Marabel

June 30, 2017

As most readers will know I’ve been reviewing for the Leicester Mercury for the last couple of years, and putting some of the more interesting reviews on here. Sadly the paper has decided to take the reviews “in house” – meaning they don’t have to pay an experienced freelancer like me but a staffer can do it as part of their job. Freelance people of any stripe will be aware of this phenomenon.

So no more Mercury reviews here I’m afraid – but I will try and keep the blog going with whatever news and reviews I can manage under my own steam. Here’s the last review done for the Mercury, based on an enjoyable couple of visits to a new Italian restaurant in Stoneygate.

 

 

Marabel

21 Allandale Road
Leicester
LE2 2DA
0116 270 3222

 

‘It’s not that “nouveau cuisine” is it?” asked the middle-aged man, warily. The waiter had just started to explain to him that Marabel is a cicchetti restaurant, featuring small plates for sharing and he seemed to feel he might be left hungry. Maintaining his equilibrium with admirable poise, the waiter suggested how he might like to order and assured him that the food would be nice and filling.

marabel1I suspect his little cameo may have been played several times over the last month since Marabel opened in the premises that previously housed the bar Mason and Brooke. Even in a place as apparently sophisticated as Stoneygate the concept of cicchetti doesn’t seem to have trickled down into the zeitgeist in the same way as tapas. But it is essentially the same concept, starting in the bars of Venice as simple sandwiches or snacks served with a drink, and later becoming pretty much synonymous with small versions of the national cuisine in a restaurant setting.

Marabel’s menu is a wide ranging collection of enticing Italian dishes at around £4 to £6 each plus the odd Spanish influence (patatas bravas should make the tapas penny drop). Appetisers such as San Daniele prosciutto with parmesan and aged balsamic set the tone for dishes that major on good ingredients treated simply and with a strong sense for flavour combinations. And on our first lunchtime visit that’s exactly what we got.

WP_20170601_007Crab piadinas (above) were delightful – flat breads stuffed with a well-balanced combination of crabmeat, lemon and mascapone. Pea and basil arancini were similarly excellent – deep-fried rice balls in a thin, crisp crumb with a garlicky mayonnaise, while a spinach and rocket salad was simple and fresh with plenty of thick shavings of parmesan. More substantial was a pasta dish of penne with 12-hour cooked beef ragu, a dish you’ve no doubt cooked at home but here was a genuine depth of flavour that made it restaurant-worthy. The same criteria I suppose applied to a lamb skewer (below – slatophobes fear not,  you do get provided with plates too) which had had been marinated in an oil, paprika chilli and mint to very good effect – the meat had been threaded with onions and peppers and barbecued in a clay oven.

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All these dishes were very well seasoned and dressed with herbs, crumbs, parmesan or oil – they felt cared for and designed to please.

The restaurant also describes itself as a wine bar and indeed the wine list is excellent, bearing the clear imprint of Simon March of Evington’s on Evington Rd. A shame then only two of each colour seem to be available by the glass. We certainly enjoyed the inevitable pinot grigio and a light, easy-going Bardolino that was full of cherries, but with Evington’s being my local shop I’m familiar with the wines on that list and with food as full-flavoured as this it would have been good to try something with more oomph such as the Marius Reserva from Southern Spain or the Salice Salentino Sampietrana from Puglia.

Anyway, I was keen to go back for an evening meal and this time picked some of the heftier dishes. Belly of pork was terrific, with soft, unctuous meat with sweet apple sauce and crispy sage leaves. The chicken cacciatora (literally hunter’s chicken) certainly had plenty of flavour but to my taste the tomato sauce was over-reduced and the dish was left a little dry, especially as only breast meat appeared to have been used. My mamma’s version (ok, granted, she’s from Battersea not Bologna) used moist leg and thigh meat and had plenty of sauce. A final dish of wild mushrooms in a creamy, garlicky sauce was exactly as it should be, ludicrously indulgent and terrifically tasty.

There’s little here that breaks boundaries or which will change your opinion of Italian cuisine but the food appears to be lovingly prepared by people who care about flavour and know how to treat ingredients. The environment and the service are very pleasant too. I think the format works a little better for a light lunch rather than a slap-up dinner but this is good food that will keep local peers such as neighbours Timo and Queens Rd tapas bar Barceloneta on their toes.

 

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6 Degrees

June 27, 2017

 

IMG_3166Six Degrees is in many ways a modest little café on the busy London Rd. It serves excellent coffee from Leicester’s St Martin’s (soya and oat milk available for vegans), lovely cakes from “a lady in Wigston”, a nice line in freshly made sandwiches (bacon, brie and sweet chilli, peri peri chicken etc) and light snacks.

