I think it is now in the public domain that the O Bar on Braunstone Gate, which hosts the  the Smokehouse restaurant, is to be sold off.  Sad news because it was a real bit of quality in an area of town that needed it. Chef Liam Watson has done a fine job in building a properly original venue there and as I understand it the restaurant is trading profitably, but the rebranded O Bar has failed to bring in the punters for its upmarket craft beer offering.

The cuisine and the beer are a natural match and the Orange Tree group know they have something worth preserving with.  I’m told we will see the Smokehouse reappear somewhere with a larger kitchen and more covers, but in a more promising location. Sadly that is not necessarily Leicester. I hope it is still within reach because I’d love to see how they can further develop the concept.

In the meantime, best wishes to the team and do try and get and down there while you can.

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A crafty move by the O Bar

October 17, 2014

WP_20141016_18_05_48_ProI was at the relaunch of The O Bar on Braunstone Gate last night – now re-engineered as a specialist craft beer bar. It’s an intriguing move in the context of Braunstone Gate, which spent the 90s as the hip end of town, but in the last decade has lost some of its distinctiveness.

The O Bar, the late-night bar of the Orange Tree group, started to reassert itself last year by using its upstairs as a pop-up American barbecue restaurant The Smokehouse. It turned out such a success it was made a permanent fixture, but that left the downstairs bar “not quite right” according to director Gareth Smith (some might know him as Pugsy). With people travelling from beyond the West End for the food, an improved drinks offer made sense too. Gareth credits his dynamic general manager Phil for the brave decision to go the whole hog and chuck out not only the Carling, but the Becks and the other big brands and go fully on craft beers – for sale in thirds and two-thirds – and real ales.

Along with this chef Liam from the Smokehouse upstairs is now providing a limited bar menu downstairs  – pulled pork buns, kielbasa hotdogs loaded with chilli, onions and mustard, hot wings, ribs and nachos. So far it’s mainly been supplying the overflow from the restaurant but there’s scope to attract non-diners who nonetheless fancy a bite as they sip those fancy beers.

O bar craft beers

Craft beer tasting at The O bar

It’s a brave move because no doubt some will alienated by the unfamiliar beers and, you can’t avoid it, the considerably higher prices. What can’t be denied is there are some really fantastic beers on sale. The sublime Jaipur many people will know all about, but there’s many more – The Capt Ruhstaler Black IPA, clocking in at a hefty 7.6 per cent, looks like a stout but explodes with bright citrussy flavours on the palate. Founder’s All Day IPA is a more quaffable 4.7 per cent but still packs a heavyweight hop punch. Look out too for the burnt-toffee dark lager from Freedom and the Helles and pale ale from the award-winning Sara Barton of Brewster’s in Grantham.

I certainly wish them all the best  – this distinctive independent offering is an important antidote to the safe familiarity on offer in most of the City Centre. And as Gareth said to me in relation to the bar scene:  “Leicester has tended be the poor relation of Nottingham – it’s up to the likes of us to try and address that.”

It was no surprise to see the Smokehouse come back for another run at Braunstone Gate’s O Bar.  The feelgood Southern barbecue food seemed to be a big hit – certainly was with me – and there was definitely something added by the catch-it-while-you-can nature of the pop-up.

Camden Wheat beer  - flavoured with lemon and bergamot

Camden Wheat beer – flavoured with lemon and bergamot

On Tuesday night I went down with Rob  – who hadn’t managed to get along before and was, it must be said, a little sceptical about the whole enterprise.  He was, though, definitely won over and was last seen walking back towards Hinckley Rd getting straight on social media to enthuse.

Camp-fire goodness

Camp-fire goodness

The menu is more or less the same with a few tweaks. Rob had one of the new starters – chicken, potato and sweetcorn hash. It was a big old plate of campfire goodness – with chunks or barbecued corn sliced roughly of the cob all adding to the rustic feel. It was probably over-seasoned, but with flakes of excellent sea-salt so you didn’t really mind – it just made the excellent craft beers even more welcome. I had the scorched mackerel, marinated in a coriander pickle – a more refined dish, with  tasted cured flesh and crispy flamed skin.

