Month: January 2016

The Karczma, Digbeth

Words cannot fully justify just how depressing the building which houses The Karczma is. It’s the kind of sixties architecture that I thought we were trying to eradicate in the city. It’s a sad slab of square grey concrete in a forgotten part of town. It’s Eastenders on Christmas Day.  Inside could not be more different – its an ode to the inns of the Tatra mountains, seen through the tainted eyes of someone who misses them.  There is straw thatched ceilings and fake fur hides adorning the backs of benches.  Walls are distressed pink.  Polish music plays in the background.  I found it difficult to not laugh, despite being fully aware that whoever designed the space did so with serious intention.


But the food.  Oh My, the food.  It’s a wholesome exploration of Eastern Europe family food, at all times satisfying and occasionally astonishing.  We start with a communal helping of bread and lard, a concept you may be familiar with, being the 2016 Michelin di rigueur of bread courses.  Here it is not being dictated by fashion, but by a culinary history and frugalness that makes use of all of the animal. More importantly it tastes great, helped by pickles full of zing and bite.  There is a blood red beetroot soup, barszcz, or, as you may know it, borscht.  Whatever the name, its a tribute to fermentation, soured and bright in flavour and colour.  Two pastry rolls filled with a duxelle of mushrooms feel like they are there to justify the £6 price, though they succeed in adding a further depth to bowl already swimming in it.


Pierogi are delicate filled dumplings, almost translucent.  Each one is a powerhouse of flavour, from the cheese, potato and onion, to the minced pork and beef which has a lightness that alludes its appearance.  One of these is a hefty starter in its own right; here three of them are under £8.  Another starter of smoked cheese would be the only duff note.  There is too much of the smoke which wipes out the sharp cranberry compote.



A whole glazed pork knuckle was as comforting as it was daunting.  The burnished skin peeling back to reveal a thick layer of fat and meat which pulls from the bone at the slightest suggestion.  Pots of horseradish and mustard are there to provide heat, sauerkraut for acidity, and thick chips for the plain greedy.  I take home half for dinner later that evening. Also taken home in the same doggy bag was half of “marina’s breasts”; two domed hulks of formed chicken breast meat, stuffed with mushrooms and glazed with cheese.  Its Chicken Kiev with a salacious new identity.  I joke to the waiter about wanting more of Marina’s breasts – he tells me that she is working in the kitchen.  I joke no more.




We finish with an apple pie, admirable in flavour but several courses too many, because, by now we are ready for a lie-down to let it all sink in.  A friend of mine with Polish descent who joined me at The Karczma told me a story of a trip he made to his fathers home village in the 80’s:  There the men were fed first, followed by the women, with the children picking up the last of the food.  If The Karczma truly is representative of Polish home cooking those children did not go hungry.  Its as generous a meal as I can remember and cheap to boot, too.  What goes on inside those pink walls and under that thatched ceiling is nothing short of wonderful.


The Karczma Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Star and Garter, Leamington Spa

Our first visit to The Star and Garter was born from necessity. We were thirty miles from home on a miserable Sunday afternoon, hungry, and with a newly acquired wine rack taking over the back two-thirds of the car . Its on these occasions that comfort is called for.  Long roasted meats with burnished veg and crisp potatoes are the needs of the day.  We choose the pub because it has good form; we use their sister pub, The Highfield, as our local go to stop when such needs occur closer to home.  There the plate is prettily stacked with carbs, protein, and topped with a fist sized Yorkshire pudding.  There are greens to share in a bowl and replacement spuds and Yorkshire puddings are offered.  Sundays at The Highfield have never let us down, meaning expectations at The Star and Garter are high.

It delivers as we hoped it would.  Meaty chipolata sausages and a silky sweet potato soup show an assured touch – the latter having a nice refrained hit of heat from harissa and a big pinch of ground pepper.  With a strong idea of what to expect, we make a concerted effort to save room for the roast which will more than justify the decision.  The meat, in this case pork from Jimmy Butler and a rump of beef from Aubrey Allen, are impeccably sourced and cooked with care, save for the crackling on the pig which threatens to increase my dental plan premium.  The presentation is a little more rustic than what we have come to expect, though the portions appear more generous.  This is a trade-off that we are happy to take, and it fits the environment which is more upmarket local than the 1920’s grandeur of The Highfield.  The roast potatoes are crisp, the root veg puree well seasoned, the Yorkshire pudding fist sized.  There is not much to fault with any of it.  We take the extra Yorkshire’s and dredge them through the last of the thick, glossy gravy whilst wishing that this were our local.  A generous portion of winter fruits crumble and a cheesecake, light on texture and big on orange flavour, sends us replete on our way.

