Month: November 2018

Grace + James / The Juke, Kings Heath

I fucking love wine. Like really love the stuff. I do crushed grapes as well as the next man, unless that man knows more about the crushing of grapes than I do, which would be bad luck on my part. At present I am part of two wine clubs. I spend too much on wine and drink far too much. I hope the crash victim who is looking after my next liver likes crushed grapes less than I do. I’m hardly an expert on the stuff, though – if I am being honest now – have won stuff at blind tastings before. And let me tell you, the blind don’t taste that different. They just smell a bit mustier. I enjoy the process of learning whilst getting drunk; of new and old world styles; of grape varieties. Wine is a complex thing that turns most of us into far simpler humans.

I’ll admit to knowing nothing about natural wine. Nada. Zilch. Zero. I know that it’s supposed to be better for the enviroment and for our body, and I also know that the lack of sulphites is supposed to give a lighter hangover. The latter was a bit of information passed on to me by the somme-liar at Carters and proved to be total nonsense after the individual consumption of over two bottles. On the palate it is wild and funky like Rick James, occasionally being so fruit led it can taste like cider or perry. But these are just my observations from the last sixteen months when a dimunitive blonde turned up at my flat with several carloads of possesions and a five litre box of organic white from Wine Freedom. More recently we’ve had the opening of Grace + James up the road from us in Kings Heath. It is a genuine game-changer; one of our absolute favourite openings of the year. Part deli, part natural wine bar, they have succeeded in opening my eyes to natural wine. And it’s gorgeous inside, the neutral shop front giving way to a room of blush pink and tasteful additions. They do cheese, bloody good cheese at that, drafted in from the best in Europe. It is the only place in Birmingham I have seen a Saint Marcelin, which is a must-order should you find yourself in a similar position.

I still know nothing about natural wine, but I’m trying. We’ll sit and work through the bottles on the shelf, we’ll take advice from Henry and Sophie (who are presumably keeping Grace and James hostage), and we’ll make an evening of it listening to great music. Life is easy when it is this good. Grace + James is really rather marvellous.

I also fucking love beer. Like really love the stuff. I do hops as good as the next man, unless the next man is dressed as a rabbit in which case… oh, I give up. I also love music and the nostalgia attached to the dive bars of Americana when the brief pause between tracks was caused by one vinyl spinning back to its home and the next being flipped into place. It is this reason why I love The Juke, which convienently happens to be opposite Grace + James.

The Juke is a small but perfectly formed bar, ideal for those winter days and nights when the sight of outside would cause anxiety. They have a concise bar stocked with interesting spirits and craft beer takeovers on constant cycle. They have kitchen pop-ups and a small team for whom nothing is ever too much. What distinguishes here from all other places of similar ilk is the original 50’s Jukebox that sits to one side of the bar. It’s what the bar is named after. The options cover all decades and styles and is free, though this does leave it open for continous repetitive plays of Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ on a recent visit. I think you can learn a lot from other peoples taste in music: fans of Beirut come paired with works of JD Sallinger, whilst the Oasis fans can usually be found outside pissing up the front door. Me, I fill my time listening to Bon Iver and The National. Feel free to revert to whatever stereotype you want about that.

These two don’t share much in common other than an address and a passion to do the best they can. In that respect they have nailed it. Together they are part of a huge reason why York Rd is one of the best in Birmingham. It’s almost enough to make us want to move from Moseley to Kings Heath. Almost.

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Opheem, November 2018

Let’s cut straight to the chase: last week I had the best curry I’ve ever eaten. Better than the original Balti houses found within our once revered triangle. Better than the Michelin starred Indian restaurants of London. Better than anything I ate in Goa, and better – her words, not mine – than anything Claire has eaten in her multiple trips to Indian, including the Taj Mumbai. You want to know the place? Good, because I want to tell you. It’s Opheem.

These curries only exist away from the weekend, found in a little insert in the centre of the menu marked ‘traditional’. It is within this short list that Aktar Islam steps away from his more contemporary style and looks back to the very dishes that shaped him as a chef. We have slow cooked bits of mutton barely coated in a thick tomato gravy studded with cardamom, and a take on the ubiquitous Chicken Tikka Masala that draws groans of When Harry Met Sally pleasure. Both are decadent and original interpretations with not a stock sauce in sight. Both are so big and rich they demand a lie-down. I’m pretty sure that neither is very good for you, but frankly, that is the last of my concerns. Arteries? Who needs them. With this we order potato wedges tossed in toasted cumin seeds, rice which separates as easy as a Hollywood marriage, a daal, and the lightest of garlic naan breads. It is all mind-blowing good. The marker for all other curries from now on.

