Month: July 2019

Rudy’s, Birmingham

It is possible to eat a three course meal at Rudy’s for £9.80. Let that sink in. That’s a starter, a sizeable pizza, and a dessert for under a tenner. A few doors down at ASK it wouldn’t, and should never, buy you the main event. Over the road at Franco Manca it would get you the pizza and not much else, provided that they remember to bring your food. Okay, your meal will consist of a caprese salad, a marinara pizza, and finish up with tartufo, but for this price beggars can’t be choosers. It’s a figure that plays on my mind over both visits; the Friday night when I have a £12 cocktail nearby, or shed £40 for a bucket of six beers around the corner; again on the Saturday lunch when I pay £9 for two disappointing cakes to take home from a nearby bakery. £10 doesn’t get you much. I’ll pay a premium gladly, because I work hard and I like nice things, but it does make you consider profit margins when these guys are knocking out such quality for so little.

Over these two visits I’ve quickly come to the conclusion that Rudy’s might be the last in a spate of recent pizza openings, but it is also the best. And I’ll go further; it is Birmingham’s finest pizza. And further still; I like it as much, if not more, than Lichfield’s Margheri, which makes it probably the best pizza I’ve eaten in this country. High enough praise? Good, we can continue. The decor, or lack of it, gets Claire excited, mostly due to the number of plants here that add a lushness to the exposed structure of what was once a pretty dreadful Spanish restaurant. In the middle of the room the chef’s are hard at work; contorting dough by hand to uneven circles like warped vinyl, layering the base sauces, the cheese, the toppings. The front of house on top of their game, quick to see if I want another negroni every time the glass gets low. I always want another negroni, especially when they are made this well.

Ready for the pizza? Sit down, you’ll have to wait a little while. We’ll start with that caprese salad I mentioned up top, yours for £2. For that you’ll get a bowl of tomato and mozzarella, dressed liberally in olive oil, salt, and pepper, with four basil leaves. It’s basic but executed well. It’s also two quid you tightwad. And then there are the campanas – sharing platters if you like – more mozzarella, some excellent sourdough, one with cured meat, the other roasted vegetables. They work because the produce quality is high.

When the pizza does arrive it is clear they are so rooted in Naples they should be delivered in a Fiat 500 by Diego Maradona. The dough is noticeably sour, scorched to leopard spots, and puddled in the middle. The tomato sauce has little intervention, heavily seasoned and tasting purely of tomato. I apologise now if I’m going into too much detail, but having eaten a lot of pizza of late, you notice the tiny details, and it is in those detail that they excel. All the pizzas go down great; the meat ones, the ones with fish (this, I will never understand), and the vegetarian ones. So far I have ordered the Carni and the Calabrese, because I Am Man and I like it hot. Cut pizza. Fold between finger and thumb. Eat pizza, reserving the crusts to be dredged through chilli oil. If you’re here at least do it properly. Have a negroni whilst you’re at it.

My forthcoming trip to Italy means no desserts are ordered, as I’d like to be able to snorkel without being dragged ashore by Greenpeace, though I should point out that at almost entirely under a fiver you shouldn’t be so prudent. Now, as a Birmingham food blog I should really take this point to showcase the local independents who also do pizza and pretend that they are as good as here. But I won’t. Rudy’s is brilliant, end of story. Better than the rest, smack bang in the centre of town with a sensible no reservation system that means I can rock up, put my name down and eat pizza when they text me to say my table is ready. I don’t care that they originated elsewhere and have crept down to us for their fourth branch. I care about quality, service, and value. For that much, Rudy’s is perfect.

10/10

Like your taxis as perfect as your pizza? You need A2B in your life

Rudy’s ran an opening promotion which meant the pizzas were free on both occasions. I paid for drinks and additional courses.

Peacer, Moseley

Some friends of ours told me a story about the origin of Peacer. Allegedly two friends were sending messages to one another after a big night out, both craving pizza to cure them of their hangover. The story continues with them not being able to get the type of pizza they wanted, whereupon they made a pact to open their own pizza shop. It took three years from that point to open Peacer, a new space in half of what used to be the ill-fated Starfish and Coffee on a burgeoning Woodbridge Rd that is fast becoming the food hub of Moseley. Is it true? Well, I have no idea, but I certainly hope so. Restaurants born out of friendship, passion, and silly ideas may be the accountants worst nightmare, though to me it’s brilliant. If you want a New York style slice shop, why not open one? It’s an attitude so fantastically up-and-at-them they could actually be in NYC. Except they are in Moseley, where the people are nicer and a little bit more smelly.

