Month: September 2016

The Blue Piano, Edgbaston

They do a dish at the Blue Piano for which all other dishes should be judged.  It’s a carrot cake in type, though in reality a steamed radish cake; an even less palatable name for the everyday unadventurous natives of our fine country.  You can see why they stuck with carrot.  The cubes of steamed radish and rice flour are pale throughout, spare the edges, which have been lightly browned in a pan with scrambled egg that coats and adds an unctuous layer.  They are spongy in texture, with only a little bite from a fine julienne of spring onion and chilli that adds a warming heat.  It could easily be the best breakfast you have ever had, though here it is a starter, beguiling and delicious in equal parts.  It must make the top ten, no, top five dishes in Birmingham.


Situated in a smart Victorian property in leafy Edgbaston, the food here focuses on South East Asia; the carrot cake from Singapore, others from Malaysia through to Cambodia.  Its an intriguing mix that never hits the heights of the glorious starter.  Another of pork puffs (their name, not mine) was light on meat and heavy on the doughy pastry, saved by a chilli jam that could rescue just about anything.  A similar story with rolls of minced pork and prawns battered in to the corner by a heavy hand of five spice.



Curries of vegetable green and duck red feature sauces with the depth of someone who has been doing this a while.  Each were fresh with lime acidity and seasoned with fish sauce, but invariably could have had more chilli kick in both.  The duck in the red curry had dried out, though the jackfruit was a nice addition, cutting through the meat and giving a cleaner feel to the dish.  Heavier and more substantial was the beef rendang nasi lamak, national dish of Malaysia and loosener of belt buckles.  Long braised cubes of beef in a visually unappealing curry fragrant with coconut milk, with peanuts, dried anchovies, half a boiled egg, cucumber, coconut rice, and prawn crackers.  The best bits happen when its all combined and piled high on to prawn crackers for a smack around the chops of texture and taste which only gets better when additional chillies arrive at the table.


We debate how acceptable it would be to order the carrot cake for dessert, and after viewing the sweet menu decide it is probably the wisest option.  We don’t, only for the reason that the portions here are enough to fill even the greediest of gluttons, instead paying the bill that stays below thirty pound a head and retire to the nearby Edgbaston for further imbibing.  The place was busy on a Friday evening and it’s obvious popular with the well heeled cliental, though I personally prefer their sister venue in Kings Heath, Blue Ginger, where the cooking feels more consistent in it’s smaller dining room.  Still, it’s enjoyable and refreshing different from the Asian cuisine more readily available within the city.  And they do a pretty amazing starter, if you haven’t already heard.


Blue Piano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Elystan Street, London


Phil Howard is a man with bigger knackers than most. After two decades at the helm of one of London’s most important restaurants, he decided to sell The Square because the cuisine is no longer in line with the cooking that he wants to cook. For in industry so beloved of Michelin, he has effectively handed in his two stars and started again, making the move from a prime spot in Mayfair to one in Chelsea which failed to be fruitful for a certain Tom Aikens.  The new restaurant is a departure from The Square; less clinical, with table tops of wood and concrete replacing ironed white linen.  Natural light pours in through large windows that dominate two of the four walls, the others lined with the kind of modern art you wish you could afford at home.  The food, too, has changed.  Evolving into a vegetable heavy line-up with less emphasis on fats and protein.

The result is a restaurant that feels like an instant classic.  Ingredients are gently manoeuvred to bring out the optimum flavour, modern techniques employed for flavour, not frivolity.  Burrantina is elevated by a mollica like topping of dried black olives, toasted bread crumbs and spices.  Partially dried late season tomatoes give pops of sweetness, pine nuts crunch, and olive oil a gentle pepperiness.  It’s impeccably balanced and we mop up the last of the creamy cheese with sourdough of similar quality.  Another starter of beef tartare saw a fat quenelle sandwiched between slithers of berkswell cheese, itself on slices of artichoke that tempered the other big flavours.  The tartare was boldly seasoned with a dice of vegetables that provided bite against that finely chopped meat.  It tasted original, an achievement given how many tartare’s I have eaten of recent.



