Toby Carvery, Hall Green

Imagine I told you there was somewhere you could eat a tasting menu of Yorkshire puddings. You’d be all over it, wouldn’t you? You love a Yorkshire pudding, it’s essentially an exploded pancake, and you really fucking love pancakes. You already don’t need a reason to eat a Yorkshire pudding, you’ll put it on plates it has no place on, which is every plate that doesn’t contain roast beef. You love its versatility; how the texture changes the higher it gets, and how the crevice can store a variety of treasures. Now imagine you can have one on every course. Hello? It’s Toby you’re looking for.

Sadly that is where the fun ends. Our sharing starter is a plate-sized Yorkshire pudding that serves as a plate for the plate it is served upon. Inside is nachos in notion, which translates as a bag of corn shrapnel glued together with cheese, a spoonful of lumpy tomato paste and one chilli cut into six chunks of shit-inducing misery. There was none of the listed guacamole or pulled pork, which I am now seeing as a good thing for me and the pig whose life would have been wasted. The Yorkshire pudding tasted as if it had been made of recyclable material, with the forced upturned lip of a reality TV star and as little point for its existence. More grim than Grimsby, this was an idea that should never have seen the light of day.

This managed to lower the expection of the carvery to Lost City of Atlantis levels. After standing in line for five minutes I eventually opt for another Yorkshire pudding to join a slice of all four meats on a slightly grubby plastic plate. I pile it high with veg and drown in Toby’s special gravy after removing the skin from the large communal pot. There are good bits in the gammon and turkey, the roast potatoes which would shame many a gastropub, a kind of root veg dauphinoise gratin, and that gravy, which goes straight inside the Yorkshire pudding that I’ve filled with crispy bits of the roasties (this should be on the menu). The Yorkshire pudding is okay, as is the pork and the stuffing that tastes suspiciously of Paxo. The rest is not good to damright awful. Carrots are woefully overcooked, the green beans now grey beans, chewy, overcooked beef, mash potato that could hold wallpaper up, and a shard of pork crackling that would broken every teeth in my mouth had I perserveered. And you can go back for seconds on the veg if you are that greedy or stupid.

I didn’t finish the roast and could easily have called it a day, though I can’t because they have A DESSERT WITH A FUCKING YORKSHIRE PUDDING IN IT. Yes, you read that correctly; they have A DESSERT WITH A FUCKING YORKSHIRE PUDDING IN IT. How could I not order A DESSERT WITH A FUCKING YORKSHIRE PUDDING IN IT? It’s shit. I shouldn’t have bothered. All sweetness and cream and milky things, it’s essentially a pimped-out milkshake for pimps who fucking love Yorkshire puddings. It’s not good and I suggest that you never contemplate trying it. I do these things because I love you.

Service is warm and kind, though they manage to mess up the bill by a few quid that I leave as a tip once they rectify the situation. Look, I’m going to be real and leave my conceited and snobby opinion alone for a minute. It was clear that the majority of the room were either not particularly well-to-do or ageing, and the carvery here is £7 on week nights, which is fair and affordable. There are far worse places to spend seven quid on dinner than here. It is honest, not cynical, and generous in size. Most of it is edible, some of it is even nice. I simply can’t hate it, even if I didn’t enjoy it. Would I come back out of choice? No. But I’d have no issue eating here if someone was insistent we came. It’s harmless enough for most, and pure heaven for fans of a Yorkshire puddings.

5/10

A2B got us from A to B

Lunch at Arch 13. Jewellery Quarter

It wasn’t so long ago that I waxed lyrical about Arch 13; a place that I have huge amounts of love for. And now I’m back, albeit this time in a much shorter format, to wax lyrical once more, about a lunch offering that I’ve tried and believe justifies a couple of hundred words and a few minutes of your time. Let’s talk toasties. Cheese toasties in particular. A lunch that optimises the produce of the fridge, puts them between bread slices and applies heat. A toastie doesnt require skill to make, but is a sum of its parts. Use cheap cheese and it will leak the fat of a cow spent clamped down in a shed; put in baked beans packed with preservatives and watch that filling’s heat rise to the point that it is preceded by a pyroclastic flow. Fortunately the fridge here has the best of cured meat and cheese. I know this because it is where I buy my cheese from for home.

