The Almanack

March 18, 2012

Recently I’ve heard more widely diverging views about The Almanack than any other venue in Leicester – some love it, some have been disppointed.  It makes life a little difficult for itself by its urban gastro pub schtick, its upfront detail on provenance and quality and its pretty smartish restaurant pricing.  It says “we’re quality” and it needs to deliver. I remember a very pleasant lunch when it first opened, but subsequent visits have been a bit ordinary really.

I really like the feel of the place and staff are generally charming and helpful. In the context of Highcross it’s a lovely little retreat. We met for lunch this weekend and I picked the ‘favourites deli-board’. Very nicely presented it included a  decent pork liver pate, some very good spicy hummous, a tasty little haddock fishcake type thing, a slice of fairly ordinary brie, some crunchy raw veg, homemade tomato chutney and  pitta bread.

It was all good stuff – if I’d stopped off the A1 on a drive north and found this in a random pub,  I’d be pretty happy, but it wasn’t something to make a song and dance about. At £11.50 I would not say it was tremendous value. I was meeting up with old friends so we had lots of stories to share, but tellingly none of them felt moved to break off and make any comments about their lunches.

So my take on The Almanack is a lovely place to take time out from the shopping hustle and bustle.  I want to be on its side and I’d not baulk at going back to eat but the feeling lingers that it’s just not quite as good it could be and wants to be.

The Oat Hill

January 15, 2012

Now I’d better get something sorted straight away.  I do not look to the Leicester Mercury and its reviews for advice on where to eat. The fact that I was eating in The Oat Hill at the weekend had everything to do with my friend Deborah living in Market Harborough and nothing to do with the fact the Mercury sent Joan Stephens to review it last week.  OK? Good.

A short way out of town on the Kettering Road,  the Oat Hill is in the shadow of the local branches of both Aldi and Lidl. If that puts you off, it shouldn’t because this is a really rather good dining pub. There’s a smart and comfortable bar – big comfy sofas, heavy red velvet  curtains, young staff all in black and so on.  The restaurant is equally appealing and the menu is well designed and seemed to be well-priced. We passed on starters because it was really just a quick supper but given the quality of our mains I wished  I’d gone for something such as roasted breast of pheasant  with roasted honey soused root veg or baked figs with melting gorngonzola and rocket salad.

My main was slow braised shin of beef   – a flavoursome cut I’ve eulogised on this blog before and done very nicely here, presented beautifully on excellent creamed mash with two contrasting sauces making the plate look a ying and yang symbol, a dark port jus and a creamy, mustardy sauce. The cheffy parsnip crisps were just right and a bowl of veg were perfect.   Deborah’s sea bream with crayfish and tomato bisque  was also very good indeed – two large fillets with crispy skin and real depth of flavour and a well-made sauce.  These were well-conceived and well-executed dishes.  We shared a desert that was well up to standard, a creme brulee with beautifully pared slices of ripe pear and excellent homemade shortbread.

It’s always nice to find a place that exceeds expectations and The Oat Hill did for us  – Deb immediately booked to go back with a friend next week.  There is a proper chef in the kitchen and while it may not have the picturesque setting of some gastropubs out in the South of the county,  I think this place should definitely be on your radar when in the area.

Oh and Joan liked it too.

Interesting developments at this Leicester stylish city centre pub. A slightly scruffy studenty place in the eighties and nineties, it had a major makeover and emerged as smart, continental-style bar with a fantastic range of beers and spirits. It had good service, a lovely little courtyard and generally a bit of  the sophistication in short supply in Leicester.  When I was at Metro we made it Bar of the Year. It appeared to aim to offer serious food but never quite delivered,  finding it difficult to pull off the  urban gastropub thing. 

Anyway it’s now changed hands and is currently again being refurbished, shortly to emerge as the city’s first ‘deli-pub’. It promises to continue to offer a great range of drinks but will now also  have “an exciting range of foods from gorgonzola piccante to prosciutto da cinta” for consumption on and off the premises.