There was stuff before this, and I apologise for the effort you’ll need to make in casting your imagination back to before the curry, but this is my narrative and if you don’t like it then go read the other shit available. We start off with spoons of spicy beef tartare and spheres of spicy tamarind water which sit either side of a ball of sesame seed and dehydrated strawberry. It was this last item that evokes most conversation; the sweetness quickly giving way to a long nuttiness that evokes the sweet and savoury style of Indo-Chinese cuisine. We get the bread and paté course that has shrunk a little in size yet still packs a huge punch in flavour.

And then there were two courses to precede the mains; a mutton chop marinated in hung yogurt and then blasted through the tandoor so that the crust gives way to pink meat. It comes with a pumpkin thrice; a soft julienne, little balls and a puree, each showing that despite Aktar’s roots in the food of India, he understands the importance of texture and layered flavour. The soft shell crab dish has become less cluttered on the plate, the main attraction now carved in half and sharing a space with a crab cake and loose pate. The crab is still the star though this now fresher with more natural acidity. Without wishing to dive into names, Claire compares this to another local Indian that may have some association with the chef here. They also do a soft shell crab, though this makes theirs look like a ‘child’s rendition of the Mona Lisa’. She can be so cruel. There is an intermediary course of rosehip and beetroot that is too sweet to sit where it does. It is the only thing we aren’t crazy about.

After the curry there is no room for dessert, but plenty of room for more gin in the bar area. The bill for the above and a good bottle of wine comes in at around a £100 per head, though this is on the greedy side of both food and drink. You could, and likely will, do it for far less. This is my third time at Opheem, following the first in late spring when I came home and told Claire that it would be the most important Indian restaurant in the UK within two years. She didn’t see it, given that her only experience had been on the first night of a soft launch in an unfinished dining room. We hadnt made it through the starters when she conceeded that I was right, which I am. Opheem is a shining light in the Birmingham food scene that not only reinvents the way we see Indian food but also pays homage to its roots. Simply unrivalled in this city.

Opheem (curry is on evenings, Sunday-Thursday)

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Pictures by the birthday girl

The Summerhouse, Hall Green

The Shaftmoor is a pub which has inadvertently shaped part of my upbringing. I never entered until my early thirties, when I would join my brother and dad for beers following my mother’s untimely passing. Prior to that it was the pub I was scared of; the one on the end of nan’s road, opposite the chippy on the wrong side of the area in which I grew up. There would be stories of fights which would spill out on to the carpark and locals you should avoid to the point that even in my late teens I would jog nervously past on the way to my friend Alasdair’s house. Nobody I knew went to The Shaftmoor and neither could I, especially with my supercilious wardrobe of moleskine and pastels in an area where the tracksuit is staff uniform. It’s nonsense of course. The pub would transpire to be a little ragged around the peripherals but inside was a homely space where no one judged three blokes quietly sobbing over a game of pool and drinking cheap lager. I liked it. I liked it’s soul and it’s honesty. They even had a shack outside cooking up seekh kebabs and chicken tikka on weekends, which I swore I would eat and review but never did. Me and my stomach have a bad relationship at the best of times. I’m not prepared to call it completely off by eating from a smoking shed.

That pub is now The Summerhouse. It looks far more inviting from the outside than it used to, with not much of a makeover inside, but enough to add a quid to most of the drinks. Aside from the lick of paint, new chairs, and bizarre Irish wall murals, the majority of the cost appears to have been spent on the kitchen. Gone is the shack, replaced with a glossy new area from which the latest of the city’s Indian Desi pubs will serve vast amounts of meat on sizzling black plates. I should probably take this oppurtunity to moan about yet another one of these opening, but I won’t: they are great at breathing new life into pubs on the way out, and anything that saves a pub from shutting down is fine with me. Plus they have the credentials of being from the previous owner of The Horseshoe. If the food is up to the standard of there, I’ll be running through the doors as opposed to past them.

The good news is it is pretty good. A chicken madras may have had the whiff of jarred sauce but the spicing was rich and fruity, the lumps of poultry only just drying out. I’ve had far worse at places charging twice the price. The mixed grill also impresses, with chunks of fat chicken tikka where the marinade has worked into the centre of the meat, and chicken wings that offer plenty of spiced flesh. The chicken seekh is missing in action, and I’m non-plussed about the lamb seekh which is underwhelming and overworked. Chips are straight out of a bag, into a fryer and dusted with some generic spice. Exactly what we anticipated.

