Author: MeatandOneVegBlog

Opheem, January 2020

This was my eighth visit to Opheem since it opened. I am fully aware that there are other restaurants in Birmingham, but Opheem has a brilliant ability to post new dishes online which make me want to book a table to eat them, which I do, very happily. This time it was three dishes all from the new menu; a skewer of chicken tikka, a monochrome monkfish dish, and a goat biryani. I was supposed to go to Opheem with an incredibly nice man called Nick but that was overturned by my evil girlfriend after seeing the image of the chicken skewer. Nick, I’m sorry. We both know you would have made superior company.

Turns out that chicken skewer is worth the trip alone. Served as an amuse, the first bite in the restaurant after the little bits hand delivered by the chef to the bar area, it is Aktar’s homage to butter chicken. Chicken leg deboned, brined, compressed, marinated, and then cooked over fire, served with a chopstick up its proverbial arse and a coating of something buttery and nutty, crisp skin, and puffed rice. It is what you imagine chicken tikka tastes like but never does; a perfect blend of warming spices and juicy poultry. Unimprovable.

Now the boring bit. I’m going to say what I’ve said several times before and tell you that Opheem has improved yet again. The new menu has taken the kitchen to new heights. More processes (I’m told that chicken takes four days) though ultimately less components. Dishes have cut down on the ingredients and focused on ramping up the flavour. Old dishes revisited and improved. The lamb fat bun still has the lamb patè, though now that patè is inside the bun, whilst that bun can (and should) be dunked into a little bowl of spicy lamb broth. What’s left of that broth should be cupped and drank immediately. The first course of the tasting menu sticks with ovine, a mutton ‘porridge’ which is similar to daal in texture only with long braised strands of meat and a deep hit of flavour. Crispy onions and a little bhaji offer a contrast of flavour for an assured and confident start to the meal.

We have the tandoori carrot that you can read about here, followed by a langoustine, caviar, and cauliflower custard dish that I’ve been fortunate enough to try a couple of times during its development. It feels complete now; concise and higher in acidity, it works brilliantly with the tartare of langoustine wrapped up in the celeriac ‘taco’ which cradles a wooden holder to one side. Then the highlight of the meal; a take on monkfish dopiaza, a term literally translating as ‘double onion’. Dark and brooding, the fish has been cooked over charcoal and has just enough smokiness, whilst the onion is present as a sweet compote, spiced roscoff broth, charred shallots, and (I think) crispy spring onion tops. It’s a hell of a dish which could easily sit on a two star menu and not be out of place. It also defines Aktar Islam as a chef: the ability to look at dishes from his heritage and transform them into something refined and modern.

The last of the savoury courses was also the most recognisable: a goat dum biriyani, inspired by the dishes served by his Mother to his younger self, with the pastry lid cut open at the table, as all dum biriyani should. This comes one between two, to be portioned on to the plates containing a goat chop, raita and salad. It is a showstopper, familiar, with an execution of undeniable skill. The biriyani stars; the rice with just a little bite, mingled in with bits of braised goat that whack with spice until licked with the raita. Proper cooking. From the look of social media it appears to be going down a storm. Quite right too.

The first dessert celebrates forced rhubarb, and is, in all honesty, the weak point of the meal given it eats a little one dimensional compared to the vibrancy of everything else. We then move on to a dark chocolate delice with orange gel, and a sweet potato dauphine. It’s a Jaffa Cake we tell them. No it’s not they say. Yes it is: the dark chocolate, the orange, and the dauphine that has a cake-like texture thanks to the choux mixed in with the carb. We’ll agree to disagree here. It’s delicious anyway. There are petit fours because now that they have a star there should be.

The award of the Michelin Star means that prices have risen slightly, but the eight courses at £75 represents one of the best value tasting menus in the region. With this we took the wine pairing that included rose champagne and a very classy Pinot Noir that I am going to be purchasing for home. Service is superb and if they are bored of seeing my face then they haven’t let on just yet. It was as good as rainy Thursdays get. Opheem are unstoppable at present, full of creative flair and desire. Little wonder I’ve neglected most of Birmingham’s restaurants to keep on returning here. Nick, next time, I promise it will be with you.

