Monday, 27 October 2014

REVIEW: Cosy Club, Leicester

Right, I've had enough. I'm officially calling it.

Klaxon please.

Leicester is a great place to eat, drink and make merry.

I've spent a decade in this city now and the whole time I've heard people moaning about the standard of restaurant, the quality of the pubs and the general lack of anything to do.

It is simply not true. Absolutely diamond quality, excellent bars, pubs and restaurants seem to be popping up on an almost weekly basis in the city. Leicester is great.

We have the best curry in the country. That goes without saying. However, we also have juicy, medium rare burgers, black pudding scotch eggs, intimate cheese and wine tasting events, and safety conscious potatoes. Leicester is on the up in the gastronomic world, and now we have a new small chain joining the ranks. 

The Cosy Club has made it's home on Highcross Street, in an old hosiery factory that I'm pretty sure has stood derelict during the whole time I've lived here. Because of that, it was a real surprise to see just how open, light and airy the place is. It's huge! The factory has been so sympathetically renovated, keeping all of the character and a tonne of period features but with an added layer of funky artwork, splashes of bright, colourful upholstery and a real magpie sense of decor that is just on the right side of cluttered. I adore it. It's so, well, cosy! 

As well as the open, light main floor, there is also a smaller area downstairs that is available for hire. And they have a small, but perfectly formed outdoor terrace at the back, where you can sit and sip a cocktail and admire the industrial city centre skyline. Plus they have a big basket of blankets by the door so if it's a bit chilly you can get cosy with a layer of fleece over your lap. They appear to have thought of everything.

And, as a North-West girl at heart, it does me good to hang out in a place that really reminds me of the excellent conversions that we've been seeing for many years now in Manchester. It really has that hip vibe, without being overly trendy. Indeed, while we were there we could see that it is a super welcoming, kid friendly venue, at least in the daytime.

Once again, this is a new Leicester institution which has extremely welcoming, friendly, knowledgeable and relaxed staff. We were well greeted and seated and given plenty of time and space to settle in and to choose from the menu. The food on offer is varied, interesting and reasonably priced. They serve brunch - until 6pm. Already a good start. There are a variety of mains, tapas, panini, burgers and sharing options - definitely something for everyone if making for a slightly overwhelming menu.

Squid and Spanish Chorizo salad
The Boy and I opted to split a couple of starters, in the interests of research. We got the Squid and Spanish Chorizo salad. This was a vision in red, with the paprika oil of the chorizo being soaked up by the butter beans, the whole thing giving off an appetising aroma as it was served warm.

The butter bean aioli, smeared on the side of the plate was creamy and just the right hint of garlic to complement the rest of the flavours. The squid was soft, but still with a decent amount of bite without being chewy - perfectly cooked. This is an ideal combination of flavours, and I just had one small issue with it that stopped this dish from being absolute perfection. There was three pieces of squid in it. Three! Which was not what I expected from a salad in which 'squid' is billed as the key ingredient. And also is a bit irritating when the squid is so nicely cooked.

Smoked bacon, black pudding, olive oil crouton and poached egg salad
At the same time, we also tried the salad of smoked bacon, black pudding, olive oil croutons and poached egg. Let me tell you now, this wins. Hands down, no questions asked, might as well just pack up your s**t and go home right there. This is a magic piece of epic awesomeness. A bed of salad leaves, topped with crispy bacon, the most flavourful, delicately spiced black pudding from Yorkshire with robust croutons. Sat atop that little lot is a perfectly poached egg, which, when broken open oozes smooth, silky yolk over everything. All of these decadent, smooth and interesting flavours are then cut through perfectly by the tang of the lemon tarragon dressing. I could eat it for every meal, every day, forever. It was mind blowingly wonderful. Order this dish.

They set a pretty high standard with the starters. We were aglow with wonder and absolutely gagging to find out what the mains would be like. And we did not have long to wait - as well as being warm and friendly, the service is also deceptively efficient, with attentive staff clearing plates and bringing new dishes in perfect time for you to enjoy your dining experience to its fullest.

Duck confit
 I plumped for the duck confit, which was served on a huge bed of puy lentils, a generous serving of honey glazed vegetables and a red wine gravy. Again, perfect. I have no criticism that I can level against this dish. The flavours balanced so well - the sweetness of the carrots and parsnips cut so well through the crisp skin and rich meat of the duck. The duck was tender, as were the lentils. The whole was incredibly well seasoned and tied together by the sauce as well as The Dude's rug tied the room together. It made me happy and is possibly now my favourite Autumn meal in the realm.

