Taps etc

February 16, 2016

Below the picture is  a recent review for the Leicester Mercury of  city centre bar/restaurant Taps. I liked it, and while it may not be the best food in the city, it’s definitely a well-run place in a lovely building and is an adornment for the city.

The owners of Taps are becoming significant players in the city centre. They are in the process of converting one of Leicester’s very few medieval buildings  – Wygston’s House on Applegate – into a “high end”restaurant which will focus on local produce. And at the other end of the scale they own, and are now closing, the Lamplighter’s which, no way of getting round this, is probably  the city centre’s dodgiest pub.

It’s a bit of a conundrum this. At one level this daytime karaoke, Dodge City lager pub is a liability to folks trying to run more sedate  businesses in the area. On the other hand, I hear the Police (and no doubt some other licensees)  quite like the fact it corrals trouble into one place and it gives them a likely  venue to find people of interest. Apparently it’s nice and profitable too.  But where are people who don’t fit in elsewhere going to go  – and how exactly do we control the more chaotic elements anyway?

Whatever, the owners have, to the acclaim of other local businesses, decided to give up trying to tame the place and are converting it into a 1950’s rock’n’roll American diner.

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Taps

Sometimes you realise you’ve misjudged a place. Taps, for me, is one such.

I knew the building of course – one of central Leicester’s gems. It’s a photogenic, 17th century building close by the Cathedral and Guildhall and has a beautiful atmospheric interior full of nooks and crannies. That includes a basement area that has you working out just how far you were from that car park and that king.

In the early noughties it was for a while a fondly-remembered fine dining venue known as the Opera House. In 2008 it became Taps, a bar with the distinctly unusual feature of being able to pour their house lager from a tap at your own table. It seemed it a bit of a novelty, but eventually the realisation dawned that this was a bar that was serious about beer. It has a good collection of classic Belgian and international beers, and indeed a fine selection of gins, bourbons and other spirits. The food though? Again it took a while for the penny to drop that this had developed into a bar/restaurant and that over time the menu has become really quite interesting –

There’s burgers and sandwiches, yes, but there’s also quite ambitious menu available lunchtimes and evenings with the likes of chicken ballotine stuffed with shitake mushrooms and tarragon or crab salad with beetroot cream and charred chicory.

I went along early on a Friday night not expecting to find many diners but again I’d been a bit slow off the mark in assessing the development of the place and the dining tables were fully booked. The staff, who I will say right now were fantastic over the course of two visits, were able to find me a little corner of the bar area if I was ready to order there and then.

I started with a creamy seafood chowder with saffron. This was a hearty, warming affair packed with mussels, fish and most of all whelks, which were somewhat rubbery but then they are, aren’t they? A decent start though and there was some good basic bread served with it and butter with flakes of sea salt. My initial reaction then was that if wasn’t the finest food available in the city, then it at least it was being prepared by people with a bit of nous and an interest in pleasing the diner.

I decided to do a bit of beer matching and found the fruity, robust Belgian blond ale La Chouffe went very nicely with the soup. Main course was a big, well-seasoned hunk of loin of venison, cooked medium rare. It was very good, and had a decent jus along with a charred clementine that you could use to gently squeeze out some citrus flavour. Kale was a good choice of greenery but the rosti didn’t quite work. The key for me with rosti is the balance of crispy pan-fried outside to a thin barely-cooked layer within – but this was too thick and while it had interesting seasoning there was too much raw potato.

The beer match, worked out in discussion with the very well-informed waitress, was the gorgeous Icelandic toasted porter Einstok, full of coffee and chocolate flavours that complemented the venison beautifully.

At a subsequent lunch time visit I had spinach and feta tortellini, which were big bruisers rather than fine and delicate. If the pasta was a bit heavy-handed, the filling was well done and a sage cream sauce was excellent. A desert of lemon tart was billed as a “baked lemon custard” but was nothing of the sort. The classic lemon tart is a test for the kitchen but this was simply a lemon-curdy cream that been piped into a pastry case – nicely sweet and sharp but not a lemon tart. There was a good fruit coulis and berries with it though, and it was all presented with a bit of panache.

This time round I also tried the Chilean craft IPA Rothhammer – a light but flavoursome version which doesn’t overwhelm the tastebuds. Apparently this is the only outlet in Leicester and one of the first in the UK.

Taps is offering an interesting line food and in the main the quality appears good. With its excellent drinks offering and staff doing a fine job of making you welcome and feel looked after, other sceptics should give it a visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personally I’m very partial to whisky. Some other people, not so much. But for those who do appreciate the Uisge Beatha, a good tasting taste class is a hard idea to resist.

And informal wine and spirit tastings are something of a boom industry all over the country. The Drinking Classes is an umbrella group that co-ordinates teams of experts delivering sessions on whisky, gin, vodka, rum tequila and cocktails and me and my pal Kevin turned up to their Leicester session at Will’s Bar at 6pm last Saturday. Run by young mixologist Will – not of the said Bar but of Drinking Classes’ subset the Whisky Mavericks – this was a very pleasant way to start a Saturday night.

