Love is all you need

January 25, 2010

 It seems the remaining unit in the Highcross restauarant quarter is to be Cafe Rouge. Well whoop de do.

I should say first I’ve never eaten at one of these restaurants, maybe given the right manager and staff they can be ok, but the description I’ve seen attributed to Jonathan Meades of  “the Middle Class McDonalds” seems appropriate. I’ve read enough reviews of incompetent food and miserable service from untrained, underpaid, misersable staff to find the artless attempt at tuning into francophilia really grating.

Cafe Rouge is a brand  owned by Tragus Holdings, whom we can also thank for Bella Italia.  Tragus itself is owned by Blackstone, a £67 billion  private equity fund. You don’t want to further enrich these people do you?  Try instead the small East Midlands chain Bistrot Pierre. It  might riff on the French cafe in a similar way but it’s relatively locally owned, the food by most standards is perfectly adequate at least and I know they invest in the skills of their staff, especially in the kitchen. The prices are also much friendlier than Cafe Rouge.  

bistot pierre

I can’t see that we need another clone operation in Leicester.  Highcross developers Hammerson have brought a lot of investment into the city but what a shame they haven’t done more to encourage a mix of independents as well as chains.  

Restaurants need to believe in what they are doing from the top to bottom. They need to love it, or else we’ll soon find them out. To end, here’s  Giles Coren writing in the Independent over a decade ago: “Love is all you need. Look at Cafe Rouge. What makes eating there so miserable? Hard to say. The menus appear well- balanced. Occasionally there is a waiter who speaks English and knows what a potato is. But order a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs – the simplest dish in the world – and you get big lumps of dry, unseasoned egg, slashes of fish-rind and cold toast. No love.”

Snobbery? Or simply a stand in defence of quality? Interested to hear from anyone of their experiences of Cafe Rouge.

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Lunch at the Almanack

January 23, 2010

Finally got around to lunch at the Almanack in Leicester’s Highcross. Most feedback I’ve had about this  modern “urban gastropub” has been very positive, and even those who had issues with the food were very impressed with  the response of staff. This seems like a place that genuinely wants to succeed by keeping people happy.

First plus point was good beer. Earlier in the week I’d been in a  big chain pub around the corner and found they had no draught ale  – just lagers or wretched “creamflow” bitter. So it was good to find first rate  Purity Pure Gold and  Ubu beers available here.

The AlmanackThat said, while there’s a bar area this isn’t primarily a drinkers pub. On a Friday lunchtime it was doing reasonable food business. The weather outside was foul so comfort food seemed in order and my coq au vin fitted the bill fine. This was very acceptable bistro cooking – good quality, succulent chicken,  button mushrooms, crunchy lardons, a rich sauce and excellent mash. It had a rough-around- the-edges, home cooked feel and was all the better for it.  Gill had salt and pepper squid, which was very tender, beautifully seasoned and served simply with crunchy, raw veg and and a spicy mayonnaise. Deserts were excellent – my pavlova of chewy meringue, cream and pulp of passionfruit and pomegranate was a good example of keeping it simple and letting the flavours speak for themselves. Gill was very happy with her baked bramley apple stuffed with dates and pinenuts with a caramel sauce. Excellent flavour combinations and good execution.  

Staff were unfailingly cheerful, despite our waitress having been on duty since 7.30am, and competent too. It’s not all that cheap, but if you want cheap food there’s a Wetherspoon’s round the corner and your welcome to it. There do seem to be plenty of offers available, we were paying £12.50 for two courses, and the menu is diverse enough for a wide variety of appetites and pockets.

Well run, welcoming and with good quality food –  a big welcome then to the Almanack .