The wait of 50 minutes for the food is passed on the pool table, meaning that I am late back to work and unable to finish the food, or query the missing chicken seekh from the grill. I’m conflicted about the score which sits around the seven mark before the missing bits of food and the lengthy wait. Look, it’s good if you happen to be in the area, which I will be several times a year, though in the grand scheme of desi pubs it’s not going to top my list at present. Given that Dad lives ten minutes walk away and my brother likes to drink here, I’ll be eating here often enough. I sincerely hope that I’ll be reporting an improvement here somepoint in the future.

6/10 

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Folium, Jewellery Quarter

By the time our booking came around I wasn’t really looking forward to dinner at Folium. It was my fault: I’d made the schoolboy error of going out the night prior at 5pm sharp, returning home not far from the start of the next working day. What had started as a polite dinner with wine, descended into a full blown assault on the liver by grown men who really should know better. We’d found out a national chain of cocktail bars was offering a deal that essentially swapped turnips for drinks, resulting in two carrier bags full being lugged from Five Ways to Brindley Place and then on to the business district. Too many cocktails were consumed, one of the group may have been sick, another struggled to find a taxi willing to take him home. Turnips, eh? Who knew they could be so interesting.

There are better uses for the turnip, as I was to find out the following evening after suffering a hangover so severe not even a lunchtime curry could cure it. Try spiralising it into ribbons, blanching in parmesan stock, and then dressing it in an emulsion of the same cheese. Bury flecks of Hen of the Wood mushrooms and lardo in amongst the twisted pieces of faux pasta, and crown it all with a flurry of grated black truffle. This is what we should be doing with turnip; not swapping them for poorly made Zombies. It was a stand-out dish in a meal that hardly ever missed a beat, later to be described by Claire as one of her favourite dishes of the year. And this must be true for she pilfered several forkfuls of mine. It had bags of flavour; reminiscent enough of carbonara for it to feel familiar without the nostalgia attached.

This was course two of six at Folium, a restaurant we’d been meaning to get to for ages yet had never quite gotten around to it; a mistake we won’t be making again. The room is modern and sleek, making the most of the large windows that peer out towards St Paul’s Square. The centre is dominated by a drinks station; the space to the left the pass from which chef Ben Tesh is hard at work. We start with the most delicate of crab tarts given an extra fatty layer from grated duck liver, and move on to layers of cod skin cleverly crafted to look like oyster shells, which are to be submerged in a piquant tatare of oyster emulsion. The sourdough which arrives shortly after these is a work of art; a tight, chewy, crust holding a crumb that is light with uneven pockets of air. So good that I forgot what the butter was like. I’m calling it now: this is the best bread in Birmingham. It is a great start and we haven’t even started properly yet.

The menu starts with smoked eel hidden under a cloud of potato seasoned with chicken skin. The dish has swagger and big hitting flavours. We have the turnip course and then a glistening fillet of turbot. The fish is glorious, dotted with a gel of champagne vinegar, with potato puree and a dashi poured tableside. The genius addition is hay smoked butter that adds a perfumed richness. It has acidity laced throughout. It is an absolute stunner. Lamb follows this, both as a piece of pink saddle and slow cooked neck that it is sweet and soft. We get jerasulem artichokes in various forms including a blob of the silkiest puree, and sea vegetables carefully tweezered into place. In the middle is a sauce that speaks of time and precise seasoning. I ask for another piece of the bread and ensure the plate returns back to the kitchen clean.

The first of the dessert courses is a herbaceous green granita spooned around an unsweetened ice cream of sheep’s milk yogurt and aerated pieces of white chocolate. It’s over-shadowed by the last course: a chocolate creameux covered in a drift of cobnut crumb, with a salted milk ice cream and shards of milk skin tuile. I can’t pinpoint what chocolate bar this reminds me off, but who cares? It’s addictive with a pleasing salt content. It is also one of my favourite desserts of the year.

Service, led by Ben’s partner Lucy, is excellent, with a young and enthusiastic team. Wine is topped-up accurately, dishes explained with real knowledge. It makes the bill – just shy of £200 for two with a bottle of Beaujolais and a glass of dessert wine – feel real value. They have something special going on here, confirmed just 36 hours later when Marina O’Loughlin writes a glowing review in The Sunday Times. It makes this post somewhat irrelevant. Don’t listen to this minor blogger, read the words of one of the finest restaurant critics instead. She thinks that Folium is brilliant, as do we. You really must go.

9/10

Folium

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Pictures by Claire