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.

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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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