Month: October 2019

In Defence of Chains.

I always wanted to write a blog on Pizza Express, though ultimately it would have been just another piece not by AA Gill, using phrases that aren’t as good as Gill’s were, not capturing the essence of Pizza Express in the same way that Gill did. AA Gill’s piece on the chain remains one of my favourite by any food writer. It meanders from Richard Curtis hating him to Desert Island Discs and dates with girls. More importantly it is the perfect eulogy to the group; how it belongs ‘to no particular group or social class; from Buddhist dukes to Methodist lesbian dustman’, and how it is ‘a sort of gastronomic post-modern version of The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special’. I miss him and I’ve never met him, unlike a friend of mine who once shared a hot tub with him in Dubai. Hearing that was one of the very few times in my life I’ve been truly jealous.

If Pizza Express does close following the reported debts, it’s a loss to us all. You know what to expect in a Pizza Express; a cardboard like base for a very average pizza, served on a faux-marble table, washed down with a pint of Peroni priced according to predicted inflation rates in 2080. And that’s any Pizza Express, anywhere. From the one down the road from where I live to the Dubai airport branch; the only variable is the accent of your server. It’s a child friendly, lay-back-and-think-of-England small dent in the wallet for a sizeable feed, packaged up in a black cardboard box. They gave us chilli oil on tables, warm greetings, consistency, and a healthy attitude towards leftovers.

The urge to pile onto a business that has dodgy foundations is an easy one; chains are bad! Good riddance to all! Bullshit. Chains are chains because they have mass appeal. What might not appeal to this food snob might be your ideal dinner, in much the same way your gas mask wearing group sessions of how’s your mother with the neighbours might not appeal to the next person’s nine pm missionary with their life partner. It’s okay to appeal to the middle ground; if our political parties applied the same logic as Café Rouge we wouldn’t be on the brink of civil war. Most people aren’t bothered about how long the dough has proved for, the place of birth of the beetroot, or how many sisters the roast chicken once had. They just want convenience; a place where they can reserve tables, order something for everyone, and split the bill seventy-seven ways if they want to, maybe even using a voucher to subsidise the bill. And who am I to tell them otherwise. I cater for the few people in the world who have the disposable income and lifestyle to make dinner choices based on where is best, not where circumstance dictates what they eat.

For the many low scores I’ve dished out over the years my problem has never been with chains; it’s been about cynicism and value for money. For every new Lounge Group opening serving inedible food there is a Pho committed to affordable quality, whilst I’d take a McDonalds breakfast every day over the shite I experienced from a local farm shop this weekend. I’d personally rather eat a Byron than the peanut butter sugary mess of a burger I ate from an award winner a few weeks back, and give me a Wagamama over Katsu Kitchen every day. Remember the very first Jamie’s Kitchen in this country? Of course you don’t. You’re still too busy trampling over his legacy because he dared mess with your turkey twizzlers. Chains feed the families, the first dates, the work parties, and they mean that I can get a table in my favourite places. For all of these reasons, they aren’t that bad.

Loki Wine with Wriggle

AD. This is a paid partnership with Wriggle

I’m sat in the Edgbaston branch of Loki Wine. Both Claire and I have prosecco in hand and we’re divvying up the contents of the meat and cheese platter in front of us; Claire has claimed the oozy brie whilst I have laid claim to the nutty Comte which happens to be my favourite. We share the manchego and the meat, folding the salami in half across the diameter so that it matches the semi-circle of the manchego and fits neatly over the crackers. The sun dried tomatoes and bread sticks are fair game. I stand no chance, right down to the tomato flavoured oil that sits in the bowl that she dredges the serrano ham through. Give me a bill of £30 for this at one of Birmingham’s finest independents and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid; give me £15 wine credit on top to spend at the automated tasting machines and you have one of the city’s true bargains. Everyone say hi to Wriggle, the app which is going to save you a lot of money in Birminghams best venues.

