Month: July 2015

Nosh & Quaff, Birmingham

This wasn’t supposed to be the plan. I was going to let the hype die down and give Nosh & Quaff the once over when the kitchen has settled. I was expecting the launch party to be the usual mix of free booze and gift bags; we were not expecting to be sat down, fed and watered. Even so, as I am seated upstairs amongst the well-heeled I vow to come back try more of the menu on my own steed before delivering my true opinion.

And then The Pig happened.  Four bone-in ribs from an animal who’s diet I would probably envy, coated in a spice rub full of gentle aromatics and heat.  The thick ribbons of fat had broken down from its slow cook in the sous-vide, the outside charred from its blitz through the high oven heat.  The result is a meat that falls apart at the mere suggestion of pressure.  Its the best piece of animal I have eaten for over a year.  Only when I finish gnawing away at the bones do I notice that there is well-made fries and a coleslaw also on the tray.  I consider for a second how the sharp and piquant ‘slaw would have worked well with the pork, before going back to searching for any meat I may have missed.


The menu is a concise offering; a whole lobster for twenty quid, ribs of cow and pig, a hotdog from the wonderful Big Apple company in East London, a burger, and some wings.  The sole vegetarian main is a mac and cheese burger, formed ,bread-crumbed, then deep fried.  It oozes creamed cheese flavoured lightly with truffle oil, whilst the pasta still retains its bite.  What makes the dish is the bread crumbs, heavily seasoned so that every bite draws the maximum in flavour.  There is a slice of abalone mushroom and pickled shallots for contrast.  Eating this is not good for your health, but the best things never are.  We order the blooming onion – seasoned and deep fried slithers still bound together at its core – and douse it with a house sauce full of pepper and mustard.  It feels like an instant classic, but then so does everything else. We share the N&Q take on Rocky Road for dessert.  Its good, even if the silky chocolate sauce that covers it is a little heavy-handed on the sugar.  Not that we mind, as we quickly fight over the nut brittle pieces and dabs of marshmallow we later find out are made in house.




I would forgive you for thinking that this sounds a little familiar.  The name, the lobster for twenty notes, the plastic bib that I am yet to mention.  Its obvious that part of the inspiration is Burger & Lobster, the branch which started in London and is now appearing everywhere, including my beloved Birmingham this Autumn.  When I first saw the menu I thought it was plagiarism; now I think it to be evolution.  Where Burger & Lobster limits itself to two items, Nosh & Quaff takes those boundaries and runs with them, never flinching in the quest for perfection from the ingredient sourcing to the delivery on the table.  Its barely even open and already it feels vital to the city.  Believe the hype.  Every single word of it.  Nosh & Quaff is the real deal.


As you have probably already established, the food I ate at the launch party was complimentary.

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The White Swan, Edgbaston

For over one year now I have been assaulting your eyes with my dreadful photography skills and poorly punctuated sentences on this restaurant blog. That’s twelve months of self-confirmation for what a sanctimonious twat I can be, demonstrated repeatedly over forty-odd meals. Nothings changed, aside from the odd invitation to abuse a free bar from a PR company that have clearly never read my rumblings. I’m still always hungry. Still always grumpy. And I still haven’t managed to organise my life well enough to make bookings in advance. Its a miserable Sunday in July, pissing down with rain outside, and we are supposed to be going to going out for food in two hours. I am scrambling around trying to find anywhere that will still be serving a Sunday lunch at half four in the afternoon.  Everywhere is fully booked or closing.  Finally, a result:  The White Swan can fit us in.  We weigh up whether or not we should go – we have eaten here a couple of times; once was very good, another lunch on Christmas day was a disaster.  We go.  Of course we did, otherwise this post would be a low point, even by my standards.

Inside The White Swan looks exactly how a gastropub on the border of Edgbaston and Harborne should:  Its all soft furnishings, pale wood and neutral colours.  The staff, neatly uniformed, are standoffish and unobtrusive.  The menu is British, with the occasional nod to sunnier climes.  We start with one of these excursions, which would be the best thing that we ate all day.  A mezze with creamy tzatziki, a harrisa spiked hummus, and a smokey baba ghanoush, all mopped up with flat breads scented with garlic .  Best of all were slices of aubergine, coated in blitzed chickpeas and deep fried to a crisp, which begged to be dredged through the last of the tzatziki.


A confit duck leg would frustrate.  The meat, simmered in fat until falling away from the bone, could have only been improved by the skin being crisped up more after its lengthy cook.  Its accompaniments were a collection of ingredients that each work with duck, without any thought of them working together.  A waffle, some thick batons of sweet potato, unintentionally raw hispi cabbage, and a slice of pineapple.  Take any two of those with the poultry and you have a dish.  All four is just a mess.  A vegetarian nut roast was nothing more than a comforting dollop of parsnip and cranberry stuffing, served with a overcooked Yorkshire pudding and veg which veered from well made roasties to more of the raw cabbage.