Claire and I go on a miserable afternoon and decide the only way to proceed is to share all four options. I take the optional wine pairing with all of them because Dry January is a marketing ploy by ISIS to gradually move us all to a Sharia State, or at least that is what the drunk man in a Tommy Robinson t-shirt at the bus stop told me. They have a vegan one made with vegan sheese (this is a real word) and chargrilled vegetables that works because vegan sheese (I know) tastes of nothing and the chargrilled vegetables taste great. The rest are sheese (sorry, I cant stop) free. We add chorizo to the goats cheese and chilli jam one and congratulate ourselves on our excellent taste, and marvel at a mutton, Lincolnshire Poacher, and farmhouse chutney one that is all intense oozy notes. My favourite is the bresaola style beef with blue cheese and caramelised onions. It works, but then you knew that as soon as you read the ingredients.

The matching wines are brilliant because Abigail really knows her shit. And also a little bit about wine. There are Turkish reds, a smart semillion from Chile, a beefy red from Spain for the beef, and rather brilliantly a white from Romania that more than assisted the washing down of the sheese (Sheesus Christ). It’s a fiver for the toasties and an extra £3 for the matching wine, making it an absolute steal for a feed and watering. It’s yet another reason to love this wonderful wine bar. I’ll see you there.

A2B insist all their drivers do Dry January so you don’t have to.

The Backyard Cafe, Kingswinford

Is forty minutes too long a time to travel for brunch? I don’t think so. I’ll often hop on a train for a good lunch, or drive three and a half hours to remote Wales for a dinner, so why not an earlier meal? We have inbuilt in our psyche a notion that the first meal of the day is less lavish than the latter ones; that it is more convenience than occasion. It is nonsense: breakfast is the basecamp of the day, the very foundations to build upon. Get it right and the rest simply falls into place. Get it wrong – or even worse miss it – and you spend the rest of the day playing catch-up. ‘We march on our stomachs’ said Napeleon, and he was named after three blocks of layered ice cream, so he must know a thing or two about food.

So last Saturday we left Moseley and took the drive to Kingswinford, all for a morning feed. It wasn’t a blind expedition; I know Richard Alexander can cook given his previous CV of street food and the client dining floor of my girlfriend’s work, but this is my first visit to a small town inbetween Stourbridge and Dudley. The new place is set back from the road, on a row of shops adjacent to Morrisons. Inside it is modern and fresh, with white-washed walls and foliage creeping out between the bars in the ceiling. On the counter where you pay is an inviting selection of lacquered cakes and patisseries. We’ll get to those in no time.

The resulting meal is one I’d travel for on a frequent basis. One that is not only pitched ideally for it’s location, but has enough in the cooking to make it stand-out amongst any of its competition across the West Midlands. A welsh rarebit sandwiches clumps of ham hock between the cheese mixture and a thick slice of toasted bread, with a fried egg that oozes its bright orange yolk at the nudge of a fork. This is my kind of breakfast; a dish that is built upon the principles of flavour and nothing else. Opposite me is a sandwich packed to the edge with soft roast pork, stuffing, and apple sauce, served with a shard of crackling, roast potatoes, crispy onions, and a pot of gravy for the leftover bread. It is happiness on a plate, though at £7.50 there can’t be much in the way of profit. It is mind-bendingly good; honest cooking that is full of technique which is not going to be fully appreciated (I’ve had worse crackling in two star restaurants). Sure, it is never going to win awards, but it will win hearts, mine included. This is food for everyone, cooked by someone who just happens to do it better than most.

We were supposed to eat a selection of cakes to drag this post out, but then the sticky bun happened. It arrived on the table, the crust full of dark lamination, with a side pot of something sweet and buttery that had hazlenuts bobbing on the surface for good measure. We pour over the glaze and eat before deciding that sharing is never going to happen in this circumstance. We order another. Eat another. Debate ordering a third and decide that would be excessive even for us. The bun could be served anywhere in Birmingham; at any of our brilliant coffee houses, in any of our fine restaurants. It is technically perfect; sweet and delicate, the layers peeling away with ease. It is £2.75. Honestly, the people of the Black Country have no idea how lucky they are.

