The Best of 2015

December 28, 2015

It’s been an exciting year for Leicestershire and Rutland restaurants, and I’ve been thinking back over some of the great food I’ve encountered this year. Here’s a sample of ten of my best culinary experiences of 2015 ,as done for the Leicester Mercury|:

1)St Martin’s Tea and Coffee, Leicester

This could have had three entries in the top ten. First off, the day-time cafe regularly features an epic sandwich – the Cuban has layers of marinated pork that chef Chris Elliman has slow-cooked overnight, along with more meat, cheese and pickles that combine in a remarkable way. Working alongside Elliman is Javan-born chef Bobby Ananta providing a South-East Asian slant on the menu, and his beef rendang was a complete revelation. Warmly-spiced slow-cooked meat that fell apart, plenty of toasted coconut and fresh salad spiked with lime juice. Finally, from Thursday to Saturday evening the venue hosts Crafty’s, serving up the best burgers in the county.

crafty10

2) Kayal, Leicester

It seems every week some celebrity chef turns up to learn from the Kayal crew, most recently it was Ainsley Harriot and, erm, Len Goodman filming there. It’s understandable as there is a long list of fine dishes on offer here along with some of the best service you’ll encounter. It’s hard to pick a favourite but I’m always knocked out by the Kottayam Egg Fry starter – an Easter special among Kerala’s Syriac Christian community and somewhat prosaically described here as a “batter-fried boiled egg with chutney”. It’s a beautifully tangy, vibrant curry that everyone should try.

3) The Berkeley Arms, Wymondham

I’d been wanting to get to this highly-rated country pub between Melton and Oakham for years and finally made it in the Spring. I wasn’t disappointed and stand-out dish was a braised leg of hare with poached pear and candied walnuts, a tremendous combination of flavours and texture.

4) The White Peacock, Leicester

Chef Phillip Sharpe has settled into his New Walk restaurant very comfortably and is producing elegant, fine food in sophisticated surroundings. A duck terrine from the tasting menu last Spring still lingers in the memory as combining great flavours with refined presentation. Wrapped in cabbage and made into a perfect cylinder, it was matched with charred brioche toast, a fruity mango salsa and little discs of crunchy radish.

5) 34 Windsor St, Burbage

A lively, swanky, welcoming fine dining restaurant that appears to be thriving with new head chef Arran Shaw. A long spell in Italy inspired Arran with the principles of the Slow Food movement and a respect for quality ingredients. That all came together in a marvellous starter of vibrant home-cured salmon with beer mustard and red and gold beetroot, plus a slice of remarkably complex Russian black bread – the result of several years recipe development.

7) John’s House, Mountsorrel

After a review last summer I speculated that the big national food guides might soon catch on to the remarkable food on offer here. A few months later it was granted Leicestershire’s first Michelin Star. I loved the domestic feel of John’s House and while all the dishes impressed with their focus on fabulous ingredients, it was the canapes served as we sat on the sofa pondering the menu that landed a memorable knock-out blow – a dreamy duck liver parfait served in a little cornet with a dash of sweet cumberland sauce and topped with a savoury crunch of chicken skin.

Duck liver parfait

8) Bewicke Arms, Hallaton

New owners and new chefs have at last turned this well-known country pub into a real destination for diners. Chefs Tom Cockerill and Glenn Cowl do things the right way – as evidenced by a superb starter of grilled Dexter ox heart, lightly grilled and served with locally-made salami. A dish like that is a real statement of intent from the kitchen.

9) Maiyango, Leicester

Owner Atin Anadkat has skilfully steered this business over the last decade, expanding to include a stylish boutique hotel. This year it gained a new head chef in the form of Sav Tassari. He can do big and gutsy – I remember an epic fillet steak – but he also builds on the restaurant’s reputation for delicacy and for catering for vegans and vegetarians. Fitting then, that my top memory is of simple but stunning starter of fragrant winter vegetables – fine specimens including squash, artichoke and beetroots in a gentle sweet and sour dressing which let the essential earthiness through.

10) The Salmon, Leicester

If I was asked to show a foreign visitor an example of British food at its very best I could happily take them to any of the fine establishments written about here. However I might just settle for The Salmon. On a Friday evening, with the serious business of the week largely done, I can think of few finer moments than when halfway down the second pint of some or other real ale in this award winning pub, one of your friends disappears to the bar shortly to be followed back by a barmaid with a large Stilton-topped pork pie, cut neatly into manageable slices, and a jar of mustard. The pub was set to change ownership in December – I hope the pies stay in place.

John’s House gains a star

September 16, 2015

Leaks from Michelin ahead of tomorrow’s publication of their new guide indicates a new Star for John’s House in Mounstsorrel. Fabulous news for chef John Duffin and heartiest congratulations from this blog to him and his team.

Michelin-starred dining is not a pre-requisite for great food  but it is a sign that a kitchen is doing something rather special and it’s really great from a tourism point of view that Leicestershire can now claim one.

John’s House

July 21, 2015

Here’s my Leicester Mercury review of John’s House in Mountsorrel – a lovely night out with beautiful food. It’s a real boost for the county that someone’s doing food like this  – and I know that the tourism folk are delighted.

John’s House

139 – 141 Loughborough Road
Mountsorrel
Loughborough, LE12 7AA

01509 415569

Cost: three courses £47

Open: Tues-Sat 12-2pm, 7-9pm.

9 out of 10

f9edd036e1a24014e715b14b62117bab_f140We should probably get something clear straight away. John’s House won’t be for everyone. Not just because of the considerable cost, but because chef John Duffin and his team are trying something unusual for Leicestershire in offering precise, contemporary, sophisticated fine dining.