I travel to and from the best, with the best

Pictures pilfered with permission from the restaurant due to lighting being very low

Moor Hall Restaurant and Rooms, Ormskirk

The design of Moor Hall felt like a collection of our favourite restaurants. The walk from the carpark to the restaurant through the immaculately turned-out garden lined with vegetables and herbs and flowers could easily have been the vast grounds behind The Wild Rabbit. Inside, the large polished kitchen and dining room make use of glass walls to connect it to its environment in the same way that Azurmendi do, whilst the view has a similar serenity to that found in the middle-of-bloody-nowhere at Ynyshir. It’s like they sat down with a blank page and asked what it would take to make the perfect experience, probably laughed at all of the zeros on the page, and then done it anyway. And there is nothing wrong with that.

In fact there is nothing wrong with any of Moor Hall. On the contrary; it is a restaurant defined by a high level of consistency that may explain the two Michelin stars in the three years it has been open, along with its present ranking of numero uno in Restaurant magazine. Every step, from the email asking us to arrive early, to the first courses in the bar, to the tour of the kitchen where the third course was served, lunch, and the small matter of a cheese room (yes, you have read that correctly), felt tightly orchestrated. A lot of thought has gone into every process, but then you would expect this from a Roux scholar who did a stint at Cellar Del Can Roca in between his tenures as head chef at L’Enclume.

We start with charcuterie in the bar, made in-house and some of the best I have ever eaten. Then a parcel of black pudding with a little gooseberry, washed down with a well made martini. Then into the kitchen for smoked eel and fermented wild garlic in a basket of fried potato which was just knockout good. Then to the table for bread with a conventional butter and another a vivid green, blended with parsley and lovage. Three spots each dishing out some very good bits of food.

The following lunch happens at a speed so precise I expect each plate is fitted with a pacemaker. Dish comes, wine is topped up, dish gets eaten, wine gets topped-up, wait seven minutes and dish arrives. Repeat. We get baked carrots with sea buckthorn and Doddington (a hard cheese a little like parmesan), that shows great balance and restraint, and a beetroot dish lifted with a little frozen horseradish and has the bite of quinoa for texture. I usually dislike beetroots; this has me pilfering from Claire’s plate when she’s not looking.

I’ve seen a rendition of the tartare dish before. It allegedly stems from Cellar Del Can Roca and found it’s way back to Cartmel where it’s become something of a signature. Eight years ago, when I first tried it, the idea of charcoal oil to make the raw beef taste cooked was groundbreaking. Now everyone is doing it. This version, with 80 day old beef, barbecued celeriac, mustard, and perfect teeny rings of pickled shallot, seems like the work of a man who has mastered his craft. It’s perfect. A dish with crab and turnip is all about the root vegetable, with the crab fighting for attention. I want to say that crab and turnip is a perfect partnership but I can’t. What I can say is that the turnip broth seasoned with soy is without question the best use for a turnip you will ever come across.

Just one month in, I can absolutely guarantee that the Guinea hen main will be in my top ten dishes of the year. The juicy square of meat with crisp fatty skin, the ragu of offal underneath a cloak of kohlrabi with kale sandwiched between that had been cooked in ham fat. The silkiest of  jerusalem artichoke puree flecked with floral notes, the maggot-like Japanese artichokes which are buttery and nutty, hen of the wood mushrooms, and a jus so clear it could easily have been a reduced consome. That jus got me into trouble with Claire, chasing away at the last of it with my index finger to be told that this isn’t how to behave in places like this. I’ll take the slap on the wrist. There is nothing that could make this dish better. It is an absolute stunner.

We finish on a couple of desserts and the small matter of a trip to a cheese room. First up is a gingerbread ice cream and candied root vegetables under a flurry of pastry sticks, which is grown-up and downright delicious, followed by apples both as a mousse and caramelised terrine. The dish was full of clean herbaceaus notes with birch syrup and woodruff, decorated with the prettiest shards of caramel leaves. Another winner. Then the cheese room, which by now you may have noticed I am a little excited about. Seventeen British cheeses and one from Ireland, all immaculately stored. We chose six between two, served up with quince, red onion chutney, bread, and crackers. Order more wine. My work here is done.

