Pubs and pizzas

June 10, 2013

Further to last week’s post about the launch of It’s better down the pub, it’s good to see Everards has opened its third Project Artisan pub:  The Stamford Arms in Groby. The scheme links up pubs with small scale food producers  to the benefit of both. The refurbished Stamford has a stone-baked pizza oven and a new deli, working with very local artisan producers. Deli food is available to buy and take home, but also features in dishes on the pub’s main menu.  If you want to read a tale about how projects like this can revive pubs  – see this  inspiring piece from Matt Wright of the Great Food Club – Project Artisan and Project William. (While you are on there, you might like to watch a beautiful little film about local bread made by Britain’s Best Bakery – Hambleton – made for Great Food by Nutmeg 3d.)

While on the subject of pizzas, which we kind of were, Leicester’s  Queen’s Rd looks to be getting a new Italian restaurant. Don’t know any more about it yet [Edit 15 June – It’s Leone’s, relocating from further up Queen’s Rd)  but it will be adjacent to tapas bar Barceloneta in what is now Sansome’s bar.  It’s a regular topic for Clarendon Park’s chattering classes why no-one has ever created a bar or restaurant in this space that the community has taken to its heart.  There’s always scope for a good restaurant on Queen’s Rd and hopefully this will be a good independent operator. That said, I went to Pizza Express, (Kings St branch)at the weekend and was pretty pleased. My chicken and pesto pizza from their romana range was great, big and inviting, but thin and crispy.  And well done to them for catering properly for coeliacs. I know some people are convinced wheat allergy is some kind of middle-class fad  but to see my friend – who would be seriously poorly with one bite of regular bread –  tucking into the very rare treat of a pizza and a beer was a real pleasure.

Lunch at Hambleton Hall

February 9, 2011

In January Hambleton Hall received its Michelin star for the 29th year. It also introduced a “Lunch for Even Less” offer of £19 for two courses, £24.25 for three.

Well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

Hambleton Hall

Gill and I drove out from Leicester on a cloudy, gusty day that left Rutland Water resembling the North Sea.  Once inside the Hall and installed by the log fire, though, life took on a very different hue. I was hoping –  expecting, really – that the lunch offer would not be a downgraded version of the legendary Hambleton offering, and it wasn’t. As we warmed up we were offered three canapés – sea bass morsels with tartare were routine but excellent,  chicken liver parfait was intense and deliquescent and best of all was a little beetroot meringue with goats cheese,  a little flavour bomb that carried on giving its gift for an extraordinary length of time.   

The lunch menu offers two choices at each course and we selected one of everything. Ballotine of guinea fowl involved choice cuts of pressed meat along with a mild, mustardy, crunchy piccalilli and lightly pickled shallots. Raviolo of ham hock was a superbly made parcel of chopped meats and seasonings encased in pasta so thin it was translucent. Mains featured relatively base ingredients – blade of beef and fillet of coley – which were transmuted into gold by kitchen flair and hard work. The blade was chopped, bound and rolled with herbs and mushrooms. It was delivered perched on top of a crunchy rosti and came with a sweet, sticky sauce  with red wine, caramelised shallots and tarragon. The fish was simply pan fried  with a pesto crust and was soft and flaky, with a foamy  bouillabaise sauce. All the dishes had deep and complex layers of flavour. 

 Last time I came to Hambleton I’d been knocked out by a desert of passionfuit soufflé.  The coconut and lime soufflé I had this time didn’t quite match that perfection but was technically faultless, being as soft as a baby’s breath  but still carrying the flavour of its ingredients. Once again I was particularly impressed with the sorbets, a coconut one with the soufflé, an orange one with Gill’s fine chocolate and orange tart. How the kitchen distils such powerful essences into such an insubstantial  ice I’ve no idea. 

Raviolo of ham hock, pea and mint veloute

The staff are numerous, skilled, and float around the place with unhurried efficiency. Outside of the kitchen, the place makes few concessions to modernity, but if you accept that it’s going to be a very particular kind of experience, there is such a huge amount to enjoy here.   

The “Lunch for Even Less” deal runs  until 27 February. 

