The Best of 2015

December 28, 2015

It’s been an exciting year for Leicestershire and Rutland restaurants, and I’ve been thinking back over some of the great food I’ve encountered this year. Here’s a sample of ten of my best culinary experiences of 2015 ,as done for the Leicester Mercury|:

1)St Martin’s Tea and Coffee, Leicester

This could have had three entries in the top ten. First off, the day-time cafe regularly features an epic sandwich – the Cuban has layers of marinated pork that chef Chris Elliman has slow-cooked overnight, along with more meat, cheese and pickles that combine in a remarkable way. Working alongside Elliman is Javan-born chef Bobby Ananta providing a South-East Asian slant on the menu, and his beef rendang was a complete revelation. Warmly-spiced slow-cooked meat that fell apart, plenty of toasted coconut and fresh salad spiked with lime juice. Finally, from Thursday to Saturday evening the venue hosts Crafty’s, serving up the best burgers in the county.

crafty10

2) Kayal, Leicester

It seems every week some celebrity chef turns up to learn from the Kayal crew, most recently it was Ainsley Harriot and, erm, Len Goodman filming there. It’s understandable as there is a long list of fine dishes on offer here along with some of the best service you’ll encounter. It’s hard to pick a favourite but I’m always knocked out by the Kottayam Egg Fry starter – an Easter special among Kerala’s Syriac Christian community and somewhat prosaically described here as a “batter-fried boiled egg with chutney”. It’s a beautifully tangy, vibrant curry that everyone should try.

3) The Berkeley Arms, Wymondham

I’d been wanting to get to this highly-rated country pub between Melton and Oakham for years and finally made it in the Spring. I wasn’t disappointed and stand-out dish was a braised leg of hare with poached pear and candied walnuts, a tremendous combination of flavours and texture.

4) The White Peacock, Leicester

Chef Phillip Sharpe has settled into his New Walk restaurant very comfortably and is producing elegant, fine food in sophisticated surroundings. A duck terrine from the tasting menu last Spring still lingers in the memory as combining great flavours with refined presentation. Wrapped in cabbage and made into a perfect cylinder, it was matched with charred brioche toast, a fruity mango salsa and little discs of crunchy radish.

5) 34 Windsor St, Burbage

A lively, swanky, welcoming fine dining restaurant that appears to be thriving with new head chef Arran Shaw. A long spell in Italy inspired Arran with the principles of the Slow Food movement and a respect for quality ingredients. That all came together in a marvellous starter of vibrant home-cured salmon with beer mustard and red and gold beetroot, plus a slice of remarkably complex Russian black bread – the result of several years recipe development.

7) John’s House, Mountsorrel

After a review last summer I speculated that the big national food guides might soon catch on to the remarkable food on offer here. A few months later it was granted Leicestershire’s first Michelin Star. I loved the domestic feel of John’s House and while all the dishes impressed with their focus on fabulous ingredients, it was the canapes served as we sat on the sofa pondering the menu that landed a memorable knock-out blow – a dreamy duck liver parfait served in a little cornet with a dash of sweet cumberland sauce and topped with a savoury crunch of chicken skin.

Duck liver parfait

8) Bewicke Arms, Hallaton

New owners and new chefs have at last turned this well-known country pub into a real destination for diners. Chefs Tom Cockerill and Glenn Cowl do things the right way – as evidenced by a superb starter of grilled Dexter ox heart, lightly grilled and served with locally-made salami. A dish like that is a real statement of intent from the kitchen.

9) Maiyango, Leicester

Owner Atin Anadkat has skilfully steered this business over the last decade, expanding to include a stylish boutique hotel. This year it gained a new head chef in the form of Sav Tassari. He can do big and gutsy – I remember an epic fillet steak – but he also builds on the restaurant’s reputation for delicacy and for catering for vegans and vegetarians. Fitting then, that my top memory is of simple but stunning starter of fragrant winter vegetables – fine specimens including squash, artichoke and beetroots in a gentle sweet and sour dressing which let the essential earthiness through.

