Saturday, 21 April 2018

Fancy a pint?

Beer lovers have been delighted to welcome The Head of Steam to Leicester this month. They kindly invited me along to their press launch so I could see for myself what it's all about.

The Head of Steam chain started in 1995 and was bought out by Cameron's Brewery in 2013. This year is seeing a meteoric expansion in the Midlands, with a Nottingham venue opening shortly before the new Leicester venue and a Head of Steam in Birmingham set to open in the next month. 

They pride themselves on their beer offering and it's not hard to see why. They have an enviable selection of cask, keg, bottle and canned beers - you really will be spoiled for choice. This includes local breweries, big name favourites like Cloudwater as well as an impressive number of world beers which are detailed in a hefty menu. Everything I sampled was well kept and in good condition, although I think there will be a bit of a lag while the staff get up to speed with everything on offer and how to serve it correctly. Teething troubles though and nothing more I would think. 

The venue itself, on Market Street nearby the new Distillery, has always been impressive but the redecoration that has taken place really shows it to its best. Of course the beer bottle chandeliers in the high ceiling will be the focal point for most and speak of the million+ price tag that I heard being bandied around in relation to the retrofit. Given this, I found the generous use of oversized vinyl graphics stuck to floors and ceilings a little incongruous. Often blurry and pixellated they didn't add to the ambience for me, but rather looked like an homage to 90s TV show Knightmare... I think the areas of simple wood and metal decor are far more effective and suit the feel of the pub more.

As well as beer there is plenty more going on. A well stocked back bar gives punters the opportunity to try a range of cocktails (some made with beer of course) and there is also a generously sized menu. All of this choice along with the decor makes me a little confused about what the Head of Steam is trying to be - pub, bar, restaurant, or something else? It does sadden me a little that more of these chains are opening up which have less individual character and could certainly not be described as traditional pubs. While the range on offer is certainly impressive, I still feel that 9 times out of 10 I will still be choosing our smaller local pubs and micropubs which are independent, with an admittedly smaller selection of beer but with more character and a more traditional feel. Maybe I'm old fashioned about my pubs.

We dined early and the food was fine. Our starters of calamari and chorizo were perfectly well cooked and the chorizo particularly was full of flavour and a good portion size. I think the four mammoth calamari rings were slightly bizarre, but would certainly act as a decent snack along with a pint. The menu also offers pairing advice for choosing beer to match your dish which is a nice touch.

The beef bourguignon I ordered for a main was homely and satisfying, but sadly The Boy's steak was more in the medium-well department than rare as ordered. Again, I think that this is probably just a beginner's error. As with the beer menu, I felt that everything was OK, but that the price tag was just a fraction high on everything with regards to the quality - a hint of the products all being overvalued by the chain, which is perhaps understandable given the considerable investment that has been poured into the bar.

However, all that said, it's a great addition to the city. A fantastic selection of beers that will hopefully entice some new people to get involved with beer. A dog friendly and comfortable venue with friendly staff and lots of space. Plenty of choice of things to eat, and plenty of alternatives if beer's not your thing. I'd definitely recommend everyone try it once and see what you think. I don't suppose I will find myself in there particularly regularly, but I will certainly be an occasional visitor to see what's new on the bar for me to try.

Thanks to the Head of Steam for inviting us along to the press night - I'm very grateful for the invitation and your generosity in keeping us fed and watered.

The Framework Brewery doggo getting settled in

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Leicester Folk: Tyler Bernadini

I pottered across to the newly christened Morningside Arena a couple of weeks ago to catch up with Leicester Rider's captain Tyler Bernadini. He was fresh from a victory over the Rider's key rivals, the Newcastle Eagles, that day in what has now turned out to be another winning season for the basketball team. This is the third year that the Riders have won the BBL League and hopes are still high that they might achieve the treble again.

Old season pic!

Tell me a little about your background?

