New chef for Maiyango

October 30, 2013

News reaches me from Maiyango that they have now recruited a new executive chef to head up their restaurant, hotel and banqueting operation. As reported here recently,  Phil Sharpe has moved on – on good terms I’m assured –  to run his own venture the White Peacock on New Walk, which opens this weekend. The new chef at Maiyango is Nick Wilson, who trained under Jean Christophe Novelli, eventually heading up Novelli’s Michelin-starred Les Saveurs in Mayfair. He also counts celebrated venues including Gleneagles Hotel and Sharrow Bay on his CV, with more recent jobs at the all-organic Walnut Club in Hathersage, and the Swan at Lavenham in Suffolk.

Maiyango currently has an AA rosette,  Good Food Guide listing and a big commitment to showcasing Leicestershire produce.  I look forward to seeing how that legacy is going to be built on.

It’s great news that Leicester’s West End is about to get a specialist  barbecue restaurant – even if it’s only going to last a month. The Pop-Up Smokehouse will be operate from 7 November to 8 December and will bring flavours of the American mid-west and south to the O Bar on Braunstone Gate. It’s an initiative of the Orange Tree group who want to try and bring back a bit of innovation to this part of Leicester’s West End which has suffered a spate of closures. It’s also lost a fair bit of its special character since De Montfort University used its muscle to get the Bowstring Bridge removed. The owners sat down with chef Liam Watson, who spent three years with the group at the Lansdowne on London Road, and thought about how to bring a bit  buzz back.

Liam Watson with his grill

Liam Watson with his grill

I caught up with Liam on Saturday when he was giving away a few free samples at Orange Tree on High Street.  “Most of recent  investment has gone to the Cultural Quarter in the East of the city,’ he explains “That’s great, but it’s no secret that the West End needs a bit of a push. We had a think about what we could do and tried to come up with something outside the box – something enjoyable that would make a big impact on customers but didn’t involve too much cost.” The answer was a new Green Mountain grill and a pop-up restaurant in a bar that has not previously served food.  The inspiration came from a trip to Pitt Cue, the hugely popular Soho smokehouse.  “It blew me away,” enthuses Liam.  ” And fortunately they’ve now brought out a book with recipes…”.

So what can we expect? Classic, dry-rubbed, slow-cooked, St Louis cut of pork ribs given 12 hours with a hickory, maple and oak smoke. Chicken,  of course. But the hugely enthusiastic Liam also wants to be more adventurous, so look out for braised oxtail with smoked oysters in chocolate porter (all the meals are going to be matched with craft ales), beef ribs, pork cheeks and scorched mackerel. For this dish the fish just gets a sousing and then subtle smoke from a blowtorch to crisp up the skin. There’ll be  vegetarian options too – “we found butternut squash takes the smoke really well,” says Liam.

After December they’ll have a think about how it all went. Maybe they’ll have to put it down to experience. Maybe they’ll be tempted to try it again and keep popping up at festivals and events. Or just maybe they’ll be encouraged to think about something more permanent. Whatever, judging by the beautifully tender and tasty samples I tried, and the impressive way they seem to have thought this through, the Smokehouse would appear to be well worth a trip (you can book on 0116 255 8223).

Last week the Nottingham Evening Post was boasting about how their city had totally trumped Leicester and Derby in  Observer Food Awards.  Initiatives like this – as well as smarter openings such the White Peacock –  are exactly what we need to maintain and improve the city’s food culture.

It may be near a motorway junction, but Burbage does not seem the obvious place to site an adventurous fine dining restaurant.  That’s what it’s got in the shape of 34 Windsor Street.

Owner Zeffy Thompson has a background running restaurants in the rather more, erm, zeitgeisty setting of Dubai, while chef Sam Owen gained his chops in Lincoln. They have created an intriguing venue – large, smart, aspirational. It’s not going for an obvious crowd-pleasing approach but creates a stylish welcoming environment for a chef to offer innovative cooking in sometimes challenging combinations.

Take my starter of “pigeon, peach, cornflake and warm yoghurt” for example. I love pigeon, but the dish sounded somewhat, well, odd. Ok, you think to yourself, come on then chef, convince me. On this occasion, he didn’t really. Two beautiful pigeon breasts – cooked pink and possibly sous-vide, no searing anyway –  had great flavour, but the other main elements really didn’t add anything. Peach is not exactly a traditional accompaniment and now I know why. Cornflake certainly added texture but was a bit “so what?”. I couldn’t work out any justification for the yoghurt either.  Actually the one thing that did do the pigeon a few favours was the unbilled, more conventional woodland berry (elderberry?) dressing.