Now let’s keep this real short. Did I like Peacer? Yes I did, Dear Reader, quite a bit actually. I like what they have done with the place, which is both minimalist and practical with petrol blue walls and wooden tables of various shades. I like that they have looked at the small details hard, coming to the right conclusion that every table should have a bottles of Pip’s hot sauce, even if this is optimistic about the honesty of humans. I like that they are doing something different. The premise is simple; large slices of pizza by the slice, five options a day, at £3.50 each. This isn’t the soupy Neapolitan style doing the rounds at the moment that billows hot air from puffed-up crusts, but one that was born in the US of A, like Bruce Springsteen and obesity. The texture is more one dimensional, fillings go from the centre right to the edge, and those crusts are more like crimps. I try three slices, of which I like them all in varying degrees. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is one containing pineapple I like the least, though the sweetcorn and spring onion give it a brightness I wasn’t expecting. I thought the chilli and hot honey one would be my favourite, though as good as it was, it was the halloumi with smoked cheddar that I almost went back for seconds of. This is inspired; sweet and smokey, rife with fatty notes cut through with just a little red onion. £3.50 for a slice? Give me the entire wheel and cancel my meetings for the rest of the day. And pour me another pint of Tiny Rebel whilst you’re at it.

Now we’re going to have to discuss the elephant in the room. The more observant of you may have noticed the lack of meat in the above. I never questioned it, but it would appear that Peacer have opened a vegetarian pizza slice and beer bar without ever saying they are vegetarian. Now I kind of have to point this out because I know some of you can’t operate without a bit of meat in your mouth, but having lived with a vegetarian for six years I was happy about it. These pizzas simply don’t need meat; they are considered, carefully constructed, and, most importantly, really tasty. I can see myself coming here a lot, probably mid-walk from The Prince to The Dark Horse, maybe on the way home for a sneaky slice on the nights we are going to eat boring – sorry, I mean healthy – food. One thing is absolutely sure: in a city saturated with pizza, Peacer is the ideal fit for this particular neighbourhood.

8/10

Want a slice of Brum’s best taxi firm? Download the A2B app

Gauthier, London, 2019

The set-up for the BST festival is a shambles. Weaving our way past the pissed groups of girls here to sing away their heartbreak to Florence and her Machine, over the blanket-marked territories of young families far too in-field for nappy changes, we find ourselves at Hyde Park border control some 100m away from the stage. From here we can see the barren gap of high-vis jackets keeping us, the fans, from the front pit containing, err, not many people at all. That pit, we would find out, is made-up of those who were first through the doors, those who paid a chunk more for the privilege, and those whose careers amount to posting pictures on Instagram as ‘collabs’. I don’t like those who are in it for the ‘gram: the free-loading, waste of perfectly good oxygen, self-entitled jizz stains who think that posting an over structured picture twice a day surmounts to a career. It doesn’t. We reach these barriers as the last of Lykke Li’s ‘I Follow Rivers’ chimes out, as a swarm of flailing arms knock the life out of my six quid pint of beer. If only security hadn’t been so quick to spot the Hubble telescope I tried to sneak in I may have been able to get a view of her. We’re here for The National, a band we follow around far too often. They are as glorious as ever; deft and slow burning, with melodies that creep up on the subconscious over hundreds of listens. We find that we are stood in a community of like-minded people who sway and gently sing the lyrics to each song. It’s a moment that not even BST’s pathetic segregation can ruin; The National are as astonishingly good as ever.

