Author: MeatandOneVegBlog

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

Mezze Quarter at 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

As far as compliments go, “When can we go back?” must rank right at the top. Less a case of “Wouldn’t that be nice to eat again” and more “Get it back in my intestines”, nothing speaks of a successful meal like wanting to go back and do it all over again. We had this feeling at the latest of revolving kitchens at 1000 Trades; before we’d even finished my other half was eating my half of the lunch whilst scanning through her phone for dates when we are free. We have two so we’re going back twice. You could say we enjoyed it.

“What is this wonderful food?” I hear nobody ask me. Well, it’s Mezze Quarter time down at the JQ’s finest boozer, and you have four weeks left to fill your boots. The menu might be a familar mix of things on flatbreads, and other things stuffed, and spiced pulses and vegetables, but the delivery happens to be up there with the best of this kind in the city. The flavours are clean, it feels good for the soul, and perhaps most surprisingly, they get the nuance of this cuisine; the balance of heat and acidity; the subtlety of spice and the use of fresh herbs. It feels accomplished. I’d quite like it to stay.

The bigger plates are a lot of food for the price, which sits around the tenner mark. We order the lamb doner that has slices of (I think) belly with crisp rendered fat on a lightly pickled ‘slaw that has zip throughout. They’ve gone big on the herbs and shoots, a pot of baba ghanoush is a brooding smoky assault and another of harissa adds all the fieriness needed. The chicken is what we are coming back for though (and maybe the beef; the koftas looked great on the adjoining table). The thigh meat has been marinated in enough acidity to start the breakdown of protein before it hits the grill and pops occasionally with little hits of cumin and anise. There are dots of feta for saltiness, a little harissa mayo for heat, a lick of lemon juice, more of that slaw, sweet pops of pomegranate, and plenty of herbs. It’s summer 2019. Ottolenghi bashing out his One Ring to rule from an ex workshop in the Jewellery Quarter. I’ve mentioned the excellent chips here before but they have no place in this order. Instead take the sweet potato that’s been blitzed up with lots of garlic and a little chickpea, and make sure you order the ‘nduja to go on top. The two have both swiped right to make the most harmonious of relationships. The fiery sausage meat is offset by the sweet root vegetable; it’s the love story behind Meat and One Veg all over again.

Now for those who noticed, I’d pretty much taken this month off to enjoy myself away from the blog. I’ve been on a nice long well deserved holiday. During that time I’ve eaten a lot of very good food, but it is a couple of dishes from here that linger in my memory. Do yourself a favour: make a date in your diary to go get the chicken flatbread. Have the sweet potato and ‘nduja thing whilst you’re there. In no time at all they’ll be on to the next kitchen and I’d hate for you to miss out.

Get a pint or two of the rhubarb cider and let A2B ferry you around. You’ve earned it.

Kuula Poke, Birmingham

This post comes to you high above France onboard a RyanAir flight to Sicily. I’m in holiday mode, on my sixth unit of booze and trying to forget the fact that I’m sandwiched between two volatile Italians, both of whom look fully aware that the last time a Carlo was on the island he was frog marched on to a boat by a man with a gun. It is as you expect a RyanAir flight to be; there is a screaming child, our plane was late, dirty, and my pull-down table doesn’t work, The uneven top threatening to spill the cheap red wine on to a surface that has a suspicious white residue from the previous flight. I’ll likely drink a few more of these wines between now and our landing at an airport which will probably be geographically closer to Palma, Spain, than Palermo, Italy.

There is a reason for me mentioning flight 666 from BHX to Hell. We have these shitty low budget flights to thank for the vast array of cuisines on our doorstep. Without flights we would still be clinging onto the empire for the sense of the exotic, with ships bringing spices from the sub continent, rum from the Caribbean, and an overdose of testosterone from Australia. Without air travel there would be no sushi, no ceviche, no hummus. Imagine a life without hummus. It’s no life for this drunk (seventh unit).