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Pulled pork - being chased by a fork

Pulled pork – being chased by a fork

The “Big Smoke” mains are not subtle  – and not meant to be – but you do get hits of intriguing flavours, from coriander to fennel to the divine crunchy pickled cabbage and onions.  I had the pulled pork, cooked for 14 hours, which came two ways – pretty much straight out of the marinade and in chilli con carne form. None of it was overly spicy – more a late-arriving, smoky warmth – and it was all tender and gorgeous. Rob had the sliced brisket (just the 12 hours in the smoker for this one), a mountain of which came in a fantastic brioche bun. I’d say the gravy with the beef was maybe overly sweet but the flavour of the beef still came though and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable dish. We had sides of a potato baked in salt crust slathered in a herby garlic butter  – simply wonderful – and as a concession to our five-a-day, fennel and jalapeno slaw, which seemed to have less smoke on the fennel than I remember but still a great salad.

The one thing I was looking forward above all to reacquainting myself with was the sticky toffee and maple pudding – and it wasn’t a let down.  Excellent sponge surrounded by the most ambrosial lake of salted caramel and bourbon sauce. As the good quality vanilla ice-cream started to melt into that sauce I was reflecting there was no more pleasureable experience available in Leicester that night (please don’t tell me about it if you think there was).

Oh my...

Oh my…

So newbies or old timers, you’ve got another chance. It will be around for a few weeks – maybe longer if the bookings really fly in – so if it sounds like your thing, don’t hang around. I think you’ll enjoy it. More details here.

The Smokehouse

November 11, 2013

Having already given quite a decent big-up to The Smokehouse pop-up at Leicester’s O Bar, I suppose I was a little nervous about it being a bit of a let down.

Fortunately, turns out I needn’t have worried. Aside from the pretty basic and uncomfortable seating, five of us had a gorgeous lunch there on Sunday. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow review – the venue is already getting plenty of  positive coverage  – but the long and the short of it is that here was very good, down-to-earth flavour-led food at fair prices. We enjoyed pulled pork, 12-hour brisket with house rub and barbecued chicken with smoked bacon rub – all of them really showing the benefit of the long and slow treatment.

I really loved the sides too  – smoked fennel and aubergine salad with sweet raisin puree was a complete revelation, fennel and jalapeno slaw was lip-tinglingly good while delicious barbecue baked beans seemed to have had a hearty slug of maple syrup to give a sweet edge. Opinions were a little divided over the salt baked potatoes, baked in a pastry crust, but I certainly felt they gained something from the treatment.

Pick of the deserts was an absolutely stonking sticky toffee pudding with a salted caramel bourbon sauce. Definitely recommend finding space for that if it’s on when you go.

The craft beers were great, you’re even offered tasting if you’re unfamiliar to what contemporary brewers are doing. I  had  the Camden pale ale, and it was a good match for the food on offer.

Staff are lovely too and generally you want to thank everyone involved for giving it a go.  I’m sorry there’s no pictures, but anyway this isn’t pretty food to be admired on the plate –  it’s food to get stuck into and enjoy.  You should try it while it’s here. I’m certainly going back.

 

It’s great news that Leicester’s West End is about to get a specialist  barbecue restaurant – even if it’s only going to last a month. The Pop-Up Smokehouse will be operate from 7 November to 8 December and will bring flavours of the American mid-west and south to the O Bar on Braunstone Gate. It’s an initiative of the Orange Tree group who want to try and bring back a bit of innovation to this part of Leicester’s West End which has suffered a spate of closures. It’s also lost a fair bit of its special character since De Montfort University used its muscle to get the Bowstring Bridge removed. The owners sat down with chef Liam Watson, who spent three years with the group at the Lansdowne on London Road, and thought about how to bring a bit  buzz back.

Liam Watson with his grill

Liam Watson with his grill

I caught up with Liam on Saturday when he was giving away a few free samples at Orange Tree on High Street.  “Most of recent  investment has gone to the Cultural Quarter in the East of the city,’ he explains “That’s great, but it’s no secret that the West End needs a bit of a push. We had a think about what we could do and tried to come up with something outside the box – something enjoyable that would make a big impact on customers but didn’t involve too much cost.” The answer was a new Green Mountain grill and a pop-up restaurant in a bar that has not previously served food.  The inspiration came from a trip to Pitt Cue, the hugely popular Soho smokehouse.  “It blew me away,” enthuses Liam.  ” And fortunately they’ve now brought out a book with recipes…”.

