Queen Victoria Arts Club

November 11, 2018

Dinner at the Queen Victoria Arts Club in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter on Thursday. The capsule review is that it’s a lovely place, we had some good food, but it’s clear neither the kitchen nor the food are fully up to speed yet.

One of the key reasons for this is that they lost head chef Steve Durham just before opening night in Mid-October and it’s currently unclear whether he’ll be returning. They’ve got in some emergency help and I’m assured “issues have been resolved and a firm plan is in place”.  However there were some very basic errors.

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Photo credit: Saul Morgan

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First off though , it’s a splendid environment. I enjoyed the sophistication of the dark green colour scheme and there’s a pleasing sparkle from immaculate glassware and cutlery. The view from the big windows across Orton Square to Curve is a really superb urban vista. Just to confirm, the venue’s restaurant is open to the public while other areas, including meeting rooms and an elegant but cosy basement bar, are either bookable or for use by members as they develop a membership scheme.

Some people seem to have got the impression it’s super-exclusive, but in fact the restaurant is not all that expensive and they want to attract regular, repeat custom not just special event dining – the opening menu sees starters around £5-8, main courses £14-£18.  I started with roast salmon, a small but perfectly cooked piece of fish which should have come on a slaw of shaved apple and fennel with dried tomatoes. However it actually came with some dabs of lime mayonnaise and  sugar snap peas, which should have been the accompaniments for our other starter of a salmon fish cake, which in turn got the slaw. So, three weeks after opening neither the chefs or the wait staff picked up that the dishes had got swapped somehow. The fishcake and slaw were both very tasty though.

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photo shame: me

A further issue came in that there was no offer of a wine list until we chased it up sometime after ordering. I ordered a white wine for the fish but it didn’t show up – eventually I chased again and it came just as I was finishing. The waitress was most apologetic, blaming some communication problem between her tablet and the till – not good enough.

Looking at the menu I was attracted to “lamb with peppercorn sauce” – I asked about the cut and the waitress thought it was loin, turned out to be shoulder. However, it was some of the best shoulder I’ve encountered in a long while, tender and well-flavoured with a terrific sauce. A fondant potato was technically excellent – combining the roast and poaching processes to perfection.  The vegetables were beautifully prepared and cooked too – though there was nothing to suggest they were “lightly pickled” as described on the menu.

My partner’s main was a terrific dish – moist, flavoursome roast chicken with a very well-balanced cream sauce with wild mushrooms and tarragon. It came sitting on some wonderful roast garlic mash – again a well-judged balance of flavours.

A word on the wines – a NZ sauvignon blanc (when it came) was excellent and the Chilean carmenere was a great match with the lamb. Looking at the well-stocked bar it does look the drinks offering is sorted at least.

A desert of a blackberry bavarois with charlotte russe cake was a bit under-flavoured, though a quince sorbet with it was excellent. I don’t think it benefitted from all being put in a glass with the sorbet on top – made it a bit hard to savour different elements of the dish.

It’s tough for any new business and losing one of your major assets just as you open must be a stressful experience. But if it’s to bring in the local businesses and the creative types who you’d think will be it’s main clientele, QVAC will need a period of stability and some sharper service.   At the moment I’d have to put it in the “promising” category.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Leicester Food Hop

October 2, 2018

If you are looking for a easy to way to get a glimpse into some of Leicester’s more interesting independent food venues – the Leicester Food Hop should be right up your proverbial.

The idea is that on one day  – specifically Saturday 13th October – you can buy a ticket and run your own self-guided, self -timed daytime tour around five venues, each of which will serve you up a drink and a tapas-sized dish that will highlight their food.

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Salt and pepper squid from The Fish and The Chip

The venues involved are The Fish and The Chip, King Richard III, The Knight and Garter, The Parcel Yard, and The Olive  – the Greek street food café on Belvoir Street. It runs between 12pm and 5pm, so you’ve got up to an hour in each venue if you want. Organisers Cool as Leicester will email you a starting venue and suggested route. Tickets are £30 for five dishes and five drinks (small glass wine or half pint of beer) – for details visit Cool as Leicester

It seems to be getting harder and harder to run a proper, sit-down-and-have-a-serious-meal restaurant. The Indian restaurant subset is battling the headwinds – Paddy’s Marten Inn, Kayal and Herb have given me lovely meals in busy environments this summer – but the trend towards informal grazing seems to be gathering pace.