Hero hamburger
In our quest to give you the fullest perspective on everything, The Boy went for a burger. It was in fact a Hero hamburger. It already featured chorizo, mature cheddar, red onion, chipotle mayo and marinated chilli. The waiter turned his head with additional bacon and cheese, although he could not be convinced into having an additional patty. I think he may have died of too much meat if he'd had that.

Served with a light salad and skin on fries, this was a pretty epic burger. Not quite served medium, which would have taken it right up to the next level, it was still a great combination of flavours and, as you can see from the photo, the sort of over-stuffed, decadent burger that one can only eat with a knife and fork, for fear of otherwise throwing the entire contents of the bun down ones lap.

The onion rings were large, homemade, had a fantastic audible crunch and a satisfying follow through of sweet, soft onion. You'd think there's not a lot to get over excited about when it comes to onion rings, but, I must admit, they were rather memorable.

It would have been remiss of us also had we missed the opportunity to continue our search for the Best Mac N Cheese on Earth, since it was on the sides menu. This mac n cheese was different because it had a truffle cheese sauce. This made it earthy and rich on a level that one doesn't normally see. It was a rather wet mac n cheese as well - the American ones tend to have a much thicker sauce which sticks to the pasta, but this one was very saucy - it tasted great and you'll have to decide for yourself what your favourite level of saucing is with this particular dish. Or I'll devise some kind of scoring system and then we'll get this issue sorted out once and for all.

And so it came to pass that it was time for dessert. We were already full - we had asked for half of our mains to be boxed up later (which coincidentally really helped to put everything back in mind for this review) in preparation for being able to manage a pudding. Weirdly, they do not seem to have stocked boxes for people to take away unfinished meals - I hope this changes because the food is so darned good it would be a crime to throw it away.

Gratuitous animal skull shot.
The 'Snowball' cheesecake came recommended to us by the host, and who am I to refuse a solid recommendation? It was worth following up, if not just for the paper doily under the jar. And it came in a jar. All the hipster, all in one dessert. I bet they have a little blow torch to toast the mini marshmallows on top with as well. I bet Jamie Oliver looks upon the Cosy Club with real terror. I do love a doily.

Again, this was another taste sensation. There is a hint of coconut in there which mixes with the chocolate cheese, rich and smooth, and the toasty marshmallow flavour which gives you the perfect feel of a chocolate teacake. Like a Dunnocks, but it lasts more than approximately 2.84 seconds. Deliciously lenient, it is like a cuddle from baby pugs in the snug of a bug's rug. Nom.

The Boy wanted something lighter and so opted for the blackberry syllabub, which was sharp enough to carry the blackberry but still somehow homely and velvety. The lemon thyme biscuit was a good texture mix, also being light and crumbly, although I struggled to taste the lemon thyme myself. It also had a real tang from the additional blackberry sauce which worked beautifully. I don't think they could have got the autumnal flavours more right on the present menu.

And of course, I haven't mentioned the wine! I was mentally excited to see two decent looking Californian reds on the menu and so I had to give one a go. 

Caberet Frank
Cabernet Franc, Lodi CA 2012

Bottled in France, this cabernet franc is light on the nose - almost reaching that round Californian sunshine smell that haunts my dreams. It has a real sweet punch initially and then mellows to a medium bodied savoury flavour - an interesting flavour journey throughout the drinking and then it fades out to almost nothing on the finish and so is light and easy drinking. The flavour is a rich, deep cherry which I thought complemented the duck confit particularly well. Definitely worth exploring if you are unfamiliar with the cabernet franc varietal.

Now I can't wait to go back and try the Californian Zin that was also on the menu. And we will be back. Cosy Club by name, cosy club by nature, this place is light hearted and fun, but with real quality cooking at its heart. Comfortable and chic, it'll be great for after work drinks with friends or for an intimate meal with a special someone. I love its vibe, I love its versatility, I love that I have yet another fantastic place to visit within 3 minutes walk of my office.

Great table.
Thanks to Cosy Club for inviting us down, you'll be seeing us again.

