Month: July 2014

The New Inn, Harborne

I probably should have gone home after the starter. It wasn’t that the pork belly wasn’t sufficiently rendered down. Or that the honey and sweet chilli glaze was cloyingly saccharine. It was the hairs. I counted seven of them on a three inch square slab of meat, reminiscent of a cheap pork scratching. It showed a worrying lack of attention to detail to a quality piece of meat that deserved better.


 And therein lies the issue. The New Inn singlehandedly destroyed the notion that if you start with quality ingredients and treat them well, you’ll end up with a quality dish. Every single piece of protein was well sourced, though it was slaughtered by a lack of care that ran astonishingly throughout the food and into the service. There was a main of chicken that was allegedly stuffed olives and sun dried tomatoes, though we managed to find little evidence of either due to the massive clove of garlic that dominated the cavity. And don’t even get me started on the tagliatelle that it was served on. Underseasoned and undercooked about sums it up.



 As if this car crash of a meal wasn’t enough to make you want to bang your head repeatedly against their solid wooden tables, the shambolic service certainly will. There were long pauses between courses and equally long time gaps between serving main courses to our table. Thirty minutes between the first burger and the last dish reaching us; twenty minutes between a side dish of cauliflower cheese and the main course it was supposed to accompany. Fine if you find yourself in Frankie & Benny’s on a busy Saturday afternoon, completely unacceptable in a relatively quiet gastro pub in Harborne paying up to twenty quid on a main course.


 It wasn’t all doom and gloom. A cajun chicken burger finally reached the table in good nick, as did an accurately cooked rib eye, but by then it was all too late. As appetising as the desert menu looked we were all defeated, unable to risk further disappointment to a meal that promised much and delivered little. For a pub that goes to a considerable length to serve only the best meat, The New Inn has some way to go before the final product reaches the anywhere near the same standard.


New Inns on Urbanspoon

Benoit, Paris

Let’s start with an admission; from the moment my dessert turned up, when the waiter plonked two bottles of Armagnac on to the table and told me to help myself, Benoit was on to a winner. Quickly I sank in to a haze of French Brandy where everything made sense. The wood panelled and mirrored walls became less cold. The waiters, with their matching shirts and aprons, found a sudden charm as they buzzed in-between the tightly packed tables. Alain Ducasse must have been sloshed when he purchased the most famous bistro in Paris. And who can blame him, it’s a great place for getting sloshed.


Apparently, little has changed at Benoit since it opened in 1912. They still serve the same classic bistro food to the well-heeled of Paris, though recent years has seen the addition of a Michelin star and the world’s most celebrated chef as owner. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition of styles typified by the starter of vichyssoise. Here the silky cold potato and leek soup is poured tableside into a bowl with finely julienned vegetables and croutons nestled at the bottom. It’s refreshing and elegant. Boldly seasoned to the point where some would say its salty. I say it’s delicious. There was more vegetable wizardry with cookpot – a signature dish of Ducasse – with accurately cooked ribbons of spring greens, olives and quails eggs producing a light yet substantial vegetarian main.



Duck, in my opinion, is a meat that is best served blushing pink like lamb, whereas here the length of breast was crimson red, with each knife entry yielding a little blood into the perfectly made bigarade sauce. It was rare in the way that I like my beef and the dish suffered for it. The accompanying gnocchi were a work of art; little pillows of airy mashed potato that almost made up for the undercooked protein.



And the aforementioned dessert? It was a savarin, the baba’s heavier sibling, with lashings of vanilla heavy chantilly and doused in the brandy. I asked which of the two Armagnac’s I should go for, the waiter said both. So both it was. It was a glorious thing that appealed to both my sweet tooth and alcoholic tendencies. My blood sugar levels raised, my liver winced and the rest of my body called out for more. There were some tarts as the other option. I recall them being fine, though hardly memorable.



All of this made for an interesting lunch, which I guess is the point to Benoit – they genuinely want you to eat, drink, and be merry. It’s an absorbing and indulgent experience that never takes itself too seriously. Both the service and portions are generous, which they should be, as neither the food nor wine comes cheap. Though as we sauntered off into the Parisian sunlight with a light head and heavy stomach, there was no doubt it was worth the money and inevitable headache the following morning.


Le Jules Verne, Paris

The build up to eating at Le Jules Verne is as important as the meal itself. The Eiffel Tower looms proudly over Paris, with the middle section, some 123 metres up, visible from every street corner. From the moment you wake up, to the time you enter through the metal detector, in to the private elevator, and up it to airy dining room with its angular lines, it’s there, as unavoidable and imposing as the army of servers that wait on the slightest of moves.


And what of the food itself? Does it really matter? The reality is that the three month waiting list to get a decent table here has very little to do with Alain Ducasse’s haute cuisine. The endless stream of camera phones snapping into the distance proves that they could serve the leftovers from a kebab shop here and folk would still pay a fortune for the view. That view though, it is very impressive.



And credit must go to the French for this for putting one of the most celebrated chefs of all time here and in turn, turning it in to a destination restaurant itself. Put this tower in London and watch them stick a Jamie’s Italian in to feed the hordes with the “most pucka asparagus eva”, whilst here, with no such bravado, was a “plate of vegetables” featuring asparagus steamed and also as a mousse, peas, and courgettes. The greens were off-set by a lemon puree and dehydrated orange slices can added just the right amount of acidity. In lesser hands this could have been instantly forgettable, though, here, it was a vibrant remainder of the bounty that late spring can offer.


