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.


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






Conventional Beers

February 15, 2018

I remember a typically droll Daily Mash piece about the local pub that added two draught ales and declared it was having “a festival”. Maybe it was fear of such ridicule that that made the LCB Depot and Gray’s call their event this weekend the Leicester Beer Convention.

20180215_183049In fact though they’ve brought together ten draught beers, four ciders and a range of bottled beers, all made in our fair county. They’ve set it up to coincide with a big weekend of Leicester Comedy Festival happenings.

Ok it’s not the most cosy of venues to spend the evening but this is a great way to help promote local brewers and if you are around and about at the festival Friday or Saturday evening you should pop in and try something. I managed three cheeky halves this evening, including two excellent IPAs,  Nook from Anstey Brewery and Spark from Tollgate. Both of these came in at around 5 per cent and while I like a hop monster as much as the next beardy, these were both more traditional in style  –  clean, fruity and just a little sweet. Even better was the Stout from the West End Brewery, a well-balanced dark beer with hints of coffee and toffee but very gluggable.




Gray’s Mexican dog with pulled pork and fixins.

In-house café Gray’s is putting on decent quality comfort food too – burgers, dogs, loaded fries etc. It opens from 5pm on Friday 16th and from 12pm on Saturday.

If you can’t get along, don’t forget the following Friday – 23 February – is the return of Canteen, the massively successful streetfood night at the Depot. This month marks its first anniversary and traders will include European Street Food Award Winners Baked in Brick and their wonderful chicken tikka, Chinese snacks from Dim Sum Su, a spicy take on fish and chips from The English Indian, gluten and dairyfree panAsian food from Canoodle and grilled meats from Street Souvlaki.

Canteen runs from 5pm and watch out for a Lion dance and other special events. to mark the Chinese new year.

Oh – and yes I realise they couldn’t call it Leicester Beer Festival because there’s already one of those and it’s coming soon…

  • One more thing.  Sadly the vast bulk of my contribution to last night’s Restaurant Rescue ended up on the cutting room floor. The programme makers clearly decided the story they wanted to tell here was about the personality and motivation of Pratik Master rather than the food itself. It was a fairly interesting insight into the restaurant world, though I think Russell Norman’s series “The Restaurant Man” did it all rather better.








I had a first look at the Knight and Garter last night  – and Sam Hagger’s Beautiful Pubs have done a terrific job at transforming this marvellous and strategically important building into a terrific asset for Leicester city centre.

The former Oirish pub Molly O’Grady’s is now a elegant pub and restaurant doing good quality pub food in a way that should attract families,  business people and casual drinkers alike. The fit out is reminiscent maybe of a sophisticated New York bar, or maybe a smart London steakhouse – not opulent or flashy, but with a smart contemporary style.

2017-06-01 19.37.07

For those that know the building, the bar that opened on to Hotel Street is now a sizeable restaurant area, with that entrance now sealed off. The bar area is accessed through the Market Street South entrance, and there’s a bookable downstairs function room too.

It’s unrecognisable from its former incarnation and boasts a brand new £350,000 kitchen which Hagger reckons makes it one of the most technologically-advanced pubs in the UK. The food offering includes some tremendous steaks from Owen Taylor butchers, with whom Hagger has built a long-term relationship for his other pubs The Forge in Glenfield and the nearby Rutland and Derby.  He explained last night they’ve initially even had their own beasts identified from field to abattoir – certainly the texture and flavour of last night’s trial tasting of picana and bone-in sirloin was spectacularly fine.

2017-06-01 19.27.09The drinks offering includes the Everards range but at least three other hand-pulled ales and, much to their excitement, unfiltered, unpasteurised Budvar Krausenden lager, delivered straight from the brewery and with a nice extra tang. Naturally there’s a good selection of gins and wines too.

After spending nearly two years full time on this project Sam Hagger retains his boyish looks and enthusiasm, but clearly has a determined, business head on him to pull this off.  The pub’s not quite finished yet – the outdoor terrace onto Champions Square is still to be done but should be a splendid place to look out from once the Square and Market building are completed. Also in a couple of years the upstairs room are likely to be done out as a boutique hotel.