Coffee is good if not spectacular, and service is well meant and cheery by a young team. The bill comes in at less than £25, which is embarassingly cheap for the skill that has gone into the cooking. On the way back we discuss what could be bettered, whereupon we both agree nothing. The Backyard Cafe is the end point for a chef and his partner who want to cook modest food in a location a stones throw from where they live. It just happens to be exceptionally well done. Right now this for me is the best of its kind in the region. It may or may not be close to you geographically but that should not stop you from hunting it down. This is food worth travelling for.

9/10

Before anyone gets on my back, they don’t have a website.

Ngopi, Birmingham

Remember Modu? You are lucky if you do. The slow burn restaurant on the edge of town slowly gathered a reputation for uncompromising authentic Korean food from an ageing lady who spoke little English and her daughter. Everything was made in house; fermentation was used to full effect, sweet potato transformed into transparent noodles, chicken wings painstakingly deboned and rolled. It was unlike anything else in the city. Word slowly got around and they got busy. Opening hours extended and just as the success they deserved started to come, Mother Modu fell ill. The heartbeat of the restaurant was unable to cook and they never reopened. Modu is one of the saddest stories of recent years for the hospitality in this city. They deserved far more.

In a way Ngopi reminded me of Modu. Of how the Saturday lunch was mostly full of those familiar with the cuisine, and how the majority of westerners would pop in to look at the menu and then leave. The food is Indonesian, a cuisine I know little about other than rendang and nasi lemak, neither of which feature on the menu. Prices are kind; twelve dishes with nothing over a fiver.

Lets get the big one out of the way first. The reason I’ll be coming back is for the Batagor, a dish that could easily become a cult classic. Fried prawn wontons mingle with fried tofu and meatballs under a blanket of peanut sauce. Every forkful is a lottery; one where it could be bland tofu, dense beef, or sweet prawn meat, all in a satay-style sauce that grows in prowess. On the side is treacle-like ketcap manis and an umami fueled sambal, both of which get thrown in to the mix. The result is a plate of food unlike any other I have tried before. It is worth a visit for this alone.

I probably won’t order the Indomie again, but I think my girlfriend may. The combination of noodles, grated cheese, poached egg, crispy onions, and corned beef is a bit student dinner for my liking, and melted cheese on noodles is something I’ll never fully get on board with. Instead I’ll take more of the Martabak, which is essentially a Findus crispy pancake, and really gets going with a lick of the chilli sauce. Likewise I’ll gladly have more of the Bakwan, which is kind of rosti/bhajii hybrid of vegetables. It’s greaseless and bright in both colour and flavour. We order prawn and chicken dumpling that get eaten before I take a picture. They are good as far as dim sum go.

The bill for all of this is £30, including two very nice cups of Indonesian coffee. Look, I have never been to Indonesia and I know very little about the cuisine. I can’t tell you that it is the greatest of it’s kind because I don’t know that. But what I can tell you is that for the first time since Modu I felt fully immersed in a style of food that was both new to me and extremely tasty. It might not all be as great as the Batagor, though at fifteen quid a head anyone with an interest in food should be paying it a visit to see for themselves.

8/10

A2B got me here, just like they always do

Ngopi don’t have a website per se, though you can find them on Dale End

Tiger Bites Pig, Birmingham

Without wishing to be too hyperbolic, I had decided that Tiger Bites Pig was a new favourite of mine from the very first mouthful. It was a bao with fragrant poached chicken, a thick and pungent chilli oil, spring onions, ginger, and a shard of chicken skin roasted with sesame seeds. It was pleasingly salty with a little heat and acidity; the work of a kitchen that understands how to pack flavour into three mouthfuls whilst still retaining the dominant flavour of the chicken. The bao was textbook in flavour; light and fluffy, with any inherent doughiness left long ago during the proving and subsequent steaming. It was absolute delight. I swivel around from the stool in the window and eye up the tiny room for which the open kitchen takes up almost half. They have more chicken skins on the prep counter, sitting there like pork scratchings in a pub. It makes me long for more of them to smear inch-thick with the chilli sauce.