But what makes it particularly noteworthy is that is that is run by the Leicester charity Open Hands Trust and 100 per cent of the profits go to helping vulnerable and underprivileged local people with clothes, food, furniture and help with issues such self-esteem, English language and pre-school provision.  There’s a small core of paid staff backed by a team of 30 volunteers, who range from retired folk to youngsters seeking a bit of work experience to regular customers who just like the idea and want to contribute.

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The shop was apparently a dream of manger Hazel Nash  – as in she literally had a dream about running a café  – which chimed with the ambitions of the charity. It’s been open for just over a year and the combination of social enterprise and friendly, accessible environment is popular with students from the nearby university (free Wi-Fi available), local business people and those coming and going up and down the London Road. They’ve been so busy they already converted their basement into a cosy extra space.

What’s good is that it doesn’t come across as either worthy or done on the cheap. “People say to us – ‘this is so nice but you’re raising money for charity – how does that work?!’,” deputy manager Katherine told me.

And the name?  An allusion to the “six degrees of separation” meme and hence an allusion to the idea that we all connected.

  • Just to add if you are in New Walk area you should also consider popping  in to the regular Thursday lunch-time pop-up café at Soft Touch, 50 New Walk. I’ve been a trustee of Soft Touch for many years and can bear witness to the tremendous work it does using the arts and creativity with young people. Look here for more info.

Grounded Kitchen

June 13, 2017

Believe me,  it took me some courage to go into a place that offers food alternatively described as “nourish bowls” or “Buddha bowls”. I’ve a deep suspicion of anything that promises to do me good.

But I’m delighted I went into Grounded Kitchen, a new takeaway and cafe on Queen’s Road, Clarendon Park in Leicester. They have started with a simple offering of three dishes – Korean-inspired salads that combine avocado, cherry, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, cucumber, chestnut mushrooms and spring onions, served on short grain rice and with Asian style dressings plus chilli, chia seeds, corianders and sesame. There is a veggie option and those featuring bulgogi chicken and beef bibimap.

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I had the chicken and it was great – really lovely flavours and good fresh ingredients. The place has the Clarendon Park types swooning (though there’s a faction that are campaigning for brown rice of course), and with good reason. I may be a health food sceptic but I’m very happy to eat this and look forward to forthcoming salmon and gochujang (Korean chilli paste) dishes.

The restaurant is an initiative of Oadby lad Ahmed Kidy, who has spent  a lot of time working and travelling in the far East and has had help developing recipes from Korean pals.  He has also  developed a range of Japanese matcha and sencha  teas, including those steeped with the likes of mint, lime and spinach – this is definitely an alternative to the coffee culture on the rest of Queens Road.  If Grounded Kitchen continues its early success, we could be seeing more branches appearing soon.

 

 

 

This review for the Leicester Mercury focuses on a relocated, reconceived former favourite of this blog. I was worried that in the tweeting the concept, the quality of the food would suffer. To find out, read on…

 

Fenways
17-18 Baxter Gate
Loughborough
LE11 1TG
01509 210100

 

8 out of 10

The Smokehouse on Braunstone Gate was one of the city’s stand out restaurant successes of recent years. At the time of its closure there were some rumours of a possible reappearance in Loughborough.

Well it’s taken a while, but it turns out there was substance to the gossip and so a big welcome to Fenway’s. It’s part of the Orange Tree group, which already has the Orange Tree and the Kelso in the town, and while there are some obvious differences to The Smokehouse, the good news is that the head chef Liam Watson is back in charge and that the menu features some of the dishes that made the Smokehouse special. Crucially, it takes no shortcuts to those big smokey, barbecue flavours that characterise the food of the American South.

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Chef Watson plates up (photos from Fenway’s website)

Located in a large pub building, they’ve given it an extensive refurbishment that thankfully doesn’t go overboard on the American diner theme. Nonetheless Fenway’s is a different proposition to the rather intimate, bistro style of its predecessor. It’s big, informal, a bit noisy with a bar area at the back. Open all day from 12, it’s family-friendly, student- friendly, the staff are young and funky and there are craft beer and cocktails – it’s good fun.

We started off with excellent cocktails – one of their originals featuring locally-made Burleigh’s gin with cointreau, passionfuit and ginger beer, and a sophisticated adult milkshake with Jamaican rums, vanilla and chocolate ice-cream, ginger cake and milk.

