Month: June 2019

Poli, Kings Heath

In lieu of another pizza place garnering significant exposure by handing out a week’s worth of free pizza to every blogger, Instagrammer, and grammar poor journalist, I’d almost forgot that Poli was opening last weekend. I am reminded by my girlfriend who is keen to try it out on account of her love for the sister venue, Grace + James. Expectations are set to high: Grace + James is an annoyingly perfect neighbourhood wine bar, where every bottle, decoration, and cheese is tailored into the most considered of rooms. It is a place where we spend a lot of time and money, a place where every visit is a lesson on natural wines. They’ve become very good at knowing what wine I will and won’t like, which is equal parts scary and impressive for a business that has only been open a year.

Poli is two doors down, unmissable given the teal painted frontage and pink logo. Inside it is a wash of baby pinks and soft blues, the walls bearing 80’s style prints, neon signs, and some terracotta plant pots that start a twenty minute conversation of admiration. It’s beautiful. The negroni I start with is the only thing I don’t like, as we plough into the menu: pickled grapes, a couple of small plates, two pizzas. Pickled grapes are the future, I know, I’ve tasted them.

Let’s start with the filth.  Potatoes roasted in lamb fat with a little mint. Sunday roast without the overcooked meat. All blistered skins and deep ovine flavour. I’m sad that it’s taken 36 years on the planet to eat these. Three dense meat balls with the backnotes of fennel, on a ragu of tomatoes thick with chunks of onion, homemade ricotta, and chive oil. It’s a big old portion for not much money. We fight over the rights to the last one, and then fight again to work the last of the ricotta out of the sides of the plate with the crusts of the pizza.

That pizza is good, in Birmingham’s top three at present and quite possibly the best in a very competitive market. It won’t be to everyone’s taste; the centre of both of ours are loose and soupy, the kind of pizza that would find the plate with ease should it be tilted. The rest is textbook. The crust is blistered, the dough pleasingly sour, with the same tomato sauce returning from the meatballs. One with guanciale, pecorino, and egg riffs on the flavours of carborna, whilst the other with chorizo, ‘nduja, and honey is a sweet meaty treat. The quality of the ingredients stands out with every bite. We plunge the crusts into an aioli coloured with squid ink that I don’t care for, and a fermented chilli sauce that I demand is bottled and sold. It’s complex and hot, which also happens to be my Tinder bio.

We don’t have dessert, though fear not, we are not alone and our company do. In a move never seen before on this singular-minded rampage of ego which is my food blog, I am now about to hand over the reigns to drink maestro, Jacob Clarke, who will talk you through his his strawberry, marshmallow, and jam shortbread sandwich from Happy Endings.

I’m getting a lot of strawberry, but also marshmallow and jam, too.

Wise words, Jacob. Wise words.

The bill hits £120 between four with a lot of booze, and we retire to the sanctuary of Grace and James to drink more wine. In all honestly, I was a little deflated when I heard the plans for yet another pizza place, and then it clicked: I’ve been eating Sophie and Henrys food for years, way before the cheese boards at Grace + James when they made their own chorizo and put them on tacos with the street food business they brought to Birmingham. In Poli they have created much more than a pizzeria; it has great craft beers and wines and a killer play list of indie classics. It has great food at a fair price and with impeccable taste. It is, without question, my favourite opening of the year so far.

9/10

Can’t walk to Kings Heath? A2B love that journey

Franco Manca, Birmingham

The first Franco Manca I had was also my first great pizza experience. Let me take you back. It was the Summer of 2010, way before any idea of this blog occurred, when I was lean and with a full head of hair. I was in London with my mate Barry to see Kings of Leon, a band who were once good, despite what their last three albums will argue. We had lunch at Gauthier, beers in Camden, the gig, and then back to Camden. In the morning we hopped on to the blue line for what seemed like an eternity, stopping at Brixton for pizza at the original Franco Manca. I’d done my research; I got the joke about Frank being missing; I knew the queue would be big and the menu short. We went and it was incredible. In my head it is one of the best meals I’ve eaten – nonsense of course, but still a testament to how thrilling some cooked dough and a few ingredients can be. Franco Manca is the primary reason we have Neopolitan style pizza in the UK: they gave this style to the masses with thirty-six sites in London, and another eleven further afield, including a new shiny Birmingham site.

