Month: October 2020

Hennessy’s, Digbeth

For me, one of the biggest plus points of last year was the success of the Tabor House project. Every Wednesday evening, at 6pm sharp for twenty weeks, we fed the 15 guests of a shelter in Digbeth some of the best food from Birmingham and further afar. We had pizza, curry, burgers, chillis and so much more, not only allowing the budget of the shelter to be spent elsewhere, but also providing an aspirational quality of food to the residents they wouldn’t usually have been accustomed to. At the point of the pandemic closing down the shelter we had pledges of enough Wednesday meals to take us through to September. As Marcus Rashford has proved, hospitality is often the lifeboat that comes to the rescue of the government’s sinking ship.

One of those people who had pledged food was Gary at Hennessey’s. It turns out that charity is his thing. I asked him for a one-off of 15 meals and he offered it every week, on top of the 100 meals he already provides weekly to another Digbeth food bank. When Eat Out To Help Out launched, Hennessey’s became the first in Birmingham to extend it into September, then October, and now I hear likely November but please don’t quote me on that.

My mate Tom took me for lunch there. I’ve since been back twice to eat. An old school pub in Digbeth which specialises in affordable dining is an unlikely spot for me, but I like it. They make pizza dough and burger patties fresh every day, the chicken and eggs are free range, and the couple of items they don’t bring in – such as the cod goujons – are the best quality they can afford. Let’s not pretend this is destination dining, but more a place that’s not going to cut corners in feeding you well, at a price you can afford, and crucially at this point in time, outside in a heated covered area with friends.

I’d suggest that you start with the breakfast burger, be it whatever time of the day. The sausage patty, bacon, cheese, fried egg, and hash brown combo has been done before in a bun, but this is a solid rendition and pretty much perfect hangover food at a tenner. Then I’d move on the shredded bits of chicken in panko breadcrumbs and plunge them deep into the bbq sauce. On the first lunch I wasn’t over enamoured by the beef chilli on the loaded fries, and told the chef in passing that I thought the blunt metallic note might have been from putting tomato purée in with the chopped tomatoes and not cooking it out first. A week later and the problem is sorted without a chef bludgeoning me to death for giving an opinion. It’s now a very nice and substantial chilli on chips for £7.

Tom insists we try the mash’n’gravy bites because he thinks they’re hilarious in notion. The reality is far less challenging; they are basically croquettes with gravy to dunk into. Slightly messy and very satisfying; a bit like my lovemaking. And halloumi fries, softened and still holding their shape, go down inoffensively whilst watching the IPL from the giant outdoor screen.

Three of the small plates come in at £13, meaning that this Wednesday lunch under the EOTHO scheme comes in at under £20 for the food, but quite a bit more if you are aware of Tom’s drinking prowess. On a further visit I ask Gary how he makes money on this scheme, “we don’t really”, he tells me, “it’s just nice to give something back”. Truth is I’m drawn to people who want to do good for others, who see the importance of community and charity; but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go easy on them. If Hennessey’s wasn’t good I wouldn’t write about it. It just so happens that they do honest food with good ingredients at a price point that is way too cheap.

I should probably use this moment to thank A2B who delivered a massive amount of food to the shelter for free.

The Abyss of Another Lockdown

Right now the world feels like the end scene of Fight Club, the bit where two people stand hand-in-hand watching as the world crumbles to nothing in front of them. The apocalypse played out to the reverberating notes of The Pixies as the demolition job reduces the skyline to dust. Tyler Durden, full of arrogance and bravado, is dead, whilst his pessimistic, nervous, and bleak counterpart looks to the outside world emotionless and cold. He has little understanding of how it got to this.

This post was scheduled to be a lovely weekend stay, though that chipper piece will have to wait. The government’s decision to band the country into ‘fucked’, ‘really fucked’, and ‘really fucked with financial support’ is yet another blow which will impact hospitality the hardest. A recent study showed that hospitality accounted for under 3% of COVID transmissions outside the household, yet it’s being held as a scapegoat for a boom in cases widely attributed to the return of education and workplace reopenings. This is further compounded by Johnson himself using the Eat Out to Help Out scheme as a cause of a rise in cases when the science suggests otherwise. That mop headed blundering balloon head in number ten is using an entire sector to cover up his incompetence. It’s impossible to not be angry about.

