Sonrisa, Leicester

Review: Sonrisa, Leicester

[Disclosure: We were given a tab of £100 towards our bill at Sonrisa. We paid for the rest]

When it comes to eating out, Leicester is often overlooked and I’m as guilty of it as any. It’s about the same distance to drive from Rugby as Birmingham, yet we always find ourselves gravitating to the latter. Possibly because of the ease of public transport and all that jazz but maybe also because it’s yet another Midlands city that doesn’t quite get the same adoration and enthusiasm as the big boys of the north and south.

Let’s be honest, if Birmingham with all its bells and whistles still struggles to change the opinions of the ‘ooh Birmingham is there actually anything worth going to there?’ crowd, then how does poor little Leicester stand a chance?

Well, regardless of the naysayers and the London-centric crew who refuse to admit anything north of the Watford Gap can be half decent, it actually is pretty good. I may be guilty of not visiting enough, but you only have to do a bit of digging to see Leicester has a burgeoning food scene, from big names to Indies opening up restaurants, bars and cafes offering every cuisine you can think of. A quick glance at Cool as Leicester or some of the Leicester bloggers and you’ll be wanting to hop in the car there and then.

I think perhaps it’s a sign of its promise that Jabbar Khan, the man behind the Lasan Group that is responsible for several restaurants in Birmingham, including Lasan itself, Fiesta del Asado, Raja Monkey and more, has chosen to open up his latest creation in Leicester.

Sonrisa, Leicester

Sonrisa describes itself as ‘where the soul of Buenos Aires meets the heart of Leicester’. It’s got a Latin vibe and aims to be a catch-all social spot where you can do everything from have coffee with mates, to a full-blown feast followed by cocktails.

The old building that houses it has been nicely done inside, with an big open-plan feel including open kitchen, a stack of foliage up in the ceiling to add a bit of statement decor, and a little mezzanine up above the main dining room. There’s a bar area if you’re only after drinks and altogether the first impression when you walk in is relaxed, vibrant and the kind of place you can have a good time.

We start with cocktails while we take in the menu. There’s a range of mocktails, cocktails and plenty of beers and wines to keep you busy while you take in what it also an extensive food menu. ‘Platitos’ are essentially small plates that can be shared among everyone on the table (or kept to yourself if you so desire), then there are fish dishes, a pretty good vegetarian selection, pasta and rice and of course – seeing as we’re ‘in’ Argentina for the night – plenty of meat.

We agree on platitos to start, followed by a steak because why on earth wouldn’t you in a place like this. Gordal olives are juicy and have a healthy kick, while wild prawns have been tossed in garlic, butter, chilli and herbs and are stacked high on some toasted bread.

The cured beef croquette is a winner for me, with the meatiness of the beef intertwined with the creamy bechamel and cooked perfectly, the crispy case giving way to an indulgently oozy centre. Creme de Jamon Iberico (pictured in the centre below), which is basically Iberico ham whipped into a pate, is just too much even for me. I like a good dose of fat in my food as much as the next person, but without the texture of the ham itself, the overriding feeling is a bit greasy and feels like pure fat smeared on bread.

Pan con Tomate is much fresher and shows that sometimes simplicitywins. Sweet tomatoes, with a touch of garlic and a tang of olive oil, smeared over garlic bread and the perfect introduction to a meal. Grilled octopus is again well done, sweet from the grill yet still tender to eat, and with minimal messing.

In a place like this, main is always going to be steak. For me, fillet tail cooked as you like then served sliced, with a side of picante chimichurri and a pile of chips covered in a cheesy sauce and grated truffle. It’s perhaps on the rarer side of rare but I am more than happy to eat my steak as rare as possible, and the meat can carry it.

The chimichurri is fragrant, punchy and tasty and really does complement the meat. The chips are again a bit much for me. I’m a fan of truffle and parmesan fries as much as the next person, but the cheesy sauce is perhaps a step too far. A side of grilled sweetheart cabbage with chimichurri butter and a dollop of a thick romesco is much more up my street and a brilliant accompaniment to the rich meat.

Jamie’s ribeye is a hit. Cooked right, and served with the same cheesy chips as mine as well as a chimichurri. We agree that on a future visit we’d probably swap the chips and try an alternative potato element, especially since a buttery potato terrine sounds rather tempting, as does a potato fry on the sides menu and other simpler salads and sides.

For dessert, we stick with a simple affogato to share, though a cereal panna cotta did have us tempted, and if I’d been less full I may have gone with the orange polenta cake. Next time hey!

The service is pretty good. The front of house team is obviously new, and like so many places I imagine they’ve struggled to recruit people with experience. That, added to the fact our visit happens within the first couple of weeks of opening, means there’s a slightly frenetic, verging on chaotic feel at times.

That said, our waitress is excellent and what she lacks in experience she makes up with a clear desire to make us happy and to do a good job. Experience can be gained, skills can be learned, but that simple desire to make sure people have a good time – in my humble opinion the very essence of what hospitality is – can’t, which means if they’ve got staff with this, everything else will come in time.

Sonrisa, Leicester

We leave a busy, bustling restaurant full of diners that appear to be having a good time – and that’s on a Tuesday – so I imagine with a bit of fine tuning and a few more weeks or months under it’s belt, Sonrisa will be a popular choice for a meal in Leicester. The food is tasty, it’s something a bit different, the atmosphere is fun, and there’s a nice buzz about it.

If you’re after a relaxed, calm place for a date night or quiet meal then I wouldn’t necessarily suggest here. But if it’s somewhere fun for an evening with friends of a group of people, then this could be the place for you. Especially once they’ve had a chance to settle into their groove.

[Disclosure: We were given a tab of £100 towards our bill at Sonrisa. We paid for the rest]

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