Festive Menu 2014 at Coast to Coast, Highcross Leicester

We were invited to an evening of celebration at Coast to Coast, Leicester, last week. I have enjoyed their menu since the first time we visited at their launch and we have continued to go back as the potato skins are just so yummy.  They were launching their new festive menu and, in mid-October, we got an advance taster of the lovely things that are to come.

Twas a dark and wintry evening, and so our welcome drink of warm Spiced Apple Cider went down an absolute treat. I'm normally not a big fan of mulled drinks, but this was just perfect - it tasted just like warm apple pie (in a totally non-innuendo based way) - sweet, warming and with a perfect hint of cinnamon. It really set the mood and whetted our appetite for what was to come.

And what followed was an exclusive cocktail masterclass, led by mixologist Andy Pearson, a super fun but obviously massively knowledgeable chap who has been working with Coast to Coast on their drinks menu development since the very beginning. We worked our way through making the perfect mimosa, a traditional egg nog, and on to the more unusual chocolate orange martini. As well as seeing how it was done and having a taste, members of the group also got to have a go at putting the new skills they had learned to the test - including me! I took so many photos that I decided to make a little video, break up all this reading for you a little bit.

In case you were wondering, the music is Ice King Christmas Ninja Party by Jonathan Mann, taken from There's a whole album of craziness on there. You're welcome. The Snowman was the final cocktail with which we finished the evening, but you've seen it now so I might as well include it here.

A traditional American favourite, this is a Bucks Fizz with an extra kick. Light, freshing and not too sweet, this takes you straight in to that Christmas morning celebratory feel. An excellent way to start a fun evening with friends.

Egg Nog
Not as thick as we were expecting, despite the thickening effect of the whole raw egg that is shaken in to it. Contains delicious gingerbread syrup - the very essence of Christmas - which made its way in to a whole lot of the cocktails. Creamy, without being heavy or sickly, this would be a good alternative when there's just no room for pudding.

Chocolate Orange Martini
By far the favourite cocktail of the night, so much so that we ran out of chocolate liquer-syrupy stuff and had to improvise when making The Snowman. Although a light, translucent drink, this is absolutely full of sweet chocolate orange flavour - it somehow tricks you into thinking you are drinking a Terry's classic. The white chocolate 'snow' around the glass is a beautiful touch and also adds that additional and optional creamy texture. Very potent though - maybe just stick with one!

The Snowman
The fun cocktail of the evening complete with carrot nose and matchmaker arms, you really can't get more Christmassy. It is creamy, sickly, sweet and delicious - when all you want to do is treat yourself to something excessive over the Christmas period.

In between the wonderful cocktails, we were introduced to Executive Chef, Jim Dickenson, who walked through some of the menu options that will be on offer for the Yuletide season. The menu offers three courses for £24.95 - a pretty competitive price looking at the seasonal menus that I have started to see pop up around the city. If you want more information, check it out for yourself here

We started off with the Goat Cheese Bruschetta Bites. These were crispy, warm mini ciabatta slices, topped with a fresh tomato, goats cheese and pesto topping. The soft, luxurious topping provides the perfect textual counterpoint to the crunch of the bread. Although simple, it is really well executed, providing a delicate basil hit which works really nicely with the sharp goats cheese. Really nicely balanced, there is just the right amount of cheese so you can taste every element and the cheese does not overpower. A good light starter if you are (quite rightly) concerned about being able to chomp your way through three of Coast to Coast's legendarily large portions.

Next came another vegetarian option, the mushroom risotto. This is made with five different types of mushrooms and is served with a lightly dressed rocket salad on top. It is creamy, earthy and homely, a real fireside winter warmer. I felt that the one we received was ever so slightly underseasoned for my palette, but that was my only criticism. 

As we had the option to chat with the Executive Chef, I took the opportunity to ask why a mushroom risotto was being served in an American themed recipe. It was really interesting to find out that while Coast to Coast pride themselves on their American inspiration, they are still trying new ways to introduce new flavours and ingredients to the British palette - the rack of Louisiana ribs, for example, was clearly a source of some confusion to some guests, who have simply never come across a whole rack of ribs in a restaurant before! The risotto is another of those compromises - big on taste, and certainly something you would find in the States, but not quite as American as egg nog, evidently Coast to Coast still have a way to go to bring everyone round to their exciting flavours.