10) The Salmon, Leicester

If I was asked to show a foreign visitor an example of British food at its very best I could happily take them to any of the fine establishments written about here. However I might just settle for The Salmon. On a Friday evening, with the serious business of the week largely done, I can think of few finer moments than when halfway down the second pint of some or other real ale in this award winning pub, one of your friends disappears to the bar shortly to be followed back by a barmaid with a large Stilton-topped pork pie, cut neatly into manageable slices, and a jar of mustard. The pub was set to change ownership in December – I hope the pies stay in place.

Huge thanks to those who attended and many congratulations to the White Peacock. Last night’s event for Soft Touch was not just a cheerful evening of great food but a highly successful fundraiser that will enable the charity to complete the kit-out of its kitchen training young people to prepare and enjoy and healthy food.

And elsewhere in the City centre during the same evening,  the restaurant was carrying off the Taste of England Gold Award in Leicestershire’s Excellence in Tourism Awards – with a highly commended going to 34 Windsor St. (Not to forgot my friend, and reader of this  blog, Richard Buckley who, not surprisingly I think we can agree, helped win the “tourism experience” of the year for his leading role in the reinterment of Richard III).

With front of house manager Charlotte off at the awards, the young White Peacock team managed to serve a six-course menu to more than forty people with admirable skill and elegance.

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The menu showcased great produce and a fine intelligence in dish construction. Highlight of the evening for me I think was gin and Earl Grey cured salmon – thick cut, lightly cured fish with a sweet edge and which sang of the sea. It was really effectively matched with slightly astringent pickled fennel, a tangy citrus crème fraiche and pared cucumber.

Gin and Earl Grey cured salmon

Gin and Earl Grey cured salmon

Picking up comments from others there was clear enthusiasm for the elegant starter of pickled beetroot with goat’s cheese mousse and a parmesan crisp and fig, which converted at least one person to the possibilities of the much abused beetroot. Another well-balanced dish that showed how a few fine ingredients can combine to really great effect.

Goat's cheese mousse, fig, beetroot and parmesan crisp

Goat’s cheese mousse, fig, beetroot and parmesan crisp

The desert of salted caramel panna cotta, toasted banana bread, banana sorbet and praline was a tour de force finish, the sorbet in particular getting people very excited.

Banana sorbet, sated caramel panna cotta

Banana sorbet, salted caramel panna cotta

One final point – a reminder that Leicester folk can check out some of the the impact of Soft Touch’s work at the weekly pop-up café on Thursdays 12-2pm at the New Walk premises (opposite Museum Square). Good variety  of sandwiches, soups and cakes prepared and served by young people with professional supervision at around just £2.50

34 windsorI was back at 34 Windsor St recently to review the work of new chef Arran Shaw. I’d recently interviewed Arran for Great Food Club and he struck me as passionate, serious -minded chef committed to offering adventurous and innovative food which remained a strong focus on customer satisfaction.

Arran Shaw

Arran Shaw

For my starter a slow-cooked hen’s egg sat on a crunchy granola-type base, along with sweet sautéd wild mushrooms and a pillow of baked potato foam with “truffle aroma”. Enough there to go wrong but it was a delightful balance of flavours and textures and of cooking techniques. That said I wasn’t convinced about the texture of baked potato foam – it had the flavour but was a little on the gloopy side. Another starter of home cured salmon was a revelation – without a strong smoke or over-salting the flavour of the fish sang out merrily. Beer mustard and red and gold beetroot also delivered strongly but aside from the fish the main point of interest was a slice of remarkably complex Russian black bread. Apparently it has taken several years to perfect this, time well spent because the flavours came rushing out of it.

Lamb with rhubarb was another successful combination, giving an intriguing sharp contrast to the super-sweet lamb rump. The slight bitter notes from the cooked slivers of cucumber added a further layer of complexity. The traditional rosemary flavour was introduced through herby mash. I was further pleased the lamb had not been trimmed within an inch of its life – the fat helped deliver flavour and succulence.

Welsh sea bass fillets were perfect, with crunchy little potato rosti and a mild, smooth and creamy garlic and plum tomato sauce.

Desserts were complex, multi-layered collections but everything felt right. Maple roasted pineapple was inspired and the rich, crumbly coconut sponge with it was a great match. I didn’t get a great deal out the banana and malt ice-cream but the dish worked well and was a great match with the exotic fruit flavours of a glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes. A tasting of chocolate featured a rich nutty, brownie, dark and white chocolate ganaches, a coffee and cardamom ice-cream and chocolate soil – with a curve-ball delivered by a splash of tarragon oil. It all might sound over the top but was a delicate and well-balanced affair.

