A feast at Hambleton Hall

November 13, 2018

Notwithstanding upstarts such as John’s House, the benchmark for fine dining in Leicestershire and Rutland remains Hambleton Hall.  And last Saturday night I was privileged to join in a private dinner there to celebrate my friend Tara’s 40th birthday and, gentle reader, it was completely stunning.

Bad blogging I know, but I’m not going to give you a blow by blow account  – we were having far too much fun for me to turn on work mode – but let me just offer the menu here:

 

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So many of my favourite ingredients here and every one of them was prepared, cooked and presented brilliantly. Here’s a few of my highlights – as ever it can be the littlest thing makes a dish memorable:

  • little crisps of Jerusalem artichokes that captured that flavour to perfection
  • a sublime canape of celeriac with celeriac with black and white truffle. I clocked a couple of spare ones as we left the bar to go to our table. If you think I asked around to see if anyone else wanted them, you are very wrong.
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  • little beetroot macarons (left) that supplied wonderful earthy intensity to match with a creamy horseradish ice-cream.
  • an immense scallop – I’ve had smaller fillet steaks – with foaming green lemongrass broth.
  • the unexpected synergy between immaculate duck breast and spiced black beans, and the sweet/sour citrus of kumquat.
  • a white chocolate truffle with superb cherry interior.

In truth it was all excellent and served with quiet elegance by a brilliantly marshalled troupe of young waiters who glided in and out in choreographed fashion, leaving us to have the time of lives and enjoy the wonders before us.

It’s  no accident that Hambleton Hall  has the longest retained Michelin star in the UK. It was an absolute joy to be there – massive kudos to chef Aaron Patterson,  restaurant director Graeme Matheson and their respective teams.

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Queen Victoria Arts Club

November 11, 2018

Dinner at the Queen Victoria Arts Club in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter on Thursday. The capsule review is that it’s a lovely place, we had some good food, but it’s clear neither the kitchen nor the food are fully up to speed yet.

One of the key reasons for this is that they lost head chef Steve Durham just before opening night in Mid-October and it’s currently unclear whether he’ll be returning. They’ve got in some emergency help and I’m assured “issues have been resolved and a firm plan is in place”.  However there were some very basic errors.

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Photo credit: Saul Morgan

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First off though , it’s a splendid environment. I enjoyed the sophistication of the dark green colour scheme and there’s a pleasing sparkle from immaculate glassware and cutlery. The view from the big windows across Orton Square to Curve is a really superb urban vista. Just to confirm, the venue’s restaurant is open to the public while other areas, including meeting rooms and an elegant but cosy basement bar, are either bookable or for use by members as they develop a membership scheme.

Some people seem to have got the impression it’s super-exclusive, but in fact the restaurant is not all that expensive and they want to attract regular, repeat custom not just special event dining – the opening menu sees starters around £5-8, main courses £14-£18.  I started with roast salmon, a small but perfectly cooked piece of fish which should have come on a slaw of shaved apple and fennel with dried tomatoes. However it actually came with some dabs of lime mayonnaise and  sugar snap peas, which should have been the accompaniments for our other starter of a salmon fish cake, which in turn got the slaw. So, three weeks after opening neither the chefs or the wait staff picked up that the dishes had got swapped somehow. The fishcake and slaw were both very tasty though.

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photo shame: me

A further issue came in that there was no offer of a wine list until we chased it up sometime after ordering. I ordered a white wine for the fish but it didn’t show up – eventually I chased again and it came just as I was finishing. The waitress was most apologetic, blaming some communication problem between her tablet and the till – not good enough.

Looking at the menu I was attracted to “lamb with peppercorn sauce” – I asked about the cut and the waitress thought it was loin, turned out to be shoulder. However, it was some of the best shoulder I’ve encountered in a long while, tender and well-flavoured with a terrific sauce. A fondant potato was technically excellent – combining the roast and poaching processes to perfection.  The vegetables were beautifully prepared and cooked too – though there was nothing to suggest they were “lightly pickled” as described on the menu.

My partner’s main was a terrific dish – moist, flavoursome roast chicken with a very well-balanced cream sauce with wild mushrooms and tarragon. It came sitting on some wonderful roast garlic mash – again a well-judged balance of flavours.

A word on the wines – a NZ sauvignon blanc (when it came) was excellent and the Chilean carmenere was a great match with the lamb. Looking at the well-stocked bar it does look the drinks offering is sorted at least.