The menu is concise and inviting from which we order three more baos and a rice bowl. Pork belly bao has deep fatty notes, loads of umami and the pleasing crunch of peanuts, which makes the one with duck breast and XO sauce look way too polite in comparasion. A bao with braised short rib and cured egg yolk draws smiles all around. It is reminiscent of scooping up the bottom of a casserole with shit white bread. The tangles of meat dissipate in the mouth, whilst the bottom half of the bun becomes saturated with cooking juices lifted with a little vinegar. The addition of the jammy yolk only adds to the fun.

Despite being less than a month old it appears that some have questioned the value of baos at the price of between £4.50-£5.50 each. I can’t get on board with that, though those looking for more bao for their buck should ditch the buns and have a rice bowl. At seven quid it is a colossus. We have more of the pork belly, greens, hot and cold pickles, aubergine, and another of those absolute filth egg yolks, all on more rice than is sensible for two people, never mind one. This is the not the order for the carb-considerate. We take the leftovers home and still don’t finish it.

So I liked Tiger Bites Pig. I liked it a lot. It takes skill to create bao this good, skill that has thus far eluded anyone in this city, including the substitute teacher in Stirchley. Our bill hits thirty quid for the above with two soft drinks, though you can add a bit on to this is you indulge in the Japanese spirits or beer. Either way it is a bargain that I will indulge in as often as possible. Tiger Bites Pig is another quality addition to an already bulging independent scene, which in time could prove to be the best one so far.

9/10

Transport provided by Bao-minghams best, A2B

Greggs, The Battle of The Sausage Rolls.

The farce that has recently occurred over the Greggs vegan sausage roll is truly an accurate representation of where this country presently is. I half expected there to be a singular man outside the Kings Heath branch; bald-headed, with his Costa Del Sol burnt bonce protected by a cap. He would be assessing the customers joining the back of the queue, staring each down with his bulging, bloodshot eyes and occasionally screaming a muffled ‘SAUSAGE ROLL MEANS SAUSAGE ROLL’ through the Stone Island scarf that blocks out the bottom half of his face. He wasn’t there of course, though I admire the tenacity of anyone who can get so passionate over something so trivial. What a set of absolute lads.

My first and possibly only trip to this branch of Greggs is to try a sausage roll made of sausage, and another sausage roll containing no sausage. To see what the hysteria and twitter meltdown is about, and why the gammon of this country are getting so protective about a pork product. As a bit of background, this would be only my second and third Greggs rolls, the first being in late November of last year when a colleague dumped one on my desk. I don’t have much to go on.

The appearance difference is notable in that one is greasy, the other is not. The meat version secretes a fattiness that you wouldn’t want near a nice item of clothing, whilst the vegan version looked like the sausage roll that you forgot to egg-wash, which it is. They taste pretty much identical: of pig, which is both alarming and surprising. The Quorn version perhaps a fraction higher in black pepper, and with a more sturdy texture. I prefer the vegan version. Repeat. I prefer the vegan version.

Such is this feat of engineering from Greggs HQ, I am confident that you could serve the vegan version at a buffet and pass them off as the meat equivalent. But this is the bit I don’t get: Veganism is a movement that has animal welfare at its very core – I don’t understand why a vegan would want to eat something that tastes of cooked pork. I am a conscious meat eater; we eat less meat at home to ensure the animal we do has had the best life possibly, and I’ll eat every cut and organ out of respect. From this perspective the vegan roll appeals to me. I can’t imagine the pork in the meat version is free range for the price they charge, so the vegan is a success for replicating the taste without the slaughter. I’m talking myself into a vegan lifestyle here. I should stop this immediately.

Birmingham’s Top Eight Dishes For Under A Fiver

Last January I gave you Birmingham’s top ten dishes for under a tenner; a well-researched ensemble of culinary treats that wouldn’t break the bank. It is still a very good list one year on, showing that when it comes to useless lists that you’ll almost certainly never use, it is I who truly separates the wheat from the chav. But a lot has changed in twelve months. A new threat has emerged, with a long winter ahead of this country looming in the vague shape of Game of Thrones season 8. Brexit, also. I want to give you even more value. So back once again like the renegade master, here is eight dishes in Birmingham for under a fiver with not a Greggs vegan sausage roll in sight. And if eight seems a funny number, you’re right. I had more than five but less than ten with zero filler: these really are the best dishes in town if you’re looking to save the pennies.

Tamworth Pork Sausage Roll, £3.75. Kilder.