(Oh, and there was no sign of Sven, hope you are all still looking out for him.)

Svenwatch

January 18, 2011

A quick word in praise of our leader. When Svennis was appointed boss of Leicester City you could be forgiven for thinking he’d spend as little time as possible here, swanning off in his helicopter to  more exotic climes – Monaco, Rome, Stockholm, Market Harborough. To give him his due, he is not only achieving success on the pitch  – I write before tonight’s cup replay in Manchester – but is doing his bit for the local restaurant trade.

Sven backs Leicester restaurants

For some time San Carlo on Granby St used an image of him and old flame Nancy stepping out at one of their branches.  Now he’s a proper local, he is popping up all over the place. The newly-opened Lanna Thai on Rutland Street had him in – I think the city’s Thai community are, understandably, trying to make the most of any clout with the club’s Thai owners – and he was in Bistrot Pierrre at the weekend. In both cases it  sounds like he was a most gracious guest, telling Lanna Thai that the Mercury should have given them five stars and writing excellent all over his feedback card for Bistrot Pierre. 

I’m not suggesting we follow him as food critic – let’s face it, the man is a skilful politician and he’s not going to be rude about them. But I give him every credit for going out and being seen to support local businesses.

Let’s see where else he turns up. If he comes into your restaurant or you spot him in a city or county venue, make a comment to this post. If we get  a few, I’ll make a new post rounding up in a couple of months. I’m particularly interested in hearing should you see him sharing a pizza with David Beckham/Thierry Henry/Lionel Messi.

Oh and while we are here – well done to Hambleton Hall and The Olive Branch for retaining their Michelin stars for 2011, and to the Red Lion at Stathern and Jim’s Yard in Stamford for keeping their Bib Gourmands. No new awards in our region this time, and – despite the increasing  clamour –  no second star for Sat Bains in Nottingham.

Big Up Hambleton Hall

November 1, 2010

Many congratulations to Aaron Patterson and his team at Hambleton Hall which has been voted number 11 yesterday’s Sunday Times/Harden’s list of the UK’s top 100 restaurants.  It’s a list based on customer feedback rather than critics and is thus bound to give a profound satisfaction. As will beating regional rival Sat Bains by two places – I once had a small role in helping Matthew Fort select chefs for BBC’ 2’s Great British Menu and tried to fight Aaron’s corner but the producers went for the big characters of Bains and Glyn Purnell rather than this unassuming but brilliant cook.  

It’s almost a year since I had dinner there – see the review – but the memory remains strong. Next time my ship comes in there’s a tidy sum earmarked to go again.

Afraid the Sunday Times is behind Rupert’s paywall but those interested can check out the top 100 here.

Great Food

July 23, 2010

I started this blog mainly because I just wanted to keep writing about food, and local restaurants in particular.  I’d spent five enjoyable years doing proper independent  reviews for Metro, and when that finished I was frustrated there was not better media coverage of  the local food scene. There was the defiantly non-specialist reviews in the Leicester Mercury, the blatant  advertorials in a couple of rather vacuous style mags and the equally ad-grab reviews in the county set mags. A rather dull Midlands glossy called The Foodie occasionally gets over to Leicestershire.

So hurray for the newly-launched bi-monthly Great Food Leicestershire and Rutland, a glossy magazine that does what it says in the tin. Coming straight outta Melton Mowbray it’s a commerical proposition but one that does seem to be driven by a genuine passion for the area and for good food. The first issue has news of local events and products, features such as a farmshop map, and articles on  producers such as Nigel Moon at Whissendine Mill and local produce including stilton, bread from the Hambleton  bakery (which you will have read about on this blog of course) and local beers.  Local towns and villages are profiled for eating and drinking options, local chefs such as Danny Jimminson from the Hammer and Pincers and Adi Sinha from Memsaab contribute articles and recipes and there’s reviews of other places familar to readers of this blog  – including the Collyweston  Slater. Sure the reviews are all positive, but  they do give the impression at least of being genuine recommendations rather quid pro qu0 for adverts.

