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

 

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Beating the January blues

January 18, 2018

A belated happy new year to  all. January can seem to be a bit of a after-the-show non-event in food terms. But it’s good to report there’s some worthy things happening in Leicester.

Last night I had a fabulous dinner at the King Richard III – starting with a heavenly French Onion soup. Nicely caramelised onions in a lovely brown stock hid under a coverlet of croutons and a thick layer of gooey melted cheese. Served in a mini-marmite and twith top-notch sourdough toast and salted butter it was a really well-done French classic. Also impressing was a generous serving of salt and pepper calamari with impeccably crisp batter and zingy mayonnaise.

french onion kriii

 

Main courses highlighted the kitchen’s robata grill and the awesome smokey char it imparts. From the grill menu, the onglet steak was simply gorgeous with an almost gamey flavour, while the chips, onion ring and portobello  mushroom accompaniments were spot on.  Lamb chop and leg steak were equally as good, with a dauphinoise of spectacular richness and a pot of mushroom ketchup that was ideal for chip-dipping.

onglet kriii

Food this good  (I’m not sure I’ve had better steak in the city) is a pleasure enough, but for the whole of January there’s 20 per cent of food prices making it an extraordinary bargain – that onglet with the discount just about struggled to make it over a tenner.

Also brightening up the winter is news that San Carlo on Granby Street is introducing the cicchetti menu (think Venetian tapas) that has proved successful in their restaurants in London and Manchester. And from 26th January to 12 February (only until 5pm on Saturdays) there will be 50 per cent off dishes such as truffled burrata with parma ham, spaghettini with prawns and mussels, lobster risotto and Tuscan fish stew.

The Leicester restaurant has just been named UK Restaurant of the Year by Les Routiers, so this big discount is a great opportunity to try out their new approach.

Also intriguing me are two pop-ups launching in January. Building on the runaway success of both Canteen at the Depot and of the St Martin’s area, is the Cank Street Dining Club. I’ve not got to the bottom of who’s behind it, but their claim is “We take the elements we like best from different Street Food Cultures around the world and combine them to create our own dishes”. Apparently this means the likes of Korean galbi beef tacos, yakitori chicken and jerk pork loaded fries. It’s located on Cank Street, opposite Paper Tiger, and is open from 11.45 am to 8.30pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until 10 February. Vegan alternatives, natch.

KAIele6Also in St Martin’s is Kai, a stylish café which hasn’t quite pulled me in yet for its daytime menu of brunches, Buddha bowls and curries. I definitely intend to give it a try soon, including its pop-up incarnation on weekend evenings as the Yellow Elephant (as in Black Horse, Red Lion etc) doing  – loosely – Indian fusion version of pub classics. Hence crab and prawn scotch with lemon and chilli pickle, chicken tikka burger in a naan wrap and thali curries.

So, plenty of new year options for jaded palates.

 

 

San Carlo, Leicester

September 24, 2015

Here’s my recent Leicester Mercury review of San Carlo.

San Carlo
38 Granby Street
Leicester
LE1 1DE

0116 251 9332
Open – Mon to Sun 12pm-11pm

I’ll say straight away that I think every city should have a restaurant like San Carlo. A place where the napery is blinding white, the glasses, mirrors and cutlery shine, the waiters are smart and there is a cheerful buzz coming from both the clientele and the open kitchen. It’s the kind of place that lawyers in American films will go for important lunches, the kind of place you take someone to impress.

Some will probably dislike it for those very reasons, swearing by their unpretentious neighbourhood place. But it’s horses for courses and to be frank, we’re not overwhelmed with this variety of sophistication in Leicester. So I had a good feeling walking through the doors on a busy Friday night, to be greeted with a cheery “Buona sera” by a cordon of avuncular Italian men in suits.

The last time I was there it was to meet Aldo Zili, the celebrity chef who has sold off his restaurants and acts now as consigliere to the still privately-owned San Carlo groupa trusted adviser dispensing disinterested guidance, with occasional visits to rally the troops in the kitchen with a bit of stardust and enthusiasm. That visit featured some stellar food, demonstrating what can be great about Italian food done simply and with great ingredients.

Would these qualities still be on show on a regular Friday night? They certainly were evident in our complementary crostini, spread with a creamy anchovy paste delivering a hefty punch of salty fishiness. Even more so in an outstanding starter of marinata di verdure – aubergine, green pepper and courgette thinly sliced, briefly grilled and marinated in fresh mint, extra virgin oil, garlic and chilli. It brought out the flavours of the vegetables beautifully and with some first-rate buffalo mozzarella and well-dressed leaves it was a delight. Another starter of Faggotini San Carlo featured lovely little money-bag parcels of pasta with a light ham filling and a creamy wild mushroom sauce. Not cutting-edge innovation, but none the worse for that.

I’ve heard comments from people who find the service at San Carlo to be somehow arrogant and unhelpful. And yes there is air of “we know best”, but then they probably do and I find it quite a pleasant change to be served by experienced older people who have spent their lives in restaurants rather than keen but gauche students.

More good cooking was on show with a main course of tagliolini aragosta, a suitably bling dish for the surroundings of a half lobster adorning a mound of thin pasta mixed with a lobster claw meat, fresh peas, cherry tomatoes, finished with brandy and cream. Grilled hake was simpler but perfectly done, with a few fresh herbs, some crunchy, thinly sliced sautéed potatoes and a light, buttery sauce. The dish need some extra vegetables, which does start to push the bill up, but the wonderfully crunchy French beans doused in butter were so good I would not have wanted to miss them. The wine list is, obviously Italian, and our bottle of Soave was crisp, dry and elegant – perfect for our fish.

