Month: May 2019

Calum Franklin vs Brad Carter, Carters of Moseley

Brad Carter has a cookbook coming out in a couple of weeks. I say cookbook loosely; the recipes are of the staff meals they cook in between shifts, intermittently placed between pages of Brad’s friends, his inspirations, and his producers. I’ve had a quick look and it really is unlike any cookbook I’ve seen before; it’s going to look great on my coffee table. The pages that matter to me are around halfway through, jet black and with ‘Birmingham’ emblazed across the widest points. It is everything you need to know about Brad in a one-word synopsis.

Part of that love for Birmingham extends to the occasional Sunday evening collaborations with friends of his. There have been recent voyages into Chinese and Thai cuisine which I cant tell you about because I never went, and this one with Calum Franklin which I was given no choice about. Mr Franklin of Holborn Dining Room is well known for his pastry skills, a food type that is effectively heroin to my Northern girlfriend. I’m not saying that she was determined to go, but I was sent a calender event for when booking opened, and we had two alarms, three phones and a laptop ready. She may have lost her shit a bit when it wouldnt let us on to the booking screen, and she was elated when we secured a table. Want Claire anywhere? Promise her things that remind her of home like pie, rain, and the decline of the coal industry. Gin also works, but gravy works better.

What follows is three hours of food that I’m still trying to walk off two weeks later and Claire would describe as the most enjoyable night she’s had in a Birmingham restaurant. The first course is listed as a tart, but is really a vol-au-vent of puff pastry filled with the components of lobster thermidore. The luxurious touches come in the form of a breaded claw, rising proudly from the pastry, and a little Exmoor caviar for salinity. It is cheesy, yet with a whack of the ocean. If seventies dinner parties tasted this good I’d gladly wear flares and grow my pubes to travel back in time.

The showpiece was up next, paraded by Brad throughout the dining room like he was in a beauty pageant for bearded men in shorts. A patè en croute bearing the words ‘Carters vs HDR’ the along the length, which when sliced contained a centrepiece of the acid house smiley face – a tattoo that Carter has on the inside of his bicep. To me, this was the strongest course; the filling of rabbit, pork, and pistachio distinct, lightened by the turmeric coloured chicken mousseline that makes up the face. The pastry is rich, though not as rich as the decadent rabbit jelly that has been fed into it all day. On the side are fermented mushrooms cooked in butter, and mustard seeds sweetened with local honey. The acidity is gentle, leaving the pastry as the king. It is the complete dish. Last year we tried a world championship winning patè en croute at Daniel et Denise in Lyon: this was better.

And without wishing to sound like a press release, the fun didnt stop there. A scotch egg was executed perfectly, the filling of white pudding and pork highly seasoned, the bright yolk oozy and luscious. What we really love is the buttermilk and wild garlic sauce that is sharp and has the astrigency of white garlic thanks to last years pickled garlic buds. A pithivier of mutton finishes off the savoury courses, with the suprise of a top-half of layered spuds on entry. It is, as the table next to us point out, essentially a cottage pie encased in puff pastry, and if the sound of that doesn’t turn you please take those eyes of yours elsewhere because we don’t want you here. The asparagus spears cooked in lamb fat are just plain naughty, too. Shout out to my girlfriend who shows the dining room just how Northern she is by filling one half of the pastry shell with gravy. Her mother would be so proud.

Dessert is a Paris Brest – 2019’s most on trend pastry – filled with raspberry creme pattiserie lightly scented with rose. It would have been easy to kill this with floral notes, but they hold on to the essence of those lovely raspberries and choux pastry. I have no idea how I fit it in, but I do. It’s been a long night.

The menu ticks in at £75 a head and we add a considerable amount more tucking into far much pink wine and then red wine and then more pink wine and a little more red wine. It’s not a cheap Sunday evening, nor should it be. Birmingham needs nights like this; chefs of Calum Franklins ability showing us something entirely unique – we’re booking in to Holborn Dining Room to try more of his work as a result, so it’s worked from that perspective. It was a fantastic night, one that makes me smile thinking about it even now. Brad Carter lives and breathes this city. We should all be very thankful for that.