We would certainly have no Kuula Poke. How else would you get to Hawaii? Frankly I’m more astounded that anyone from Birmingham has ever been there. One, it takes a lot of effort and too many flights, and secondly, I imagine it’s full of yanks calling each other ‘bro’, crushing cans of piss-weak lager into their huge enamelled gobs and grinding on girls to the sound of Nelly. Or that’s how it is in my head. Well it’s here, smack bang in the heart of the business quarter, bringing bowls of healthy goodness to the suits of Birmingham.

And it’s lovely. Really really lovely. I wasn’t sure it would be my thing, but the bowl of tahini miso chicken is clean and fresh and zings with the exotic whilst still clinging on to the value of being a bowl of things that are good for the waistline. Not wanting to mess with the principles I take it as it comes; chicken, edamame beans, pickled carrots, brown rice, chilli, a super slaw — which is a very accurate description — topped with a creamy dressing that tastes a bit like hummus. Mmmm, hummus. I could have had the raw tuna, or the salmon; could have jazzed those up with pickled onions, or pineapple, or a variety of things I can’t remember now. Eighth unit.

Tenth unit. I’m told that they got Richard Turner in here to consult and that makes a lot of sense. For what is essentially a lunch offering, it has a certain swag and clarity that is clear from the second you enter. The service is top notch, the beer I drank ace, and the price fair. It’s class.

Over the next eleven days we’ll be avoiding car bombs in Palermo, climbing into the mountains in Erice, diving in the crystal clear waters of Ustica, strolling hand-in-hand on the beaches of Cefalu, staying in one of Italy’s finest vineyards, and seeing The National headline a festival in a castle. After that, should RyanAir deliver us safely back to the UK, I’ll be heading straight back to Kuula Poke.

8/10

Flying is overrated. Take an A2B instead

Craft Dining Rooms, Birmingham

The opening of Craft managed to elude me. I had heard murmuration of it through various channels: how the exec chef had previously cooked excellent food for a friend and was one to watch, how the ex-head chef of the now deceased Tom’s Kitchen was moving over to man the pans and call the checks during service, and how they were taking up the large space at the rear of the ICC where Strada once resided. I followed it with interest; the ‘coming soon’ on the Twitter accounts, and the work in progress posts from the pastry chef I’ve followed on Instagram from Cheal’s to Adam’s to here. It would take a tweet asking for new openings to find out they had opened. There was, to my knowledge at least, none of the usual fanfare; no opening parties or bloggers tables, no cosying up to Birmingham Live for a soundbite in between their usual stories on Love Island or Danielle Lloyd’s vagina. They just opened the doors and let the passing public work out the rest, which is a commendable idea had anyone actually passed through the ICC this time of year.

A few things immediately stand out on our visit ten days into opening. First the space, which is a huge mass of ash grey and soft furnishings cut occasionally with the warm tones of mustard yellow across the pillars that stop the conferences above from piling through the roof. The second is the concept, rolled out at every opportunity across the pages of the menus, the tome of the wine list, the wordy reservation email, and in person by the waiting team. I’m generally not a fan of concepts. By all means have a vision, but I work by the rule that if you have to spell it out then you’re not doing it properly. They have something good here, something that is clear from the off and maybe they can be less eager about spilling it everywhere. It’s a celebration of Britishness — more Buckingham Palace and long country walks than Boris waving a kipper — the good stuff from the good people doing good things. The produce is carefully curated from the best of British suppliers: from the Cotswold White chickens, to the cheese trolley, and Cadbury’s cocoa. The wine list is roughly 80% British growers, subsidised by expats making wines in warmer climes. They have dozens and dozens of gins all distilled on these shores, some using all-British botanicals, some not. You get the picture. Brexit doesn’t scare these guys one bit.