The last time I saw Mark Birchall he was peering out of a gap in the service entrance to the kitchen of L’Enclume, looking pensive. Here, as we are among the last to finish up at lunch he is in a relaxed mood, seemingly helping front of house prepare for that evening’s dinner service. He asks how lunch was. “Pretty much perfect” I reply. Looking back the bill just shy of £300 seems a relative bargain, given the cocktails, the wine, the lunch, and the cheese. Moor Hall is a special restaurant, fully deserving of all the accolades bestowed over such a short period of time.

9/10

Couch, Stirchley

I was sat at the bar of Couch a couple of Saturdays back when a very nice man called Paul came over to say hello. Aside from making my night with some very kind words, he mentioned that he thought there would be a chance he would see me here: an indictment of my alcohol issues if there ever was one. Later, after posting a photo on social media, another friend asked if I’d secured living accommodation within the bar. Have I really become synonymous with a cocktail bar not even three months old? I hope so.

After spending the first five consective nights sat at MY stool (and it is mine) at the bar, Claire’s birthday eve, Claire’s birthday, Christmas Eve, New Years Eve, and countless other lost evenings, I can confidently say that Couch is up there with the very best cocktail bars I have ever been to. Maybe the best. And that has very little to do with me knowing the team here, which I do, and a lot to do with facts. And also that they have negroni on tap.

So, Your Honor, first bout of evidence in the case of Couch Being Greatest Cocktail Bar In The World is a simple one. It’s the drinks. Presently based on a music theme, each of the cocktails takes inspiration from a track that then weaves an element of that song back into it. Take ‘English Man in New York’, a 1987 hit by tantric testicled twat, Sting. It’s a Manhattan made with English ingredients; mead, Cotswolds single malt whisky, and meadowsweet honey. Clever right? I know. Just wait to you find a free afternoon to ask Jacob about the idea behind ‘Pennyroyal Tea’. And there is ‘The Gambler’, a whisky-based drink which is the best drink I’ve ever tried. Seriously. I’d have this straight into my veins if syringes weren’t frowned upon in public. I may have also tried a drink going onto the next menu (film based this time) that tastes like a salted banana split doused in rum which may be even better. So basically Nobody Does It Better, a drink that should have been on this menu were they all not so sickeningly humble.

Next up is the thing that separates Couch from the other great cocktails that we have in Brum: it’s the vibe, or ambience if you are one of the many readers of this blog over the age of fifty (don’t die! I need you!). For those familar with the second city, think Shoreditch, specifically a bastardisation of Happiness Forgets, Satan’s Whiskers, and Coupette. For those who have never heard of London, which is fine and perfectly understandable, think cool, relaxed, and comforting, with a playlist that starts with soulful rock and ends with a bar sing-a-long of Rocket Man, or any number of tracks by Queen. It helps that it’s small – about twenty seats inside – and it helps that most of those seats are around the bar. It helps that it’s beautifully designed in dark greens and comfy stools, but it helps more that the people behind the bar are the best in Birmingham at making people feel welcome.

I’ve toyed with this piece for a while. Started it. Stopped it. Started it again. It’s what happens when you’re friends with the team involved, even if the team in question have made it abundently clear that they prefer my girlfriend’s company to mine. But if this blog really exists to shine a light on the best of Birmingham then Couch has to be featured. It’s a neighbourhood bar with serious drinks that isn’t afraid to take the piss out itself. In my eyes that makes it perfect. Go, sit at the bar, and try it for yourself, but don’t you dare choose the stool third from the right. It’s mine and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

Don’t drink and drive, take an A2B and make a night of it

Vietnamese Street Kitchen, Resorts World

I write this on a bitterly cold Monday morning which, if the media are to be believed, is the most depressing of the year. How very depressing of them to inform us of this. I was in a good mood until about twenty minutes ago; I’d put a suit on for an important day with the real job, eaten a very small breakfast, and headed into the office. En route I had a flick through my phone. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. It was the latter which did it. A thread came up with people discussing ‘personal brands’, which I believe to explain the personal accounts of those not subjected to enough attention as a child. Is there a more repellent term? It implies the content is manufactured; a contorted marketing ploy to appear more woke, more gammon, more gay, more straight, more left, more right to appeal to a certain group of followers (another term which riles me. Twitter is not a cult, despite what some would have you believe). Remember the episode of Black Mirror where the women on the way to the wedding collects scores based on how strangers perceive her? Social media is doing that to us. We are losing the human. It’s all smoke and mirrors. An abyss of cancel culture, led by those working on their personal brands during the day and plotting the downfall of the popular kids who bullied them at senior school during the night. And then there is those who think that their face need to be in every picture, every Instagram story. Don’t start me on those. It’s those wankers that are killing the planet.

