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.

crafty10

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.

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Huge thanks to those who attended and many congratulations to the White Peacock. Last night’s event for Soft Touch was not just a cheerful evening of great food but a highly successful fundraiser that will enable the charity to complete the kit-out of its kitchen training young people to prepare and enjoy and healthy food.

And elsewhere in the City centre during the same evening,  the restaurant was carrying off the Taste of England Gold Award in Leicestershire’s Excellence in Tourism Awards – with a highly commended going to 34 Windsor St. (Not to forgot my friend, and reader of this  blog, Richard Buckley who, not surprisingly I think we can agree, helped win the “tourism experience” of the year for his leading role in the reinterment of Richard III).

With front of house manager Charlotte off at the awards, the young White Peacock team managed to serve a six-course menu to more than forty people with admirable skill and elegance.

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The menu showcased great produce and a fine intelligence in dish construction. Highlight of the evening for me I think was gin and Earl Grey cured salmon – thick cut, lightly cured fish with a sweet edge and which sang of the sea. It was really effectively matched with slightly astringent pickled fennel, a tangy citrus crème fraiche and pared cucumber.

Gin and Earl Grey cured salmon

Gin and Earl Grey cured salmon

Picking up comments from others there was clear enthusiasm for the elegant starter of pickled beetroot with goat’s cheese mousse and a parmesan crisp and fig, which converted at least one person to the possibilities of the much abused beetroot. Another well-balanced dish that showed how a few fine ingredients can combine to really great effect.

Goat's cheese mousse, fig, beetroot and parmesan crisp

Goat’s cheese mousse, fig, beetroot and parmesan crisp

The desert of salted caramel panna cotta, toasted banana bread, banana sorbet and praline was a tour de force finish, the sorbet in particular getting people very excited.

Banana sorbet, sated caramel panna cotta

Banana sorbet, salted caramel panna cotta

One final point – a reminder that Leicester folk can check out some of the the impact of Soft Touch’s work at the weekly pop-up café on Thursdays 12-2pm at the New Walk premises (opposite Museum Square). Good variety  of sandwiches, soups and cakes prepared and served by young people with professional supervision at around just £2.50

I’ve written on here some time back about Soft Touch, a charity of which I’m a volunteer director that does fine work with young people using the arts, including work on healthy eating and cooking skills.

In recent years the organisation has had some great support from Phil Sharpe and his team at the White Peacock, now our near-neighbour on New Walk. Phil has now kindly offered to host a fundraising dinner for us on 5 November which, among other things will help us to complete the kitchen we’ve installed at our new premises and which we will use to help young people learn new skills, improve existing ones and enable the projects we run to prepare food for each other.

So here’s the deal – there’ll be a six course taster menu for £35. The menu is yet to be confirmed  but if you’ve read this blog, you’ll know the quality of the food at the White Peacock. You will also have a chance to win some wonderful prizes donated by local businesses in a fundraising draw.

You can book now and see some further details at:

http://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-touch-of-community-dinner-evening-at-the-white-peacock-tickets-18713380224

I’ll post a reminder nearer the date  – if there’s tickets remaining – but do feel free to book now. There’s just a £15 deposit to pay – the balance being taken on the night.

White Peacock Dinner Event

I enjoyed a really terrific tasting menu at the White Peacock on New Walk last night, another one of a series of events put on by personal training group UFit Studio. Owner Joe Hanney has worked with Leicestershire restaurants to develop healthy eating menus that helps those looking to get fit or lose weight to realise that they can still enjoy eating out as part of their regime.

In fact I think the healthy eating focus actually shows Phil Sharpe’s cooking at The White Peacock at its best anyway. In recent years he has managed increasingly to focus on clarity of flavours and fine ingredients – you won’t find rich cream sauces or big piles of mash or roasties here. But nothing on the plate last night felt in any way compromised.

We started with a beautiful collection of beetroot carpacccio with crushed toasted pinenuts along with beetroot gel, tomato sorbet, bloody mary shot and a light as air goats cheese mousse.  This was fine, light and delicate but in no way mimsy.

WP_20150902_21_11_21_ProNext up, beautifully rare  pigeon breasts on a timbale of spinach with toasted sesame and superfood blueberry dressing, followed by seared kings prawns with a mango and chilli salsa and microherbs. We had a little introduction on why and how each dish was prepared with diet in mind but we didn’t convincing  – this was great food full stop.

WP_20150902_21_41_48_ProA lime and grapefruit sorbet palate cleanser was served to great effect with a little avocado – high in nutrients and “the right kind” of fats.

Main course again featured some excellent cooking  –  incredibly moist and flavourful Cotswold white chicken breast with carrot puree and  thai-spicied polenta. Polenta is high in fibre,  low in fat and cholesterol, and generally I’ve found very high in dullness. This, though it didn’t looking particularly appealing,  was something of a revelation – substantial but surprisingly light, bringing both crunch and airy texture and some great spicy heat.

We finished with a superbly wobbly coconut and lemongrass pannacotta. The lemongrass largely lost out to the coconut milk that replaced the more usual double cream but a really enjoyable desert along with a bright apple sorbet and cherries.

