Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Leicester Beer Festival 2018

There is only one thing that happens in March around here, and that is the beer festival.  Here's what I thought about last year

In January we all recover from Christmas and complain how cold and dark it is. In February, the comedy festival coaxes us out and gets us in fine spirits, so that by March we are ready to get our festival on. And Leicester CAMRA are always more than happy to oblige.

And once again, Leicester didn't disappoint. This was the first year that the festival was held in the newly refurbished Haymarket Theatre, so newly refurbished in fact that it was the first public event that has taken place there. It is fantastic to see the Haymarket back in action and looking so magnificent.

Strewn around the perimeter of what I understand to be the biggest stage in Europe were the 260 cask beers (not to mention the ciders and perries, keykeg bar and European bottled beer bar. We grabbed our festival glasses, with topical theatrical mask logo, and off we went on a voyage of discovery.

Sadly, the voyage of discovery led us almost immediately into the path of some Morris dancers, who stopped us, and everyone around us, from being able to adequately negotiate the stage to get to the delicious beer, but I'm sure someone in the room must have enjoyed them.

Having ducked around the sea of waving hankerchiefs and general bonhomie, we were able to get to the casks - as well as finding a couple of publicans who were unable to behave appropriately for a decent quality picture to be taken of them (above). Occupational hazard at a beer festival that is. I enjoyed a couple of halves from some of my favourite local brewers and good friends - in particular raising a glass of Storm from Old Sawley, whose namesake pub dog had sadly passed away that morning, as well as enjoying the festival brew Show Stopper by my nearest home brewery, Anstey Ales.

On top the beers that I didn't know, and this is where you go rogue and just wander round until you see a beer that you fancy. Of course you can have a taste to make sure you like it before committing your precious beer tokens. I took a punt of Boozey Muses from Elliswood Brewery - a tasty pale - and the Dark Ruby by the Sarah Hughes Brewery - a mild with a really interesting finish that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

The Keg stand called to me as well and after a disastrous taste of Cloudwater's Small Nelson Sauvin Rye Pale (hated it) I enjoyed a delicious third of the ever so satisfying Magic Rock Common Grounds coffee porter. After all that excitement it was time to pop across to see friends of the blog and main festival sponsors, Everards. They were presented their latest seasonal brew, Patriot, which I found to have a surprisingly robust flavour.

After all the excitement I decided to treat myself to an old favourite, so it was off to the Tiny Rebel casks where I rounded off the day with a Stay Puft. Yes, it's predictable, but it is delicious. So as you can tell I approached the whole thing with no plan and not even any rational order of styles in mind for my tasting. You can do this too, or you can plan the whole thing out with military precision, if you have a magnifying glass in order to be able to read the teeny tiny writing in the programme. The only real problem we experienced on the day was the coloured lighting in the theatre meaning you had absolutely no idea what your beer *actually* looked like, but I've heard a rumour that this was sorted out later in the week.

For those who wanted a break from the beer, there were of course the magnificent Travelling Juniper Berries, bringing their own selection of 50 gins each with its own bespoke garnish (and even teenier writing in the festival programme). You could also head to the CAMRA stand for a general chinwag, the opportunity to join CAMRA (which you can always do online too) and to pick up one of the bottled European beers on offer. There were also a range of charity fundraising opportunities, merch stand and the like to keep you entertained.

Always a warm welcome at the CAMRA stand

In honour of National Pie Week, we also indulged in a Gamble & Hollis pork pie, topped with black pudding. Which really are some of the best pies you can eat, here in the most pork pie based of all the counties. As is traditional, there were also a range of authentic curries on offer along with a selection of Indian snacks to help soak up all of the beer. This year there was also a stand in the main beer festival offering a range of snacks like olives and the like. For some reason they had a giant parasol, even though they were indoors, which literally ruined every panaromic photo I tried to take of the festival, and made everything look a bit like a marketplace. But there you go.

