Month: September 2019

Eat Vietnam, Stirchley

Many, many, many years ago there was a shop in Birmingham called A Too. It was a bloody good shop, ran by a painfully hip man called Ming. I used to go to that shop a lot; I had a decent job doing shitty things for a shitty bank, lived at home with my parents, and I had many girlfriends – often at the same time – using their goodwill and natural competitiveness to full advantage in letting them pay for me. I was an original Fuckboy. And a good one at that. I used to shop in A Too because it was the coolest place to shop. I say shop; I would sit in a chair in the middle of the room making small conversation whilst Ming buzzed around collating the latest in printed t-shirts and Japanese denim, giving me just enough discount on my purchases to make me feel special. This preamble is important because Ming plays an important part of this piece, and also because I want you to understand that I have always been an arsehole with an over-sense of entitlement.

A Too came to a sad end and Ming moved on to form Eat Vietnam, first with a number of pop-ups and then with a stint at streetfood. I tried both. The food at Stirchley’s Loaf was an attack on the senses that felt like the Vietnam I loved; no Pho or Banh Mi, but grilled bits of animal and curries that have woody notes and then kick out of the three count with lots of spice. The street food I was a little less taken with, mostly because everything seemingly was drowned in fish sauce. There is a sign in the new restaurant which reads ‘fish sauce is not for everyone’ that had me worried when we sat down. I can take it, just only in tiny quantities. Like sambucca. Or the company of Luke Beardsworth.

With a permanent resturant comes the most refined of his takes on this cuisine up to this point. Pho now makes an appearance, as does Banh Mi at the weekend, joined by more familiar dishes from Vietnam; papaya salad, fried fish, chicken wings, and curries. There is little to startle the people of Stirchley. From memory the food punches less now, coaxing the flavours out slowly, with the emphasis on freshness above all else. That papaya salad has nailed the balance of salt and sugar in the dressing, with loads of fresh, crunchy notes even if it does skimp a little of the amount of poultry. A plate of pork comes as thinly sliced bits of belly; skin taut and crisp, the meat dressed in something that has chilli, vinegar, and I think a little of that fish sauce. It’s a bloody good plate of food.

The pho is the only thing that doesn’t excite me. It’s the one time that it all feels a bit safe; the stock that makes up the soup is devoid of any real flavour, lacking the zip and zing that I remember so much from a country I hold so dear to my heart. I could personally take more herbs, more lime, more fish sauce if I have to. I ask for a half portion of the vegan curry with something called banana blossom; an ingriedient that is new to me. The curry is a delight; pugent and spicy, we scrape the last of the sauce out of the bowl using the rice, leaving the blossom itself which is an acquired taste that I doubt I’ll ever aquire. We finish on the tamarind chicken wings; plump bits of bird with crisp skin, a scattering of peanuts, and a sauce full of funk and umami. Order the chicken wings, whatever happens here.

They presently don’t do booze in the week which is a downer, though my mood is in a much better place when my mate picks up the bill and takes me over the road to Wildcat to carry on the evening. The bill for the above and two soft drinks falls a quid short of £50, which feels fair. I really like Eat Vietnam with its effortlessly cool love letter to the food of its native country and I can see us going back a lot. Ming comes over to the table to say hello and I spy a branded sweater hanging on the wall from the corner of my eye. All of a sudden I feel twenty one all over again.

8/10

Know how to say ‘A2B‘ in Vietnamese? Neither do I. Just make the correct choice and order them to get you here.

Opheem, September 2019

We start this piece on Opheem right at the start of the meal. It is where all of my pieces should probably start but never do, given my tendency to try to hook your attention with a story about my upbringing, my alive parent, my dead parent, or that one time I went to bandcamp. Right now we have food to talk about – a lot of food – so we’ll jump straight in at the start; us sat on one of the large circular tables, peering through the large letter ‘O’ which frames the open kitchen where chef Aktar Islam and his brigade are hard at work. Aktar is hunched over the pass, the quiff of his thick black hair fallen forward like a curtain between his face and the dining room. We on the other hand are a glass of champagne down, happily watching this in serenity under the slowly fading light. The first canapes arrive; duck ham with orange is wrapped around a feather, compressed cucumber with a little spice, a tart with the lightest of cheese mousse inside. A cube of toasted bread is next, the inside filled with bone marrow, the top with fig and onion. The flavour is huge. Then the lamb paté, though now the bread has changed to a brioche made with lamb fat and topped with crispy onions. If the kitchen look like they are hard at work it’s because we haven’t got to the first course yet. The generosity towards diners often talked about At Opheem has never been more noticeable.

