What’s this? Two blog posts on Leicester in succession? I’ve been making an effort to branch out a bit more and am finding myself all over the place these days. But with Leicester pretty much the same distance from me as Birmingham, I figured it’s high time I checked it out more. There’s lots going on, like Canteen for example (shameless plug of my last blog post to make you read it!), and if it weren’t for the HORRENDOUS public transport links between Rugby and there, I reckon we’d be up there exploring a lot more.
As we drove up to Winstanley House, home of Black Iron, we were slightly concerned someone had been having a laugh with us. You go from the main drag into Leicester off the beaten track and into the dark abyss of a park (yes a park). Feeling slightly disconcerted we girded our loins and carried on, eventually coming to the beautiful Georgian grade II listed building.
Folks, this place is seriously impressive. The 2.5 storey manor house, once known as Braunstone Hall, was originally commissioned for Clement Winstanley, the wealthy owner of the surrounding estate, to become the family’s permanent residence in the 18th Century. The family lived there for more than 150 years until in 1918 the last Lord of the Manor was forced to sell off the estate through a compulsory purchase order due to an act of parliament passed ‘to make Britain a land fit for heroes to live in’.
It then served as a school from 1932 until 1996 – briefly becoming the Divisional Headquarters to the US 82nd Airborne Division during D-Day. And from what I understand, the past few years have seen the painstaking return of it to its former glory in the form of a hotel and wedding and event venue by the team behind Leicester’s The City Rooms.
It certainly oozes elegance – with grand, high ceilings and a sense of history combined with the elegant touch of the 21st Century. Black Iron is the restaurant they’ve installed in the hotel and I’m happy to say it’s not just a half-baked addition but a project in its own right that certainly seems to have a lot of thought behind it.
The centrepiece is a charcoal-fired oven – Bertha – all part of a story that is about harking back to the way food used to be prepared. Local sourcing, simple cooking, and the idea that good quality ingredients speak for themselves. Right up my street then.
The bar area is another cavernous room, with a back bar that seems to stretch up to the ceiling like some kind of Jack and the Beanstalk wet dream for anyone who loves a drink. Apparently Black Iron has more than 160 wines in its cellar, along with a dedicated Malbec menu, a French classics menu and some award-winning English wines. And that’s once you’ve had to decide between beers, gins and a cocktail list that made me curse the fact I’d agreed to drive.
Not to be outdone, there will also be over 40 beers available, including locally brewed Black Iron Lager, and a tempting gin and cocktail list to ensure that all palates and appreciations are taken care of. Even Mr M was tempted to try the Black Iron beer, mainly so he could have the experience of drinking with a ‘Kwak’ – that comedy wooden handle you see right there. Yes, small things and all that.
The restaurant itself is a low-lit, moody room oozing with period charm and the promise of long, lazy meals packed with good food. Black Iron is described as a restaurant and steakhouse but if that makes you think it might be akin to an Aberdeen Angus steakhouse or some such nonsense, then wipe those thoughts from your dirty little mind right now. Think more Hawksmoor or Gaucho and you’re along the right lines, but with a bit of 18th Century elegance thrown in.
A read of the menu and you can see why the word steakhouse is thrown into the mix. A whole section is dedicated to steaks sourced from Onley Grounds Farm just outside Rugby which I’m ashamed to say I don’t visit half as much I should. There’s also roasts, braises and pies and dedicated ‘Bertha’ oven dishes.
At our special launch night, we had the choice of three starters – glazed ginger pork cheeks, Earl Grey smoked mackerel or textures of beetroot salad. Mr M went for the pork cheeks, which came with toasted sourdough & pickled apple. A simply presented dish whose appearance belied its sticky, melt-in-the-mouth texture and deep flavour.
As much as I wanted the same, I decided to try a different dish but was too late to the party for the Earl Grey smoked mackerel with avocado & pickled cucumber which had run out. I was impressed to be told that the chef could easily dream up an alternative and enjoyed some top-notch smoked salmon served with pickled cucumber and watercress instead. Nothing I haven’t had before, but the ability to provide a solution with such ease and grace had me won over.
For main course, it was clear Mr M was never going to be diverted from the 280g Rib eye steak served with dripping fries, bone marrow and house salad, so again I felt perhaps I should have done the right thing by you and shown you what the crispy pork belly was like, or maybe the fillet of sea bream. But I decided that really, I should experience the Onley Farm steak myself, especially cooked over charcoal.
It didn’t disappoint, as I’m sure you can imagine. Yes, so it was steak and chips, but sometimes that’s all you need in life (with a glass of red, of course). The melted bone marrow drizzled on top added a meaty richness that was entirely unnecessary yet wonderfully excessive, while the chips and blue cheese sauce were well executed, crispy and light and pungently rich in that order. A simple dish, but good enough to give me confidence to go for one of their showstoppers the chateaubriand or porterhouse, or any of the other meaty delights on offer.
As we ate, word had quickly spread around the room about the sticky toffee pudding and a quick quiz of our wonderful waitress (really very good, I might add) confirmed that by observation of diners’ reactions it was definitely the best pudding. Lucky it’s one of Jamie’s faves too hey.
He wasn’t disappointed. Always a fan of a dessert with a bit of substance – not to mention enough sugar to make Jamie Oliver have a panic attack – he confirmed with a simple nod that this had indeed passed the test. Light sponge coated in a lava flow of toffee sauce, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream served at the side just in case you would be offended if it dared dilute the main event.
I was torn between the two other desserts on offer that night: ‘Tea & Cake’ – a playful combination of Victoria sponge cake with strawberries and Earl Grey ice cream – or the slightly retro ‘Black Iron trifle’. The last time I tried a retro pud was a Baked Alaska at Purecraft Bar and Kitchen and I certainly wasn’t disappointed so decided to gamble again.
If your memories of trifle are a watery mess of squirty cream, jelly and custard, floating around in your granny’s best bowl at Christmas, then you’d do well to remove them with something like this. It looked traditional but this was more of a frozen dessert, with ice-cream ensuring a bit of texture rather than a baby-food resembling mess in the bottom of a dish. I wouldn’t say it was the best dessert I’ve ever had, or particularly complex when it came to flavours, but it was still a satisfying end to the night.
I like Winstanley House and what they’re doing with Black Iron. There’s a juxtaposition of grandeur and elegance that runs through the building, the decor, the booze and even the toilets (see below) with a recognition that sometimes it’s better to do things simply but well when it comes to the food.
I’m sure in such a setting it would be tempting to lay on fine dining dishes and tasting menus galore, but with those come bigger risks and, if we’re frank, a higher probability of failure, especially when you’re trying to build a name. They’ve kept it simple, with a flourish of class, providing decent food in gorgeous surroundings with a good standard of service and frankly, it works.
Now, if someone could just lay on a direct train from Rugby to Leicester, I’ll be sorted.
I was invited to the launch night of Black Iron at Winstanley House. Our meal was complimentary on the night, along with a glass of wine. We paid for the rest of our (well, Jamie’s) drinks.