A cheese board was ridiculously huge – including large chunks of good but not exceptional gorgonzola, tallegio and pecorino that no-one could comfortably finish. Smaller hits of something more interesting would have been preferable. Torta sette velli (the Sicilian “seven veils cake”) was rich and decadent, alternating layers of chocolate mousse, sponge and hazelnut cream to great effect

The only real downside of our night was the being seated next to a table of three young women who stared at the phones all night, barely speaking, hardly touching their food and generally doing their best to suck the atmosphere out of the place. But that’s my problem and hardly San Carlo’s fault – the restaurant delivered some fine food in an otherwise lively, smart and enjoyable setting.

Aldo’s back in town

November 18, 2013

Regular readers may remember me enthusing last year after being invited to try a set of new dishes prepared by celebrity chef Aldo Zilli for the San Carlo group. Well, happy days, it’s happened again.

Aldo Zilli at Leicester San Carlo.     (photo: REDPIX/Jason Senior)

Aldo Zilli at Leicester San Carlo. (photo: REDPIX/Jason Senior)

Like many leading chefs, Zilli found there was a limit to the punishing hours required to keep restaurants at the top of their game. So he sold up to spend more time with the proverbial and to concentrate on consultancy – hiring out his knowledge, expertise and compelling passion to others. The fit with San Carlo seems a really genuine one. At our lunch in Leicester this weekend he called the group’s founder Carlo di Stefano “a genius” for building up a £60 million turnover business and keeping it in family hands, making it nimble and responsive as a business partner. There’s seems to be genuine admiration and respect on both sides.

So he’s now styled consigliere to the group – a trusted adviser dispensing disinterested guidance. This includes popping up to Leicester on occasions to inspire the chefs, present new dishes and generally give everyone a lift. This time round me and a few other local food writers got to share in the bounty.

Chilli garlic squid

Chilli garlic squid

We started with some wild mushroom and truffle crostini, followed with more of the sensational garlic and chilli squid I enjoyed last year.  This, said Aldo, was the best selling dish at his Zilli Fish restaurant and you can see why – incredibly tender squid with zingy chilli and crunchy little flakes of garlic (simmered in milk for five minutes apparently – takes some of the fierceness out.) We were even given a little master class in preparing the squid for grilling.

Another little demonstration focused on making chocolate pasta – a savoury version that would be later served up with a phenomenally rich and gamey hare ragu. Then there was fregola (pasta from Sardinia – kind of like giant cous cous) served up with langoustines and clams (plus a generous grating of bottarga – intensely-flavoured cured cod roe) and simply grilled Dover sole with butter, spinach and capers.

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Hand-made chocolate pasta (REDPIX/Jason Senior)

 

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Cutting pasta with “guitar strings”

 

Dover sole

Dover sole

Zilli’s dishes seem to sum up what’s great about Italian cooking – great ingredients, done simply and cooked either fresh and quick or long and slow as needed. These and other dishes will be appearing as specials on San Carlo’s menus over the winter – and at lunchtimes in the shared, small-plate “cicchetti” format that is increasingly successful at other restaurants in the San Carlo group.

 

Aldo Zilli at San Carlo

December 6, 2012

It may be freezing outside but I’m sitting here nice and warm following one of the great lunches.  I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest to try out some of the dishes coming out of a new partnership between ‘sleb chef Aldo Zilli and the San Carlo group.

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Aldo Zilli at San Carlo, Leicester

Zilli sold off his London restaurants earlier this year, blaming greedy landlords for turning Soho into yet another chain zone. He told me today he had been going to take a year off but was persuaded by Carlo di Stefano to help him out in developing his cicchetti concept. “I respect Carlo as one of the best operators in the Italian restaurant business,” said Zilli.  “Back in Venice, cicchetti really just means food you’ll have in a bar – the Italian tapas. He’s taking that idea and moving it on  – and I’m happy to work with him to take it to another level. That means motivating the kitchen staff and encouraging them to realise you don’t have to mess around with this food – you must let the ingredients do the talking.”

So at San Carlo, Leicester today we were treated to a hugely impressive range of dishes, starting with a gently sweet and sour Sicilian caponata – slow cooked mediterranean vegetable stew.

Squid with chilli

Squid with chilli

Then simply fried calamari with chilli – succulent with gentle slow-burn background heat and then some thinly-sliced raw porcini and parmesan.  This was lovely, earthy cuisine that will put you off Pizza Hut for life. Ironically the next plate was a kind of pizza – and one of the very best dishes I’ve ever had. Squares of bread grilled with raddichio, melted gorgonzola, white truffle and walnuts. Simply done but those ingredients really did talk and will live in the memory for some time.

Zilli made his name as a seafood chef and it kept coming.  Thick fillets of gurnard were simply grilled and supplied with a stunning buttery sauce of shrimp and capers. Beetroot risotto (one of my very favourite dishes) came with sweetly roasted scallops and al dente orecchiette pasta with clams and more truffles. I’ve pretty much given up cooking monkfish as I find there’s such a narrow window between under and over cooking. Our version had been left a bit too long for my taste, but the dressing of fennel and sambuca was great.  And I nearly forgot, an awesome side dish of fondant artichoke – unpeeled, thinly sliced jerusalem ‘chokes cooked in stock and butter that was reduced to a fudgy richness. Quite wonderful. We finshed up with delicious souped-up pannettone – sliced and layered with a mascapone and marsala cream and forest fruits and topped with some zabaglione brulee. Not a huge amount of cooking there but supreme comfort food at Christmas time.

It’s some time since I’ve been to San Carlo – I liked the food but found the atmosphere a bit boistrous for my liking. Aldo says these dishes and others like them will now be appearing as specials  – as long as they can keep up the standard when the famous chef is not on the pass, a good reason for going back I’d say.

Gurnard with shrimp and caper sauce

Gurnard with shrimp and caper sauce

Aldo panettone

Panettone

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