It’s probably about time we had a smart restaurant open in Leicester. And the Black Iron at Winstanley House fits the bill rather nicely.

Just to set in context, Winstanley House is the new event venue and boutique hotel established in the centre of Braunstone Park. Some will know it as Braunstone Hall, the decaying grand house that had been something of a Grade II-listed thorn in the side of the County Council since it closed as a school in 1996. Historically it was the 18th century home of the Winstanley family,  lords of the manor roundabouts. Now it has been spectacularly renovated by the people behind the City Rooms, another historic venue in the city centre and now a four-room boutique hotel and wedding venue.

This, though, is of a different order. This is a big investment in Leicester – an old hulk has been turned into a very smart and flexible venue for weddings, parties, conferences, launch events and other such. It can cater for well over 400, with two lovely ballrooms, and there are 19 smart  bedrooms, including four very luxurious suites, which will appeal to smarter business travellers as well as wedding parties.

In addition to the modern banqueting facilities the venue also hosts the Black Iron, a smart English restaurant with the feel of Georgian country house. It’s comfy, roomy and smart without being intimidating.   Sometimes hotel restaurants are desperately sad – half-hearted efforts to feed a captive audience with dressed up but mediocre food. Fortunately this would appear to be a rather different beast.

Based a round a charcoal-fired oven and steaks from Onley Grounds Farm  near Rugby, this appears a proper restaurant that has had serious money spent on it and serious effort put in to sourcing. The menu is not cutting edge  but does appear well thought-out,  the kind of nostalgic “smart restaurant” food that retains wide appeal:  pan-roasted lamb’s liver with mash, bacon and sage; porterhouse steak with beef dripping fries; beetroot cured salmon; beef and ale pudding with horseradish mash.

I was invited on the launch night to tour the facilities and have dinner. It was a busy, exciting evening and obviously not a reflection of  how things will be come, say, a quiet night in  mid-January. Nonetheless it seems clear they have already got a lot of things right.

Ordering from a reduced  menu on the night, I was impressed with a timbale of Earl Grey smoked mackerel with avocado cream and pickled cucumber – there was  delicacy of touch and well-judged flavour profiles, making a dish that could have just been nice into a  genuine treat. A salad of “textures of beetroot” was that bit better than expected too – pretty as  a picture but with fine flavours too.

My rib eye steak was excellent but that star of the evening, improbably, were the beef dripping fires – terrifically crisp but with plenty of fluffy potato texture inside they also had a deliciously smokey aroma. They were worth the trip down on their own. Belly of pork with mash, spinach, burnt apple puree and cider jus might not have won originality awards but was executed very well.

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The wine list has clearly been put together with care and enthusiasm and my compliments for the outstanding Zapa Oak-Aged Malbec Riserva (£24) brought out the bar manager who proudly explained their UK exclusivity on the wine.

For desert, a traditional trifle was served far cold but otherwise was a fine, unmucked-around classic, virtues shared by the warming sticky toffee pudding.

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Overall then this was a very promising start. This first iteration of the menu looks good value too – you can eat for around the same as at Café Rouge, and I know which I’d prefer.

There’s an elephant in the room here – and that’s the Braunstone location for a smart hotel and restaurant. The building  is in the middle of the park and the drive along the approach road from the Hinckley Road makes you feel  you feel a long way from the city. I really hope any lingering postcode prejudice is overcome – this is a terrific asset to the city and in a few years time I think many people will be able to look back at special occasions and rites of passage observed here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Fish and The Chip

October 19, 2017

This week I finally got around to trying out The Fish and The Chip – the modern, slightly upscale take on the British fish and chip shop from the team behind Maiyango.

Leicester folk will know it as the place on Jubilee Square with the huge Union Flag frontage. It’s a huge turnaround for what was previously one of the city’s longest-established fine dining venues. Gone are the cosy booths and the adventurous  modern international cooking, and in comes a bright and breezy,  casual venue and a menu that built around fish and chips done really well. It’s draws ion the tradition but is  considerably  more refined than most chippies  – the gravy is made with red wine, the mushy peas are crushed fresh peas rather than vinegary marrowfats and you can opt for lobster and or side such  halloumi skewers with rocket pesto.