This is how you do a sausage roll. Pork from an animal that has lived off the land, spiced with black pepper, and a good fat to meat ratio. The pastry is buttery and flaky. You get a choice of sauces whereupon you should consider brown and then choose brown. And don’t believe them for sticking this under the ‘snack’ banner; this is a lunch for one by itself. Website

White Cut Chicken Bao, £4.50. Tiger Bites Pig.

It was about this time last year that Birmingham went into meltdown over a new opening that specialised in bao. They were rubbish; these most certainly are not. Fluffy pillows of joy filled with smart flavours, my pick of the two under a fiver is this one with poached chicken and crispy skin. Keep an eye out for the forthcoming full review; its a cracker. Website.

Aloo Tikki Chaat, £4.50. Zindiya

This and the chicken tikka have been my go-to order for almost two years, and this dish in particular is probably my favourite vegetarian plate of food in the entire city. Essentially a chickpea curry with a spiced potato patty in the centre, it has bags of attitude. I eat it at least once a week. Website

Pork and Fennel Scotch Egg, £4.50. Pint Shop

But the scotch egg at Pint Shop is an onion bhajii, I hear you say? Correct, young whippersnapper, but there is also one downstairs at the bar that you might like even more. Given the choice I would plump for the more conventional of the two which has more flavour of pork. But what does this multi-award winning nobody know? Quite a lot, actually. Website.

Slice of Pizza, £3.00. Baked in Brick.

I would love to have included an entire pizza in this list but pizza doesn’t grow on five pound trees in this country. Instead I would like to draw your attention to probably Birmingham’s best pizza, which also happens to be the only one I know of which does pizza by the slice. Whatever is on will do; a large wedge of the good stuff and some chilli oil to dredge the crusts through. Website.

Batagor, £5.00. Ngopi.

Thank Farah for this. She took my girlfriend who got all excited and insisted we go. It’s one of the most intriguing dishes in Birmingham that could go on to become a cult classic. Fried chicken and prawn wontons join fried tofu in a peanut sauce marriage of harmony. I honestly never knew Indonesian food could be so interesting. Another full review incoming.

Smoked Beetroot, goats cheese, horseradish and watercress salad, £5.00. Purecraft Bar.

It’s January, you want to be healthy and frugal, right? Purecraft have got your back. Like everything else they do, this is loaded with flavour. The ideal light dinner. Website.

Bao, £4. Little Blackwood.

They are going to murder me for this. The baos are a dessert option as part of a set menu, but get them individually and they are billed at £4 each – I know this because I have paid for them. You’ll probably only get away with this doing what we do, which is by drinking wine on the stools and begging for them. The only dessert on the list, these deep fried bao are similar to donuts when cooked, sliced open and filled with whatever flavours are on: it could be rosehip, salted caramel, champagne, banoffee, or numerous others. The ideal way to finish a meal, and indeed this list. Website.

Want to do this as a food crawl? I’ll join you. Let’s take an A2B. Seriously, let’s do this.

Ocho, Jewellery Quarter

It’s 2019, which is remarkable for being the highest number so far in my existence. It’s the ‘new year, new me’ time of prosperity, when we replace a deflated bank balance with false hopes and self-deceit, only to be broken when Julie from accounts offers out the dregs of her Quality Street. I don’t ‘do’ resolutions in the same way I don’t ‘do’ Broad Street’s Revolution, and for more reason than just idle illiteration. Both involve lying to myself that it will be worth it and involve me wasting money I don’t care for. Both make me feel a little bit dirty.

For this blog I can’t see much in the way of change the forthcoming year. It will continue as it has been for the last seven months: free from the mass blog-by-number press dinners, PR invites to coffee shops and salad bars. I will restrain from introducing myself to business owners as ‘the prick who writes Two Bollocks and a Meat’ in the hope of blagging a free burger, and I absolutely promise that this blog will remain ferociously against the culture of emailing begging letters. It’s not and has never been a collaboration. It’s a scam to get free dinner.

We ended the final days of last year with a trip to Ocho, a kind of pop-up that looks like sticking around. The inside is quaint and comforting, with tasteful art and low beams. The menu is tapas in notion, if not in authenticity, from a chef whose CV includes a stint at Purnell’s. In many ways it reminds me of Rico Libre when they first started, when the ties to Spain were more obvious, before the chef was let loose on a more global cuisine. Dishes are between £3.50 and £8. Everything we eat feels like value, and we eat a lot.