Last year in Leicester we saw the fine dining Maiyango morph into the bright and breezy The Fish and The Chip, a fun and high quality take on the traditional British seaside chippy. Now this month the King Richard III suspends its marvellous menu of steaks and  grills and modern European classics for a three month takeover by Crafty Chicks, which could be interpreted as a gastropub take on the ubiquitous chicken shop (note traditional Sunday lunches are still being served.)

Crafty, of course, is the King Dick’s owners Chris and Andrea Elliman’s brand which offers the city’s best burgers over at St Martin’s Tea and Coffee. The core poultry offering here is Crafty Fried Chicken marinated in a spices and buttermilk, or barbecue chicken grilled on the robata grill with their own barbecue spice rub (two pieces £5, whole jointed chicken £18). The sides are pure Crafty – skin-on fries,  poutine, chipotle coleslaw, watermelon with lime, mint, peanut and chilli etc.  It looks brilliant for casual sharing.

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kimchiI popped in at lunchtime and had a very quick sandwich of katsu chicken (£5, above) – panko-coated fried breast with tonkatsu sauce, kewpie mayonnaise and slaw. It was full of Japanese umami loveliness but the flavours were a bit unfocussed maybe – lacking something central and distinctive. A side of cucumber kimchi was an inspired touch – deceptively spicy. I hope to get back soon for some barbecue chicken.

No doubt some of the issues facing  restaurants are down to seasonal issues  – the World Cup played its part and the extraordinary extended hot summer is not doing restaurants any favours. But there are also longer term trends both cultural and economic that make the £25 plus per head meal out an ever harder sell.

Fair play to the Ellimans for keeping nimble and trying to keep on top of the market. That said, I hope in the winter months we get a chance to try more of their wonderful steaks, warming soups and elegant deserts.

 

 

 

Upcoming events

May 23, 2018

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Good to see a couple of returning food events here in Leicestershire. The Pop Up Smokehouse has announced its second takeover event. This time Liam Watson (above)and his team will be cooking their bold and hearty take on US barbecue at the atmospheric Globe on Millstone Lane on Tuesday 19 June from 5pm to 10pm. I can tell you this in safety now because I have booked my table already  – last time out they filled up very quickly. There are several ways to book but maybe try their website first.

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Also now announced are details of the second  Edible Forest, Charnwood’s woodland-themed food festival which runs from 9-16th September. Top pick for serious diners must be the Secret Gourmet, which will see a forest-inspired menu created by local chefs John Duffin (of Mountsorrel’s Michelin-starred John’s House) and Paul Leary, who’s work is well-known to Leicestershire diners over the last 15 years. Menu details are being held back, as is the location but it’s promised to be a historic location somewhere near Shepshed – cost is £70.

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There are some less heady options – such as the chance to have brunch, picnic or dine in a clear ‘pod’ in the heart of the forest. Then there are chances again to have tea inside Old John in Bradgate Park or to enjoy guided foraging walks around the forest.  There will also be live music and DJ events with Charnwood’s own Burleigh’s gin having a strong presence. Details available here.

One more thing – heads up to vegan readers about Plant and Bean, who promise to combine plant-based ingredients with exciting flavours and a streetfood vibe. I believe there is a link to The Fish and The Chip restaurant on St Nicholas Place, and certainly that’s where there their first takeover event is happening in June,  with a delivery service and more events promised soon. No further details yet but track them down on Instagram @plantandbean.

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

 

 

 

 

San Carlo’s cicchetti

January 31, 2018

A couple of weeks back I mentioned San Carlo’s switch to a cicchetti menu at their Leicester restaurant on Granby Street. Maybe some will have thought this a move downmarket, towards a more casual, cheap and cheerful approach.

Having been there last night, such fears are very much unfounded. San Carlo has long been one of Leicester’s smartest restaurants – it’s one of the few venues where the cutlery and glassware really shine, the marble table-tops and fittings and decorations glimmer under spotlights and the wall to wall mirrors create both a sense of space and an aura of a place “to see and be seen”.

None of that has changed. It avoids being  blingy though and you simply feel transported to somewhere nicer than the centre of Leicester in January.   The excellent quality of the food has not changed either, it’s just that rather than a starter and mains approach, you select from a wide ranging menu of small plate dishes to share.

On our visit this week there were some jaw-droppingly good dishes. First to arrive at table were some lightly chargrilled avocados  in a completely sublime vinaigrette of olive, capers, chilli and mustard. Also knocking our socks off was a beautifully presented pumpkin risotto – suffused with saffron and truffle and pouring invitingly out of a baked gourd, with a backdrop of a terrific parmesan crisp studded with pink peppercorns  and rosemary.  The flesh of the pumpkin was sweet and soft, and the risotto was faultless. Beatiful fresh spaghetti with clams also impressed.

