Herb
96 Granby Street
Leicester LE1 1DJ
0116 233 2715

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Herb has been a long time coming, but now that it is here Leicestershire should celebrate the arrival of a compellingly beautiful restaurant offering first-rate food from Kerala.

The food happens to be vegetarian, indeed 95 per cent of menu is or can be made vegan, and many dishes – clearly marked – are gluten free and nut free. But omnivores should not be put off – it’s simply great food. End of.

The restaurant is part of the Kayal family – which has four other restaurants including the first one which is also on Granby St around 50 yards away. One of the Kayal chefs, dosa master Ramdas Krishna, had long been pushing Kayal founder Jaimon Thomas to open a vegetarian restaurant that could feature Keralan herbal cuisine. Eventually, with the recent big rise in those moving towards a meat-free diet, the time was right for a place that provides a properly smart setting to showcase such food.

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The property chosen was a former amusement arcade, which has now been transformed into a stunning space which glitters with deep green and copper tones. There’s fishermens’ lamps and copper kettles on the ceiling and other features such as a real-life waterfall and clay-tile artworks, including a jaw-dropping representation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The design spec really has been seen through in great detail.

Some of the food will be familiar from Kayal’s menu but there’s obviously a much wider diversity of vegetarian dishes. Over the course of two visits during the first week I had some really excellent dishes.

 

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The Herb platter featured aubergine, courgette, asparagus, baby sweetcorn, mushroom and tomatoes all marinated in herbs and lightly grilled to maintain a little crunch and maximum flavour. There were also some chick fritters, lightly crisp out on the side, creamy on the inside. Served with herb and coconut chutnies this was a magnificent shared starter for two. Other starters of Sev puri and aloo papadi chaat both combined the tang and sweetness of yoghurt and tamarind with the pleasing texture contrast of crisp pastry. Uzhunnu Vada – doughnuts made from lentil flour with accompanying chutnies  – are substantial enough but remain light and fluffy. Portions are quite sizeable but this was food we just wanted wolf down.

For main dishes you can pick from a wide range of some 20 dosas or uttapams and a similar variety of main course curries, palyas, thorans, biriyanis and more. Some will sound relatively straightforward for the newcomer – vegetable korma, chana masala – but there is much more to tempt the adventurous, such as maybe green papaya stew or pavakka pachadi, bitter gourd with coconut and yoghurt.

I had a beautifully crisp sundhari dosa, where the traditional potato filling was augmented with sweet beetroot and brushed with a red onion chutney. It came with more of those vibrant chutnies and a superb sambhar (the traditional lentil and vegetable stew). Baby aubergine masala was the kind of dish to show a sceptical meat eater to demonstrate that you’re really not missing out. Tender as you like aubergine with tomatoes, paneer, omion and spices in thick sauce that bears the signature flavours of dishes over the road at Kayal. We enjoyed that with a lively, vibrant green herby rice.

Potichoru bijo birinayi was steamed inside banana leaves rather the pastry case as in dumpukht style and was a light, fragrant mix and vegetable and paneer.

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All of these dishes had the appeal of freshly cooked food made with care. There is that underlying Keralan note of mustard seed and curry leaf tempering and plenty of coconut, but there is also tremendous variety of tastes from herbs and from vegetables which are allowed to express their own flavours.

Deserts are worth considering but will probably split the crowd. Kulfis – for once served at an appropriate temperature are crowd pleasers, though dishes such as ada prahaman – rice flakes in a sweet rich dressing of jaggery, cardamon, chashews and ghee – are best left to those with a really sweet tooth (i.e. me).

Herb is fully licensed and the wine list is definitely worth exploring – a glass of the house pinot grigio was lovely and fruity for what can be a pretty bland wine.

Price-wise, you can eat like a king for around £15 to £20, and there is a range of lunchtime dishes at around £4. All in all, great food – too good to leave to the vegetarians – a great platform for it too.

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Lilu

March 23, 2018

I mentioned recently my involvement with the Channel 5 programme Restaurant Rescue which put Leicester restaurant Lilu under the microscope. I didn’t write a review of that visit late year given the somewhat artificial nature of the visit and the fact that maybe it would change once Alex Polizzi and Olver Peyton had given their verdict.

Now though I thought time was right to go back under my own steam and see what has changed. The short answer, is very little. Polizzi and Peyton advised owner Pratik Master to drop his prices and the set price and introduce an a la carte menu. But he and his chef JP are not interested in competing with traditional curry houses. The vision is a traditional fine dining approach but which highlights Indian food. So there’s no long list of curries  but a limited menu – five or six choices of starter and mains – of meticulously plated dishes using fine ingredients.

The pricing does set it apart from more mainstream restaurants – two courses for £35 is a big ask for people who might look at £20 as a more typical spend in an “Indian restaurant”. Oliver Peyton’s argument was that in a set price menu everyone would pick the big ticket items – rack of lamb, soft shell crabs – and he would never make money. Pratik feels that is what set them apart and feels the set price approach gives clarity.

So, what do you get for your money? Complimentary poppadoms may not be that unusual but here there are six distinctive and vibrant housemade chutnies and sauces – the pineapple was especially tangy. And then while we waiting for starters there were two more amuse bouches. A little pani puri – beautifully presented – was a nice little little flavour bomb of herbs and spices and a spiced tomato soup had something of the feel of a hot Bloody Mary. Absolutely delicious.