The lightness of touch continued in to the mains with cod, served with golden raisins, spinach and a curried cauliflower puree that lifted everything it was smeared on to.  The fish was glorious; a nutty brown exterior that opened up to flakes the colour of Simon Cowell’s veneers.  Lamb rump was given the Ottolenghi treatment, with bulbs of roast garlic and a fragrant pesto coated aubergine.  Aubergine came back as a puree whilst a crisp potato terrine sucked up the juices of the animal.  It was stellar cooking, clinical and clean, with not an ingredient used in vain.



Grouse was classically treated.  The delicate breast cooked to a consistent dark pink and doused in a sauce rich with tart elderberries that cut through the gamy meat.  A dice of root vegetables and an almost milky celeriac puree were harmonious whilst a crisp roll of the leg meat topped with a pear puree reinforced the birds flavour.  We revert back to the sourdough to clean up the last of the plate.


Desserts kept up the high standard.  A just-set blackberry jelly, dotted with fruit and finished with a sorbet of staggering depth, hit all the right spots.  The star though, was a perfect tart with pastry so fine we had to check it was there.  From the fig jam at the base to the frangipane full of coarse pistachio, every mouthful delivered in spades.

025023 I’ve tried my best not to turn this into a direct comparison with the previous home of Phil Howards cooking, though its inevitable that people will.  For me, the more simplistic approach allowed the produce to speak for itself.  Every flavour was pronounced and clear, every dish concise with its execution.  It was modern cooking delivered in Phil Howards unmistakable style. Elystan Street produced the meal of the year for me, despite being a week old when we visited.  This time next year I fully expect to see its name towards the top of the list on all of the important food guides.




Chez Mal, Birmingham

A few weeks back I had my birthday lunch cooked for me by a certain Andy Stubbs of Low’n’Slow, during his August pop-up at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath. For those uninitiated, Mr Stubbs is something of a local hero, expertly smoking cuts of meat over various chips, each appropriate to the animal and its accompaniments, and delivered with a palate of pin-point precision.  Our Sunday lunch consisted of two choices; brisket of wagyu or suckling pig, each of them perfect with roast potatoes that first crunched and then cushioned, and gravy that had the intensity of a several day reduction of animal juices.  It was, all twenty or so of us agreed, the pinnacle of Sunday roasts. Andy is hopefully opening a restaurant next year, when, fingers crossed, these roasts will return.


So that’s how Sundays should be done.  For the flip of that look no further than Chez Mal, the brasserie adjoined to the Malmaison hotel in the Mailbox.  The concept is appealing; twenty pounds for a buffet style starter, a main, and then a dessert.  Where it fails is in the execution, from the cooking right through to the non-existent service.  Our lunch took over two hours to deliver – the last hour of that being some of the most painful I have ever had in a restaurant.

It started decent enough.  The buffet style offering is well delivered and mostly well executed.  Cheese is kept in good condition with chutney and quince jelly.  Cured meats are of a high standard, the pick being slivers of serrano ham, the colour of a bruise and with fat that dissolves on the tongue.  Pork terrine was good, roast ham better and ham hock terrine even better than that.  Salads of roasted peppers and tomato were better delivered than sloppy couscous, but not as good as lentils packed with flavour and still retaining a little bite.  A chef was on board to offer advice, which we needed for dressings that looked uniform in appearance, and was more helpful than anyone else we encountered.

But then the gradual decline.  Sunday roasts were acceptable, the choices being either chicken from Normandy or thick cuts of beef from the ribs, both cooked correctly and gently.  A Yorkshire pudding tasted like it had been on the pass for some time, whilst gravy was deeply flavoured, if a little thin.  We liked the bowl of roast potatoes, less so the other bowl of veg which veered from good baby carrots to undercooked parsnips.

The other mains would not fare so well.  A linguine dish was erratic, the pasta a fraction overcooked, the tomatoes and peas nice enough but missing the advertised chilli heat.  A burger would be the worst choice.  Thick ground meat of no real quality, tightly packed and then cooked to a dry death that required the steak knife I was given.  It was a disservice to the life of a cow.  No animal needs to go like this; topped with a fatty piece of bacon, and smudged with a burger sauce that tasted of a crude bastardisation of ketchup, mayonnaise and vinegar.  It deserved to be quickly washed away, which it would have been, had we not been waiting for someone to collect our drinks order.



We should have ordered the cheese board for dessert, if only because the starters proved that they capable at shopping.  Instead we get a chocolate pot to pour onto bog standard ice cream and marshmallows, or, worse, the amaretto set cream which had started to split, with an acrid compote of peaches underneath.  At least a sticky toffee saved face, being sweet without overly cloying.

They save their greatest moment for the finish.  We were with family who were celebrating a recent engagement and had prior requested some cake with ‘Congratulations’ written on the plate.  Said cake arrives but with ‘Happy Birthday’ written instead, which, despite us making clear is not the occasion we are here for,  is left on the table without so much as an apology.  The bill is paid and we head elsewhere for cocktails, bemused that such a good start could become such a farce.  The salad bar for starters makes it almost worth going, the roasts themselves are okay.  The rest is unbelievably bad, topped off by the kind of service that left the most gentle of ladies frothing at the mouth.  It could have been so good, but ‘happy birthday’ Chez Mal, you’ve made a right hash of it.


Chez Mal Bar - Malmaison Birmingham Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Kebabylon at 1000 Trades, Birmingham

1000 Trades is one of the newer additions to the increasingly burgeoning Jewellery Quarter, located discretely in a listed building on Frederick Street, a few doors down from the equally new The Button Factory. It’s a New York dive bar style space of bare brick and square wooden tables, with an emphasis on craft beers and wine.  I like it there.  The service is warm and the bar well chosen.  There is an attention to detail in every tap and in every box of wine.  And they are proud to be a part of Birmingham, wearing its talent and history proudly on its walls.  It deserves to be a success as much as anywhere in the city.

They also have an interesting concept for food, with a gallery kitchen at the back of the bar hosting residencies for the cities up and coming talent. In their short life thus far they have had spells from the excellent Chilli Dog Dogs and another from the Chef patron of Two Cats Kitchen.  They have others lined up and it is my intention to give a quick post on each, depending on how much time I have and how little they have insulted me on Twitter.  First up is Kebabylon, brain child of Simon Masding, a young gent with an eye for a pun as well as a gap in the market.


Kebabylon is a simple concept:  Take the grease-laden, vomit inducing bits of air blown carcass meat that we digest at 2.30am when our will is weak and make up it something far more elegant and digestible.   In short he’s nailed it; taking the meat / salad / flatbread combination and making it something new whilst still retaining the appeal.  We try two of the them, the first being tender bits of chicken with tomato, olives, feta, and properly made guacamole and salsa.  Its called ‘Med in Brum’ which makes me like him even more.  The second has more of that chicken with salad, jalapenos and a ‘slaw made with scotch-bonnet.  It could have been spicier, but I left thinking just how much I would crave one after a few pints, which I guess is the point entirely.

With this we have some killer sweet potato fries, one topped with lemon hummus, another with the salsa, chunky cut and with loads of lime.  Both work because the fries are crisp and the toppings fresh with citrus acidity.

The bill totalled under thirty quid with a pint of the good stuff and a glass of a dry Italian white, which itself was a bargain.  Kebabylon is on until the weekend – go check it out if you can and get a few beers in whilst you’re there, though it has the legs to run beyond here and become a staple of Birmingham.  1000 Trades will then continue with its next instalment for which I will be back in a few weeks.

Tonkotsu, Birmingham

Tonkotsu comes to this city on the back of high praise, beloved of paid food critics and those pesky bloggers alike, throughout the six locations across London.  The groups first steps outside the capital is a curious one; being the food hall of Selfridges, where shoppers presumably show what taste they lack by going between Yo Sushi and Krispy Kreme.  We go three days into the launch and already the fifteen or so counter chairs are almost full.  Either Birmingham has a very knowing food crowd or I have underestimated just how hungry shopping for a Michael Kors handbag makes you.


