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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

I know I don’t update this blog frequently enough for it to be an important source of news, but every now and again I feel the need for a round-up of stuff and today is one of those times.

First off, we’re getting very close now to the welcome opening of the King Richard III pub on Highcross Street, Leicester.  The website is up, bookings are being taken from 11 April (though the first couple of nights are already full for food bookings it seems).  I’m confident that head chef Chris Elliman, who has done such a good job with Crafty and St Martin’s café, will make this a great addition to the city scene. The menu looks a good combination of classic British roasts done on their Robata grill – a 1 kg dry-aged forerib of beef on the bone for two (£45) sounds a particular treat – and dishes with a little contemporary flair such as agro-dolce onion, sorrel and goat’s curd on sourdough toast (£5.50) and below, crispy spiced lamb roll, pickled red cabbage, yoghurt, green chilli and mint.

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Also coming soon is the opening of what I think of as Plaza Claudio Ranieri – and it seems may actually  be called Champions Square. This is the area that used to be the indoor market and will shortly be a public space. This development is giving a chance for the further expansion of developments around St Martin’s Square. Already happening is the conversion of what was Molly O’Grady’s into the Knight and Garter – a joint development between Beautiful Pubs, Sam Hagger’s company that run the nearby Rutland and Derby  and the Forge Inn in Glenfield, and brewers Everards. This is a lovely , grade II listed building and is set to open in Mid-May with an 82-cover restaurant and an impressive drinks selection with a terrace overlooking the new square. I imagine the food will be of the crowd-pleasing variety but likely to be done well.  It may be  tough to overcome City people’s preconceptions about this site but I reckon Beautiful Pubs are up to the task.

Also brought in by the new square is Oscar and Rosie’s, a highly-rated independent pizza company founded by a Nottingham lawyer.  I’ve never tried their Nottingham outlet but they seem  to have a commitment to high quality ingredients. I’ve not got an opening date yet but it all sounds rather promising.

Opening on 13 April in Loughborough is Fenway’s, the reincarnation of the much-missed Smokehouse from Braunstone Gate.  Fenway’s on Baxtergate is the latest opening form the Orange Tree group and will also have Liam Watson from the Smokehouse heading up the Kitchen. The Leicester restaurant had a great indy feel about it – and indeed came about as a result of the Orange Tree bosses giving a creative young chef the chance to do his own thing. Fenway’s appears to have a more corporately-themed feel about it and a more generic smokehouse menu,  so I hope there’s still the opportunities for the chefs to play and experiment. Good news is that it looks like some of the splendid dishes Liam came up with are still present in some way on the menu  – including 12-hour smoked brisket, smoked ox cheek with house pickles and the legendary sticky toffee pudding with salted caramel sauce.

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Part of Fenway’s menu

 

And finally, another ex Smokehouse chef is Martin Powdrill who also went on to do great work at Cured at Brewdog. He and co-chef Ollie have confirmed they have now have a new venue for their restaurant. More news is promised soon but the restaurant will have a new name to reflect the new location.

 

Cured again, sadly .

March 5, 2017

Well this is a bit awkward. I’ve been accused of writing too much about Cured at Brewdog, but now shortly after two somewhat fawning reviews I’m writing again. This time though it’s rather sadly to say it has ceased business as of today.

The long and the short of it was that there was something of a difference of opinion with some parts of  Brewdog management and the chef team Martin Powdrill and Oliver Norman have called a halt. Brewdog bar , I should add, is otherwise unaffected. The good news though is that they are actively searching to set up their own restaurant and in the short term are planning a number of pop up events.  They are a highly motivated and talented unit and we should all look forward to what comes next.

Cured continues to impress

February 17, 2017

As promised earlier this week, a quick mention of the new regular menu at Cured at Brewdog. I make no apologies for again enthusing about the food offering – it really is a treat. There is a renewed focus on the platters  – gorgeous collections of cured meats, pickles, chutneys, salad, bread and more along with matched tasting of Brewdog beers.

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The Punk IPA-cured maple bacon and the burnt barley brisket remain and are joined by salmon cured with beetroot and German rauschbier and thinly-sliced duck breast cured in soy, honey and porter. Today I had a platter with the latter two and they were divine  – the salmon taking on a light smoke from the beer, the duck having tremendously complex flavours, like a super-sophisticated version of a Christmas gammon.

The platters come with a plethora of lovely items from samphire and fennel slaw to moreish parsnip crisps, an outstanding sweet and mild apple piccalilli and beautifully sweet and savoury thyme and honey butter.  At £9.50 including beer tastings this is a fantastic light lunch for two people, or £19.50 for all four cures plus two sides  (such as buttermilk fried chicken, sweet potato fries or duck lollipops with black forest glaze) you can feed a small crowd.