Food starters included an absolutely stonking dish of smoked ox cheek. Smoked meats here are marinated overnight and smoked for at least 8 hours and the time given to it really shows. I went at the nuggets of beef with a knife and fork but the knife wasn’t necessary – it fell apart with a fork and had great depth and complexity of flavour. It was nuthin’fancy – served up in a pork-fat yorkshire pudding with gravy and nicely sharp house pickles – but it was proper cared-for food. Bourbon and orange cured salmon was a fruity delight too, allowing the flavour of the fish to come through, and with sourdough toast and plenty of green leaves it was still a substantial dish. Jalapeno and smoked onion hush puppies – fritters made with cornmeal batter – were light, crisp, tasty and the significant but sensible chilli heat was spoked with thyme and garlic sour cream.

My guests had admitted they probably wouldn’t have come in from the look of the place, but were by now really pleased they had come along. If the starters were substantial, the mains fully merited the “come hungry, we don’t mess about” warning on the menu. The core of the selection is burgers (28 day aged beef) and a variety of smoked meats – brisket, pulled pork, St Louis cut ribs and so on.

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From the burger menu we had the buttermilk fried chicken breast – moist, tasty and well-served by its dressing of avocado, pickles and sweetcorn and pepper relish. The sweet potato fries failed to impress – I tend to avoid them as the moisture content makes them hard to crisp but my friend who generally is a fan found these a bit flabby. I picked the house sausage bun, which came with lashings of the juicy, 14-hour smoked pulled pork. The sausage was a very long way from your traditional banger – more like the traditional Louisiana boudin, it was coarse-textured with a strong tang of offal. This maybe won’t be to everyone’s taste but well done to the chefs for not taking the easy way.

Both these came in a manchet bun, a traditional English bread that the menu claims to be better than brioche – and in this context I’d concur. Firmer and not so sweet, it’s an excellent burger bun.

One more main was 12 hour smoked brisket – copious amounts of beef dripping with a spiced gravy, piles of smooth mash and nicely spiked red cabbage.

We may have been stuffed but in the interests of reviewing we had to try deserts. Salted caramel sticky toffee pudding had been a highlight of The Smokehouse menu and reappears still in very good form – sprinkled with pecans and a touch of popping candy. My guests immediately made plans to bring their 10 year old daughter, a connoisseur of the desert. Key lime pie – sometimes a virulent green cliché – brought a big smile of delight. It was lightly bruléed and gave a great balance of sharp and sweet with a fine dark pastry case.

I was relieved to find that expanding the Smokehouse concept to a bigger and brasher format has been been done without sacrificing too much flair and quality. You’ll need to buy into the concept – it’s not for faint hearts or those who want pretty pictures on a plate – but if you do there’s much to enjoy.

I had a first look at the Knight and Garter last night  – and Sam Hagger’s Beautiful Pubs have done a terrific job at transforming this marvellous and strategically important building into a terrific asset for Leicester city centre.

The former Oirish pub Molly O’Grady’s is now a elegant pub and restaurant doing good quality pub food in a way that should attract families,  business people and casual drinkers alike. The fit out is reminiscent maybe of a sophisticated New York bar, or maybe a smart London steakhouse – not opulent or flashy, but with a smart contemporary style.

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For those that know the building, the bar that opened on to Hotel Street is now a sizeable restaurant area, with that entrance now sealed off. The bar area is accessed through the Market Street South entrance, and there’s a bookable downstairs function room too.

It’s unrecognisable from its former incarnation and boasts a brand new £350,000 kitchen which Hagger reckons makes it one of the most technologically-advanced pubs in the UK. The food offering includes some tremendous steaks from Owen Taylor butchers, with whom Hagger has built a long-term relationship for his other pubs The Forge in Glenfield and the nearby Rutland and Derby.  He explained last night they’ve initially even had their own beasts identified from field to abattoir – certainly the texture and flavour of last night’s trial tasting of picana and bone-in sirloin was spectacularly fine.

2017-06-01 19.27.09The drinks offering includes the Everards range but at least three other hand-pulled ales and, much to their excitement, unfiltered, unpasteurised Budvar Krausenden lager, delivered straight from the brewery and with a nice extra tang. Naturally there’s a good selection of gins and wines too.

After spending nearly two years full time on this project Sam Hagger retains his boyish looks and enthusiasm, but clearly has a determined, business head on him to pull this off.  The pub’s not quite finished yet – the outdoor terrace onto Champions Square is still to be done but should be a splendid place to look out from once the Square and Market building are completed. Also in a couple of years the upstairs room are likely to be done out as a boutique hotel.

All in all, this looks a splendid contribution to the ongoing redevelopment of the Market and St Martin’s area.

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