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Pumpkin risotto

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Charred avocado

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Spaghetti with clams (spot the garlic!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other highlights included mash potato of such astounding richness as to render me speechless. Here was food that could only be conceived and created by people with a deep love of gastronomy  – spud whipped with huge amounts of butter, oil and truffle and lightly grilled with a parmesan crust. An utter dream.

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Mash – but not as we know it.

Cacciuco, a Tuscan fish stew baked and presented  under a carapace of pizza bread was a rustic dish of white fish, prawns, mussels and clams  done with elegance and flair while a monkisfh and prawn spiedini (skewer) was simply done with lemon juice and olive oil.  I say simply  – one of the features of the food was that every dish was dressed copiously and appropriately with fresh herbs, oil, cheese or whatever worked to embellish. Straightforward, but generous cooking. There were one or two simpler dishes  – fritto misto and fried mozzarella balls that registered  as good rather than great but overall this was consistently pleasing food.

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Unveiling the cacciuco

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Cassata

A quick mention for desert too – we shared a plate of delightful cassata, the Sicilian favourite with ricotta, ice-cream, candied fruits, chocolate and  other goodies.

A sparkling environment, run with friendly efficiency by manager Sergio and his team, serving ingredients of high quality cooked with care and respect – San Carlo offers much to the city centre scene.

 

  • We dined as guests of San Carlo’s but all views are my own. Other fine Italian restaurants are available  in the region, for example Sapori in Anstey which, fans of Italian fine dining may be interested to know is staging a special night on 27 February with Michelin-starred chef Vicenzo Gaurino of Spaltanna in Tuscany with live music and six course tasting menu. Details from Sapori

 

Gelato in the Square

October 16, 2017

Details out today of the Gelato in the Square festival put together by Gelato Village.  Daniele and Antonio have been regularly going back to Italy and building a name for themselves in the gelato fraternity – with such effect that the flow is being reversed and some of Italy’s top makers are coming over to Leicester to celebrate all things gelato and  the Slow Food approach in general.

Over the weekend of 27-29 October there will be a huge range of talks, demonstrations and events in the St Martin’s Square café. Every hour or so from 11am on Friday there will be presentations from both local partners such as Belvoir Ridge Creamery who supply their milk and from also Italian artisans such Paolo Brunelli, a man celebrated as the “visionary poet” of gelato.

Others will talk about wine, biscuit and cone making, while local bars and restaurants will also be represented with Charlotte Wood from Manhattan 34 leading a session on cocktails and gelato and Antoni Scarpatti of Anstey’s marvellous  Sapori will address food matching.

There will also of course be chances to sample and purchase exciting flavours of gelato made in Leicester by the visiting makers. It all looks an lot of fun. All events are take place in the shop and are free on a first come first served basis. The full programme is attached below, and should be readable once you click on the images.

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.

 

 

 

Cured at the Cookie

September 19, 2017

I was pleased to be an early enthusiast for the work of Cured. Young chefs with a passion for flavours and produce who want to forge their own way – that’s the lifeblood of any city’s food scene. And to be based at a bar such as Brewdog – heaven.

So it’s great news that Martin and Oliver are finally back in town with a full-time base within lively independent cafe, cocktail bar and venue The Cookie. They keep the menu format of beautifully stacked platters for sharing – or for one if you’re as greedy as me – plus innovative side dishes and their own take on comfort food. This includes a burger yes, but also a “gobi cheese toastie” featuring spiced cauliflower in a turmeric cheese sauce on sourdough or soft duck tacos with jerked duck and pineapple salsa.

The model has also been moved on. The cures for their key elements are now spirits rather than beer. On your platter you’ll find a little jar of divine orange-scented duck cured and confited with Legendario rum that beats many a rillette in a French bistro. Then there’s bourbon and maple cured bacon like a sweet, fine ham, and purple-tinged salmon cured in Brooklyn gin and blueberries.  As before, the platters are packed with carefully chosen and well-executed extras that more than earn their place – sesame bread, crispy duck fat toasts, herb butter, crunchy house pickles, inspired zingy apple and ginger slaw, dill and pink peppercorn potato salad, apple piccalli, home-made chutneys and more (gluten free available).

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Small platter

The tapas-sized sides now include the like of Vietnamese meatballs with a belting, coriander-rich green chilli jam which knocks spots of most version of this increasingly common condiment. If the newly-opened Pho across the road can do Vietnamese snacks this good I’d be surprised and delighted. Then there’s jackfruit bhaji which combine sweetness and spice in a way that suggests a sophisticated, grown-up version of the guilty pleasure that is a banana fritter.