The next dish was the Maple Burger - served to us for tasting as sliders (which was great as we were already getting pretty full!). The maple bacon on the burger was crispy, sweet, salty and delicious - a truly American flavour. It was in a decadent briache bun and this was served with a light and refreshing homemade coleslaw and crunchy fries. Once again, a textural delight.

Sadly, there wasn't time for us to try the Roast Turkey Dinner. You'll just have to go and try that for yourselves. But I can tell you that it comes with pigs in blankets, which means it is a winner in my book. And we went crashing onwards, in to dessert.

The desserts were by far the highlight of the menu. We tried the Pecan Pie and the Cookie Cheesecake. Both absolute American classics, served with a scoop of ice cream and a pot of house chantilly cream. 

I could not pick a favourite and I cannot emphasise enough that these desserts are both completely excellent. The pecan pie is sweet and crunchy with perfectly caramalised pecans generously topping a crisp pastry.

The cookie cheesecake features Oreos on top, oreos in the middle and oreos in the icecream. If you like Oreos, you'll be happy. It's chocolatey and thick, indulgent and heavenly. You'll be licking your spoon, licking your plate and, if you eat anything like me, licking your fingers at the end.

Thanks so much to Coast to Coast for inviting us along. It was a fabulous evening and a real pleasure to get the chance to talk in so much detail to the chef and mixologist about the menus, the American inspiration and much more besides. I don't know where we're going to be going for our Christmas meals with friends and colleagues this year, but Coast to Coast have certainly put in a strong bid to be on my list. Their menu is indulgent and ever so slightly wicked, American themed but with strong roots in tradition, and most importantly, delicious.

Extra special thanks to them for providing The Boy with a portion of wings. He is determined to try his way though all the Buffalo Wings in the world in order to see if he can ever find any that beat those at 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall in Santa Cruz, CA. He was SO happy - they were almost perfect in terms of hot, thick, spicy and flavoursome sauce over fried wings and served properly with celery and blue cheese sauce. I am concerned my husband is becoming a Buffalo Wing Nazi.

Anyway - Merry Christmas everybody - whenever you want to start thinking about it.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

My plans for #NextHalloween

We are excellent zombies
Halloween is coming! I get mardy every year because we never really do anything, so last year I decided to make a change. I started to build up a Halloween box in the sales after Halloween, and now it lives in the attic next to the Christmas decorations. I nearly have enough for a party, and so a party I will have! I'm still toying with ideas about exactly what will happen, and I am about to start sewing my costume - but I can't write about that now because I know people who will come to the party will read this and I don't want to spoil the surprise! However, I don't have everything I need, so I've been trawling the web looking for fresh ideas and great decorations to make my party everything I hope it can be!

The Party Stash
At the moment, the stash has some decorations; balloons, window stickers, table centre and the link. I also have all my tableware, including my giant black cauldron which will make an excellent punchbowl. The basis for our punch will be the fruit wine we made using this year's collection of homegrown blackcurrants and redcurrants from the garden. You cannot go wrong with a bit of homegrown punch.

The Pumpkin Harvest
I also have the plans in place for a pumpkin carving competition. The Extreme Housewifery has really come to the fore this year when it comes to pumpkin growing. I certainly have enough for teams to carve their own, which is great, as last year we only grew one! We have also grown The Behomoth, which is seasoning nicely on the side in the kitchen, just waiting for me to do something epic with it.

I have never carved a pumpkin before, and I've seen some great things on the internet. One friend who came round suggested that it would make an excellent Cinderella carriage. I wholeheartedly agreed, which led me on to thoughts of how I could make an RSPCA friendly cat harness, and hook it up to actual wheels so the kitties could work as a team to pull it. When I mentioned this to The Boy, he pointed out that there is actually no RSPCA friendly way to do this and if I went any further with this idea I would be a terrible person, so I have had to explore new avenues.

Picture from Morguefile
I love that people are so creative with pumpkin carving. I'll admit that I have never done it before, so I think I should not be too ambitious, but I would love to make a tableaux, rather than a face. We'll see how I feel on the day. What I do know is that I will be making some most excellent pumpkin treats with the flesh. And there will be a lot of flesh.