IMG_0915 Whisky MavericksLooking at the publicity, Whisky Mavericks seems to be  based on the premise that whisky is seen as boring and needs rescuing from stifling tradition. A curious idea that I never really bought when it was first ran up the flagpole by someone wearing red glasses over 30 years ago. It’s even stranger when you realise that Will doesn’t try too hard to be modish or wacky in any way and in fact just delivers a perfectly mainstream tutored tasting.

It’s entry level stuff, starting off with a fruity punch and moving on to half a dozen drams, representative of some major styles. We started with my favourite Tomintoul, a creamy Speyside single malt, and then moved to the peatier 12 year old Bowmore from Islay – enjoyed with a plain chocolate digestive. Then there was Grants,  Jim Beam Bourbon and a 15 year old Genfiddich Solera.

While he confessed he was more of a gin enthusiast, Will was pretty well informed and kept up a steady supply of historical and cultural background information. Things I learnt included the origin of the name  Monkey Shoulder, that Grant’s triangular bottle was designed to prevent “breakages” in the dockyards and that age-statement whisky may soon disappear as the burgeoning Chinese middle-classes buy up everything available.  Also that the world’s biggest selling whisky is called Bagpiper, featuring a bekilted man in a turban on the table, and strictly speaking is not even whisky as it involves molasses.

So a very convivial hour and half. Can’t say I’d be pulled in at the advertised rate of £65, but there seems to be plenty of Groupon offers around at around the £25 mark – which makes it a pretty good option for a present or just a great activity for a group of mates. More details here. An alternative in Leicester is the monthly spirit tastings run by The Urban Alchemist (who many will know as Roop from Leicester’s Manhattan 34 bar) at Taps bar near the Cathedral.

Kevin enjoys a dram

Kevin enjoys a dram

Ok, back to Leicester now and an old favourite I’ve rather neglected. I was present about 15 years back at the opening of Café Bruxelles and was staggered by what a great job the Brothers Hussein had done with it. A handsome old banking hall, which had become a slightly crummy nightclub, given a fantastic makeover inspired by the station buffet in Bruges (or Ghent or somewhere I can’t quite remember).

Not your average Leicester bar ceiling

Not your average Leicester bar ceiling

An extraordinary set of paintings of Leicester’s twin towns around the planet brightened up the central dome and the overall fit out was done with great attention to detail. The vast majority of the money spent doing it up was with Leicestershire businesses too.

I had some great evenings eating and drinking in there but after it was sold on, I kind of got the feeling it was not being run with same passion and have not been in for a long while. But when a friend got in touch with a spare place for a Groupon booking I was quite pleased to go and have another look, and I came out pretty happy.   The deal was for a sizeable bowl of mussels with frites and bread, waffles with ice-cream and a beer off the Belgian list. The mussels weren’t the best ever but they were fine, the frites were excellent, the waffles very sweet and tasty and the beer selection first rate (I shared a Red Chimay and a Zinnebier – both showing why the Belgians boss the world in brewing as well as…erm, I dunno, boy detectives?). Our waitress was lovely too.

I don’t know about the rest of their menu – pretty generic-sounding stuff –  but that was a really nice option for simple night out in Leicester.  They have a regular mussels and beer offer on Wednesday nights for around £12 – worth a try if you’re in the mood.

Oh and if you’re Belgian beer fan you should try the nearby Taps too – another beautiful old building (the old Opera House restaurant) and another healthy selection of fine bottled and draught beers. I had a Liefmans with a spicy chicken quesadilla earlier in the week  – it definitely qualifies as a lunchtime recommendation.

Scrambler

August 17, 2011

ScramblerSeveral months ago I welcomed the launch of a new commercially available cider made in Leicestershire.  It’s taken me a while to actually track down a bottle of Scrambler but I’m glad I did. It’s a pleasure to report that’s very good  – clean, medium dry, bright rather than over-fizzy and a respectable but not head-banging 6.5% – it wipes the floor with 90 per cent of what’s in the supermarkets.  After just one tasting I’d say it’s possibly too spick and span, maybe just lacking a little character that would put it among the very best.  I’ll try it again tonight when celebrating City’s imminent victory over the renowned cider drinkers of Bristol City. [Edit at 10.30pm: well I really asked for that didn’t I? Let’s make that “when I’m trying to cheer up after an embarassing 1-2 home defeat”.]

Cider appears to be on the upswing right now  – there’s been the big money launch of Inbev’s Cidre this summer.  But why drink that when this is available? Scrambler is made in Hallaton by the Bottle Kicking Cider Company and it’s the Hallaton-Medbourne Easter rumble that seems to be the marketing focus, rather the apples – which are apparently a blend of handpicked fruit from Leicestershire and Gloucestershire.

Having launched last Easter, the entire draught stock sold out at at the Welland Valley and Grainstore cider festivals, but the bottles are available at 50 outlets in the area. I got mine at the Case shop on Millstone Lane in the city centre.   In Leicester it’s also available at Taps bar and Entropy, while county outlets include Duncan Murray wines in Market Harborough and Wing Farm shop, or pubs such as the Nevill Arms, Medbourne or the Olive Branch in Clipsham.

The makers at Cross Farm, Hallaton, are currently preparing for the next pressing  in October – good luck to them.

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