What is just as noticeable is how far this restaurant has come in a short amount of time. The swagger is there, rippling from the kitchen to the front of house, each knowing that Opheem has gone from a restaurant with a serious amount of potential to one that is fully realising it. It appears to this untrained eye that every detail has been readdressed and improved where needed; that bread and pate course probably didn’t need changing from the sweet potato bread, but they’ve gone and bettered it with the lamb-fat-brioche-thingy. It takes bollocks to do that. Massive bollocks the size of the ‘O’ on the pass window, and the slightly bigger ‘O’ outside on the wall. One is always bigger than the other; they’ve even got that bit of detail right.

Now before we get on to real food I will offer an apology of sorts: when the outside gets dark, so does the inside of here. What started off as great lighting for a food blog quickly turned into my phone not knowing whether to flash or not, a problem I constantly have to fight with myself. So sorry if the food doesn’t look as good as it should. The first course is tandoori carrot, with pickled carrot, carrot puree, spiced carrot soup, carrot tuile, and lentil pakora, because everyone knows you don’t put carrot in a pakora (I have no idea). The dish shimmers with vibrancy; undeniably carrot, it zips between the light acidic notes, the sweeter ones, and the gentle hum of cumin. The tuile at first seemed superflous, though the charcoal in it worked at accentuating the notes from the tandoor, which is why they are top chefs and I’m a prick with a keyboard. The soft shell crab follows; it’s a bonafide classic which made my top five dishes of last year and if anything has only got better.

We move onto a scallop the size of a babies fist, cooked one side only to a crust and drapped in lardo that slowly spoons the side of the shellfish as the fat warms through. It sits in a broth made from the off-cuts off the kitchen; the vegetable waste, prawn heads, gnarly bits of back bacon, spiced and then sharpened with a variety of lime I’ve never heard of so that it has a smokey hot and sour soup vibe to it. Thinking about it now it was probably my favourite course. I liked it a lot more than the cornet of red pepper ice cream dotted with green strawberry that follows, mostly because it reminded me of sucking on a paper cut, a reference that my other half described as ridiculous. Stone Bass is next, the fillet cooked accurately and the head meat a rillette underneath cut with lots of garlic. The courgette puree and pieces of baby veg, along with the potato fondant could have been classically french until the sauce of raw mango and coconut is poured tableside. This brings everything to life, adding a fragrant and perfumed quality to an already stellar dish.

Then there are the two main meat courses. First up is chicken jalfrezi which is about as traditional as I am modest. The Cotswold breast meat has been cooked sous vide and then finished off under the salamander with a topping of the chicken skin, a little fat (I think) and a little spice. This sits on a ‘keema’ of the pulled bits of the bird, heavily spiced and very possibly in my list of favourite things I’ve ever eaten. If Claire wants the broth for lunch everyday then I want a vat of this. A keema this spicy and tasty doesn’t just make your day, it makes your hole weak. The rest of the plate pays homage to the traditions of the dish without needing to go down the route of cast iron bowls and menus under glass tables for authenticity; a red pepper and naga chilli puree, shallots pickled and then charred, spring onion, one of those complex sauces which Aktar has rightly built his career (and previous tenures) upon. By now I’m praying to the food god to offer some relief, though he doesn’t exist so it’s on to the lamb. Barbecued loin, bread filled wih confit shoulder meat, the most morish of ‘kebabs’ rolled-up and coated in crispy onions, courgette, and a bone marrow sauce cut with enough herb oil to give it the acidity it needs. I was going to avoid mentioning the M word in this piece, but this is one star cooking, absolutely no questions about it.

Aktar comes to the table. He’s got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, he’s got whozits and whatzits galore. The trick of poaching the chai flavoured mousse in nitrous oxide might be straight out of The Fat Duck, but it works; the meringue-like structure dissapates on the tongue, leaving nothing but the notes of cinnamon and cardamon. From there we have the highest quality of cherries with sweet cheese that has been quickly frozen to an ice cream-like state, a riff on a Feast ice lolly filled with mango and coconut, and finish off with a rich ball of chocolate and raspberry. Yes, they are showing off but they have every right to; the quality of desserts here has increased dramatically of late.

The sum of this is what Claire would describe as the second best meal she’s eaten in her four years in Birmingham. It’s not difficult to see why; the cooking has gone up a notch in a short time, with those premium ingredients treated with the respect they warrant. Birmingham has a plethora of brilliant restaurants, each doing their own thing, carving their own path. Based on what we ate over this glorious evening Opheem has to be mentioned with the very best of them.

Want to mention the best taxi companies? The list has just one name. A2B.

Slim Chicken, Birmingham

At the time of writing this, the ‘About Us’ section of Slim Chicken’s website cannot be found which is either, like their cooking, a technical error, or, like the food served, is just half-arsed work. I was only looking it up to add some breadth to this piece. I wanted to tell you why they curiously chose the word ‘Slim’ in the name of a fried chicken shop, though I can’t find it, so we’ll have to assume they based it entirely on the odds of me ever going back. I was also hoping to get some news on their chicken welfare, though I’ll have to guess that they live on a salt plain, eating a diet of salt. Despite my intentions to hunt them down on the internet I know nothing about Slim Chicken other than the meal I ate, which, I can tell you from experience, is already far too much for my liking.