On the flip of this is Oliver. You don’t know who Oliver is, but suffice to say he is a personal brand I can get behind, and he is so unassuming, so quietly driven, that he has no idea what personal brand means. Right now Oliver is Vietnamese Street Kitchen, both branches; the one in Brindley Place and this, a shiny new one in Resorts World. He slingshots to our table from another to say hi, telling us how he’s been up since well before dawn to prep the dough for the bao, get over to Brindley, then here. He takes our drinks order, brings our drinks, takes the food order and then disappears to help cook the food. This is not a joke. Oliver is now in the kitchen.

I should point out that we are not left alone; there are other staff here and they do a fine job of keeping the beer on steady rotation. When the food does arrive it comes in waves, mostly hand-delivered by yes, you’ve guessed it. And it’s mostly very good. Earnest cooking from the heart, which is all I ever want but seldom see. Lightly cooked prawns have it all on show in the see-through PVC mac that is the summer roll, whilst chicken wings have been taken for a roll in thick sauce that starts hot with chilli and ends with the sweetness of palm sugar. Both of these starters are very nice, as were the fried dumplings stuffed with a dice of vegetables that come alive when dredged through a soy based sauce under a canopy of herbs. Three of these snacks for fifteen quid is tremendous value. If you’re reading this Oliver, charge more. Though I doubt he is; he’s probably brewing the beer, or catching the fish for tonight’s service.

I’ll address the pho here and then finish on a high point. I don’t like it. The beef has that boiled texture of being taken to a temperature too high, whilst the stock is too light on flavour for my liking. I tell Oliver this and in his defence he makes a very valid arguement involving the regional varities of Pho and staying true to his family’s style. What I do like are strips of pork belly that manage that perfect point of crispy skin and soft interior, and even more than that the beef curry so fragrant with lemongrass. The meat falls off the bone, the sauce just thick enough to hold on to edges of the rice. It’s glorious.

As touched on, prices are super fair with any sensible couple getting away with less than £25 a head. We are not sensible. I liked it here. I like what they are doing and I like how they are going about it. It’s no secret that neither sites have been particularly kind to independents, so it’s a big gamble to go from Brindley Place to a second site in Resorts World within a year of opening. But I think they’ll be fine. The owner is a superstar who bleeds hospitality; exactly the type of personal brand the world needs. Should you see Oliver please say hi and tell him I’ll be back real soon.

8/10

We took an A2B because we only ever take A2B

Carters of Moseley, Winter 2019

This was supposed to be a recap of both the meals we had booked in at Carters over the festive period, but no, Claire had to pick up a spluttering, bubonic, germfest that had us cancelling all plans and turned me into a tea waiter for two weeks. There are many reasons to hate the know-it-all, boyfriend stealing, Kardashian obsessed, clever clogs tax nazi that is Claire, but few more valid than her ruining me eating good food. As it was, I managed to guilt shame her into getting a curry in as a replacement meal, so swings and roundabouts and all that.

The mathematicians amongst you may have worked out that ‘both’ minus one bout of illness equals one meal. You are going to read about that meal because it was four hundred quid and I want to preserve what already hasn’t been sacrificed to the porcelain gods a long time ago.