A2B love Birmingham almost as much as Brad and ferried my fat arse around as ever.

Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth

I feel like Tynemouth has been kept a secret from people like me. That if word got around the area would be ruined by precious souls inflicting their rushed way of life on the locals, bringing down the community with bad habits. The truth is they do things differently up here. They do life better. They have not one, but two beaches, separated by castle ruins straight out of a movie scene and a pier that requires a full turn of the head to track from shore to lighthouse. There is no immediate rush to get anywhere, and everyone wants to help: from the woman in the lunchtime queue who advised on what to order, to the man who started off giving us directions and ended up advising on how to avoid a parking charge. The people are better here, untainted by the rat race that engulfs the bigger cities, unharmed by the obsession that status is everything. On the morning we arrive in Tynemouth it is bathed in pure sunlight. The picturesque village is quietly heaving with those transitioning from coffee shop to pub terrace, hell bent on making the most of an unusually warm Monday in May. We pass these on the way to the steep steps which lead down to King Edward’s Bay. We have lunch to eat.

Riley’s Fish Shack is just that: a wooden hut sat off-centre on the beach. It’s a tiny place with a huge reputation. Two tables inside protected by sliding glass doors, and seating for maybe ten more on wooden stools if the weather holds up. We get there early, order wine and wait for the fish to arrive. It is noon by the time that we can order, by which point the queue is fifty deep. Clearly they have an audience. We order chilli fish empanadas, a small portion of langoustines, monkfish kebab, and turbot with garlic butter. Two more glasses of wine and pay the total of £80.00. The cheapest item is just under a fiver, the most expensive is £26. As ever, we massively overestimate our eating potential.

Simply put, it is one of the best meals I’ve eaten in recent years. Maybe it is the terroir; the shining sun and the North sea slowly rippling onto the sand. Or maybe it is that the fish is supremely fresh, cooked to a nacre either directly over flames or in the pizza oven. From the pizza oven comes chilli fish empanadas, a kind of pasty encased in pizza dough. The casing is robust; tightly crimped like the crowd at an 80’s tribute night which works the jaw like a pill at a 90’s rave. The filling is an unidentifiable white fish (I’m taking a punt at coley) spun with veg and plenty of spice. At £4.80 it would make a very nice office lunch provided you were happy to join the queue which was 80 strong at this point.  A small portion of langoustines is a more primal affair that requires a good grip and hand wipes. No wonder my girlfriend was so good at it. Free the meat from the shell and dredge through a garlicky mayonaise. Repeat process. Produce this good requires minimal intervention.

And then they pulled out the big guns. Turbot is cooked on the bone, which anyone with any sense will tell you is the best way to cook turbot. It comes drenched with brown butter flavoured with garlic. You know it is going to taste great just by looking at it. It does. We communicate only in raised eyebrows and smiles. If anything the monkfish is even better, the meat almost delicate in texture and with a hint of char from the grill. It is served on flatbread coated in a spiced potato puree, with tamarind, spinach, fresh chilli, raita, and bhel puri. It demands to be torn up, folded, and eaten in one. For once I’m not happy about sharing – finding an excuse to travel to the extremities for food like this is the very reason I started this blog. Both of these are served with blackened potatoes that have seen both parts of the grills flame. There is a salad of sorts that we don’t really touch, and a sourdough stick that Claire waxes lyrical about for the rest of the day. We both hum of garlic. Neither of us care.

Afterwards we walk back into town, contemplate walking down to the lighthouse, and then decide that a trip to the nearby Gareth James is far more sensible. It is there we eat the most incredible chocolates over coffee whilst looking at properties, dreaming about a life where Riley’s is within easy reach. I’d seen it on a programe with Michel Roux Jr, another with Rick Stein, and read about it in The Observer. I’ve always wondered if fish cooked over a bit of wood and a flaming grill could be that good. It is. It really is. Riley’s Fish Shack is a little bit of perfection in the most idyllic location. Life really doesn’t get any more rewarding.