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I loved the bright colours and the sauce-on-the-table environment and smiled to see the menu come in the form a four page newspaper. Naturally I tried the classic fish and chips (at £12- with cheaper lunch deals available  –  it’s about what you’d pay in decent pub) and was happy with the result.  A thin, herby and impeccably crisp batter was delightful and the fish was fine. Chunky chips were excellent too. There was not a spot of grease to be found on the plate. Garnishes included those superior mushy peas, a little pot of tartare and even some fine silverskins as a nod to the traditional pickled onion.

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A side of a soft-shell crab slider was terrific – deep-fried crunchy crustacean with a well-judged chilli mayonnaise relish.

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My veggie pal went for the Korean-spiced tofu burger with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. Overall she felt that while there were “all sorts of lovely things” in there, more effort was need to getting the tofu to carry some flavour. She also used to work as a craft baker and was very disappointed with the quality of the roll – giving it a slightly withering “supermarket” designation. Our third member picked a surf and turf burger – spiced pork patty with king prawns, swiss cheese and pickles.  Flavours and presentation were rated highly but he found the brioche bun fell apart rather quickly.

We had wine but there is also a fun cocktail menu that echoes the somewhat seasidey theme  – candy floss daiquiri, mint choc chip cornetto etc. 

Staff were cheerful but there was one major fail with service, with my friends’ plates being cleared while I was still finishing my meal.

Speaking with owner Aatin Anadkat the next day, he knows there is some tweaking still to be done. Having separated himself from Maiyango’s hotel business, The Fish and The chip is his sole focus and a “new edition” of the menu is coming soon. Already introduced is a new lighter lunch menu with options such as crab and mango roll at under a fiver and lunch-sized  mains for not much more, including vegan and chips – meaning celeriac wrapped in nori and with a gluten-free crispy wasabi batter.

The key issue facing the venue is one of identity. The Maiyango heritage is a strong one, but people going expecting fine dining will be confused. Similarly fish and chip fans  those who like a cheap and cheerful, pile it high approach may not be attracted. But it would be a shame if people didn’t try it out because there’s plenty to like and it deserves to be judged on its own terms – it’s fun, the food is appealing (plenty of gluten free stuff), and it’s versatile enough to appeal to families, couples and groups of all ages.  I hope it finds its market.

[The unusually crisp photos come courtesy of Miguel Holmodinho – cheers Mike].

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pho, Leicester.

October 12, 2017

I don’t usually bother reviewing chain restaurants, but Pho – open now in Highcross – was definitely one I wanted to try.  My girlfriend used to visit her sister in Vietnam and she regularly regales me with tales of the sublime food – and on the few occasions I’ve tried it I’ve enjoyed the sharp, lively flavours I’ve encountered.

There are now 25 Phos, and this one seems to share the characteristics of chains at this stage of life. It’s not unpleasant, but the music is too loud, ethnic artwork fails to prevent a rather anonymous atmosphere and young staff seem overworked and while they may have learned the “please ask if you’ve any questions” mantra, their behaviour suggests they are being too closely monitored by a time and motion manager to actually talk about the food.

 

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Summer roll

In fact, the food was actually rather nice. Summer rolls are light, zesty and packed with crunchy vegetables and chicken, and come with a nutty dipping sauce (their crispness set off a reverie of contrast with the fat-dripping Chinese “Spring rolls” that were once the preferred way of seeing off post-pub munchies.)  Pork and lemongrass meatballs were nice enough but felt a little mass-produced (the Pho website does state that food is “made fresh at each branch every day”). The nuoc cham dipping sauce was right up my street   – chilli, garlic, rice vinegar, sugar, lime juice and more combining to give that pleasing complexity that characterises South East Asian food.  (As I thought then, the meatballs didn’t really measure up to those I’d had over the road at Cured – and by the way, I had great meal there this week at their four course, gin-themed evening run with the Attic cocktail bar. Watch out for forthcoming bourbon and rum evenings- great food, great drinks, great value).