The people behind it are Ssoosh inns, a Kirby Muxloe-based  company that have developed The Forge in Glenfield and The Willow in Thurmaston. I’ve not visited either pub – so any views welcome – but the company seems to have a bit of something about them, so fingers crossed they hold on to what made the R&D a  welcome piece of Leicester’s jigsaw.  Should  re-open some time in November.


Cow and Plough

July 16, 2010

For those that don’t know know it, the alternative name for this lovely pub is “that place that used to be the farm park”. For a good few years now this collection of farm buildings on the South East edge of built-up Leicester has been a  real ale drinkers place run by the Steaming Billy brewery and pub company. 

Over the years The Cow and Plough  been an ideal stopping off point for a beer at the end of rural bike rides. Thanks to the selfish git who nicked my bike last month  that pleasure has been denied me this summer, but I did decide to drive out and try the restaurant there, which I had enjoyed on my only visit some five years ago. 

The pub bit of the building is characterful and rough and ready in the way real ale pubs generally are. The restaurant section down the other end  is rather smarter as befits the quite ambitious menu. Turning up without a booking I was offered a place in the half-way house section away from most of the drinkers but without laid tables.   Starters include dishes such as  rillettes of pork with apricot chutney, and pan-fried scallops with chorizo and cauliflower puree  – so despite the surroundings you can see this veers more towards fine dining than pub grub (though fish and chips, sausage and mash are available). I picked seared local rabbit and woodpigeon  salad, a slightly curious name for what was basically two hunks of meat in a gloriously sticky redcurrant jus that drowned a few lambs lettuce leaves. The meat was cooked well and had beautiful flavours – if I’d been at home the plate would have been licked.

Main course was less successful. An overcooked duck breast was pretty  tough while another sticky glaze was over-reduced  and needed a quick whisk  – a few globules of jellified stock remained. It was billed as “gooseberry sauce”, a nice seasonal idea which seemed to involve the  addition of a few poached berries to a standard meat jus. I liked the berries,  but more could have been done with them.  The sauted new potatoes and green beans were excellent though.  From a desert board I chose “trifle” – no further explanation was offered. Turned out  not bad – cream, custard and sponge were all fine and a light jelly seemingly flavoured with a touch of elderflower was very pleasant.  A curious sprinkle which  appeared to be something such as Ovaltine  was a mistake  – why not just grate some chocolate?

Service was a bit hit and miss – cutlery arrived a good 45 seconds after my starter was given to me. You might put up with that having a burger in a pub but this just seemed a bit sloppy.   I’ll cut them a bit of slack as I sat down shortly before a party of 25 arrived. The inability to provide a  bill was another issue  – given there was no price on the desert board I’ve no idea how much the desert or my glass of house wine cost.  Or indeed whether the bill was added correctly.

Would I go again? Yes I think so, but a few things would need to improve if it was to become a regular dining haunt.  


Bank Holiday Monday saw five of us leap in the car and travel out to Rutland. We were in the mood for a superior lunch and had settled on the the Marquess of Exeter in the lovely, orange stone village of Lyddington.  I first came across chef patron Brian Baker around three years back at the Fox and Hounds in Knossington.  He had previously had a high-flying career including being the then youngest chef to receive a Michelin star, spells as private chef to Elton John, Valentino and a clutch of Mexican billionaires, and as a consultant to top London venues. The Knossington pub was a return to his native Rutland to run a simple, down to earth gastro pub.

The Marquess is still a pub, all be it a little grander, but still has the virtues of keeping it simple but  keeping it good. There’s nothing too modish about the menu here, it has the solid virtues of good ingredients and classic dishes done with intelligence.  Our starters included a technically excellent chicken liver parfait which was maybe slightly overpowered by an extraordinary, remarkably tangy fig chutney.  A deeply savoury, twice baked Lincolnshire Poacher souffle bubbled invitingly, while  squid – often ruined with flabby batter and the finest sweet chilli sauce Blue Dragon can manage – came simply grilled with a rocket salad and freshly-made spicy salsa.  A simple, well-prepared asparagus starter showed seasonality is important here too.

It’s the main courses that exemplify Baker’s approach.  Two of us shared a huge rib of Derbyshire beef, and another two a slow-cooked shoulder of lamb. Both were served on boards to carve at table and both were extremely good. The beef  was beautifully seasoned, tender, and cooked perfectly – darkly caramelised on the outside, dramatically red inside. It came with a boat of bearnaise and a big dish of perfect pommes frites.  Apologies for not having my camera with me – look on the gallery section of the website and you’ll get an idea though.  The lamb barely needed carving it was so tender and had enough lovely fat to keep it moist. There were also classic mint and redcurrant sauces, another large terrine of boluangere potatoes (braised in stock – a dauphinoise without the cream) and hispi cabbage. Our final main was a hefty pork steak, kaffir lime rice and butternut squash curry with a seriosuly spicy side of butternut squash chutney.   This was generous, tasty, food-lovers food.  

Somehow we forced  down some deserts  – my homemade kesar manago sorbet was delightful, and was given a big lift with the simple addition of a few flakes of toasted coconut, the semolina and vanilla mousse outperformed expectations as a light summer desert while a creme brulee was also exemplary.

So we ate very well. Shame our young waiter seemed to resent working bank holidays and offered neither a smile nor a sense that he was particularly interested in what we had ordered or what we might want next.  Other staff were  fine.  The room is light and airy, somehow smart but informal and cosy too – it’s a classy operation.

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.

The Boot Room

March 4, 2010

The Joiners Arms in Bruntingthorpe has long been one of the lower profile but higher quality gastro pubs in the county. I’ve only been once but it is clear that gaffer Stephen Fitzpatrick is a quality act, you don’t get to keep a Michelin guide entry without knowing one end of a bain marie from another.

So it was good news last year when he decided he also wanted the buzz of running a city restaurant and took on the Millstone Lane property in Leicester that had previously been home to the lively Italian Alloro and before that the much-missed Stones. I’m rather ashamed it’s taken me so long to get along to what seemed an interesting  venture, but now I’ve been I’m fairly sure I’ll be going again.

The familar L-shaped room is retained and there’s a smartish but informal air matched to a slight industrial aesthetic stemming from the remnants of the building’s days as a shoe factory (hence The Boot Room). Menu is pitched somewhere between Bistro Pierre  and the Case – pretty much mainstream contemporary European fare.  Starters such scallops and black pudding or chicken liver parfait with brioche and chutney, mains such as roasted halibut , brown shrimp butter and skinny chips or shank of lamb with chorizo cassoulet.

This being a Tuesday we both picked the Menu Auberge, a no-choice three course set menu including a glass of house wine at a  good price of £15.95.  We started with a well-made, full flavoured lobster and prawn bisque, let down only by some rather greasy croutons.  Main course was a very tender and beautifully cooked pork loin chop, some hearty, spicy red cabbage, fragrant garlic-infused mash and a well-made mustardy sauce. (A sadly out of focus rendering can be seen to the right).

Not complex food, then, but very satisfying all-round. The house wines were fine too.  Desert  was a  raspberry dacqouise – not the most refined version of this classic desert but enjoyable anyway,  it featured layers of hazelnut meringue, which here had a texture nearer pastry, with cream and fruit between. 

The Boot Room felt a pleasant well-run environment – we went on the first night for the new manager, who previously ran the rather brasher Las Iguanas – and I think it has a niche at the upper- middle end of  local restaurants. I’ll refrain from full judgment until I’ve explored the a la carte but it looks promising.

Of pubs and politicians

February 18, 2010

Back on the post of 10 January, I was eulogising over the Victoria Arms in Beeston and asked what pubs people would like to see lifted up and put down in the middle of Leicester. To answer my own question – I think it’s this one in Norfolk – . I’ve not been but the website makes it look irristible. Who could not love a pub that says of itself that it’s a “traditional pub with continental leanings  – if The Pigs was a politician it would be Kenneth Clarke” ?

