It’s Indian restaurants in all their thrilling diversity that are creating waves in Leicester right now.

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First off we’ve finally got innovative chain Mowgli opening in St Martin’s Square this week after a delay linked to gas suppliers apparently. For their opening week (not including Saturday)  they are giving 50 per cent off, no bookings just turn up, on their varied menu of streetfood-inspired Indian comfort food. I’m especially looking forward to the likes of green ginger & rhubarb dahl, owner Nisha Katona’s dad’s recipe of slow cooked lamb curry with anise, plums and chickpeas, and the house keema curry – minced lamb with roast cumin, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, peas, tomatoes and pulses. All the dishes look to be presented with great style and there is a nice range of options from wraps and snacks to full-on curries. They have also helpfully pulled out dishes to create gluten-free and vegan menus.

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There’s more information on another delayed opening, the highly anticipated Tandem by celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala in the former Memsaab premises in Highcross. There’s a launch event on Thursday 26 September and it should be open to the public soon after. We also now have a first glimpse of the food in the form of a taster plate menu. Todiwala’s Parsee heritage (Parsees were Zoroastrian immigrants to India from Iran) and his commitment to reflecting the wide variety of Indian cuisine means there’s a wider than usual  range of ingredients present, including beef and pork dishes. Highlights look like being Goan pork vindaloo (featuring rare breed British Lop pork), Barbary duck tikka cooked in the Syriac Christian tradition from Kerala, and chicken strips marinated in a green masala, served on a bed of parsee-style pickles. The menu is big on high quality sourcing, much of it (including chicken and breads) is from Leicestershire, but much is from wherever they see quality – beef and salmon from Scotland, organic pork from Devon. I look forward to discovering more soon.

levy_band.pngElsewhere long-time Keralan favourite Kayal is trying something new with live music from one of their regular customers. Dr Miles Levy is a well-known endocrinologist at Leicester Royal Infirmiary with a passion for music. This coming Friday 20 September he will be playing melodic originals and covers with his band The Levy, including some fellow senior health care professionals. Further gigs are being planned for the future. Music is from 7.30pm and booking recommended.

 

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It’s notable that while the chain phenomenon has successfully exploited Italian and French cuisines, there’s been less of a tendency for them to replace the British curry house. Interesting then that we have two burgeoning chains opening in Leicester. (You could argue three if you include the exciting news about Tandem – Cyrus Todiwala’s sixth restaurant that will open in the former Memsaab premises in August, but that’s a very different kettle of tilapia).

On 12 August we’ll get Mowgli in St Martin’s Square, the tenth branch of this expanding, generally highly-rated Indian street food cafe founded by ex-lawyer Nisha Katona. First up though is the Tamatanga on Shires Lane in the Highcross. This may only be the third branch – following Birmingham and the original in Nottingham – but it ticks all the hallmarks of the ambitious chain. Big shopping centre location close to other nationally known brands; large space with industrial fans and extractors above; endless piped music; peppy but inexperienced young staff in branded T-shirts following strict service protocols; an aspiration to a “laid-back vibe”; and a quick turnover approach which no doubt suits the contemporary diners who famously don’t want to sit around for hours in a restaurant but of course also enables multiple table-turnings for the operator.

So, Tamatanga doesn’t have have that much to distinguish itself from its near neighbours but it’s press launch last week seemed to impress the bloggerati, so Gill and I went for lunch. For all its casul style – paper menus as table mats, cutlery coming as an “eating kit” prepacked in a paper envelope, the food itself seems a bit pricey. Wraps with “our legendary tama fries” £11ish,  curries with rice or naan from £11.95, upwards, small plates and chaat dishes at around £6. There is though a lunch time offer that means you can get a main course and a soft drink for around a tenner.

No starters as such, food is delivererd as and when ready, but first up for us were small plates of onion bhaji (£4.95) and lamb samosa (£5.45). The bhaji were not good – thickish pucks that were crispy enough on the outside but quite unpleasantly doughy and undercooked inside. We liked the bright-tasting coriander chutney with them though. The samosa were also a bit mixed – the filling was tasty and the tamarind chutney sublime, but while it was good to see thick flaky pastry rather than crisp filo, they were excessively greasy.

We were on firmer ground with our main courses – my delhi lamb curry was a generous bowl of rogon josh with good distinctive spicing and reasonably tender lamb. The ghee-laden naan were pretty good too. A chicken biryani was also well-spiced with plenty of tender meat – if it had been my main dish I think I would have preferred a vegetable curry with it rather than the large bowl of raita but that might be a matter of taste. But for the rather odd addition of a pile of salad leaves this was on a par with the standard popular British Indian.

How much you enjoy Tamatanga might well be down to your choice in restaurants – or maybe just your needs on the day. I enjoyed most of the food and would be happy to try more, even if ultimately I’m likely to prefer a more traditional restaurant environment or the vibrant spicing and textural contrasts of a samosa chaat from the likes of Narorough Rd cafe Mithaas.

With summer coming in, the street food events are taking off.

Last night saw the launch of the 2Funky Street Kitchen, a new venture from the 2 Funky bar complex on Braunstone Gate. It’s got a lot going for it, including a large indoor bar and a large covered outdoor area right over the canal. This is great right now for cooing over squadrons of swans and cygnets, ducks and ducklings, but sadly you are also looking out over jettisoned bottles, fagends and assorted other litter. Last night saw Derby-based El Contador offering tacos, made from cornmeal on the night – I had their chicken mole which was an outstanding little morsel that put much UK Mexican food I’ve had to shame.

So during June there will be events on Fridays and Saturdays including Martin Brothers Pizza on 7th, Carribbean barbecue on 21st and El Contador again on 28th. Other special events include a “bottomless bubbles and bao brunch” on 15th. To be honest, I don’t think I’m 2Funky’s key demographic and it was all a bit loud for me but if you’re more of a party animal this could be just the thing for you. Check out the 2Funky website for full details.

Elsewhere there’s good news that Bobby Ananta, the ever-cheerful stalwart from St Martin’s and Crafty, is back from a spell back home in Java and has an Indonesian streetfood night planned at Crafty for 12 June. It’ll be a no-bookings evening and I’ve no menu details yet, but Bobby is a super chef – his rendang is jaw-dropping – and I’m confident it’ll be great.

Of course work continues across St Martin’s on Mowgli, the classy Indian streetfood chain which should be opening “late summer”. More good news for the square is that the former Grillstock unit has been taken and while details are currently super-secret, I’m told it will be a great addition for Leicester. And one last thing, another informal mini-chain Indian restaurant arrives shortly with Tamatanga, whom many will know from Nottingham, opening on Shires Walk in Highcross in Mid-June.

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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