It was another amazing meal; I think maybe the best yet. It appears to the eye of this bloated epicurean (yes, I did just refer to myself in the wankiest way possible) that the reins are off and that now we are eating what Brad and the team here want to cook and, more importantly, what they want to eat. Take the partridge that comes at half time; poached in master stock, the bird is butchered, it’s elements cooked seperately, and then reassembled to its original form, albeit axed in two for sharing purposes. The breast meat isn’t going to offend anyone, though some might object to the claws left intact on the braised legs (I don’t), and those people will take equal offence to the skewer of innards which happen to be the best bit. The biggest talking point is up top. The unctous neck meat that leads up the birds skull, beak intact, brain ready to be sucked out. I’m told that this made an appearance last year, but only to the tables they thought would be receptive to it. Now everyone gets it. That’s where Carters is at presently; a brilliant point of realisation of what they do best is what is going out of the kitchen. We ate every bit with Claire not only cleaning the bones but sucking out the last of my share of the brain. It’s yet another reason to hate her.

The rest of the meal was another tour de force of what is right now the best kitchen in Birmingham. The nibbles and bread are pretty identical to this meal, whilst the brilliant scallop brex-o description can save me eighty words by reading it here. We eat barely warmed through razor clams in pepper dulse sauce that is pepe e cacio reimagined by a wizard, followed by sturgeon in a velvety sauce bobbing with caviar. The sturgeon is a new one to me given that I’m only used to eating the eggs of it’s unborn children. I struggle with it as its texture is too reminiscent of trout (the true evil of this planet) though make up for it by mopping up the sauce whilst Claire finishes off mine. She eats mother and daughter. Another reason to hate her.

The menu tells me that we had the partridge at this point, so it’s onto the eight year old Holstein with fermented hen of the wood mushrooms and ‘beer mustard’ which, if I remember correctly from the Calum Franklin event is pickled mustard seeds fermented in beer. I think. They are incredible anyway. The cow meat has a maturity to it that only comes from dairy cattle, layered with funk and umami from it’s accompaniments. It’s a proper plate of food. Then Baron Bigod stuffed with truffle because life is too short to eat it any other way.

I should point out at this point that Alex and Holly had curated a truly fantastic (and very generous) wine flight for Claire’s birthday and I’m less half cut, more impaled on my own spike. It’s all a bit blurry from here on in, which is probably our fault for polishing off a bottle of something fizzy before the food started. There is a mousse of cornish honey with a prettily decorated shard of something sweet and crispy containing the very bits that the bee feeds off. Lucky bee: my diet is made up of bitterness and partridge brain. The last picture I took was of a chocolate and cobnut tart which I remember being delicious. I think there was something after that, though it could just be more port. I think it was more port. We pay the bill and saunter to Couch for more drinks and a rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, capping off a perfect night. The style of cooking at Carters is in a new phase which may not be for everyone. It is most certainly for us. I can’t get enough of it.

Wanna know what else I can’t get enough of? That sweet, sweet A2B.

OKO at Nuvo Bar, Brindley Place

If part of my role as blogger de rigueur is to make you, Dear Readers, aware of places you may not have known existed, then I think that I’ve cracked it. The subject matter for the post is a restaurant that I fell upon by coincidence, in a building that I know very well, but for all reasons which are not food. It takes a special kind of person to know Nuvo. Those who do generally either work in Brindley Place or are the kind who enjoy sportswear as outerwear, bottle table packages, and dancing to Fat Man Scoop. All of this is fine; I was once that person. My mate used to regularly DJ there when my body was sculpted enough to wear a cardigan with nothing underneath and my jeans deliberately showed off those fresh Calvin Klein y-fronts. I’m sorry if you’re reading this whilst eating. Or planning on eating. Or have eaten at some point today. But it’s the truth. I even worked for RBS at the time in Brindley Place. I was Nuvo personified.

I thought it had gone in all honesty. Lost to the same oceans that swept away 52 Degrees North and Poppy Red and Mechu. But no, it’s still there, and they even do food now. I know this because I went to get dinner nearby and when that was closed went into Nuvo. I’m inquisitive like that. It hasn’t changed.

The food is Japanese, a sushi heavy trip around the more familar dishes of the Far East. There are edamame beans in a perky chilli and garlic mush that required the right amount of pressure to drag from the surface whilst popping the innards into the mouth. There are very good gyozas and less good fried squid that lacks seasoning and is on the chewy side.

Tempura vegetables are greaseless and still crunchy, which is an achievement that eludes some other versions in Birmingham. These are good, which is more than be said for duck filled rolls that are greasy and a little bit unpleasant. The inconsistencies by this point are noticable.

