The Best of 2015

December 28, 2015

It’s been an exciting year for Leicestershire and Rutland restaurants, and I’ve been thinking back over some of the great food I’ve encountered this year. Here’s a sample of ten of my best culinary experiences of 2015 ,as done for the Leicester Mercury|:

1)St Martin’s Tea and Coffee, Leicester

This could have had three entries in the top ten. First off, the day-time cafe regularly features an epic sandwich – the Cuban has layers of marinated pork that chef Chris Elliman has slow-cooked overnight, along with more meat, cheese and pickles that combine in a remarkable way. Working alongside Elliman is Javan-born chef Bobby Ananta providing a South-East Asian slant on the menu, and his beef rendang was a complete revelation. Warmly-spiced slow-cooked meat that fell apart, plenty of toasted coconut and fresh salad spiked with lime juice. Finally, from Thursday to Saturday evening the venue hosts Crafty’s, serving up the best burgers in the county.

crafty10

2) Kayal, Leicester

It seems every week some celebrity chef turns up to learn from the Kayal crew, most recently it was Ainsley Harriot and, erm, Len Goodman filming there. It’s understandable as there is a long list of fine dishes on offer here along with some of the best service you’ll encounter. It’s hard to pick a favourite but I’m always knocked out by the Kottayam Egg Fry starter – an Easter special among Kerala’s Syriac Christian community and somewhat prosaically described here as a “batter-fried boiled egg with chutney”. It’s a beautifully tangy, vibrant curry that everyone should try.

3) The Berkeley Arms, Wymondham

I’d been wanting to get to this highly-rated country pub between Melton and Oakham for years and finally made it in the Spring. I wasn’t disappointed and stand-out dish was a braised leg of hare with poached pear and candied walnuts, a tremendous combination of flavours and texture.

4) The White Peacock, Leicester

Chef Phillip Sharpe has settled into his New Walk restaurant very comfortably and is producing elegant, fine food in sophisticated surroundings. A duck terrine from the tasting menu last Spring still lingers in the memory as combining great flavours with refined presentation. Wrapped in cabbage and made into a perfect cylinder, it was matched with charred brioche toast, a fruity mango salsa and little discs of crunchy radish.

5) 34 Windsor St, Burbage

A lively, swanky, welcoming fine dining restaurant that appears to be thriving with new head chef Arran Shaw. A long spell in Italy inspired Arran with the principles of the Slow Food movement and a respect for quality ingredients. That all came together in a marvellous starter of vibrant home-cured salmon with beer mustard and red and gold beetroot, plus a slice of remarkably complex Russian black bread – the result of several years recipe development.

7) John’s House, Mountsorrel

After a review last summer I speculated that the big national food guides might soon catch on to the remarkable food on offer here. A few months later it was granted Leicestershire’s first Michelin Star. I loved the domestic feel of John’s House and while all the dishes impressed with their focus on fabulous ingredients, it was the canapes served as we sat on the sofa pondering the menu that landed a memorable knock-out blow – a dreamy duck liver parfait served in a little cornet with a dash of sweet cumberland sauce and topped with a savoury crunch of chicken skin.

Duck liver parfait

8) Bewicke Arms, Hallaton

New owners and new chefs have at last turned this well-known country pub into a real destination for diners. Chefs Tom Cockerill and Glenn Cowl do things the right way – as evidenced by a superb starter of grilled Dexter ox heart, lightly grilled and served with locally-made salami. A dish like that is a real statement of intent from the kitchen.

9) Maiyango, Leicester

Owner Atin Anadkat has skilfully steered this business over the last decade, expanding to include a stylish boutique hotel. This year it gained a new head chef in the form of Sav Tassari. He can do big and gutsy – I remember an epic fillet steak – but he also builds on the restaurant’s reputation for delicacy and for catering for vegans and vegetarians. Fitting then, that my top memory is of simple but stunning starter of fragrant winter vegetables – fine specimens including squash, artichoke and beetroots in a gentle sweet and sour dressing which let the essential earthiness through.