So, if you didn't make it you now have another year to wait. But never fear - we are a city not short on beer festivals. My big pick coming up is the pre-cursor to the Western Park Beer Festival, the Pop-up Pub, which is conveniently this Friday (16th March 2018). Six casks, six kegs, cider and whatnot all in the good name of charity. An excellent run-up if you haven't given a beer festival a go before. And pizza!

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Indian food on the go

Wrapchic is the Indian Burrito Company, which has 19 locations around the UK and continues to expand by the minute. There used to be an outlet on the DMU campus, but I expect that passed most of you by as it did me. However, a new one has opened up on Gallowtree Gate, right at one end near to the Visit Leicester Centre, and I was invited along to the launch day celebrations to find out more.

I was intrigued when I read about the concept, and it turned out the rest was too, as their initial promotion of the first 200 customers getting a burrito for £1 had sold out within the first hour! It was a bit quieter in the shop when I arrived, with a number of curious people popping their head through the doors into the light airy dining area to try and find out more for themselves and a few people being game enough to give this Indian food to go concept a whirl for themselves.

Basically it's Indian food in the easy-to-eat format of Mexican street food - wraps, burritos, quesadillas, bowls and the like with an array of fillings inspired by the cuisine of different regions of the Indian subcontinent. The food is created by top Indian chefs in a central location and then shipped out to the stores for final preparation for service. At first this puzzled me a little, as the chain makes a virtue of this practice, while I would much prefer to know the chef was in the kitchen preparing my food to order, but I suppose that doesn't make a fast food service model work. However, freshly prepared food in any format is definitely a step up from most of the fast food options we have available!

And Wrapchic are certainly setting themselves up against the myriad of takeaways, chicken shops and kebab houses that we already have in Leicester city centre. Their opening hours are 8am to 10pm Sunday to Thursday, and 8am until 4am on Friday and Saturday! So you can basically go there whenever you want. Not only is their model different from the standard grab and go, but they also have a no-fry policy, which I would suggest moves their food a little away from your standard Indian fare, particularly when it comes to breads like paratha. Although I suppose you don't know how much fat is in the food already even if it isn't cooked in it...

Paratha - to be fair, takeout food is always pretty hard to sexy up for a photograph

Speaking of paratha, to start the day there is a breakfast menu of mini wraps, quesadilla and filled paratha. I tried the lamb keema paratha and I have to say this was probably my favourite thing out of everything, right out of the traps. It seemed amazing that the paratha wasn't fried as it was still really quite rich and decadent, with a beautiful flaky finish. The filling had just the right level of kick for me and I can certainly see this as a great breakfast offer. I did get down to the bottom of mine and realised that I'd accidentally squeezed half the filling into the foil by accident, but that probably speaks more about my lack of capacity as a normal human being than anything else. Teamed with a steaming cup of fragrant and aromatic masala chai, I think this would make a royally good breakfast.

Grab a cup of chai on the go

The format of the mains is a similar one that most people are accustomed to from burrito houses - choose your format, choose your filling, choose your extras. There are a range of levels of spicy hotness available dependent on which filling you choose, and burritos, wraps and bowls are designed to suit a range of needs in terms of dietary requirements and how hungry you are!

I found some of the extras a little confusing - there were predominantly Mexican accompaniments on offer like sour cream and guacamole, which I love, but don't particularly make good bed fellows with fillings like paneer masala and chicken methi IMO. I also found that my burrito cooled far too quickly and was made far too wet to comfortably eat as an 'on the go' food with the addition of these elements, so perhaps that is one area for improvement. However, that said I tried a range of fillings and found that their spicing was on point, all distinct, interesting and spoke of the region their recipe reflected.

This commitment to authenticity in Indian cooking is reflected around the restaurant, in the photos and spices on the walls, as well as the Maharashtran art inspired logo of the iconic bull - of course relevant to Indian culture, but also reflective of Wrapchic's own humble origins in Birmingham, in the shadow of the Bullring.

You can team any of these elements up with a range of sides. I liked their 'Wrapchips' which are a no-fry chip served with a sprinkling of spice which makes them really quite more-ish. They still have a pleasant crunch and soft centre in the mouth despite not having been fried. The Boy also enjoyed the Indian spicing of the chicken wings.