I would like sweet treats as well as savoury party foods. So here is my top 5 pumpkin party recipes from around the net:

1. Pumpkin Nook's Pumpkin Streusel Muffins
2. Taste of Home's Black Cat Dippers with Pumpkin Pie Dip (the prepared pumpkin can easily be substituted for fresh puree)
3. BBC Good Food's Sausage and Pumpkin Roast (I actually took inspiration from this using last year's pumpkin, took me ages to blog it though)
4. Better Homes and Gardens Melt-in-your-mouth Pumpkin Cookies
5. Kidspot's Pumpkin, Spinach and Feta Rolls

I have been looking at some great fun ideas for other treats. I have a tonne of marshmallows in already so I have been looking at all the funky ways people decorate marshmallows, including the cutest Oreo bats (check out I wash, you dry for more great ideas). 

However, my marshamallows are small and thin, so I think I'm just going to make the traditional marshmallow voodoo dolls with a bit of decorative icing and a does of good humour. I will also make some dipped marshmallows using for handing out to neighbours kids when they come a-knocking!

I have also put in a request with The Boy that I receive a pair of these skeleton feet slippers from Next ready for when I am doing my Halloween preparations. They will get me in the mood and keep my feet toasty when I am in the kitchen! They say they are for older boys, but happily they come in my size and will get me right in the spirit of things.

FInally, this party has to have a suitable playlist, and as we will be kid-free, we can make it super hardcore. If you've watched any horror movies you will know that plenty of metal is the way forward - White Zombie is a must. However, I'll also be mixing it up with Ghost Town by the Specials, Come to the Sabbat by Black Widow (an excellent tune and no mistake) and of course This s Halloween from the Nightmare before Christmas.

I have to end this post on an appropriate note and for me the father of the zombie flick and the unsurpassed master is George Romero. So here is my favourite tune, from admittedly my second favourite Romero film. Click play and feel the fear... Mwah ha ha ha haaaa....

I am submitting this post to the #nexthalloween competition 
to try and win more goodies for the party.
Wish me luck!

Learning to sew: The ukelele case

We went to Hawaii, I came home and bought a ukelele. Yes, it's all a bit predictable isn't it? But it did not have a case, coming off Ebay for a fiver as it did. So this was the perfect opportunity to put some of my new sewing prowess to the test and to learn some new techniques.

This is not a tutorial, I will quite happily admit that the bulk of the pattern I used was inspired by this lovely tutorial at Mommy by Day, Crafter by Night, which is excellent and has some easy to follow instructions.

I changed it a bit - I used a medium wadding instead of duck cloth, had a different zip arrangement, with patches to secure the open ends of the zip, and I also added an additional layer of padding under the lining given that my ukelele case is intended to see a certain amount of outdoor travel.

And of course, it is patchworked. Mmmmm, love my collection of vintage patchwork squares that I inherited from my mother.

That said, it means that this blog post is a gratuitous excuse for me to post endless pictures of my new ukelele case because I am so made up with it. I have tried new things - it was my first delve into quilting, something I would like to take forward. I added an additional layer of plain fabric on the quilted sections to stop the wadding from catching.

I also made my own bias binding (in RAINBOW fabric you'll note) and had a go at piping, so there are lots of new skills to take forward there. Hopefully you can see that it also has purple and white polka dot fabric as a contrasting lining. I am pretty pleased with the hand sewn lining, it is neater than I would have hoped.

It's not perfect and I've learned a lot that hopefully I can take forward, but practice is perfect right? It's taken me ages, but rightfully so. I think I've gained a bit more confidence in having a go at trickier projects now... Bring on the Halloween costume!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

REVIEW: The Stables at Turtle Bay, O'ahu Hawai'i

Gratuitous Hawai'ian sunset picture
 We recently visited the Turtle Bay Resort in Hawai'i. I can't be bothered to review the hotel, suffice to say you can stay on O'ahu for a lot cheaper and I have no doubt you'll get better service and have to follow less restrictive rules! However, the North Shore is absolutely beautiful and a complete must visit. The absolute highlight of our North Shore experience was taking a trail ride through the stables at Turtle Bay.

