Author: MeatandOneVegBlog

Tom’s Kitchen, Birmingham

As a man who spends many an hour looking at restaurant menus, I have learnt to appreciate a good one when I see one. A good menu is itself a skill; it has to be concise and clear, and – in my view at least – make correct use of the seasons and flavours that on paper complement each other. Promising red fruits in February? You deserve to be tortured. And thanks for the time you’ve taken to design the dessert of pink grapefruit poached in beef stock but I wouldnt feed that to my gran. And she has been dead for twenty years. It’s overlooked as a minor detail, yet when deciding where I am spending my money, a menu can turn me off as quickly as it can turn me on.

So full credit to the team at Toms Kitchen for curating a menu that reads like a dream. One that is packed with the bounty of the seasons, and British tradition; one that puts the decision of what to eat in quandary. Prior to dinner we had decided on the lamb for two, changed to mains of venison and guinea fowl, and then back to the lamb. Of course by the time we are seated in the far corner of the spacious restaurant with glass of something cold and fizzy in hand we order none of these. It’s the effect that a well written menu can have. You don’t get this problem at a Toby Carvery.

They have snacks so we order snacks. In truth you don’t need these if you’re planning on ordering three courses given the portion sizes, and I should know this considering this is my fourth visit since they opened two years ago. Of those snacks the red pepper hummus is very nice and tasting strongly of all the listed compenents. I am less keen on the lengthy strips of pork crackling that vary from crisp to overly robust in texture. The apple puree it comes with is a silky, smokey thing that we insist stays on the table throughout the table. I’m not saying you should steal this but should you, it would make the ultimate sandwich with some vintage cheddar. From the starters crab cakes are lively things stuffed full of crustacean, with a cucumber and quinoa salsa that serves a purpose, and an oozy macaroni cheese dotted with bits of truffle. We like them both; two very nice plates of food that speak of a confident kitchen. Both faithful renditions of classic dishes.

The best thing we ate happened to be the most intricate. A kind of deconstructed (I really hate that word) bouillabaisse has salmon, pollock, mussels, and scallop, all accurately cooked to order and sat in a puddle of something deep and burnished. A crouton acts as a crossbar, dotted with saffron aoili and pickled fennel. It’s a plate that requires considerable skill; the timing of the fish is crucial, as is the labour intensive sauce. It is a huge success, controlled cooking that smacks of the sea on every level – I’ve certainly had worse renditions at restaurants several times the price. This skill can also be seen on a dish that on paper is far more simple. Chicken snitzel is classic dinner time stuff; breaded poultry shallow fried until it resembles a butter-less Kiev. Aside from the quality of the meat, it is the clever layer of basil between bird and crumb that pushes it up a notch. Add confit tomatoes, a punchy salsa, and what are right now the best triple cooked chips in the city, and you have something I could eat several times a week. I’m going to give that statement a go.

I think they’ve really stepped their game up with desserts. From the specials board is a chocolate delice, with white chocolate mousse and raspberries that ticks all the right boxes. It is upstaged by a cube of milk chocolate and peanut, layered visibly like Marie Kondo’s wardrobe. The bits of textures are spread out, crousilliant-like, so that every spoonful cracks. It is rich and salty, pretty addictive. I finish before Claire, an experience usually reserved only for our bedroom.

Service is excellent from a team who look like they enjoy being at work, and we leave replete and happy. With starters £6-11 and mains £19-28 some have accused Toms Kitchen of lacking value. Nonsense. They have a head chef pilfered from a starred restaurant as well as some pretty premium ingredients. That front of house reads like who’s-who of the best in Brum. I was unsure whether or not to write about here again, though in my eyes it has gone up a level since it opened. There is a consistency to the dining experience that means for me that Tom’s Kitchen is now up there with the very best in casual bistros across this city.