Elsewhere on the menu there’s something new for vegans including Southern Fried Seitan (wheat gluten that here does a passable job of mimicking chicken) and for veggies there’s the likes of parsnip and tarragon wontons with chilli jam or a caramelised onion, feta and aubergine bun.

Do get along  – and note that from 26 Feb they will be serving Sunday lunch from 12-6pm. Expect roasts,  but done their own way.

 

 

Valentine’s at Cured

February 15, 2017

Last night I broke the habit of a lifetime and dined out on Valentine’s night. In truth that habit was possibly more  do with having been single than because I was desperate to avoid poor food served to desolate couples going through the motions.

This year not only have I entered coupledom, but I saw the opportunity for something a little bit different with the Valentines menu at Cured at Brewdog. I’ve enthused about Martin Powdrill’s work before and was confident that this would be a evening without the usual  cheesiness.

Upstairs at Brewdog is  a cool space with something of a warehouse vibe and there was a relaxed feel for the evening which saw six couples served the same menu at the same time. Tickets were £29.50  (though thanks to my Great Food Club card there was 10 per cent off) and included a welcoming cocktail  – in our case hoptails which were both sublime, mine a framboise beer with bourbon, lemon juice and raspberries, hers combining punk ipa with kraken rum, which brilliantly brought out the grapefruity character of the beer.  These came with canapes of Cured’s marvellous stout-cured salmon.

First course was a couple of apple bhajis, nice and crunchy on the outside, rather intriguingly gooey on the inside and matched creatively with a dab of sweet hazelnut paste – lovely.   Then a really good pea veloute with cured ham hock.  This had a perfect texture and great layers of flavour – there was some close-textured but light and springy beer bread with hoppy and malty notes served with it.

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Main course was soy and maple cured duck breast – a good rather than outstanding item that also seemed to have Korean spicing going on somewhere and a delicious sour berry compote. The accompanying sauted savoy and boulangere potatoes were perfectly done.

Desert saw us sharing a very rich chocolate and raspberry mousse, a bit too rich for her ladyship, topped with some underpowered ginger cream and three brilliant raspberry bon bons. Putting three such lovelies on a desert designed for sharing between two seemed to be asking for trouble, but naturally I did the decent thing and settled for just one.

We finished up with homemade coffee flavoured Turkish delight – a nice alternative to the by and large unwanted late night caffeine hit of an espresso.

A very pleasant and laid back evening that showcased a competent kitchen that has a highly creative edge.  Cured will be launching a new menu soon  – more info in due course  – which sounds like an excellent excuse to try if you’ve not been  or to go again if you have.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here’s some nice things happening in Leicester.

First off, I went to the launch of Cured at the end of last week. This is the business of chef Martin Powdrill, who previously has worked at the much-missed  Smokehouse on Braunstone Gate and is basically offering the bar food within Leicester’s Brewdog. The USp is food that uses Brewdog’s distinctive beers to cure meat and fish. Judging by the tastes we had, this will be a terrific addition to food options in the city centre.

Martin is a young,  enthusiastic chef on a mission to transform expectations of curing from the short-cut injected processes used in supermarket produce to exploring the long, slow alchemy of traditional curing. His audition piece with the Brewdog people involved a few simple pickled vegetables – demonstrating the variability of the process and the fact that the simplest items on his menu would be given the same attention as the headline dishes.

At the launch event we tried the likes of: sweet maple cure bacon cured in Punk IPA with picallili: terrifically tasty salmon ‘pastrami’ brined in smoked porter; brisket cured for some two weeks and roasted with burnt barley and treacle; an amazingly accurate vegetarian recreation of the pulled pork experience using jackfruit and a fennel slaw; an oriental take on beef jerky using soy, coriander and sesame; and, oh yes, the best pork scratchings ever.

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All these dishes have been researched, developed, tested and show real character. ‘m looking forward to going back shortly to try more and urge others to try it too. Watch for the beer matching recommendations too.

Food will be available 12-8pm with a special “hangover club” on Sundays, but Martin hopes to use the large upstairs space at Brewdog  for special restaurant nights in the future.

More good news for beer lovers with the imminent opening of the Blue Boar on Millstone Lane, a micropub using a historic name with an interior  designed for good conversation and good cask beer and real cider.

On the same road The Rutland and Derby is starting monthly pop-up nights starting tomorrow (Tuesday 6th September) with a  pop-up chippy. We’re told to  “think red and white check tablecloths, waiters in white aprons and sustainably sourced fish”.

A little further down the line a big presence will arrive in the middle of all this activity with Middleton’s Steak House having its Soft Launch starting around 10 October. This of course is set in the massive wedding cake in St Martins that is the grand old Nat West Banking Hall. I was besotted with that building when I used to bank there – I hope they’ve not ruined it.

 

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