For what is Harborough?

October 31, 2014

There’s a wonderful song by Half Man Half Biscuit that lists the qualities of the fenland town of Chatteris

“Three good butchers, two fine chandlers,
An indoor pool and a first class cake shop
Ofsted plaudits, the envy of the Fens
Prick barriers at both ends”

The pay-off is that without the presence of the songwriter’s beloved, these qualities are as nought:

“For what is Chatteris if you’re not there?
I may as well be in Ely or St Ives”

imagesAnyway, this poignant number was brought to mind yesterday as I walked around Market Harborough. Its food offering is really impressive for a town of its size – pump-primed of course by well-heeled London escapees and commuters. It’s got a very tidy indoor market with a decent butchers and fishmongers but also specialist Japanese, Spanish and Chinese food stalls.

Then out in the town itself there are numerous good delis, a respectable range of restaurants, a great butcher (Bates), and two top-rate craft bakers (Hambleton and The Garage). Duncan Murray Wines is an example to all independent retailers, there’s an intriguing new micropub, and  an excellent kitchenware shop. In Farndon Fields – a 20 minute walk from the town centre – it has possibly the county’s biggest and best farm shop. Interestingly the supermarkets – the cheap ones, the middling one and the posh one – are all grouped more or less together in a ghetto near the town centre, easily ignored if you want or suitable for a quick raid. (The crisis ridden, allegedly fraudulent one is out on the Eastern edge of town).

Anyway – if you don’t know the place and that sounds good, pay it a visit. If it doesn’t, you may as well be in Corby or Coalville.

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My review in this weekend’s Mercury featured Byron in The Highcross. As you’ll see, we liked it. A good burger is a thing of beauty and these are good, so…that’s it really. They live up to their mission to do a simple thing well and do it properly.  It’s not cheap – and the beer in particular is rather steep – but you will like it.

Byron review

 

A crafty move by the O Bar

October 17, 2014

WP_20141016_18_05_48_ProI was at the relaunch of The O Bar on Braunstone Gate last night – now re-engineered as a specialist craft beer bar. It’s an intriguing move in the context of Braunstone Gate, which spent the 90s as the hip end of town, but in the last decade has lost some of its distinctiveness.

The O Bar, the late-night bar of the Orange Tree group, started to reassert itself last year by using its upstairs as a pop-up American barbecue restaurant The Smokehouse. It turned out such a success it was made a permanent fixture, but that left the downstairs bar “not quite right” according to director Gareth Smith (some might know him as Pugsy). With people travelling from beyond the West End for the food, an improved drinks offer made sense too. Gareth credits his dynamic general manager Phil for the brave decision to go the whole hog and chuck out not only the Carling, but the Becks and the other big brands and go fully on craft beers – for sale in thirds and two-thirds – and real ales.

Along with this chef Liam from the Smokehouse upstairs is now providing a limited bar menu downstairs  – pulled pork buns, kielbasa hotdogs loaded with chilli, onions and mustard, hot wings, ribs and nachos. So far it’s mainly been supplying the overflow from the restaurant but there’s scope to attract non-diners who nonetheless fancy a bite as they sip those fancy beers.

O bar craft beers

Craft beer tasting at The O bar

It’s a brave move because no doubt some will alienated by the unfamiliar beers and, you can’t avoid it, the considerably higher prices. What can’t be denied is there are some really fantastic beers on sale. The sublime Jaipur many people will know all about, but there’s many more – The Capt Ruhstaler Black IPA, clocking in at a hefty 7.6 per cent, looks like a stout but explodes with bright citrussy flavours on the palate. Founder’s All Day IPA is a more quaffable 4.7 per cent but still packs a heavyweight hop punch. Look out too for the burnt-toffee dark lager from Freedom and the Helles and pale ale from the award-winning Sara Barton of Brewster’s in Grantham.

I certainly wish them all the best  – this distinctive independent offering is an important antidote to the safe familiarity on offer in most of the City Centre. And as Gareth said to me in relation to the bar scene:  “Leicester has tended be the poor relation of Nottingham – it’s up to the likes of us to try and address that.”

Marrakech in the Mercury

October 13, 2014

As some of you may know, I have now started writing restaurant reviews for the Leicester Mercury. Doesn’t mean I’ll abandon this blog – but I’ve sort of agreed I’ll put links to the Mercury review page rather reproduce the review in its entirety here. I would envisage there’ll be times when I’ve got more things to say than go in the paper but, equally sometimes maybe I’ll just put the link up. We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, the reviews are in the Saturday edition More magazine supplement and the first one was Marrakech on Highfield Street, Leicester. In a nutshell – tasty, home-style Moroccan food in low-key neighbourhood restaurant.  Go here for the full review.

 

It Hasbean a pleasure

October 13, 2014

I was delighted to meet one of my food heroes last week. I’ve been buying Steve Leighton’s coffee for over five years now, making online orders to his company Hasbean. I ‘m hoping quite a few readers here may have discovered him through the link to the site which has been at the bottom of the homepage since the this blog started.

Not only does he offer a great range of small-batch coffees, often from producers he knows and has visited personally, but he is an instinctive master of social media. His infectious and exuberant enthusiasm shines through all aspects of the business, not least through his In My Mug podcasts – little newsy filmed reports in which he also tastes a coffee of the week.

The occasion of us meeting was Steve’s visit to a party to open the Pocklington’s Walk offices of Rock Kitchen Harris, the Leicester communications business which helped develop his website. I know several of the staff there are regular readers here (Hiyaaa!!) and I’ll return the compliment by saying buying through the Hasbean site is a very simple and well-planned process.

Steve used the occasion to film an episode of In My Mug – see below, though I recognise  it may not mean all that much to those who weren’t there. It does, though, give an idea of the kind of deeply informative jollity he brings to the process of buying your beans.

If you’ve not really understood the appeal of great coffee, I recommend you look at Coffee 101, the introductory course Steve has prepared that comes to you in series of emails over 10 days. I’ll finish by repeating one of my favourite sayings, which also got a run-out at the RKH do, “Life is too short for instant coffee”.

More signs of life on the Leicester eating out scene with news of a pop-up collaboration between St Martin’s Tea and Coffee and chef Chris Elliman of Crafty’s.

The two businesses are taking inspiration from the likes of The Smokehouse and Byron to run a burger and craft beer pop-up at St Martins on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from the end of October for six weeks.

A special blend of beef is being dry-aged by Woods butchers of Clarendon Park which will be handmade into a range of burgers which, it is promised, will showcase the best of local produce. Leading the pack in tasting tastes is El Gordo featuring a beef patty, pulled beef  chilli, Red Leicester, jalapenos and smoked chilli ketchup, all in a brioche bun with pickles. All burgers and fries will cost under £10.

“We’re excited about kicking off Crafty’s in St Martin’s- a cool venue with a similar ethos to our own,” said Chris Elliman. “We both want to offer something unique to Leicester and encourage people to support local suppliers and try something a bit different.”

Andy Hall of St Martin’s said that this “short blast of creativity” fitted his company’s ethos perfectly, adding  “Collaborations between independents are so important for a vibrant Leicester.”

Further details of discounted soft opening nights and how to book will be out soon on social media via @stmartinscoffee and @craftyburgers and their Facebook pages.

 

After the sad failure-to-launch of Leicester’s Market Corner, it’s good to learn there is another attempt at fostering a street food scene in Leicester.

The new Market Hall has a small street food unit facing out towards the market stalls and from this Friday and Saturday (10 and 11 October) onwards there will be high quality street food traders every weekend. Initially there be three businesses there on a rotating basis, starting off with gourmet hot dogs from Harborough-based Big Daddies, and subsequently US-style barbecue from Coalville’s Miss Piggy’s (just back with a hatful of trophies from the European BBQ championships) and high-quality burgers and more from Pick’s organic farm.

"This could get messy..."  - a Big Daddy hotdog.

“This could get messy…” – a Big Daddy hotdog.

I spoke briefly to Jeff Wilson of Big Daddies who was pleased to be adding Leicester to their list of regular venues along with Birmingham’s Digbeth Dining Club and Coventry’s new arts hub Fargo. “What we do is probably best encapsulated as restaurant quality food at street vendor prices,” he claimed. “All our food is sourced in the Harborough area and is home-made  to high standards  – there’s no sweepings, no nasties. We’ll be doing our hot-dogs and a few specials such as Philly cheese steaks and we’ll be doing a currywurst to mark Oktoberfest.”

It’ll be good to have these new lunch options in the city centre and hopefully this will in due course provide a low-cost entry for more businesses offering innovation and quality to offer their wares in Leicester.

34 Windsor St

October 1, 2014

Restaurants, higher-end places especially, recognise that it’s not enough just to open the doors and cook. It can help if your venue develops a personality and offers chances to deepen the relationships with clientele. Special events such as wine tastings can do that.

34 WindsorI was at 34 Windsor St in Burbage recently at a fun evening that offered an intriguing way in to understanding wine. Billed as a Cluedo evening, wine educator Raj Solanki’s approach (left) was to personify grapes – hence Pinot Grigio was Paris Hilton, “an It Girl, of good heritage, can be a bit vacuous, but capable of something more”. He fleshed these out with details of what to look for in terms of colour, acidity, tannins and flavours and invited diners to work in teams to use these clues to identify a selection of mystery wines served with a three-course dinner.

So a light-hearted way of getting information across, and while it wasn’t a food and wine matching event, Raj did set up little demonstrations to show the effect of certain flavours – lemon, chilli, sweet biscuits – on the palate and on individual wines. We were also had our nosing ability tested by having to identify a variety of fragrances in tiny phials.

Foodwise the evening featured the delicate, skilful cooking of chef Sam Owen. He learnt his trade in top Lincolnshire restaurants – including Winteringham Fields – and cites the likes of David Everett-Mathias, Sat Bains and Simon Rogan among his inspirations. That much was certainly evident in a technically impressive starter of pear and cauliflower textures, accentuated with flavours of lemon (including little chunks of compressed fruit where the air has been vacuumed out, resulting in an particularly pure flavour) and hay smoke delivered under a cloche.

The main course featured a mountain of deeply meaty “pressed beef” (blade possibly?) with a wonderful little croquette of salted cod. This came with jeruslaem artichokes – which to me looking revolting on the plate but if you can get over that, they add an intriguing earthy taste. The dish might have been better balanced with a bit more than a couple of small spinach leaves, but great flavours. Highlight was a desert with 11 elements of bitter chocolate, acorn and caramel. This combined being technical and “interesting” with straightforward choccy appeal. Actually the best bit for me was the ambrosial acorn panna cotta – extraordinarily creamy and moreish.

Wine events are set to become a monthly event at 34 Windsor St, with a Seresin Estate,  Marlborough, tasting dinner at the end of October. A good way of getting to know this smart West Leicestershire restaurant offering serious, grown-up food.

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