Pear and almond cake

January 16, 2010

Today I had a few ripe pears that were threatening to head off to the great orchard in the sky. Throw in some fretting over work deadlines and an away defeat to Swansea City and the obvious solution was feel-good baking. This resulting cake is very easy and recommended for anyone with surplus fruit:

pear cake

So take  150g of caster sugar and cream with 50g of butter. Add two eggs and beat. Add three tablespoons of milk, beating as  you go.  Add 200 g of plain flour, 1 tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt and stir.  Take two ripe pears (Williams, Comice  or Rocha are maybe best) and  core, dice  and add to the mix. Now I added 40g of ground almonds and a scattering of sultanas but that’s my preference,  they’re hardly essential.  Take another two or three pears, core, thinly slice and use to decorate the cake.  

Bake in a lined cake tin at gas 4 for around 45 minutes until lightly brown. If you wantand I did want, glaze by taking  a desert spoon of apricot jam, heating with a similar amount of water. Then pass through a sieve and paint on with a brush. Yum.

Michelin Update

January 15, 2010

Further to the post earlier this week, sources close to this blog have revealed there is no change to the Michelin star status of Sat Bains, Hambleton Hall or The Olive Branch. There are no new stars in the region. Fans of the rarefied end of fine dining may be interested to know that Alain Ducasse has gained a star to become the nation’s fourth three star restuarant.

Update at 17.33 – no new Bib Gourmands for the East Midlands either, though the Red Lion at Strathern keeps its one.

The Hammer and Pincers

January 14, 2010

The Hammer and Pincers in Wymewold has provided a couple of the most memorable meals I’ve had in Leicestershire. Danny and Sandra Jimminson are charming people and Danny’s kitchen experience is impeccable. They are keen users of local produce  too, with their steaks – among the best I’ve ever enountered – coming from their village butcher’s own abattoir.  

For the new year they’ve recruited a couple of new chefs, including a Ramsey scholar and a graduate of Tom Aikens in London and Harts in Nottingham.  They’ve also given the menu a rejig, the main evening menu now offering three courses, plus an amuse bouche, sorbet and pre-desert at £29.50, decent value for food this good. I reckon my choice next time could be balsamic roast beetroot and shallot tarte tatin, bosworth ash goat’s cheese and  herb salad, followed by herb roasted lamb rump, gratin dauphinoise, green beans baked in parma ham and provencale tomato, finishing up with  crisp apple tart, almond frangipane, calvados ice-cream and caramel sauce.  

Note that they also do a “first service” menu at just £19.50 for three courses on weekdays between 6pm and 7pm.

Michelin time again

January 13, 2010

The smart restaurant world industry is getting into its annual flurry of excitement over the imminent arrival of this year’s Michelin Guide. Details are closely guarded this year after previous leaks and will be released, apparantly, next Tuesday at 8am. Not that we’re likely to have anything to get worked up about in Leicestershire. In recent years the Red Lion at Stathern has won a Bib Gourmand, the guide’s designation for good food at moderate prices (up to £28 for a meal before drinks),  and I believe Tom Cockerill had a listing when Entropy had its city centre restaurant, but beyond that I can’t think of  much.

Rutland has two one-starred establishments. Hambleton Hall is unikely to change status I suspect  – more than good enough to keep its star, not fashionable enough to gain a second. The Olive Branch in Clipsham – as an informal pub environment – probably has to work harder than most to retain its star. Fingers  crossed for them because it’s a lovely place.   There’s a considerable industry buzz that Sat Bains in  Nottingham will gain a second star (of which there are currently only 15 in the UK), but then there was last year and he didn’t.

For those of us who enjoy restaurants this is all a bit of fun, even for the majority for whom michelin-starred dining is at best a very rare treat.  And you can argue it’s all irrelevent anyway.  But just imagine if Leicester did have a successful destination-dining venue. Just as gaining a John Lewis made a difference to the economic profile of the city, and stellar cultural projects have raised the game in that field, so a really top restaurant would help redefine our status as a backwater with a few good curry houses.  

Can’t say I can see it happening soon, for many obvious reasons, but one can dream.