10/10

Peace and Loaf, Newcastle

It was Masterchef The Professionals that drew my attention to chef Dave Coulson. I like Masterchef The Professionals for numerous reasons. First and foremost it doesn’t contain John Torode, and it has marginally less Greg Wallace which, like those useless Panda bears (who, like Wallace, also chew with their mouth open and mostly do nothing), is still too much but is at least an improvement. The cooking is at least 30% better than the best of the standard show and approximately four million times better than the celebrity version, which does nothing other than shatter my dreams of semi-famous pop stars who gave me semis in my teenage years. It features Monica Galetti and her excellent scowl, though I preferred it in the early years when they had to earn the right to cook for her then boss, Michel Roux Jr, as opposed to now when they get handed open-palmed to Marcus Waring. Dave Coulson was on screen in those early days, impressing Galetti and winning over Roux Jr. I remember him clearly: shy, a little awkward, with a dry wit underpinned by that humbleness which eludes us in the lower end of the UK. Moreover I remember his cooking: his refined take on the flavours of a chicken pie, or the strong nod to Asian flavours. He made the final and I made a promise to myself to get to his restaurant.

We finally get around to this on a little road trip around the North East where his restaurant, Peace and Loaf, would be our first stop. It can be found on a quiet row of shops in Jesmond, the black frontage hiding a large space behind two sets of doors of which opposing sides open to confuse morons like me. Inside the kitchen pass sits on the middle of three floors, with the chef’s beard and tattoos visible at all times from our elevated position. His style of cooking reminds me of a certain David Everitt-Matthias, albeit with less precision in the presentation: there is an earnestness to the way he delivers an ingredient, a dedication to it’s surroundings, and he likes that challenging mix of land and water on the plate.

From the snacks that arrive we know that the trip is worth it. Crab cakes with sriracha mayonnaise are dense and spicy, a tomato loaf has a herbacous balsamic dip, and shards of linseed cracker with apple puree are well mannered if a little underwhelming. Best are cubes of fried corned beef, fatty and unctous, with a little brown sauce, that would be the first of many nods to the food of the North. The next would be a starter of parmo – traditionally a teeside dish of battered chicken cutlet with tomato sauce and melted cheese – reworked here to have octopus as the main protein. It has no right to work to work, yet it does; the tenticle was tender, the batter light. Underneath was a kind of seafood ragu not dissamilar to the one we had two weeks prior at Le Gavroche. The addition of parmesan isn’t too wild when you think about it; lobster stands up to it with thermidore, why shouldn’t octopus? Anyhow, it was very nice and managed to make the other starter of artichokes in various forms look a little boring in comparison. It had tiny forgivable flaws; the veloute is a little heavy on salt, and they make some of the crisp elements a little soggy, though it works, mostly due to the gloaming black garlic at the base of the bowl that sucks in the lighter, earthier bits. Bao buns then arrive. We never order bao buns, but it’s okay because everyone else is getting them. They are good bao buns, light and delicate, filled with braised duck that threatens to exit side door and ruin my shirt. I could eat a lot of these. Yes, I am fully aware that it’s a little batshit crazy to serve a Tawainese street snack in between the starter and main, but then I suppose we’ve just eaten battered octopus with cheese, and still have lamb with kippers to come.

I don’t enjoy that lamb with kipper dish. It suffers from an attention deficit and is loaded with a lengthy list of ingredients that crash into one another at high speed. The lamb is really well cooked, and I’d have probably enjoyed it with the red peppers and the gastrique sauce made from the same vegetable. I liked the goats cheese bonbon, and the little bit of kipper I tried with the lamb made a little sense. Goats cheese with kipper is just plain unpleasant, and the cubes of falafel are too granular and have absorbed a faint fishiness. It’s too much. There is also a lot going on with a monkfish, though this time the various bits bleed into one coherent chorus. The curls of fish are beautifully cooked, with nuggests of cheek in a light batter. There are long straggly bits of carrot, whole roasted carrots and a carrot puree. There is a smear of what I think is tamarind, paneer, and a side of the most addictive dhaal topped with deep fried chilli and onion. What holds it together is the sauce, which is buttery, rich and lightly spiced. It’s busy but everything is running in the same direction. It is a very good bit of cooking. Claire orders a side of salt and pepper chips, which are new to me because I grew up in a cosmopolitan city where Chinese takeaways and chip shops are allowed to exist separately. They are a revelation; the chips snap in the right places, the soft tangle of onion, pepper, and chilli familiar from fried chicken or squid.