A desert of a blackberry bavarois with charlotte russe cake was a bit under-flavoured, though a quince sorbet with it was excellent. I don’t think it benefitted from all being put in a glass with the sorbet on top – made it a bit hard to savour different elements of the dish.

It’s tough for any new business and losing one of your major assets just as you open must be a stressful experience. But if it’s to bring in the local businesses and the creative types who you’d think will be it’s main clientele, QVAC will need a period of stability and some sharper service.   At the moment I’d have to put it in the “promising” category.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Leicester Food Hop

October 2, 2018

If you are looking for a easy to way to get a glimpse into some of Leicester’s more interesting independent food venues – the Leicester Food Hop should be right up your proverbial.

The idea is that on one day  – specifically Saturday 13th October – you can buy a ticket and run your own self-guided, self -timed daytime tour around five venues, each of which will serve you up a drink and a tapas-sized dish that will highlight their food.

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Salt and pepper squid from The Fish and The Chip

The venues involved are The Fish and The Chip, King Richard III, The Knight and Garter, The Parcel Yard, and The Olive  – the Greek street food café on Belvoir Street. It runs between 12pm and 5pm, so you’ve got up to an hour in each venue if you want. Organisers Cool as Leicester will email you a starting venue and suggested route. Tickets are £30 for five dishes and five drinks (small glass wine or half pint of beer) – for details visit Cool as Leicester

The Wheatsheaf at Greetham

September 21, 2018

I’ve been meaning to get out to The Wheatsheaf for a good few years. Leicester-trained chef Carol Craddock had a serious career in London – anyone who has worked with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum is going to be worth trying – and she’s well-known among cheffy circles.

She and partner Scott eventually returned home, as many do, and their unpretentious village pub is in the heart of Rutland’s dining belt – around three miles from other excellent dining pubs including The Fox and Hounds in Exton, The Olive Branch in Clipsham and the Jackson Stops Inn in Stretton. Which makes it a bit of a trek from Leicester but we were delighted we made the effort.

20180919_214142It’s a pleasant vista arriving at the warm Rutland stone building. A little stream flows through the garden and a bevy of ducks quack out a welcome. But it’s an unprepossessing entry into the building – through some basic outbuildings, past a pool table and into the bar and restaurant area. It’s cosy, traditional and basic. The staff are in jeans and trainers, but the welcome is warm and throughout the evening service is friendly, skilled and attentive, creating a relaxed atmosphere. It’s a place that doesn’t feel it has a lot to prove – and in this instance that’s a really good thing.

There is an exceptionally good wine list for a pub of this type, reflecting the Craddock’s involvement in setting up Vinoteca in London perhaps. Sadly a bottle of 2011 Chateau Batailley at £65 was beyond my means but that mark-up is not too bad.

20180919_182651The food is also very good – if it came in swanky surroundings you’d call it fine dining. Doesn’t seem appropriate to use that term here. It’s just generous, stylish, modern British classics done by a chef on top of the job. White onion and cider soup with cheddar was extraordinarily good – a hearty, creamier version of French onion soup, it was deeply flavoured, brilliantly seasoned and completely delicious. Scallops could maybe have been seared a bit more for my taste but the caulifower puree with them was a revelation – packed with flavour – and the crispy bacon very good too.

Main courses of duck and lamb were generous portions and cooked bang on. Rump is my favourite cut of lamb because it comes with a nicely lubricating overcoat of fat, and here the cooking gave me both moist pink meat and a darkly seared, crusty edge. The lamb came from Launde just across the A47 and was very satisfying along with a sizeable pot of warming, cheesy shepherd’s pie. Gressingham duck came with roasted pickled peach – which sounded like a gimmick but was an inspired match.

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We couldn’t manage a desert on this occasion but we did stretch to four brilliant chocolate truffles and a glass of desert Riesling.

So, don’t go expecting either deference, crisp linen table clothes and stylish design or food that is sprinkled in chia seeds and big on vegan options. But for high quality restaurant food in a pub, this ticks a lot of boxes.

Leicester Beer Week

September 20, 2018

I’m a little but tardy here but a quick reminder the today marks the start of the inaugural Leicester Beer Week.  It’s a lovely idea that focuses on special events and special offers that celebrate and promote our local beer culture with  go-ahead local pubs and local brewers.