The sushi comes on elaborate platters complete with plumes of dry ice. I imagine that this goes down a storm in a throbbing club, but here, with only around eight people in the room, it feels a little cheap. The sushi is okay; sure the rice is not at body temperature, nor has it been properly seasoned with vinegar, but the cutting of the fish shows solid technique and the quality of the produce is high. Dragon rolls, salmon nigiri, little mounds of rice with spliced tempura prawns. It’s not groundbreaking but it is more than acceptable, which will do for this part of town.

All of this leaves me split on my opinion: there was good and bad, and I imagine that if you went to the right places you could find the good things done a lot better. But for all of this, I liked it, at least I think I did. Service is brilliant, the sake menu is extensive and kindly marked-up, and the food won’t break the bank. Order right and you’ll do okay here. I’m personally just not sure I’d want to do so when it’s a heaving club, memories or otherwise.

6/10

You know who you won’t find in da club? A2B

Bar Iberico, Nottingham

Had our meal at Bar Iberico finished after the first dish I’d be here telling you how amazing it was. Had it finished after the second dish I’d be still be waxing lyrical, albeit in a slightly more restrained fashion. But we didn’t stop there. Of course we never. We ordered more and the food got progressively worse until I felt bad for ever walking through the door and asking for a table. But they are clearly very popular in Nottingham and TripAdvisor loves them, so hopefully they’ll ignore this whiney little bastard and crack on with whatever they were doing before.

Should you find yourself here by choice I strongly suggest you order the crispy chicken with jerez sauce and then bolt for the door. Only kidding. Make sure you pay the bill first, I can’t condone theft. The chicken is the ultimate bar snack; crisp and fiery and robustly seasoned, it begs for a second and third bowl to be ordered alongside a winelist that offers value and choice by the glass. If you do need a second plate of food you’ll do alright by ordering the the chorizo and padron pepper skewers which take very average quality staples of Spanish cuisine and put them in the same space. There is nothing wrong with this idea in my world.

And from there it just goes downhill. A flatbread with shredded duck and balsamic is too sweet and the duck has been cooked far too long. The patatas bravas has cubes of spud that are suspiciously like those obtained from a bag with a nondescript tomato sauce. Worse with these is the pot of something buttery with the whack of garlic that if I close my eyes could be that awful thing they send with Papa John pizzas to put you off ordering from the Papa ever again. If that was unpleasant (which it was), the low point was yet to come. A ragu of lamb with something called a Samphaina sauce which I can only assume is made by blending up a can of Campbell’s cream of vegetable soup. The ragu is underseasoned, the sauce an acrid pool of grey sludge. It’s one of the worst things I ate in 2019 and that included a trip to Gino D’Acampo’s.

Service is a little cumbersome, which is understandable given that we eat over the Christmas period, and the bill works out a little over £47 for the two of us. Afterwards we walk the one minute to the always excellent Cottonmouth. Here we drink honed and polished drinks from a concise menu. It’s pretty much the blueprint for the perfect bar. There is a lot here for Bar Iberico to learn from about not over-stretching themselves.

5/10

Chilli Pickle, Brighton

I’ve eaten quite a few thali in my time. Some in India, several in this country, and one in Magaluf when I was nineteen which resulted in me having sex behind the restaurant with a girl from an adjoining table. They have always interested me: the solar system of silver tins that make up the meal; the curries and the side dishes; the breads, the carbs, and the sweet. Whether sat on plastic chairs in an un-air conditioned room in Agonda or a room with broken air conditioning in Hall Green it’s always an occasion, even when they disappoint, which they mostly do. You see, getting a thali right is a skill that eludes pretty every Indian restaurant I have ever been to.

But I had high hopes for Chilli Pickle. Maybe it was the various titles they’ve picked up over the years, maybe it’s the bib from Michelin that recognises good quality cooking at fair prices, or likely it was the strong recommendation from Birmingham’s grumpiest chef (thanks Paul). Either way it seemed the right place for a late lunch.