The reality here in Birmingham is a bleak one. Taking the middle tier of ‘really fucked’, we’re not allowed to mix with other households inside, effectively sounding the death knell for places that had previously been the only viable source of socialising.  Couples with children can no longer take turns going out with friends, whilst those in single households are now preparing for a long winter wearing several layers of clothing if they are to see anyone at all. The knock on effect is obvious: tables of four and six will now become twos and nones. Those without outdoor spaces and food options will suffer most, leaving the rest scrambling to make ends meet. What’s this going to achieve? Birmingham, with a declining rate of 160 cases per 100k sits outside the top 50 of worst affected areas, whilst Liverpool, the only region forced to close pubs completely, occupies third place with two areas higher than them. There has been no dialogue with local authorities. It’s almost like they are making this up as they go along.

Moaning about this on Twitter does nothing, as does me using this post as a place to vent. Right now hospitality needs support not empathy. It needs firm and direct action when the government offers nothing to them. I’m working with someone as of this morning to match up ‘wet’ only businesses with others who can supply them food to sell. Still go out to eat if you can, brave the cold for a drink if you have to, and if you don’t feel safe – which is perfectly understandable – order a takeaway, or an ‘at home’ pack like the ones Aktar Islam is presently banging out. Encourage the businesses you love to diversify for the winter to offer their products to have at home at your convenience, but most importantly don’t neglect someone because their size and location doesn’t play to a government narrative which is still being written. Buy vouchers as presents if you have to. Sure it’ll make Christmas Day a bit shitter, but Mrs Brown’s Boys has already done that.

I need to make it clear that I’ve personally never supported the idea of letting COVID rip through the country like our Prime Minister did back in February. The idea of condemning an entire generation to death is to me the end of humanity. This situation is almost as bad; it achieves neither supporting businesses or protecting the vulnerable. It’s likely that the next loss you mourn will be your favourite bar and restaurant if we don’t all pull together on this. It’s time that Boris Johnson retrained to be the Prime Minister he claims to be.

Ynyshir, October 2020

The bad news is this blog post is even worse than my usual crap. The good news is I’m back at Ynyshir in a few weeks to rectify it. And whilst I offer no apologies for getting in the state I did, I probably should have done it in the pub and saved myself a very large sum of money. We’d never been and shared a table with anyone other than ourselves, but we like Kyle and Lucy and they drink a lot, so it made sense. There were beers and wines consumed whilst getting ready, then gin in the bar before Kyle suggested double vodkas (no mixer) which seemed like a great idea at the time. Then wine. So many bottles of wine, five good bottles I think, with an interval of two rounds of Jaeger bombs (don’t ask). I’m well aware that usually my memory of dessert is hazy. On this instance I’m struggling to remember well before that.

So what can I tell you? I tell you that they’ve had a makeover. The exterior white walls are now a dusky grey, the fire pit is gone, replaced by a all-weather pit which fits seamlessly into an indentation of the facade. Inside the bar has been taken out for more seating, and there is a vending machine now to get pickled onion Monster Munch, Pom Bears, and booze from. I can tell you the tipis were ready, and that due to the unusually warm weather we were one of the first people to stay in them. Log burners and big cosy beds inside, outdoor seating and soon-to-be barbecues outside. Two of the party lay on the grass for hours after dinner watching the shooting stars in the clear night sky, and one of those caught a cold for doing so. I was tucked up in a lovely warm tent under a duvet at this point.

Food-wise it now starts the second you check in, being taken through the chilled contents of the fridge. A5 Hida wagyu from Japan, tuna belly from the Bay of Biscay, caviar, English wasabi root, a dozing lobster on some ice. Foreplay for a meal you simply know is going to be great. The first courses are now served in the bar; squid tempura, all puffed and ethereal, with sweet chilli sauce, then skewers of warmed through tuna belly doused in teriyaki. Gareth’s Geordie sense of humour with raw lobster in Jim’s Nan’s sauce (for those at back it’s a feisty take on Thai condiment, nanjim), which is an alien texture at first but ends up a firm favourite. Then shrimps in Thai green sauce that has only been slightly cooked using the kaffir lime juice in the sauce. It’s all very minimal intervention and Asian flavours. I love it.

