Month: August 2018

Opheem; August 2018

My Dad was born in Aston and he is very keen for you to know that. I think he mentioned it about about a dozen times during a two hour lunch at Opheem recently. He says it to part justify and part bemuse himself at being in such a lavish dining room; his blue floral shirt showing a hint of silver chest hair to match his grey suit jacket, the ornate lights that sit central to the dining room reflecting off his tanned bold bonce. For a sixty-six year old widowed pensioner he’s owning it on his first outing to a restaurant that very much sits in the fine dining catergory. He generally doesn’t do this kind of thing; old Dave Carlo’s experience of Michelin stops and starts with a yearly M.O.T on his car. He is an obstinate creature of habit. Same pub every Friday. Same shop with those increasingly loud shirts. Same curry house with the same dishes everytime. Change doesn’t come easy at this age. But this year I’m committed to showing him the better side of things; he deserves it. Dad is both my biggest fan and biggest critic, he is the first to pick up the phone and tell me when I’ve not treated someone with the respect they deserve; the first to congratulate me when I’ve done well (unless it involves beating him). In the increasing parody that is my life he is my biggest constant and I bloody adore him for it. No matter how many I times I fall it is Dad that picks me up, dusts me off, and pushes me back to reality.

Opheem was in my mind the perfect fit for him: Aktar’s cooking has always for me been about family and generosity. Be it the portion sizes, the unstuffy service, or the nod to his own mother’s cooking, his food is egoless; designed with the diner’s pleasure in mind and never his own. I loved Opheem first time around – it is in my eyes the best opening of the year – and I was keen to say how the kitchen is progressing. Plus we have the added bonus of a new lunch menu which is absurd value at £22 for three courses. If Dad hates it then at least it is not going to be an expensive mistake. He doesn’t, of course. He bloody loves every second of it.

First the difficult bit. Try telling a pensioner whose Indian cuisine point of reference is Moghul in Acocks Green that a sperefied ball of tamarind and chilli water is going to be nice and watch his face. He eventually goes with it and is rewarded by the explosion of flavour that lingers long after the liquid dissipates. It’s properly clever stuff. He loves the pani puri that is layer upon layer of texture and spice, and even tries squid ink cracker with smoked cods roe and garlic. He quickly realises that the gulf between here and what he is used to is a huge one. The sweet potato bread appears with the lamb patè. I wait until he swipes the last of it the bowl before telling him those creamy jewels are brain.

I have mutton kebabs which are pucks of ovine and spice so smooth it is almost patè once you’ve broken through the delicately fried coating. The accompaniments of chopped tomato salad and yogurt mixed with mint are wry nods to the humble curry house. Dad had a dish derived from one of my very favourite things I’ve eaten this year. The ham hock samosa, once an element on the pork vindaloo main, is here the star. It has the same carrots roasted in anise, the carrot puree and the vindaloo puree. It is a beautiful piece of cooking that leaves Dad still talking about it one week after eating it when we meet again for beer and pool. Great food does that; it stays forever in the mind, outliving the eating and slowly morphing into a different beast that becomes a reference point that similar dishes will forever be judged by. I’m lucky to be there when my poppa is having that very moment.

Following an intermediary course of tamarind sorbet with sev and cucumber, we both have chicken for main. Thigh meat in a marinade pungent with herb, in a tomato and fenugreek sauce reminiscent of a certain chicken tikka masala. The chicken on both plates goes in record time, and I unashamedly ask for a jug of that sauce to put the rice and naan bread to use. Stained fingers and beard, the old man calls me classless. I hate to break it to him but I’m not the one wearing a brown belt with black shoes. Dessert is a pretty spiced custard with rhubarb ice cream and a fine dice of the barely sweetened fruit. It’s the only time Dad isn’t blown away. I eat both gladly.

There is an unfair association with lunch menus that the cheaper price means less effort. Whilst that is too often the case, it couldn’t be further from the truth at Opheem. Twenty two pound buys you nibbles, bread, four courses with sundries, and a view of one of Birminghams most talented chefs working tirelessly in his shiny new kitchen. The biggest compliment is given by my dining companion, who comfortably states that if my mother were alive she would want to eat here every night. Proof that Opheem isn’t just for those well versed in these type of surroundings, but for everyone. Even the old cantankerous bastard born in Aston.