We combined this with a restaurant whose tables I have sat at the same amount of times I have seen The National. I have been coming to Gauthier for many years, the first almost ten years ago to the day when my mate Barry and I were in the capital to watch Kings of Leon at a pre-barrier BST. That day our train was late and we never had time to change, meaning that I was in torn jeans and Barry was wearing a vest with a cardigan and dusty pink tapered trousers that sat around the rim of his buttocks and showed his boxers off. The dining room was a staid affair; there were many business meetings going on that all bore witness to Barry Joseph’s stout arse grazing over their shoulders as he walked to and from the loo. If I remember correctly, the two of us got stuck into a lot of burgundy and I barely remember leaving the restaurant, nevermind the gig. My further visits have all been under the guise of happy relationships. They worked, temporarily at least like a bookies pen, helped out by the most romantic of dining rooms, headed up by a front of house team who could polish the most tired of couples into something gleaming for a couple of hours. When we received a voucher for lunch after purchasing a case of rosé from their inhouse wine business, it became clear that it would be the ideal place to eat before the gig. And what a good decision it was: Gauthier was as astonishingly good as ever.

Somethings have changed since the last visit. My view across the table is now different, though more importantly chef patron, Alexis Gauthier, has gone vegan. It’s a move that can be felt even when not eating from the vegan menu given that the nibbles, amuses, pre-desserts, and canapes are all animal and dairy free. We start with a jar of ‘faux gras’ to share between two with a piece of bread each to spread upon. The pâté is a dense mix of mushrooms, walnuts, beetroot, garlic and onions; rich, earthy, and dare I say it, meaty. We have the recipe to make at home.  This is followed by capanota with bread crumbs. The stewed vegetables, consisting mostly of aubergine and peppers, are quite high on vinegar which is pleasing and stops the mouthfuls from being too rich this early on. The breadcrumbs are inspired. It is a very good start. I over order on bread, taking a raisin roll, tomato roll, and cube of basil foccacia. Whilst I don’t care for the tomato bread, or the butter it is served with, I would go back for more of the other two.

Claire has bavette for her starter, the core of the beef the colour of the Merlot paired with it. The meat is on a slab of brioche, with tapenade and pesto; a kind of open steak sandwich that draws purrs from across the table. I go for the summer truffle risotto because I’ve had it before and there was never any chance that I was ordering anything else. Truffles in Europe generally don’t taste of much this time of year (Australian is an entirely different beast), though these are of good quality; perfumed and not too woody in texture. The risotto is superb, light from more mascarpone than parmesan, the grains loose and with even texture. The meat jus around the peripherals adds another layer of flavour. It’s pretty special.

Both mains contain real ‘wow’ moments. A lamb dish has loin cooked to the ideal medium, slow braised shoulder, carrots, and broccoli. We get a little giddy over the heavily reduced sauce which is meaty without overpowering, and tear up over the black garlic gnocchi. This is the reason black garlic is made; to sit within fluffy pillows of flour and potato and load up the umami in tiny steps, not one big crash. Opposite me is cod poached in olive oil and thyme, lightly cooked until the flakes start to part ways on their own accord. There are morels and something called ‘salty fingers’ which is what I used to give to dates in the cinema during my teenage years. The star this time is the fish veloute; lightly licked with acidity and bursting with the taste of the ocean, it holds everything in place, linking the protein, the earthy notes and the salty verdant.

A pre dessert of lemon granita with peaches is contained within a meringue-like structure made from chickpea water, which I decided I would hate before I ate it and then really enjoyed. It made me think that I could come back here and try the vegan tasting menu, until I considered that would mean no truffle risotto or no Louis XV dessert. The latter of those was the choice for both of us to finish lunch, given that I insisted on it. The Louis XV is one of the great desserts, born in Ducasse’s 3* Monaco dining room. It is a posh kit kat with layers of mousse, feuillantine, and dacquoise, which are culinary terms and not Arsenal’s front three next season. It eats like a dream, indulgent and complex. The table next to use are celebrating: “the problem with that dessert is that there is never enough” they tell us between ordering more champagne. They are not wrong.

What I don’t like are the vegan petit fours, because a cake without dairy is just a stodgy clump of sadness. None of this matters though; this was a very impressive lunch in a restaurant I continue to hold in high regard. The bill for the above with two glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine, two ports, and a couple of dish supplements is just over £150 – a steal given the quality. Gauthier is one of London’s top kitchens. I hope to still be coming back in a further ten years time.