Things don’t get off to the best of starts. I order food at the latest of Grand Central openings which arrives in record time, although it’s someone else’s order and not mine, which would have been forgivable had we all not been given table markers with order numbers on to stop this. Maybe an abacus would have worked better. Mine does eventually turn up, though because they’ve already taken away our number they can’t locate us, and when they do they don’t believe we have an order because we don’t have a board. This food isn’t worth this level of hassle. It’s not worth any level of hassle. It’s rudimentary fried chicken, straight outta… well I don’t know, because the ‘About Us’ section still isn’t working.

The low down on the chicken is simple: the quality of the meat isn’t great, the coatings aren’t very crispy and it’s salty. Really salty. Not salty in the way the yoof of today used to describe things, but salty to the point that eating this isn’t going to help your blood pressure. The tenders are at least tender; the burger with buffalo sauce not something that I would ever want to go back, given that it all gets very soggy very quickly. The fries are straight out of a bag and need salt, whilst the sauces are straight from a factory and need binning. They do however have phone chargers on the table and sport on the screen, meaning that Slim Chicken is a decent choice to have a pint of Camden Hells whilst charging your phone. Decent provided you leave the food alone.

The bill for this is £18 for one. Not much, but too much considering you could eat good fried chicken at Bonehead a minutes’ walk away, even better fried chicken two hundred metres away at The Meatshack, or get a multi-course set menu a train journey away at the unbelievably excellent Chick’n’Sours for exactly the same price. But hey, Slim’s are the ones paying the big rents to feed the through-traffic of Grand Central. I’m sure some customers will take the below mediocre food purely to charge their phone.

4/10

A2B Radio Cars took me and my indigestion home.

The Dark Horse, Moseley

I offer no apologies for the bias that comes with this post. It would be nigh on impossible for me to write about The Dark Horse without taking into account the many nights I’ve spent in the bar drinking endless of amounts of gin, or beer, or bourbon. It is the place at the bottom of the hill, the two minute six second stroll to the pub, or the four minute stagger home. It is the place where the night occasionally descends into fable, where impromptu limbo contents have been known to occur on a Tuesday night, bottles of overproof rum have been plonked on tables, or endless picklebacks have been drunk until I’ve gone home and mistaken my coat rack as a urinal. The Dark Horse is the place I go for a quiet drink on the way back from work, for the midweek open mic nights, or for a closing time dance on the weekend before half of the village comes back to mine. The good times happen here, that is the least you should know.

And yet I’ve never written about the food. Never really considered it, to be honest. Why should I. I’ve always considered what I do to be a study of a menu, not a post dragged out from a pizza I’ve eaten when I was pissed. Plus I like just being another local with a drink problem to the staff behind the bar instead of the bellend with a blog that I am elsewhere. But things have changed recently. They have a new head chef and the food is slowly taking a new direction; more focus on vegetables, a better understanding of fish; the smoker that was once central to the menu is now another gadget in the large open kitchen out back to be used only when required. The food is better than it ever has been, which I suppose is my job to tell you.

Take the truffle mac’n’cheese, so often a let down of overcooked pasta and gloopy béchamel. Here the pasta retains a little bite and the sauce is big on robust cheddar flavours. I can think of only one place that does a better version in Birmingham and I can’t walk there so in your face, suckers. Smoked salmon is wrapped around a salmon and beetroot mousse, before being encased in sheets of pasta and cut into cylinders. It comes on slick of beetroot puree and with a few sweet potato crisps. Yes, it is a bit cheffy, and no, I didn’t expect to see it on the menu (it’s still not on the online version…), but christ is it good. Balanced and delicate, it shows a new direction that happens to be far stronger than the old one.

When they do look to the smoker it’s still cooking of a high standard. The beef tacos are no longer cooked to a mush, now having enough texture to know it is animal you’re eating. The rest of it works; the tacos (likely shop purchased, but frankly who cares) the guac and the chilli. Same goes for the burrito; I dont like the flabby tortilla and I’ve told them as much, but I do like the control and the balance of the filling that never sits still in the mouth. In particular I like the rice that has a slight Persian feel to it and the grilled chicken which is more fragrant than spicy. That chicken returns for a salad that looks and tastes far too healthy to be within these four walls. Claire mutters something about walking down to eat this as a healthy dinner, which to me sounds like a great excuse for a pint.

I can tell you from watching the World Cup here that the pizza is decent, and from a recent work night out that the BBQ beans taste great on just about anything. I can tell you from a meal a few months ago that the Kansas city chicken would not be on my personal list of recommendations, but that even the most robust of meateaters will enjoy the vegan goodness of the Texas caviar salad, even if I still have absolutely no idea what Texas caviar is. I can tell you that that when you get there Karolina will be smiling from behind the bar and Ellis will be giving even the straightest men a stonker in their y-fronts. I can tell you that my mate Tom will be sat on the patio having a pint with just about anybody, and that should you see him you should buy him one for services towards Moseley. Most of all I can tell you that the food is a world away from what it once was and is well worthy of your time. I hear they also do a great Sunday roast, though I’m usually far too hungover to try that personally.

8/10

I once got an A2B home here. True Story.

The Ritz, London

So, it turns out The Ritz is really nice – who would have thought that? They’ve really nailed the five star luxury hotel. From the greetings at the door, to the cloakrooms, to the Rivoli bar with the cocktails that start at £22 and soar through the hundreds, to the gent’s toilets with the expensive toiletries, shaving kits, and warmed thick hand towels. Not a detail has been overlooked in the experience. It succeeds in the sense of occasion: from the generations of ladies celebrating the youngest’s imminent trip to university; to the couple posing for pictures on the staircase prior to their afternoon tea; to us waiting patiently for the dining room doors to swing open at 12.30pm sharp, everyone is dressed-up to the nines and ready to splurge. It is a place of overstated taste, gold-licked, regal and utterly charming in the most British of ways.

I’d built up an idea in my head of what it would be like from the TV show and the countless blogs I read. Some of it rung true; the majesty of the dining room and the dove-tailed waiters gliding around the room whilst the pianist tapped out the safest of Ed Sheeran melodies. Others less so, resulting in a very nice lunch that cost well north of three-hundred-notes but felt like it could have been better value on another day, or maybe for another punter. Take the canapes; the gougeres I’d read so much about are nowhere to be seen, and whilst the ragstone cheese on the parmesan biscuit and the sorrel emulsion on the spoon are very classy, I was kind of looking forward to the coronation chicken cylinders, or even the beef tartare nibbles that seem to blow certain people away. If there is truth in the “we are pushing for the second star” spell then it is a curious statement. They seem to have taken away the more elaborate start and replaced it with a reduced Saturday lunch service for us weekend tourists. I feel a little short-changed and this is before we get to the winelist that starts at £50 a bottle and offers zero value at any point. We opt for a young Latiffe that drinks well enough despite its infancy.

And for this start I’m conflicted because it is clear they are operating mostly at a two star level. The first course of langoustine has beasts of crustacean, all curled up and cooked for possibly a second or ten longer they need to be. What makes this dish is the nage; a sauce of shellfish stock, white wine, herbs, and lots and lots of butter. It is a about as good as sauces get, the ideal foil for the sweet langoustine and anise of fennel nestled underneath. The other starter is veal sweetbread, ariving tableside still smoking in the box of smouldering hay. The sweetbread is probably the best I’ve ever eaten: soft, unctous, and yielding with a light backnote of smoke, paired with an onion jam, shallot and another of those deeply flavoured sauces.

For main we take the beef wellington, a snip at £90 for two. It’s listed with celeriac (very much there) and Perigord truffle (only in the sauce), though also come with some seasonal veg, wild mushrooms, and a side of pastry ends which must be the most Northern side dish to ever appear in Mayfair. It’s very good and overly generous in portion. The pastry is super buttery, the cook on the meat is spot on and the foie gras that runs through the centre a welcome bit of fattiness. I get nowhere close to finishing it.

In keeping with the theme of me pissing and whinging about expectation, I’d sold the idea of the gateau St. Honore to Claire on a picture I’d found on the internet from, you guessed it, The Ritz. On that image layers of pastry, apple, and creme diplomat are topped with elaborate garnishes of sugar, nuts, and delicate chocolate work. The one we got served looked like the technical challenge attempts from Bake Off in comparison; two layers of the puff pastry, each half-piped with cream and the other with apple filled choux buns, almost inedible due to the thick caramel covers that threaten to do more damage than the bill we’re about to be served. In truth it wasn’t a great course; one dimensional and flawed technically. It’s also the small matter of £36. Good job the petit fours were stellar.

It’s The Ritz – we don’t come here expecting it to be cheap – but the final bill of £350 for two felt steep for the experience we personally had. In my eyes it was disjointed; unashamedly stoic French in design, they omitted the little touches traditionally associated with Escoffier’s haute cuisine (the amuse bouche, the pre dessert) for a streamlined service that still takes the same dent out of the wallet. The food is lovely, absolutely no doubt about that, but I wouldn’t rush back. Maybe I built it up too much in my head, but for all the good stuff going on in this grand dining room, you can’t help but think that some people are getting it just a little bit better.

7/10