 

 

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Pho Tom

“Pho” of course refers to the noodle soup that is a staple of Vietnamese food, and our Pho Tom, with king prawns, was delightful. The basis of a pho is a stock made from slow-cooked beef or chicken bones (veggie version available). Pho say they simmer theirs for 12 hours and I’d say it shows – this was a very complex broth with many layers of flavours. Vietnamese food is full of herbs and spices and pho is traditionally served with range of extra ingredients and condiments so you can spice up your dish just as it suits you. The big fat prawns were cooked just right too – they can be nasty and rubbery when overdone. We also had a rice bowl  topped with wok-fried leaves plus cucumber, radish and a wide variety of fragant green herbs plus spiced beef wrapped in betel-leafs. With appropriate use of the range of condiments available this was another very nice dish.

 

I’ll definitely be giving Pho some more custom – it seems considerably more interesting than, say, Wagamama, and as a gateway to Vietnamese food it does a very decent job. It might also be worth triangulating with a takeaway from Thai Esarn , which offers vibrant spicy, herby food from northern Thailand.

 

 

 

Cured at the Cookie

September 19, 2017

I was pleased to be an early enthusiast for the work of Cured. Young chefs with a passion for flavours and produce who want to forge their own way – that’s the lifeblood of any city’s food scene. And to be based at a bar such as Brewdog – heaven.

So it’s great news that Martin and Oliver are finally back in town with a full-time base within lively independent cafe, cocktail bar and venue The Cookie. They keep the menu format of beautifully stacked platters for sharing – or for one if you’re as greedy as me – plus innovative side dishes and their own take on comfort food. This includes a burger yes, but also a “gobi cheese toastie” featuring spiced cauliflower in a turmeric cheese sauce on sourdough or soft duck tacos with jerked duck and pineapple salsa.

The model has also been moved on. The cures for their key elements are now spirits rather than beer. On your platter you’ll find a little jar of divine orange-scented duck cured and confited with Legendario rum that beats many a rillette in a French bistro. Then there’s bourbon and maple cured bacon like a sweet, fine ham, and purple-tinged salmon cured in Brooklyn gin and blueberries.  As before, the platters are packed with carefully chosen and well-executed extras that more than earn their place – sesame bread, crispy duck fat toasts, herb butter, crunchy house pickles, inspired zingy apple and ginger slaw, dill and pink peppercorn potato salad, apple piccalli, home-made chutneys and more (gluten free available).

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Small platter

The tapas-sized sides now include the like of Vietnamese meatballs with a belting, coriander-rich green chilli jam which knocks spots of most version of this increasingly common condiment. If the newly-opened Pho across the road can do Vietnamese snacks this good I’d be surprised and delighted. Then there’s jackfruit bhaji which combine sweetness and spice in a way that suggests a sophisticated, grown-up version of the guilty pleasure that is a banana fritter.

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Jackfruit bhaji with pineapple salsa

 

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Gin, blueberries, pink peppercorns and dill

This hugely enjoyable food can be enjoyed in the laid-back cafe surroundings of the Cookies ground floor, or the more tucked away environment of the upstairs Attic bar where the chefs’ pal Xander Driver is creating top-notch contemporary cocktails.

The Cookie looks a good cultural match for the business and the food deserves to be both sought out by serious food lovers and those simply out on the town and looking for sustenance (watch out for the late night street food offering from the front of the cafe on Saturday nights). Two people can have a platter and two sides for around £20 – the price of two burgers (but no fries) from Byron.

Taking influences from traditional techniques and from the multicultural cuisines that abound in our city, here is exciting food and a proper bargain. If this was in Shoreditch, the place would be over-run with hipster food writers – as it is, fill your boots Leicester.

