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.

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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

 

 

 

 

I’m not going to say too much just now but if you are vegetarian and you love Leicester’s Kayal – and who doesn’t? –  then I have some very exciting news for you.

A new venue from Kayal is set to open on Granby Street in the Autumn that will feature Keralan and other South Indian vegetarian food in a smart, full-service environment.  Kayal itself started off life as the vegetarian Halli and some of the staff team have been keen for some years to start another pure veggie venue with a focus on healthy food. Crucially, Kayal is unaffected.

With a con-fusion food barn opening this week in the form of Rickshaw Ricks (from the people who brought you Red Hot World Buffet), and another apparently buffet planned nearby, it’s great to hear there’s still space for food with quality, roots and integrity.

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.

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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.

Ten tasty places

December 29, 2014

For the Twixtmas edition of my Leicester Mercury column I did them a piece on ten food and drink places readers might like to try. Regular followers of this blog may recognise a certain amount of adapted material here and it was a nice opportunity to highlight some places I admire but which may not be feasible to fit in for a restaurant review column. Here’s the link:  ten tasty places

Comedy festival cook-off

February 5, 2013

At 2pm on a Saturday I’m generally twitching with nerves with the build up to City’s next tilt at joining the monstrous Premiership circus. If you are somewhat more relaxed, you might like to consider popping down to Chutney Ivy over the next three Saturdays for a comedy cooking event. The Halford St restaurant is sort of rebranded as Dave’s Curry House for the duration of the Leicester Comedy Festival and on three Saturday afternoons hosts cook-offs between pairs of comedians under direction of manager Shaf Islam.

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The events are free but ticketed and kick-off is 2pm. You can book and see full details here.

Should be worth it just to see how the comics manage to shoehorn a Richard III/carpark reference into the cooking of a curry. Speaking of which, Richard Buckley (I know you are out there) – many congratulations. We’re very proud of you.

And one more thing, congratulations also to Jaimon Thomas of Kayal, who has now opened the fourth branch of the Keralan restaurant and the first in that there South. The new branch is in West Byfleet, a few yards off the M25 near Woking.

The Lighthouse

January 4, 2013

Happy New Year everybody. Sorry you’ve not heard from me for a while.  I’ve rather fallen asleep at the wheel I’m afraid. The sad demise of the print version of Great Food has led to me being a little out of the loop and I’ve not been eating out much  – just a regular early January visit to Kayal but you all know that is fantastic anyway (one tip though – if you see the Squid Pepper Fry on the specials board, order it!).

But interesting news for the new year is that the highly-regarded Firenze in Kibworth has rebranded itself as the Lighthouse and become a specialist fish restaurant. It’s still run by Sarah and Lino Poli who call it “a seafood restaurant and more ” and promise both British and Mediterranean classics from potted shrimp and fish and chips to lobster.  They also say they will offer plenty for meat eaters and vegetarians.

Haven’t seen a full menu yet but I wish them all the best  – if anyone fancies a trip out there, let me know 🙂

Shivalli

August 9, 2012

If you’re vegetarian or work at De Montfort University, the New Walk Centre or the Leicester Royal Infirmiary, you probably know about Shivalli. If not, you may have just zoomed past it, sited as it is on an unfriendly bit of Welford Road racetrack.   But it’s definitely somewhere worth having on your list for casual dinners – and especially lunches – with friends.

I met with one DMU worker for lunch today and the  £4.95  buffet lunch counts as an excellent value treat.  It’s a freshly cooked, small-batch buffet of South Indian food which makes the increasing number of deep fried, kept-warm-under-lights bland international  food barns even more pointless. So start off with poppodoms, salad, pickles and sauces and a couple of light and fluffy wadas (sort of savoury doughnuts) with a spicy sambhar accompaniment.  Freshly-prepared mini masala dosas are then brought to you as you eat along with puffed up poori breads. 

