Wagamama revisited

March 14, 2016

It’s hard to remember sometimes how far the “casual dining” sector has come over the last 20 years. Nowadays it seems everyone who’s run a butty van or spent a couple months as assistant manager at Pizza Express is desperate to launch their Korean/Peruvian street food concept, while cash-rich city funds buy up anything that seems a runner.

In 1992 it wasn’t really like that  when Alan Yau, now possibly more famous in foodie circles for his restaurants  Hakkasan and Yauatcha, opened Wagamama. Simple shared bench tables, lively far-Eastern cuisine, competitive prices and a turn-up and eat approach made a big  impact in London. When it started to appear in the regions it was a real revelation  – I remember being hugely excited about going to Nottingham and quieting for 30 minutes to squidge up next to some strangers to eat a plate a noodles.

In a world when slick  but dull food places are on every corner, and when Wagamama itself has over 100 branches and been passed like a toy between private equity firms (current owners are Duke Street Capital), does it still have something to offer?

The Leicester branch has apparently been refurbished and I had some vouchers so gave it a try. It retains some benches  but there are conventional tables too – it’s a pleasant environment, especially if you like looking at the busy coming and goings around the Highcross restaurant quarter and the Showcase cinema.

Food wise it still has a selection of ramen noodles, rice dishes, curries, teppanyaki grills and other quick and cheerful Asian dishes. We had a couple of mains and a couple of side dishes.The pork ribs were pretty ordinary – they had the feel of things that been hanging around a far time before being heated up and given a glaze with spoonfuWP_20160311_19_06_45_Prol or two of unexciting  sauce from a big tub. The squid was better  – a bit dry maybe but tasty with a feisty salt and chilli rub and a sweet chilli and coriander dipping sauce, it was very easy to enjoy.


The mains were pretty good. Chicken raisukoree  had everything present and correct  –  chicken, mangetout, peppers, red and spring onions in a very pleasant  coconut curry sauce with sticky rice,  chillies and coriander. A quarter of a fresh lime was probably  the most lively flavour in the dish but I certainly  had no complaints  – it still had something of that thrill of that first encounter with far Eastern food.

Teriyaki chicken donburi – glazed and grilled chicken  with sticky white rice, shredded carrots, pea shoots and onions – was another good dish, though the kimchee with it was pretty insipid.

We passed an enjoyable hour at Wagamama and if the food wasn’t all amazing, the best of it was good and tasty and offered in an environment that entirely suits a busy city centre where you can come and go  quickly.  If I was looking for a new culinary adventure I’d probably dig out a backstreet Chinese café and see where it led me, but Wagamama still serves up a pretty good mainstream alternative.















ci 4I’ve always enjoyed visits to Chutney Ivy and was pleased to accept a recent invitation to a press night where we had the chance to sample a selection of dishes from the menu chosen by co-owner Shafs Islam

Opening Chutney Ivy in 2010 was a brave move for Shafs.  The recession was threatening the success of the Leicester’s Cultural Quarter and it risked being stuck in a backwater. Things might have improved somewhat but even today some 600 Indian restaurants have closed in the last 18 months. Nonetheless this upmarket venue has increasingly seemed the right restaurant in the right place.

Shafs has a lifetime in restaurants starting from the Shireen on London Road, an old school tandoori in the 80s, and also taking in Shimla Pinks – one of the new breed of Indian restaurants a decade or so later that so took a more modern  approach.  Along with co-owner Simon Postlethwaite he wanted to take  Chutney Ivy a step further and open a smart, stylish restaurant that just happened to serve Indian food.

I think it took a while to find its feet after opening in 2010 but now seems to be performing well – combining a smart a la carte menu woth a popular pre-theatre offering (if you haven’t realised, it’s virtually opposite Curve). It also  has a lovely downstairs bar which is popular for meetings, parties and weddings.  Great Food magazine declared it the best Inidian restaurant in the city,  it’s gained a Michelin listing, and to Shafs’ immense pride was shortlisted in the National Curry Awards last November.

They celebrated that success with this  press evening in conjunction with FU media and from tender chicken kebabs to a stunning lamb shank nihari (below)  and  some ginormous prawns (above),  the food was of high quality and deeply satisfying.  Another standout was the duck samosa – a dish which Shafs himself helped developed after thinking how he could translate a Chinese dish of crispy duck pancakes into an Indian format.

ci 10

Chutney Ivy is not the cheapest restaurant in town but you can definitely see where your money is going here. Great ingredients and some flair and imagination in the kitchen.







Crafty’s Taqueria

March 3, 2016

I did manage to pop in to Crafty’s Taqueria last night by around 8.30pm  and found the place buzzing, with the last of some 300 orders being brought out.


The idea – one-off midweek evening with tasty  Mexican streetfood supper around £6 plus beers, with live DJ and the odd bit of Day of the Dead make-up on the staff – certainly seemed to have worked splendidly, though the team did acknowledge that with far more people than they anticipated turning up there was “quite a bit of learning”.

Apparently Leicester’s Mexican community ( I know! Who knew!) were out in force and seemed to enjoy themselves. All in all, this is maybe the kind of evening probably de-rigeur in the more happening parts of London, but Leicester? Well done to Chris and Andrea  for having a go and pulling it off. I look forward to seeing  their next ideas.

Then it was home to watch Match of the Day, without knowing the results of the Arsena, Tottenham and Manchester City games. Oh my. What a lovely evening.

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