Not sure what I can add to the rest of the meal. I remember the chicken katsu is now a deboned and rolled wing, breaded and covered in the sauce, and that the chilli crab has had similar treatment to the lobster in that it’s been frozen in a minus 80 freezer so that the shell can be removed without cooking. The use of the minus 80 freezers appears to be fairly groundbreaking, apart from an ex-girlfriend who used it on her heart many years ago. I remember one of the wagyu courses is now a maki roll of beef, caviar, wasabi, and tuna which made me emotional, and that a dessert of strawberries and cream had a similar effect. I think a slushie machine was involved at some point, but I can’t be certain.

I came into breakfast to Gareth grinning at me. ”You were fucked last night”, he laughed. I apologised and he doesn’t care because it’s our money we don’t remember blowing, and also because I’m fabulous company when pissed as long as I’m not rapping. It was over the obscene ’Mach Muffin’ that we realise that none of us had really taken many pictures. I’m an awful blogger and I don’t care. For a night we were enjoying every second, able to share great company in our favourite place. This blog is important to me, but it isn’t life or death. I’ll try to do it properly when we return for the 8th time on Claire’s birthday early November.

8, Birmingham

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8 is a restaurant which needs to be seen rather than read about. On paper the 16 seater restaurant where all of the 8 courses are based around the number 8 might seem a little gimmicky, until, that is, you are on one of those stools, with those plates in front of you eating some seriously good food. It is here that you see a chef unleashed; his own food and ideas on a plate, following a career of cooking to other people’s briefs in high profile restaurants.

Cards on the table, I have had a tiny amount of involvement in the restaurant. I arranged a couple of launch events – one for chefs, the other for press – and gave my opinion at a drinks tasting, and I suggested the services of someone to make the mixed drinks a little better. I’ve received payment for some things and have done others purely out of wanting to see them succeed. The meal you are reading about is from a press night I helped organise. Whilst it’s important to establish facts, it’s also important to remember that I’ve been critical of dishes before they reached this stage. I’ve eaten almost all of them in isolation, though this is the first time I’ve had them as one cohesive dinner.

But first the dining room, which is unlike anything in Birmingham and has very few reference points outside of the city. A kitchen table of 16 seats, each lit individually by a spotlight that beams on to the logo set upon the oxidised concrete. To one side of the room is a neon infinity wall, to the other a large screen which plays the media for each course. It’s ballsy and in your face. It’s full of talking points. It’s the room which is going to be all over your social media for the rest of the year.

Spelt bread arrives first clad in a sticky apple caramel glaze, to be torn apart between two and clad in butter. Then ‘V8’, the first course proper and named after the juice, a tart of mostly tomato and beetroot, with a warm consommé from the same veg. Delicate pastry, almost sweet filling offset with parsley. It’s a cracking start. It’s followed by ‘oxidised’, a fairly classic tartare of dairy cow with mushrooms, truffle, and a gooey yolk, set between two discs of pressed brioche. Well balanced and rich, it continues to set a high standard. ‘Square Root of Eight’ sees a cube of roasted celeriac share a bowl with a dice of the same veg pickled and a broth of the off-cuts, with little more than a grating of hazelnut for adornment. It comes alive thanks to an incredibly clever drink pairing that contains bourbon, Hungarian sweet wine, and toasted barley oil. I’m biased, but those drink pairings are up there with the best in the country.

From here it gets very, very good. ‘Lucky 8’ is a naughty double mouthful of bread, pork liver parfait, a riff on a famous pickle, cheddar cheese, and lardo. It’s big and moreish. A very famous chef may have eaten three of them. Then a light tartare of scallops and apples, bolstered by a bonito infused cream, which forms the ‘8 Days A Week’ course. We finish the savoury courses with ‘Resurrection’, a venison Wellington studded with foie gras, sauce and that’s it. It doesn’t need anything else. Stellar work, it’s up there with my favourite things to eat in the city. On a side plate is pastry ends. What’s pissed off a kitchen of chefs only adds to the happiness in the dining room.

