Ok, so I’ve not posted here for a long time. There’s plenty of reasons for this. For one thing, blogging of the type I’ve done here over the last 10 years seems to fit less easily with the bite size nature of more instant social media platforms – newsy bits seem better suited to twitter or instagram. Plus there’s now a great job being done across various channels by the likes of Cool as Leicester in keeping people up to date.

I’m sure there is a lingering interest from some in well-written (hopefully), longer-form reviews and reflections. I wish I could do more of these but it’s difficult now there’s no newspapers wanting independent reviews. Equally it’s a difficult time for Leicester’s restaurants – there’s activity at the lower and middle parts of the market but it’s not easy at the top end.

Anyhow just to get my own thoughts in order as much as anything, I thought I’d reflect a little on where we are now. I’ll just focus on the city for now.

It was hugely disappointing to see that the King Richard III didn’t make it – the food was fantastic and while they were regularly busy at weekends, the midweek trade wasn’t there for them – especially sad when there were some bang average places not far away doing ok. At least it means that Chris and Andrea can put energies back into Crafty at St Martin’s Tea and Coffee with its exuberant burger menu. It would be nice to think new operators will do something worthwhile at KRIII.

For smart food in the city I lean towards Lilu (watch our for owner Pratik Master relaunching his family convenience store in Wigston next month as a deli promoting lots of fine local produce) and the Knight and Garter’s brasserie-style offering. On the edge of the city is the Black Iron at Winstanley House in Braunstone Park, which really impressed me and from which I get consistently excellent reports.

 

Of the other contenders, I’ve not been to The White Peacock since chef Patron Phil Sharpe moved on, but one regular tells me it has been inconsistent. The place is now owned by the Koban group, which also runs Aspects in Enderby and has recently bought The Lansdowne on London Road and Fenway’s in Loughborough from the Orange Tree group and also the 1573 Steakhouse on the edge of Highcross. There’s the venerable Case, which you have to admire, but much as I love the venue the food has tended to leave me a little indifferent – not been for several years though. I hope to give the Queen Victoria Arts Club another go after a mixed result when I went soon after it opened.

At a more everyday level the Fish and The Chip seems to justify Aatin Anadkat’s decision to move away from fine dining with his bright and breezy, classy chip shop, and Crafty burger continues to attract large numbers. There’s also much interest in the Asian sector – Kayal and its vegetarian sister Herb continue to produce outstanding food and the more humble likes of Spicy Temptations and Wakaze are a delight. Paddy’s Martin Inn, Mithaas and Mumbai Inn are very different places which have all impressed me in recent months. Korean food is at last making an impact with Ongi and the wonderful Grounded Kitchen and I’m looking forward to trying Oppa – a new Korean barbecue place on High Street. I’m also quite fond of the Vietnamese chain Pho – though would love to see a quality independent doing south-east Asian food in the city.

Delilah’s is of course a big loss to the city and to St Martin’s in particular but let’s not forget there are still many terrific cafes and food and drink retailers in that area. Mrs Bridges is an under-appreciated gem, St Martins is quality as are Gelato Village, Cocoa Amore, Kai, The Bottle Garden, The Two Tailed Lion, 33 Cank St and others.

There’s now two competing streetfood nights competing for the pay day dollar on the last Friday of the month, and recently one of them, Canteen, has started having traders in New Market Square on Wednesdays during the day (12pm-8pm).

One word too for an unprespossessing little fast food outlet called Cha Cha’s Griddle at the bottom end of London Rd. It’s not going to change your world, but its Kolkata streetfood Kathi rolls – parathas lined with egg and wrapped around chicken or lamb kebabs or veg are fresh, hot, tasty, cheap, filling and just the thing when you want something quick and on the go. The likes of pau bhaji, bhel poori, and samosa chaat also available – run by nice people too.

So what is there to look forward too? In my neighbourhood I’m delighted to see that we’ve now got a Moroccan restaurant, with Al Ma’idah opening imminently on Queen’s Road. It will soon be joined by the reappearance of Friends Tandoori, a Belgrave institution which disappeared a decade ago. Clarendon Park has long needed a good Indian restaurant and hopefully this will be it. Also on the horizon on Queen’s Road is a new bar and restaurant in what was Cultura. Not many details yet but it’s an initiative of the people behind 33 Cank St and they’ve got a good chef on board so I’m hopeful.

In town the biggest news is probably Mowgli coming to St Martins – if it can maintain the liveliness and quality of its original branches then I can’t wait. But there’s the doleful example of Bill’s before us for places that can’t reproduce the magic ad infinitum.

OK that’s enough. Do let me know if there’s anything you want to add or feel I’ve got  wrong and I hope to be back soon, or at least when I’ve got something to say.

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Herb
96 Granby Street
Leicester LE1 1DJ
0116 233 2715

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Herb has been a long time coming, but now that it is here Leicestershire should celebrate the arrival of a compellingly beautiful restaurant offering first-rate food from Kerala.

The food happens to be vegetarian, indeed 95 per cent of menu is or can be made vegan, and many dishes – clearly marked – are gluten free and nut free. But omnivores should not be put off – it’s simply great food. End of.

The restaurant is part of the Kayal family – which has four other restaurants including the first one which is also on Granby St around 50 yards away. One of the Kayal chefs, dosa master Ramdas Krishna, had long been pushing Kayal founder Jaimon Thomas to open a vegetarian restaurant that could feature Keralan herbal cuisine. Eventually, with the recent big rise in those moving towards a meat-free diet, the time was right for a place that provides a properly smart setting to showcase such food.