All in all, this looks a splendid contribution to the ongoing redevelopment of the Market and St Martin’s area.

Shortly after yesterday’s post, I heard of another intriguing opening.  It’s been whispered for a good few months but we now have confirmation that craft beer and chicken concept Broood (yes, there are three o’s) is to open on King St/New Walk.

The new operators completed on the lease this week for the building that recently housed Sloanes bar and before that Out of the Vaults. Most significantly though, it was home to Vin Quatre (or more commonly Vin IV), one of the first bars that came out of the liberalised licensing regime of the 9os and which has legendary status among a whole generation of Leicester hipsters. It was, famously, hugely busy and massively profitable.

“We want to evoke the spirit that the bar had in the 1990s,” say the bar’s owners with a laser-eye on their demographic  “If you are of an age, you will have drunk there – we want you back. No excuses. You’ve got no kids now. You didn’t have any then.”

There is already a  Broood in Hinckley – with eight or nine real ales and craft beers mainly from small regional breweries and a food menu that focuses on piri piri chicken, wings in hot sauce, hot dogs and pies.   The Leicester branch – which should open before Christmas – could fill the hole left by the demise of The Pub on New Walk – if it goes a step further and can rival the popularity of Vin IV, then happy days all around.

  • One more thing as I clear the decks before going off on holiday tomorrow – thanks to Miguel Holmodinho for a tip about Merhaba, a new Eritrean café restaurant on Churchgate.  It’s obviously first and foremost a venue for exiles but its not intimidating to others and we had a lovely lunch in there this week. Eritrean food is at core stews and vegetables served on injera – a sourdough flatbread with a soft  spongy texture. Typically it’s all served  on a big platter and eaten communally.

    We had a lamb stew with fairly fiery berbere spicing and spinach with onion and spices – it was different and delicious. It’s particularly delightful as the sauces soak into the bread. There are plenty more things on the menu that I have little idea about but will go back after a bit more research. Meat dishes are around £6-£8, various vegetable ones around £3-£5. Note the bread is available in gluten-free form made with teff grains.

    There’s not many reasons to venture down Churchgate nowadays. Lebanese restaurant Cedars and Caribbean takeaway Johnnycakes (of which more in the near future) are two. Now we have another.






The Queen’s Head, Belton

November 4, 2016

I enjoyed a trip out to Belton, near Shepshed, recently to revisit the Queen’s Head. I found the menu changed a fair deal, with a  more simple, classic approach to pub food. Here’s the review I did for the Leicester Mercury:


Country pubs have to bold to survive. It’s not enough to stock the beer and open the doors. – they need to find a strategy that works for them and their staff, for the locals obviously, and for guests who might come in from further afield.

For some that might fine dining, and we’ve got a few of those in Leicestershire and Rutland. For others it might be being part of a chain or maybe linking up with caterers to offer Asian food. That offer will need to be reviewed, tweaked or radically changed from time to time as local and national trends dictate.

The first time I went to The Queen’s Head in Belton, around a decade ago, it was in the fine dining spectrum. Nowadays, it still a smart, stylish pub but the food has been stripped back to a menu of classics that provide a lower price point and probably have a wider appeal. Some of the dishes might sound like they come from an ironic 70s theme pub, but it’s nothing of the sort. The Queen’s Head remains a classy operation under MD Henry Weldon that offers some classic dishes of recent years done from scratch, with good ingredients and done simply but well.

Mind you, as we sat down in the smart dining room to the less than relaxing sound of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid we did wonder if the retro styling had been taken a step too far. Eventually the soundtrack became a bit less frantic but it remained a bit loud for us.

The menu is short and nicely focused. There’s a selection of steaks, cooked over coals on a Berghoff barbecue grill, and classic dishes such as a whole plaice on the bone, beer battered fish and chips and baked camembert.

We decided to go with the flow and start with a prawn cocktail and found it very enjoyable. It was not messed around or modernised – simply good, juicy crustaceans in a tangy mayonnaise, crisp lettuce and fine bread. A second starter was a take on a fried breakfast (below) and showed again that simple treatment of good ingredients can be really successful. This featured a fried duck egg with a rasher of crispy smoked bacon and some wonderful iron-rich, home-made black pudding, all set off with some delightful sweet and fruity gooseberry ketchup. It wouldn’t have satisfied anyone in search of an early morning full English, but it worked surprisingly well as elegant starter.