Now cutting to the crux (or should that be crust?), do they still provide a great pizza experience? No. And I don’t think they have for years in all honesty. I recall a really average pizza at Broadway market three years back, and likewise at Kings Cross a year or so after that. Maybe they were never as good as I think they were, or maybe the competition that they created have surpassed them with ease. It’s a good pizza, but good pizza isnt going to pass muster when we have some excellent pizza already established in this city. It starts well enough; a starter of lamb sausage with potato and spicy tomato sauce is comforting and big on flavour. Better is the aubergine parmigiana, that is firm and meaty. I’d say this is the nicest rendition of this dish I’ve had had it not caught in parts and taken on burnt notes.

Well then the generator overheated, granite spewed on to Bennett’s Hill, and they had a full on meltdown. It became quickly clear that some parts of the dining room were making full use of that oven which blasts pizzas in about a minute, turning tables quickly. We were not in that part of the room. It took one hour to get our pizza and that was only after raising it with a manager. They turn up, one five minutes before the other, the two looking visibly like they’d been given five minutes difference in cooking time. The pizza is okay: it’s clearly not a true sourdough base, one seems a little underdone, the other is heavily scorched. The toppings are unevenly distributed, a minor detail, but one that others seem to get right. I don’t enjoy the No.7, which surprises me, because almost all of the ingredients appeared successfully over the two starters. The one with chorizo is better, but only because that cured meat is superb in quality. Claire notes that the pizza she had for lunch the day before was way better, a worrying thought for inconsistencies across sticking some dough in an oven.

Now we know they’ve had a bad day, and so do they. The manager reappears, apologises and wipes the bill. He also does the same for the table next to us who’ve had a similar experience. He asks that we come back and give them another go, a fair request given how well it is handled, and one that we will do when they’ve settled in over to months to come. The previous night we went to another pizza place that opened on the same day here. The difference was huge; they were operating like clockwork and turning out some of the best pizza we’ve had in Birmingham. Part of me thinks that Franco Manca believe they can walk into a central spot and live off their reputation. They can’t. For now it appears that they’ve cut off too large a slice to swallow.

6/10

Thankfully the wait times for the A2B that took us there and back were much shorter.

Asha’s, Solihul

The night we book in to eat at Asha’s is unknowingly the festival of Eid. Inside the restaurant is heaving and celebrations are in full swing. It is everything that makes Birmingham so special: there are families here, but there are also friends and colleagues; communal tables hosted by those who do not need to be here, but choose to in support of those who have passed through the hours of sunlight without food or water for 28 days. It is wonderful to see those who have entered Ramadan for Islam are joined by non-muslims in the breaking of the fast; food is being shared, traditions respected. Everyone is joyous. In a period of history where the parties of the right are trying so hard to segregate and divide, Birmingham (and in particular on this evening’s dinner, Solihull) stands united in solidarity. It is a message more powerful than any written on the side of a bus, or placard wielding rally. In this city We Are One.