Dessert is an easy option. All of them, which the French like to call an assiette and Claire now thinks should be a mandatory option everywhere we eat. I’ll ignore the fact that the four desserts are served on a plank of wood and focus on how good they were to eat. The skill is obvious; they all riff on familar flavours and have a firm finger on the pulse for texture. A take on tiramisu is a boozy affair, as is one that has rum fluid gels with pineapple and coconut sorbet. The sandwich of rhubarb and custard is too sweet, though I am amazed by the wizardry that is the cream that tastes of puff pastry. Best is a chocolate mousse with cherry sorbet and pretzel, the salt level intensifying the flavours in a way I wasn’t expecting. All four of these are just £20: little wonder the table next to us are trying to bargain with us for some of it.

Service is excellent, and three glasses of wine leaves us with a bill of £130 to pay before we get in the car and drive north to our next destination. One dish aside I really enjoyed Peace and Loaf, with its playfulness and feet firmly in its surroundings. As we leave I head over to the pass to personally thank the chef. He smiles and asks me to tell all of my friends about it. Don’t worry about that Chef, I’ve got that bit covered and then some.

8/10

Independent Birmingham Festival, 2019

I think this Independent Birmingham Festival was my favourite so far. It may have been the excellent company we kept, the stream of friends we bumped into continually throughout the day, or the fact that I was very tipsy by 1pm on the Saturday, but they really nailed it. Here is a super quick post on what we ate and drank at this celebration of the wonderful independents in this great city.

Buddha Belly. <

I’m mentioning this first because the sight of Momma Buddha Belly cooking with Sai melted this cold heart. A slightly different menu this time which we dived straight in to. The more familiar Southern Thai curry was ordered with salmon fish cakes and an outrageous beef noodle broth not dissimilar to a pho. Seriously classy Thai food. It’s impossible to not love Buddha Belly, even when I'm on strict instructions to not swear.

Baked in Brick.

Lee decided to spit roast an entire lamb for this event, which took me back almost twenty years to when we used to party together. We had a hybrid dish of the lamb meat with mac’n’cheese, salsa verde, crispy potatoes cooked in lamb fat, a Yorkshire pudding and gravy. The salsa verde was insane, as was the quality of the meat. Claire drank gravy from the Yorkshire pudding because that’s what Northeners do. Mental.

 18/81.

Because we have very good taste. Claire’s was a profanity laden one that tasted of pumpkin spice, I had the off-menu Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee. I lie. I had three of them. Because we have very good taste.

Loki.

A delicious fizzy pink wine which tasted of tip-tops. Drank two bottles so must have been good.

Zindiya.

You may be aware that I live very close to these guys. I may have had a Deliveroo from them the night before. Still never stopped me eating a chicken tikka kati roll and samosa chaat. Huge amounts of flavour in everything they do.

El Borracho de Oro. </

They had a very attractive looking paella on the go, though it wasn’t ready so we changed tactics and went with patatas bravas and ham croquettes. It was a good choice. Both were crazy good.

Original Patty Men.

I have mad love for the burgers from these gents. The one I had with chorizo was as good as burgers get.

Waylands Yard.

Eggy crumpets. Halloumi. Chilli sauce. Call the fire brigade; this is absolute flames.