The first dessert happens to be the first dish that Andrew learnt to make. ‘8-10-2006’ is the date he started as a chef, knocking out carrot cake for afternoon teas. This carrot cake is given an upgrade; one between two, with cream cheese and carrot jam. It’s a stunner. With this a drink that contains carrot vodka. Turns out I like carrot vodka. Last course is ‘8.01’; After Eight, if you like. There’s a chocolate ganache with a puddle of minty chocolate grappa, covered in a spikey alpine of chocolate tuiles. Given the complexity of the work gone into the previous courses, it’s nice to finish on something more simplistic.

The price for the food is £88, more if you go for the drinks pairing, which you really should. I dined in 8 three nights in a row this week prior to the official launch today, and already I have seen minor tweaks and improvements. Given that Andrew describes these as “the eight courses of his career”, it only seems fitting that the dishes continue to evolve, much like him as a chef. As far as experiences go, 8 is as cinematic and widescreen as Birmingham has ever seen. It’s bolshy and ambitious. It demands to be experienced.

You’ve probably correctly guessed I didn’t pay for this.

Better pictures by Where is Claire. Best taxis by A2B.

Another Place, Ulswater

We were several hours late to check in to Another Place because I insisted we take the scenic route. “Let’s get some pictures” I said, as we crawled through the cars that block the road on the tourist trap that is Bowness upon Windermere, taking the wrong turn towards Ambleside, then eventually up to Ullswater. We needn’t have bothered. All the scenery we needed was found at the hotel. The view from the bedroom directly on to the lake, the lakeside position of the badminton, the jetty that looks over to Arthur’s Pike and across to the boat club, and that infinity pool that seamlessly joins the line of the eye with the warm and colder waters, with just a sheet of glass and 100m between them. I’d forgotten about the price tag by the time we watched the sunrise from the hot tub, and was asking to book again when I was able to catch up on work from the terrace whilst Claire went open water swimming. I have rarely felt more relaxed in any environment, anywhere.

We went on a two night, three day stay which formed the backbone of our Lake District holiday. One night in the casual restaurant, the other in the more formal Rampsbeck. Some very nice food, some less so, but then I am a fussy bastard and this was a break between the big guns of L’Enclume and Lake Road Kitchen. The breakfasts were all a good standard, as were the lunches. Claire found a £44 bottle of Pinot Noir she liked on the first night and we drank this throughout the stay. I winced a little when the checkout bill arrived.

I won’t bore you with every dish but I’ll try to provide a snapshot. A bowl of root veg on the first night is the classiest moment in the more casual restaurant, with the roasted stuff sitting comfortable with the pickled stuff and the subtle use of cumin. Also good is a confit duck with potato hash that’s big on seasoning, even if the fried duck egg could have been used as a space hopper. Less impressive was a Keralan chicken curry that was so bland I momentarily thought I’d contracted COVID. There was a lunchtime lamb kebab which looked like a car crash but tasted great.

The following night within the petrol blue walls of Rampsbeck we kick off with ras el hanout popcorn which gave me preconceptions about them trying too hard. It settled down with a ham terrine which packed loads of flavour and had Jerusalem artichokes in various guises for texture and sweet earthiness. Scallops come accurately cooked and pickled bits of cauliflower, with the same veg reappearing on a later vegetarian dish with spiced potato parcels that are inoffensive and enjoyable. They handle vegetables very well here. Best dish by a distance is halibut with crab, fresh as a daisy and punchily seasoned, with a potato and fennel salad. Desserts are a mixed bag; a cake of plums, damson, and almond is a solid bit of pastry, though the meadowsweet mousse with the roasted peaches is absolutely tasteless. They ask why I haven’t finished it. I feel bad for telling them the truth given how great the waiter is.

That waiter was not alone; the service throughout our stay is the perfect blend of distance and hospitality. Every member of staff is warm and kind, with every request dealt with efficiently. It takes the edge off the price, which, after a large deposit is taken, sits at many many hundreds for the two of us. This isn’t a foodie retreat, more a little piece of luxury serenity which will feed you well. And when I’m sat on the jetty of Ulswater watching the sunset across the lake, that’s more than enough for me.

The better pictures are taken by Where Is Claire