The approach to combining food in a pub setting appears spot on and menu looks so inviting – they have a lot of tapas-style small plates called “Iffits” – if it tastes good and if it’s in season, it’s in.

Plenty of Leicester folk make it over to Cromer for the weekend  and this is only a small diversion, so if you do visit please do file a report here. 

And here’s a game next time you’re out for a beer – matching Leicester pubs with politicans. I suppose Entropy has to be Sir Peter Soulsby (his daughter owns it), Dos Hermanos maybe  Ed and David Milliband and The Last Plantaganet is obviously John Prescott.

Restaurant round-up

February 9, 2010

Late notice I know but it seems Connie’s Nine Mile, the Caribbean restaurant/takeaway on Evington Road is featured in tonight’s edition of the Hairy Bikers – BBC 2 8pm, though I suppose iplayer will have it too if you’re interested.  I’ve eaten there a couple of times and been to a few events for which they’ve catered and it’s been good, tasty stuff.

And props to Entropy. The Hinckley Road restaurant  bar is celebrating its 10th year by running a series of events to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. There’ll be a wine tasting, gourmet night, birthday party and boss Cassie is running the London marathon  – if you feel like backing her, go here.

Interested to see the people behind the Fat Cat chain have diversified from city centre cafe  bars and opened up a village pub.  The Crown in Anstey appears to be run with the same verve as the cafe bars and the menu looks more appealing. I like Fat Cat as a  bar but have been disappointed with the food, lacking any kind of finesse or subtlety it always seemed just about filling up thirsty drinkers.   The Crown offering has most of the current shibboleths of the gastro pub menu – ham hock terrine with apple chutney, beer battered fish and chips, sticky toffee pudding and so on. I’m curious to find out if it’s done with a bit more commitment than Fat Cat. Good to see faggots appearing on the menu too – I trust they are not Brain’s.

I just missed out on a new pop up restaurant run by Greengages. Apparently on 6 Feb they took over a disused pub in the county and provided a meal by a chef “who has worked in some the countries (sic) best resaurants”. Don’t know how it went or if they are doing it again but would be interested to hear more if anyone knows.

Not sure what’s happening at Flores but it’s been shut the last few times I’ve looked, with tables unlaid. Friends who tried to book got a slightly curt email back saying they  were “currently closed”.

The Golden Fleece

February 7, 2010

I still remember being actively shocked the first time I found the Golden Fleece. South Croxton is one of the villages that may only be five minutes north of the city boundaries at Scraptoft but just seems remote and out of the way.  You rock up to its pub and expect chintz, hunting prints and a cosy fireplace.  What you find is metropolitan chic – the lowest,widest sofas I’ve ever sat on, blonde wood, white walls, a huge open dining room and a menu that goes well beyond country pub grub.

Golden Fleece

Last week I took advantage of a slack Friday to call in for lunch. A starter of home cured gravadlax was very good indeed. Good, thick slices of salmon copiously trimmed with  dill, a dollop of creme fraiche and a really good, sympathetically dressed salad. Particular praise for the judicious use of rocket – this is so often over-used but here it just gave peppery background notes. Main course was a generous amount of pork fillet with a similarly well-judged green peppercorn sauce – lying pretty much equidistant  between gently warming and really quite pokey. Good mash, crisp greens and caramelised carrots completed the dish. At £10.95 for two courses this is very acceptable value.

 Service is superior and the brisk lunchtime trade suggests that the place is very well established in what is a quite competitive market.  The set lunch menu is also available early doors until 7pm ( and Monday night features pizza and pasta for a fiver),  but if you’re looking to splash out a bit you’ll find an a la carte  including starters such as pigeon breast, mushroom duxelle and puff pastry at £5.95 and mains including pan-fried hake with king prawn and mussels, sauted potatoes and spinach and parsley puree at £14.95.

It may not be up there with the likes of the  Olive Branch but The Golden Fleece definitely earns a place on your list for impressing a date,  a birthday celebration, business lunch or just a midweek treat.

%d bloggers like this: