Month: November 2016

Umami Indian Kitchen, Harborne

I used to live in Harborne.  Lovely place, polite and well mannered, with the whiff of affluence in the air.  It’s middle-class and proud; gents wear polo shirts with upturned collars all year round, occasionally pulling over a John Smedley knitwear when the wind outside Waitrose turns chilly.  Ladies sport designer handbags, often with designer pups perched inside.  Its a great place to live – home to the best pub in Birmingham, The Plough, and with far greater eating options than Moseley, its slightly rougher sibling which I now call home.  I miss it there.  What I don’t miss is the Indian food.  I love a curry and honestly, Harborne does the food of the subcontinent as well as it does parking.  We lived across the road from one that tried to kill me twice, with others not fairing much better.  So with the recent revelation that Harborne now has a restaurant that does Indian cooking as well, no one was more shocked than I.

First, let me address the name.  Umami is a term Japanese in nature, the so-called fifth taste sensation of savoury that they claim to have discovered in recent times.  The reality is that savoury has been a recognised flavour profile for hundreds of years, Escoffier noting a couple of hundred years back that it if it is brown it will taste good.  I digress, but still, naming an Indian restaurant after a Japanese term for a flavour not prominently found in the food of the sub-continent is curious at best.


And then the food happens.  Three fat scallops, seared to medium rare, in a thick puddle of a tomato gravy flavoured with black peppercorns. It was reminiscent of a dish I had in Goa, though this has more depth and clarity to the sauce without losing the essence of the shellfish.  At £7 its hard to see where the restaurants profit margins are, but we care little as we chase the last of the sauce around the plate.  Shekh Kebabs and Somasa are on more familiar territory, though each are a delight.  The lamb kebabs are fragrant with cinnamon which needs the salad for respite, and the somosa transcended by a warm chutney underneath full of garlic and chilli heat.



Mains are split in to more traditional curries and the chefs signature dishes, seemingly more expensive for bearing his expertise.  We try two curries, both with chicken of obvious quality.  We could smell the chettinad with it’s unmistakable aroma of coriander seeds as it made its way through the narrow dining room to our table, the multifaceted sauce rich with curry leaf and fiery heat.  Much calmer was their take on tikka masala, equally big on flavour with the smooth gravy, tempered and thickened by yogurt.  The chunks of chicken meat as tender as you could wish for.



A  monkfish main from the chef’s signature dishes may seem steep at £18.00 but it wins the night hands down.  The fish is dusted in a rich spice blend and cooked just through so it avoids any chewiness.  The medallions sit on a sauce of chilli and garlic that demands you sit up and pay attention.  Like me, its refined in appearance and extremely naughty in nature.  Two seabass fillets are nestled on a spiced mushroom ragu, dotted with peas and bound with a tomato chutney full of warming freshness.  If they have one dish that truly captures the savoury of umami, this is it.  We share supple naan breads and rice that has been cooked so that each grain is distinct.  Not a scrap is left as they clear up our table.


seabass Look, its not perfect.  They like cress as a decoration a little too much and there are as many managers as there are waiters, with more of the latter possibly rectifying the wait between dishes on the same courses.  Drinks take a while to arrive and when they do the cocktails require work, veering between overly sweet and too boozy.  But if I want cocktails I’ll go to a cocktail bar and the food, Oh My, the food is so Good.  A bill, amended to remove a glass of champagne that arrived late, hits just over forty pound a head with a couple of drinks each.  A cheaper meal could be had on much of Harborne High St, indeed at most of the cities Indian restaurants, but this is food of ambition and quality.  I have done the spectrum of Indian food in Birmingham, from the cheap to the costliest, but if you ask me which one is best I’d be hard pushed to suggest anywhere other than Umami.





Damascena, Moseley, Via Deliveroo

Mention Damascena and you will most likely get a hushed response like it is a dirty secret. It seems that despite numerous awards and a fair amount of press, some people would still have you believe that this is a hidden gem for only those in the know. It’s not. Everyone knows this is the place to come for the best m’tabal and shawarma, they just don’t want to talk about in case another hipster takes their place on the majlis to sup on chai.  And who can blame them – I hate it when my favourite majlis is taken.

I love it there, though I happen to hate queuing more and I now generally prefer to let those nice people at Deliveroo take the stress away by bringing it to my doorstep. It seems to be a healthier takeaway, one that fills my heart arteries with glee instead of ghee. Falafel may be fried but there is no oiliness to the crisp exterior and we feel no guilt as we dredge it through a thick hummus nutty with tahini. Eighteen months ago I wrote about a little place up the road in Kings Heath when I alluded to Damascana making the best hummus in Birmingham. Its a view that hasn’t changed.


Minced lamb is loosely compacted and doused in a warm tahini sauce that lifts the meat.  It is fresh with parsley and oregano and best enjoyed piled on to flat breads which are the perfect vehicle from plate to mouth.  Add some of the pickles from the falafel tray and you have something really special. Halloumi is marinated and grilled, the bland cheese taking on the sweet pops of pomegranate and crunch of raw onion.

I always order a m’sakhan flatbread and the counter staff always try not to smirk as I fail to pronounce it.  Order it from inside Damascena and the bread will be layed flat, with the spiced chicken and onion mixture piled on to its centre point.  Here its folded like a wrap, the olive oil seeping in from every angle.  Its as good as a chicken sandwich can be; the tender brown meat long marinated in olive oil and sumac so that it takes on a sharp citrus notes.  Slithers of almonds offer bite, chunks of softly braised onion do not.  When Damascena opens its second premises early next year in the city centre, you could do far worse than make this your lunch of choice.


Four dishes, enough to feed two, for little over twenty English pounds.  We even had enough left to make a small lunch the following day.  Its cooking of character, the sort you imagine that the team sits to eat together long after that the last hipster has left and enjoys as a communal.  Its a gem, not a secret, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Food this good deserves to be shared on the widest scale possible.

Deliveroo supplied the credit for this meal.  For £10 credit from your first order please use

Damascena Coffee House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Byron, Birmingham

Byron comes to Birmingham on the back of a big reputation down south, where they are dotted around the sprawling city for Londoners to get their fill. I always found the reputation bewildering; London is not short of good burger options in the same way that it is not short of superiority complexes – why would a high street burger chain be mentioned along with the likes of MeatLiquor or Patty & Bun? In my frequent visits to the capital I had never had one, because, in all honesty, there was always a more interesting option. Now it’s finally here after working its way around the country, in a prime spot on New St, and I have no get out clause. I heed my call.


It turns out those pesky Londoners are right. It’s a proper burger, made from the right cuts of cow and cooked correctly. We try two on the second day they are open and both are impressive, mostly down to the patty, which is beefy and accurately cooked to the medium they tell us it comes to as standard.  A ‘Smokey’ has the patty on possibly the best bbq sauce I have tasted – smokey, full of umami, with just a little heat in the background.  Crisp onions for texture and smoked bacon to reinforce just why it is called what it is.  A ‘B-Rex’, the most expensive of the single patty options at £10.50, comes with more of that bbq sauce, a greaseless onion ring, jalapeno’s, American cheese, and pickles.  There is a lot going on, but its all balanced impeccably, the jalapeno and pickles elements with enough acidity to stop it all being too much.

We have a side of fries topped with a gooey cheese sauce and bacon that wasn’t crisp enough that we probably wont order again, and chicken nuggets that we certainly will.  The nuggets are lovely morsels of breast meat that work well with the bbq sauce it comes with and better with the chilli sauce they leave on the table.

And here’s the thing:  Honestly, I expected to hate it.  I thought it would be another Five Guys mess of overhyped crap.  I couldn’t be further from reality, it is miles ahead of that rubbish and the likes of GBK. whom you would consider to be its naturally competition.  It will clean up in Birmingham and rightly so.  My only issue is the price, which at around twenty quid a head for a burger, a side and a drink is more expensive than Original Patty Man, who happen to produce the best burger in the city (provided you are happy to queue for it of course).  But as far as burger chains go, well done Byron, you’ve just jumped to the front of the high street queue.


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

The Howard Arms, Ilmington


The Howard Arms looks like it belongs in a film. The kind that involves a murder in a sleepy village. Or Hot Fuzz. Or worse, one involving Hugh Grant and a tenuous love story. The pubs sit one side of the village green in Ilmington, itself perched on the northern borders of the Cotswolds. Its a building of character, externally traditional and quaint and inside where it takes a new warmth of flagstones, deep leather seating and a roaring open fire. Each wall and corner tells a story of yesteryear, with pictures of equine and serious looking folk. The evening is settling in when we arrive and the place is buzzing with locals. It exudes a warmth far beyond that roaring fire.

We drop the bags off in our room and head back down for food in the raised dining area. Here the room feels more grand, more attuned to the buildings 400 year history. We order a decent bottle of new world sauvignon blanc and peruse a menu that has a mixture of safer pub classics with flashes of more elaborate offerings, all of which begs to be eaten. A starter of goats cheese soufflé has been baked twice so that it stands on its own with ease, topped with candied walnuts that add a softened nuttiness. Its mild mannered and needs the sweet and sour piquancy of the Cumberland sauce to cut right through it. Koftas are meaty skewers of lamb and cumin, tightly packed and just cooked through. They are a delight when piled on to soft cushions of flatbread and lightly dressed with a spicy red pepper salsa and soothing tzatziki.



They do things the traditional way here; indeed, if there ever has been a sous-vide machine in the kitchen it has long been hidden in the storing cupboard. Pork fillet is rolled in parma ham and roasted gently so that the outer layers are crisp and the centre of the loin blushing pink. It comes with a comforting puree of sweet potato, shitake mushrooms, and crab apples that provide the much needed acidity. It demonstrates considerable skill in the kitchen, in particular the sticky jus that holds everything together in one big autumnal hug. Also equally tasty was a slab of gammon, smokey and tender, with a fried egg that oozed and coated the meat. As with the pork fillet and the soufflé before that, one eye was firmly kept on acidic element, this time from a piccalilli full of crunch and vibrancy. The only slip were chips, under salted and flimsy.



Desserts were genuinely top notch in taste. A white and dark chocolate cheesecake could have easily been too heavy, yet managed to balance the flavour with a light texture that ran down to the buttery base. A bakewell tart was simply delicious; the frangipane not too sweet, the pastry crisp and thin. It doesn’t need the kitsch presentation or the out of season strawberries, its perfect enough on its own.



With both starters and desserts creeping in at just over a fiver and only steaks over fifteen quid for the mains, The Howard Arms is exceptional value for money. It also happens to be a lovely place to stay, a gateway from the north in to the utterly charming Cotswolds. The following morning we drive fifteen minutes away to Broadway where we burned off the previous evenings calories by walking the steep incline up to the tower.  Its a simply beautiful part of the world with some of the countries best produce on its doorstep.  Those looking to make the most of their trip could do far worse than staying and eating at The Howard Arms.


I was invited to stay and dine at The Howard Arms by Shakespeare’s England, the official board of tourism for Warwickshire. For more information please see