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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.
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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.

 

 

 

With summer coming in, the street food events are taking off.

Last night saw the launch of the 2Funky Street Kitchen, a new venture from the 2 Funky bar complex on Braunstone Gate. It’s got a lot going for it, including a large indoor bar and a large covered outdoor area right over the canal. This is great right now for cooing over squadrons of swans and cygnets, ducks and ducklings, but sadly you are also looking out over jettisoned bottles, fagends and assorted other litter. Last night saw Derby-based El Contador offering tacos, made from cornmeal on the night – I had their chicken mole which was an outstanding little morsel that put much UK Mexican food I’ve had to shame.

So during June there will be events on Fridays and Saturdays including Martin Brothers Pizza on 7th, Carribbean barbecue on 21st and El Contador again on 28th. Other special events include a “bottomless bubbles and bao brunch” on 15th. To be honest, I don’t think I’m 2Funky’s key demographic and it was all a bit loud for me but if you’re more of a party animal this could be just the thing for you. Check out the 2Funky website for full details.

Elsewhere there’s good news that Bobby Ananta, the ever-cheerful stalwart from St Martin’s and Crafty, is back from a spell back home in Java and has an Indonesian streetfood night planned at Crafty for 12 June. It’ll be a no-bookings evening and I’ve no menu details yet, but Bobby is a super chef – his rendang is jaw-dropping – and I’m confident it’ll be great.

Of course work continues across St Martin’s on Mowgli, the classy Indian streetfood chain which should be opening “late summer”. More good news for the square is that the former Grillstock unit has been taken and while details are currently super-secret, I’m told it will be a great addition for Leicester. And one last thing, another informal mini-chain Indian restaurant arrives shortly with Tamatanga, whom many will know from Nottingham, opening on Shires Walk in Highcross in Mid-June.

The White Peacock

March 19, 2019

peacockwbsThe White Peacock has stood proudly at the bottom of New Walk, Leicester for a good few years offering one of the city’s most smart, sophisticated but relaxed environment’s for good food.

The restaurant was set up by former chef patron Phil Sharpe, who earned his spurs in the city at Maiyango. Some 18 months ago Phil decided he’d had enough of the stress and sold up to the Koban Group, a locally based company which also runs Aspects in Enderby (and more recently has bought Leicester’s Lansdowne and 1573 bar and grill).

I’d not been in since Phil departed, but last week went down and tried the tasting menu. First thing to say is that not only have the excellent staff team been retained, but the classy interior and the fine dining approach have not been messed with – this is still a very pleasant environment to enjoy a cocktail and good food.


The nine course menu started with what is described as a plate of snacks. This felt a bit random and unfocused – there was a sausage roll that was really not very nice, a little rice crisp with a smart crab salad, a crisp little bird nest of fried potato and a superb tranche of hake in squid ink batter. The four things stood on the plate like strangers, reluctant to talk to each other. There was maybe some sort of allusion to the British seaside going on but I think it would work better to just keep the hake and maybe create another proper crab course to replace the rest.

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Ox cheek with yeasted cauliflower puree

Next up was a hefty slab of beautifully slow-cooked ox cheek, served with a yeasted cauliflower puree and a light, sweetish ponzu sauce. This was great – good hearty food given a smart twist. Then came cured salmon with cucumber, fennel and avocado mousse – a beautifully composed dish which looked great and had good clean flavours. The salmon in particular pleased, with a little light scorching on top but otherwise with a sashimi-like quality.

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Salmon with cucumber, fennel and avocado mousse

Then a little break with a palate cleansing yuzu sorbet livened up at table by being given a good hearty slug of prosecco.

Last of the mains was a really beautiful piece of tender, medium rare, fillet of beef with nice and crunchy pommes anna (basically thinly sliced layers of potatato cooked with butter), herby lovage puree and a Madeira sauce. Lovely as this was, I don’t think ox cheek and beef fillet should be on the same tasting menu – it made the meal feel a bit lop-sided. There was a faux-pas with the steak – some of the tape used to keep it in shape during cooking had been left on.

20190307_215641We transitioned to sweet with a quenelle of excellent goat’s cheese mousse served simply with fine lightly pickled red onion. One of the pleasures of this meal was that all the dishes were beautifully plated, both in choice and variety of plates and in the arrangements.

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Cherry baked Alaska

 

The first desert sounded right up my street but was a bit disappointing – cherry baked Alaska with almond meringues and almond brittle. Obviously this being a tasting menu you don’t want huge deserts but the baked Alaska was just too small to allow the different elements to interact properly. The cherry element had gone before I knew it, unable to deal with the sweet Italian meringue, which I felt need a bit more attention from a flame.

The slight frustration with the Alaska was made more pointed with final main element – a large, super-rich chocolate fondant tart with tonka bean milk gel, chocolate tuile and tonka bean crème anglaise. All elements were done very well but it felt a bit much at the end of such a meal – though of course I still just about managed to clear up a couple of first-rate petit fours with the coffee.

