The evenings are getting longer. I’d like to say it’s getting warmer, and surely it will soon. And so this latest review for the Leicester Mercury looks at a fantastic country pub that is ideal for a leisurely drive out from the city. The Fox and Hounds is  ideal for anyone looking for  beautiful food, beautiful surroundings and a bit of class:

The Fox and Hounds at Exton  

I love living in the city. I love being close to the heart of things and where there’s a constant turnover of places to eat and drink, driven by cultural diversity and restless entrepreneurism.

But then again, sometimes I crave quiet – a bit of serenity and a bit of luxury. And when I do, it’s to places such as the Fox and Hounds in Exton I go.

WP_20160406_21_02_11_ProRutland is not short of chocolate box villages, and Exton is one of the finest. Trucked away between Oakham and Stamford on backroads that go nowhere in particular, it’s awesomely English. There’s a pretty village green, solid stone cottages with perfect thatched roofs, a big manor house with a tragic story attached and, hurrah, an impressive 18th Century pub.

Last year it attracted the attention of Rochelle Bushell who along with her son David Graham had run a series of successful bars, restaurants and guest houses in South Africa. The opportunity to revive this beauty was too tempting to resist. Since taking over they have been developing some stylish bedrooms, doing out the bar and restaurant with Rochelle’s eclectic collection of furniture from around the world and developing the kitchen to offer a fine, distinctive food offering that is now ready to take its place among the best in the county.

Walking into the bar area, you immediately feel the weight of the world disappear. Big old comfy sofas, huge gilt mirrors, heavy drapes and cosy fireplaces – it impresses with a slightly faded grandeur; smart enough to be seriously posh, but lived in enough to make you feel at home. On our visit there was a lovely jazz and blues soundtrack too.

On reading the menu, the feel good factor raises further. The dishes have been developed by David Graham and head chef Omar Palazzolo, a young Milanese chef who has La Gavroche and Nobu on his CV. The two of them share a passion for fine British produce and for dishes that make the most of it.

There is still a village pub role for the Fox and Hounds, and there is a classics menu of fish and chips, shepherds pie and erm, pheasant and chanterelle terrine with whisky and lemon spiced marmalade – all around a tenner or so. However the à la carte has compelling dishes that scream out to be tried, so that’s were we were headed.

WP_20160406_19_12_20_ProFirst off though, some of the very best nibbles I’ve encountered (left). Sumptuous olives and little cornichons in a citrus dressing with carefully pared orange zest, flatbreads, a brilliant purée of Mediterranean vegetables, a little pool of pesto and a smear of nduja, a spicy, spreadable salami from Calabria. There was even a super-seasonal little flower-bud of wild garlic.

That set me up for some excellent scallops, with an intense velouté of Jerusalem artichokes with truffle oil, poured at table to give a real aromatic boost. There were also great fresh winter greens and pretty little artichoke crisps. Clearly this is a kitchen that works hard to get the most of its ingredients. The same virtue was present in another starter of lightly battered balls of duckmeat with seasme-spiced noodles and well judged sauces of hoi sin and plum wine jam.

A main of pan-roasted Norwegian cod was a highly successful blend of technique and flavour. The fish given a nice crust and coming in a foaming sauce of apple and pernod with madras spices. Filled out with braised leeks and a cassoulet of cannelini beans, it was a treat to all the senses.

Most dining pubs offer a pork dish but the repetoire is fairly narrow. I’ve had enough belly of pork for the foreseeable future, but here was something much more interesting. A tender, oven roasted free-range loin that was, heaven be praised, still a little pink, and which had been given a yoghurt, rosemary and maple marinade. With some fat woodland mushrooms, little pillows of crisp “pork air”, and a sweetish cider and mustard jus, this was no run of the mill dish but a bit of a joy-ride. Some may not enjoy the range of flavours but I was delighted to find chefs wanting to take a few risks when developing a new dish.

