Monday, March 30, 2009

The Bird by Vineet

Fri 27 March 2009

My first foray into Leeds' new(ish) casino was back in September last year when I was lucky enough to head along to the press lunch. On that day, Vineet Bhatia, holder of a Michelin star (2001, 2006) for Rasoi in London, talked us through a selection of dishes and we were able to stick our noses in the tandoor. Not being a 'proper' journalist (whatever one of those is!) I felt a bit of an imposter, but still managed to be one of the few who paid good attention and asked a lot of questions.

On that day we enjoyed a selection of starters followed by a prawn curry. I had to go back to work before pudding, but left with plans to return.

Six months later - we made it back through the doors!

We arrived at the casino at about half past 6 - half an hour before our reservation and settled ourselves in one of the bars for a drink. The drinks aren't cheap (£3.40 for a pint of San Miguel) but, for your money, you get to enjoy them in a quiet, civilised environment. Yes, as every other bar in Leeds in heaving, the casino is an oasis of calm.

A workmate warned me that the portions were small at The Bird so I decided to go for starter and main course: something I almost never do with a curry. I find that by the time I've eaten pappadums, munched on a bit of salad and had my samosas/bhajis/chicken tikkas I'm pretty much stuffed. Frightened by the prospect of Lilliputian portions I demolished the excellent chilli sauce which came with the pappadums and motored my way through the green herb chicken tikka. This was three large pieces of tender, moist chicken, straight from the tandoor (I know this because I've seen this dish being prepared!) and served with a really lovely mint chutney. As good as this was, it wasn't a patch on Andy's Tilapia masala which was (again) large pieces of fish covered in a spicy batter with a 'garlic pea crush'.

So, there I was - almost full and facing a main course.

I had chosen saag gosht (lamb and spinach) and Andy had opted for the lamb biryani - served with a pastry crust. We shared (well, we ate a bit of) a truly excellent paratha. I am happy to say this was the nicest (because I'm probably not qualified to say 'best') paratha I've eaten. I would go back and just eat the paratha if I could.

Anyway, to complement the carbohydrates, my lamb and spinach curry was excellent. Delicious, loads of spinach, a good amount of tender meat. The lamb biryani was also very tasty. Andy congratulated himself on ordering what was basically a large curry pie. Rather than being served with gravy it was served with a pot of raita which I thought was a refreshing change from a generic curry sauce.

Utterly defeated by our main courses (I was quite embarrassed by how much we didn't eat) we declined desserts and headed out to perch ourselves at a blackjack table for a while.

While drink prices might be high, the food is more than reasonable - with main courses ranging from just £4.50 for some of the vegetarian options, up to just £7.95. The restaurant has a very contemporary feel: it's upmarket, minimal and stylish. The service is really very very good (I really want to say flawless but I did see a couple of things dropped!). The service is attentive, considerate, friendly and helpful. The menu is not massive but it covers all the bases: if you can't find something to eat here, you're just picky!

Most importantly, don't be put off by the fact that The Bird is in a casino. You no longer have to sign up 24 hours in advance and while you're in the restaurant you won't be aware of any gambling going on outside. It seems that The Bird is starting to take off: we attempted a visit a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday night but couldn't get a table until 10pm (too late even for us).

As has been noted in previous comments - there are three curry restaurants at Clarence Dock and one stands head and shoulders above the other two for quality and value for money. For The Bird I would most certainly make the effort to head to Clarence Dock.

1. The Bird by Vineet, Alea Casino, Clarence Dock, Leeds, LS10 1PZ, phone: 0113 341 3200, map.
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Wed 25 March 2009

Despite economic gloom and doom, Mumtaz at Clarence Dock is finally open! Originally slated to open before Christmas last year we've sat in our office waiting patiently. We headed off on Wednesday to investigate - we had no option but to go in person because the Mumtaz website hasn't quite caught up with the restaurant.

The restaurant is massive and the décor is ... um ... less than subtle. As you enter the body of the restaurant is straight ahead of you and to your left you have a raft of refrigerators selling various takeaway foods, as well as a vast array of puddings and sweets.