The chef clearly has talent and, moreover, tastebuds. Every plate is boldly seasoned with not a grain of salt or twist of pepper required. Lean and spicy merguez sausages are made onsite, simply grilled and garnished with a dice of mango and pink peppercorns that add bite, further heat, and a little sweetness. A square of pork belly is a late replacement for the cut of cheek that hasn’t arrived on the day’s delivery. The fat is rendered down, the skin delicately crisp: it takes skill to cook this part of the animal so well. The sticky beer reduction may not the be a Spaniards traditional choice of sauce but it adds a nice level of umami that we enthusiastically mop up with foccacia made here that morning. Another bowl of pork meatballs is heavy on the black pepper in a good way. The arrabbiata sauce less so; it is thin and lacking both depth and heat.

In a plot twist that neither of us saw coming the meatless dishes were the best things we ate, even forgiving that arrabbiata sauce making another appearance on the-not-quite-there-yet patatas bravas. Top billing goes to a vegetable stew that is hearty and deep in flavour which cleans the soul from the inside-out, and roast wedges of butternut squash with quinoa (it’s pronounced kin-noah) and goats cheese, that straddles the line of sweet and savoury brilliantly. Even the faux pasta dish of courgette ribbons with a refined take on red pesto works because they understand that the veg still needs to be toothsome. Desserts are a baked cheesecake that I find too sweet and a chocolate mousse with raspberry that leaves me swiping out the last with my finger. Finish off with the mousse; it’s a winner.

With the uncertainty of the next six months I don’t blame anyone for testing the market with a pop-up, but I hope that Ocho makes this a permanent fixture. With a few minor tweaks (better wines by the glass for a starter), this could be a lovely addition to an already thriving Jewellery Quarter. You could start 2019 far worse than by paying Ocho a visit to show them we want them to stay.

8/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Fazenda, Birmingham

My first experience of Fazenda was at the opening party. It is all a bit of a blur to be honest. I remember being on a table with people far cooler than me, and Foodie Boys whinging about his shoes, and my wine glass being topped up about twenty times before the meat arrived. I recall the table descending into chaos with darts chants and a very detailed chat about what our dart nicknames and entrance music would be, and then singing those entrance musics. And then singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ because thats what people at the darts do, except I am not at the darts, I am in a smart restuarant in a smart part of town. We left early to find a dart board, except we never found a dart board, we found more wine at Grace and James and I woke up with a really bad head and bottles of wine I dont need in a paper bag at the bottom of my bed. Anyway, I never took any pictures and I didn’t eat much food.

I am aware that even by my low standards this makes an awful blog piece at present, so I go back on a week night when my phone is being fixed at the Apple Store. I hope they don’t check my pictures unless they like Peter ‘Snakebite’ Wright and Daryl ‘Superchin’ Gurney. The room is huge; a basement space that has the whiff of a costly fit out, with bottles of wine filling the spaces within the bare bricks, and animal hides in various guises as furnishings and ceiling decorations. There is a buffet bar in the centre of the building, with cheeses and cured meats, stews from continents afar, soft breads, snappy bits of bread, fish, grains, and pulses, to make up for the skewers of animal who no longer have them. I usually hate buffets, though even I manage to fill my plate with cheese stuffed peppers, a kind of black bean casserole with nuggets of pork, couscous, and slivers of salty Parmesan.

The meats almost all impress. They come cooked as promised; the red meats rare towards the core, the bits of chicken and pork given further time yet still retaining its juices. The trademark picanha, a cut from the rump, is tender and full of flavour, the sirloin deeper in beefy notes with thicker layers of fat. The high points are unexpected: bone in chicken thighs protected from the heat by bacon, and lamb which is seasoned to within an inch of it’s life. The rest of the meat can be labelled as ‘good’, with the exception of the gammon, which is too salty and over-smoked.

I don’t have dessert for two reasons; the first being that it is not included in the £32.50 price, and, more importantly, I’m properly stuffed. This is a difficult one for me to judge: personally the concept is not to my taste; I like my food from a menu and cooked to order. On the other-hand they do everything well, and I’d have no problem recommending it anyone looking for a potentially huge feed in smart surroundings. There is clearly a desire for an up-market all-you-can-eat meat feast and for that, Fazenda do it better than anyone else in this city. I think they’ll prosper.

