Month: April 2016

Five Rivers, Walsall


When it comes to champagne my will is weak. I may have started this restaurant blog with ideals and a sound moral compass, but these have withered occasionally. I’m not proud of it, though I am also not stupid. When I receive an invitation to an evening hosted by Laurent Perrier at an award winning Indian restaurant, of course I was going to accept it: It’s curry and fizz, two of my favourite things in the world.


The restaurant in question is Five Rivers, a smart space not far from Walsall town centre, where wooden beams arch across the vaulted ceiling and elbows and arses are greeted by thick linen and deep, plush seating alike.  We start the meal with a sweet potato cake, heavy on chilli and cumin, with the spicing offset by the sweet funk of fig.  What I like most is the disregard for the etiquette that too often exists in Indian restaurants at the higher end, where smart presentation often means the spicing is turned down.  I want heat; lots of it.  I get it here and the dish is all the better for it.


If the opening course nodded politely at classic Indian street food, the next course was pure theatre.  Warm lobster broth was poured tableside into a bowl containing morsels of the crustacean and a tiny dice of carrot and courgette.  Plumes of dry ice smoke encompass the table, with wows intermittently interrupted by people looking for their mobile phones.  I like it, less so because of the drama and more because of the flavour, rich with more heat and cut through with lemon acidity.

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Monkfish, charred with from the extreme tandoor heat, is cooked for a few seconds longer than I prefer.  A sweet puree of mango the natural foil to the fish.  Also from the tandoor came duck, boldly flavoured with garlic and ginger.  It was a stellar piece of cooking, the meat dense and vibrant with more of the chilli kick.   A lemon and lime sorbet appears after this point, but like I care.




By now the fizzy stuff had kicked in and with it the rest of the evening became a glorious blur.  I just about remember a chicken dish, stuffed with spinach and topped with a sauce that I wished there were more of.  And there were desserts, which I can be sure of because they were on my camera and suit jacket.  I recall little of a mango sundae type thingy and a little more of a deep fried ice cream that whacked of cinnamon.  I think I recall being pleased with them, which says a lot, as Indian desserts are too often all sugar and no substance.




And with that there was more champagne (of course there was) and a taxi home to sleep off a serious amount of booze.  Its hard to properly score a restaurant when the experience is far from the norm, but I woke up the following day telling everyone just how good the food was.  Maybe the fizz and the jubilant atmosphere swayed it, but more than likely not.   Either way I’ll be heading back to Walsall under my own steam to find out.  Five Rivers is admirable for having lofty ambitions away from the big cities and for executing it with aplomb.  I, for one, had a great time in their company.


The meal at Five Rivers was part of a celebration dinner with Laurent Perrier for which there was no charge.  Opinions, hazy memories and hangovers all remain my own





Pho, Birmingham

A year ago I went on a three week, whistle-stop tour of Vietnam. It’s a country that I quickly fell in love with, full of welcoming people, beautiful landscapes and unique heritage. I found the cuisine to be compelling, making extensive use of aromatics and heat to create exotic dishes that linger in the mouth and memory.  I loved every second of it.  Yet, it has become almost impossible to find Vietnamese food back in Blighty.  EAT done there take on Banh Mi with predictably car crash results and now we have Pho, a small chain of London based restaurants, within the confides of Birmingham’s own Grand Central.

Pho, somewhat unsurprisingly given the name, focuses on its namesake dish, which is essentially a stock soup with noodles and meat.  The best we tried in Vietnam had noodles with oodles of bounce (sorry), and a soup full of savoury meaty notes.  You get a side dish from which to add fish sauce, chilli, coriander and lime to taste, which for me was an excess of everything.  As my girlfriend pointed out in Hoi An; if the Pho tastes bad it is probably your fault for ruining it.  The chicken version at Pho was good, though the stock soup was lacking in the depth of flavour which we became accustomed to.  What was infinitely better was the meat, which had none of the chewiness from birds used of an older age in South East Asia.


There was a Pho Xao, a noodle stir fry not a million miles away from the more familiar Pad Thai, that was full of crunch and lemon grass notes.  Again, as with the Pho itself, it felt like an anglicised version of what we were used to, lacking the fire of chilli and the extensive use of fresh herbs.  Far better were deep fried vegetarian spring rolls with a brittle casing and vibrant filling.  The thick peanut dipping sauce it came with was good enough to take home and meet the parents before settling down for a life of happiness.




They serve the wonderful Saigon beer which took us took us back to the sun and Vietnamese style coffee which did nothing of the sort.  All this came to around thirty quid, which is seems fair for Birmingham and about six times too much from Vietnam.  Still, at least here we have the exotic views of New Street Station.  For what’s its worth I liked Pho, maybe not enough to be a regular, but certainly enough to swing by when I need my Vietnam fix.