If you haven't even got time for this fast food, Wrapchic have a chiller stocked to the gills with freshly made wraps, salads and even homemade ready meals. They offer a catering service which is centred around these elements, which would add something with a bit of additional interest to a buffet. I liked the freshness of the salads, with lots of great energy coming from grains like quinoa, and beautiful fresh vegetables being pepped up with the same style of saucing as the hot menu. As you would expect there are lots of vegan and vegetarian options available on both the hot and cold offerings.

The ready meals were one thing I found lacking a little in inspiration, I suppose because you are kind of restricted just to the fillings and rice to be sure that it would travel and microwave well, but you can't have everything.

I washed it all down with a mango lassi and an extremely large korma muffin - spiced with a similar range of spices as the chai, cardamom and the like - which left me very full after my journey of exploration. The price point is around £2.75 to £5.50, so it's not going to break the bank - it's a very reasonable selection particularly as a breakfast or office lunch option in my opinion. I think that they do offer something different to the takeaway and grab and go options in the area, and the store itself is unpretentious and welcoming, so it takes on all the big boys like Pret and such. I can see this place becoming popular with young people out shopping on a Saturday as it's affordable and comfortable to sit and chill in (although if I'm honest, the cushions on pallet wood could be fractionally more comfortable and the barrel tables could equally be fractionally more stable.)

This isn't a menu item, just me trying the paneer masala - one of my favourite elements

Thanks to Wrapchic for inviting me along, explaining the concept and insisting I either try or takeaway just about everything on the menu. The paratha and the paneer masala were definitely my favourites and the things that I will be coming back for.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

New menu at Bodega Leicester

It's five months since we took a peek around the brightly coloured doors of Bodega Cantina in St Martin's Square, Leicester. Last night I was invited back with a gaggle of beautiful bloggers, to take a look at their new menu.

The new menu is greatly streamlined from the rather unwieldy affair of the past. All your favourites are still there - a compact street food menu, a selection of more unusual South American mains, and a cocktail menu which features some imaginative drinks options.

We started our journey with a bit of a cocktail mash-up - the Pornstar Daiquiri. This was a fruity rum based mix, topped of with a splash of prosecco in a passionfruit shell. We teamed this up with a selection of nachos and dips - tangy salsa, creamy guacamole and delicious refried beans, served warm and topped with queso fresco. These are part of the new 'nibbles' section of the menu and I will be back for more of those tasty beans! Always my favourite.

After this it was an examination of the revamped taco offer. Now made with black corn tortillas, for a bit of added Instagrammability - but sadly no real addition of flavour. I've been a big fan of the Bodega tacos in the past, but I'll be honest both the chicken and vegetarian fillings and the tacos themselves struck me as a little bland.

They did not have the spice and kick that I have come to associate with food at Bodega, so hopefully this is one dish that they will return to in the near future. The mole mushroom version for veggies is a really nice idea, so perhaps with a few tweaks they will be back to their usual standards.

Whilst sipping on an enormous copa of Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic, we were treated to a selection of mains. The key message with the drinks at Bodega is that they have now moved away completely from plastic to paper straws. When I pointed out that even with paper you probably don't need two with a G&T I was told that it was actually one just cut in half, but that seemed a little besides the point... Anyway, the Brazilian Xim Xim has become something of a signature dish for Bodega, and while I have never been fortunate enough to visit Brazil and enjoy this for myself, I have no doubt in the authenticity of the delicate spicing and creamy sauce enfolding chicken and prawns, and served up with dirty rice.

For vegetarians (or not!) there is also now a Quinoa Chifa dish. This is a bit lighter than many other of the menu offerings but I liked the freshness and colour. We were also given a taste of the light bites menu in the shape of the sweet potato side, served with queso fresco and olives. This was very sweet, on account of the agave syrup on the already sweet potato, so for me the addition of black olives felt a bit strange. But I am not the world's biggest olive fan so this can probably be discounted as me just not knowing what I'm talking about.