The name Tonkotsu apparently translates as “pork bone”, which makes up a large portion of the menu – a long simmered stock of piggy bits that would normally be discarded as waste.  The result of this process is the backbone for this type of ramen; a stock soup with noodles and a few added bits and bobs that the Japanese have been chowing and slurping on for decades.  Ramen verdict later, we start with pork gyoza and chicken kara-age.  The gyoza’s are a disappointment, watery and flat on seasoning, only springing to life when dredged through the soy sauce.  Much better are the kara-age, crisp bits of deep fried chicken thighs, with a batter that snaps like fortune cookies when tore apart by hand.  They do a burger here with this chicken which on this form will be the sole reason for my return.



The Tonkotsu arrives in branded bowls.  The signature bowl is a murky off-white colour of pork stock, creamy in texture with thin bouncy noodles that they are rightly proud to say they make in-house.  There are thin slices of pork belly, half a boiled egg that has discoloured in the stock, spring onions and bean sprouts.  The first slurp is comforting, thereafter it is too salty.  I persist in the name of gluttony and awake the following day so dehydrated I feel hungover, despite sticking only to the yuzu lemonade that evening.  Another bowl with a pork and chicken broth is cleaner in taste and vibrant with a homemade chilli oil that first smacks the mouth and then the lips.  The chicken portion is meagre and we find it difficult to get excited about.  It reminds me of a similar dish at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York which punched well above its weight.  This version was only just treading water.



We play it safe and go for dessert elsewhere, not before being passed an incorrect bill which requires amending.  I welcome London’s finest coming to our city, though it needs to be done with the same quality.  No doubt others will love it, but crispy chicken aside, Tonkotsu left me underwhelmed.


The Almanack, Kenilworth




A deli board, being the first thing which we ate, seems an obvious place to start. A collection of meats; some cooked, others sourced, designed to share and graze.  To feed with variety.  All this food leaves the question of where to start.  We do by draping slithers of air dried ham over of toast.  The ham thinly sliced and almost opaque, with ribbons of fat that dissolve on the tongue.  We move on to slices of rare roast beef that come alive with the liberal application of a tart pickle and piping hot croquettes which ooze with cheese and tangles of ham hock.  Thick cuts of brioche are filled with pulled chicken and drizzled with sriracha sauce that instantly becomes the best sub that Subway never made.  There are leaves for those that seek reassurance in their diet, but this is a protein heavy board with comfort and delight at every twist and turn.

And so to The Almanack, Kenilworth’s arm of the mighty Peach Pubs empire.  I like this group, for they are equally individual and familiar.  At first glance menus look the same, though have subtle differences.  They source ingredients carefully and seasonally.  Meat is supplied from Aubrey Allen, which is a statement of intent in itself.  Whilst The Alamanack may not have the physical presence of The Highfield or Rose & Crown’s exterior frontage, it makes up with a luscious interior of deep blue booths, an imposing bar and a contemporary feel that suits the building.  Its a buzzy atmosphere with a more relaxed approach to service, which was fine with us.  We order a bottle of good Cote du Rhone and declare ourselves as in no rush.

A salad of scallops and monkish is given an Indian touch with deftly spiced brinjal potatoes, raita, and little poppadum’s for texture.  Slightly overcooked monkfish aside, everything was accurately seasoned and timed; the queenie scallops in particular with a lovely crust and only just cooked through.  A well dressed salad provided the required acidity to cut through the seafood.  Every bit as good was a lamb main ordered straight off the specials board.  The cannon cooked accurately to the requested medium with courgettes, tomatoes and aubergine which all add a freshness counteracted by a smokey puree of the aubergine at the base of the plate. Crisps of the aubergine work in the same way as the poppadoms on the fish main.  This is a kitchen which understands the need for touch as well as taste.



Desserts stayed on familiar territory.  A lemon posset leant nicely towards the sharper side of the spectrum, with stewed summers that added another profile of flavour and pistachio biscotti for the much needed crunch element.



The high note was a perfectly made treacle tart, dense and sticky and sweet, with ice cream that punched heavily with vanilla notes.  It has wobble in its filling and snap at the base.  It characterises everything that is right about The Almanack; dishes that you think you could muster at home, but could never execute this well.  It takes considerable skill to cook food to this level and still make it look simple on the plate.  With starters just over a fiver, that deli board fifteen quid, and mains in mid-teens, it’s a wise idea to put down the knife, book a table here and leave it to the professionals.


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

My meal at The Almanack was complimentary