My starter was a salmon fillet, rather too politely spiced I felt, but that allowed plenty of salmon flavour through. It came on an aloo tikki-style disc (a spiced potato cutlet) with a couple of other cheffy touches of edible flowers and tamarind-infused sauce. It was very good – I don’t want to labour the point but this was not usual curry house fare. Gill’s starter was Mumbai chaat – a street food dish of crispy pastry shells with filling of spiced and herbed potatoes along with crunchy sev – little pieces of chickpea noodles – along with tangy tamarind sauce and pomegranate-spiked yoghurt. There’s a solid tradition of this snack food being elevated to grander surroundings and here your invited to create your own combination at table. It felt fun and it tasted lovely.

We avoided the lamb and the crab – we’d tried them on the Channel 5 visit and had very positive memories. This time I went for the “game of the day” choice which was duck. This was a simply presented but perfectly cooked breast, rubbed with with well-judged spice mix and coming with dabs of fruity yoghurt and bramble gel and a pot of thick, rich chocolate-infused sauce. There was a tower of spicy potatoes and tomatoes t and while each element was fine it maybe needed a more fluid sauce to bring it all together.

Gill’s dumpukht biriyani-based thali was acknowledged as a dish in development but it was a complete stunner. The pastry-encased rice centrepiece, vented with an artfully-folded poppadom was fragrant with rosewater and tender pieces of lamb. Around it sat half a dozen bowls – a great lamb chop curry, a beautifully balanced dhal, okra, yoghurt, tandoori-spiced paneer and crunchy kachumber salad. Oh yes and a little mango lassi too. This was a great showcase for the kitchen’s skill and indeed Indian cuisine in general.

A shared desert was another treat – delicatelyfloral rose kulfi was paired with a quenelle of smooth, dark chocolate ganache on a crunchy chocolate base. A delicate combination well worth keeping space for.

With the little amuses, the blingy wine list, and the refined presentation, all the grammar of contemporary fine dining is here. But this is not a stuffy environment, service is skilled and helpful but the ethos is very clearly focused on customer satisfaction. Pratik himself is a down-to-Earth presence with an infectious enthusiasm for his food.

Lilu does a very capable job of offering a sophisticated version of a cuisine this country sometimes thinks of as just comfort food. It’s not going to be for everyone, not least because of the price, but it’s run with love and is a welcome option for those looking to explore beyond curry house standards.

* Follow their website or Instagram feed  for some excellent frontline reports of how they are developing dishes – more inspiring than my somewhat pitiful efforts above.

 

 

 

 

 

With so many people now spending most of their day in reach of at least three social media channels, old fashioned blogs like this aren’t great for breaking news. But in case you missed it, there’s been a buzz this week over the return of the much-missed Smokehouse after a gap of nearly four-years.

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To begin with at least, this is just in the format of a pop-up kitchen taking over venues  and catering for events and festivals. Their first announcement of a kitchen takeover at Leicester’s Rutland and Derby Arms on 11th April led to an almost instant sell-out and a quickly-added second night on 10th April is selling fast too.  They are currently looking for more partners who might want to host a pop-up or takeover.

 

Chef Liam Watson, who developed the Smokehouse when it was based within the O Bar on Braunstone Gate, says he couldn’t be more delighted to find out there is still a hunger in Leicester for his brand of gutsy, original, flavoursome food based on his own extensive research and passion for smoking.

To book and keep in the loop for further Smokehouse events, visit their  website, facebook page site or follow on twitter @popupsmokehouse

 

 

Dutch Courage

March 5, 2018

Yeah I know this is supposed to be a Leicestershire and Rutland blog but the way I see it you guys all love your food and drink and can handle a recommendation wherever it is in the world.

I’ve just got back from a work trip to the Netherlands the Dutch tourist board, which was then prolonged for two days courtesy of The Beast from the East and an absence of flights from Schiphol. But the ill wind out of Siberia blew me some luck in the shape of  36 hours in the very lovely town of Haarlem. It’s just 20 minutes west of the airport but it a delightful town well worth a visit if you fancy something a bit more down to Earth than Amsterdam.

There’s an extraordinary market square and cathedral, beautiful canals and first-rate cultural attractions, not least the Frans Hals museum which has the world’s largest collection of this Golden Age painter and Teylers – the Netherlands oldest museum with a collection paying homage to the 18th century Enlightenment. But for our purposes here I’ll focus on the wonderful Jopen brewery.

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Housed in a cavernous  former Church this marvellous brewpub has five gleaming 60 hectolitre tanks behind the bar which furnish forth some twenty of their own beers. These are displayed on huge screens with a scrolling focus on each one giving useful tasting notes and information  – a really big improvement over squinting at a pump clip in the hope of seeing something to help your choice. In Leicester terms I suppose you could think the West End Brewery fused with Brewdog, turned up to 11 on the dial and then evicting Richard III and setting up in the Cathedral.

The Dutch and Brits both had our colonial adventures in the East and both developed the IPA style in order to send beer that would last the long sea journey (the Dutch called theirs ‘duraebel scheepsbier” – try saying it out loud). The IPAs I tried were outstanding. Mooie Nel (the Dutch name for the North Sea) had plenty of fruit and bitterness (6.5per cent) but my favourite was Heavy Cross, a triple IPA with Citra, Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau hops which remained extraordinary fresh and well balanced even at 10 per cent (you can buy 125cl glasses – so think of it as a small glass of a lowish alcohol wine). The Rye IPA St Jacobus also impressed.

There’s stouts and other beer styles too, as well as wines and gin of course, and it attracts a bustling, mixed crowd. You can book tasting sessions (I teamed up with some friendly American expats for mine) and brewery tours, and plenty of people come here for the food too. All in all a great place to which to allocate a day of your visit.   To research your trip, you could try starting here: Visit Holland

 

 

 

 

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