We had the wine matching and there were some lovely choices including a fulsome Australian shiraz with the steak and a stunning black muscat with the baked alsaka. But a rather light Chevanceau from Herault failed to stand up to the ox cheek.

Service throughout the evening was charming and helpful, and the pace was just right. Maybe not the best structured tasting menu I’ve ever had, but plenty to like in a restaurant that will give pleasure to many.

Ok, so I’ve not posted here for a long time. There’s plenty of reasons for this. For one thing, blogging of the type I’ve done here over the last 10 years seems to fit less easily with the bite size nature of more instant social media platforms – newsy bits seem better suited to twitter or instagram. Plus there’s now a great job being done across various channels by the likes of Cool as Leicester in keeping people up to date.

I’m sure there is a lingering interest from some in well-written (hopefully), longer-form reviews and reflections. I wish I could do more of these but it’s difficult now there’s no newspapers wanting independent reviews. Equally it’s a difficult time for Leicester’s restaurants – there’s activity at the lower and middle parts of the market but it’s not easy at the top end.

Anyhow just to get my own thoughts in order as much as anything, I thought I’d reflect a little on where we are now. I’ll just focus on the city for now.

It was hugely disappointing to see that the King Richard III didn’t make it – the food was fantastic and while they were regularly busy at weekends, the midweek trade wasn’t there for them – especially sad when there were some bang average places not far away doing ok. At least it means that Chris and Andrea can put energies back into Crafty at St Martin’s Tea and Coffee with its exuberant burger menu. It would be nice to think new operators will do something worthwhile at KRIII.

For smart food in the city I lean towards Lilu (watch our for owner Pratik Master relaunching his family convenience store in Wigston next month as a deli promoting lots of fine local produce) and the Knight and Garter’s brasserie-style offering. On the edge of the city is the Black Iron at Winstanley House in Braunstone Park, which really impressed me and from which I get consistently excellent reports.

 

Of the other contenders, I’ve not been to The White Peacock since chef Patron Phil Sharpe moved on, but one regular tells me it has been inconsistent. The place is now owned by the Koban group, which also runs Aspects in Enderby and has recently bought The Lansdowne on London Road and Fenway’s in Loughborough from the Orange Tree group and also the 1573 Steakhouse on the edge of Highcross. There’s the venerable Case, which you have to admire, but much as I love the venue the food has tended to leave me a little indifferent – not been for several years though. I hope to give the Queen Victoria Arts Club another go after a mixed result when I went soon after it opened.

At a more everyday level the Fish and The Chip seems to justify Aatin Anadkat’s decision to move away from fine dining with his bright and breezy, classy chip shop, and Crafty burger continues to attract large numbers. There’s also much interest in the Asian sector – Kayal and its vegetarian sister Herb continue to produce outstanding food and the more humble likes of Spicy Temptations and Wakaze are a delight. Paddy’s Martin Inn, Mithaas and Mumbai Inn are very different places which have all impressed me in recent months. Korean food is at last making an impact with Ongi and the wonderful Grounded Kitchen and I’m looking forward to trying Oppa – a new Korean barbecue place on High Street. I’m also quite fond of the Vietnamese chain Pho – though would love to see a quality independent doing south-east Asian food in the city.

Delilah’s is of course a big loss to the city and to St Martin’s in particular but let’s not forget there are still many terrific cafes and food and drink retailers in that area. Mrs Bridges is an under-appreciated gem, St Martins is quality as are Gelato Village, Cocoa Amore, Kai, The Bottle Garden, The Two Tailed Lion, 33 Cank St and others.

There’s now two competing streetfood nights competing for the pay day dollar on the last Friday of the month, and recently one of them, Canteen, has started having traders in New Market Square on Wednesdays during the day (12pm-8pm).

One word too for an unprespossessing little fast food outlet called Cha Cha’s Griddle at the bottom end of London Rd. It’s not going to change your world, but its Kolkata streetfood Kathi rolls – parathas lined with egg and wrapped around chicken or lamb kebabs or veg are fresh, hot, tasty, cheap, filling and just the thing when you want something quick and on the go. The likes of pau bhaji, bhel poori, and samosa chaat also available – run by nice people too.

So what is there to look forward too? In my neighbourhood I’m delighted to see that we’ve now got a Moroccan restaurant, with Al Ma’idah opening imminently on Queen’s Road. It will soon be joined by the reappearance of Friends Tandoori, a Belgrave institution which disappeared a decade ago. Clarendon Park has long needed a good Indian restaurant and hopefully this will be it. Also on the horizon on Queen’s Road is a new bar and restaurant in what was Cultura. Not many details yet but it’s an initiative of the people behind 33 Cank St and they’ve got a good chef on board so I’m hopeful.

In town the biggest news is probably Mowgli coming to St Martins – if it can maintain the liveliness and quality of its original branches then I can’t wait. But there’s the doleful example of Bill’s before us for places that can’t reproduce the magic ad infinitum.

OK that’s enough. Do let me know if there’s anything you want to add or feel I’ve got  wrong and I hope to be back soon, or at least when I’ve got something to say.

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.

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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