If the mains failed to deliver, dessert very nearly salvaged it.  A well made sticky toffee pudding, to its credit much lighter than it looked, was beaten hands down by a salted caramel chocolate pot.  The ganache, bordering on a coffee flavour such was its depth, further soured by creme fraiche with the clever addition of candied lemon peel.  It would have been nice to dunk the advertised biscuits into this, though they materialised in the form of crumbs which remained firmly on the slate with a raspberry coulis that added very little other than presentation.



The pricing here is in line with its local competition – mains start early teens and rise to a tenner above – so consider around thirty quid a head for three courses before you start looking to a fairly priced wine list.  Its hard to consider this value based on what we ate, even more so when compared to what you can find for the same price close by.  And herein lies the problem with The White Swan; with The Plough half a mile down the road and The Highfield another half a mile the other way, competition could not be more fierce.  With those close by, we just cant see a time when we would ever bother risking it and going back.


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Jamie’s Italian, Birmingham

Jamie Oliver: Charitable cockney. Motor-mouthed savour of obese school children. Destroyer of the English tongue. Some people – food writers mostly, professional or otherwise – see him as the culinary Anti-Christ. A condescending mass of checked shirts and hypocrisy, who started off a man of the people with the non-profitable Fifteen group and ended up bringing that tired lingo of his to every city with the very much profitable Jamie’s Italian.  Personally, I have a degree of empathy for him.  He has bills to pay and kids to feed.  His charity work is still in full working order.  I don’t have a problem with him lining the pockets of his distressed denim if the food is worthy of my money leaving the pockets of mine.

The Jamie’s Italian in Birmingham is a big place.  It looks how someone who has never been to the city might think that a Jewellery Quarter workshop looks like.  And that is not a compliment.  Its a mismatched collection of steel girders, mesh, and industrial sized wooden planks.  Nothing feels natural; everything is forced.  The menu is appealing, save for the dreadful adjectives that too often haunt them.  I like the tapenade that comes with the basket of bread, its deep with olive and tomato notes, but “fantastic” it is not.  I find few things in life fantastic; Match of The Day, a well made Old Fashioned, or a Russell Brand movie that flops at the box office.  This tapenade is good at best, even with it rescuing a focaccia which dried out yesterday.  We’ve only been here fifteen minutes and already I am reaching for another glass of wine.



Fortunately, things improved.  A summer truffle risotto needed the flavoured oil to give flavour to the Tubers that were limited in flavour.  At the root was a good stock and well cooked rice which was almost loose enough.  Mollica – fried breadcrumbs – gave it a pleasant texture.  At £6.50 no one in their right mind could accuse this of being poor value.  A crab arancini with plenty of crustacean hit the right spot, thanks to a yoghurt dressing that shimmered with the most Italian of citrus’, yuzu.



Pappardelle, made fresh that day, was applaudable in effort, if a little thick.  The ragu of sausage a fraction under-seasoned, with the advertised chianti flavour barely present.  More of the mollica was there for substance and crunch.  It was home cooking, executed well.  Come to my house and the other half will cook you something very similar which is far better. A leg of duck on a carpaccio of orange was given further lightness with lentils, pomegranate, and a fennel salad. Slightly overdone meat aside, it was a dish that danced with citrus and aniseed. Everything in sync and not one ingredient too many. Chips with roasted garlic were unwarranted though quickly eaten.





We finish with a pavlova full of macerated raspberries and chewy honeycomb, before settling up on a bill that works out at a shade over twenty-five quid a head.  It seems a fair price to pay for the quality served.  Would I go out of my way to recommend Jamie’s Italian?  No, but the reality is Italian food in Birmingham is woefully represented and I would find it difficult to recommend anywhere for that cuisine.  Here is a large operation (probably too large to control high standards), where, yuzu aside, quality and provenance is key.  Its time to take the personal vendetta towards Oliver away and access the restaurant for exactly what it is.  Pukka it is not.  Satisfactory it certainly is.


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Sabai Sabai, Moseley

It is, by my own admission, my fault that I have not been to Sabai Sabai in a long time. Some time ago, a friend of mine booked a large table there for his birthday. If my memory serves me correct it was unusually hot on the day, with the lure of a daytime beer proving too tempting. It is never one beer, not when the sun is out, and I may have turned up a little worse-for-wear. What a great guest I am. I approached the meal with the numbskull mentality of a drunk man, which is by ordering as little food and as many cocktails as possible. I don’t recall the food being memorable, but then again I seem to think that I was particularly humorous on that evening, so read in to that as you wish.

