Sonrisa, Leicester

June 7, 2021

Despite the ongoing jeopardy, what a delight it was to walk through Leicester last week. Bars and restaurants were doing good business, with happy relaxed customers eating and drinking inside and out on a warm evening.

I was on my way to the latest and most high profile opening of the new era – the Argentine-themed Sonrisa. This is hugely welcome for several reasons. It brings back into use the former Allied Irish Bank building on the edge of St Martin’s Square which was renovated beautifully by the deli/cafe Delilah, which sadly closed just before the pandemic hit. Also it’s a vote of confidence in the city and its dining scene as it represents the first venture outside their Birmingham base by the Lasan group. Lasan is the upmarket Indian restaurant that made the name of chef Aktar Islam – who has gone on to Michelin star recognition and celebrity chef stays with restaurants including his flagship Opheem. Islam and his former restaurant partners fell out spectacularly a couple of years back but I suppose that is not our concern here – most importantly we have a lively, big new restaurant that should bring diners in to the heart of the city and which, on this showing, is doing really rather good food.

Lasan has form here in the shape of two Argentinian restaurants in Solihull and Edgbaston under its Fiesta del Asado brand. Sonrisa is in a similar vein – a restaurant bar that wants to create a Buenos Aires vibe that lets you “pretend you are on holiday – if only for a night”. You enter facing a lovely statement bar beautifully displaying its wares and setting the tone of relaxed fun. The room is one big, atmospheric open space, with the balcony familiar from Delilah still in place and it is filled with Latin music. Given the noise and continuing mask requirements it was a bit difficult to communicate with staff at times – a cosy, intimate space this is not – but of course this should change fairly soon.

The menu is mainly small dishes rather than conventional starters and main courses – it takes a bit of getting used to and ordering sensibly for four was a bit of stressful experience at first. There are a few big steaks, of course, but generally the way is to order two or three dishes each, some of which you may want to share, others you can keep to yourself.

Anyway we started with beer and cockails – including San Telmo lager and a really lovely superstar martini complete with a bruleed passionfruit and a side shot of fizz. We’re told the food come when it comes, but our olives and salted rosemary almonds sensibly come straight away with our drinks. I don’t hold with olives but my pals said this big, green Gordal olives spiked with green chillis were among the best they’d ever had. Next up were some wild mushroom croquettes – crispy outside, creamy and flavoursome within and with a lovely little redder pepper relish. They were a good sign.

Lamb cutlets with ribolitta
Secreto of acorn-fed pork

Among our more substantial dishes were a range of grilled meats – a 150g flat-iron steak, lamb cutlets with ribolitta (a broad bean stew), secreto (a tender shoulder cut) of acorn-fed pork with aioli, apricot chimmichurri, potato terrine and pickled shallots. Without exception the meats were beautifully grilled and while we all could have handled more garlic in the aioli, the chimmichurri dressings were banging and the potato terrine was superb – lovely crisp outside but some creamy tenderness further in.

Octopus with potato risotto

From the seafood section the octopus was so tender it cut with a fork and sat on a fine “risotto” of diced potatoes and peppers. Another pork dish of Duroc pork belly was again really tender, well-cooked and with excellent flavour. Truffled chips with aioli were great, although with the potato present in other dishes we maybe didn’t them, but heritage tomatoes with chimmichurri were a good choice.

The wine list was obviously South American heavy – nothing at all French apart from Champagne – and naturally for this visit we picked an Argentine malbec, the lush Porteno from Bodegas Norton which offered plenty of dark fruit heft to go with the meats.

Desserts included a delightful soft polenta cake with a sharp, refreshing blood orange sorbet, a wobbly panna cotta with a sweet strawberry “chutney” and a good take on a sticky toffee pudding.

Orange polenta cake

So we ordered widely across the menu and there really wasn’t a weak link – everything we had appeared to have been prepared with respect and there was good flavours and quality ingredients all around. Where people may have issues with Sonrisa are in getting to grips with the ordering and in perceptions of value from the predominantly small plate menu. That said we ordered freely and including cocktails, wine, plenty of food and deserts all around we ran up a bill of £35 a head which we thought acceptable (we got a discount on this figure as part of their marketing launch).

I would put Sonrisa some way ahead of similar large-scale restaurants – though several of the chains that aspired to something similar have not made it through the past year anyway. All four of us left thinking we would be very happy to come back and try the rest of the menu.

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