There were also custard tarts from Salcooks, plenty of gin at Jekyl and Hyde, and cakes from Bake. There were dogs, more dogs, live music, the best in local businesses, and more dogs. I think that someone complimented me on my coat, but I was pissed by then so they could have been calling me something far less polite. Most of all it was full of Brummies celebrating the best of Brum; sticking two fingers up to anyone who says otherwise. I had the best weekend there. I can’t wait for the next one.

In keeping with the Best of Brum, A2B got us there and back.

Palmyra, Moseley

One of the things about this blog that I find tricky is how to address the decline in standards. I eat out three, maybe four times a week, frequently in the same places. I don’t write about all these meals because a) I can’t arsed, and b) it would be incredibly boring for you to hear about my 176th meal in a place that never changes its menu. It would be naive of me to think that any place keeps to the same level week-in-week-out for years on end, yet my words on a restaurant are merely a singular snapshot of one meal that I’ve had. This I’m extremely aware of. There are presently places – iconic places at that – in Birmingham city centre that I would avoid because I don’t think they are as good as they should be, and likewise there are a few which are marginally better than when I first went. It is a balancing act to know when to steam in on these places, when to praise them, or when to just leave them alone. It is a balancing act that I am yet to master, mostly because I am really shit at balancing. I can tell you that the last pizza we had at Otto was the best we’ve eaten from there, that Bonehead has hit a consistent stride just in time for the head chef to leave, and that my patience with Lewis’s has pretty much ran out.

Damascena is one of those places. It’s probably ill practice for me to mention the competition for a similar restaurant that I am about to rave about, but the truth is Damascena is not as good as it used to be. We used to eat from there once a week. Then once a fortnite. Now hardly ever. The standard has dropped, and I have no problem mentioning this because I wrote to them to tell them some time ago. They wrote back with an answer that was refreshingly honest and infuriatingly blood boiling in equal parts.

But fear not, Dear Readers. Both of you. We have a new kid in town and hopefully this one won’t be tripe in two years time. Palmyra, I gather, comes from a previous employee of Damascena, and is located about 40m away from said establishment. It is absolutely-no-doubt-at-all better than the place over the road: the only questions are whether it is better than Damascena ever was, and if it is the best of its kind in the entire city, to which I say yes on both fronts. The decor is loud and boisterious, with more gold than a rappers mouth and the subtlety of a footballer’s wardrobe. I settle on the soft furnishings by the window and subsequently get told off for not ordering at the counter. I order a mezza for one and strike a deal to add meat to the hummus for an extra quid. I also add barrata harrah and a drink, taking my bill up to the heady heights of £17.09. Please keep that figure in mind.

From that mezza is a tahini heavy hummus, possibly a little overworked, topped with chicken shwarma that has crisp fat and delicate meat. It has a fattoush salad, sharp and spicy, with those addictive shards of pastry that add bite. There is a bowl of fuul with lingering heat, full of ripe tomato notes and thickened with blitzed up fava bean. It is topped with chopped tomatoes and plenty of fresh herbs, and I take pride in pressing the flat breads against the edge of the bowl and not leaving a scrap. That fuul is remarkable, as is the falafel which is the best I’ve eaten anywhere. The coating has been fried to a crisp, the inside soft and dissipating in the mouth. It is how I imagine falafel should tastes but never does. I plough through the two slices of salty halloumi, leaving the olives and salad to be boxed for later. Its a lot of food for what is normally (meat free) £9. It could easily feed two people. The barrata harrah is completely unnecessary but so good. A huge portion of spicy potatoes with flavours that refuse to sit still. Again, as good as I’ve eaten anywhere.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that I enjoyed Palmyra a lot, so much so that I attempt to personally thank the chef whilst paying. He doesn’t see me; he’s too busy dancing in the kitchen. It’s probably for the best. I’ve found somewhere that I love again: a little place down the road from me that serves the most incredible middle-eastern food full of vibrancy and flavour. I really hope that in two years time I’m not moaning about them too, though for now I’ll just take having them around.