There’s been a lot of work done by volunteers, not least my pal Jamie Stenson, to get people on board and there are plenty of interesting events. I’m kicking myself for missing today’s “Meet the Brewer” session at the Two-Talied Lion with the people behind the wonderful Cloudwater brews.

For a full listing of offers and event go to Leicester Beer Week

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Baked in Brick

September 17, 2018

Those of you who are regulars at Leicester’s streetfood event Canteen* will be familiar with Baked in Brick. Their street food cooked out of ovens in a Mini Cooper have always proved popular and recently they have been acclaimed as the Best of the Best at the European Streetfood Awards for 2017.

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Building on that success they’ve now opened a restaurant, based at Birmingham’s cultural industries hub The Custard Factory in Digbeth. If you’re ever in Brum and in the market for lunch it’s definitely worth the walk out to Digbeth (maybe 12 minutes from New Street, 2 from the bus station). The design might be a bit edgy, with one of those minis careering out of the walls, but on my visit we found the atmosphere is pleasingly cheerful and unpretentious.

The menu focuses on pizzas from the brick oven in the open kitchen. There’s big bags of 00 flour around the place and mountains of tins of san marzano tomatoes – they take their ingredients seriously and you’ll also find local produce such as Lincolnshire Poacher and Colston Bassett Stilton involved. I had their award winning dish of a calzone stuffed with deeply flavoursome beef shin ragu, wild mushrooms, cheese and basil – it was fantastic, right down to the stilton dip for the crust. A fresh salad with mildly smoked burrata and heritage tomatoes was great too, while salty padron peppers, pan-roasted in the pizza oven were the best I’ve encountered.

As you might imagine there’s a good selection of craft beers – I had the Cannonball hop bomb from Magic Rock (I wouldn’t try going back to work after that one) – and a small but good-looking choice of wines. With such quality at around £10 a pizza, it all adds up to a compelling offer.

 

* Not sure exactly what’s gone down here but Canteen has announced it will be moving to a new venue, while previous host LCB Depot has launched its own event Last Friday to replace it. It starts on 28 September and will run along similar lines to Canteen – streetfood, cocktails and live comedy. Canteen has been promising details of its relocated plans but I’ve not seen them yet.

Update 23/9/18:  The new venue for Canteen is to be The Morningside Arena – home of the Leicester Riders and just off Belgrave Gate. The event seems to be going head-to-head with Last Friday and promises more space and less queueing. Will be interesting to see if the audience can grow to support both events.  Here’s a link to a short  promotional film: Canteen

It seems to be getting harder and harder to run a proper, sit-down-and-have-a-serious-meal restaurant. The Indian restaurant subset is battling the headwinds – Paddy’s Marten Inn, Kayal and Herb have given me lovely meals in busy environments this summer – but the trend towards informal grazing seems to be gathering pace.

Last year in Leicester we saw the fine dining Maiyango morph into the bright and breezy The Fish and The Chip, a fun and high quality take on the traditional British seaside chippy. Now this month the King Richard III suspends its marvellous menu of steaks and  grills and modern European classics for a three month takeover by Crafty Chicks, which could be interpreted as a gastropub take on the ubiquitous chicken shop (note traditional Sunday lunches are still being served.)

Crafty, of course, is the King Dick’s owners Chris and Andrea Elliman’s brand which offers the city’s best burgers over at St Martin’s Tea and Coffee. The core poultry offering here is Crafty Fried Chicken marinated in a spices and buttermilk, or barbecue chicken grilled on the robata grill with their own barbecue spice rub (two pieces £5, whole jointed chicken £18). The sides are pure Crafty – skin-on fries,  poutine, chipotle coleslaw, watermelon with lime, mint, peanut and chilli etc.  It looks brilliant for casual sharing.

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kimchiI popped in at lunchtime and had a very quick sandwich of katsu chicken (£5, above) – panko-coated fried breast with tonkatsu sauce, kewpie mayonnaise and slaw. It was full of Japanese umami loveliness but the flavours were a bit unfocussed maybe – lacking something central and distinctive. A side of cucumber kimchi was an inspired touch – deceptively spicy. I hope to get back soon for some barbecue chicken.

No doubt some of the issues facing  restaurants are down to seasonal issues  – the World Cup played its part and the extraordinary extended hot summer is not doing restaurants any favours. But there are also longer term trends both cultural and economic that make the £25 plus per head meal out an ever harder sell.