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Burger Shop, Hereford

Given the previous night’s disappointment and that morning’s excess of booze on a distillery tour, our visit to Burger Shop was impulsive to say the least. But we are so glad we did. It was a proper burger experience, standing up to the better burgers I’ve eaten anywhere. They have an air of confidence here, the young team warm and professional, working from a menu that on paper looks small – it is – but in reality translates into a meal that never misses a beat. There is a lot to be said for conciseness; it shortens the margin for error.

Given that the evening’s dinner would take four hours and consist of twenty or so courses, we keep it simple. Beer for me, juice for the good lady, two burgers; one pulled lamb, the other essentially a bacon cheeseburger. The burger has genuine firework moments; loosely packed and properly beefy. There is a brioche bun that holds its shape throughout, and the usual accompaniments joined by dill pickles, and a mustard mayo, both of which provides clever acidity. The pulled lamb has shoulder meat that still retains texture, with pickled onions, charred red pepper, and celeriac ‘slaw. It’s delicious, if not quite as special as the beef.

And that’s it. £30 shorter and with the lingering sadness that we chose not to eat here the evening prior. Burger Shop is ace, taking the best of the local produce and putting them to the best of their use with the minimum of fuss. Many people told us it was here we should be eating in Hereford. If you too find yourself in this pretty city, you should heed their advice.

8/10

Beefy Boys, Hereford

I’ve come to the conclusion that Birmingham does two things better than any other city in the country; cocktails and burgers, both of which I think is driven by talent and competition that we have here in the Greatest City In The WorldContinentCountryWest Midlands Birmingham. Take the second city, London, for example; I love the negronis at Bar Termini, the ultra expensive martini at The Connaught, and the quirkiness of Calloy Callah, but I’d rather be sat drinking cocktails in The Edgbaston, 18/81, and Nocturnal Animals (eventually). And as for their burgers, yes, they might have Bleecker but dont even try to compare the likes of MeatLiquor, Honest, and Burger Bear to The Meat Shack, OPM, and Flying Cows, because I wont stand for it. It is the two areas where we have geniune competition and exceptional talent driving the best out of one another.

I can’t tell you much about the cocktail scene in Hereford, though I do know that they take their burgers seriously. It’s why we are here. Beefy Boys are the originators of this, multi award winning like yours truly, except they have a coverted Best Burger in The World award from 2015 instead of a cynical piece of glass handed out by one set up by a PR company. It would appear that these awards have paid off; the restaurant is a large glass fronted new build in amongst the chains. Inside both floors have well-spaced tables and some of the nicest front of house I can recall meeting who offer a complimentry cocktail as its my birthday. We order a lot of food; more than is sensible for two people, resulting in a bill that is in no way reflective of an average spend.

And then, well, I dont know what went wrong. What we had was not the best burgers in the world, or even Hereford for that matter. For a region known for the quality of the cow, it is the meat that I have the biggest issue with. From both the beef burgers the patty is a little wet, undercharred, overcooked, and underseasoned. It is a burger with the mute button on, the only flavours coming from the the toppings. A Rude Boy is better than the Hay Boy special due to the balance of chilli heat being spot on, compared to that special with ‘nduja that is possibly the most disappointing use of my favourite ingredient I have come across. What I find most weird is that for all of my bugbears on the patty the chilli topped fries are great; the beef flavour robust and accurately seasoned. It makes little sense.

A chicken burger would be the lowpoint of the meal. The meat has completely dried out, the advertised buffalo sauce not great, and the blue cheese barely present, if at all. The less said about it the better. The deep fried mac and cheese balls would be the best thing we ate, full of flavour and geniunely very good. It’s just you know the meal has been a let down when the highlight is a side dish.

So three disappointing burgers and two good sides. Throw in a couple of cocktails and a well warranted service tip and you end up with a bill of just over £60. A lot of money for burgers, more so when the meal is a massive dissapointment. I can imagine that at some point Beefy Boys really did have the best burger; one that made the most of this wonderful aged cattle, bringing it to life with robust seasoning, high heat and a little steam. Be it for what ever reason those standards appear to have slipped. Over a brief twenty four hours Hereford proved to be a great city. It is a crying shame that Beefy Boys happened to be the low point.

5/10

The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

A meal at The Wild Rabbit starts two miles away from the pub in Daylesford. It is here, behind the gigantic farmhouse that is the Daylesford organic farmshop, the cooking school, and Bamford Haybarn Spa, that you will find a sprawling farm. They have it all here; a dairy, cheese producers, orchards, poly tunnels and fields and fields and fields of the most incredible produce that I have personally ever seen in this country. On a hot summers afternoon we watch chefs in the distance talk to the head gardener and take back the pick of the crop; tomatoes, courgettes, the fattest of globe artichokes. This is their larder. And what a larder it is. The transition from soil to plate has rarely been more synchronised, or as successful.

Back in the pub the dining room is square, unimposing, and smaller than you may think. The pass lines up one side of the wall, through which we can see the relatively new team at work. Since the turn of the year the pub has gone through a drastic change of staff, the kitchen now led by Chef Patron Alyn Williams of namesake restaurant in Mayfair, and Head Chef Nathan Eades, previously of Simpsons. That is some team. According to them the cuisine has become more simplified, reliant on the produce from the farm more than ever. Whilst the bit about the produce is true, the food is not simple in the slightest. The technique is tight, the combination of flavours brave at times.

We go with the tasting menu because it seems silly not to, given that it is £65 and three courses would only be marginally less. I also opt for the better of the two wine pairings at £95 because I want to, and because this seems to be the best way of rubbing it into Claire’s nose, who is today’s designated driver to this beautiful part of the world. Crudités arrive swiftly in the form of spring onions, courgettes, cucumber, and fennel, served with a broad bean hummus. The quality of the vegetables are breath-taking, fresh and clean in profile, with the hummus lifted by an olive oil that has us begging to find out where it is from. From here we have two more nibbles, the first being knockout. A take on the ubiquitous Big Mac has beef tartare on a little brioche bun with burger sauce. The tartare has been cut with gherkins and capers, the sauce almost like a spicy béarnaise. It is glorious, up there with the best canapés I can recall eating. Following this is a croquette of pigs head with a puree of apple and red wine. The deep fried pig is rich and meaty, though I’m less keen on the puree that seems to ramp it up rather provide the acidity to cut through it. But still, what a world class start to the meal. Two types of bread roll keep up the standard. The attention to detail, right down to the butter churned back at the farm, is staggering.

The first course was a cracker. Tomatoes straight from those poly tunnels, picked white crab meat, Thai basil, burrata, and a mayo made from the brown meat. Everything is there to showcase the tomatoes which are stunning in quality. It’s bright and clean in flavour. The next plate has folds of iberico ham with peach, compressed and charred watermelon, fennel, and baby courgette. It’s a similar story to the first course, the ham is here to bring out the best in the peach and melon, the cured meat intensifying the sweetness of the fruit. A two part course sees rarebit on toast swiftly followed by an intense onion broth, cheese dumpling and jalapeño; just a few simple ingredients twisted into something magical. We ask for more bread rolls, smear thick with butter and work the last of the sticky broth out of the peripherals of the bowl.

A stone bass course would be Claire’s favourite of the day due to a rather genius garnish. The fish is impeccable; skin crisp, flesh opaque at the core, and even better with the shellfish cream perfumed with lemongrass. To the side are griddled courgettes, with mushrooms laced with cavier crisped up in a pan with a little onion and potato. I am not doing this element justice; it takes some very good produce and makes it exceptional, adding a luxury and salty element to the plate. Chicken has the unenvyiable job of following this, though manages to keep up the standards with a shard of breast and leek jaqueline and a side bowl of chicken casserole, finished with a kind of vichyssoise foam and a healthy dusting of truffle. As good as the chicken breast is I kind of lost all interest once I’d tried the casserole. Light and summery, the flavour from the less favoured parts of the bird are fantastic, lifted by the foam and frangrant truffle. Brilliant stuff.

A kind of summer cup slushy with raspberries sees us into the latter stages of the meal before the final fireworks. A millefeuille takes the same ethos as the savoury courses and places some beautiful plums at the forefront, both sandwiched between flaky puff pastry and as an icecream with unbelievable depth. Hands up, I’m a sucker for desserts like this, but there can be no doubting that this some serious pastry work. Chocolate macaroons conclude the meal. By now I’m full and more than a little tipsy.

I am reminded of an episode of Chef’s Table that focused on Dan Barber of Blue Hills. During that he recounts a story that defined Blue Hills; when they had an abundance of asparagus and he made the call to use the vegetable on every course. Whilst not on that extreme, the similarities are there: the repetitions of ingredients are not driven by anything other than prime seasonality. The ability to pluck something out of the ground in its best condition and transfer it to the plate with minor intervention. The meal is not about the protein, but about those courgettes, leeks, tomatoes and plums. It’s an ode to those who plough the fields at Daylesford. I really don’t want to keep on handing out perfect tens, but The Wild Rabbit leaves me no choice. Both Alyn Williams and Nathan Eades have created a menu totally unique to their environment which needs to be both applauded and celebrated.