You may, or may not, at this point notice the large (and, in my opinion, somewhat unwelcoming) sign informing you that Mumtaz is an alcohol free zone. We managed to miss this ...

We settled ourselves down, and, between admiring the massive black and red chandeliers and feeling rather daunted by the scale of the room, inspected the menu.

As this was a quick work lunch, things were relatively simple: tarka dahl for me, a palak paneer, lamb karahi and chicken tikka masala. Mopped up with paratha and rice. And washed down with Mumtaz branded bottled water (hmmm).

The menu didn't strike me as being particularly innovative and, while the food was pretty good, I wouldn't rate it as outstanding. Portion size is on the generous side, but so are the prices and at least one person has found the food oversalted.

I really enjoyed my dahl - it was topped with crispy onions and hadn't been cooked to a pulp. I was a little surprised by how mild the dish was. At Mumtaz you can choose between mild, medium and hot - so I'd erred on the side of caution and opted for medium and was expecting it a lot spicier than it was. In our group there were no complaints about the food at all: all the dishes were demolished and everyone was well fed and happy. However, given that a one course lunch time curry turned into £10 a head we all felt that the meal was on the pricey side.

Cost aside, my main gripe is that everything took a bit long. The restaurant would have been lucky to be a tenth full and I'm guessing we didn't look like ladies who lunch (or I hope not, as I was the only lady there!): a snappy meal was in order. I appreciate that the restaurant is newly open and so service is probably taking a little time to bed down, however I'd have real concerns about eating there on a busy evening.

While the décor is over the top I'm not sure how much consideration has been given to diner comfort and acoustics. Hard flat surfaces about (although at least the chairs are well upholstered!) and tables are set very close together. I get the impression that on a busy evening things could be very noisy indeed.

I left feeling ambivalent ... I don't think I'd put up a fight about going again, but I don't think I'd be rushing back either. Let's face it, Clarence Dock is just that bit far to go ...

1. Mumtaz, Clarence Dock, Leeds, LS10 1PJ, phone: 0113 242 4211, map.
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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Another Closure

Sun 29 March 2009

A quick note that yet another Leeds' restaurant has closed its doors. Room, on Boar Lane, has shut up shop. Room was part of a chain (that started in Leeds) and it was the parent company that went into administration. The Chester, Lincoln and Manchester restaurants remain open, as do the Grille restaurants in Chester, Harrogate and Lincoln (based on what's on the website at the moment).

During the week I had received an email informing me that the Room Wine Club has now moved to the Lounge on Merrion Street. The first event for this year is 31 March (yes, that's THIS Tuesday) and the focus will be on Italian wines (dubbed 'Tip to Toe' as the tasting ranges from Trentino-Alto Adige through to Sicily). The event costs £30 for which you taste 6 wines and have 6 food pairings. I went to one of these evenings back in 2007 and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I received the email on Thursday so if you're lucky, places will still be available.

Tomorrow, rather than gloom and doom, we bring you food from what must be Leeds' newest restaurant: Mumtaz, at Clarence Dock.

1. Lounge Bar & Grill, St John’s House, Merrion Street, LS2 8JE, phone: 0113 244 4234, map.
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Leeds Brewery

Wed 25 March 2009

You may have gathered that in between drinking wine and making cakes I am an enthusiastic beer drinker. I am also a massive fan of the Leeds Brewery. My workmates and I also spend quite a bit of time in Leeds Brewery's Pin, where we do a reasonable job of currying favour with the staff.

It wasn't long that someone came up with the idea of a trip to birth place of some of our favourite beers and, after a bit of too-ing and fro-ing, we settled on 25 March.


