It’s probably about time we had a smart restaurant open in Leicester. And the Black Iron at Winstanley House fits the bill rather nicely.

Just to set in context, Winstanley House is the new event venue and boutique hotel established in the centre of Braunstone Park. Some will know it as Braunstone Hall, the decaying grand house that had been something of a Grade II-listed thorn in the side of the County Council since it closed as a school in 1996. Historically it was the 18th century home of the Winstanley family,  lords of the manor roundabouts. Now it has been spectacularly renovated by the people behind the City Rooms, another historic venue in the city centre and now a four-room boutique hotel and wedding venue.

This, though, is of a different order. This is a big investment in Leicester – an old hulk has been turned into a very smart and flexible venue for weddings, parties, conferences, launch events and other such. It can cater for well over 400, with two lovely ballrooms, and there are 19 smart  bedrooms, including four very luxurious suites, which will appeal to smarter business travellers as well as wedding parties.

In addition to the modern banqueting facilities the venue also hosts the Black Iron, a smart English restaurant with the feel of Georgian country house. It’s comfy, roomy and smart without being intimidating.   Sometimes hotel restaurants are desperately sad – half-hearted efforts to feed a captive audience with dressed up but mediocre food. Fortunately this would appear to be a rather different beast.

Based a round a charcoal-fired oven and steaks from Onley Grounds Farm  near Rugby, this appears a proper restaurant that has had serious money spent on it and serious effort put in to sourcing. The menu is not cutting edge  but does appear well thought-out,  the kind of nostalgic “smart restaurant” food that retains wide appeal:  pan-roasted lamb’s liver with mash, bacon and sage; porterhouse steak with beef dripping fries; beetroot cured salmon; beef and ale pudding with horseradish mash.

I was invited on the launch night to tour the facilities and have dinner. It was a busy, exciting evening and obviously not a reflection of  how things will be come, say, a quiet night in  mid-January. Nonetheless it seems clear they have already got a lot of things right.

Ordering from a reduced  menu on the night, I was impressed with a timbale of Earl Grey smoked mackerel with avocado cream and pickled cucumber – there was  delicacy of touch and well-judged flavour profiles, making a dish that could have just been nice into a  genuine treat. A salad of “textures of beetroot” was that bit better than expected too – pretty as  a picture but with fine flavours too.

My rib eye steak was excellent but that star of the evening, improbably, were the beef dripping fires – terrifically crisp but with plenty of fluffy potato texture inside they also had a deliciously smokey aroma. They were worth the trip down on their own. Belly of pork with mash, spinach, burnt apple puree and cider jus might not have won originality awards but was executed very well.

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The wine list has clearly been put together with care and enthusiasm and my compliments for the outstanding Zapa Oak-Aged Malbec Riserva (£24) brought out the bar manager who proudly explained their UK exclusivity on the wine.

For desert, a traditional trifle was served far cold but otherwise was a fine, unmucked-around classic, virtues shared by the warming sticky toffee pudding.

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Overall then this was a very promising start. This first iteration of the menu looks good value too – you can eat for around the same as at Café Rouge, and I know which I’d prefer.

There’s an elephant in the room here – and that’s the Braunstone location for a smart hotel and restaurant. The building  is in the middle of the park and the drive along the approach road from the Hinckley Road makes you feel  you feel a long way from the city. I really hope any lingering postcode prejudice is overcome – this is a terrific asset to the city and in a few years time I think many people will be able to look back at special occasions and rites of passage observed here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Fish and The Chip

October 19, 2017

This week I finally got around to trying out The Fish and The Chip – the modern, slightly upscale take on the British fish and chip shop from the team behind Maiyango.

Leicester folk will know it as the place on Jubilee Square with the huge Union Flag frontage. It’s a huge turnaround for what was previously one of the city’s longest-established fine dining venues. Gone are the cosy booths and the adventurous  modern international cooking, and in comes a bright and breezy,  casual venue and a menu that built around fish and chips done really well. It’s draws ion the tradition but is  considerably  more refined than most chippies  – the gravy is made with red wine, the mushy peas are crushed fresh peas rather than vinegary marrowfats and you can opt for lobster and or side such  halloumi skewers with rocket pesto.

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I loved the bright colours and the sauce-on-the-table environment and smiled to see the menu come in the form a four page newspaper. Naturally I tried the classic fish and chips (at £12- with cheaper lunch deals available  –  it’s about what you’d pay in decent pub) and was happy with the result.  A thin, herby and impeccably crisp batter was delightful and the fish was fine. Chunky chips were excellent too. There was not a spot of grease to be found on the plate. Garnishes included those superior mushy peas, a little pot of tartare and even some fine silverskins as a nod to the traditional pickled onion.

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A side of a soft-shell crab slider was terrific – deep-fried crunchy crustacean with a well-judged chilli mayonnaise relish.

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My veggie pal went for the Korean-spiced tofu burger with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. Overall she felt that while there were “all sorts of lovely things” in there, more effort was need to getting the tofu to carry some flavour. She also used to work as a craft baker and was very disappointed with the quality of the roll – giving it a slightly withering “supermarket” designation. Our third member picked a surf and turf burger – spiced pork patty with king prawns, swiss cheese and pickles.  Flavours and presentation were rated highly but he found the brioche bun fell apart rather quickly.