10/10

Holy Moly Macaroni, Birmingham

In opening their inaugural branch in Grand Central, Holy Moly Macaroni have really laid out their plans. There is to be no settling in period; no slow burn of customers led by word-of-mouth to a discreet sign on a backstreet. They have positioned themselves in one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares; the gateway to our central train station, in amongst the chains that dominate the food court. They want to be seen, with the open façade a crash of neon that has attracted a waiting crowd like flies to a light. In that respect the gamble of high rents has already paid off. Where else would have them queuing out the door a little over a week since opening?

Now we can praise the audacity of a new independent and leave it there, or we can face facts about the quality of the food they are serving. I won’t be rushing back to join that queue anytime soon. It was fine, in exactly the same way that you say ‘fine’ when the waiter asks and it really isn’t. The issue is a pretty big one; for a restaurant that has built a menu around macaroni cheese, the main event is a let-down. Overcooked pasta, coated in a grainy sauce that tastes as much of uncooked flour as it does of the alleged four cheese blend that appears to have three of them missing in action. We choose a ‘Cluckin’ Hot’, yours for £10.50 with the addition of two sorry pieces of cheese topped garlic bread. The macaroni is beaten into submission by pieces of Cajun chicken, Sriracha sauce and jalapeños. We finish it all without really enjoying it. It is that kind of meal.

A dish without pasta fares marginally better. Chicken and waffles is fairly satisfying stuff; okay, the quality of the chicken isn’t the greatest, but the waffle is light in texture and it’s not been drowned in maple syrup. Apologies for the lack of action in this post; any excitement about the prospect of writing it died during the eating. We wash them down with a couple of cans of Brooklyn lager and leave, £30 lighter than when we started.

It was a meal that did nothing but make me miss the mac and cheese from Pure Bar, where it is cheesier and richer and cheaper. I wanted to love it, to embrace the ambition of taking on the big boys in their own yard, but I can’t. It’s simply not good enough at present. Sure, I expect that the bright lights will continue to bring the queues, but I’ll be elsewhere enjoying an assured meal, waiting for them to improve.

5/10

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Zindiya, 2018

This post is the first in quite a while for no fault but my own. Dear Reader, I have been a naughty boy, shooting that hyperactive gob of mine off at the wrong irrelevant person. I am not permitted to say anything on the matter, by my girlfriend who will probably leave me if I do, and by my agent who is presently haggling with Celebrity Big Brother over my value, but it has been a tough week. I have to be careful now. There can be nothing that seeks the attention of the local paper who are clearly struggling for news; nothing for the police to look into in. I’m going to have to be nice. Nice in a way that otherwise eludes me.

In a way I am lucky, because there really is nothing bad to say about the new menu at Zindiya, a place I am vocal about my love for but was probably due an overhaul on the dishes. They still have the stuff that I always go to, taking away a few dishes and adding a lot more, along with a dedicated menu for those grass munching vegans.

We dive straight in with Raj Kachori, a kind of liquid free pani puri that has the bonus of containing three kinds of carbs (potato, chickpea, and lentils) all dressed in zingy chutneys tempered by yogurt. We have aubergine fritters in a robust batter and a loose potato curry with a puffed bread to dunk. If I’m being hyper-critical, that potato curry, as nice as it is, doesn’t quite stand up to the excellent chole bhature they do here, which shares many common qualities.

They have a new chicken tikka here, a green one to go with the more conventional red one, so we try both against each other for comparison. The newer of the two simmers with a more vibrant heat and feels fresher, though I cant choose between them; a problem that’s created problems in my personal life. Do what we did and take both. Lamb keema is properly robust and warming, needing only the soft buns for transport, whilst the chilli chicken is the same indo-Chinese brilliance as the paneer version. I’ve really come to love both versions of this dish. We finish with chocolate pani puris with strawberries and a shot of chilli-chocolate milk. I enjoyed the one third that I was allowed. Claire clearly enjoyed the rest.

We have cocktails because they have Rob Wood’s approval stamped on them and are therefore brilliant, and pay a bill that works out at about £25 a head with far too much food to eat between two. Zindiya opened up a year and a half ago now and have managed to maintain a consistently high standard of food that continues to fill out the restaurant. With the new menu they have gone above that, adding dishes that will in time become as integral to the menu as the likes of the aloo tikki chaat and the original chicken tikka. They just get better and better. And you Citizen Khan’t say fairer than that.

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