Being a bloke I ordered the steak and chips, in this case a, 8 oz rib-eye. It was a pretty good – tender, full-flavoured and nicely grilled to medium rare. The fat triple-fried chips were outstanding, superbly crunchy with floury insides they were the perfect antidote for anyone with no time for skinny fries. The little salad of watercress and red onion was excellent too. Our other main continued the retro approach – a beautifully tender chicken kiev, pleasingly oozing plenty of garlic butter which had neither of the common faults of being bitter or just too strong. Served simply with rich, smooth mash and tenderstem broccoli this was food you might reasonably aspire to cook at home but there’s still a pleasure in having it done well by a chef.

Deserts could also have passed muster in the 70s. Mine was a nicely done banana split (below) with all elements present and correct including cream, ice-cream, cherries, chocolate sauce, langue-de-chat biscuits. It maybe falls into the guilty pleasure category, but a pleasure it most definitely was. Slightly more sophisticated but equally as far removed from the cutting edge was a sharp, refreshing lemon sorbet with limoncello.


There’s a nice family feel about the Queen’s Head. Locals were quietly enjoying a beer or two in the separate bar, while there was a big jolly party in another area of the large dining space having a farewell do for one of the chefs.

Obviously there’s a market for people who are looking for good cooking of straightforward, familiar dishes . But there’s also generations who may never have had the pleasure of these dishes and may enjoy them over the latest fad. For all these, a visit to the Queen’s Head should be an enjoyable one.

Swan sells out

August 7, 2016

Don’t think it was the power of the recommendation on this blog, but the  Swan and Rushes Sri Lankan street food “weekender” turned out a bit of a misnomer – popularity was  such they sold out of everything by early Saturday evening.

I appreciate the difficulties in planning for these kind of one-off events but this  was somewhat irritating for those of us like me who planned our day around eating there at 7pm. Ho hum. On the positive side, I’m delighted there are places in my city that are prepared to try something different now and again, and particularly pleased there seems to be a market for creative food events. Other venues may like to take note.  The Swan has apologised and promise they will doing the event again, so those who missed out on what I hear was great food should get another chance.

I was  invited to yesterday’s launch of the new branding for Everards beers. With big plans for their new brewery, offices, restaurant and cycle centre out near Fosse Park now reaching a crucial stage, the rebrand emphasises the companies Leicestershire roots – hence from today you’ll see their main logo use the portrait of founder William Everard and the words “Everards of Leicestershire”.

EVOL Low Detail Light Base Black & Gold Logo [3-7cm] CMYK

Their four key beers get a rebrand with beautiful nostalgic illustrations from local design agency Juice featuring a Leicestershire fox character, though Tiger retains a distinctive Tiger design that emphasises  its links to the Royal Leicestershire Regiment and to the rugby club.  Beacon is clarified as “Beacon Hill” and Old Original’s design is linked back to the original brewery in Southgate Street

Everards Beer Range Illustration

The new branding also gives a little more information on each beer – hence from today onwards you’ll find pump clips that explain a little more about taste and style   – hence the 5.2  per cent Old Original is described as “rich and fruity amber ale”. I’m all for such clarity at point of purchase and find it hard to believe much beer is just given a stupid name and left to sell itself.

I know some find their beers a little “safe”, but personally I’ve always enjoyed Tiger – a solid well-balanced best bitter – but it was a long while since I’d sipped Old Original and enjoyed a swift half at the launch event very much. I also admire the way Everards – still a family-owned company   – seems to do business. It supports other local food and drink businesses,  keen to have partnerships rather than growth at all costs. Its pubs are reliably good and independent licencees with vision – such as Sam Hagger of the Rutland and Derby and The Forge and Jay Cooledge of the Griffin and Odd John’s –  get the chance to develop their pubs their way.

Oh yes, the new brewery – the move across the ring road to the 12 acre Everards Meadow site is now just dependent on the planning decision from Blaby Council expected in July. Good luck to them.