There was more success with a pressed piece of veal shank, its meat dense and caramelised from an age in the oven. There was more perfectly judged acidity – this time from the sort of tomatoes we can only dream of in England. The previous starter of French onion soup saw a beef stock poured over a set onion mouse to create a starter equally comforting and elegant. Desserts of strawberry and lime vacherin and a chocolate/nut tower were every bit as decadent as you would expect from a Ducasse kitchen.  Both of these could easily have graced one of his three starred establishments.

Veal 1

french onion




Still, despite this, Le Jules Verne is far from the perfect dining destination. Artichoke barigoule failed at the reinterpretation that the onion soup had been so successful at by being under seasoned and a pre-starter of beef jelly with raw vegetables and carrot foam was every bit as bad as it sounds. And then there is the price, for which there is no really no ignoring. Our lunch, three courses with a bottle of Sancerre from the lower end of the list, came to nearly three hundred English pounds. Go for dinner and you’re looking at double that. Some may call it a rip-off and to those I would be inclined to agree, after all it is hard to justify the experience of paying ten euro for a bottle of Evian water. In hindsight we probably should have spent that money on lunch at a flawless three star with a view of the Eiffel, rather than a one star restaurant in a floorless tower overlooking the roof of one of the cities many three star restaurants. But hey, we’re tourists that just jumped the queue and for an hour or so it felt amazing. You can’t put a price on that, can you? If you can, you bet your bottom Euro it’s going to be a big one.





If I were to base my opinion on Simpsons purely by the service provided in the first half of the meal it would be a shocker. They failed to account for the two vegetarians I had mentioned when booking, messed up the wine order, brought starters to the table with no real idea who they were for and gave a lamb main to a friend that had ordered hake. I was fuming on the inside, glad that we had gone with mates instead of subjecting this to the mother-in-law. From there a nice chap called Nick took over, apologised sincerely in the correct manner and all was right in the world.

Fortunately for them, it was hard to remember the dodgy start once the food started flowing. Every single nugget offered was glorious. From the amouse of parsley pannacotta with crispy onions and bacon foam, every ingredient was pronounced and yet harmonious with its plates partners. A duck leg starter had been given the right amount of time and heat needed to fall apart on the fork, came with perfectly crisp skin and was paired with peach, mouli and sesame. The whole plate having just enough acidity to balance the rich meat.



 Lamb for main, a meat which so many establishments make a mockery of, was perfect. Here the pink rump and caramalised scrag were served with wild garlic gnocchi, asparagus and grilled onions. It was spring on a plate personified, held tightly with a deep sauce made from the lamb bones that was mopped up with the last of the bread and then with my finger once that had gone.


Desserts, so often now a further collection of vegetables and greenery, were equally classical and impressive. There was a pre-dessert of cassis granita that sat atop of a vodka jelly with frozen seeds, followed a raspberry mousse and lemon sherbet sorbet elevated by the most buttery of sable biscuits. Take note, fellow foragers, this is how sweet courses should be made.

Pre desert


 This was absolutely the best meal I have had to date at Simpsons and was, in my humble opinion, every bit as good as some of the two star restaurants I have eaten in over the last year. There was a careful editing process to each dish, with every ingredient fully deserving its place on the plate. Sure, there were service issues that need tweaking, but these were handled with the professionalism expected. Make no doubt about it, this is the best cooking in a city that a has a food reputation growing by the day.


Simpsons on Urbanspoon

Purnell’s Bistro

The previous incarnation of Purnells Bistro lingers long in my memory. The restaurant was The Asquith, the first spin-off from Birmingham’s most known chef, Glynn Purnell, and his eponymous restaurant. I had a pork belly that ranks as the best I have ever had; a ruler shaped piece of pig with crisp skin, quince and creamed cabbage. The mere thought of it still causes my saliva to gush like a cheap toilet. I raved and told everyone to go, to which nobody did. The problem seemed to be in the name; few knew the man behind the restaurant was same man cooking on Great British Menu and the punters stayed away. Purnell spotted this, rebranded, and the whole thing has become a roaring success. Job done.

Except it’s not. For a restaurant to carry the weight of a starred chefs name it has to deliver on flavour and at times this bistro was less like Benoit and more Cafe Rouge, which is a shame as it was very nearly very good. A main of chicken with Caesar salad would not have been so dry had the dish arrived with the listed celeriac puree, whereas a hunk of moist confit duck with verde lentils would have been great value at £6.35, had the dish come with sufficient lentils and a properly crisp skin.



 It was another pork belly dish that showcased the lack of attention to detail. It was aromatic, succulent and fatty, as all good Asian pig dishes should be, though it was swamped with a noodle salad which was properly seasoned with soy and woven with tragically overcooked Chinese greens. On the side was a dense brown triangle of soggy skin, which I can only assume was intended to be crispy and edible. It was neither and should never have left the kitchen. The distinction between the pork dishes served here and at The Asquith could not have been more different.


 Desserts faired a little better. A rhubarb and custard Alaska was playful and towed the right balance between sweet and sour, whilst “Glynns tiramisu” was nothing of the sort but at the heart of it had a bitter chocolate ice cream that was high in flavour, though a little granular.


 Despite this, it’s not hard to see why Purnell’s Bistro is a popular destination. The service was well intended and the wine list was affordable with a nice selection available by carafe. It offers an affordable insight into the food behind arguably the cities most famous chef. Unfortunately, the continuous stream of mistakes felt like it’s a place trading on its owners name, rather than the merit of actually being good. With a little TLC this could be the cracking bistro that Birmingham deserves.


Purnell's Bistro on Urbanspoon