Month: October 2014

The Plough, Harborne

Every neighbourhood dreams of having a great local pub. A boozer within staggering distance home that is friendly, with good beers and food that hasn’t been blitzed beyond recognition in a microwave. Sadly, only a tiny percentage are this lucky. Pubs in general are a dying breed. Some close because the culture for a pint or six after work is diminishing, others because they fail to react to a market that is forever changing. Birmingham is a city blessed with enthusiastic young souls trying to buck this trend. There has been a boom of pubs changing hands and reinventing themselves as places that offer a cut-above in both beers and grub. Some have failed miserably, others range from mediocre to very good. One is outstanding.

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Being the difficult bastard that I am, I realise that I am sticking my neck on the line by calling The Plough outstanding, but believe me, it really is. They have done what others neglect and grasped the basic needs of the customer. The beer and wine selection is current and well kept. The service both friendly and unobtrusive. They make you feel valued, which is an achievement in its own right, given the piss-poor service too often encountered from across a bar. And there is the food.

A humble pizza seems a good place to start. It is the acid test of ingredient quality; there is no hiding behind technical wizardry. It is a sum of its parts. A pizza with salami, pancetta and chorizo lives or dies on the quality of the charcuterie. Fortunately for the chef here, he knows where to shop for cured meats. The mixture of tastes and textures from the different parts of the animal backed up by some quality mozzarella and fresh chilli to give comfort and bite. The base is crisp and slightly charred with just enough chew. It is the best pizza I have had outside of the original Franco Manca in Brixton. If various bits of preserved pig isn’t your thing, another pizza, this time with halloumi, courgettes and broccoli proved they understand the needs of vegetarians equally well.

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The menu here has an emphasis on comfort. The cooking processes are kept simple and allow the quality of the ingredients to do the talking. A stew has chicken and more of the top-class chorizo listed as its primary ingredients, though in reality owes its depth to the tomato sauce, layered with garlic, black olives, paprika and peppers. I wipe the bowl clean with the hunk of sourdough served alongside it. A burger comes topped with more minced meat – this time a ragu – that provides a textural difference, as well as the recognisable flavour of a punchy chilli con carne. Its also bloody good fun to eat. Dirty food in elegant Harborne. I just wish I’d remembered to take a picture of it.


Dessert could easily have been cheese cake, or an eton mess, though I plumped for a sizeable wedge of white chocolate tart. The pastry short and crumbly, with any potential sickliness from the cocoa butter offset by an embedded raspberry coulis and a scoop of accompanying passion fruit sorbet. It was indulgent, clever and thoroughly satisfying.


They recently rid the bar here of the majority of conventional spirit brands to offer smaller craft distilleries the opportunity to hog the limelight. This sums up the ethos of The Plough perfectly; every tiny detail is analysed to provide a better customer experience. If every neighbourhood had a local like The Plough the world would be a better place. I honestly cant remember ever enjoying a trip to a public house as much. Best in Birmingham? Absolutely. In the country? Quite possibly.


The Plough on Urbanspoon

Five Guys, Birmingham


Vegetarians are for life, not just for Christmas. A preposterous statement I know, but one I can boldly state as I live with one – most of the time anyhow, in between her random cravings for chicken in black bean sauce or sausage. Meaty cravings aside, over time I have come to understand that cooking for a vegetarian requires thought and consideration; they won’t accept humus for lunch every day, nor a nut roast every Sunday. They rightly expect meal times to have the same variation as a carnivore. You can’t be half-arsed with a vegetarian.

So a restaurant shouldn’t be permitted a half-arsed approach either. If you don’t want the hassle of dietary-specific customers, it’s easy; don’t cook for them. Simply refuse to prepare food that they will eat. Fry the chips in lard, grate foie gras on hummus, blend anchovies in to every salad dressing and they will take their business elsewhere. Don’t tell them they can have a grilled cheese sandwich, which transpires to be two soggy buns with a slice of processed cheese in the middle. And don’t, under any circumstances, be so lackadaisical about making it that the top bun is on upside down. This travesty against the sandwich is how much Five Guys care about The Non Meat Eaters and this is one of many reasons why I hated Five Guys.


I appreciate that the majority of those that step in to the self-absorbed Five Guys won’t have to go through the trauma that we did. They will be here for the meat and for that they will do marginally better. They will have no doubt read the countless articles that line the walls here, proclaiming for all to hear that they are kings of the burger. Let’s keep it simple; they’re not. The patty has good beef flavour, but is devoid of any moisture thanks to it being cooked to well done. The bun was again damp and of the optional toppings only the pickles seemed remotely remarkable. More notable was the fries, properly tasting of potatoes, though for four quid for a regular portion I’d not only to expect them to taste of them, but to come with that particular spuds family tree.


The price of the food here is comparably to a motorway service station Burger King and if we are take the two of them then Five Guys does offer a marginally better experience. The reality though is that you won’t find Five Guys on a motorway station sandwiched between Costa Coffee and Subway – they have far bigger ambitions than that. It’s coming to a high street near you armed with mediocrity. Birmingham has a burgeoning food scene with dozens of better lunch time options than the drivel that they mass cater here. We don’t need Five Guys. We have pubs with ambitions and street food stands like Meatshack and Original Pattie Men that make the burgers here look like McDonald’s. Which they are in essence. Five Guys is Ronald McDonald in a fake fur coat. You have been warned.