9/10

Moseley a little tricky to get to? Let A2B do the hard work

Le Gavroche, May 2019

As I watched the Notre Dame burn live on television I had an overwhelming sense of sadness. Every time I have been to Paris it has been pinned by trips to that cathedral. I’ve stood on the inside of its vast ceiling with three different girlfriends, spanning from sixteen years ago to four. That city has housed me when I’ve been broke financially and also literally following a car accident. I’ve been there on the universal credit that is other people’s generosity, surviving on baguettes and poor French, and I’ve also been on long weekends eating in the best places in town when the pockets have been deeper. It’s always in sunshine; the sun always shines on the Notre Dame, even on bitterly cold winter days timed loosely around Valentines without the higher rentals on the actual day. The spire crashing down took my mind to the back of the building, past the vast gardens to that awful bridge that ajoins the island to the Latin Quarter where couples attach padlocks in a sign of everlasting love. I was once half of one of those couples. Those locks have since been removed, I’m told. It might be just a tourist attraction to some, or an image on tv of a place they’ve never been to, but to me that place holds a million different emotions for people I’ve loved and who never deserved to be hurt by my selfish actions. C’est la vie. If the last paragraph confirms anything, it is that you should never go to Paris with me.

Le Gavroche holds a similar spot in my innerbeing to the point that I almost never booked it. Ever had that perfect date day where all the bad points are forgotten and you swear that you will never need another? I had that twice at Le Gavroche. Both times from the same girl at two at very different stages of the relationship. The first was five years ago before this blog started when my obsession was in its infancy. We were high on nerves, unsure of what to expect. Michael Roux Jnr came out and posed for a picture to which Facebook erupted. We had a great lunch, went to a few great bars after and she scoffed a Burger King on the train home before falling to sleep. I had butterflies in my stomach, which was odd because I don’t recall them being served with lunch. The last visit was two years later. We downed a bottle of champagne on the train, another in a bar in Shepherds Market, and another when we reached the restaurant. No MRJ this time, but I did have a rather glorious birthday cake emblazoned with my name, which is a sure fire way to win over this arrogant drunk. We went to more great bars and I went to bed far earlier than anticipated. Memories, hey. Just by thinking of Le Gav I feel like I’m trampling over her. But ultimately the complexities of relationships equate to far more than staring at each other for a couple of hours over food. It is just another room, in another street, of another city. I can’t attach myself to it anymore than a TV show I watched, or a shirt that I wore on a date, or Paris, that beautiful city that I fall in love with every time I visit (do not go with me to Paris). My present girlfriend is my priority and she wants to go to Le Gavroche, so that is where we are going, regardless of what atrium of my cold heart it resides in.

It hasn’t changed. I doubt it ever will. It still reeks of old money and haughty accents. The customer is still king, and certainly not queen, given that females are given a menu devoid of prices. On the lunch we dine we count seven different front of house to our table and there are plenty more orchestrating around the floor in smart attire: the atmosphere starts a little stiff, though the mostly French team slowly open up to a formal service with a little dry humour. At one point I joke that we could just survive on twenty of the mini baguette loaves; thirty seconds later more bread is offered. The best teams communicate in silent gestures. There are few teams better than Le Gavroche.

The food is as old school as the clientele. Well heeled but ultimately of a bygone era. Everything is cooked in mass amounts of butter – no bad thing – and is oligarch rich. Canapés of a chicken tart and a puff pastry twist flavoured with Parmesan do not set the world alight, whilst the amuse of tempura prawn with avocado purée felt too simplistic for a restaurant bestowed with two stars. We do not get near the twenty servings of bread, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t try. Pile it inch thick with some of the best butter you’ll ever taste.

We supplement the lunch menu with a soufflé Suisse to start, because it’s my favourite dish in the world and I want Claire to try it. The volcanic spew of fluffed-up egg whites is cooked on double cream before being finished under the grill with cheddar and gruerye. It is cheesy, light, and probably very bad for you. Much like I was in my early twenties. A Waldorf salad has been spun through a blender; the celery now celeriac remoulade, the apple a little purée with balsamic on the side. It comes with two teeny chicken wings crisscrossed like a pirates flag. The dish works; I just wished there were more of it. The other starter is a kind of a squid ragu on brioche with a wild garlic purée. It’s an assault of big hitting flavours, the squid more a back note and texture. It’s delicious. Michel Roux Jr comes around, smiles, poses for pictures and moves on. It’s a nice touch that adds value.