Dinner was served with good humour by very well-briefed and efficient staff in a smart environment, with even the crockery gaining appreciative comments from my artist guest. With rewarding food like this, 34 Windsor should definitely be on the map for serious diners from all over the county, as well as those poor souls over on the wrong side of the A5.

Friday wrap-up

November 14, 2014

A couple of quick things the. Don’t forget it’s Leicester ‘s Winter Food and Craft Festival at the Market on Sunday. Always a good opportunity to pick up something nice for Christmas and see what’s new – full details including stallholders here.

Secondly, congratulation to Phil and Charlotte at the White Peacock who are celebrating one year at their smart New Walk restaurant this week. I had a drink with them last night and it was great to see and hear their continuing enthusiasm and desire to constantly improve.

And commiserations to Sam Owen of 34 Windsor St, who was selected for this season of Masterchef The Professionals, but exited at the first stage this week. I can’t say I know his food inside out but I guessed he would either go a long way or crash and burn.  Word on the street is that he and Marcus Waring had a frank exchange of views, but sadly none of that made it to screen.

Finally a link to a  Mercury review of a restaurant where another Masterchef professional cooks – great to see ambition but this was an up and down experience. Sorry about the Mercury website – it’s an irritating mix of pop ups another invasive stuff, I understand if you prefer to buy the paper: Lilu

34 Windsor St

October 1, 2014

Restaurants, higher-end places especially, recognise that it’s not enough just to open the doors and cook. It can help if your venue develops a personality and offers chances to deepen the relationships with clientele. Special events such as wine tastings can do that.

34 WindsorI was at 34 Windsor St in Burbage recently at a fun evening that offered an intriguing way in to understanding wine. Billed as a Cluedo evening, wine educator Raj Solanki’s approach (left) was to personify grapes – hence Pinot Grigio was Paris Hilton, “an It Girl, of good heritage, can be a bit vacuous, but capable of something more”. He fleshed these out with details of what to look for in terms of colour, acidity, tannins and flavours and invited diners to work in teams to use these clues to identify a selection of mystery wines served with a three-course dinner.

So a light-hearted way of getting information across, and while it wasn’t a food and wine matching event, Raj did set up little demonstrations to show the effect of certain flavours – lemon, chilli, sweet biscuits – on the palate and on individual wines. We were also had our nosing ability tested by having to identify a variety of fragrances in tiny phials.

Foodwise the evening featured the delicate, skilful cooking of chef Sam Owen. He learnt his trade in top Lincolnshire restaurants – including Winteringham Fields – and cites the likes of David Everett-Mathias, Sat Bains and Simon Rogan among his inspirations. That much was certainly evident in a technically impressive starter of pear and cauliflower textures, accentuated with flavours of lemon (including little chunks of compressed fruit where the air has been vacuumed out, resulting in an particularly pure flavour) and hay smoke delivered under a cloche.

The main course featured a mountain of deeply meaty “pressed beef” (blade possibly?) with a wonderful little croquette of salted cod. This came with jeruslaem artichokes – which to me looking revolting on the plate but if you can get over that, they add an intriguing earthy taste. The dish might have been better balanced with a bit more than a couple of small spinach leaves, but great flavours. Highlight was a desert with 11 elements of bitter chocolate, acorn and caramel. This combined being technical and “interesting” with straightforward choccy appeal. Actually the best bit for me was the ambrosial acorn panna cotta – extraordinarily creamy and moreish.

Wine events are set to become a monthly event at 34 Windsor St, with a Seresin Estate,  Marlborough, tasting dinner at the end of October. A good way of getting to know this smart West Leicestershire restaurant offering serious, grown-up food.

It may be near a motorway junction, but Burbage does not seem the obvious place to site an adventurous fine dining restaurant.  That’s what it’s got in the shape of 34 Windsor Street.

Owner Zeffy Thompson has a background running restaurants in the rather more, erm, zeitgeisty setting of Dubai, while chef Sam Owen gained his chops in Lincoln. They have created an intriguing venue – large, smart, aspirational. It’s not going for an obvious crowd-pleasing approach but creates a stylish welcoming environment for a chef to offer innovative cooking in sometimes challenging combinations.

Take my starter of “pigeon, peach, cornflake and warm yoghurt” for example. I love pigeon, but the dish sounded somewhat, well, odd. Ok, you think to yourself, come on then chef, convince me. On this occasion, he didn’t really. Two beautiful pigeon breasts – cooked pink and possibly sous-vide, no searing anyway –  had great flavour, but the other main elements really didn’t add anything. Peach is not exactly a traditional accompaniment and now I know why. Cornflake certainly added texture but was a bit “so what?”. I couldn’t work out any justification for the yoghurt either.  Actually the one thing that did do the pigeon a few favours was the unbilled, more conventional woodland berry (elderberry?) dressing.

Our other starters included a very elegant hay-smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish that packed delightful flavours and a “full English breakfast”. This was actually a fairly straightforward rendering of the dish, though done with a fair bit of flair – crispy bacon, sausage, black pudding, fried bread. Innovation came in the form of a kind of egg yolk croquette, some broad beans in a tomato sauce and a mushroom tea.  It was the kind of multi-element dish where some things worked better than others – the tea was a bit bland – but had great quality ingredients and was put together with a sense of fun.

You get the sense that some diners may have been slightly discombobulated by the approach  – staff gave copious warnings that this dish was served pink, that the rice in that dish would have a crunch because it had been toasted not because it was uncooked and so on. Certainly the main course described as “a piece of lamb” was very pink, and very beautiful, served on top of aubergine with cubes of polenta and pickled onions and under a dome of smoke. We couldn’t find much evidence of the smoked toffee that produced it but this was a satisfying mix of flavours. My pork was a small but excellent cut that was very tender and well matched with excellent spiced red cabbage and spiced plums, though the crumbled nuts didn’t really deserve a place. Duck breast with a variety of carrots and a sauce of lime and vanilla was sweetish but more delicate than it might sound – another lovely piece of meat cooked with flair. One point, these dishes were on the light side – if you hanker after a bit of carbohydrate, you’ll want to order some sides.

My desert veered back towards more familiar partnerships – four “chocolate textures” matched with four versions of raspberry meant you could mix and match fresh fruit, ganache, sponge, sorbet and so on. It was an absolute delight  –  even the fronds of fennel worked well too.  A toasted rice pudding with that bit of crunch, plus plums and almonds, was declared good but not that good, while an apple tarte tatin with blackberry sorbet was fine and delicate.

So, there’s lots to like about 34 Windsor St. It’s a lovely venue, staff were charming, there’s an excellent full menu for vegetarians and the cooking is skilled and adventurous.  That said, not everything worked and some of the dishes felt like work in progress rather than really well-worked out statements. Sometimes there just seemed to be an unnecessary striving for novelty, but we left cheerful and pleased someone is giving it a go.

During the noughties when I was reviewing restaurants for Metro there was no problem in finding a new, interesting, non-chain venue to visit every week.   I’d really struggle for that now –  maybe there’s been a recession or something?

So it’s with a real sense of “ooh look!” that I note and welcome the arrival of 34 Windsor Street in Burbage, near Hinckley.  Sited in what used to the Butler’s House, this totally refurbished place is an initiative of former Dubai restaurateur Zeffy Thompson, with head chef Sam Owen, who made something of a name for himself at the Lincoln Hotel in Lincoln.  It had a soft launch at the end of May and looks a classy effort with gutsy, eclectic, modern British dishes.  Daytime menu includes salads such as grilled chicken, mango and watercress with cherry reduction and hearty mains such as braised rabbit in mustard with spinach and mash or beetroot risotto with marinated Stilton (marinated Stilton?).

Then there’s various  fancy afternoon tea options before an evening a la carte menu kicks in.  Immediately raising my interest are starters such pigeon breast with sherry and caramelised shallot and mains including pork “head to tail” with apple flavours (I’m assuming this is the dish pictured below from their website) and seabass fillet with langoustine bisque.

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They seem to have good local links and this looks like a real boost to west Leicestershire diners. Hopefully I’ll a manage a review before too long.

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