The articles are generally short and sweet, there’s a refreshing lack of pretention or ponciness and the photography and layout are good quality. Overall, it’s a terrific start and congratulations to editor Matthew Wright.  You can find out more at their website www.greatfoodleics.co.uk  and if you are quick you may be able to get a free copy of the July/August issue. If you do contact them, you might like to mention this blog.

Michelin Update

January 15, 2010

Further to the post earlier this week, sources close to this blog have revealed there is no change to the Michelin star status of Sat Bains, Hambleton Hall or The Olive Branch. There are no new stars in the region. Fans of the rarefied end of fine dining may be interested to know that Alain Ducasse has gained a star to become the nation’s fourth three star restuarant.

Update at 17.33 – no new Bib Gourmands for the East Midlands either, though the Red Lion at Strathern keeps its one.

Michelin time again

January 13, 2010

The smart restaurant world industry is getting into its annual flurry of excitement over the imminent arrival of this year’s Michelin Guide. Details are closely guarded this year after previous leaks and will be released, apparantly, next Tuesday at 8am. Not that we’re likely to have anything to get worked up about in Leicestershire. In recent years the Red Lion at Stathern has won a Bib Gourmand, the guide’s designation for good food at moderate prices (up to £28 for a meal before drinks),  and I believe Tom Cockerill had a listing when Entropy had its city centre restaurant, but beyond that I can’t think of  much.

Rutland has two one-starred establishments. Hambleton Hall is unikely to change status I suspect  – more than good enough to keep its star, not fashionable enough to gain a second. The Olive Branch in Clipsham – as an informal pub environment – probably has to work harder than most to retain its star. Fingers  crossed for them because it’s a lovely place.   There’s a considerable industry buzz that Sat Bains in  Nottingham will gain a second star (of which there are currently only 15 in the UK), but then there was last year and he didn’t.

For those of us who enjoy restaurants this is all a bit of fun, even for the majority for whom michelin-starred dining is at best a very rare treat.  And you can argue it’s all irrelevent anyway.  But just imagine if Leicester did have a successful destination-dining venue. Just as gaining a John Lewis made a difference to the economic profile of the city, and stellar cultural projects have raised the game in that field, so a really top restaurant would help redefine our status as a backwater with a few good curry houses.  

Can’t say I can see it happening soon, for many obvious reasons, but one can dream.

Our daily bread?

December 4, 2009

I’m not generally over bothered about bread. But I was impressed with the sourdough on offer at last weekend’s feast at Hambleton Hall. So much so that when visiting my friend Jenny’s pub in Langham (The Noel Arms – drop in if you’re passing, I’ve seen the kitchen, it ‘s all tickety-boo), I called in at Hambleton Bakery in Oakham to get  a loaf. At £2.30 for an 800g loaf it’s not cheap but it’s a thing of beauty both inside and out. Baked in a wood fired oven, it’s crusty but yielding and gratifyingly floury,  the texture is springy like a crumpet, and the smell is wonderful. It has that distinctive tangy, sourdough taste  but it is mild. It’s flavourful enough to enjoy on its own with butter, but it’s not overpowering and I’m looking forward to trying it with some  powerful, complex  Quicke’s vintage cheddar.

We’re assured that the artisan production techniques mean the loaf will keep for around a week, toasting up nicely even after that. Can’t see it lasting that long.

Hambleton Hall

November 29, 2009

For thirty years now Hambleton Hall  has been the pre-eminent restaurant in Leicestershire and Rutland.  When I received a  redundancy payment, the temptation to blow some of it on the work of Michelin-starred chef Aaron Patterson was too strong to resist.   

So it was that Sally and I drove up the Hambleton peninsula near Oakham, a finger of high ground that survived the creation of Rutland Water, and into the magical world of this definitive country house hotel. There’s no getting away from it, this is old-fashioned luxury.  No concessions to modernist chic, it’s all 18th century paintings, ornate drapes, preternaturally squidgy sofas and a roaring log fire at every turn. Staff are numerous and, while veering towards the formal,  extremely welcoming. We took drinks in what I suppose I can only call a drawing room, where the first treats came – a half dozen canapes including little bites of seabass and prawn, quails egg and so on. After ordering we’re invited into the dining room – thankfully no bling, but a quiet elegance, the napkins gratifyingly starched, the  cutlery pleasingly solid.  