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We go back a week later, invited this time, to try the grill night. Its more of that impeccably sourced meat, cooked exactly how it should be.  Lamb kebabs are impaled chunks of pink rump, nestled upon couscous sharpened with lots of orange and dotted with studs of green pea.  My girlfriend doesn’t eat lamb.  She does now.  She also decides now would be a good time to eat pork, making the most of my excellent Iberico chop.  Triple cooked chips are the bane of my life (along with overuse of exclamation marks and emoticons!!!), though here they are just that; second only to The Hand & Flowers for the snap of the exterior and fluffy insides. Together the two of them are gammon and chips for grown-ups, the egg replaced with a harrissa butter that holds up the strong flavour from the black-footed pig.  We eat a perfectly rare slab of rump cap beef before remembering to take a picture.  It was that good.

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We try the cheesecake again which doesn’t quite hit the same heights as a week back and take a baked Golden Cenarth which oozes cheesy goodness, despite apparently missing the advertised truffle honey.  These are just small niggles and we leave for the second time in 10 days full and without complaint.  The Star and Garter is not re-writing any books on gastronomy, but nor is it trying to.  They take prime ingredients and pay them the respect that they deserve.   Its a simple idea, and one that I wish would catch on more often.  Sunday lunches, grill nights, or otherwise intended.  Go give it a go, you’re in safe hands.


The first meal was paid for, the second not.  My view is honest and taken over both meals, the first of which they were unaware of whom I was.

The Star & Garter Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato






La Banca, Cotteridge

If you wanted proof of what a catch I am, let it be known that I spend a lot of time looking at menus.  Its a hobby of mine that my boss at work and a formal letter for inappropriate internet usage will testify to.  Before this restaurant blogging lark arrived, it provided inspiration for meals at home in the same way that cookbooks do.  Nowadays it is all about where I will get my next fill.  I tend to split the menu hunts between my Michelin obsession, and those that I think may be some kind of hidden gem which will blast me into the stratosphere of bloggers and have people hanging on every word like some false prophet of gastronomy.  Sorry, for a minute there I lost myself.  But it proves that despite telling myself otherwise, I am like other bloggers; mostly unable to turn down a free meal and always looking to feed my ego as much as my belly.  Which takes me back to why I keep on looking at menus for obscure places that I can break to the world and declare as magnificent, even if you and I both know that in reality if they were really that good, someone with taste would have beaten me to it along time ago.


Fear not, World, you can keep those spandex knickers on, La Banca is not one of those mythical gems.  I could have possibly told you this from the menu which claims to cook authentic Italian cuisine and still puts cream in their carbonara.  It takes a smart place in old bank on a high street in South Birmingham not used to smart places, making good use of a mirrored wall that makes the space look twice as large.  Its popular, mostly you feel because of the restaurant manager for glides between tables, flirting with the regulars who make up the crowd on a blustery winters evening.  The large phallic shaped pepper grinder were made for this man.


Creamed carbonara aside, they try hard to keep it as authentic as possible and for the most part it works. A nibble of bean salad with crisp breads is a merciless assault of garlic, as are the garlic bread and bruschetta that follow.  I like them all, mostly because I don’t like close social encounters, but also because they bold in taste and heavily seasoned.  The bruschetta has pronounced flavours of onion and vinegar and lots and lots of garlic, even if the rather bland tomatoes are three months out of season.


My girlfriend was having one of those vegetarian nights that she sometimes turns to.  From a good selection she opts for one that sounds most interesting; a roulade of carrot and courgette, filled with cream cheese.  Bland and under seasoned, the cheese wipes out the little flavour the vegetables have.  Its a shocker.  Far better was a bowl of linguine with pine nuts and courgettes, full of zing and heat from lemon and chilli, the nuttiness further accentuated by parmesan and brown butter.  If this is how Momma makes the pasta back home, I wonder if Momma would be interested in a younger gentleman from Birmingham.