Horse Bum

Nestled down by the beach, alongside Turtle Bay itself, where I saw my only Honu of the trip, are these delightful little stables, which have a really American, really homely feel. We took the 45 minute trail ride which is completely simple and relaxed - perfect for those who haven't ridden before. You ride along the beach and then into a stunning patchwork of slightly more inland locations - through the sugar cane fields that were so pivotal in 'Lost', near the Banyan Tree from Pirates of the Caribbean, through woods and near rainforest feeling forest and back out through palms, ironwood trees and a whole host of other natural delights. It feels like the scenery is literally entirely different every 100 yards! You also ride by the bay where the second Hunger Games was filmed and the whole area is apparently where Jurassic Park was filmed. It is the location of Hollywood choice it seems.

Look at our massive heeeds!
The horses are kept in beautiful condition and are happy animals. We were warned about their snacking habit, wanting to stop and eat grass whenever they got the chance. The Boy's actually decided to take a break and bite a chunk of bark off a tree! But who can blame them, they work hard and who doesn't get peckish when they're exercising! After every trail they are watered and fed, to cool them down as well as to make sure they are well hydrated and hunger-free.

Special thanks go to our guide, Vera. She was a true natural around the animals and was exceptionally knowledgeable about the local area, the flora and the fauna. She made our tour a real delight with her friendly manner and fascinating facts about the horses. It is always such a pleasure to meet someone with a real passion for their work and she was truly exceptional. Thank you Vera!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

REVIEW UPDATE: Sones Cellars, Santa Cruz, CA

We had the great pleasure of returning to Santa Cruz this summer and bumped in to Michael Sones, owner, at the Capitola Art and Wine Festival (more on that in a future post). It was a happy coincidence, because last year when I reviewed Sones Cellars, we sadly missed the opportunity to meet Michael or his good lady wife, Lois. I asked Michael if it would be possible for us to pop by the tasting room on Ingalls Street and try the latest batch of Hedgehog Red, Sones' unique creation of a refillable bottle taken from a blended barrel at the winery, just for comparison to last time. He was completely welcoming and so, having popped in for a tasting at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (also more on that in a future post) and before meeting friends at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery (we would like to think we're practically locals now) we swang by Sones unannounced to see if we could pilfer a snifter of the latest Hedgehog Red blend.

The last blend we tried was #12. It was 75% Petite Syrah and 25% Zin and I was all over it at the time, most enjoyable. I don't know exactly what number they are on now, but I was particularly interested that the blend had been developed by Sones wine club members at a special event. Their palettes had settled on a blend that was half Petite Syrah, 25% Zinfandel and 25% Merlot.

I was a big fan. The wine had a deep colour. It was light on the nose, but had a full, yet medium bodied flavour on the palette. It was medium on tannins but heavy on the finish, with overriding fruit flavours, possibly of blackcurrant, definitely black fruits but also a hint of plum too. Delicious and apparently, more popular than ever. I wait patiently for the time when there are enough wineries in the UK for me to become a wine club member with a local business where beautiful, local wine like this is made available at such a reasonable price, but in the meantime I am so pleased that Sones have pioneered such an excellent, sustainable and delicious concept in the Hedgehog Red.

We were also fortunate to be offered a taste of a couple more of Sones' offerings. I must confess I had worked my way through the bulk of their current offer in Capitola, but I was pleased to try their Fashionably Late Zinfandel from 2011, which had a huge smell of booze fruit, and then a super sweet punch on the mouth. It was, as a guide at one Santa Cruz tasting room once said to us in her characteristic local drawl 'totally jammy' - but still totally light on the palette with a veritable dance of blackburrant flavours. Delicious and something I will hope to try again.

And finally, there was the Sones' interpretation of Sack. This wine could not have more of an influence from Michael's British heritage - an attempt, in partnership with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, to recreate Sack - the white wine of the traditional Elizabethan table, and the drink of choice of numerous Shakespearean characters, most memorably Falstaff. Now given my recent brush with Shakespeare, albeit a slightly obtuse one, I was extremely happy to try this as medieval history still looms large in my professional life. A fortified wine from the Canaries, this was something like tea with brandy - sweet, and sort of dry - an excellent drink. And with my long pedigree of trying concoctions made by experimental archaeologists, I was surprised how nice this was. A great bit of fun and a wonderful way to round off our return to Sones. I sincerely hope it is not the last time we get to stop by and pass the time of day, this is a truly wonderful example of a small winery making truly excellent wine.