10) The Salmon, Leicester

If I was asked to show a foreign visitor an example of British food at its very best I could happily take them to any of the fine establishments written about here. However I might just settle for The Salmon. On a Friday evening, with the serious business of the week largely done, I can think of few finer moments than when halfway down the second pint of some or other real ale in this award winning pub, one of your friends disappears to the bar shortly to be followed back by a barmaid with a large Stilton-topped pork pie, cut neatly into manageable slices, and a jar of mustard. The pub was set to change ownership in December – I hope the pies stay in place.

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Sapori

December 18, 2015

A couple of weeks back I had a trip out to Anstey with my pal Sean who , among other things in his busy schedule,  contributes music reviews to the Leicester Mercury – this time though we were for me to review this rather classy Italian restaurant for the paper:

Sapori
40 Stadon Rd
Anstey
LE7 7AY
0116 236 8900

For all his strengths – winning two promotions, fighting off packs of wild Romanian dogs – Nigel Pearson was not a great boost to Leicester’s restaurant industry. Don Claudio on the other hand…

One of the venues where Signor Ranieri has been happy to be snapped smiling with the owners is Sapori, a venue he is quoted as saying “reminds of him home”. The restaurant is run by Luigi Ricciardi, with his brother-in-law and fellow Neapolitan Andrea Scarpati as head chef. The two met while working in a restaurant on Braunstone Gate and when they subsequently became family, they looked to open their own venue. They avoided the city and four years ago opened up in Anstey.

It’s hard not to sound slightly patronising here but this a bigger, more stylish, higher-aiming restaurant then you might expect to find in a place like Anstey. Set in a former industrial building on the edge of the village centre you pass a large private function room with it own bar and into the main restaurant space. It’s smart and lively with an open kitchen at the end with busy chefs in full whites and toques. There’s plenty of smartly-dressed staff who are pleasant and attentive, a bit overly so at times. Overall it’s less neighbourhood trattoria and much more smart night out.

A look at the menu reaffirms that impression. Everything – we are assured – from bread to gelati is home made, dishes appear ambitious and the pricing is to match. There are pizza and pasta available, and while the likes of porcini and taleggio ravioli sauteed in butter sage and paremsan with butternut squash puree certainly sound appealing, we explored other parts of the menu.

A starter of chicken liver liver with armagnac was nicely made, rich and smooth and softened by the alcohol. It was also beautifully served with toasted sultana bread and a superb chutney of Tropea onions, the sweet red variety from Calabria. Lightly-smoked mackerel was great and the match with some seriously delicious chorizo was far more successful than we had anticipated. With pared segments of Sicilian orange and dabs of orange gel it was a lovely dish.

This was sophisticated, well thought-out food. For our main courses what stood out was the sheer quality of the ingredients. A superb piece of cod was daubed in a smoky aubergine relish along with confit cherry tomatoes and samphire. I wasn’t totally convinced by the matching of cod and aubergine but again it was serious food, cooked very well. Venison cooked two ways featured jaw-droppingly good pan-fried loin – some of the best flavoured meat I’ve ever come across – in a sauce of chianti and blueberries. It was heavenly stuff and the only drawback was there wasn’t more of it. That said the accompanying venison shepherd’s pie was just as appealing in it’s own way and filled out the dish. The vegetable accompaniments were fairly routine and a little soft for my liking.

Wines including glasses of nero’d’avola and pinot grigio were fair value, but there was a minor fail on service. When ordering by the glass it is helpful to have confirmation of your wine – especially when brought by a different waiter – rather than have it just put down.

One of us was always going to have home made Italian gelato as desert and the brightly-flavoured wild strawberry version served on choux pastry bun with a warm white chocolate sauce was very good indeed. From the specials menu a selection of handmade chocolates with flavours including praline, tonka bean and coconut were a delight too.

A few weeks back Sapori was actually named the best Italian restaurant in England, though I’m not convinced the second running of “Food Awards England” carried a great deal of weight in the industry. The Good Food Guide does, however, and Sapori has a prized entry in the 2016 edition. What is clear is that Sapori is a classy venue producing good food. We were pushing the boat out a little – I’d be very happy to go back and try a simple pasta dish.