 

Cured
68 High Street
Leicester
http://www.facebook.com/CuredLeicester/

A Tale of Two Burgers

September 14, 2017

It’s hardly an original observation to suggest that Leicester city centre must be at or approaching Peak Burger. GBK is the most recent to arrive, filling the former Laura Ashley store at the Clocktower entrance to Highcross.

Can’t say I’ve been particularly tempted to try it – I expect it’s ok, but really Crafty has pretty much closed the book on burgers in Leicester.  But now there are signs that what the industry refers to as “better burgers” are now overflowing into the suburbs. In the last week I’ve visited a couple of venues to the South of the city. with similar names but quite differing approaches.

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Boo on London Rd is a sharply-branded independent at the quality fast-food end of the market. It’s halal and would appear to be attracted to the area by the hugely popular Turkish mangal Konak next door and Heavenly deserts one door further. It’s bright, open and friendly, offering a short, focussed menu featuring 28-day aged Aberdeen angus patties in 4oz, 6oz or 8oz combinations with the likes of cheese, pickles, onion rings, home-made sauces and their own surrogate bacon in the form of smoked beef strips. A halloumi version is available for the veggies.

boo2Our  4oz Haystack (£6.00) was great  – very decent meat, crispy battered onions and pleasingly gooey sauce on a good brioche. A 4oz “Chickaboo” chicken breast (£5.50) was moist and tender, though I was wasn’t much taken with the crispy coating. It certainly wasn’t comparable to buttermilk fried chicken I’ve had at both Cured and Crafty. Fries (£2) were good – sort of fat chips but scoop-shaped which made them perfect for dipping.

We also tried chicken wings (£3.50) which come in two “house” sauces –  buffalo hot sauce or a sweet and sticky version. These were great, nice and messy.  Hand-spun milkshakes  (£3.50) – one chocolate, one strawberry – were both excellent, sweet and creamy.

Boo looks like an ambitious business run by young guys looking to do things the right way and with a good approach to garnering customer feedback and acting on it. They’ve already been top in a Leicester Mercury poll of burger outlets.  They are social media savvy and understand their market well. I can imagine going back.

Across the park and up Queen’s Road is Moow. A sit-down restaurant with table service, this lies in what was Cultura and is run by the people behind 1573 steakhouse in the city centre and the newly-opened Halcyon Kitchen also on Queen’s Rd. It’s an attractive space and the jolly welcome from staff  on a very quiet midweek lunchtime made my lone diner experience very pleasant.

The menu is slightly wider – a dozen or so options including lamb, fish and chicken burgers and three vegetarian choices.  I had a bacon burger (£7.95)- and while everything was nicely presented, I wasn’t all that impressed. The 6oz burger made from “our own blend of Longhorn chuck, shin and rump steak” mince lacked succulence. I think that mix needs a bit more fat and maybe there was an issue with resting too, but whatever it was, the burger was rather dense and dry. The bacon strips were very crispy which didn’t help and I couldn’t detect any of the promised chilli jam. So while the brioche bun  and the onion ring were fine, and the fries (£2.50) excellent – the overall impact was rather disappointing.

The restaurant is licensed with beers and wines on offer, but I was tempted by one of the “hard shakes” – in my case a caramel shake laced with Jack Daniels (£6.50) which was delicious, a highlight of my day. Alcohol-free and – somehow – dairy-free shakes are also available.

Both restaurants have kids’ menus and are clearly keen to attract the family market. Horses for courses, and these two venues may only be half a mile a part but live in different worlds and are each adapted accordingly.

 

Toastbusters at Canteen

August 16, 2017

Somehow I seem to be very adept at being out of Leicester on the last Friday of the month. Which is an irritation because that’s when the hugely successful Canteen street food event takes place at Leicester’s Depot.