Audela, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Google tells me that Northumberland was once the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, which sounds like something out of Game of Thrones, only with a far better ending. Once the drive into the furthermost north of England is complete it is easy to see why: the coastline is rugged and handsome, as wide as it is long, dotted with castles perched high upon the banks of land that lay above the dunes. Like Game of Thrones these castles were once a defence point to stop the Wildlings from passing beyond a great wall, and just like the ending I’d quite like to live among those Wildlings having seen the mess that is the battle to be leader of our realm.

Back in reality, I fell hard for this part of the world. The beaches had the brutal quality that I love about North Cornwall only without the crowds, and there is an attachment to nature here unlike anywhere else in the country. I defy anyone to not be enchanted by the beauty of Barter Books in Alnwick, or the total charm of The Origami Cafe around the corner. I’ll be checking for a pulse if anyones fails to fall in love with the walk from Craster to Dunstanburgh castle, or looks to the majestic Bamburgh castle with anything other than doe eyes. Northumberland gave me a once in lifetime view of puffin season over on the Farne Isles, and then the best fish I’ve eaten later that day in Seahouses. It does it all with a shrug of the shoulders. There is no ego here, no bravado. Despite the postcard perfect locations that roll one after another, the residents of these towns seem happy to help everyone. Even the bloke from Birmingham who asks far too many questions.

Central to this little visit was an afternoon in Berwick-upon-Tweed, with dinner booked at Audela. It was the menu that swung it for us; one that sang of local produce at every point, utilising the North Sea and the meat from beyond the borders. The room is tasteful, though very warm, with deep chairs and heavy wooden tables. It is clear that they have aspirations, even if those are aligned to a style of cooking that Michelin has edged away from over recent years. We start with an amuse for our bouche of mushroom soup, a dish rooted in 80’s dinner parties. The soup has good clarity, the ideal consistency, and seasoning is punchy in a good way. It’s a very good cup of soup. The bread on the inside is a fraction dense, though this makes it the ideal vessel for chasing out the last of the liquid.

Twice cooked cheese and leek souffle continues with the dishes not seen on Masterchef since the Lloyd Grossman years. It’s the weak point of the meal; too hot, too heavy, with not enough cheese flavour. Another starter has delicately dressed crab meat with an accurately cooked scallop, pea mousse, fresh peas, and mint. The handling of the seafood is impeccable, though it would be improved by removing the pea mousse which overloads the softer textures.

The best bit of a monkfish main sits on the base of the plate. Both sauces – one a slightly saccharine bisque, the other lightly scented with lemongrass – play off one another to tease the natural sweetness out of the fish. The fish has been finished in plenty of butter so that a golden crust forms on top and the muscle inside remains translucent. Pink fir potatoes taste like they have also absorbed a lot of the butter, which is never a bad thing, whilst the tussle of veg in the middle are presumably here to fool you into thinking that this dish is healthy. Do not be fooled by the green stuff in the middle.

Top billing goes to a chicken breast with haggis that packs the biggest of punches, served with a caramelised cauliflower puree, carrots, and silky mashed potato. It sums up what the kitchen do best; maximising a few basic ingredients with salt and pepper. The sauce is a deep glossy reduction that speaks loudly of roasted carcasses and joins the dots. It’s a proper bit of cookery.

Desserts look glorious on paper though there is no room for them and we find ourselves apologising to the charming front of house for not ordering them. The bill, with three glasses of wine, hits just over £70, which is clear value when you consider the skill shown in the plates. Audela isn’t pushing the envelope of pioneering food, instead choosing to focus on familiar flavours done well, to a room filled with customers who know what to expect. They do that mostly sucessfully. Should we find ourselves this close to the border again, I’d gladly return.

7/10

Legna, July 2019

I have this idea for a streetfood business called ‘Simon Le Bon Bon’. Now I know that you are sat reading this thinking “what a great name for a streetfood business”, and yes, you’re correct, it really is. It works on so many levels; it has my first name, it has the name of a Brummie celebrity, and it tells you what type of food the business does. The term ‘bon bon’ may have originated from the sweet candies consummed by the French after dinner to mask the smell of garlic and BO, though it now has a broader home in the culinary food. If it’s round it gets called a bon bon, and thats what my (sorry Claire, our) business will do. Swedish style meatballs, Moroccan meatballs, arancini with mushrooms like they eat in the North of Italy, and others with offal like they eat in the very South. We might feature croquettes of slow cooked meat, rolled with the heel of the hand to big roundels, breadcrumbed and then fried. You get the idea. The tagline will be ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’, though I must point out that no wolves will be eaten because that behaviour is frowned upon. The queues will be around the block, possibly due to a copyright infringement that will see lots of disappointed Duran Duran fans, but this is but a small detail: Simon Le Bon Bon has legs. Round, deep-fried legs. Scottish legs, if you like.

Alas, don’t get too excited. Simon Le Bon Bon will be joining ‘Mr Strippy’ – my portable lapdancing vehicle where ‘Perfect Gentlemen’ signals the arrival and you order a 69 instead of a 99 – and the Swiss Army prosthetic hand as ideas that will never see the light of day, though would make excellent episodes of Dragons Den. If you can’t be the best at it there really is no point – it’s why I blog and don’t ski – I’ve no interest in being second best at anything. And we can’t win the great bon bon war of 2019. I tried the arancini at Legna and knew my dream was over. A portion of three golden squashball sized bites that yield just a little bite, giving way to a mixture of rice, ‘nduja, and tallegio, each in perfect harmony with one another. It has a little spice, savoury notes, and cheesey richness. It is as good as arancini gets, one-hundred-percent better than anything I could acheive with these fat fingers. Simon Le Bon Bon is now Simon Le Non Non.

This was one of the four starters at Legna, before the four pasta dishes, the skipping of the main courses and two desserts. A bottle of white, three glasses of red, two negroni, and a cocktail complete the order between the two of us, so if the details get hazy towards the end, you now know why. We came in search of pasta dishes, because they were always the strong point here and I’m pleased that they’ve stretched that particular part of the menu, though it was the starters that really grabbed our attention. Those perfect arancini sit in between scallops and bruschetta. The former are three queenies, accurately cooked almostly entirely on the presentation side, with a molita style crumb, and a lemon gel that lifts everything. A similar approach is taken with the bruschetta; the garlic is heavy, it has has plenty of basil and supremely high quality cherry tomatoes. The clever bits are the dehydated tomato petals that add almost floral notes to it. It’s summer in four mouthfuls, helped by us sitting in the glass part of the restaurant, doors pulled back to make the most of the canalside location. The biggest oyster I have ever seen completes Act 1, traditionally dressed, and in no rush to go anywhere. It takes a knife to get it down in two parts.

Those pasta dishes confirm Legna is performing better than ever. Taglioni with crab is spun through a sweet bisque that tastes of roasted shell and cream, whilst cacio e pepe is really aglio e olo. This doesn’t matter too much – we still destroyed it – but it had none of the emulsified cheese sauce made from the cooking water that defines cacio e pepe. It is the filled pasta that really impress; one with ‘nduja, tallegio, and truffle, the other cured  pork and sage. Both have a perfect texture to the pasta, heavily seasoned fillings, and are dressed in some seriously addictive olive oil. There are twelve dishes listed in this section of the menu; I suggest you make it your target this summer to try them all.

We have dessert. I say we; I get no choice in the two that Claire wants to eat half of. She chooses tiramisu and lemon tart, two that we’ve had before but are assured have changed. That they have. The tiramisu is more stable than ever, which I prefer but Claire doesn’t. The biggest change is to the lemon tart. The acidity from the Amalfi lemons are still there in spades, but now we have Italian meringue for a little sweetness, and the most buttery of bases. What was already a very good dessert has morphed into the full package.

With this we drink wine from Sicily because we’re going in a few weeks time, before moving to the bar to continue drinking. From what I can tell they seem to have ditched the tasting menus, and the pizza, both of which are fine with me. In the new menu they are capitalising on what they do best; the pastas in particular, opening up a menu full of choice and desire. It’s the best meal here that we have had by some distance, helped by some of the most charming front of house in the city. In writing this I’ve just remembered I had a whisky before I stumbled out of the doors. And that we booked a holiday. It was that kind of night. I really must go to Legna more often.

Got an A2B there sober. Got an A2B back home drunk.