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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I’ve been meaning to  get round to reviewing Spicy Temptations ever since it was recommended to me as a good venue for authentic, fiery Szechuan food.  I wasn’t disappointed.  As you’ll pick up from this review which appeared in the Leicester Mercury at the weekend,  it’s pretty basic, but there was some great food there.

 

Spicy Temptations
72 Highcross Street
Leicester LE1 4NN
Tel: 0116 262 5324

Open: Mon-Sun 11.30am-10pm

Cost: Lunchtime snacks around £6 a head, plenty for dinner around £15 a head.

One of the joys of this job is that I’m incentivised to check out places that I may not otherwise have visited. Sometimes the result is to prove my scepticism correct. Sometimes, however, you come away totally won over and eager to tell other people to give this place try. Spicy Temptations falls very much into the second category.

This is one of those simple, basic Chinese cafes that has sprung up to serve the booming numbers of Chinese students seeking a taste of home. Its location is ideal – just outside the Highcross restaurant quarter and its high rents, but surrounded by big players such as Cosy Club and lively independents such as Lilu, Maiyango, Meatcure and, from next month, the revived Richard III pub.

It’s easy to miss and doesn’t exactly look inviting. You look through the window into what appears to be a pokey, rather bleak living room. Enter though, and out the back you’ll find a rather more welcoming space with a little bar and a TV showing Chinese pop music. It’s still very humble and no frills, the handwritten note at each table with the wi-fi password perhaps furthering the sense that the core clientele are young students far from home.

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The very extensive menu is available in English, even if some of the young, helpful staff are not all that fluent. And that menu is a real treasure trove of authentic Chinese, and in the main Szechuan, cuisine. The Chinese, famously, seem up for eating anything that moves, and pretty much every part of it too. This is the first restaurant that I’ve been in that has a whole section of duck tongue dishes, along with the likes of spicy Szechuan frog and fried pork intestine with pig blood.

On an initial lunchtime scoping visit we tried a few of charcoal barbecue skewer dishes – big, plump, shell-on prawns were marvellous, grilled with a pungent house rub of chilli, cumin and more. Chicken gizzards though were a disappointment. The gizzard is a hard-working muscle in a bird’s stomach and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them lightly cooked in a salad Perigourdine in France where they called gesiers. These though were dried out and rubbery. Lamb skewers were better, a little crunchy on the outside, still moist and flavoursome within and perked up by more of that spicy rub.

We also shared a terrific appetiser dish of shredded pigs tripe, thinly sliced with a green vegetable – it could have been cucumber. Served cold as is tradition, this was very tasty – the tripe itself is not strongly flavoured but with brightly-spiced soy dressing and hits from chilli and peanuts it was a great dish.

I’d seen enough to know I wanted to come back for more. On a Saturday nigh we got stuck into some of the more substantial dishes. Twice-cooked pork is another Szechuan classic and this was a fine version. Pork belly had been boiled, finely sliced and then stirfried with green and red peppers and onions, with a spice mix including chilli, ginger, doubanjiang (broad-bean paste) and some pungent, salty black beans. Refined it was not, and all the better for it, and along with some tender bite-size pieces there were delicious little crispy bits of pork scattered throughout the dish invitingly.

Chicken in XO sauce was probably a more conventional dish to western palates, with tender pieces of chicken stir-fried with celery and carrots. Nice but maybe lacking the fire power of our other dishes. Noodles with braised brisket were fabulous – cooked in fiery, bright red chilli broth the noodles had taken on plenty of the flavour, while chunks of tender brisket with that slightly gelatinous feel from long slow cooking lurked within.

Star dish of the night though, and early contender for dish of the year, was the spicy aubergine with sweet and spicy garlic sauce. Beautifully prepared and cooked, the aubergine was perfect – soft but retaining texture, glazed with a sweet sauce that included finely minced pork and which had the tastebuds tingling. One thing that stood out here and indeed all the dishes was careful prepping of ingredients – there are some serious knife skills being used in that kitchen.

If you’ve ever felt there must be life beyond the takeaway or you just want to recapture the authentic tastes of China – then Spicy Temptations should be on your list to visit. It may look unprepossessing but go in the spirit of adventure and you should find the food uncompromising, punchy and very enjoyable.

 

Quick one for fellow LCFC season ticket holders.

Earlier in the season chef Chris at Leicester’s fantastic Crafty Burger made a rash promise of free burgers if we won the premier league  – and he’s now working on exactly how he’s going to make good on that.

In the meantime, Byron in Highcross have also taken this step and are giving free burgers on production of your season ticket from today until 5pm on Monday 16th May.

“This is Byron’s way of repaying the fans for their loyal support throughout the season said manager Vicky. “You can’t escape the buzz in the city and we are really keen to continue the celebrations in the best way we know how – with free proper hamburgers. We’re looking forward to welcoming a sea of blue coming through our doors throughout this weekend.”