After dinner, we were given a cocktail masterclass - learning how to make the classic caipirinha and a few variations on the theme. Then we all got stuck in and had a go at shaking one for ourselves. There were no major ice shaker disasters and a lot of giggles! I definitely enjoyed my passionfruit caipirinha to round off the evening, given that we can see with some confidence that there is (luckily) no such thing as too much cachaca....

So a bit of a mixed bag in the food department, but great drinks and fantastic service from the welcoming team in this fun-filled restaurant, which offers something a little different from other restaurants in Leicester. I encourage you to give it a go - perhaps dip your toe in with their lunch menu which is a pocket friendly £6 for a dish and a drink. Thanks to Bodega for inviting me along to this fun evening!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Is this the finest interior in Leicester?

I popped my head, finally, into Brick & Beam on Queen Street this week. Leicester's newest bar still feels like a little bit of a best-kept secret, although I'd been expecting good things having heard a lot of compliments from several reliable local sources.

I was welcomed to the bar, just around the corner from the Curve theatre, by its striking contemporary urban look. Brick & Beam is a fantastic name, giving the evocation of the harnessing of the Cultural Quarter's manufacturing history a luxurious and well thought out finish. The space consists of a 150 capacity venue on the first floor, fully equipped with a bar and integrated audio system. The second floor has the public bar space, which transforms from light and airy in the early evening to subtly atmospheric and quite desperately cool at night. 

Every detail has been carefully thought out, and the combination of colour, texture and form really struck me. Along with this you have a friendly, professional bar staff who are working hard on creating innovative and interesting cocktails.

I tried a vodka based cocktail, which combined a shot of bubblegum, with lemon & lime - garnished with an actual bubblegum and the rim of the glass dusted in popping candy. Pretty much ticked all the boxes for this child of the 80s, but also was presented surprisingly elegantly - this is no comedy sweet shop drink, this is a serious, adult interpretation creating a well balanced and neat concept.

Alongside the first second floor bar is a terrace, which looks likely to be a suntrap in the summer evenings, and next to this there is a conservatory, fitted out to the same high standards as the main bar, which is part of the public bar, but can also be hired out for private events for smaller groups. I have heard tell of exciting future plans for these spaces - barbeque cook-outs and live music in the summer, a cigar club and more.

It's a place I want to be. It's very much cliche now to say that you are 'transported away' when you enter a venue, but Brick & Beam really does give that impression. It's not quite something I can put my finger on but it does take you away from the streets of Leicester and make you feel like you are experiencing something quite different to what we have seen before. Fans of retro ephemera will enjoy the subtle, but ubiquitous touches around the bar, which cleverly evoke both the heritage of the building as well as the photography obsession of the bar's founders.

I'm also excited to hear that an 'urban tapas' menu is on thecards, along with an afternoon tea with a difference, so I can imagine that as this venue grows we will see a lot more that takes us away from the everyday - a place to relax, a place to party, a place to be seen.

Thanks to Brick & Beam for offering me a complimentary cocktail during my visit. 
It was appreciated, but as ever has not impacted on the content or honest of my review.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Duffy's Session

I wrote a little while ago about Duffy's Bar and it's greatness as a live music venue, but strictly speaking I was talking about gigs in the back. What I didn't really tell you about was the Duffy's Session.

We've ended up there, mainly by accident admittedly, on a couple of occasions now, but I have to confess the session this week was an unbridled joy to attend.

The Duffy's Orchestra are a marvellous group of musicians, drinking Guinness and playing a wide range of Irish traditional songs. If like me, you weren't fortunate enough to be born Irish, you probably won't know them all, but there will be plenty that you can sing along to. And trust me, you will sing along. And probably dance a bit.

All players are welcome, although of course the house orchestra leads. But regardless of whether you are a maestro on the Irish harp, or completely tone deaf, I avidly encourage you to pop along to experience this spectacle for yourself. If you want to know the meaning of a community, this is truly it, one where all is welcome. There is a smile on every face and the craic is so very, very real. 

I'm probably spilling one of the best kept secrets in Leicester here, but I can't help myself, I have to share. Join them on the second Wednesday of the month, or the last Friday of the month. Kick off is at 9pm.

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