Before we get on to that thali there are other dishes to first get through. I liked the masala poppad, though it is ultimately a very clever way of charging £2.60 for a pre-assembled poppadum with the tomato and onion salads. And then the tandoori chicken on supple naan bread that packs wave after wave of flavour. The chicken is cooked with skill, the marinade just catching in parts, all the sweetness leveled out by a salad that has been long thought out. The masala fries on the side are undercooked. It’s the only slip of the meal.

We make the upgrade to king thali and are rewarded with the best thali I have eaten outside of India. The railway chicken is packed with the heady notes of cardamon, cinnamon and garam masala, with slices of potato that have absorbed the best bits whilst slightly thickening the sauce. A tarka dhaal is restrained in spice with ideal texture. There are poppadoms and chapatis, a bright lime pickle, pickled red cabbage, sweet pear chutney, deceptively spicy beetroot chutney, the lightest of onion bhajis, too much rice, a savoury chickpea flour cake that Claire enjoyed more than I did, and gulab jaman properly soaked in maple syrup. Honestly if this was three hours closer in a car I’d gladly pay the sixteen quid to eat this once a week.

Dessert cocktails are my favourite type of dessert and here they range from a very successful cherry sour to a less than so old fashioned with dates, with a gin martini somewhere inbetween. The bill was about £70 (I was a bit pissed), a bargain given that we order too much to drink and far too much to eat, leaving us to saunter down to L’Atelier du Vin for more cocktails. Brighton is a wonderful city and our weekend had many other great highlights, though none as good as the thali here. I’d have no problem recommending Chilli Pickle to anyone. The place is a joy.

8/10

Craft Dining Rooms, December 2019

It’s all change at Craft Dining Rooms. The end of 2019 saw them appoint Andrew Sheridan of Great British Menu fame as Exec Chef, a move probably in line with Aktar Islam adding the restaurant to his portfolio as Chef Director. Even now, as this post goes live, the final touches are being added to their English garden; a series of pods which line the canal from the opposing side of Brindley Place. The restaurant too is having a once-over; the large bar area is being halved with some of the kitchen being moved out to that space, a new PDR is going in, the mustard pillars are gone with flowers and softer lighting coming in.

I know all of this because the owner of Craft tells me so over a gin and tonic whilst my friends turn up for our lunch date. It’s the last Friday before Christmas, it’s pissing down to Biblical proportions and Birmingham’s roads are besieged with various closures. It’s the perfect storm for delays and I’m drenched to the core. By the time the last of our trio rolls in some 45 minutes after our booking I am soaked in more ways than one. Thanks Sam for the gins, I needed them.

The food is now taking a tighter line, more in keeping with the ideals set when they first opened. It’s highly seasonal, not only using the larder of the UK but an easier style of cooking. The bread rolls are still as good as you’re likely to see in the city, but now you have the choice of a more conventional butter and another heavily flavoured with Marmite. The latter divides the table like – well – I can’t think of an ingredient which is as divisive. A fat scallop has been pan fried on one side to a burnished crust, in one of those buttery sauces that has you chasing the last of it with your finger. So far so very good.

We get unctous pig cheeks with potato puree, squash puree, and batons of pickled squash and apple. It’s a miniature take on something far more substantial; wholesome and perfect for the wintery conditions outside the large panes of glass, it has just enough acidity to cut through it. Then cod in a bubble bath of crab bisque, all delicate and warming. Simple and understated, it lets the produce speak for itself.

I can’t remember eating a piece of venison as well cooked as that on the main course, the meat not overly gamey and robustly seasoned. The pairing of blackberries and beetroots an obvious one, given little touches like the addition of rhubarb to the beetroot puree. It’s not perfect; the disc of beetroot is undercooked, and the overall feel of the dish is a little high in acidity, but all of this is forgotten because they have a rectangle of compressed potato slices that have been deep fried to golden on the side.

I happen to be a big fan of the pastry chef, a man who answers to the name of Howing. Dessert on this occasion was a white chocolate orange; a frozen shell depicting peel which contains a caramelised white chocolate mousse, macerated orange, and blood orange. This is on a crumb of salted dark chocolate which had maybe a little too much salt. It’s cold, it’s rich, it’s complex. And I really hope I’ve taken the notes correctly for this because by now we’ve drank a fair amount of wine and are making plans to carry on throughout the afternoon.