There is a lasagne with thick tussles of braised shoulder meat and sheets of overcooked pasta, which I forgive for it being so bloody comforting.  Its all a bit mushy, though the flavour is good with whacks of tomato and cheese and yes, you’ve guessed it, garlic.  I also admire another linguine dish with a rich vegetable ragu and topped with chicken and prawns.  Nothing gets in the way of each other here, which it could have easily have done.  Everything is distinct and accurately cooked, the pasta still with the bite that was missing from the lasagne.



The desserts here are portioned ideally for sharing, so we order one each, because Simon doesn’t share food.  Tiramisu is the lasagne reinvented for the sweeter tooth; again a textural disaster of softness, packed full of heady flavours of coffee and chocolate.  The star is a lemon cake, with a sharp zabaglione cream filling encased in a lemon meringue.  The acidity and sweetness carefully balanced out.



They have a decent wine list which starts to get interesting when you stick to Italy, where good bottles can be found for under twenty quid. This matches the price of the food, which, fillet steak aside, is strictly mid-teens for mains and under a tenner for everything else.  Its all good value, it feels homely, and service is warm.  Its easy to see why it is so busy.  Its not perfect, but I would gladly return for a good feed at a modest price.


La Banca Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Original Patty Men, Digbeth

I’m all for competition. It breeds an environment where the best product and most savvy of businesses survive.  Its vital for the food industry in keeping profit margins at an acceptable level for the customer and for keeping the owners on their toes.  Rivalry breeds respect and results.  Though occasionally competition is futile.  Every now and then a leader emerges that is unbeatable, rendering everyone else to fight to for second or third place. Federer at tennis a decade ago, Google for search engines, America at obesity.  Now I’ve tried the burgers at the permanent home of Original Patty Men you can add them to that list.  Everyone else should turn off the gas on the grill, go home, and work on that pulled pork recipe.  Or whatever horrid trend is next in line to dominate 2016.

I’ve had the burgers before.  I’ve queued with the rest of them at Digbeth Dining Club and Seasonal Markets for my fill.  Street food is everywhere in Birmingham; we do it better than anywhere else, with OPM (as it will herewith be referred to) topping the bill alongside my other favourites Bournville Waffle Company and Baked in Brick .  Its just I like the queues as much as I trust the English weather.  Which is why I was a tad excited to park my fat arse on a chair in their new gaff under the arches in a Digbeth passage near Moor Street station car park.


I could go on at length about the make-up of the burgers.  How the aged meat is coarsely ground and tightly packed.  How the high heat sears a crust full of umami and retains a blushing pink centre.  Its a thing of beauty that almost leaves me to be able to communicate only in profanities.  Oh, fuck it.  They are fucking amazing.  We try one in a glazed Krispy Kreme with maple glazed bacon where the potential over-sweetness is held at ground level by the savor of bovine hung for a good period of time.  Another sees the components of a cheese burger with a spiced mayo and crushed pork scratchings.  It sounds more outlandish than the reality; the pork rinds are there to provide an additional layer of seasoning and texture.  Its all very clever and extremely moreish.



The small but perfectly formed menu has a few sides from which we try smokey home baked beans and chips topped with slaw and more of that spiced mayo.  The chips are good, taken up another level by the toppings which offer crunch and a little heat.  Better are the beans with bacon and a steal at two quid a pot.  They have no sweet courses on offer today, due to the local bakery that supplies them being too busy.  I consider requesting a Krispy Kreme for dessert.  Only grilled.  And with bacon and a lump of charred cow.




We settle a bill which fails to reach thirty quid including a couple of drinks and look to the doors where a queue of waiting people are already starting to form.  That queue is only going to get bigger and bigger -Its inevitable with a product this good.  Forget Goodman’s, Byron, or the one at Burger and Lobster that costs £20.  Forget Dirty Burger or Meat Liquor or anywhere else that the capital has to offer.  OPM’s are the best burgers that I have ever eaten.  Digbeth, long home to the countries best street food, now has a resting place for one of the jewels in its crown.  I for one, could not be happier.