I’m not sure how many of these dishes will find their way onto the regular menu, but as I suggested this is very much the style anyway.  A pleasure, then, to eat six such fine dishes and not be bloated.

I ran into Aatin Anadkat of Maiyango at last week’s Winter Food Festival at Leicester Market. He was buzzing over the prospects for his business – “these last few weeks it’s like I’ve had a shot of adrenaline” he told me.

Sweet potato and chipotle veloute, mango salsa

Sweet potato and chipotle veloute, mango salsa

Aatin launched the restaurant when not long out of University. It was stylish, cosmopolitan and offered something new for Leicester. Over the last decade Aatin and his colleagues showed considerable savvy and skill to not just secure the restaurant and bar, but to develop the City’s smartest boutique hotel, a banqueting operation running out of the St Martin’s House by the Cathedral and a Kitchen Deli on Highcross St.

So when his long-term head chef and friend Phil Sharpe left last month to set up on his own at The White Peacock, it was naturally one of the occasions when you drag out that old (apparently erroneous) notion that the Chinese word for crisis equates to “danger and opportunity”.  So, hence the adrenaline.

The opportunity to refresh the operation has seen the appointment of Nick Wilson as head chef. He is a hugely experienced chef but appears to be a great fit for Maiyango.  At a tasting session last week he provided a mightily impressive debut for a group of experienced and hard-to-please diners.

Things started off with Maiyango’s typically inventive cocktails (chilli and lemongrass mojito, star anise-flavoured oriental julep) and canapés including an exceptionally gorgeous cod and chorizo samosa.  The starter of a smooth sweet potato and chipotle veloute gave a real tingle to the tongue but was brilliantly paired with a cooling mango salsa and crunchy kohlrabi bhaji.

“We’re not doing fusion food.’ said our maître d’.  “We say this is modern European food with influences from the East”.  Fusion cooking doesn’t have a great name, but with food this good I don’t really mind what you call it.

roast cod, celeriac puree, curried mussels

Roast cod, celeriac puree, curried mussels

Next up came distinctly Eastern tandoori paneer and vegetable skewers with carrot pickle, sag aloo salad and a belting cherry tomato jam. Well cooked, with nicely balanced flavours, this was another winner.  Then came what I think most people thought was the star dish of the night – perfectly roasted cod with a seared edge, rich and smooth celeriac puree, crunchy aubergine crisps, wilted spinach and fantastic mussels with a lightly curried creamy broth. Great cooking and a very well-conceived dish.  To serve at least 30 people more or less at once and get things so right suggests Chef Wilson has very quickly got things right in the kitchen.

Glazed duck, leg hash

Glazed duck, leg hash

The main course of duck was a showstopper but for me had one or two elements too much.  The duck breast was great, the hash of duck leg in a sweetish/sourish sauce was really great. Cayenne potatoes could have been a bit spicier and  a bit crunchier, and while the bok choi and date puree both worked, another puree (squash?), orange and vanilla syrup and a smear of tapenade seemed to take the focus away from the main event of the dish. Some of the combinations worked in the mouth, others didn’t.

Desert featured a cardamom and white chocolate brulee.  Cardamom can be a bit of a beast used in delicate puds, but I thought the balance here was spot on and the result was totally delicious.

Overall then – very good cooking, well-composed dishes, served up by well-trained and charming staff.  I spoke to several people afterwards who said they’d always enjoyed Maiyango but had maybe got a little bored of the menu – and they were now eager to come back and try again.

No doubt that will music to Aatin’s ears. For Leicester diners, it seems the shot in the arm provided by a bit of friendly rivalry could have rich dividends.

Update:30/11/13 – …and congratulations to Maiyango for winning both Hotel of the Year and Taste of England Award in Leicestershire’s 2013 Excellence in Tourism Awards

It’s always good to see a serious new independent restaurant open in the centre of Leicester. It’s been a bit of a graveyard of dreams but there’s always the hope that someone will make a new place work, and so a big welcome and good luck  to Phillip Sharpe’s new venture The White Peacock.

He’s no stranger to Leicester having been head chef at Maiyango for what must be around a decade. It’s been good to see his development there in producing ever-more ambitious and high-quality food as the young business grew. Now he’s getting his own venue at the foot of New Walk, the building that was most recently Barrington’s but before that was Flores, a fine-ish dining global tapas place that looked beautiful but I never really warmed to the food.

I’ve not got details of what exactly the offer will be The White Peacock, but it’s set to open by the end of October I believe.  Certainly they will be hoping to capture some of the Christmas action and the festive menu features dishes that seem to reflect the eclectic influences Phil implemented at Maiyango – Japanese green tea and lime cured organic salmon, micro cress, wasabi crème fraiche; organic rump of lamb, slow roast shoulder, root vegetable  dauphinoise, redcurrant and rosemary jus;  mandarin and hazelnut jelly, hazelnut ice-cream.

Phil also comes across as a really genuine sort of chap – committed to using great Leicestershire produce where possible and he and Maiyango have also recently been offering great support to a youth arts project I’m involved with called Soft Touch  which is helping disadvantaged kids to develop healthy eating awareness and spread the word in their communities. It’s great he’s having a go in the city centre – I’ll give more news as and when.

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