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Jackfruit bhaji with pineapple salsa

 

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Gin, blueberries, pink peppercorns and dill

This hugely enjoyable food can be enjoyed in the laid-back cafe surroundings of the Cookies ground floor, or the more tucked away environment of the upstairs Attic bar where the chefs’ pal Xander Driver is creating top-notch contemporary cocktails.

The Cookie looks a good cultural match for the business and the food deserves to be both sought out by serious food lovers and those simply out on the town and looking for sustenance (watch out for the late night street food offering from the front of the cafe on Saturday nights). Two people can have a platter and two sides for around £20 – the price of two burgers (but no fries) from Byron.

Taking influences from traditional techniques and from the multicultural cuisines that abound in our city, here is exciting food and a proper bargain. If this was in Shoreditch, the place would be over-run with hipster food writers – as it is, fill your boots Leicester.

 

Cured
68 High Street
Leicester
http://www.facebook.com/CuredLeicester/

A Tale of Two Burgers

September 14, 2017

It’s hardly an original observation to suggest that Leicester city centre must be at or approaching Peak Burger. GBK is the most recent to arrive, filling the former Laura Ashley store at the Clocktower entrance to Highcross.

Can’t say I’ve been particularly tempted to try it – I expect it’s ok, but really Crafty has pretty much closed the book on burgers in Leicester.  But now there are signs that what the industry refers to as “better burgers” are now overflowing into the suburbs. In the last week I’ve visited a couple of venues to the South of the city. with similar names but quite differing approaches.

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Boo on London Rd is a sharply-branded independent at the quality fast-food end of the market. It’s halal and would appear to be attracted to the area by the hugely popular Turkish mangal Konak next door and Heavenly deserts one door further. It’s bright, open and friendly, offering a short, focussed menu featuring 28-day aged Aberdeen angus patties in 4oz, 6oz or 8oz combinations with the likes of cheese, pickles, onion rings, home-made sauces and their own surrogate bacon in the form of smoked beef strips. A halloumi version is available for the veggies.

boo2Our  4oz Haystack (£6.00) was great  – very decent meat, crispy battered onions and pleasingly gooey sauce on a good brioche. A 4oz “Chickaboo” chicken breast (£5.50) was moist and tender, though I was wasn’t much taken with the crispy coating. It certainly wasn’t comparable to buttermilk fried chicken I’ve had at both Cured and Crafty. Fries (£2) were good – sort of fat chips but scoop-shaped which made them perfect for dipping.

We also tried chicken wings (£3.50) which come in two “house” sauces –  buffalo hot sauce or a sweet and sticky version. These were great, nice and messy.  Hand-spun milkshakes  (£3.50) – one chocolate, one strawberry – were both excellent, sweet and creamy.

Boo looks like an ambitious business run by young guys looking to do things the right way and with a good approach to garnering customer feedback and acting on it. They’ve already been top in a Leicester Mercury poll of burger outlets.  They are social media savvy and understand their market well. I can imagine going back.

Across the park and up Queen’s Road is Moow. A sit-down restaurant with table service, this lies in what was Cultura and is run by the people behind 1573 steakhouse in the city centre and the newly-opened Halcyon Kitchen also on Queen’s Rd. It’s an attractive space and the jolly welcome from staff  on a very quiet midweek lunchtime made my lone diner experience very pleasant.

The menu is slightly wider – a dozen or so options including lamb, fish and chicken burgers and three vegetarian choices.  I had a bacon burger (£7.95)- and while everything was nicely presented, I wasn’t all that impressed. The 6oz burger made from “our own blend of Longhorn chuck, shin and rump steak” mince lacked succulence. I think that mix needs a bit more fat and maybe there was an issue with resting too, but whatever it was, the burger was rather dense and dry. The bacon strips were very crispy which didn’t help and I couldn’t detect any of the promised chilli jam. So while the brioche bun  and the onion ring were fine, and the fries (£2.50) excellent – the overall impact was rather disappointing.

The restaurant is licensed with beers and wines on offer, but I was tempted by one of the “hard shakes” – in my case a caramel shake laced with Jack Daniels (£6.50) which was delicious, a highlight of my day. Alcohol-free and – somehow – dairy-free shakes are also available.

Both restaurants have kids’ menus and are clearly keen to attract the family market. Horses for courses, and these two venues may only be half a mile a part but live in different worlds and are each adapted accordingly.

 

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