There’s a few t&cs (not takeaway or Deliveroo, no extra toppings, subject to availability etc) but a nice gesture to celebrate the Greatest Sporting Achievement of All Time.

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Wagamama revisited

March 14, 2016

It’s hard to remember sometimes how far the “casual dining” sector has come over the last 20 years. Nowadays it seems everyone who’s run a butty van or spent a couple months as assistant manager at Pizza Express is desperate to launch their Korean/Peruvian street food concept, while cash-rich city funds buy up anything that seems a runner.

In 1992 it wasn’t really like that  when Alan Yau, now possibly more famous in foodie circles for his restaurants  Hakkasan and Yauatcha, opened Wagamama. Simple shared bench tables, lively far-Eastern cuisine, competitive prices and a turn-up and eat approach made a big  impact in London. When it started to appear in the regions it was a real revelation  – I remember being hugely excited about going to Nottingham and quieting for 30 minutes to squidge up next to some strangers to eat a plate a noodles.

In a world when slick  but dull food places are on every corner, and when Wagamama itself has over 100 branches and been passed like a toy between private equity firms (current owners are Duke Street Capital), does it still have something to offer?

The Leicester branch has apparently been refurbished and I had some vouchers so gave it a try. It retains some benches  but there are conventional tables too – it’s a pleasant environment, especially if you like looking at the busy coming and goings around the Highcross restaurant quarter and the Showcase cinema.

Food wise it still has a selection of ramen noodles, rice dishes, curries, teppanyaki grills and other quick and cheerful Asian dishes. We had a couple of mains and a couple of side dishes.The pork ribs were pretty ordinary – they had the feel of things that been hanging around a far time before being heated up and given a glaze with spoonfuWP_20160311_19_06_45_Prol or two of unexciting  sauce from a big tub. The squid was better  – a bit dry maybe but tasty with a feisty salt and chilli rub and a sweet chilli and coriander dipping sauce, it was very easy to enjoy.

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The mains were pretty good. Chicken raisukoree  had everything present and correct  –  chicken, mangetout, peppers, red and spring onions in a very pleasant  coconut curry sauce with sticky rice,  chillies and coriander. A quarter of a fresh lime was probably  the most lively flavour in the dish but I certainly  had no complaints  – it still had something of that thrill of that first encounter with far Eastern food.

Teriyaki chicken donburi – glazed and grilled chicken  with sticky white rice, shredded carrots, pea shoots and onions – was another good dish, though the kimchee with it was pretty insipid.

We passed an enjoyable hour at Wagamama and if the food wasn’t all amazing, the best of it was good and tasty and offered in an environment that entirely suits a busy city centre where you can come and go  quickly.  If I was looking for a new culinary adventure I’d probably dig out a backstreet Chinese café and see where it led me, but Wagamama still serves up a pretty good mainstream alternative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eating at Highcross

June 27, 2014

If you’re in Highcross this weekend and looking for a bite to eat, I think I’d head off to an independent café or restaurant. However, if you’ve always wanted to try one or other of the chains there, this could be the time.  The centre’s Summerdine promotion sees tastings, freebies with a foodie bingo game and discounts such as 25 per cent off food at Pizza Express and 20 per cent off at Nando’s, Yo Sushi and Coast to Coast. Visit the website for details.

Next Monday also sees the opening of Red Hot Buffet, which at £2 million is possibly the biggest ever single investment in a Leicester restaurant. It’s located on the corner of the High Street and the Shire’s Lane entrance to Highcross, where the late, unlamented Litten Tree pub once was. I remember this business when it was first set up in Nottingham, and this branch is the first to open since serial restaurant entrepreneur Luke Johnson’s Risk Capital Partners (oh the romance!) bought the business. It’s great that people want to invest in Leicester and that 70 people now have jobs serving the 420 covers, but this all-you-can-eat Italian, American, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and British restaurant will need to be a lot better  – an awful lot better – than its counterparts I have visited in Leicester if it is to tempt me in.  Actually I think it probably will be.

I hope people like it, but most of all I hope that its effect is to draw in more potential diners to the city centre, rather than to hoover up all business. Dinner with a large glass of wine on Friday night is £20 – cheap, but of course it’s only a bargain if it’s any good.

Also coming soon to Highcross is Byron, the upscale burger joint beloved of George Osborne (but I won’t hold that against it), Chimichanga – which served meh-Mexican food on Silver Street for a couple of years, Stone Baked Pizza and the Australian juice bar Boost.

 

 

 

Saray Mangal

January 21, 2014

We both sighed as my friend told me about seeing the queues outside the newly opened Frankie and Benny’s at Leicester’s Highcross. Fortunately, we could quickly forget about that because we were going somewhere far more pleasurable.