By now we’re full and yes, I know we’re not halfway yet. I want to give my duck main my full attention but I’ve one eye on the cheese trolley that is sat in the corridor. The duck is a sizeable breast with crisp skin and rare meat. A few spears of asparagus and oyster mushrooms are strewn atop of a potato fondant that tastes more of butter than spud. A potato has no right to taste this good. The star is the deeply flavoured duck sauce that joins all the dots. Sauces like this take time, and that shows. The other main compromises of a large sea bass fillet, endive, broad beans, and blood orange, all coated in a butter sauce just on the off-chance you thought it was sounding a bit healthy. The cooking and seasoning is impeccable. It can’t be faulted.

Before desserts come we play a fun game as I try to steer Claire away from the £50 glass of sweet wine on to one half the price, eventually taking to showing her the prices. How very ungentlemanly of me. We finish with the sorbet trolley for Claire and the cheese trolley for me; I win. It’s the kind of thing missing from modern cooking: we exist in an era where this level of generosity is dead, where choice has gone, and desserts shunned in favour of shrubbery. Le Gavroche refuses to bow to trends and good for them. The bill runs into several hundred, though Claire enjoyed the spectacle and you can’t put a price on that. She’s seen with her own eyes what I’ve told her about on so many occasions. I’ve had another one of those days in Le Gavroche. I don’t think there’ll be a need to visit again.

If I could have got the A2B to London I would have. I didn’t, but they kindly got us to the station and back.

The Mezz Restaurant, Primark, Birmingham

We have the world’s biggest Primark in Birmingham, but then you knew that already, right? It’s been all over the news, the indoor shopping centre that is now one big jumble sale complete with Disney section, hairdresser, nail bars, and oh, I give in. I don’t shop in Primark, mostly because I’m allergic to other people, but you won’t find me whining about the attention it’s getting or the space it’s occupying. I happen to think that any positive news is good for Birmingham. Primark supernova has created hundreds of jobs in this city, and many more further afield in sweatshops around the world. Those aren’t tears of sadness you see on Comic Relief, but happiness from a six year old who has just been given overtime on top of the seventeen hour shift they already work. And all to clothe the people of Birmingham in the latest high street fashion.

I joined the queue to go inside, past the waves of security guards and staff on walkie talkies, heading straight to the level underneath that houses the restaurant. It is, as you may expect, a relatively basic operation. On one end are sandwiches; the other end things cooked in the pizza oven. In the middle is a salad bar where you can mix and match from four unappealing options, half of which amount to a bowl of lettuce, and another of dying leaves. They may have misread the portion of the room with big ears and buck teeth.

That bowl of salad may be the worst thing I have ever eaten. On one side is a mush of chickpea, rice and wild rice bound in a vinegarette the consistency of phlegm. It is topped with what I am told is Parmesan but has the taste and texture of cheddar cheese. The other half of the bowl is a new combination even for this seasoned eater. Quinoa, sweet potato, marshmallows. Yes, you did read that correctly. It is Primark given the El Bulli treatment, if El Bulli was a blind, senile old man with no tastebuds and a penchant for abusing strangers in the street. The quinoa was sodden, possibly with the cooking water secreting from the sweet potato. The marshmallows made no sense what so ever. This is a death row meal, if only for making you wish you were dead after eating it.