You can then go back for rice and a selection of curries  – today we had a pretty good saag paneer, a Keralan speciality of cabbage thoran  and a really lovely pakoda curry – spicy little vegetable dumplings.  If  there’s any space left you can even have finish up with a little bowl of a light but creamy rice pudding with fruit and nuts. 

It’s run by some of the team behind Halli – the first incarnation of the restaurant that is now the wonderful Kayal (there’s a story there, but not one I can tell here really) – and staff are helpful and friendly. There’s lunch boxes to take out, there’s a full a la carte menu in the evenings and I’m told vegans are well catered for too. If you’ve not found it yet, or you’ve just a got a thing about vegetarians, go along and try.

The Big Eat (again)

January 24, 2012

Good news that the One Leicester campaign has revived its Big Eat initiative that sees many if not most of the City centre’s restaurants run two-for-one type special offers on the same evening.  Last year it brought full tables and something of a buzz to the whole city city centre. This year it’s been brought forward to coincide with the Leicester, sorry, Dave’s Leicester Festival so there’s every reason to combine the two for a cracking night out.

Most of the restuarants require advance booking for the offers and the precise offer does vary so you’ll need to check on the website One Leicester.  Among the most interesting are two for one main courses at Kayal (when ordering two courses), two for one on a special menu and live Indian music at Chutney Ivy and 30 per cent off the food bill at Cedars Lebenese (plus belly dancing).  Many of the chains, independent restaurants and cafes are also running offers.

If you are still swithering then its worth bearing in mind that there will be free parking  at the Newarke Street, Haymarket and Dover Street car parks after 6pm.

 

 

Kayal and the Hairy Bikers

December 13, 2011

I’ve been a big fan of Kayal since it first opened and have got to know Jaimon Thomas and his team well as they have expanded from their Leicester base to open in Nottingham and Leamington  Spa.  But sometimes you just don’t get round to going back to your old favourites. After a gap of around six months I’ve been twice in the last couple of weeks and am pleased to say it’s in great form.

I tried a few new dishes including a super fish soup that was as smooth and flavoursome as a classic lobster bisque, a fiery starter of adipoli kozhi – tender chicken pieces with chunks with onions, black pepper ginger chillies and shavings of coconut, and main courses  such as pala beef chaps which is beef with mushroom pepper sauce and spicy beans, spicy potatoes and crunchy matchsticks of bread.  Other favourites were consistently good.  Kottayam egg fry doesn’t exactly sound over appealing – “batter fried boiled egg with chutney” – but is a complete delight, with heavenly freshly-spiced sauce. Tilapia pollichattu – the fish being wrapped in banana leaf which seems to seal in in falvours and succulence – features another superb spice mix.  Ammmachi piddiyum kozhiyum was a great chicken dish served up with rice dumplings in coconut sauce – the dumplings were fairly anonymous and  too glutinous to my taste but again the spicing in the dish was top-notch.

The Hairy Bikers with Jaimon Thomas (right) and colleagues outside Kayal

The restaurant seems permanently packed and there’s a great buzz about the place. I’ve heard some complaints of service being slow – though I’d attribute this more to fresh food and busy-ness rather than a staff attitude problem. Prakash heads up front of house in Leicester and I’ve rarely met someone more committed to customer service.

Anyhow I’m pleased to give them a further plug especially as they feature on TV this coming Friday 16 December at 3.45pm in the Hairy Bikers Best of British programme on BBC2. Jaimon Thomas used to zoom around Kerala on a bike and his old Royal Enfield has pride of place in the restaurant.  The Hairy Bikers were there though to learn dosa making skills  – and it’s worth bearing mind by veggies disappointed when Kayal morphed from the vegetarian Halli that its masala dosas are great,  up there with best I’ve ever tasted.

The HB’s visit follows on from Jamie Oliver visiting Paddy’s Marten Inn and Hugh Fernely Whittingstall’s recent visit to Indigo which included a dosa-making stint at a lavish wedding at De Montfort Hall (still available I think somewhere on 4OD).  Great to see our restaurants recognised in this way.

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