I don’t know how much this came to because a friend was picking up the bill, though I can tell you that as before the English wines, in particular an orange wine from Litmus, were delicious. Speaking to Andrew Sheridan afterwards I got the feel for his vision of what Craft should be; a full on celebration of the seasons of the UK, laid out simply and without compromise. I have a lot of time for that. Just two weeks into his appointment we got a sense of that and it really delivered. The future is a bright one for Craft.

As ever, A2B got me from A to B.

Adam Reid at The French, Manchester

I like Manchester. I know as a Brummie I’m supposed to be belittling it as a way of confirming our rightful status as the second city, but frankly I can’t be arsed. It’s a nice place, the people are kind, and it looks decent even when it’s pissing with rain, which it does every time I visit. They have a proud cultural heritage and in the Northern Quarter have a arguably the best district in the country. Whilst Birmingham is beautifully self-deprecating, Manchester has swagger; an arm-swinging, have-you-shit-yourself, broad simian stroll with added bad haircuts. And it’s wonderful. I think it owes this attitude to it’s music over any artist or football team. The Smiths, Buzzcocks, The Stone Roses, Oasis; they all have that can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it special ingredient that makes Manchester the most musically rich city in the country. But not Simply Red. Simply Red are shit.

They play a lot of that music in the dining room of The French. Over the course of the two hours nestled in the deep boothes, directly under one of the oversized chandeliers, we get Elbow and Stone Roses and Oasis and Joy Divison. It’s just one of many connections to it’s terroir, the glue that binds it to the base of Manchester. It’s an atmosphere that works against convention; the decor is smart, befitting of the five star hotel it resides in, yet the ambience is one without pretence; there appears to be no dress code and everyone – including the staff – look like they are enjoying themselves. This may have to do with the lack of Simply Red. Simply Red are shit.

The opening passage comes thick and fast. A broth is syrupy in texture, with a depth of flavour obtained from browned vegetables and quickly reduced added water. There are bowls of lightly smoked whipped cods roe, to be dredged with shards of chicken skin and lineseed crackers, and then slabs of cheeses and hefty pieces of cold ham with piccalilli and house-made mustard. As fun as it is, it is the most underwhelming part of the meal. Whilst the rest of the menu proves to be high in skill, these feel like a collection of ingredients thrown together for the purpose of generosity. The bread is better and the beefy butter even better than that.

The first course on the lunch menu would sit high on the list of best things I have eaten this year. A tartare of aged sirloin is mixed with fine of dice of root veg, all loosely bound in a mushroom condiment that brings an earthiness to it rife with umami. It does what it intends in riffing on the flavours of a potato hash, albeit with a subtlety and clever change of textures. It is genuinely fantastic; that kind of clever cooking that every chef tries but very few successfully pull off. Then cod with lightly pickled mussels and a chowder that hugs the acidity away. It shows great self-control to let the produce speak in such a simple style. The gamble pays off; we go back to the bowls until all four are wiped clean with the last of the bread.

I’m slightly less taken by thin slices of red deer which appear to have lost more temperature than those being eaten by my girlfriend and her parents. There is plenty of bright acidity in the sauce and from the pickled quince, whilst the accompaniemnts of bacon and mushroom further echo the sentiment of a one-pot casserole. It’s clear that this is where Adam Reid’s skill is at; the ability to take familiarity and spin it on it’s head to something more finessed.

There is no such finesse with the dessert, though nor should there be. This is a plate of food designed to be eaten, not fawned over with cameras. Apples baked until their form has long dissapeared and the texture is softer than the soulful tones of Mick Hucknell. A disc of caramelised pastry and a quenelle of cold custard. I don’t need to tell you what it tastes like because you can probably guess, but I will, because I am better at describing food than you are. It was fucking fantastic. There you go. We get a boozy cake to finish. Also fucking fantastic. You came here for the descriptions and I’ve given them to you.

The bill is £400 for the four of us with a bottle of wine and a round of drinks. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Claire’s father for offering to pay almost half of that. It’s value for a lunch that goes from solidly good to exceptional in parts. It’s clear that the kitchen is around the level it wants to be; the tartare, the cod, and the dessert are clearly at one star level. In my eyes it’s only a matter of time before they get the recognition they deserve.

8/10