Duffin has returned home to Mountsorrel after learning his craft with some of the nation’s most respected and innovative chefs, including Claude Bosi and most recently Simon Rogan at Roganic in London. Given the alarming closure rate of London restaurants as rents go through the roof, coming back to Leicestershire to launch out on his own is understandable. But just as important is that “home” is Stonehurst Farm, known to many in the county for its family farm park, and an immediate source of some fine ingredients. In addition there was a largely unused part of the family home ripe for conversion as a restaurant. It all just added up.

Indeed it is the domestic feel of John’s House that strikes you straight away. From the moment you sit down in the lounge, the sense is of a dinner party at a friend’s house. Only your friend has worked in kitchens with two Michelin stars.

The fun starts almost straight away with some phenomenally good canapes served as you read the menu. A little tomato macaron defied expectations by being intensely savoury, dusted with powerful tomato powder and filled with a vibrant green basil cream. These were followed by a toasted barley cracker, which looked like a hideous dieter’s crispbread but was a deeply flavoursome bite, loaded with goat’s cheese and decorated with radish, flowers and more herby gels. Finally there was a little cornet of an unbelievably rich and silky duck liver parfait with a shot of cumberland sauce and topped with crispy chicken skin. It was a mere morsel but my goodness was it good. Presented with real panache and showing wit, skill and creativity these really set the tone for the evening.

Farm and kitchen garden produce is the key to this restaurant’s approach. This is ingredient-led cooking where the quality of the produce dictates the dish and what might seem humble items are raised to superstar status. A starter of heritage tomatoes heaped shame on the produce of Dutch greenhouses. A variety of shapes and sizes, they sang out lustily with flavour, garnished with some crunch from buckwheat and flavour from frozen parmesan (bit of a molecular cuisine favourite, this). It might have seemed simple but there was an awful lot happening.

In our other starter it was peas that took the lead role. Tiny, fresh little blighters from the garden, they were beautifully sweet. They came with onion dumplings, which scored highly with flavour but I wasn’t converted by the somewhat mushy texture. The dish was completed with terrific roast shallots and a light, creamy sauce with background flavours of mint and lime. This was top rate seasonal cooking, with dishes being tweaked by the week almost according to what’s coming through in the kitchen garden.

The same approach was seen in the mains – hogget (year old lamb) from the farm was served up earlier in the year with wood blewit mushrooms, but now came with baby courgettes, more of those remarkable tomatoes, and a little salty feta cheese. The belly and shoulder of hogget was delightful, though my favourite element was a little crumbed nugget of sweetbread. In the other main some earthy, full-flavoured pollack came with a summery collation of peas, potatoes leaves and flowers, with some smoky flavour from shavings of lardo (cured pork fat). All of this went together swimmingly but there was a quenelle of a sort of lemon confit that was a big blunderbus of flavour that for us didn’t sit comfortably.

A quick word on the wine list – if you tend to read these from the bottom up, be prepared for an intake of breath as you find the legendary Penfold Grange and Chateau Mouton Rothschild at £750. If your budget is more Leicester Mercury than Freddie Mercury, the top of the list is £18.

Deserts were perfect little seasonal masterpieces. Macerated strawberries came with a superb strawberry sorbet, strawberry snow, hay-flavoured custard and an inspired syrup made from the delicately aniseed-tinged leaves of sweet cicely. It was a tremendous culinary expression of an English summer day. The same could be said of our other desert – a combination of white chocolate with elderflower sorbet, raspberries and pistachio that brought almost embarrassingly loud and persistent sighs of pleasure from my dining partner.

We finished up with peppermint tea – by which I mean huge sprigs of peppermint infused with hot water – and some great petit fours such as lollipops of white chocolate with violet cream and a hibiscus macaron.

John’s House has been open since late last year, so the guidebooks may be just about ready to catch up with the place. Whatever they ultimately make of it, we should be pleased that John has come home to push the boundaries of Leicestershire’s dining scene that bit further.

John’s House

July 13, 2015

Just a quick preview of my forthcoming review of John’s House in Mountsorrel.  I’ve been wanting to go ever since it opened but it takes some time to marshall resources and I wanted to make sure it had fully found it’s feet.

It’s a hugely interesting place providing a comfortable, intimate dining experience with food of a very high standard and dishes that stem from applying real creativity to simple but excellent produce. It’s based on super-fresh, bang-on seasonal produce much of which is grown or husbanded on the family farm out back.

These are just snaps and don’t do justice to the beautiful dishes  but they give an idea. I hope whoever took some pictures for the Mercury did a better job  – I’m sure they did.

If you are interested, get the paper next Saturday.

Duck liver parfait

Canapes of duck liver parfait with Cumberland gel and chicken skin

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Toasted barley cracker with goat’s cheese

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Onion dumplings, roasted shallots, peas.

Fine dining in Mountsorrel

January 12, 2015

Well here’s an interesting thing.  A new fine dining restaurant, opened by an alumni of Roganic no less, with ambitious pricing of £47 for a three course dinner – and it’s opened here in Leicestershire.

Chef John Duffin has returned to the family farm to open John’s House at Stonehurst Farm in Mountsorrel.  Can’t say I know a lot about him but it appears he has an impressive CV and that he’s using as much home-grown and farm-produced ingredients as possible. If I was going tomorrow  – I’m not – I’d be starting with parsnip dumplings, braised oxtail, madeira and ox tongue before moving on Stonehurst hogget, wood blewits, onions and thyme, and finishing with caramelised apple, meringue, vanilla ice-cream and honey wine.

There’s a serious looking eight-course  taster menu at £70 – which puts it not far behind Hambleton Hall.

Have to say I’m intrigued. Feedback welcome from any one who goes.

 

(picture from John's house website)

(picture from John’s house website)

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