every week  if I could.

The Tamarind

November 27, 2009

This,  as you are all aware, is National Curry Week. In a previous life I was responsible for promoting Youth Work Week. Such things are thankless tasks, so I thought I’d file a short post that might turn up on some poor PR wallah’s google search and help their stats.

So, last night about 25 of us celebrated Rob’s birthday at The Tamarind on Hinckley Road, Leicester.  It’s your archetypal friendly  neighbourhood curry house, with many of the customers greeted by their first name. To avoid the stress of that number of people ordering, they were happy to prearrange a set meal for us all at a bargain price too. What’s more it was off menu home-style cooking – on the bone chicken and a mixed vegetable curry with rice and naans ad lib.  The chicken was great, a simple simple stew but with plenty of fresh spices and enough heat for me if not for those of those of the late night madras persuasion.  Vegetarians were less impressed, finding  most components overcooked and uninteresting – though an additional order of saag paneer was highly rated.  I’m not sure I’d rush back for the food  – being two miles from my home I’d have to walk past far too many good restaurants for one thing  – but the restaurant did a great  job of feeding a ramshackle, hungry crowd and serving us with patience and good humour.

Almanack opens

November 26, 2009

I’m filing this post whilst sitting having breakfast in the Almanack, Leicester’s new modern urban gastropub. The offer of free coffee and free toast in no way influences this plug (the free toast in the mornings will continue after this opening week).  Staff seem skilled and friendly, the menu appealing, the decor chic – there’s plenty to like. Manager says people seem to think they are a style bar, but their vibe is very much a relaxed, welcoming  pub. Official opening is tomorrow.  I’ll be coming to eat when I can – reports welcome in the meantime – www.thealmanack-leicester.co.uk

Leicester Food festival

November 22, 2009

Given it was a rather cold, wet , miserable day, Leicester’s Food Festival was a rather jolly affair. You have  to wonder why anyone organises an outdoor event in England in November, though at least this was under cover in what we are assured is “Europe’s Largest Covered Market”.  One reason for the choice of date may well be that despite the weather the city centre was buzzing with early Christmas shoppers and turnout was really rather good – in the main trade seemed fairly brisk.  

The majority of market stalls were in use –  some were familiar from farmers’ markets, but a number were new to me at least.  Watching the  live cooking demonstrations required standing out in the rain but there were small, hardy crowds attracted by a hardworking, relentlessly jolly host.

Anyhow, I was tempted by the mallards in feather (below right) but took the easy option in the end of a plump, plucked pheasant that will be casseroled later this week, some chilli chutney –  I am physically unable to come away from such places without a jar of chutney, a belly of rare-breed pork joint from Woodhouse Farm near Loughborough, some hot-smoked salmon and horseradish fishcakes, a jar of damson jelly and some chanterelles from a glorious mushroom stall (below).

All in all, a good way to spend a couple of hours regardless of the weather.  Hope we do it again next year – why not have a summer festival too?

Food Festival

November 20, 2009

Quick reminder for Leicester-based folk that the City’s first food festival takes place on Sunday in the market place from 12 to 6pm.

You can find more details by clicking  here

Had a delivery of coffee today. I know some of you  have already noted and indeed used the link at the very bottom of this blog to a company called Hasbean.  I heartily recommend the unstuffy, no-nonsense approach they have and the customer care is great. Best of all are the beans themselves.

I remember the day I decided I would never again drink instant coffee.  Given the pleasure available from freshly roast, freshly ground coffee, to drink Nescafe seemed like a betrayal. I get  tremendous satisfaction from opening the sealed pouches of beans from Hasbean, that may have been roasted less than 24 hours before, and breathing in deeply.  Another deep inhale awaits when the beans are ground. And then there’s the pleasure of pouring water on the grounds in a cafetiere and seeing the foaming head that appears – almost like the crema on an espresso. You only get this from the freshest of beans, not from stuff that may have been on a supermarket storehouse and shelf for  months. 

Coffee is  every bit as varied, subtle and complex as wine.  I’ve tried to capture some of this in these two photos. On the top  is Celebes Toraja Kalosi, from Sulawesi in Indonesia. Look at those bad boys – dark,  mysterious, glistening with oil. The coffee they make is similarly dark and brooding, earthy like the forest floor. On the botttom is the Costa Rican Finca de Licho, lighter, sweeter, more approachable with almost citric acidity but chocolate notes too.  Two very different drinks for different moods, different times of day. Marvellous.

Sushi search

November 16, 2009

Sushi. Interesting one. I’ve had a little. Quite liked it. Makes a difference from a sandwich when passing through Marks and Spencer. But one of the things that enthusiasts say about it is that really good sushi is a revelation – but it needs to be hyperfresh and cut by a chef who’s trained for 37 years or something.  So I’d like to try the very best. And much as it’s fun and funky, I don’t think that’s Yo Sushi.