WP_20160406_20_27_04_ProDeserts were a light, refreshing and technically spot-on lemon posset with pistachio crumb and raspberries, and a marvellous bunet(left), a traditional Piedmontese dairy desert with chocolate and amaretti, here served with with salted caramel ice-cream and a crème anglaise with a few sprigs of chervil. Poached blueberries appeared to have been replaced with blackberries which was a shame, but this was a light desert that punched well above its weight.

There’s a serious wine list, although only a limited number available by glass. That said, our Vouvray was superb. And what a treat to have young staff who are friendly, focused, attentive and fully on top of the menu.

The Fox and Hounds obviously has an old time charm about it, but the food is adventurous, high quality and definitely brings something worthwhile to a fairly crowded market.

 

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Backing the Blues

April 25, 2016

The last couple of months I’ve been working on a book that is going to celebrate the food culture of Leicestershire and Rutland. I’m not going to say more just now, but one of the great things about doing it was a chance to speak to some of the fine businesses that are developing our food culture.

Now much as food is very important to me what really gets me motivated is Leicester City, where I’ve had a season ticket for getting for 25 years.  Maybe you’ve heard but we’re doing quite well at the moment – and thus I’m delighted to see food businesses, including several I got to know through writing the book, have responded to the Backing the Blues campaign and are doing something special for the campaign’s key day of 29 April.

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Walker’s Backing the Blues pies are designed by Master Pie Maker and City fan Ian Heircock. Here he is teaching me how to make a pie back in the days when we were rubbish. City, that is. Not me and Ian.

Walker’s are producing three limited edition, City-linked pork pies with distinctive designs that be available on the day fromtheir famous Cheapside store. One is  for Steve Walsh (the ex-captain rather than the current genius talent scout) and Wes Morgan, then there’s  also the “Fluted Fox” and the Riyad Mahrez Melton Mowbray Pork Pie in honour of the  PFA player of the year (I assume they know he’s a Muslim? Oh well…).  There will just 50 each of the £3 pies available on the 29th and each purchaser will have the chance to win pork pies for a year. You might even get to meet Walshy.

 

Crafty Burger, the Rutland and Derby, 33 Cank St and Maiyango are among others doing something special. All right, it’s a PR bandwagon, but this is a very special time  – let’s all make the most of it.

My fellow blogger Laura over has done us all a favour by compiling a directory of all the businesses pitching in, so why not pop over to Extreme Housewifery and see how you can join in the fun?

 

 

 

 

 

Right, so here’s another Mercury review.  I had half expected Poacher’s Brasserie to be a one of those so-so places that tries to be a bit smart but doesn’t have the skills to back it up. But I was pleased to find it was better than that.  It may not be destination dining but the food was good – cooked with care, conceived with  a bit of thought and with no obvious failings. That counts for a lot.

Poacher’s Brasserie, Thurlaston

Poacher’s was an established, well-known face on the Leicestershire dining scene that went missing. Owner Chris Tandy went off to pursue other interests and let the place to a number of different operators, none of whom lasted very long.

So last year he took the place back, refurbished it, and set about regaining some of the old regulars and attracting new diners out to this somewhat isolated village between Leicester and Hinckley. A head chef with international experience was recruited but went fairly quickly, but nonetheless reports came in that the place was on good form.

From the road it is certainly a handsome proposition – a 17th century cottage standing opposite the Norman village church and graveyard. Inside the door there’s a lovely big fireplace, huge soft sofas and a sizeable bar area that is fine for locals to pop in for a drink.

Out the back is a surprisingly large modern extension, a warm environment though be prepared for walls decked out with animal skulls to play on the poachers theme. There’s space for around 80 diners and a flexible layout with moveable partitions. This helps the venue stage events such as sporting nights – Emile Heskey and Geordan Murphy are both featuring soon – and theatrical evenings such as “Only Fools and Three Courses” where actors interact with diners.

