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.