 

The Real Ale Classroom

December 14, 2015

WP_20151210_21_32_34_ProA quick welcome to the Real Ale Classroom. This micropub on Allandale Rd in Stoneygate opened two weeks ago with an impressive range of beers served straight from the barrel and immediately became one of the more interesting places in the city to have a quick pint.

It’s small and cramped when it’s full but that’s rather the point with micropubs – you have to go in within an attitude of being willing to shove along let someone sit down and, in what we’re told is a most un-British way, have a chat with those around you.

There will regularly be 5 or 6 ales on – I think there were 8 the night I visited – with a range of styles and strengths and mainly from local brewers. Even the gin and tonic came from Leicestershire distillers Two Birds.  With traditional pubs closing, this model of small, sociable  and quality beer-focused  venues could point the way forward

Karamay

December 8, 2015

As promised a couple of weeks back, here’s my Leicester Mercury review of Karamay, the new Western Chinese venue on London Road. As you’ll see, it not exactly fancy but it is interesting and definitely rewards curiousity:

Karamay Western China Cuisine
109 London Road
Leicester
LE2 0PF
0116 319 6691

A few weeks back I wrote about how UK diners are becoming better educated, and being offered more choice, when it comes to our sometimes narrow view of cuisines of international cultures. Sure enough, shortly after writing about a new Keralan restaurant, a new Southern Indian restaurant with a focus on Tamil Nadu opened on London Road.

It’s not just Indian food that is now represented by a far wider range of styles. The pace of change in Chinese restaurants is becoming breakneck. Last year The Guardian newspaper ran a piece about the move away from Westernised versions of Cantonese food and the increasing diversity taking in Szechuan and Hunan styles. But the cuisine of Western China, and Xinjiang in particular, didn’t even seem to be on their radar. In fact, an online search for “Western” Chinese assumes you must be looking for Chow Mein and Chop Suey.

But now in Leicester we have the chance to know better. Also new on the increasingly vibrant London Road is Karamay. Named after the oil-rich boom town in Xinjiang’s Uighur Autonomous Region, this informal venue offers the fascinating food of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, a people with roots in Central Asia and a culture quite distinct from the Han and other groups in Eastern China. The food is a mix of influences that reflect the multicultural days of the old Silk Routes, with what appears to be a bit of Turkish influence here, a touch of Mongolian or Persian there, as well as some hints of more mainstream Chinese.

Karamay is fairly basic, cafe style place, but softened with some great artwork from back home and cultural artefacts on the wall. There’s a big window through to the kitchen too so you can see the chefs at work. The menu offers pictures of the Uighur specialities and also lists some of the more classic Chinese dishes available – naturally we focused on house specialities.

We ordered some lamb skewers (£1.50 each), nicely barbecues chunks of lamb seasoned with chilli, salt, pepper and cumin. These were every bit the equal of kebabs from a Turkish grill, as were meaty spicy chicken wings with sesame seeds and spring onions. We also tried Uighur samsa, which may or may not by etymologically linked to samosa, but what ever the case are tasty little meat or vegetable filled pastries. In this case, they were circular-shaped with puff pastry and filled with delicious spiced minced chicken – at a £1 a pop these were so good I came back for more the next day.

I had spoken to a friend who had worked in Xinjiang and she went misty-eyed at the thought of noodles. So naturally we ordered leghmen, a signature Uighur dish featuring hand-pullled noodles with a distinctive rough and ready appearance and a bit more bite than the packet stuff. We had them with fairly gently spiced beef, tomatoes, peppers and celery and enjoyed them immensely. Then there was kordak – a pleasingly rustic lamb stew with carrots and potatoes hat could have passed for a Lancashire hotpot or a French pot-au-feu, were it not for the presence of chilli and star anise and that it was served with a chapati rather than baguette. Be prepared to pick up and gnaw the bones.

BaoChaw chicken had deep-fried, heavily seasoned, diced meat with plenty of garlic, prodigious – amounts of red chilli (easily picked around if you wish – it didn’t permeate the dish excessively) and the odd hit of cumin. Lots of celery – the Uighurs like celery – and green pepper too. Subtle it wasn’t and it works better as one of a range of shared dishes but it was powerful and distinctive.