Pho Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato



Beefeater Bar and Block, Birmingham

Steakhouses are a difficult niche to get right, it requires careful sourcing and more careful cooking.  Get it right and you have a potentially open chequebook of pricing; Wolfgang Puck’s ‘Cut’ in London being the obvious reference point where you can pay north of a ton for a rib eye.  Birmingham does not have anywhere quite that ludicrous, though we do have a few places that take steak seriously with a serious price point to boot. I accept an invitation to review the new Beefeater Bar & Block because it probably would have passed under my culinary radar otherwise.  If I am being honest, had I been paying I probably would have headed to one of Brum’s more established steakhouses which I am yet to post about over one with Beefeater in the title.  And for that act of snobbery I would have missed out, for in parts it was very good indeed.


Inside Bar and Block is very much the modern steak house.  Bare brick walls are given light by a neon cow that sits at the bar end of the room.  We take place at a faux marble table, well lit and near the open kitchen.  Staff are well drilled and we are talked through the varying cuts of beef that sit centrally to the menu, before taking little notice of their recommendations.  Beef fat flavoured popcorn instantly makes me like the place, as do king prawns, gently cooked and drenched in a butter sauce with the zing and heat from lemon and garlic.  These are better than a starter of mini meatballs which are well made, yet pulled down to the level of the bland tomato sauce they are sat in.




Here comes the money shot.  A fillet of beef shows exceptional skill at the art of cooking a piece of meat to order.  We ask for it medium rare, it arrives as that: butter soft cow, seared on the outer, with a consistent pink inside.  It has been properly rested so there is no bleeding on the plate.  There are good chips and an overly sharp béarnaise, but this matters little when the meat is this good.  A belly of pork is too large a portion and too cheap for the quality served, with a mustard mash and batons of apple that cut through the animals fattiness.  Sweet potato fries with feta and chorizo are a nice ideal well executed.




By now we are both cursing ourselves for ever questioning the quality, which dessert confirms was no fluke.  I find the cheesecake too sweet, though my dining partner for this evening virtually licks his plate clean, despite claiming minutes before that he was too stuffed to eat anything else.  Best is a lemon tart which finds the right balance of sharpness atop of some remarkably short pastry, with a lemon curd sorbet to bolster the citrus flavour.  It is faultless in execution.


We don’t have a bill tonight but total up how much it would have been and agree that its seriously good value.  Three courses here would just about cover what I payed for a truly dreadful steak close by at a celebrity endorsed restaurant with a nice view.  Any prepositions I may have had about its attachment to the brand were short lived:  We had some good food and a great steak in a nice environment, all served by attentive staff that happen to care.  Bar and Block is a welcome addition to the city which I will gladly return to.


My meal was complimentary.  My views remain honest


Toppoki, Birmingham

Toppoki is a Korean restaurant in Chinatown. It is a simple space of neutral colours, wall murals, and plenty of natural light.  There are hot plates built into the tables and a view into an open kitchen, which from our end, showed an alarming usage of a microwave.  I know nothing of Korean food so the menu is a beguiling mix of excitement and fear to a control freak like myself.  There are dupbap and bibimbap, whatever they may be, amongst more familiar kimchi and curries.


The reality is that its nothing out of the norm.  Maybe here is not the greatest example of Korean food, but everything has a familiar feel, not to far removed from the cuisine of Japan, or China.  The chicken cutlet curry, for example, was identical to a katsu curry at Wagamama, though I happen to prefer the version at the Japanese chain.  Here the meat was a little tough and the sauce more one-dimensional.  The side bowl of kimchi – that wonderful fermented cabbage full of crunch and heat – added the missing character.



Bibimbap transpires to be a stir fry of meat and vegetables, served with another mound of rice.  Its decent stuff with a real chilli kick.  Dupbap seemed remarkably similar, this time with a vegetable croquette that contained mozzarella.  Mozzarella in Korean food, whoever would have thought it.  Whatever the provenance of the original recipe, it would be the best thing we ate all day.  Gelatinous and with a real depth of flavour.


Take the four dishes at face value and you have somewhere that does fairly tasty food at a fair price point.  Except it doesn’t end there.  The food turns up whenever they feel like it, which, in our case, saw two mains almost twenty five minutes apart.  No apology or explanation, just take it as it is.  Now call me old fashioned, but I quite like to eat at the same time as the others on the table, and I’m not best pleased at the idea of my food going cold purely so I can do so.  Put simply, the food at Toppoki is not worth the wait.


Topokki Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato