Personally I’m very partial to whisky. Some other people, not so much. But for those who do appreciate the Uisge Beatha, a good tasting taste class is a hard idea to resist.

And informal wine and spirit tastings are something of a boom industry all over the country. The Drinking Classes is an umbrella group that co-ordinates teams of experts delivering sessions on whisky, gin, vodka, rum tequila and cocktails and me and my pal Kevin turned up to their Leicester session at Will’s Bar at 6pm last Saturday. Run by young mixologist Will – not of the said Bar but of Drinking Classes’ subset the Whisky Mavericks – this was a very pleasant way to start a Saturday night.

IMG_0915 Whisky MavericksLooking at the publicity, Whisky Mavericks seems to be  based on the premise that whisky is seen as boring and needs rescuing from stifling tradition. A curious idea that I never really bought when it was first ran up the flagpole by someone wearing red glasses over 30 years ago. It’s even stranger when you realise that Will doesn’t try too hard to be modish or wacky in any way and in fact just delivers a perfectly mainstream tutored tasting.

It’s entry level stuff, starting off with a fruity punch and moving on to half a dozen drams, representative of some major styles. We started with my favourite Tomintoul, a creamy Speyside single malt, and then moved to the peatier 12 year old Bowmore from Islay – enjoyed with a plain chocolate digestive. Then there was Grants,  Jim Beam Bourbon and a 15 year old Genfiddich Solera.

While he confessed he was more of a gin enthusiast, Will was pretty well informed and kept up a steady supply of historical and cultural background information. Things I learnt included the origin of the name  Monkey Shoulder, that Grant’s triangular bottle was designed to prevent “breakages” in the dockyards and that age-statement whisky may soon disappear as the burgeoning Chinese middle-classes buy up everything available.  Also that the world’s biggest selling whisky is called Bagpiper, featuring a bekilted man in a turban on the table, and strictly speaking is not even whisky as it involves molasses.

So a very convivial hour and half. Can’t say I’d be pulled in at the advertised rate of £65, but there seems to be plenty of Groupon offers around at around the £25 mark – which makes it a pretty good option for a present or just a great activity for a group of mates. More details here. An alternative in Leicester is the monthly spirit tastings run by The Urban Alchemist (who many will know as Roop from Leicester’s Manhattan 34 bar) at Taps bar near the Cathedral.

Kevin enjoys a dram

Kevin enjoys a dram

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It was no surprise to see the Smokehouse come back for another run at Braunstone Gate’s O Bar.  The feelgood Southern barbecue food seemed to be a big hit – certainly was with me – and there was definitely something added by the catch-it-while-you-can nature of the pop-up.

Camden Wheat beer  - flavoured with lemon and bergamot

Camden Wheat beer – flavoured with lemon and bergamot

On Tuesday night I went down with Rob  – who hadn’t managed to get along before and was, it must be said, a little sceptical about the whole enterprise.  He was, though, definitely won over and was last seen walking back towards Hinckley Rd getting straight on social media to enthuse.

Camp-fire goodness

Camp-fire goodness

The menu is more or less the same with a few tweaks. Rob had one of the new starters – chicken, potato and sweetcorn hash. It was a big old plate of campfire goodness – with chunks or barbecued corn sliced roughly of the cob all adding to the rustic feel. It was probably over-seasoned, but with flakes of excellent sea-salt so you didn’t really mind – it just made the excellent craft beers even more welcome. I had the scorched mackerel, marinated in a coriander pickle – a more refined dish, with  tasted cured flesh and crispy flamed skin.

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Pulled pork - being chased by a fork

Pulled pork – being chased by a fork

The “Big Smoke” mains are not subtle  – and not meant to be – but you do get hits of intriguing flavours, from coriander to fennel to the divine crunchy pickled cabbage and onions.  I had the pulled pork, cooked for 14 hours, which came two ways – pretty much straight out of the marinade and in chilli con carne form. None of it was overly spicy – more a late-arriving, smoky warmth – and it was all tender and gorgeous. Rob had the sliced brisket (just the 12 hours in the smoker for this one), a mountain of which came in a fantastic brioche bun. I’d say the gravy with the beef was maybe overly sweet but the flavour of the beef still came though and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable dish. We had sides of a potato baked in salt crust slathered in a herby garlic butter  – simply wonderful – and as a concession to our five-a-day, fennel and jalapeno slaw, which seemed to have less smoke on the fennel than I remember but still a great salad.