We chose the hottest day of the year thus far to return to Sabai Sabai. It’s not a building suited to these conditions. The slim dining room is dimly lit, mostly by candles that adorn the ornate tables dressed with thick black and gold decorative cloth. The heavy wooden chairs have a regal feel that serves to heighten the notion of tranquillity just yards from the main row of shops that are central to Moseley Village. We start with chicken satay, a dish too often relegated to the Just Eat default starter.  Thick chunks of thigh meat, marinated and impaled on three skewers, full of flavour and gentle aromatics that seamlessly blend with a satay sauce, rich with peanut and coconut milk.  By comparison it made the duck roll seem average, which it wasn’t.  The roll, deep fried to a crisp, holding tender pieces of meat and the occasional shard of crispy skin.  It needed the sharp side salad to offset the deep funk of the bbq sauce which was to be a close relation to hoisin.



We chose the same birds for main course, because we are ill-prepared and hungry.  A red curry is a joyous thing full that successfully balances out the sweet and the sour, the heat and the salty.  There is the background of kaffir lime and pungent notes of fish sauce.  It speaks of the work of an experienced hand in the kitchen.  The duck inside is well cooked, though it plays second fiddle to the sauce which dances around it.  Pad Pik Khing has more of the chicken thigh meat with krachai and green beans.  Its sauce is all acidity and unadulterated heat – a good thing; no, a great thing – which has little care for the western taste buds.  We both mop up the last of the sauces with sticky rice that is the right side of claggy.




We opt to take liquid desserts in the pub around the corner, pay the bill and leave for the last of the evenings sun.  Whilst putting the world to rights over a pint or three, we agree that Sabai Sabai exceeded expectations for the both of us.  Its bold and authentic Thai food has been refined just enough to justify a price which sits just above similar restaurants.  Regardless of whether or not you are familiar with the cuisine, I urge you to give it a go.  Just do it sober.  Food this good needs to be remembered


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The Bureau, Birmingham

Sometimes just reading a menu can be tiring.  The desire to be different has become so synonymous with eating out that it has had the reverse effect.  Hardly anyone is different, thanks to kitchens full of Heston wannabes dreaming up dishes that nobody sober really wants to eat.  I can walk two minutes down the road and have a burger topped with Monster Munch, thousand island dressing and Gruyère, or I could interrupt a shopping trip with a burrito filled with chicken tikka.  But why would I ever want to torture myself and do that?  I’m not difficult, I just occasionally want an honest feed, which is becoming harder and harder to find.


Praise the Lord then for The Bureau, a smart bar just off Colmore Row.  Whilst the opulent interior of marble and soft furnishings may nod to somewhere aimed at a wealthier clientèle, the menu is a simple list of things you want to eat, free too from the frivolous descriptions that too often clog the senses.  Here a hot dog was just that; a pork sausage seasoned with salt and a little mace, sitting on some softened onions, all in a bun that had been slightly charred.  No outlandish toppings, just little pots of mustard and ketchup, both of which were liberally applied.  It was meaty, full of character, and, for a fiver, an excellent lunch option compared to the horrors served at minutes away at EAT.


Thankfully the same logic has been applied to the rest of the menu.  We could have ordered a steak sandwich, or half a chicken, and known exactly what we were getting for our money.  Instead we chose a pie, kept light with the addition of a side portion of green beans and the deliberate avoidance of additional carbohydrates.  The bronzed puff pastry case hiding good chunks of chicken in a sauce thickened with cream and heavy on earthy mushroom flavours.  Similar big flavours were had with a goats cheese tart, the crisp pastry filling evened out by the gentle sharpness of shallots and enlivened by plenty of fresh parsley.



It wasn’t all perfect.  A build-your-own deli board looked great, but lacked the power found elsewhere.  Sweet potato and chilli fritters had an unpleasant acrid outer-coating, whilst both a well-timed duck scotch egg and little pasties containing spinach and mushroom were both heavily under-seasoned.  Safer ground was to be had with good quality smoked salmon and moreish beetroot bon bons that brought life to the most overused vegetable of 2015.  Again, without wishing to beat the Good Value drum any longer, the five items seemed fair at £12.00, despite its imperfections.


There is a roof terrace here, which I will neglect to say too much about for fear of never getting a seat on again.  It is an oasis of calm in the middle of the city that may just be my beer garden of choice when summer finally arrives.  We enjoyed a lunch up there in the smattering of sun that was a heavier hand of salt away from being very good.  I’m not a believer that all independent bars and restaurants should flourish; I believe that good bars and restaurants should, regardless of who owns them, and with a menu that is refreshingly simple and keen pricing to match, The Bureau have got the basics in place to become part of Birmingham’s DNA.  The most honest of foods have survived decades without some idiot tinkering with them, The Bureau understands this, and we should be all the more grateful for it.


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