The Real Ale Classroom

December 14, 2015

WP_20151210_21_32_34_ProA quick welcome to the Real Ale Classroom. This micropub on Allandale Rd in Stoneygate opened two weeks ago with an impressive range of beers served straight from the barrel and immediately became one of the more interesting places in the city to have a quick pint.

It’s small and cramped when it’s full but that’s rather the point with micropubs – you have to go in within an attitude of being willing to shove along let someone sit down and, in what we’re told is a most un-British way, have a chat with those around you.

There will regularly be 5 or 6 ales on – I think there were 8 the night I visited – with a range of styles and strengths and mainly from local brewers. Even the gin and tonic came from Leicestershire distillers Two Birds.  With traditional pubs closing, this model of small, sociable  and quality beer-focused  venues could point the way forward

Sunday lunch at The Font

December 1, 2015

Here’s the second in a pair of Sunday lunch reviews for the Leicester Mercury. I was keen to recommend a place that wasn’t a posh country pub restaurant but an honest, great value, urban venue that was ideal for a relaxed wander down to for a pint and some roast beef. The Font fits the bill perfectly – at £12 for three courses it doesn’t break the bank, the food is fine and it’s well run:

The Font
52 ½ Gateway Street
Leicester LE2 7DP
0116 319 7855
Food service – Mon-Sun 12-7pm

Doing this job, I’m often asked for recommendations for places to eat. It’s a question that usually prompts a lot more back from me – who’s going, what do they like, what’s your budget, will you be driving, are you looking for formal or informal?

Pointers for a good Sunday lunch are a particularly common request and my questions are just the same. Most restaurants or pubs that do food should be able to rustle up a decent Sunday roast, and so the key questions are budget and the kind of venue you want. Last week I reviewed a smart country pub in a relatively remote village that for many is priced in the special treat category. This week it’s a funkier urban venue that is easily accessible for most city-dwellers and which offers tremendous value.

The Font will be well-known to those connected with nearby De Montfort University and the Royal Infirmary. But, tucked away on a back street, it’s a bit off the map for many others who might enjoy its relaxed Sunday vibe. You wouldn’t describe it as cosy – it’s a large, high-ceilinged room in modern building with a long bar with some high stools and ledges for perching and some fairly rough old furniture laid out like a refectory. That said, while there’s piles of magazines and fliers around the place, it doesn’t have that Student Union feel of some of chain pubs in the area. It feels like an independent place run by people who care and where everyone is welcome.

It’s regular menu is fairly standard drinker’s fare of burgers, nachos, all day breakfasts and so on but done well enough to suggest that standards matter to the kitchen. On Sundays the lunch offering is slimmed down to a couple of starters a choice of three roasts and a couple of desserts. At £12 for three courses this looked a bargain – as long the food was of good standard.

I started with a great peppery leek and potato soup, with big crunchy croutons and a cheffy chiffonade of leeks to garnish. Winter had finally arrived on the day of our visit and this was a very good warming soup dish with good flavour and texture. The other starter was of ham hock croquettes – well-made, tasty little nuggets with some fresh, crisp leaves in an excellent honey and mustard dressing.

WP_20151122_14_52_26_ProOur roasts – one beef, one turkey – were absolutely fine. Plenty of good quality meat, some really outstanding roast potatoes and excellent freshly prepared yorkshire puddings. There were three vegetables including some cheese-topped broccoli in portions than amounted to an elegant sufficiency rather than the Desperate Dan approach you can find yourself adopting at a carvery.

The pub does have some good offers on wine but on this occasion we stuck to a couple of craft beers from Meantime and Vedett – both a happy match for a Sunday lunch.

WP_20151122_15_21_25_ProDesserts changed from the printed menu, offering confirmation that dishes here are prepared from fresh and when they’ve gone they’ve gone ,rather than another batch being defrosted or whatever. Home-made rice pudding with home-made raspberry jam and chocolate brioche soldiers was unashamed nursery pudding heaven and a cheesecake with chocolate shards and chocolate sauce was equally appealing.

Staff reflect the venue – young, somewhat hipster but friendly, efficient and solicitous.

