The Head of Steam

April 5, 2018

Last night I was at a pre-launch evening for the Head of Steam, a big new pub on Market Street that opens tonight.  Run by Hartlepool brewers Cameron’s, it’s an intriguing initiative that shows how the more enterprising of the pub companies are responding to the changing market.

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There’s now 18 pubs around the country branded as Head of Steam, all of them marked by a really good range of draught real ales, cutting edge craft beers in keg, and some exotic Belgian and European specials too.  Leicester is no exception, with the current draught selection including – obviously  – a couple of Cameron’s own ales including their flagship ruby bitter Strongarm, plus local brews from Framework, Charnwood and Langton. Craft beers include the extraordinary hazy, full of tropical fruit pale DDH Engima Ekuanot from cult brewers Cloudwater, who also supply a Baltic porter, plus  various lambics, saisons, IPAs and wheatbeers.  Gratifyingly there are screens displaying information about the beers available and beer matching suggestions on the food menu  – there is an effort to actually sell the beer here, not just have it as window dressing.

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So far, so micropub. But this a big old barn of a place spread over two floors and which is a mile away from those cosy ale and conversation places that have made the running in the industry recently. There’s music, fruit machines and a few familiar lagers here too. There’s also a big cocktail and hoptail menu which were going down well last night but I don’t really hold with them so I stuck to the beers.

food1There’s plenty of restaurant space and a big food menu – burgers, pizzas, multicultural tapas and a few specials.  On this evidence it may not be worth a special trip but it’s perfectly competent pub food to soak up the beer. My chicken Milanese was crisp where it needed to be crisp and tender where it needed to be tender and harissa spiced salmon was tasty enough, though no great subtleties of flavour.

It’s hard to judge service on a trial night  – aspects of it were quite chaotic but the staff were by and large lovely and seemed well-chosen. They are going to have to sort out service routines quickly but the ambience is good. Given the somewhat grim, anodyne venue the Head of Steam replaces, this is a huge improvement. It’s great to have a big commercial venue with the clout to get some otherwise hard-to get beers and to support small-scale locals – creating more of a market should encourage them to invest and improve.

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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.
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    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.
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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.

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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.”

More signs of life on the Leicester eating out scene with news of a pop-up collaboration between St Martin’s Tea and Coffee and chef Chris Elliman of Crafty’s.

The two businesses are taking inspiration from the likes of The Smokehouse and Byron to run a burger and craft beer pop-up at St Martins on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from the end of October for six weeks.

A special blend of beef is being dry-aged by Woods butchers of Clarendon Park which will be handmade into a range of burgers which, it is promised, will showcase the best of local produce. Leading the pack in tasting tastes is El Gordo featuring a beef patty, pulled beef  chilli, Red Leicester, jalapenos and smoked chilli ketchup, all in a brioche bun with pickles. All burgers and fries will cost under £10.

“We’re excited about kicking off Crafty’s in St Martin’s- a cool venue with a similar ethos to our own,” said Chris Elliman. “We both want to offer something unique to Leicester and encourage people to support local suppliers and try something a bit different.”

Andy Hall of St Martin’s said that this “short blast of creativity” fitted his company’s ethos perfectly, adding  “Collaborations between independents are so important for a vibrant Leicester.”

Further details of discounted soft opening nights and how to book will be out soon on social media via @stmartinscoffee and @craftyburgers and their Facebook pages.

 

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