So what can we expect? Classic, dry-rubbed, slow-cooked, St Louis cut of pork ribs given 12 hours with a hickory, maple and oak smoke. Chicken,  of course. But the hugely enthusiastic Liam also wants to be more adventurous, so look out for braised oxtail with smoked oysters in chocolate porter (all the meals are going to be matched with craft ales), beef ribs, pork cheeks and scorched mackerel. For this dish the fish just gets a sousing and then subtle smoke from a blowtorch to crisp up the skin. There’ll be  vegetarian options too – “we found butternut squash takes the smoke really well,” says Liam.

After December they’ll have a think about how it all went. Maybe they’ll have to put it down to experience. Maybe they’ll be tempted to try it again and keep popping up at festivals and events. Or just maybe they’ll be encouraged to think about something more permanent. Whatever, judging by the beautifully tender and tasty samples I tried, and the impressive way they seem to have thought this through, the Smokehouse would appear to be well worth a trip (you can book on 0116 255 8223).

Last week the Nottingham Evening Post was boasting about how their city had totally trumped Leicester and Derby in  Observer Food Awards.  Initiatives like this – as well as smarter openings such the White Peacock –  are exactly what we need to maintain and improve the city’s food culture.

The Gate Bistro

December 11, 2011

I’m not over on Braunstone Gate very often thse days but it’s good to see a new independent restaurant opening in the heart of the strip there. Several of my West End pals expressed disappointment  when Jones’ Bistro closed a couple of months back – every neighbourhood needs a nice little bistro serving a decent steak, something mediterranean and maybe a good breakfast at weekends and it looks like The Gate fits the bill .

Now I’ve not been yet so reports from you lot are welcome, but I like the cut of it’s gib – nothing too fancy or pricey but it looks fun enough. Evening menu has fully garnished 28-day hung steaks at around £12,  other dishes such beer battered haddock, pork tenderloin wrapped in sage and serrano, free-range chicken breast with garlic and thyme rosti and grazing boards come in at around £9-£12.   If it’s all done well – and head chef Adam Lynch has worked at a high level before  –  that sounds a bargain. Breakfasts sound promising too – full English, eggs benedict, eggs florentine, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon etc.

It’s located at 32-36 Braunstone Gate, next to Left Bank.

Assiduous trawling around recruitment columns sometimes throws up some interesting information. For example,  I can now reveal that a new “Gastrobar” is to open shortly in leicester  – I believe  Braunstone Gate but not sure exactly where –  entitled Natterjacks. You’ll be excited to know that this at “the leading edge of a brand new concept”.

The lucky head chef will preside over a venue where “quality dining is incorporated within a relaxed bar environment, reflecting the keys to the company ethos; a strong sense of pride, passion, honesty, loyalty, integrity, teamwork, enjoyment, fulfilment, progress and recognition, making both the customer and team member experience second to none.” Phew!

The daytime offer of the bar will present “an array of delicious well-presented light lunches and a great coffeee culture for local businesses, residents and students alike”.  No further detail of the nature of the cuisine yet – other than “gastrobar-style food” – but the evening will offer “a fantastic selection of freshly prepared dishes”.

It will have 90 covers and will open later this month. More info when I can get it.

Grecian 2010

April 22, 2010

When I hear a place describe itself as “a chic nightspot where beautiful people flock in search of escape from the Leicester scene” I kind of get the impression I’m not their key demographic. Hence I’ve never checked out Mobius on Braunstone Gate  beyond a quick lunch when it first opened. Its restaurant however did seem to be a fairly serious affair, mixing modern european with thai influences.

News now comes of a change of tack and suddenly Greece is the word. Award winning chefs arrive live and  direct  from Athens, goes the PR. I think Leicester could bear another Greek restaurant – and there’s an attractive 40 per cent discount during May if you book ahead and get hold of an ad in today’s Leicester Mercury (an offer quite possibly repeated elsewhere).   If there’s any big stifado fans out there ( Eh? Oh, grow up…) who want to give it a try, let me know because I could be persuaded.

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