Five Guys on Urbanspoon

Gauthier Soho, London

The menu at Gauthier Soho reads like porn to a tragic food fan like me. It’s an ode to seasonality from the seasoned hands of a French wizard. It talks of truffles and lobsters and foie gras and cuts of beef from places in France that sound fun to visit. It has veloutes, fondants, and torchons. The only way it could be any more Gaelic is if the bread basket was mounted to the front of a bicycle. It’s the kind of menu that requires attention.

The building also requires attention. A town house in murky Soho, with a bell on the door to gain access. It has three floors on which to eat and basement from which they cook. The décor is understated, the tables generous in space and with a single candle to provide light, which did wonders for my fading looks but little for the photo’s. I know it’s asking a lot, but you’ll have to trust me with a lot of the dishes as the pictures are too poor to do justice to what was served.

What was served was three hours of exhilarating food, starting with a perfectly cooked lobe of foie, roasted peach and elderflower crisp. The fruit and forage providing the acidity and sweetness to stand up to the fatty liver. A veloute of pea had goats cheese and confit lime, each giving a little interest with every mouthful. Its very clever cooking, showcasing technique and a knowledge of ingredients. This was approach was evident in a jaw dropping risotto of black truffle. The flavour deep and controlled, the grains loose and evenly cooked. There was perfume from the truffles and a meatiness from the veal stock which leant against the edge of the bowls. Never have I eaten a better risotto.

Truffle Rissoto

A singular piece of stunning crispy pork belly was served with two pieces of loin stuffed with olives, some apricots, and beetroot that was a little too al dente for my liking. This was the only time in the meal that it felt out of proportion, with too much of the loin and not enough of the unctuous belly to balance out the tart apricot. There was more of the beetroot on a veggie main with tempura leaves and a ricotta and basil gnocchi that could have been a lot lighter. The kitchen was quickly back on form with a crimson red beef fillet, fondant potato and marrow stuffed with bone marrow. This was proper, grown up cooking, the fondant in particular oozing with butter.


Charlois Beef

To finish off proceedings we had a cheese plate and two desserts. The first was a strawberry mousse, with wild strawberries, lemon sherbet sorbet and a tuile that was allegedly made from balsamic. It was a stunning dish that made the showcased the end of season strawberries at their very best. The final dish was a chocolate croustillant that Gauthier learnt plying his trade at Alain Ducasses’ three star restaurant in Monaco. It is the fourth time I have had this dish and this one is every bit as good as those I have previously had in establishments bearing Ducasses’ name. The chocolate and praline layers creating something textually reminiscent of a kit-kat, but a flavour so indulgent you feel the button of your trousers tighten just by looking at it.


Louis XV

So there you are, five hundred or so words of me blathering on about a house in Soho that cooks up brilliant dishes from it’s basement. The food here doesn’t follow trends – it follows seasons and it does so with the up-most of appreciation.  Everything here is treated with respect and the technique which has sat at the forefront of French cuisine for hundreds of years. Escoffier would be proud. Ooh La La.


Gauthier Soho on Urbanspoon

The Kings Head, Bearwood

Occasionally I have to weigh up the morals and after-effects of my opinions. Should I be honest about the experiences I have had if it could affect those who genuinely don’t deserve it? I have never used my feeble opinion to be deliberately rude, though I have always taken the stance that there is a lot of places to blow £10-15 on a main course without having to eat out badly. Paying customers have automatically earned the right to know when somewhere is not good enough.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I tell you that based on a recent trip, The Kings Head in Bearwood is not good enough. A heavy heart because the area has long been in the shadow of Harborne and deserves a great local. A heavy heart because every member of the bar and restaurant staff was friendly, well drilled, and doesn’t deserve my criticism. A heavy heart because it felt like the place was stuck in a rut that it desperately wants to get out of.

Sadly, none of this excuses mediocre food, which was served in abundance on a recent Sunday afternoon. The turkey roast was a reminder of a poorly executed Christmas dinner. The meat, generous in portion though cooked to an unappetising dry texture, came with equally overcooked root veg. The Yorkshire pudding, impressive in stature, was like eating stale cotton wool and gave the impression it had been cooked some time ago and set aside. The gravy tasted remarkably like Bisto granules, which is a compliment of sorts, given that nothing else on the plate was recognisable in flavour. I would love to go into detail about the roast beef dinner, but there is no point as it was the same overcooked dross, albeit with a different overcooked protein.





More animal abuse was present in the chicken burger. Yes, you guessed it, overcooked again. The ciabatta bun was far from fresh and the tikka seasoning on the meat had a claggy, shop brought paste feel. At least the chips were good.


Desserts mercifully saved face. Both the cheesecake and Bakewell tart were capably made, with the tarts pastry particularly delicate. Each were a considerable step up from anything previously served in taste and the way it looked on the plate.



Before meeting up with friends for this lunch, I sat alone at the bar with a pint of ale and a bowl of nuts chatting to a very helpful bar maid about the beers on tap. It was during this time that I had the chance to fully take in this big old pub at the end of the high street. There were others here enjoying a quiet Sunday pint in a pleasant location and, if nothing more, The Kings Head serves its patrons very well in this sense. These people also deserve to have somewhere to eat well and this is where the pub falls drastically short. Maybe one day, hey.