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The property chosen was a former amusement arcade, which has now been transformed into a stunning space which glitters with deep green and copper tones. There’s fishermens’ lamps and copper kettles on the ceiling and other features such as a real-life waterfall and clay-tile artworks, including a jaw-dropping representation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The design spec really has been seen through in great detail.

Some of the food will be familiar from Kayal’s menu but there’s obviously a much wider diversity of vegetarian dishes. Over the course of two visits during the first week I had some really excellent dishes.

 

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The Herb platter featured aubergine, courgette, asparagus, baby sweetcorn, mushroom and tomatoes all marinated in herbs and lightly grilled to maintain a little crunch and maximum flavour. There were also some chick fritters, lightly crisp out on the side, creamy on the inside. Served with herb and coconut chutnies this was a magnificent shared starter for two. Other starters of Sev puri and aloo papadi chaat both combined the tang and sweetness of yoghurt and tamarind with the pleasing texture contrast of crisp pastry. Uzhunnu Vada – doughnuts made from lentil flour with accompanying chutnies  – are substantial enough but remain light and fluffy. Portions are quite sizeable but this was food we just wanted wolf down.

For main dishes you can pick from a wide range of some 20 dosas or uttapams and a similar variety of main course curries, palyas, thorans, biriyanis and more. Some will sound relatively straightforward for the newcomer – vegetable korma, chana masala – but there is much more to tempt the adventurous, such as maybe green papaya stew or pavakka pachadi, bitter gourd with coconut and yoghurt.

I had a beautifully crisp sundhari dosa, where the traditional potato filling was augmented with sweet beetroot and brushed with a red onion chutney. It came with more of those vibrant chutnies and a superb sambhar (the traditional lentil and vegetable stew). Baby aubergine masala was the kind of dish to show a sceptical meat eater to demonstrate that you’re really not missing out. Tender as you like aubergine with tomatoes, paneer, omion and spices in thick sauce that bears the signature flavours of dishes over the road at Kayal. We enjoyed that with a lively, vibrant green herby rice.

Potichoru bijo birinayi was steamed inside banana leaves rather the pastry case as in dumpukht style and was a light, fragrant mix and vegetable and paneer.

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All of these dishes had the appeal of freshly cooked food made with care. There is that underlying Keralan note of mustard seed and curry leaf tempering and plenty of coconut, but there is also tremendous variety of tastes from herbs and from vegetables which are allowed to express their own flavours.

Deserts are worth considering but will probably split the crowd. Kulfis – for once served at an appropriate temperature are crowd pleasers, though dishes such as ada prahaman – rice flakes in a sweet rich dressing of jaggery, cardamon, chashews and ghee – are best left to those with a really sweet tooth (i.e. me).

Herb is fully licensed and the wine list is definitely worth exploring – a glass of the house pinot grigio was lovely and fruity for what can be a pretty bland wine.

Price-wise, you can eat like a king for around £15 to £20, and there is a range of lunchtime dishes at around £4. All in all, great food – too good to leave to the vegetarians – a great platform for it too.

Heads up on a couple of interesting openings coming up in Leicester. Top of my list is Herb, the new vegetarian restaurant by Kayal on Granby Street.  Kayal has four branches and there weren’t plans for another, but Kayal Leicester had a long-term chef who had been pushing for his chance to focus on vegetarian cuisine. Given the recent big shift towards vegetarian and vegan lifestyles the time seemed right to give him his head.

The new restaurant is a little further down Granby St  on the opposite side from Kayal in in what was Cascade Amusements. The venue, set to open in the next couple of weeks, has massively improved this unlovely building, not least with a stunning piece of artwork that will be the talk of all who see it. Made by Keralan craftspeople is a huge bas-relief artwork in clay tiles recreating the da Vinci painting The Last Supper. The tiles were imported and lovingly reassembled over a couple of weeks and it makes an extraordinary impact – sorry I’ve not yet got a picture of it for you.  The rest of the venue is done out pretty much in similar style and shape to Kayal.

I’ve not seen a full menu but expect an extensive choice of Keralan food reflecting ayurvedic principles and reflecting contemporary dietary choices and requirements. You may remember Kayal was originally launched as a Karnatakan vegetarian restaurant Halli – if it recreates the quality that Halli showed it will be bound to do well not just with vegans  but with food lovers of every stripe.

I’m also intrigued to see that the old Shakespeare’s Head on Southgates is close to re-opening as a restaurant and bar Shakespeare’s House.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the old pub but did like that it hadn’t been “improved” over the years, preserving its unique 50s stylings. I was pleased  that it was on a CAMRA list of pubs they wanted to see protected.

The Leicester Mercury has given some details of how the new venue is shaping up. In parts it’s still recognisably the Shakies, – the two-bar structure retained, one being the restaurant side. But the classic décor has changed considerably with a strong forest theme. There appears to be some Polish influence to it all with carvings from trees in the Polish mountains and restaurant dishes such as beef cheeks with horseradish puree and  roast duck with baked apple, amandine potatoes and cranberry jam. There’s to be  day- long service, including breakfasts and – inevitably – Bard-themed cocktails.

 

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Inside Shakespeare’s House – from the Leicester Mercury

 

 

 

 

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