Midway through our meal, somewhere between wine bottle two and three, Claire leaned towards me and slurred “Sighh, if I wur to ever work aza shhef, it would be ‘ere”. I think. She could have said anything. Luckily for the food industry her cooking is nowhere near good enough; the people of Harborne are safe for now. Unless tax evasion is your thing, in which case she’s coming for you hard. But I do get her point. There is an ease to service here, the front of house are smiling, they let you see the kitchen and, shock, horror, they are enjoying themselves. Chefs happy, who would have ever thought it? Owner Jamie Desogus even closed a very busy Sunday service so that his team had a better work/life balance. Hell, if I were a chef I would want to work here too.
But I’m not, I am just a rotund gobshite with a healthy appetite. And this, our third visit in ten months was easily the best to date. There has always been a confidence to the cooking here, and now it stands broad-chested on the plate for all to see. Those salmon skin crisps are still there to be seasoned with rosemary vinegar, though they are now joined by cubes of livery ox tongue and crackers topped with a cheese mousse and grape. A slice of bread still follows, with a new friend in maltloaf for company. Nibbles can often feel like an afterthought; not here. They are considered and, more importantly, an insight into the food over the next few hours.
It starts with a bang. Two opening courses as good as I can recall eating in sequence so early on in a meal. Chicken liver parfait arrives under the canopy of crispy skin, with dots of blood orange gel, white chocolate, and hazelnut. The chocolate is far more daring in word than reality; it provides another fatty layer to the dish and lets the other stuff stick around longer. It works. It is so big on flavour you wonder if anything else could surpass it. The celeriac does. Salt baked cubes on a broth so heavily reduced it’s almost treacle. A flurry of blue cheese mousse hides little pieces of pickled quince and I ask for a supplement of Perigord truffle because in my head it makes perfect sense. Praise Be to that massive head of mine. It’s a beautiful plate of food that is immaculately balanced; savoury, followed by earthiness and umami, sweet, and then washed away by light acidity. Shit, I’ve just morphed into Greg Wallace. Pass me the gun.
The course that follows is a riff on the flavours of Thai green curry, with a fat fillet of cod immersed in an aerated cloud of lemon grass, galangal, and probably several other nuanced flavours my primitive palate fails to detect. A grating of kaffir lime zest brings that lovely aroma and puffed rice is there just on the off-chance you were actually expecting a cod curry in a smart restaurant in Harborne. It nods brilliantly towards The East whilst still retaining its spot as the fish course in a tasting menu.
The beef main does very little for me on paper, mostly because its beef. The reality is the opposite; we get a brave bit of cooking that works because it is flush with acidity and then whack! a solid bit of cow. I’ve turned into Greg Wallace again. Sorry. The star is undoubtedly the slowly cooked Wagyu brisket which breaks down at the slightest nudge of a fork. For me, it doesn’t need the Longhorn fillet, because those lean, expensive cuts tend to get shown up for how little flavour they have when stuck next to a more fatty and unctuous bit of animal. The rest is a demonstration on how to get the best out of beef; crispy shallots and pickled onions, a grilled king oyster and dainty pickled mushrooms, the silkiest of mash potatoes, and a puddle of chive oil that adds zip to it all. We take the cheese course because it is Brillat-Savarin, Perigord truffle and grape. If that particular menage a trois doesn’t get you horny, you really need to see a doctor.
On my first write-up here I got a little excited by the desserts by pastry chef, Michael Topping, and I am going to stand by what I said then. The man is a talent, he gets balance and flavour, and the importance of dessert not being pancreatic exploding sweet. First up is rhubarb ice cream with nitrogen frozen rhubarb cut with stem ginger. Following this is chocolatey mousse and popcorn with a sorbet of maybe yogurt, maybe banana, that I remember to be rich and salty and damm right delicious. Apologies about the hazy detail, I was pissed by this point. With these we drank some lovely Tokaji. I know this because it’s on the bill and Claire has purchased some since.
The bill with a lot to eat and as much to drink hits just north of two ton. You could have three courses and a nice bottle of wine for well under half, which was our intention before we got there. I love Harborne Kitchen, not only because it makes my girlfriend happy, but because it’s genuinely a fantastic neighbourhood restaurant that is simply trying to be the very best it can be. And it seems we’re not alone; aside from it being full on the night it has also been shown interest by a certain tyre guide and rightly so. Without wishing to put pressure on a place not looking for accolades, everything we ate was consistently at one star level. Big things are going at Harborne Kitchen and it couldn’t happen to a nicer place.
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