In contrast to the huge rambling collection of American-type food substance on offer at FB,  Saray Mangal has a small, focused menu that distils the appeal of the Turkish ocakbasi –  the extraordinary aromas and tastes of spiced meats grilled over flames. Similar venues have popped up around Narborough Road (I’ve already praised Sultan)  but this is on Highfields Street, just five minutes from my home and it’s lovely. It’s in the premises of what was the cheap and cheerful L’Aperitivo, and shares some of the good natured bonhomie of that restaurant with the advantage of better food.

Sure it’s not sophisticated, but it is very tasty food by smiling people in a buzzing atmosphere. There were nine of us on Saturday night and the place was packed, mainly with large groups of young women in headscarves having a great time. Our waitress apologised for having to shout a bit to get herself heard, but every order came quickly and correctly and served with good grace.  We started by sharing a couple of the family meze selection – small, but fresh and punchy plates of aubergine salad, cacik (Anatolian herby yoghurt), hummus, stuffed vine leaves, olives, springy bread…you know the kind of thing. Then, arriving when ready, our main courses – basically variations of chicken or lamb, minced or cubed, spiced and flame grilled, and served up with rice and salad or a creamy yoghurt sauce.   Just delightful, and both courses and a soft drink for less than a burger at F&B.

If you want a real slice of Leicester life in 2014, as opposed to a dodgy recreation of a marketing meeting’s version of 50’s Americana, and you want some food that is genuine and wholesome – get yourself down there.

 

So its official. Leicester people aren’t too bothered about good food. That at least would seem to be the view of the Peach Pub company. After three and a half years they have now closed The Almanack, their pub in the city’s Highcross Centre,  prompting the heading on industry website Propel of “Peach exits city unsuited to gastro pubs.”

What they actually said was  “Peach has thought for a while that Leicester wasn’t the right site for a Peach gastro-pub offer”.  I don’t want to come across all defensive, in fact in a way I kind of agree with them. But what I would say is that it might have been the right place if that offer had been a bit better.

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I liked the place – staff were great, it was nicely done out and was a good, welcoming place to go in the daytime. It made all the  right noises about “honest and ethically sourced” food, and I remember one rather good lunch when it first opened. But on subsequent visits, the food just wasn’t quite good enough, and most other feedback I received wasn’t over-enthusiastic.. There was poor cooking on occasions and dishes that just left you thinking they didn’t measure up to their promise.

Peach say they never lost money on the place but couldn’t “make it work”.  They took the chance to get out when they had an offer from Turtle Bay, the Caribbean chain that opened last year in Nottingham. Peach meanwhile is carrying on expanding in its core environment of well-heeled  market towns.

A shame then.  It could have been a beautiful relationship, but I suspect both sides are left thinking “It wasn’t me, it was you”.

Oil and Vinegar

August 9, 2012

I have  just discovered Oil and Vinegar – an interesting opening in Highcross.

Oil and Vinegar is on the lower ground floor of Highcross Leicester in Unit L7

It’s likely to be the kind of place you’ll either love or hate.  It’s somewhat high concept – the core offer being big glass dispensers full of oil and, well, vinegar. Then there’s all sorts of cute little bottles, phials, flagons and whatnot which staff will fill at your request.  There’s a big range of simple olive oils,  oils flavoured with garlic,lemon, chilli and so on and versatile vinegars including fig balsamic, marc de champagne vinegar and even sweet vinegars such apple,lime and elderflower.  They had a couple of balsamics put out for tasting and they were stunning.

The rest of the shop is very definitely in the gift food market. Pricy but appealing bottles and jars of  marinades, sauces and looks-good-but- not-sure-what-I’d-do-with-it items such as creamed pistachios or artichoke and garlic paste. It’s like a floated-off section of an upmarket department store food hall and the kind of place that doesn’t usually open in Leicester –  so welcome to them and I look forward to trying out a few vinegars.

Patisserie Valerie

March 20, 2012

I have fond mormories of visiting student friends in London in the early 80s and lingering over coffee and cakes in the Soho Patisserie Valerie. It had genuine cachet as a purveyor of heavenly cakes and pastries in a continental style – and remember this was before Starbucks or anyone else had rolled out the “Third Place” concept.

The brand slowly expanded to a couple more venues in central London until 2006 when the brothers who owned it sold a £6 million share to the investment vehicle of Luke Johnson, he who made Pizza Express the ubiquious sight it is now.  Since then there’s been aggressive exapnsion and there are now 49 of them, with several more due to open, including – and here we get to the heart of the matter – Highcross Leicester next week.

Now that anyone with a fiver in their pocket can get a cappuccino and a frangipane tart I’m duty-bound to complain that the place will not have the same appeal as when we would sit in Old Compton Street reading orange-spined paperbacks.  That said, a coffeee house that takes pastries seriously – well, I have to be supportive. I’ve not been to one of the roll-out Pat Vals but will go along when it opens in Highcross. Unless it blows me away,  any independent who woos me with decent coffee and a generously-loaded florentine is likely to take preference thereafter.

Any views on whether it’s a soul-less sellout or manages to be a fair facsimilie of a French cafe patisserie are welcome. I promise to feed back here later.

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.

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