Our visit though was on a quiet, post-Easter evening. We took advantage of an appealing midweek offer of a free bottle of wine for a pair of diners having at least two courses each. I feared some real plonk, but the sauvignon blanc from France was a perfectly respectable,enjoyable wine with characteristic hints of gooseberry and apple.WP_20160331_19_14_35_Pro

The menu may not be that wide but that for me suggested a suitably focused kitchen and there was certainly enough appeal to whet the appetite. When our starters came it quickly became clear we were in pretty safe hands. Pigeon breast (right) was beautifully cooked, enough searing to give flavour but pink enough in the middle to maintain tenderness. It came with a good salad of slightly bitter radicchio and parsley and a sweet walnut dressing, plus a little bonbon of black pudding. A well-presented, nicely thought out dish.

Scallops were also handled with confidence and care, and served with slightly spicy black pudding and crushed peas. Not devastatingly original combinations but there’s a reason this match-up is popular and when it’s cooked as well as this it’s a very pleasing dish.

We were served mainly by the owner himself. He has a somewhat laconic demeanour that, judging by social media reports, some don’t warm to. We however found him relaxed and very happy to talk about their food and what they were doing with the restaurant.

Main courses also featured very competent cooking. Cod loin had been wrapped in prosciutto and cooked under a very hot grill – the ham was crispy, almost like a crust, and intensely flavoured, but the cod inside was still perfect. With a few quenelles of a creamy mash, rich enough here I’d say to warrant a designation of pommes mousseline, along with pea purée, a few shavings of pickled fennel and a cod velouté, this impressed.

Chicken breast with sautéed potatoes and chorizo is not exactly a dish setting too many technical challenges but again it was done here in way that elevated it above home cooking. Tender, flavoursome chicken with a fine herby jus that infused thyme throughout the dish. Char-grilled asparagus was maybe slightly overdone but was still a welcome presence on this plate of superior comfort food.

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A desert of vanilla crème brulée was, rather alarmingly, brought to table firmly ablaze (right). I’ve not seen this done before but I’m all for a bit of theatre in restaurants and while it meant the burnt sugar wasn’t as crisp as usual, I enjoyed it all – including the very rich homemade shortbread. A panna cotta was served in a flip-top jar, denying the diner the pleasure of the wobble, but it was good stuff and served with plenty of fresh berries and a stylish chocolate wave.

Poacher’s may not please those looking for huge bowls of spuds and green veg as a sign of good value, but there’s plenty of pubs doing that. But for its well-cooked, carefully considered dishes presented with a bit of restaurant flair, Poachers is most welcome back.

Fine wines on Granby St

April 14, 2016

I’ve written before about how the St Martin’s area in Leicester is booming with high quality independent food and drink outlets.  I’ve never been tempted to say the same about Granby Street. Maybe, just maybe though, there’s something stirring.

Kayal is of course a fairly long-standing star, and there’s one or two other little food outlets of interest now.  What I didn’t expect to see there is a fine wine shop.WP_20160411_13_10_33_Pro

But here it is.  Handily placed opposite The Last Plantagenet.

Wine and Whiskey is not smartest outlet but nonetheless has a pretty good selection of fine wines – especially Burgundies and Clarets, and a very good selection of  beers from Leicestershire’s growing number of small breweries. The spirit selection is impressive too.  I’m not sure what explains the location  – maybe it’s as simple as rents dropping – but its an unexpected pleasure.  I didn’t have time to do much in the way of price comparisons but if you’re in the market for good stuff, it’s worth a look.

One more wine tip while I’m here – Lidl on Loughborough Road currently has Vidal Canadian Ice Wine by Pillitteri on offer.  This was described by the Guardian last Christmas as “intensely luscious” and as cheap at £14.99, and is now on sale at that store at just £7.99 (half-bottle).  Don’t know if the deal is also on at other stores or whether the manager is just having a clear out  – but desert wine lovers will want to make a trip there. No guarantee how long the offer will last though.

 

 

 

A couple of weeks back I was judging in the British Pie Awards.  This is one of the hugely successful food-linked events inspired by Matthew O’Callaghan and his colleagues in the Melton Food Partnership that is giving that town such a reputation for promoting fine food.

At the end of this month comes another in the form of the Artisan Cheese Fair.  Melton had originally bid to host another cheese event but got knocked back – so they established their own and six years later it has grown to be the country’s largest cheese fair.