I grew up in Southern California. I went to high school in San Diego and then went to business school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philedelphia. I played basketball there at Division 1 level, the top level in College Basketball in America. I had a nice career there, had a lot of fun and won a lot of games. It really helped developed my skill and my passion for what I wanted to do.

Then I went to play professionally in Italy. After that I took a little bit of time off, started some businesses in San Diego. I ran a property leasing business for a private school to help monetise their facilites outside of school hours, and I also ran a basketball academy where we did skill development, strengthening and conditioning, leadership skills and all of those kind of things that encompass what it means to be an athlete at the next level. Then I got the call to come back to professional sport - not only play here at the Riders, but also to get my Master's degree at Loughborough University in International Management.

Since finishing my Master's I have continued my playing career and also I work in the front office here and oversee the sales for the club. This is my fourth season here. I guess I have quite a comprehensive occupation here at the Riders now! It's different from everybody else, but it's a lot more fun. A lot more busy as well though, it definitely keeps me occupied.

When was your original interest in basketball sparked?

I really can't remember life without sports in general. From a young age I played American Football, basketball, I swam, played water polo - I did everything! As I got older, I grew and my athleticism fit with basketball being a sport that I thought I could really excel at. Swimming was probably the thing I was best at, but I got a bit bored of it and so basketball fit and I haven't looked back since.

I'm interested to hear that you got your Masters through the Riders, can you tell me more?

Some of the guys are full time pro, s they play full time. Some of the guys decide that they want to further their academic career and they have that opportunity because of the relationship between the Riders and Loughborough University. It's an incredible opportunity for us players and it's one of the key relationships for the club to offer for not only athletes but aspiring individuals generally the opportunity to further their education - it adds a lot of value.

Another oldie I took!
It was really important for me that I found the right place to come and because of the relationship between the Riders and Loughborough this was the right place for me. I think that other clubs are starting to see how successful it's been for us and now this kind of relationship is being replicated by some other UK clubs. Where basketball is in the UK the wage bill is not what it is for football or rugby. So to attract players who might be able to earn more at other places, this offer differentiates the compensation package. The opportunity to study for a Master's degree is a really attractive offer and has really suited the club well for our development.

The other thing too is that it helps us to get the players who are the right fit. When you have guys that study for a Masters, those guys aren't going to be knuckleheads. They aren't going to be doing things they shouldn't be doing on Friday and Saturday nights. When you get a guy that you know is serious about basketball, he's generally going to be serious about other things. If he's keen to put in the time on a Masters you know this is a guy that's going to work hard. You say to yourself there's a certain amount of work ethic here, this might be the right guy for us.

You are  involved with charitable work too?

I work with Hope Against Cancer and I work with Alex's Wish, which is a local charity fighting against Deuchennes Disease. I am really excited to be able to provide increased awareness for them and to shine a light on the incredible work that both of those charities are doing.

Alex and Emma [at Alex's Wish] are incredible. What they are able to do with that charity, the profile that they have given the small size - just the two people running it all - is amazing. As an athlete, you have a short period of time where there is a platform, where people care about what you have to say, they want to listen to you or they want to interact with you. When you have that it's important to use it I think for the right kinds of things. People aren't all on the same level, whether that's because of health, mental or physical, whatever difference it might be. And it's important when there are opportunities to improve other people's lives that you do what you can to help. And so if that's sending tweets out, if it's getting people down and raising money, whatever it is that I can do, I keenly try to do the little part that I get to play to help.

What prior knowledge did you have of BBL (the British Basketball League) before you came to Leicester?

Nothing! Before coming here I didn't know really much at all about it. One of my College Assistant Coaches played in the BBL in the early 90s, but other than that I didn't know about it. Since being here, the standard of basketball has proved higher than I would have expected as an external person looking in. 

British basketball has a reputation, maybe because of the international level, but when you come and play in this league the standard is high. We've gone and played teams in Sweden and Belgium which are leagues that have more global recognition and we've gone and beat some of the best teams in those leagues. So the standard that we're playing at here in Leicester is really high.

