A few yards up the road from Bindu Patel’s new venture Sanctua lies Tipu Sultan. It’s hard to imagine two more different restaurants. The latter is a huge, vibrant, blingy affair with sizzling platters of meat flying out of the kitchen. Sanctua on the other-hand offers completely plant-based cuisine in what is probably the most stripped down, relaxing eating environment in the region.

Patel is a Leicestershire lass but has worked at some stellar locations in London – including Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Gymkhana and Trishna and has staged at La Gavroche. She has recently returned to veganism and it is this , combined with a distaste for the waste she saw at many restaurants, that has set the tone for her highly distinctive first venture of her own.

You step into a small lobby to be welcomed with quiet politeness and then shown into the main room where you are welcomed by gentle birdsong, artworks featuring wildlife, plants chosen for their air-purifying qualities and bare, unlaid tables (dishes are brought to the table with relevant cutlery). There is a menu, but really just for information – you just have the set menu of the week, three courses and amuse bouche at £30 (allergies can be catered for if discussed at booking.).

This of course is a dream for the kitchen – makes it far easier to plan and buy and, crucially for their vision, virtually eliminates waste. If there are any leftovers I understand they are taken back for the chef’s rabbit.

20190615_183020 1The menu currently changes weekly and is themed around a particular cuisine – Patel’s parents have roots in Malaysia and Africa and both cultures have featured in the early weeks,  but on our visit the emphasis was central American. First up was an amuse of a corn cracker with refried beans, salsa and coriander chutney. It immediately raised our expectations – bright spicing, lively salsa, delicate micro-herbs, this was a fine canape.

Next up were two vegetable and soya mince empanandas with chimichurri. Quite why soya mince was chosen I don’t know – not a pleasant texture and no particular taste. Everything else about the dish was excellent though – Patel clearly knows how to pack flavour in to vegetables and both the pastry and the intense green chimmichurri sauce were fine.

20190615_183800Another aspect of the restaurant’s approach to sustainability is to shop at our local market and use produce that is in good condition but may not be aesthetically appealing – to use a term I find irritatingly twee, “wonky veg”. It certainly works here with the main course also impressing. Several terms here I had to google I admit but at its core was pozole rojo – a fiery red broth made with dried chiles and hominy, kernals of maize that have treated with an alkali to soften them up. This was fabulous – complex notes added from “our own secret Yucatan spice blend”.

20190615_184635The usual pork in the dish was replaced with chickpeas and puled jackfruit, a common vegan fall-back which I know divides opinion but I really like for its texture and distinctive mild flavour. There was crunch and carbs from a terrfic fried tortilla, delicious little slices of lime-cured radish, coriander rice, vegan sour cream and even a nod to chef’s Gujarati heritage with sambharo (spiced cabbage). The dish also came with excellent sides of a terrific guacamole garnished with pomegrante and a nutty, garlicky, spicy salsa macha.

Desert was “food of the gods” chilli chocolate pots. I suppose I was expecting a routine mousse with a little bit of chilli, but this was quite sensational. It appeared to be simply melted chocolate with a couple of flakes of dried but this was dreamy stuff, packed with punchy fruit and spice notes. The slightly doughy cinnamon-dusted churros were a disappointment but the memory of that chocolate will live long with me.

20190615_190847“A lot of our customers are meat-eaters [hello!] who are looking to try something something different” said Patel to leading industry publication in June. “I’m not trying to preach a different way of life to them or convert them to veganism. Sanctua is a celebration of vegetables and our customers understand that.”

There will obviously be those who are put off by Sanctua but there are plenty of places catering for those with the love of a steak or fried chicken. For those looking to cut down or cut out meat, it’s great that there is a fine dining alternative for them that takes vegetables seriously.

The Merchant of Venice

June 15, 2019

MOV1New from today on Granby St, Leicester, is an intriguing Italian café that brings an original take to the city’s increasingly competitive coffee market.