A good sherris-sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there
the foolish and dull and crudy vapours which environ it;
apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and
delectable shapes; which delivered o'er to the voice, the 2695
which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second
your excellent sherris is the warming of the blood; which
cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the
badge of pusillanimity and cowardice; but the sherris warms
and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extremes. 2700
illumineth the face, which, as a beacon, gives warning to all
rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital
commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their
captain, the heart, who, great and puff'd up with this
doth any deed of courage—and this valour comes of sherris.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

REVIEW: Byron, Proper Hamburgers - Highcross Leicester

There's nothing that helps you settle back to being in the UK after a month in the States like an email inviting you to taste some 'proper hamburgers'. Byron Hamburgers had snuck into the Highcross, Leicester, while we were away. They arose from founder Tom Byng wanting to bring back the great hamburgers he had experienced on the west coast of America - doing a simple thing well. I cannot fault the logic and I could not have been more pleased, having just experienced the wonder of the Snooki* at burger. Santa Cruz, to have the chance of a decent burger on my own doorstep.

*A Snooki is a chilli burger with two grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a bun, in case you were wondering.

We arrived on a relatively pleasant October evening and were greeted by a brightly lit, but cleanly decorated facade. Inside, the restaurant has the industrial feel that harks straight back to the East Coast. It is comfortable and chic, and clearly already attracting the crowds in Leicester - the Friday evening that we attended it was absolutely rammed the entire time. Seems everyone is after a proper burger.

We were greeted warmly by the hostess and seated with menus - one for food and one for drinks. They do have an excellent selection available, even though they have clearly purposefully kept the food menu small and select. Our server for the evening, Paris, came over full of friendliness and enthusiasm. She was an absolute asset to the place, full of energy and great product knowledge. She was definitely one of those waitresses who can upsell to you and leave you just feeling like you've just taken menu advice from a trusted friend. She convinced us that having some nachos from the 'While You Wait' section of the menu would be a good idea, and since we know from long experience that it takes us approximately six million years to ever choose what to order, we agreed.

As promised, the nachos were an excellent choice. They were just the same as the ones that you would get (for free) in a taqueria in California, or as an appetizer (which you'd pay for) in a pub-restaurant. Home fried tortilla chips served with a light, slightly watery salsa which shows that it is made inhouse from good, fresh tomatoes - just the right consistency to take the edge from the fry of the chips. We also had the guacamole which again had all the hallmarks of the homemade - a real nod to the Californian here and a great thing for us as the rest of the styling was so very East Coast.

We sampled a range from the drinks menu during our visit. The Boy was particularly excited because they had a 'Craft Beer' section which actually contained craft beers! It sounds strange, but so many places are selling random mass produced beers as 'craft', because they're American or sometimes, seemingly, just because they're not Carling. Byron's selection is very different. 

The Boy tried the Founders All Day IPA (top notch) and the Odell IPA (even better - order this beer). He was also tempted in to a boilermaker by the super-nice manager, Justin. Justin is a great guy and knows exactly why a boilermaker is so named. Go and visit and ask him to tell you, I can't give away all the good material here. However, while the bourbon was excellent, sadly the Byron Pale Ale was a big letdown for him. I think that this is because there are very, very few UK breweries that are getting American style ales right just now. Hopefully the tide will turn on that one. Anyway, according to the website they'll be changing their beer menu every six months, so let's hope that we see some Lagunitas Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale down there soon. Or anything from Lagunitas really, they are excellent.

I tried the Malbec from Mendoza, which was fine, and also the Cabernet Sauvignon from Domaine Grauzan, Languedoc Rousillon which really was surprisingly enjoyable. Sadly I don't know the year as it wasn't on the menu - but this was a deep coloured, heavily fruited nose wine with a warming, tannic and slightly tart flavour. It was full of dark fruit and also the slightest whiff of strawberry, but without any sweetness at all. It had great body and was all in all totally French - no aromatics at all just straight wine and barrel. Nice if you like a good mid-range, but super drinkable French red.

Gosh, I've talked a lot and haven't even started to talk about burgers yet. Where are my manners?

The Boy ordered the signature Byron, with bacon, cheddar and the signature Byron sauce - their take on the classic American burger sauce. Byron's burgers are made with good beef sourced from Scotland and they are served medium. And it shows. The burgers are full of flavour, juicy and really nicely cooked. You'll never want a cardboard McDonalds frisbee again. You shouldn't want those anyway - they're not even food. The buns are squishy and have a shiny brioche top. Served with a slice of pickle on the side, they are gargantuan bundles of deliciousness. The Boy was tres happy. He also ordered monterey jack cheese and jalapenos, to give a bit of additional kick and flavour. You can add lots of toppings to make your dream burger.