The two hot dishes are straight out of the sweatshop concept of build them as cheaply as possibly and offer no apology for it destroying people’s lives. Chicken tikka nacho doms have acrid bits of (I’m guessing) chicken in a bowl with shredded cabbage, a mango chutney that tastes purely of reduced sugar, and a squirt of mint yogurt. The nacho bit of the name stems from the discs of recycled cardboard underneath, whilst I assume the ‘dom’ bit is a reference to the punishment inflicted in ordering it. A lamb sheesh flatbread has meat of the lowest quality hidden in a mass of garlic that I can smell leaving my skin even as I type this. The flatbread is nice, the roasted peppers missing in action, and a hot sauce rudimentary. My favourite part is the beetroot stained cauliflower rice underneath that has whole florets of raw cauliflower amongst the mess. A lovely lady stops by to ask how the man who has ordered too much food and is taking pictures is getting on. I tell her that I’m waiting for my girlfriend to finish in the changing rooms. It’s a half truth; she is trying on clothes, just in a far nicer place than here.

The hot dishes are £4.50 each and that salad is £3.50. They also do sweet things at far heftier mark-ups (donuts are £2 each), presumably more aggressively priced because that extra fabric in the larger dress sizes comes out of their profit margins. Like the clothing at Primark, the experience is cheap, and similarly it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth when you really consider it as a stand-alone product. I clear my own food away into the waste bins, staining the palm of my hand a bloody red from the beetroot juice that sat lazily on the plate. It is here I reach my conclusion: a shit cafe in the world’s biggest Primark is exactly the kind of misery that the First World deserves.

1/10

Be sensible and get an A2B to somewhere you can actually eat.

Alicia’s Micro Bakehouse, Stirchley

Getting to Alicia’s has been unusually tricky. Upon the initial glowing praise we first tried the takeaway route which took two hours longer than planned to arrive and — when it did arrive — was lukewarm and not particularly memorable. We decided to give them time to settle, trying again on a Saturday lunchtime when we were plant shopping in Stirchley, except at this point they never opened on a Saturday afternoon. We phoned for a table a few months after and were told there were none available until 9.30pm. On the Tuesday we finally do bag a table it almost never happens because first they tell us they ‘might’ have a table for two at 7pm, leaving us dangling on the phone before confirming they can fit us in. I’ve had more fun at 9am in the morning listening to the Le Gavroche hold music for forty minutes trying to book a table for exactly three months time.

Inside it is equally haphazardous, albeit in a joyful, scatty, way. There should probably be a ‘Men at Work’ sign, and hardhats should be worn. It is very busy: tables are frantically being turned; pizzas are whizzed through the narrow passageways and are occasionally lowered at incorrect tables; there may be a lengthy wait whilst they locate the only bottle of chilli oil. You may also have to point out where the affogato option can be found on the menu. This kind of behaviour would normally reduce me to tears, though I found myself sucked into the chaotic atmosphere. Everyone wears smiles here: the chefs, the front of house, the paying customers in the adjoining dining areas. Given that it has taken six months or so to get here, the forty-five minutes we spend inside passes in a blur.

The menu is a list of stuff on dough, supplemented by a few things that could be served on dough but aren’t. We forgo the starters and aim straight for the pizza. The important bits are there; a sourdough-hybrid base as good as anywhere in Brum right now, a tomato sauce the right side of sweet, and a good blister on the crust. It is a little too soupy in the middle, and I personally would have liked a little more generosity with the toppings, but it is good pizza. In addition to the usual ingredients mine had fennel sausage and gorgonzola supplemented with a little ‘nudja, whilst Claires went all out on the vegetables. Those pizzas are around a tenner each, the affogato a couple of quid more. The bill hits fifteen quid a head with a couple of soft drinks.

It is incredible to think that three years ago it was impossible to get great pizza in Birmingham, yet here I am about to dissect the competition. Alicia’s is good. I’ve said the base is great, but realistically does it have the quality of meat sourcing as somewhere like Otto, or a star dish up its sleeve like the calzone at Baked in Brick? I’m not sure it does. And then there is the small matter of the big guns of Rudy’s Pizza and Franco Manca hitting town (the latter armed with a true sourdough base) anytime now. Luckily none of this will impact Alicia’s who have joined a burgeoning Stirchley High Street full of independents. They don’t need my endorsement to pack out the resturant every night, they’re doing a good enough job of that themselves.

7/10

When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie, ride A2B