We had wine but there is also a fun cocktail menu that echoes the somewhat seasidey theme  – candy floss daiquiri, mint choc chip cornetto etc. 

Staff were cheerful but there was one major fail with service, with my friends’ plates being cleared while I was still finishing my meal.

Speaking with owner Aatin Anadkat the next day, he knows there is some tweaking still to be done. Having separated himself from Maiyango’s hotel business, The Fish and The chip is his sole focus and a “new edition” of the menu is coming soon. Already introduced is a new lighter lunch menu with options such as crab and mango roll at under a fiver and lunch-sized  mains for not much more, including vegan and chips – meaning celeriac wrapped in nori and with a gluten-free crispy wasabi batter.

The key issue facing the venue is one of identity. The Maiyango heritage is a strong one, but people going expecting fine dining will be confused. Similarly fish and chip fans  those who like a cheap and cheerful, pile it high approach may not be attracted. But it would be a shame if people didn’t try it out because there’s plenty to like and it deserves to be judged on its own terms – it’s fun, the food is appealing (plenty of gluten free stuff), and it’s versatile enough to appeal to families, couples and groups of all ages.  I hope it finds its market.

[The unusually crisp photos come courtesy of Miguel Holmodinho – cheers Mike].

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gelato in the Square

October 16, 2017

Details out today of the Gelato in the Square festival put together by Gelato Village.  Daniele and Antonio have been regularly going back to Italy and building a name for themselves in the gelato fraternity – with such effect that the flow is being reversed and some of Italy’s top makers are coming over to Leicester to celebrate all things gelato and  the Slow Food approach in general.

Over the weekend of 27-29 October there will be a huge range of talks, demonstrations and events in the St Martin’s Square café. Every hour or so from 11am on Friday there will be presentations from both local partners such as Belvoir Ridge Creamery who supply their milk and from also Italian artisans such Paolo Brunelli, a man celebrated as the “visionary poet” of gelato.

Others will talk about wine, biscuit and cone making, while local bars and restaurants will also be represented with Charlotte Wood from Manhattan 34 leading a session on cocktails and gelato and Antoni Scarpatti of Anstey’s marvellous  Sapori will address food matching.

There will also of course be chances to sample and purchase exciting flavours of gelato made in Leicester by the visiting makers. It all looks an lot of fun. All events are take place in the shop and are free on a first come first served basis. The full programme is attached below, and should be readable once you click on the images.

Pho, Leicester.

October 12, 2017

I don’t usually bother reviewing chain restaurants, but Pho – open now in Highcross – was definitely one I wanted to try.  My girlfriend used to visit her sister in Vietnam and she regularly regales me with tales of the sublime food – and on the few occasions I’ve tried it I’ve enjoyed the sharp, lively flavours I’ve encountered.

There are now 25 Phos, and this one seems to share the characteristics of chains at this stage of life. It’s not unpleasant, but the music is too loud, ethnic artwork fails to prevent a rather anonymous atmosphere and young staff seem overworked and while they may have learned the “please ask if you’ve any questions” mantra, their behaviour suggests they are being too closely monitored by a time and motion manager to actually talk about the food.

 

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Summer roll

In fact, the food was actually rather nice. Summer rolls are light, zesty and packed with crunchy vegetables and chicken, and come with a nutty dipping sauce (their crispness set off a reverie of contrast with the fat-dripping Chinese “Spring rolls” that were once the preferred way of seeing off post-pub munchies.)  Pork and lemongrass meatballs were nice enough but felt a little mass-produced (the Pho website does state that food is “made fresh at each branch every day”). The nuoc cham dipping sauce was right up my street   – chilli, garlic, rice vinegar, sugar, lime juice and more combining to give that pleasing complexity that characterises South East Asian food.  (As I thought then, the meatballs didn’t really measure up to those I’d had over the road at Cured – and by the way, I had great meal there this week at their four course, gin-themed evening run with the Attic cocktail bar. Watch out for forthcoming bourbon and rum evenings- great food, great drinks, great value).

 

 

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Pho Tom

“Pho” of course refers to the noodle soup that is a staple of Vietnamese food, and our Pho Tom, with king prawns, was delightful. The basis of a pho is a stock made from slow-cooked beef or chicken bones (veggie version available). Pho say they simmer theirs for 12 hours and I’d say it shows – this was a very complex broth with many layers of flavours. Vietnamese food is full of herbs and spices and pho is traditionally served with range of extra ingredients and condiments so you can spice up your dish just as it suits you. The big fat prawns were cooked just right too – they can be nasty and rubbery when overdone. We also had a rice bowl  topped with wok-fried leaves plus cucumber, radish and a wide variety of fragant green herbs plus spiced beef wrapped in betel-leafs. With appropriate use of the range of condiments available this was another very nice dish.

 

I’ll definitely be giving Pho some more custom – it seems considerably more interesting than, say, Wagamama, and as a gateway to Vietnamese food it does a very decent job. It might also be worth triangulating with a takeaway from Thai Esarn , which offers vibrant spicy, herby food from northern Thailand.

 

 

 

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