The premise of Wriggle is a simple one: the app has limited time deals for  independent restaurants, bars and cafes, laid out across a singular platform. You open up the app, find the deal you want, purchase it and then take it to said venue to be redeemed. On the afternoon we first use the app we could have saved £17 on a Persian feast for two at Saba, knocked £11 off the normal price of a meal for two at Asian restaurant Lucky Duck, or grabbed a healthy two course late lunch for one at Yakinori for a paltry £7.50. Instead we choose the aforementioned deal at Loki, sticking around to purchase another two glasses of prosecco for ridiculously cheap £5 thanks yet again to a deal on the app. But be quick; every deal has it’s own time limit, or it’s own limited numbers. Eating and drinking has rarely been so affordable.

Download the app straight to your mobile from here;

Chakana, Moseley

The menu at Chakana is full of ingredients I am unfamiliar with. I’d heard of yucca because that’s what they eat on Shipwrecked to not die, and Andean Kiwacha, though I thought he played for Arsenal. Huacatay? Bless you. And something called Tiger Milk which I was pleased to hear is not from a predator’s teat. It’s a lot to take in and many questions are asked. Peruvian food simply isn’t well known north of London. Sure, we have ceviche made by chefs who think that a bit of lime juice on some raw fish will do it, but nothing like Lima which became the first (and only) starred Peruvian in the UK six years ago. Until now.

The chef who won over Michelin in 2013 has a new home, swapping bohemian and artsy Soho for bohemian and artsy Moseley. Robert Ortiz, if our brief encounter is to be believed, is here six days a week, working hard in the kitchen whilst the who’s who of the Birmingham hospitality scene handle front-of-house. The interior matches the tone of the food; it’s bright, and eclectic. The heavy textures of the white walls offset are by bright blues; it’s tasteful and very handsome.

This is my first real experience of this cuisine and I’m impressed. Very, very, impressed. We start with tuna ceviche, the ultra-fresh fish dressed prettily in the pink tigers milk. It’s a million miles away from the ceviche I’m used to: the dressing on the fish keeps going; first acidity, then heat, finishing with a little sweetness, yet still still allowing the tuna to be the star. We follow this up with two from the causas section, which are essentially defined by the cold potato bases. Both the chicken and the king crab are excellent, though if pushed to pick I’d choose the crab one which had less sweetness and more of a chilli kick. Again both are as a pretty as a picture. I’d imagine that some people will order and just stare at the food. We certainly did.

Mains are more wholesome offerings. On paper they appear to be protein and starch, though there are complexities in the subtle spicing and layering of the dishes that lift everything. Beef is marinated in vinegar and chilli so that the pink flesh has a back-note of being cooked over flames. There is a charred corn cake, clusters of black quinoa, a kind of nutty salsa and a purée of something fruity, hot, and squash-like. Apologies if the descriptions are vague; it’s a lot of stuff I’ve not eaten before. I just know I’m intrigued and I want to eat more of it. It is the suckling pig that steals the show. It’s Birmingham’s must-eat dish at present. The slow cooked meat collapses easier than our economy, the sweet yucca root is crushed and cut with herbs and the occasional pop of a tart berry that reminds me of sea buckthorn. There are chillis that linger on the back of the palate and root crisps that give the required texture. It’s an accomplished dish well worth £18 of anyone’s money.

If I’ve fallen into hyperbole, then I’m sorry but there is more to come. Desserts continue the trend for me wanting to go back and eat everything. For now you’re just getting the alfajores. It is as it is sold to us – as a dulce de leche custard with meringue – yes, your dreams really have been answered. The dulce de leche is rich, with coffee and caramel notes, the Italian meringue ethereally light. Claire describes it as the best Angel Delight you’ll ever eat, which is why I’ll always be the second best restaurant blogger in our household.

With this we drink some very good cocktails and enjoy a couple of glasses of very nice wine, gently coaxed into our decisions by a team who are well drilled in all things Peruvian. There’s nothing we didn’t love about Chakana; the cooking is interesting and delivered with real skill, keenly priced, and unlike anything we’ve ever had in Birmingham. Since our lunch I’ve been weighing up the score in my head, wavering between a nine and the ten. But this is my blog and my rules, so it’s top marks. The reason is simple; Chakana is easily the most exciting opening of 2019. You absolutely have to try it for yourself.


I’d strongly recommend several pisco sours and an A2B home