So about last night... You played the Newcastle Eagles and were trailing until you slayed it in the fourth quarter...

We did! I thought it was a great, great night of sport. We've shared the league titles with them now for seven years I think. It's two teams with rich histories, neither want to lose - and it was a battle of will. We're both down guys, they have guys away in the Commonwealth and people that are hurt and we have people away at the Commonwealth as well so neither of us were playing at full strength. It was really about who wants to win that game that night - and they were really good! There were loads of opportunities for them to have won that game, but fortunately it worked out for us but a lot of credit has to go to them and their effort and their skill level last night to make it such a good game.

The Riders continue to ride high* then?

Yeah, it's been one of those years where we've had different guys step up a lot throughout the game, we haven't had one consistent person leading scoring every time... We've had loads of guys injured and be down bodies and so we've had to find ways just to get it done and win. That's what this team's all about - finding a way to win and whatever it takes we've just gotta get it done. We've been able to do that night in and night out and I'm just so proud of this group. I'm proud to be a part of it and be team mates with these guys who are just really really good people and it's fun that we get to celebrate and share in the success.

Finally, I'm interested in your thoughts on Leicester!

I really really love Leicester. Since we moved here in 2014, my wife and I have really felt at home. We came here with our dog from America - it's an Old English Sheepdog crossed with a poodle so maybe it was a sign that we were always going to end up here!

We're always out in the woods. The Outwoods, Beacon Hill, Bradgate Park, Swithland Woods. We're all over the place doing the country parks and we love it. From that standpoint the pubs and the culture here in Leicester have been great for us. It's a family atmosphere. We go to the cinema, pubs and we have all of our friends in the different villages. Everywhere we go everyone's just so friendly and nice and we really enjoy our time here in Leicester.

cringe - yes I did say that to Tyler Bernadini

Sunday, 1 April 2018

A Leicestershire Treasure

We've been treated to something very special this weekend. Anstey Ale have moved their brewery to new premises on Albion Street in Anstey, and during the move they have also added a lovely taphouse space.

This weekend has seen the inaugural pop-up pub event at the Mash & Press and I don't mind telling you it's a little bit special. 

A true Leicestershire treasure, it's filled with delicious treats that are all made on site or within just a few miles of the brewery.

On the bar you can enjoy Anstey Ales own range of beers. When I visited yesterday, Darkroom Oatmeal Stout was on the pumps, along with Show Stopper (the special developed for this year's Leicester Beer Festival) and Daydreamer, their bitter. There was also a tantalising pump for Nook IPA which will be up next, but sadly not during my visit.

Rob of Charnwood Cider

Along with these tasty brews, you can enjoy a full selection of Charnwood Cider. Rob grows the apples in Ulverscroft and presses them in Cropston and you can sample pretty much the full range at the pop up. Dry to sweet, there's something to suit everyone's taste.

Liz of Rothley Wine

This is all complemented by a choice of wines from Rothley Wine Estate, again just up the road (although with the current flooding it takes a bit longer to get from one place to the other!) Their award winning range of still wines are on offer, all grown and made at the Kingfisher's Pool Vineyard on Westfield Lane.

It's comfortable, cosy, and has amazing furniture. And it's dog friendly. Say hello to the official Charnwood Cider CEO, Marley, or bring your own pooch along. 

It's all about Marley

Whatever you do, don't hang around. It's the last day of the pop-up today and they are open from 12pm-9pm. Will the pop-up make a triumphant return in the weeks to come? I hope so.

Happy Patrons

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Leicester Lunch Hotspot

The magical confluence of Braunstone Gate, Narborough Road and Hinckley Road is one of my favourite hotspots in Leicester. We all know that Narborough Road is packed full of restaurants with cuisine from all over the world (not all great, but many are), but in that area too we have loads of my favourites - my favourite Japanese place in Little Tokyo, my favourite city centre fine dining restaurant in North Bar and Kitchen, my favourite brewpub in town in the West End Brewery.