The extended effort to source the best of the country’s larder is backed up by some rather sterling (I know what I’ve done there) work coming out of the kitchen. Sourdough is the first thing we eat and boy is it good, right up there with Folium for the best of its kind in the city. The butter less so, whipped to the point that it starts to taste like cheese. We order three from the ‘snack’ section between two, and this seems the ideal portion size, even if it does creep the price up a little. Of these the ‘pork pie’ is most meagre portion, though also the cheapest at £6. It is a pastry-less spin on the picnic staple, with apple cider jelly, glorious pickled vegetables, and a mustard emulsion that has beer added for umami depth. Both mouthfuls were lovely. A fat scallop comes perfectly cooked and served in its shell with peas, charred baby gem, and apple. A rich smokiness is hidden somewhere amongst it which needs light acidity from the apple to cut through it. It has great balance. The buttermilk chicken is the biggest departure. Crisp coating on the poultry, the thigh meat cooked to the point the meat has just turned from opaque to white, with a vivid yellow sauce that conjures up the flavours of South East Asia without ever being able to pinpoint precisely where. It’s refined junk food, addictive and wholesome.

Mains take a leap in size and price. These are big portions, and so they should be for a £17-£30 price bracket that puts it up there with the city’s big hitters. The star of these sits at the top of that level: a large fillet of halibut, golden in colour and cooked until the large flakes fall away at the suggestion of pressure.  To the side is a fish pie, vol-au-vent in style, with more chunks of fish spun through buttered leeks, spinach, and dressed in a mornay sauce. This is a proper bit of cooking, showing off precision, technique, and a little bit of wit. The puddled parsley sauce is all the acidity the dish needs, the length of charred leek adding another level of flavour. I would order this time and time again. Likewise the chicken dish, a tenner under the price of the halibut but in no way less considered. You might look at the pictures and think that supreme looks good and you would be right too, but the real fun is to the side of it. A nugget of of shredded confit meat, bound with wild garlic (presumably fermented given it’s out of season) and butter, before being fried in breadcrumbs. It is the essence of chicken kiev dressed up in a suit. Take one of the many onion elements on the plate, a piece of that chicken, drag it through the heavily reduced sauce and again through the black garlic puree, before giving yourself a pat on the back for reading Birmingham’s finest restaurant blog. You’re welcome. And a final word on the side dish of potatoes. Those potatoes! Cubes of burnished spud with a hint of animal and of garlic. We fight over the last of them. I win, because I’m stronger than her. I jest. She beats me everytime.

You may have reached this point thinking that we had enjoyed our meal, and you’d be correct, though if anything it gets better from here. If classical desserts are your thing, then Craft is your Mecca, or, in keeping with the ethos here, your Stonehenge. We eat two desserts as good as any you’ll find in this city, delivering a sweet finish with finesse. First up it’s the bakewell tart soufflé. You read that correct. Bakewell. Tart. Soufflé. Stop the world, I can’t take this much fun. Cherry compote at the bottom, frangipane soufflé base, more almonds, and an toasted almond ice cream for good measure. The soufflé stood proud, shoulders apart, like a Beefeater at the Tower of London (I know what I did there), and ate like a dream. Across from these are choux buns flavoured with Bournville’s finest cocoa powder. A chocolate creme patisserie sits inside, salted caramel and nut brittle underneath, pecan praline ice cream in the centre. Dreamy. I suggest a dessert tasting menu to the ever excellent service team. They laugh it off. I’m only half joking.

Our bill is quite a lot because the wine list is really great, and in particular because they have the staggeringly good white pinot from Litmus on at £56 a bottle, which might seem a lot until you realise it retails at £26, showing kind mark-ups for one of the best wines to come from England. Seriously, treat yourself, it drinks like a far more expensive Mersault. Anyway, I digress. Craft was fantastic, from the first mouthfuls to the petit fours that come with the bill marked ‘the damage’. It’s not cheap, but nor should it be. This is the finest that Britain has to offer, packaged up with great front of house delivering smart cooking to your table. When the rest of the country is busy booing politicians, and staring into the abyss of what the future may or may not hold, Craft are looking to celebrate what we have on our little island. And when the results are this good, that is absolutely fine with me.

9/10

Drank too much white pinot? A2B will gladly get you home

Rudy’s, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

10/10

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

Peacer, Moseley

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

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

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

8/10

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