So I’m pleased we’re getting a new sushi restaurant in central Leicester, Belvoir St, in a site that was a short-lived juice bar and even shorter lived chicken franchise.  But  once again I’m a little disconcerted by its strapline:

sushi 001

Why call it a Japanese Sushi restaurant? To distinguish it from all those dodgy Tuscan sushi bars? 

I look forward to trying it, but a longer term aim would be to visit Derby’s Ebi Sushi. I’ve read incredulous, not to say patronising,  reviews marvelling that the best sushi in the UK should be found in the centre of Derby. The presence of a ginormous Japanese car factory just up the road could just  be a factor.  If anyone’s been, please do feed back.  If anyone’s going – I’d happily join in.

1573

November 12, 2009

As a happy carnivore, I reckon Leicester could do with a really good steakhouse and grill. Pleasant enough as it is, 1573 on Highcross Street doesn’t appear to be it.

Full credit to the people behind it – I understand they also run Colourworks just off Braunstone Gate – for their ambition. They’ve taken on both a listed building in the Old Grammar School (the name  refers to the year of the construction of the building) as well as the hyper-efficient chains that surround it in Highcross.  The interior is handsome and characterful though I’m not sure they’ve made the best use of space downstairs –  I’m sure they had limited scope to redesign.

1573 002There’s an all day cafe-style menu but the branding is “Bar and Grill” and they’ve majored on steaks, ribs and so on.   Me and J went along in the evening to sample the full menu. I started with a half rack of pork ribs. Nothing specific to complain about here – they were nice, I wanted to finsh them,  but they weren’t especially meaty and the marinade was not especially smoky or piquant or interesting. J’s starter of teriyaki salmon steak was similarly good enough  – I sometimes do it this way because the rather bland salmon that predominates nowadays needs something like a rich, sweet and sticky teriyaki to liven it up.

When it came to mains, it’s a bit sad to report the standout element of the dishes for each of us was the sauce.  All the steaks are trumpeted as scottish, dry-aged for up to 28 days and all that – they were Ok. My 8oz rib-eye (larger sizes avaiblable) was tender and nicely chargrilled but  flavourwise, meh.  Chips were pretty greasy and unimpressive, while the garnish was a fairly artlessly chopped collection of cherry tomatos and salad veg.  It wasn’t really above what you expected in a decent pub.    The Diane sauce though was creamy as you’d want and deliciously flavoured. J’s thoughts on his sirloin were similar –  again giving a thumbs up to the bourbon and peppercorn sauce.

We weren’t really inspired on this occasion to check out the deserts  – sticky toffee pudding, apple pie, chocolate fudge cake. There was however a nice surpise when the bill came – turns out it was two for one on steaks – though I’d not seen any publicity for the offer so can’t be sure when it applies. Two courses each, with the offer, and a very good bottle of Australian shiraz,  came to around £45.

As ever, I’d be interested to hear feedback from others who have been.

November 11, 2009

Good news – I’ve a place at the table for Blind Tiger’s  December event. Not sure if giving  a plug in this blog helped (see 29 October), but it seems they’ve expanded capacity for Christmas and are running three nights in the run up to Christmas. The menu wisely eschews turkey and will include Scotch quail’s egg, gin and juniper cured salmon,  Gressingham duck and Arctic Roll. That last element will have to be good if it is to replace the memory of  BirdsEye’s version from when I was  8 years old.

Oxtail Stew

November 9, 2009

An  epic November stew for dinner this evening. Oxtail is one of those those cuts that looks inedible but with long, slow, alchemical cooking turns into something quite, quite wonderful. It’s not one of those dishes you could choose in a restaurant,  or would serve to your sophisticated friends at a dinner party. You plate it up, use a knife and fork for a bit, and then succumb to the inevitable and pick up the bones and chew and suck on the bones for all you are worth.

Don’t be tempted to finesse it, to  introduce –  I dunno –  fennel or something. Just slice an onion and a carrot, trim the meat of excess fat, brown the meat, cover with a mixture of stock and wine according to you preference and budget, and cook for as long as you can at the lowest heat you can. At least three hours, but why not five, during which time you’ll need to skim off the rendered fat but by the end of which the meat will be falling of the bones.  You might want to introduce a little tomato puree at a late stage, maybe a little bit of sugar, but that’s it. Leave the rest to the magic in those bones. The unctous goo that comes out of the bones will thicken the juices into a glossy, sticky, glorious sauce.

If  I’d planned better I’d have made some dumplings. As it was, a baked potato was quite sufficient.  At this point I suppose I should apologise to the vegetarians who’ve made it this far. All I’d say is that ‘nose to tail’ eating is surely a defensible ethical position once you’ve decided you are going to eat meat.

Anyway here’s a picture – the lack of restaurant quality presentation is entirely deliberate.

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