No-one would claim this is truly outstanding food unmatched in the Midlands, but for a relaxed, informal but good quality lunch in the heart of the city along with the Sunday papers or a group of friends, the Font does a very good job and at a great price.

The Grey Goose, Gilmorton

November 26, 2015

I’ve done a couple of reviews of Sunday lunches for my Leicester Mercury column. It’s something I’m regularly asked to recommend – which is difficult in that most places should be able to do a decent A Sunday roast, and it’s hard to do that is stunningly better than everyone else, or indeed that you can do at home. So a lot of it is about the venue.  I started with a smart country pub:

Grey Goose
Lutterworth Road
LE17 5PN

01455 552555

Sunday lunch plays a special role in the lives of many Britons. For the lucky amongst us, it brings back happy memories of family life – for me, it was visits from my grandma and a gathering round the table while listening to Two-way Family Favourites.

Today it’s likely to be one of the few occasions when people eat together around the table. Pubs of course have latched on to this and the pub Sunday lunch is possibly as much as a ritual as the domestic one. So as Autumn sets in and our mind turns from salads to more substantial comfort food, this column will take a couple of looks at this Great British institution.

This week it is the Grey Goose in the South Leicestershire village of Gilmorton. Around six years ago the pub was extended and refurbished to the tune of of £1.3million – an expression of confidence at time when the economy was freefalling that if you provide good food the people will come. It’s steadily built a reputation over that time and the fact that Sundays now see it running three sittings to pack in the dinners shows that the appetite is still growing.

It’s a contemporary-styled building – lots of slate grey – with a large dining area and arriving at 12.30 there was a lot of bustle and chatter. We were asked for a drinks order before we’d even all sat down which raised fears we might be hustled along, but they would prove unfounded and service was very good throughout our stay.

The Grey Goose is a proper high-end restaurant in the week – we were hoping that standards would stay high on a day of the week when maybe some places would be happy to take the easy dollar. And looking at starters, they generally were. The exception was some under-seasoned devilled whitebait, with no discernible devilment, and a garlic mayonnaise with no discernible garlic – the fish themselves were ok but the dish failed to justify a £7.95 price tag. Much better though were some chunky lamb kidneys with wild mushrooms, two substantial chunks of lightly-breaded baked brie with plenty of cranberries and another dish of wild mushrooms in a roquefort sauce on sourdough toast. These were all substantial, well-cooked dishes with quality ingredients that set us up nicely for the main event.

The centre of the pub is given over to a carvery (main course – £13.95) on Sunday and this is what two of us choose. It’s an entirely pleasing experience, with three huge joints being carved and served with great bonhomie. This was a proper Dickensian, Mr Pickwick vibe. Servings are huge and you are welcome to mix and match the roasts – in this case Aubrey Allen beef, Leicestershire turkey and pork loin.

Turkey could wait for another day, but the beef was very good and the pork was sensationally good. You can then help yourself from the very wide selection of extras – acceptably crispy roasts, mash, peas, carrots, hispi cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli mornay, stuffing, yorkies, gravy, horseradish.

Of course at a carvery some things – Yorkshire puddings especially – can’t quite measure up to what can be done when you serve fresh from the oven at home, but this was in general a creditable effort. The pub managed a complex operation with commendable smoothness.

A nut roast is available but our vegetarian main courses were maybe preferable. A risotto of slow roasted tomatoes and creamy goat’s cheese was possibly a bit over salty but was deeply flavoursome and Thai vegetable curry was lively and vibrant and served with a touch of flair – it certainly measured up to versions I’ve tried in UK Thai restaurants.

The wine list is helpfully designed and annotated to make easier to pick an appropriate style and our Lunaris malbec from Argentina met with universal approval, though sadly the pub seems to have succumbed to the current fashion of serving its ale far too cold.

A couple of shared deserts of good, soft creamy ice-cream – we had salted caramel and pistachio – and a very light citric tart of lime and elderflower with some beautiful fat, sweet berries and we were done. Back home to fall asleep in front of the TV. On a weekend when we were mourning the deadly attacks on people enjoying simple pleasures in Paris, the pleasure gained from this time-honoured aspect of our lifestyle seemed especially sharp.

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