7/10

Images supplied by Fazenda

Legna, Birmingham

I’ve long been of the mindset that Italian food doesn’t translate well into fine dining. That by tidying the edges and reducing the portion side you are taking away the essence of the culture that has family at it’s core. There is nothing dainty about Italians; they welcome with huge hugs and kisses that cover both sides of the face, not gentile handshakes or softly gestured bows. They seldom speak in soft tones, both literally and metaphorically, with their loud voice always joined by gesticulations that reinforce every syllable. This is not the language of refinement: pasta does not need a softness of hand to gently manouvere it into place; it needs a bowl-shaped bed to lie in and a blanket of sauce to keep it warm. A pizza is essentially a sandwich that is not afraid to show it’s true emotions, the risotto a rice dish that never wants to leave home. They are embraces from a Catholic mother. This is the heart of Italian food.

It is also a cuisine that is difficult to perfect – just look what we do to it in homes across this country. Pasta should never be boiled to it’s cooking instructions; it should be taken out of the water two minutes early and teased through a little of the sauce in a pan so that the residual heat finishes it off, with the finished product requiring the same pressure between the teeth as a nipple during a bit of rough and tumble. Ingredients should be as fresh as possible; herbs that release oils between the fingers, and mozzarella that sobs a little when squeezed, not set to the consistency of a cooked cows bollock. The fact that we think it acceptable to construct dishes of this cuisine directly from jars tells you just how much the average person respects Italian food. Perhaps the older generation still hasn’t forgiven them for ze war.

So I was a tiny bit sceptical when I heard the plans for Legna, which is to be a more refined take on Italian food from a non-Italian chef. Si prego. But then it is from Aktar Islam, a man who has done wonders for Indian food next door at Opheem. In truth, I’ve got to know Aktar fairly well to the point that if Legna wasn’t very good I probably wouldn’t write about it. The four hundred words or so it has taken to get to this point can be taken that is worthy of writing about. In parts it is spectacular.

The opening play is gone in a blur of flavour. A little spherified mozarella with basil that needs tweaking, a parmesan cake with black garlic that is a pure umami bomb, the most delicate of grissini and foccacia with oil, vinegar, and a butter that tastes like pesto. We have a bowl of torn burrata, basil pesto, and slices of tomato, onto which a tomato consomme is poured. The burrata and tomato have been flown over that day and it shows; the flavours are clean and allowed to speak for themselves. We devour it.

I’m guessing that the recipe for the pappardelle that comes next has a higher concentration of egg yolk than normal, given the richness of the pasta sheets that retain the perfect level of bite. It serves as a bed for a meat-rich ragu of beef and wild boar that has nuggets of cheek and shin throughout. It is boldly seasoned, enriched with bone marrow and lightened with tomato concasse and a little vinegar. More importantly it encompasses everything that is great about Legna: a homage to the true flavours of Italy whilst using modern technique. A veal dish is given the impossible job of following this. The meat is gentle in flavour in comparison though we love the garnish of charred onion and capanota where the vegetables have almagamated and have just a little sharpness. The use of acidity is very carefully deployed throughout the meal.

We lean into the sweet courses with a ball of tempered chocolate containing a little espresso martini, and finish on a rectangle of lemon tart that has the thinnest of pastry bases and a filling which balances the sweet and sharp with real skill. A lemon sorbet on the side gives it a real cleanness in flavour. It is one of the best desserts I have eaten this year.

And then there is the small matter of the dining room which is right now Birmingham’s most beautiful. From the amber hues of the sleek bar comes exceptional Negronis to be enjoyed at heavy wooden tables under ornate lights. The wine is an all Italian list from which the superb front of house are happy to offer expert pairing advice on those available by the glass. It all makes for a very impressive restaurant; a place that plays homage to core values of Italian cuisine whilst maintaining its own sense of style. I’ve gone to its sister venue, Opheem, more than any other this year, though now it has serious competition for my sterling. Aktar has done it once again; Legna is an absolute joy.

9/10

We dined during a soft launch period and received a discount on the bill.

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by Claire