 

 

artisan-cheese-fair-577_0This year it will feature some 60 local and national makers, showcasing around 300 artisan cheeses – many of which are rarely seen outside their local area. There’s also a series of talks, demonstrations and tastings given by industry experts, as well as enjoying other local produce including  wine, cakes, cider, champagne and fof course pork pies.

So – the dates for your diary are 30 April to 1 May and it takes place at the cattle market on Scalford Rd. It’s open from 10am to 4pm and entrance is £3.

For more information visit www.artisancheesefair.co.uk

Oh, and don’t worry  if you’re not a cheese fan, watch out later this year for news of  both Pie Fest and ChocFest coming to Melton.

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The Peking

April 5, 2016

I enjoyed a recent to the Peking on Charles Street in Leicester. Chinese restaurants today can sometimes seem a little intimidating to those who grew up on simplified Cantonese food introduced by the Hong Kong diaspora, but the Peking is a friendly place with menus that can keep everyone happy.

Here’s my review for the Leicester Mercury:

The Peking has been in Charles Street for as long as I can remember. One of those big Chinese restaurants that evolved to serve a mainly English clientele who had only the vaguest notion of what Chinese food was about, but knew they liked the novel flavours.

It was ruled over by a matriarchal figure known to all as Maureen, a big character who ran a lively restaurant that was often full of big boisterous groups.

Times change, and the presence of a significant Chinese student community has changed the scene significantly, but the Peking carries on. Last year Maureen retired and the place was bought by an old friend of the restaurant Adi. Wisely, while there’s been refurbishment, not much has changed and the experienced chefs and other key personnel remain.

When we rocked up as two middle-aged white men, we were given the main à la carte menu which is still familiar to those who’ve eaten there over the last thirty years or so. We realised later there was a more challenging menu with duck’s tongues and deep fried pig’s intestines. We weren’t too bothered – there’s no shortage of places to try the wilder shores of this cuisine and anyway we were keen to see whether Peking retained its old school appeal.

First off there was a very warm welcome, from Adi himself and his staff team, including a marvellous old gent with a winning smile who I can only assume loves the work so much he can’t bear to retire. He greeted everyone in the restaurant like a long lost friend and looked after us splendidly.

We were seated next to a huge fish tank – we could probably have had a swim in it ourselves – as we checked out the main menu. There’s a small dim sum selection on there as appetisers and we picked pork and prawn dumplings and Peking spare ribs. Both were marvellous. The ribs were meaty, soft and moist, crucially having good degree of fat left on them. I’d had some pretty dreary, dry old ribs a week back in a Highcross chain (oh all right it was Wagamama), but these had me licking my lips and wiping up the sweet and spicy sauce. The dumplings too were well-made, well-balanced, well-spiced.

Main courses followed including pork with XO sauce and sizzling Mongolian lamb. Both dishes were also winners in our book. The pork again was tender, the saucing restrained but tasty, the chilli definitely there but not overwhelming and the vegetables – onions, celery, mangetout – were crunchy and fresh.

The Mongolian nature of the lamb is really about the barbecue-style cooking. Coming on a hot platter there’s a nice bit theatre of table as the sauce is poured on for a big sizzle, shortly followed by a splash of wine. There’s gratifying steam and sound as the cooking and caramelisation process finishes and it really works. The lamb pieces were tinged with black and the crunchy, sticky bits down at the bottom of the platter were, as often is the case, completely delicious. The spicing and saucing is actually more South-East Asian, with lemongrass, coconut and Malayasian curry spices – great flavours all.

The yeung chow fried rice – another familiar dish with prawns, char sui pork and spring onions – and some simple fried noodles completed things well.

I’m sure there are people who think some of these kind of dishes somehow inauthentic, but that would miss the point. This was food cooked with care and precision and the flavours were great. Why should we care if it’s not the same as remembered by someone who once had chicken feet on a business trip to Guandong?

It was quite a nostalgic experience but you can’t help but think that there will continue to be a place for the Peking when it produces food like this. All part of a healthy food scene.

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