I’ll be honest, it is not how I envisaged the start of this piece to go. I expected it would be based around how much I’ve enjoyed Asha’s in Birmingham for almost a decade, and how my initial reactions to them opening another branch in a bland shopping centre in Solihull not known for good food was one of surprise. Both of these facts are true and probably don’t require dwelling on. Instead we’ll talk about the new site, tucked away at the back-end, sandwiched between the chains at the top of the escalator. It doesn’t seem the obvious place to pay £21 for a prawn bhuna, but then Solihull happens to be a place desperately short of options for good food considering how affulent this end of the city is. And it’s a beauty of restaurant; low slung ornate lighting penetrates the twilight, with booths cleverly concealed down one side and an endless bar running the length of the other. Tables and chairs are every colour you can think of, just as long as the only colour you can think of is black. It’s the most romantic setting to come to Touchwood since the back row of the Cineworld opposite.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the food is that it is entirely reminiscent of the central Birmingham location, which, having never written about, I will now have to breakdown. It’s premium curry house fare; the wheel hasn’t been reinvented, but it has been given new tyres and shiny spokes. Sometimes it’s subtle, like the tray of chutneys that accompany the poppodums. You probably won’t notice the difference with the green sauce that is now synonymous with the giant crisps, but the mango chutney is refined and has balanced acidity, whilst a papaya chutney is a classy affair with sultanas and nigella seeds that you’ll not see too often. It’s when they wield out the big guns that you know you are somewhere which wants to be taken seriously. We’ll overlook the etch-a-sketch dribble of sauces on the tandoori platter we started with and instead look at the quality of the produce: curls of king prawns, blistered and juicy, two pieces of chicken tikka, another two chicken malai; each huge poultry piece marinated until the proteins soften and the yogurt catches on the edges for that slight smokiness. The cooking of the meat so accurate that I swear a sous-vide machine must of been used, even if the flavour tells me otherwise. And then there are the seekh kebabs, as good as any I’ve had. Soft meat that threatens to fall apart on the lightest of pressure, loads of lamb flavour despite the obvious presence of ginger, chilli, garlic, and cumin. We finish this and know that the curries that are to follow are going to be good.

And they are. They really are. It’s obvious that each sauce is made only for that one mention on the menu, over the base sauces that plague cheaper establishments. The prawn bhuna is an exercise in this; the tomato rich sauce tastes strongly of the sea. Like the girls I used to take to the cinema here, it is thick and luscious, with a good amount of ginger thrown in to the mix. Twenty one pounds for this is punchy, but then it happens to be a very lovely curry. A chicken tikka masala has a generous amount of poultry, as one would expect for £15, in a more generic sauce thickened with lots of double cream. In all honesty it lacks the whack of flavour that the bhuna has, but it is still a very strong rendition of the most British of curries. Both get saffron rice piled in, mixed about and scooped on to naan bread fragrant with lots of garlic.

Portions are very generous, leaving no room for dessert and the remnants of the curries in a brown bag for lunch the following day. I really enjoyed this new Asha’s; the food was consistent, the quality of the produce high, and the staff really superb. In reality Indian food in this city has never been more prevalent: we have the balti houses, the street food places, those like Opheem pushing the boundaries for progressive Indian, and places like here who do the more familiar dishes in luxurious surroundings to high standards. I have no problem in saying that in my mind Asha’s is the best place in the city to splash a small chunk of cash on those more conventional curries. Everything about it screams class.

8/10

A2B are based in Solihull. Let them take you for a tour of their manor.

Steamhouse Bagels, Birmingham

I went into town to meet Claire for lunch recently. I was early, so I softened her up with a present from a shop she loves, went for an espresso in one coffee shop by her work, and then the same in another. We hadn’t decided where to go for lunch; I had in my head a grander feed; one that weighs heavy on the stomach for some time, washed down with a glass or six of crushed grapes. Claire wanted a bagel from the fairly new place around the corner from her office. A text debate ensued whereupon I made the case for various restaurants and she said she wanted a bagel. We compromised in the way that young lovers do and go for a bagel. It was busy and inexpensive. I wore my blogger cap to lunch (it is a cap that says ‘blogger’ just in case anyone is unsure), preceding to dissect the bread and its filling in a way that only us attention seeking twats do. Claire pointed out that it’s a fiver or so, and that had she not worked for a generous business that supplies lunch for its staff for free, she would be here all the time. It rendered my opions invalid and is probably all you need to know about Steamhouse Bagels.

So you can close down the browser now and move on with your life if that’s what you really want, or you can hang around for my verdict and score. It’s pretty good there; not ground breaking, but functional and affordable. The bagels are pleasingly dense and chewy, baked on site and fresh for the busy lunch that has them queueing out of the door. The fillings are nice, if a little bland. A chicken bagel lacks promised heat but has a generous amount of mozzerlla, whilst the one with falafel and other healthy-ish ingredients is quickly destroyed by the girl who so desperately wanted to eat here. They do cakes which look great which we don’t have room for, though probably should have for greater longevity of this post. Given that my office has only the world’s worst Subway for company, anyone who is able to walk here from their work has it lucky. Chaps, should your girlfriend ever tell you that she don’t mind where you go for food, she’s lying. She knows exactly what she wants, and the liklihood is that it is a far better choice than yours.

7/10

A2B love a bagel, I think. They also like getting me from A to B.

Breddos Tacos, London

When thinking about food it is difficult to understand that not everyone has the same excellent taste as us. Reader, I already know that you have excellent taste because you could be reading any of the average food blogs out there, yet you’re here, settled in with a mug of tea and ten minutes to kill with the best. And little old me, well my lunch breaks are filled with research so that we can all be together in this marriage of meals. But not everyone can be so fortunate. I saw the other side of the coin whilst in London recently. Whilst postioned in the central area, I saw crowds amass in Benugos and Prets. I saw workers enter the dirtiest of cafes for £3.50 portions of Lasagne, and others queue for tables at Pizza Express. In one of the greatest cities in the world to eat, the largest groups were settling for that old lover, familiarity. If the last two years have taught me anything it’s that we’re a nation not very good with change, and even when we do want it, we’re awful at delivering it. Old Blighty is still stuck on Friday night fish and chips, Sunday lunches, and warm pints of Carling. We don’t want the danger of the unknown when Pizza Express are still churning out their version of Only Fools and Horses and we know every single word. The reason why just over half of this country made a bad decision about our future is because half the country are still rooted in the past, with their casual racism and view that the new is dangerous. We can have the brightest, most adventurous of humanity at the front, though as long as the old guard are holding on to the rope at the rear any progress will be minimal.

I can’t see tacos passing muster with the old guard. It’s something about the size; that down-the-hatch-in-one mouthful which doesn’t fit with the burly portions of Britain whereupon anything not touching the edges of the plate is considered a starter. To the rest of us they feel like a natural progression, from the awful pulled pork years, through to the burrito and now it’s daintier and far prettier sister. The taco is malleable; a scoop of the good bits untainted by the filler of rice. I head to Breddos for mine, because I have taste and also because it is conveniently located a four minute walk away from the evening party I have to attend. I sit in the window and order a frozen margarita, some tortilla cheese dip thingy and three tacos. That dippy thing is a mixture of three cheeses that appears to be a pretty even mix of mature hard cheese and more stringy mozzerella types, topped with a salsa that has a healthy kick in amongst the onion. The corn chips are nice, but the whole thing is ultimately just tortillas and cheese sauce.

Next time I’ll load up on nothing but tacos. The three I have is probably enough, but I’ll go for much more. The masa fried chicken is a dead cert, given that the corn flour has a pleasing crunch from the same base as the tacos themselves, with pickled cabbage, a little salsa, and mayo that zips with heat. Likewise I’ll be ordering the black bean with pickled onions again. This was the surprise for me, the beans had bite and a little meatiness to them, with a hot sauce that burns just enough. It is one thing to make a taco great with some fried chicken, but to do it with not much more than beans and onions is seriously impressive.

I have another frozen margarita and pay up the bill for £24, before leaving to act like a consummate professional for a couple of hours. I’d heard many a good thing about Breddos from friends in the know, and I’d pretty much agree with their opinion. These are some of the best tacos I’ve tried; constructed with the precision of an architect and loaded with layers of flavour. As I finish writing this it is confirmed that Breddos will be heading to Moseley for a one-off Sunday session at Carters. Let’s hope they enjoy the area enough to stick around on a more permanent basis.

8/10