Fair play to the Ellimans for keeping nimble and trying to keep on top of the market. That said, I hope in the winter months we get a chance to try more of their wonderful steaks, warming soups and elegant deserts.

 

 

 

The Pop-Up Smokehouse

June 21, 2018

Ok it’s not the prettiest plate of food you’ll ever have, but welcome back to the Pop-Up Smokehouse in all its full-flavoured, meaty loveliness.

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Somewhere in this underwhelming picture of the meat platter (for two) served up this week at their one-night-only takeover at Leicester’s Globe pub there is a spicy St Louis cut pork rib, a deep and smoky shin of beef and ale stew, a pot of sweetly fruity pulled pork, sesame-spiced chicken wings and  tender, shredded beef brisket.

Terrific as those meaty elements are, the great thing about The Smokehouse’s food is that all the little accompaniments are just as good if not better. Beautifully tender pickles inside a crisp batter, wonderfully creamy mash, delicately-smoked tomatoes and possibly our favourite item of all, simple raw carrot with a light cardamon-infused sousing.

You can see the full menu below. On reflection, I wished we’d shared a platter for one and picked a  couple of those small  dishes – I’m particularly regretting not managing to find space for the scallops with smoked romesco, and indeed the rum baba desert. That said there still much so much to enjoy. Congratulations to Liam, Ollie and the rest of their team – do look for their next takeover wherever it may be.

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Plant and Bean takeover

June 13, 2018

Full details are now available of the Plant and Bean takeover of The Fish and The Chip which I mentioned last month.

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The vegan pop-up will replace The Fish and The Chip’s usual menu for the period Thursday 21 June to Sunday 24 June. The approach is described in rather awkwardly modish language as  “mindful plant based ingredients mixed with a whole family of worldly flavours”, but there’s no denying some it sounds most enticing.

The menu is the usual starters, mains deserts structure along with salad bowls plus sides and kids’ options and a three course meal comes in at under £20. Starters include grilled kaffir lime and thai basil corn cakes with sriracha mayo, and chick pea, potato and samphire spiced chaat with amchur and almond yogurt. Mains are mainly burgers and sandwichs , ranging from their take on a Cubano – a toasted sandwich with smoked mushrooms, charred red peppers, caramelised red onions, cheddar, wholegrain mustard and pickles – to a middle Eastern flatbread with spiced roasted aubergine, courgette and mushrooms with ras el hanout chickpeas served on a flatbread with red pepper hummus and pomegranate salad.

There’s 20 per cent off for the soft launch on the Thursday, and there are live DJs on Friday and Saturday evenings.  If you can’t get down, the full menu will also be available for delivery via Deliveroo from 22 June.  For more details and the full menu see The Fish and The Chip website.

 

 

Upcoming events

May 23, 2018

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Good to see a couple of returning food events here in Leicestershire. The Pop Up Smokehouse has announced its second takeover event. This time Liam Watson (above)and his team will be cooking their bold and hearty take on US barbecue at the atmospheric Globe on Millstone Lane on Tuesday 19 June from 5pm to 10pm. I can tell you this in safety now because I have booked my table already  – last time out they filled up very quickly. There are several ways to book but maybe try their website first.

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Also now announced are details of the second  Edible Forest, Charnwood’s woodland-themed food festival which runs from 9-16th September. Top pick for serious diners must be the Secret Gourmet, which will see a forest-inspired menu created by local chefs John Duffin (of Mountsorrel’s Michelin-starred John’s House) and Paul Leary, who’s work is well-known to Leicestershire diners over the last 15 years. Menu details are being held back, as is the location but it’s promised to be a historic location somewhere near Shepshed – cost is £70.

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There are some less heady options – such as the chance to have brunch, picnic or dine in a clear ‘pod’ in the heart of the forest. Then there are chances again to have tea inside Old John in Bradgate Park or to enjoy guided foraging walks around the forest.  There will also be live music and DJ events with Charnwood’s own Burleigh’s gin having a strong presence. Details available here.

One more thing – heads up to vegan readers about Plant and Bean, who promise to combine plant-based ingredients with exciting flavours and a streetfood vibe. I believe there is a link to The Fish and The Chip restaurant on St Nicholas Place, and certainly that’s where there their first takeover event is happening in June,  with a delivery service and more events promised soon. No further details yet but track them down on Instagram @plantandbean.

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