The Merchant of Venice, located right by the big crossing that brings thousands of people into the city every day from the railway station, is a Shakespeare-themed venue, complete with original paintings of the Bard and scenes from the eponymous play. There are also several sets of scales should you wish to weigh out a pound of flesh and plenty of other curios and artworks to make you ponder.  It’s a joint development by Jaimon Thomas, the man behind the similarly beautiful Kayal and Herb restaurants, and his friend Basilio a former manager at San Carlo and now coffee supplier for legendary Viennese roasters Julius Meinl.

MOV5Like most Italians, Basilio is passionate about coffee and this café is very much about Italian coffee culture rather than the American one that dominate the chains. The coffee offering is supplemented by some fine looking Italian patisserie produced especially for them and a short menu of all-day breakfasts, salads and home-made classics such as arancini, lasagne and bruschettas – with vegans catered for too. Eventually this will build up further for evening openings with meals and cocktails but for now the focus is on breakfasts (it opens from 7am) and daytime snacking.  Oh and the Italian brunch menu takes in the classic full English and my “Leicester breakfast” included a first-rate sausage and perfectly cooked fresh mushrooms that suggests that while the menu is relatively humble, they are serious about good food.

I think a lot of people will enjoy cosy catch-ups in this fun and original cafe.

 

 

 

 

 

For a restaurant in an area full of relatively well-heeled potential customers with a keen desire to eat out, Al Maidah on Queen’s Rd, Leicester, seems to have adopted a strange marketing policy.

I’ve never seen a place fly so low under the radar. It’s quite an achievement these days after two months trading to have seemingly no online presence or media footprint whatsoever – no website, no social media, not even a Tripadvisor comment. Yes there’s a shop front, but no menu or other information displayed. It would appear to be Moroccan but what does it serve and how much does it cost? There’s no obvious way to find out, short of going in and sitting down. So that’s what we did.

mintteaIt has all the hallmarks of the family-run neighbourhood restaurant – the kind of place where younger members hang around out front and fight for the control of the music  (pleasant North African sounds) or pop out for extra parsley from the supermarket. It’s quite small and done up with some appealing desert-chic touches – camel trains in silhouette on the walls, miniature tagines on display, and cute little fabric figures with which to pick up the hot handles of your exquisite mint-tea pots. In the bijou upstairs room there’s even a floor-seated area replete with cushions for traditional  laid back dining.

The menu covers the usual suspects of Maghreb cuisine – spicy harira soup, tagines, cous cous and grilled meats, with a couple of specifically Tunisian touches such as the use of molokhia greens.  There are popular dishes such as  a sweet lamb tagine with almonds and apricots and a cous cous royale which contains a bit of everything including merguez sausages. Oh, and main courses are between around £8 and £14. couscous.jpg

We picked a chicken cous cous and a kefte tagine (lamb meatballs), along with sweet mint tea and a mint mojito mocktail (the restaurant does not serve alcohol). Both came delightfully presented and piping hot. The on-the-bone chicken with vegetables and chick peas sat on a generous helping of cous cous and came with a sauce for ladling over. My friend found it over-salty and struggled a bit with some flabby chicken skin but the flavours in the dish were excellent and the chicken very nicely tender. My tagine came enticingly bubbling to the table and proved very good eating  – delicately aromatic spiced lamb in a stew with onions, tomatoes and coriander with a couple of eggs baked shaksuka-style into the sauce. The lightly toasted arabic bread was excellent too.
tagine
Neither dish was particularly spicy-hot, though whether this is concern over timid Clarendon Park palates or simply the chef’s preferred style for these dishes I’m not clear.

The overall dining experience was maybe not as smooth it should have been. Neither the “dish of the day” or the beautiful-sounding fresh Morrocan pastries listed were available.  Trying to put a positive light on this it shows that “freshly prepared” probably means just that, but on the other hand, we were a couple of slightly disappointed diners. Also while our waiter was lovely and helpful, we didn’t get our mojito until we chased it up, and we heard another table say when checking out that they hadn’t received everything they had ordered.

 

 

So no hipster reinvention or fusion stuff going on here – just good traditional, regional, comfort food that many should want to check out. Despite the lack of profile, word does seem to be getting around and there were respectable numbers and a diverse clientele on our wet Tuesday night visit. A weekend trip beckons.

 

 

 

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