Our other starters included a very elegant hay-smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish that packed delightful flavours and a “full English breakfast”. This was actually a fairly straightforward rendering of the dish, though done with a fair bit of flair – crispy bacon, sausage, black pudding, fried bread. Innovation came in the form of a kind of egg yolk croquette, some broad beans in a tomato sauce and a mushroom tea.  It was the kind of multi-element dish where some things worked better than others – the tea was a bit bland – but had great quality ingredients and was put together with a sense of fun.

You get the sense that some diners may have been slightly discombobulated by the approach  – staff gave copious warnings that this dish was served pink, that the rice in that dish would have a crunch because it had been toasted not because it was uncooked and so on. Certainly the main course described as “a piece of lamb” was very pink, and very beautiful, served on top of aubergine with cubes of polenta and pickled onions and under a dome of smoke. We couldn’t find much evidence of the smoked toffee that produced it but this was a satisfying mix of flavours. My pork was a small but excellent cut that was very tender and well matched with excellent spiced red cabbage and spiced plums, though the crumbled nuts didn’t really deserve a place. Duck breast with a variety of carrots and a sauce of lime and vanilla was sweetish but more delicate than it might sound – another lovely piece of meat cooked with flair. One point, these dishes were on the light side – if you hanker after a bit of carbohydrate, you’ll want to order some sides.

My desert veered back towards more familiar partnerships – four “chocolate textures” matched with four versions of raspberry meant you could mix and match fresh fruit, ganache, sponge, sorbet and so on. It was an absolute delight  –  even the fronds of fennel worked well too.  A toasted rice pudding with that bit of crunch, plus plums and almonds, was declared good but not that good, while an apple tarte tatin with blackberry sorbet was fine and delicate.

So, there’s lots to like about 34 Windsor St. It’s a lovely venue, staff were charming, there’s an excellent full menu for vegetarians and the cooking is skilled and adventurous.  That said, not everything worked and some of the dishes felt like work in progress rather than really well-worked out statements. Sometimes there just seemed to be an unnecessary striving for novelty, but we left cheerful and pleased someone is giving it a go.

Silver Arcade

October 17, 2013

Popped in to look at the newly refurbished Silver Arcade which had its official opening today.  Brought back happy memories of my early days in Leicester, hanging around in the café, second hand bookshops and Poly fashion students’  Enterprise Allowance start-ups.

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It’s a lot smarter now although there’s enough of the old features left to make it recognisable – not least the narrow, vertigo-inducing top floor landing.  Not much open in there yet – a couple of posh frock shops and more to our point here, the chocolatier Cocoa Amore which is trading but I think just in soft launch mode right now. Coming soon will be The Atrium restaurant which will apparently be “international tapas and fine dining” and hopefully there will be more food-related stuff.

If you do you go down and have a look, watch out for my friend Charlotte’s shop Eskimo Blue, full of lovely ceramics currently also showcased in her Clarendon Park shop.

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It’s always good to see a serious new independent restaurant open in the centre of Leicester. It’s been a bit of a graveyard of dreams but there’s always the hope that someone will make a new place work, and so a big welcome and good luck  to Phillip Sharpe’s new venture The White Peacock.

He’s no stranger to Leicester having been head chef at Maiyango for what must be around a decade. It’s been good to see his development there in producing ever-more ambitious and high-quality food as the young business grew. Now he’s getting his own venue at the foot of New Walk, the building that was most recently Barrington’s but before that was Flores, a fine-ish dining global tapas place that looked beautiful but I never really warmed to the food.

I’ve not got details of what exactly the offer will be The White Peacock, but it’s set to open by the end of October I believe.  Certainly they will be hoping to capture some of the Christmas action and the festive menu features dishes that seem to reflect the eclectic influences Phil implemented at Maiyango – Japanese green tea and lime cured organic salmon, micro cress, wasabi crème fraiche; organic rump of lamb, slow roast shoulder, root vegetable  dauphinoise, redcurrant and rosemary jus;  mandarin and hazelnut jelly, hazelnut ice-cream.

Phil also comes across as a really genuine sort of chap – committed to using great Leicestershire produce where possible and he and Maiyango have also recently been offering great support to a youth arts project I’m involved with called Soft Touch  which is helping disadvantaged kids to develop healthy eating awareness and spread the word in their communities. It’s great he’s having a go in the city centre – I’ll give more news as and when.

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