We piled ourselves in a taxi for the short journey from Hunslet to Holbeck and then spent a very pleasant hour and a half with Sam. After pouring us a beer Sam took us through the brewing process and chatted about the setting up of the brewery and the effort (and headaches) involved in setting up the pubs. Of course, we also talked about brewing and quite a lot about the administrative details involved in running a brewery. That might sound really dull but it's actually fascinating. The way in which alcohol production is taxed is skewed dramatically in favour of the government (hmm, there's a surprise) and it seems like everyone is ready to step in and take a cut at pretty much every point of the production process. Among some of the more esoteric facts we learnt was that in Norwich you will find the National Collection of Yeast Cultures, where samples of yeasts used (currently and historically) in the UK are kept and that the guys from Leeds found a strain of yeast from a now defunct West Yorkshire brewery and resurrected that as 'their' culture. It never occurred to me that such a place might exist!

The brewery itself is tiny: at the moment maximum capacity is around 80, 000 pints a week and, as they only have four fermenters, they only brew four times a week.

We all agreed (over a pint or two later at the Midnight Bell) that this was one of the most enjoyable brewery 'tours' we'd been on. Sam did a brilliant job of imparting a lot of information in a very accessible and personable way.

Leeds Brewery doesn't actually run 'tours' - the place is tiny and wholly unsuitable for a large group (there were only 6 of us and any more would have been difficult), so we were very lucky that we were able to arrange this and that Sam was prepared to hang around well after beer o'clock and talk to us.

Probably the easiest place to see the Leeds Brewery in action is at The Brewery Tap by the station - as they have installed a microbrewery upstairs which is brewing lager. And you can fit a lot more than 6 of you in the bar!
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Market Place, Malton

Sun 22 March 2009

If I'm involved in organising anything it is generally planned, booked and sorted well in advance. This is particularly true when money spinning 'events' like Mothering Sunday loom. However, this time around I wasn't involved and, come Saturday morning, it was me ringing highly recommended pubs around the North Yorks Moors and, um, more or less being laughed at.

After a bit, the baton was passed to Andy and I was mortified when the first place he rang actually had space for 4 for Sunday lunch. It wasn't a country pub, but a small restaurant in Malton's market place - and we were fast running out of options!

Malton is tiny and, on a Sunday, not a lot is happening so we arrived at The Market Place Restaurant rather earlier than anticipated. This wasn't a problem and we were seated in the small room upstairs.

The set menu offered us 2 courses for about £15 and 3 for £18. There wasn't a huge amount of diversity in our ordering: one pâté and three smoked salmon for starters, three roast beef and one roast pork for main. On the pudding front we managed a little better: two bread and butter puddings, one cheese and one chocolate tart.

The starters came to the table along with some warm (and very tasty) bread. The smoked salmon was served simply, with a lemon and caper dressing and a little salad. It was a generous pile of salmon and a good start to the meal. The pâté was HUGE: a huge chunk, loads of bread and not for the faint hearted.

The main courses hurried after the starters: the roast beef was generous, thick slices of beef which was actually medium rare. I almost regretted ordering the roast pork except that I love pork and the meat was moist. The meals all came with large Yorkshire puddings and bowls of vegetables (roast potato, carrot and swede mash, broccoli) came separately - along with instructions that if we needed any more vegetables all we had to do was ask.

Main courses demolished we moved on to pudding. I really enjoyed my cheese (it's a bit difficult for me not to) and the other dishes received a thumbs up. In particular the custard on the bread and butter pudding made Andy happy.

There were aspects of the experience which were a little uneven: I was expecting us to be doused in wine as our waitress sloshed it into our glasses, the roast beef eaters struggled with cutlery not quite up to the job and two of our four coffees were forgotten. But when I asked about a pudding wine, I was brought a very generous sample as well as the bottle to look at. The staff were attentive and wanted to make sure we were warm enough and that we had enough vegetables. The forgotten coffees did eventually arrive with a sincere apology and they were gratis (and the coffees came with both cream and milk).

I feel a little mean for using so few words about this restaurant because I did actually really enjoy my meal there. The food is not outrageous or wildly innovative - but that can be a good thing. There really is nothing wrong with a pile of smoked salmon and some roast pork. It can be very easy to lose sight of that, while in search of gastronomic complexity. And friendly, happy faces more than make up for niggles in service.

My own benchmark for restaurants is whether or not I'd go again. In the case of The Market Place - why, yes, I would.