This month  – Friday 25 August – will be a particular  shame if I do have to miss it, as one of the new traders is Toastbusters, an initiative of charity Soft Touch, of which  I’ve been a board member for many years. Toastbusters is a social enterprise run with refugees and asylum seekers who attend regular cooking sessions at our base at 50 New Walk. The project combats isolation and helps people to learn new skills and share old ones. Sharing recipes from their homelands is a great way to mix. Their menu at Canteen  will include delicious toasted wraps with a range of exotic vegetarian and vegan fillings served with salads and relishes.

Toastbusters

Other traders include Street Souvlaki, bao buns form Wallace and Sons, barbecue  meats from Grill Brazil and great Caribbean food from the wonderful Leave it to Esmie. Lots more activities planned as this event continues to grow – details here.

maiyangofishRight, so the secret is now out. Maiyango is to relaunch as …”The Fish and The Chip”.

The move from globally-influenced fine dining to nostalgic British tradition couldn’t really be more pronounced. And to hammer home the handbreak turn the new restaurant comes with a statement paintjob of a massive Union Flag across its frontage. I’ve not seen images of the interior.

The new menu starts with classic fish and chips, mushy peas and tartar sauce. And at first site there’s little obvious attempt at gussying this up as gastro fish and chips – also on the menu is cheese and onion pasty and chips, fish finger club sandwich and sausage and chips. But the sausages are Lincolnshire, the fries can be skinny or fat, and there’s red wine gravy. Look more closely and Thai fishcakes and lobster and fries appear too. I suspect this won’t just be bog-standard fare.

There will be equally classic deserts  – massive ice-cream sundaes and so – and there will still be cocktails.  Founder Aatin Anadkat said he wants it to be fun and it looks like it will be. It may however have to walk a difficult line between being nostalgic and ironic, between being populist and quality. Knowing the business, I’d back them to get it right but the proof will be in the eating.

It opens on 17 August – to book visit Maiyango

[Edited – apologies for getting the name wrong in the initial draft of this article]

I’m not going to say too much just now but if you are vegetarian and you love Leicester’s Kayal – and who doesn’t? –  then I have some very exciting news for you.

A new venue from Kayal is set to open on Granby Street in the Autumn that will feature Keralan and other South Indian vegetarian food in a smart, full-service environment.  Kayal itself started off life as the vegetarian Halli and some of the staff team have been keen for some years to start another pure veggie venue with a focus on healthy food. Crucially, Kayal is unaffected.

With a con-fusion food barn opening this week in the form of Rickshaw Ricks (from the people who brought you Red Hot World Buffet), and another apparently buffet planned nearby, it’s great to hear there’s still space for food with quality, roots and integrity.

Grounded Kitchen

June 13, 2017

Believe me,  it took me some courage to go into a place that offers food alternatively described as “nourish bowls” or “Buddha bowls”. I’ve a deep suspicion of anything that promises to do me good.

But I’m delighted I went into Grounded Kitchen, a new takeaway and cafe on Queen’s Road, Clarendon Park in Leicester. They have started with a simple offering of three dishes – Korean-inspired salads that combine avocado, cherry, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, cucumber, chestnut mushrooms and spring onions, served on short grain rice and with Asian style dressings plus chilli, chia seeds, corianders and sesame. There is a veggie option and those featuring bulgogi chicken and beef bibimap.

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I had the chicken and it was great – really lovely flavours and good fresh ingredients. The place has the Clarendon Park types swooning (though there’s a faction that are campaigning for brown rice of course), and with good reason. I may be a health food sceptic but I’m very happy to eat this and look forward to forthcoming salmon and gochujang (Korean chilli paste) dishes.

The restaurant is an initiative of Oadby lad Ahmed Kidy, who has spent  a lot of time working and travelling in the far East and has had help developing recipes from Korean pals.  He has also  developed a range of Japanese matcha and sencha  teas, including those steeped with the likes of mint, lime and spinach – this is definitely an alternative to the coffee culture on the rest of Queens Road.  If Grounded Kitchen continues its early success, we could be seeing more branches appearing soon.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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