And so to my order. I had the Smoky. Smoked cheddar, smokey bacon, crispy fried onions and a chilli BBQ sauce. Also delicious. I added emmenthal and sliced avocado, which is why it ended up so massive. I'd happily request medium rare next time as the meat is so good and the toppings are all fresh and full of flavour.

Look at that mass of goodness. Well cooked, definitely not overly greasy. I can truly agree that this was a proper hamburger. And in the background you can see we ordered a selection of sides, mainly because we wanted to know what they all were (we took a lot home in a box and ate it with dinner the next day, we wouldn't waste food.) I loved the homemade skin-on chips - slightly chunky, really nice and crisp and excellently seasoned. The Boy was after the french fries, which were perfectly acceptable (I don't know what's good or bad to say about skinny chips, they am what they am and these were cooked fine). We also got the macaroni cheese to test its calibre against the American offerings (for sure my favourite side in the US) and it was delicious - a smooth, thick sauce with perfectly unctious mac, covered with a gooey cheese topping, it's fab. I could probably go and just eat that to be honest, if for some weird reason I wasn't in the mood for a burger. Finally there were the courgette fries - thick cut strips in a light batter - also delicious and definitely not a healthy option - hurrah!

I have to say at this point, while the food was excellent and our server was wonderful, there are clearly some teething problems with the communication between the waiting staff and the kitchen. There were what I would term 'significant' mix ups with our order. I shall try to explain in bullet point form:
  • We both ordered an extra specialty cheese to top our burger, and these toppings cost £1.25 each. However, we received our additional cheeses instead of the cheeses advertised with the burger and not as well of. I missed out on the smokey cheddar (gutted).
  • The jalapenos were put on my burger, not The Boys. I am not a fan of spicy jalapenos and once the problem was discovered there was much pulling apart of burgers and swapping of ingredients.
  • I asked our server if I could get a tiny pot of the fried cheese, which currently features on the Shady burger (awesome, a super special burger which changes every few months). However, it was not served separately, but put on my burger, in place of the fried onion bits. Tasted great, but means my experience of a true 'Smoky' is actually limited as half the ingredients were missing.
  • I think the request for a tiny pot of fried cheese, for blogging purposes, caused more confusion than we realised, as we were also brought 'an extra fries', which I think may have been a misreading of the ticket. We already had 4 sides between two people, we definitely did not need more fries!
To emphasise again, this was definitely not our lovely servers fault. We gave a complex order and she repeated it to us with every detail absolutely spot on, even repeating some elements to ensure she had them down correctly. It definitely wasn't the kitchen's fault, or the waitress that brought our food to the table - everything was certainly for our table and was cooked to absolute perfection. There must just be some teething issues with how orders are received in the kitchen, not irresolvable by any means and definitely not anything that spoiled our enjoyment of the evening.

Finally, we had to try pudding. It would have been rude not to and without dessert I wouldn't have been able to give you, dear reader, a full account of the menu. The chocolate brownie was rich, dark and waaaaaarm.... served with chocolate sauce and a beautiful vanilla ice cream. Drool. Drool.

Then there was the white chocolate cheesecake with blueberries. It was barely set and absolutely melt in the mouth but still with a lovely texture from the base. The blueberries were just scalded and they gave a wonderful contrast to the smooth cheesecake topping which had just the right amount of white chocolate for you to be able to taste it perfectly without it being at all sickly. Until we were really, really, really full, then it did taste a bit sickly, but that was our own fault.

A wonderful evening was had. This little East Coast inspired joint does everything it does on the tin - excellent, yet simple ingredients, cooked to perfection. A great drinks selection, which just had us wishing that they had a little fabricated bar in there to sit at instead of just tables. Wonderful staff, who can answer any menu question with confidence and will make you feel like they have been reunited with an old friend. Thanks so much to Justin for finding me a 'Proper' tshirt. As someone who grew up in the north west and said proper far to much as a teenager, I shall wear it, and it's Byron branding, with pride. In fact, we've already been going on about Byron's to all our friends far too much. So happy to have found a small part of the American Dream right here, in little old Leicester.

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