The Victoria Arms

January 10, 2010

I know this is theoretically a Leicestershire blog, but when you find a pub as good as The Victoria Arms, it seems churlish to keep quiet about it. Sited immediately next to Beeston rail station on the edge of Nottingham, this is a classic old-skool boozer,  a freehouse offering a great range of beers and an extraordinary wine list. It keeps one cosy, traditional bar with another used primarily as a  restaurant. Use of mobile phones is strictly prohibited.  A big group of us had a lovely day-long session yestersday, including a break for food which is served all day long. There’s an immense blackboard with an big selection of hearty, original offerings,  with an especially wide vegetarian selection. My rabbit and cider casserole was top-notch homestyle cooking for a snowy winter afternoon – a rich sauce with chunks of gammom soaked up a big pile of spring onion mash.

It inevitably got us thinking about Leicester pubs. There’s some good beer pubs – the Criterion, the Swan and Rushes and the Ale Wagon spring to mind,  while it seems the food offering of the  new Almanack is going to prove popular – but we don’t really have the perfect combination of a characterful building, serious approach to beer and  good value and good quality food. 

If  there’s any pub in the UK that you could pick up and plonk down in the centre of Leicester (or your home town)  – what would it  be?

Digging in

January 6, 2010

For pure kitchen porn, Nigel Slater’s new TV series takes some beating.  A huge expanse of wooden worktop (sustainably grown I’m sure), oh-so-elegant gadgetry and to die for crockery. Yet however many earthy winter stews he produces there’s not one splish or splash to sully the look, nor washing up required.

But of course what saves everything is Slater’s eminently doable approach to cooking. Yes it looks easy, but actually, it is.  You don’t really have to be a domestic  god,  you just have to an adventurous palate and a respect for what’s seasonal and what goes well with what.

This new show  has a prime time slot on BBC1 and is linked to the  BBC campaign Dig In which is encouraging folk to grow their own vegetables and fruit.  I’ve not got space to go much beyond a herb garden, but I’m fully intending to use Slater’s epic  tome The Kitchen Diaries to help plan a few raids on the  sizeable and brilliantly-planted allotment of my pals Rob and Eliene.  If I felt I could give the commitment, I’d also be looking at schemes such as the Community Harvest project in Whetstone   http://www.community-harvest-whetstone.org.uk/.  One way or another, I’ll be eating more  local grown stuff this year.

Kayal

January 3, 2010

I must declare an interest with Kayal. It’s a business I’ve admired and supported since first reviewing it for Metro when it opened on Granby Street in Leicester as Halli, a vegetarian restaurant featuring distinctive Karnatakan cuisine. Since then, and following its reincarnation in Nottingham and Leicester as the Keralan restaurant Kayal, I’ve become good friends with boss Jaimon Thomas.  But everyone gets a warm greeting at Kayal – one reason why the restaurant was packed out on 2 January,  not generally the industry’s favourite night of the year.

The menu here features traditional, hearty  Keralan dishes. There’s nothing fancy or faddish, no fusion-led world tapas but time-honoured recipes gathered from family members and finessed through a thorough grounding in the hotel and restaurant  industry of South India.  So yes it is spicy Indian food  but is  is refreshingly different to the staple fare of the British tandoori.  We were a group of 15 celebrating a birthday – and started by sharing a couple of large seafood platters involving crisp squid rings in a spicy batter, juicy prawns given a smilar treatment, fish cutlets and crab legs in a sauce so incredibly moreish it was almost frightening.  

Kerala is a state with not just a long coastline  but a huge network of backwaters which explain the wonderful seafood dishes. Kayal’s range of fish curries are well worth exploring, but this time my main was  cheera erachi, a festive lamb dish derived from the region’s sizeable Christian community, which slow cooks the lamb with spinach, turmeric, onions red chillies and a host of other spices.  As with all Kayal dishes, it had a rewarding complexity from extensive use of fresh spices. I had it with bathura, a  delightfully light and fluffy bread.

We finished by picking at an extremely rich and sweet birthday South Indian cake, presented with  a serenade of Happy Birthday from staff, and a little bowl of payasam, a light ,fragrant milk pudding with nuts, raisins and tiny vermicelli noodles. 

Relaxed, informal and welcoming, Kayal combines palate-pleasing food with a service ethos that warms the heart. It’s heartily recommended.

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