First an apology for a lack of photos – I did try but lighting conditions were difficult and I was far more concerned with enjoying the food than getting a decent image.

There are set  menus at £37 and £46 and a tasting menu at £60, but tonight we ventured a la carte.  But before getting stuck in we had a further amuse of jerusalem artichoke soup  – served foaming in a coffee cup it was stunningly powerful. It’s a strong distinctive taste – something of a shock to the palate on the first sip but you quickly get the hang of it and by the time it was gone you were desperate for more. Perfect.  Sourdough and beer bread was excellent and, forewarned,  they even managed to bring gluten free bread for Sally. She started with a simple salad, only it wasn’t so simple – beautiful fresh leaves, trimmed batons of cucumber with a really strong flavour, more quail’s eggs, big shards of a parmesan of rare intesity and a sweet truffle vinaigrette.  I was hoping to revisit the extraordinary langoustines I had on a previous visit, but they weren’t on this evening. My good luck, beacuse the scallops I had were exquisite. The shellfish were gorgeous and sat in the midst of  a epic collection of tastes and textures of onion. A supersweet onion puree, some lightly spiced marble-sized onion bhajees, port-braised shallots, crispy onion rings, and a foaming sauce flavoured with lemon grass. Everything on the dish earnt its place there, contributing in its own right and contributing  to a greater whole.

Hambleton is famous for its game and that’s where I was headed. Hare Wellington was perfect, rich and gamey meat wrapped in pastry with a thick layer of a gamey, nutty pate. Its sauce of prune and armagnac came in a cute little copper pan, as did an additional  “hare bolognaise” – exactly as it sounds. The meat nestled on some greens with bacon,  with further flavours coming from quince puree and superb baby vegetables – carrot, turnip and onions.  Sally’s roast duck breast  was  of the highest quality, with couple of intense, complex sauces  – one from meat juices, one dark and fruity. Oh yes the wine list, you could do some serious wallet damage there if you look too far down the substantial list – we had a glass each of  a full-bodied Alsace pinot gris and a half-bottle of Pomerol which was excellent with the hare.

To follow Sally had sorbets – a stunning-looking plate with I think seven sorbets, each presented a wafer thin crisp of its own fruit – banana, orange, apple, pear, pineapple, rhubarb, and coconut. My passionfruit souffle was a technical tour de force – so light and airy, yet so full of flavour, it was such a pleasure to eat.  It came with a passion fruit stuffed with banana sorbet and a shot glass of passionfuit jelly with space dust topping. 

We retired to the drawing room (not a sentence I generally think to write but no other phrase will do) and settled by the fire to enjoy coffee and superb petitfours, which you are invited to select from  an aged wooden cabinet. White chocolate and raspberry truffle stood out, but then so did the passionfuit macaroon, and the caramel, and the fudge… 

The food and the overall experience were, then, pretty much faultless. Of course by most  normal standards it is ridiculously expensive, but here’s the thing. This was superb quality ingedients and highly-skilled, labour intensive cooking so you can see where the money has gone. I’d go back every week  if I could.

Hambleton Hall

November 2, 2009

Booked in for dinner at Hambleton Hall at the end of  November. Very excited. This extravagance will  be covered by a combination of redundancy cheque and a tidy little bet placed last year on Leicester City to win League One.  I’ve eaten Aaron Patterson’s food only once – an experience that was broadcast on the Great British Menu on  BBC 2, but I don’t like to talk about it – and it was heavenly. The fattest langoustines I’ve ever seen with a clear tomato essence  of rare intensity, plus an assiette of rabbit that was both technically spot on and fantastically flavoursome. I’ve met him on a couple of other occasions and he has always struck me as an extremely modest and pleasant man.  I suspect the main reason he was not selected for GBM was not so much his food but  that the producers felt they would get “better TV” by pitching the more upfront personalities of Glyn Purnell and Sat Bains into the kitchen together for a week.  No disrespect to those two of course.

Anyhow I’m hoping there will be some game on the menu. If anyone has been recently and wants to make some recommendations – please go ahead.

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