Now, right on that foodie corner, Antalya has finally re-opened. I'm not sure if the long closure period saw the restaurant change hands - I'd been previously and never had any complaints - but when I stopped in for lunch recently it had been taken to a whole new level.

The Antalya Turkish Kitchen's refurbishment has left it feeling cosy and on theme, but also clean and well maintained. It is smart and stylish, with a beautiful edge of Turkish decor. I was greeted by a friendly front of house team who attended with diligence and care to my every need during my visit. The service could not be faulted, and, as you will see, certainly went the extra mile!

I popped in during lunch service as I was passing through the area as I'd been tipped off that the unit was trading again and I wanted to see what the score was. The lunch time deal represents astonishing value, with a cold starter, small grill and a drink for £6, the same with a large grill for £8.50 on offer. That sounded like a lot of food, so I went small.

The manager came to take my order, making me feel right at home whilst dining alone. Being right in the middle of an incredibly busy day, I was not in a great place for making confident decisions, so I asked for his recommendation for a starter - should I go humus (always a great way to judge a Turkish restaurant) or the stuffed vine leaves (I know them as dolma or dolmades, but I think they were named something else on this recipe. I just love them). The manager suggested I have a little of each, since I couldn't decide. How very accommodating, thinks I!

So my starter arrives, and I see no indication that I have received either a half portion of humus, or of vine leaves. And of course, I receive a basket of fresh bread - light, fluffy and still warm, with a chilli sauce and yogurt dip accompaniment. And what's a starter without a plate of pickled vegetables and another plate of cous cous spiked with vegetables?

All of the food was great - the humus had just the right hint of garlic, with a decent olive oil drizzled over the top. I think I could basically have just had that and the bread and I would have been good for lunch. I loved the vine leaves and the balance of sweet and sour flavours in the cous cous. Clearly I didn't eat it all, as while I was halfway through, my main came out, leaving me to spend the rest of the meal diving from plate to plate at my own personal Turkish buffet.

I opted for the lamb kofta and loved the spicing - it had just the right amount of chilli kick which balanced beautifully with the slight char on the edges from the grill. The main came with the grilled veg from the skewer, a mound of white rice and four salads - cucumber and tomato, red cabbage and onion, green leaves and grated carrot with a little lemon. It was all fresh and light - the perfect way to cut through the rich meat. And a helluva lot more food.

As I slipped gently into a food coma while finishing my can of pop, in full knowledge that I had to be across the city centre within half an hour for my next meeting, my plates were cleared and the waitress asked me if I would like some Turkish Tea, which I politely declined. I had managed to exercise enough self restraint that I wasn't dying of food baby, but I was close to it.

However, a couple of minutes later, she came across with a small plate of bitesize pieces of baklava and turkish delight, as well as a steaming cup of Turkish tea. I was beginning to think that I'd accidentally ordered much more food than I intended during this visit and was starting to assume that my bill was going to be at least twice what I had originally expected.

The baklava, once I'd given it a minute to allow some space to settle in my stomach, was delicious - crisp pastry soaked in honey, with a light nutty pistachio edge running through. The turkish delight was light and aromatic, with a little texture from nuts within. The Turkish tea was strong and perked me up beautifully.

So an unexpectedly awesome meal. I will be back as I want to work my way through the myriad of other grill options on the lunch menu, and try their Lahmacun (a kind of Turkish pizza) which is also available on the lunch deal. I have no doubt this is also a spiffing place to while away an evening eating with friends. I have no idea what might be on the wine list, so I'm also very keen to check that out next time!

So big thumbs up from me! Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments below. If you're not a meat eater, the website suggests that you will be catered for, but I am not going to make any guesses as to what you'll be munching on...

Antalya did not know who I was, or that I would write this meal up (neither did I until I got into it) and I paid for my meal in full. Which was still the mind bending amount of SIX WHOLE POUNDS. Wtf.

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!
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