Karamay is fully halal and so there’s no pork dishes and no alcohol – though definitely recommended is the sour plum juice which is fair substitute for a glass of wine.

Service is friendly and advice will be given for the timorous. It is basic though – my plastic bottle of plum juice was placed unopened on the table and I waited a couple of minutes before deciding it probably wasn’t culturally insensitive to ask for a glass – which was brought with a smile.

There’s a fair number of this kind of venue that have sprung up around the city catering mainly for Chinese students and, in this case, local Muslims. For others, while its not exactly a smart night out, it is a welcome chance to enjoy a new food experience.

Sunday lunch at The Font

December 1, 2015

Here’s the second in a pair of Sunday lunch reviews for the Leicester Mercury. I was keen to recommend a place that wasn’t a posh country pub restaurant but an honest, great value, urban venue that was ideal for a relaxed wander down to for a pint and some roast beef. The Font fits the bill perfectly – at £12 for three courses it doesn’t break the bank, the food is fine and it’s well run:

The Font
52 ½ Gateway Street
Leicester LE2 7DP
0116 319 7855
Food service – Mon-Sun 12-7pm

Doing this job, I’m often asked for recommendations for places to eat. It’s a question that usually prompts a lot more back from me – who’s going, what do they like, what’s your budget, will you be driving, are you looking for formal or informal?

Pointers for a good Sunday lunch are a particularly common request and my questions are just the same. Most restaurants or pubs that do food should be able to rustle up a decent Sunday roast, and so the key questions are budget and the kind of venue you want. Last week I reviewed a smart country pub in a relatively remote village that for many is priced in the special treat category. This week it’s a funkier urban venue that is easily accessible for most city-dwellers and which offers tremendous value.

The Font will be well-known to those connected with nearby De Montfort University and the Royal Infirmary. But, tucked away on a back street, it’s a bit off the map for many others who might enjoy its relaxed Sunday vibe. You wouldn’t describe it as cosy – it’s a large, high-ceilinged room in modern building with a long bar with some high stools and ledges for perching and some fairly rough old furniture laid out like a refectory. That said, while there’s piles of magazines and fliers around the place, it doesn’t have that Student Union feel of some of chain pubs in the area. It feels like an independent place run by people who care and where everyone is welcome.

It’s regular menu is fairly standard drinker’s fare of burgers, nachos, all day breakfasts and so on but done well enough to suggest that standards matter to the kitchen. On Sundays the lunch offering is slimmed down to a couple of starters a choice of three roasts and a couple of desserts. At £12 for three courses this looked a bargain – as long the food was of good standard.

I started with a great peppery leek and potato soup, with big crunchy croutons and a cheffy chiffonade of leeks to garnish. Winter had finally arrived on the day of our visit and this was a very good warming soup dish with good flavour and texture. The other starter was of ham hock croquettes – well-made, tasty little nuggets with some fresh, crisp leaves in an excellent honey and mustard dressing.

WP_20151122_14_52_26_ProOur roasts – one beef, one turkey – were absolutely fine. Plenty of good quality meat, some really outstanding roast potatoes and excellent freshly prepared yorkshire puddings. There were three vegetables including some cheese-topped broccoli in portions than amounted to an elegant sufficiency rather than the Desperate Dan approach you can find yourself adopting at a carvery.

The pub does have some good offers on wine but on this occasion we stuck to a couple of craft beers from Meantime and Vedett – both a happy match for a Sunday lunch.

WP_20151122_15_21_25_ProDesserts changed from the printed menu, offering confirmation that dishes here are prepared from fresh and when they’ve gone they’ve gone ,rather than another batch being defrosted or whatever. Home-made rice pudding with home-made raspberry jam and chocolate brioche soldiers was unashamed nursery pudding heaven and a cheesecake with chocolate shards and chocolate sauce was equally appealing.

Staff reflect the venue – young, somewhat hipster but friendly, efficient and solicitous.

No-one would claim this is truly outstanding food unmatched in the Midlands, but for a relaxed, informal but good quality lunch in the heart of the city along with the Sunday papers or a group of friends, the Font does a very good job and at a great price.

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