1. The Market Place Restaurant, 46 The Market Place, Malton, North Yorkshire, YO17 7LW, phone: 01653 697100, map.
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Monday, March 23, 2009

More WSET News

Mon 23 March 2009

Apologies for the hiatus - I'm quite embarrassed that it's been almost two weeks since my last post ...

Rest assured, I have not been sitting on the sofa watching TV and even if I were to do that for the next fortnight I'd still have plenty of material!

Last Monday I had yet another early start as I was on the 0530 train to London hoping that acts of God would hold off so that I could actually complete the WSET Educator Programme. This time things went to plan and I spent three days at the WSET's HQ getting trained up in wine education and tasting some great wines. On the final day everyone in the class (seven of us) gave a presentation and conducted a tasting as our assessment. I chose German wine terms and drew Californian Zinfandel from the wine tasting lucky dip. Even luckier for me, the Zin I was given was the Seghesio I drank back in February! I'm pleased to say that I passed so I guess now all I need to do is the Diploma and I'll have the WSET full set ...

While in London I also squeezed in The Tasting Session's Generation XO night at the Sanderson Hotel - the night before my assessment! I might have been the only person at the event who was worried about having a clear head the next morning but I had a lovely meal and met lots of very friendly people and (perhaps most importantly) tried some great (and expensive) Cognacs. We started with Couvoisier and Hennessy XOs before moving on to the Courvoisier Initiale Extra and Hennessy Paradis Cognacs, and these were followed by some Ports from Quevedo. At this point, I went home - just as everyone else was going to be moving on to the Sherries and what promised to be a long night!

If anyone fancies spending plenty of money on me, the Courvoisier Initiale Extra was my favourite Cognac (only about £250 a bottle), followed by the Hennessy XO ...
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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Naked Wines

Sat 7 March 2009

Last week I was very lucky because I was the 100th follower of NakedWines on Twitter. A day or so later I was the happy recipient of a mixed case of wine (and they even asked me if there was anything I particularly liked or disliked before they put it together).

Note: read to the bottom for a £25 voucher!

Naked Wines launched last December (you can read the back story over at Spittoon) and seems to be embracing social media and Web 2.0 enthusiastically: the company has engaged bloggers, run a video competition to win wine for your wedding and is, tomorrow (that's Wednesday 11 March) running a tasting of Australian wines including a live auction (Naked Wines is buying the wine). If you're so minded you can follow the action online or through Twitter.

But all of that is not much chop if what ends up in your glass doesn't make you go back and buy more wine.

Naked Wines

The first wine opened was the Hacienda Don Ramon 2006 Rioja (Tempranillo), which is £7.99. The first thing I noticed was that it's a very pretty wine to look at: a ruby wine with a blushing pale raspberry rim. The nose was not overtly pronounced but had a lot of fresh red berry fruit: very ripe sun kissed strawberries and raspberries that are still in the garden, so there's some earthy, dusty notes as well as some vegetal notes from the berry plants' leaves. That vegetal note was a little bit pervasive for me so I quickly moved on to tasting the wine! Much fresher strawberry on the palate: intensive and attractive. The tannins were definitely present but well balanced by the acidity. The vegetal notes I was unsure of on the nose were much less pronounced on the palate, and were complimented by some more developed woody, leathery flavours. The length was very good although I did feel it was a little dominated by alcohol (the wine is 14%abv). This is a pretty minor complaint because throughout the rest of the palate the alcohol was well integrated.

Andy summed the wine up in far fewer words: "I think this is really nice".

The next night we opened a bottle of Domaine des Anges 2005 Côtes du Ventoux (75% Grenache, 25% Shiraz), from the fringes of the southern Rhône (also £7.99). A noticeably older wine in appearance, it was garnet in the glass but still had plenty of fresh fruit on the nose.The nose was quite pronounced, with white pepper and hot spice notes mixing very ripe red berry fruit. There was also something a tad tarry or medicinal (or perhaps liquorice-like?) in the background.

The palate was pretty true to the nose: pronounced, spicy but with a hit of ripe red berry fruit right at the front. It was more tannic than the Rioja and those tannins definitely dominated the finish a bit. But there was acidity, and some lovely slightly more developed flavours (think strawberries dipped in chocolate) with good length. Although the tannins might be a bit much for some it's a well balanced wine, and if the tannin worries you that much you can always leave it alone for a year or so!

Opinion on preference was divided: Andy thought he preferred the Rioja and I thought I preferred the Domaine des Anges. They are both good wines and priced well.

The really interesting thing about this exercise was that we actually ate the same thing with both wines and the Domaine des Anges fared a lot better. Our meal was a selection of cold meats, olives, cheeses and bread. The Rioja worked really well with our blue cheese (a Dolcelatte) but less impressively so with the Gruyère and really quite poorly with the meats and olives. The Grenache played nicely with all of the above and even survived a second night when it was drunk with spaghetti, chilli, oil and garlic!

If I've inspired you to check out Naked Wines then you can even claim £25 off your first purchase by hitting this page. The code you'll need is EATINGLEEDS and the password is GRAPES.

You can keep up to date with my adventures on the rest of the case by following me on Twitter!
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Monday, March 09, 2009

Spaghetti Bolognese

Sun 08 March 2009

The other day Jamie Goode wrote a glowing review of a Lambrusco available at Marks and Spencer. Lambrusco comes from Emilia-Romagna, where you'll find the lovely city of Bologna, known as Bologna la Grassa for its top notch food and which gave its name to bolognese sauce. Despite Andy suggesting that I didn't really need to buy any more wine I had an idea and I was running with it.

You'll often hear that Italian wine is built to go with the food of its region. If you think about a rich Bolognese sauce and then Jamie's description of the wine you can see how the match could work: high acidity and fizziness to help cut through the weight and fat.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you about whether or not this wine would go with my Bolognese sauce because yesterday's weather was too awful to contemplate a trip into town for a bottle of wine.

I guess everyone's made a spag bol by just chucking anything and everything into a pot and cooking it up for a bit. I was on the hunt for something a bit more ... Italian. I consulted The Silver Spoon and Antonio Carluccio's Complete Italian Food and what struck me was the simplicity of both recipes. They had very few ingredients and differed only slightly. I took elements from both and resisted the urge to start throwing garlic, chilli, oregano etc etc in the pot. The result was a beautifully velvety sauce with an incredible depth of flavour. I'm saying this upfront so that if you do take the time to make this recipe you actually bother leaving out all the extraneous ingredients I know you want to add ...

I rarely do this but to demonstrate the simplicity here's the ingredients up front:

60g pancetta (or bacon, or just omit altogether)
2 stalks of celery, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
400g lean minced beef
2 generous tablespoons tomato paste

some dry red wine
a few porcini soaked in a little hot water (optional)
perhaps a little beef stock
(or any combination of the three or just plain water)

That really is it!

Begin by frying off the pancetta in some olive oil and butter. With the heat low, add the celery, onion and carrot and gently fry for about 10 mintes - until the onion starts to soften. Increase the heat a little and add the mince - keep stirring well so it doesn't stick and to break it up. You want to try to brown it rather than steam it!

Remove the porcini from the hot water, chop finely and add to the mix. Stir through the tomato paste.

Next, add about 200 mL of the red wine and stir well.

Reduce the heat, cover and cook for about 1.5 hours. Give it a stir every now and then and if it looks to be drying out a bit or starting to stick add extra stock or water.

After the hour and a half cooking time, I had a taste, added a bit of pepper (the stock I'd used had been quite salty) and set it to one side.


When we were ready to eat, all we needed to do was heat it up. I added extra red wine to adjust the consistency and, very un-Italian like, we served this with fusilli. Carluccio takes great pains to stress that this should be served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti - but I think you'll be safe getting away with the pasta of your choice! You'll note I didn't mix the pasta through the sauce like a proper Italian would - that's because I had one eye on left overs!

So ... no Lambrusco for us but a lovely meal none the less. I was also very pleased that I'd bothered to follow such a simple recipe: just goes to show that you don't need a cupboard laden with spices to produce tasty food!
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