The one thing I was looking forward above all to reacquainting myself with was the sticky toffee and maple pudding – and it wasn’t a let down.  Excellent sponge surrounded by the most ambrosial lake of salted caramel and bourbon sauce. As the good quality vanilla ice-cream started to melt into that sauce I was reflecting there was no more pleasureable experience available in Leicester that night (please don’t tell me about it if you think there was).

Oh my...

Oh my…

So newbies or old timers, you’ve got another chance. It will be around for a few weeks – maybe longer if the bookings really fly in – so if it sounds like your thing, don’t hang around. I think you’ll enjoy it. More details here.

The Road to Morocco.

March 4, 2014

I’ve been racking my brains to remember if and when we’ve had a Moroccan restaurant in Leicester. I’ve not come up with anything, so a warm welcome then to Marrakech on Highfield Street.

It opened last week and I’ve not been yet but there are some promising signs. It’s taken a similar route to its neighbour Saray Mangal and is offering a short menu focused on the classics of a particular cuisine. So it’s not pan-Arabic, it’s not con-fusion cuisine, it’s a simple collection of chicken, lamb or vegetable tagines and cous cous dishes, with a few classics such the sweet and spicy pastilla and the warming chickpea soup harira. I had a quick chat with the owner, who seemed down to earth and friendly. And with  mains around £8-11 and a three course set dinner at £13.95 – it looks hard to spend too much.

I’ve never been to the Maghreb but I’ve had some splendid evenings in Moroccan joints in Paris, Bergerac and some other French towns.  I’m looking forward to giving this one a try.

If I had a job, Friday probably would have been payday. Seemed like a good excuse, then, to go somewhere nice for lunch. Leicester’s leading criminologist was also looking for a trip out somewhere nice and so the two of us drove out to Rutland to take advantage of Lunch for Even Less, the annual post-Christmas promotion from a group of top-end places.

The Olive Branch

The Olive Branch

We’d settled on The Olive Branch, Clipsham, a long-term favourite but somewhere neither of us had been for a couple of years.  It’s such a lovely building and the pub inside is run perfectly. It hums with contented diners, a log fire crackles and staff move around efficiently, constantly checking all is well. There are nice little touches  – your name is on a little chalkboard when you arrive at your table, which is then hung behind the bar and becomes your tab. And when a dish was served while one of us was having a comfort break, they immediately offered to return it to the kitchen to keep warm. The kind of service that brings you back.

And the food? Well we sent back six of the cleanest plates you’re ever likely to see. The Olive Branch may recently have lost it’s long-held Michelin star but I don’t think diners could care less. The menu remains inviting, unpretentious British food cooked with finesse and with concern for flavour.

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Devilled whitebait

Stuffed lamb breast with lentils

Stuffed lamb breast with lentils

I started with a cracking little dish of lamb breast with a pine nut stuffing and a lentil stew with sundried tomatoes. The lamb was a classic case of a humble cut delivering big hits of flavour – a real feel-good starter. Neil’s devilled whitebait were perfect – fresh, crunchy, fishy with mayonnaise and braised baby gem.

Mains were classics. I had a coq au vin of such intensity it was all I could do not to pick up the dish and slurp the remaining sauce. Tarragon mash and roast carrots were perfectly done too. Neil stuck with fish and a beautiful fillet of gilthead bream that shimmered on the plate as it sat on a mountain of fregola with a few tempura whitebait.

For desert we both picked trifle and simply sighed with pleasure as we tucked in. Poached Yorkshire rhubarb – still retaining a bit of bite – sat at the bottom and a hefty jamjar with sponge cake soaked in a sherry of real quality (Pedro Ximinez), with jelly and sensibly-judged layers of custard and cream, accompanied a by wonderfully light and fluffy rhubarb sorbet. Blissful.

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Does what it says on the jar

Three courses of food this enjoyable for £19.50 counts as a good deal. There were plenty of countryset types in green gilets so, yes, it’s a little posh (as we left we saw a young barman come out and jump in a sports car – never seen that happen at the Ale Wagon), but it’s not stuffy – it’s friendly and welcoming. And as you leave, you start planning when you can go again.

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