You know the drill. I got tipsy and A2B took me home

Marmaris, Kings Heath

To get to the subject matter of this review, we must first look to Hana, which was the intended piece prior to its premature demise. Word of Hana spread faster than chlamydia in a Magaluf hotel when the signage went up, promising Moseley the enviable position of places that offer Middle Eastern food on three sides of a four-sided crossroad. It eventually opened to little attention, with balloons in the doorway and a couple of pissed-off looking waitresses sat bored in the window. The menu was not what I expected; yes, they had shwarma and baba ghounoush, but they also had kebab burgers with fries and salad, which isn’t instinctively the food that springs to mind when I think of Lebanon. Quickly stories spread on both of Moseley’s Facebook community pages (yes, we have two in Moseley: one ran by despot dictators, the other by a local drunk); unattentive service, incorrect dishes, cash only, and the refusal to give receipts were just some of the reasons I was desperate to go. No one seemed to like it, which made me want to go even more, though the same name popped-up on a reoccurring basis. Marmaris. I’d never heard of it. “It’s not as good as Marmaris”, everyone said, which made this horrid know-it-all seethe at my phone screen. When Hana closed prematurely after three weeks following a Facebook arguement with a paying customer and a waitress there was only one place I was going for koftes. I had to go deep into Kings Heath to see if Marmaris was any good.

It’s not what I expected. From the outside it looks like the kind of place that prides itself on a two out of five hygeine rating, not helped by the Just Eat stickers on the door and an unenviable position next to quite possibly the roughest Wetherspoon in South Birmingham. Inside they have spent at least nine quid on the decor with a few hard chairs and tables to sit at whilst the boss loudly berates the staff for burning bread. They have kebabs with chips and salad, though they also have a glass counter with various bits of impaled chicken and sheep. A lot of cling film is used here: on the hummus, the meat, the rice. I consider wrapping myself in it to protect my clothing from the smoke that leaves the grill and attaches itself to anything of value. That smoke shares the same values as many of my ex girlfriends.

We order too much with a couple of soft drinks and just tip past £30 between two. We can’t decide whether to eat the hummus or hang wallpaper with it, though are rewarded with a version that is light on tahini and heavy on both garlic and lemon when we opt for the former. A salad starts off great but quickly bleeds pickled red cabbage into everything else, and then there is the smoked aubergine dish with kofte and spicy tomato sauce that bears no resemblence at all to the same dish on the wall. The aubergine is lost in a sea of yogurt, with a sauce that tastes like a thickened Heinz soup. It is saved by the meat. That meat could save just about anything.

There is only one reason to be here and that is the grilled meat. They understand protein here better than they understand English, marinading until the proteins start to break down before grilling until that marinade catches at the edges.  A grill for two has some of the most tender chicken I can recall eating, and cubes of lamb with smokey ribbons of fat that yield just enough bite. There is minced chicken kofte and minced lamb kofte, both excellent, treated with the same amount of love and respect. I thought I’d eaten very good renditions of these before: I hadn’t compared to this. This comes with bulgar wheat and rice, a garlicky yoghurt, piquant chilli sauce and flat bread that tastes almost cheesey. All of this is £17. I wish we’d saved the bother and ordered two.

Service is exactly what you’d expect from a business used to pissed-up idiots from Wetherspoons, in that it’s hardly accommodating. We were supposed to be offered a choice of meat with the aubergine let-down but wasn’t, and don’t even think about enquiring about a half portion of the lamb chops. Even a drink mis-order was met with a stare when I dared to question it. But all of this is fine. For 40 minutes I am a tourist in a world I don’t see frequently enough. One full of hustle and smoke, where the emphasis is feeding over pandering. One where cash is king and ego is disregarded. One which has mastered the art of cooking over fire as well as any stuffy steak house with a josper. Facebook was right; Marmaris is ace.

8/10

Just because we never took an A2B doesnt mean that you shouldn’t.

Apocalypse Cow @ Ghetto Golf, Digbeth

Ghetto Golf is the place I always take people who aren’t familar with the city. Friends, extended family members, porn stars who want to make sweaty pornos with me, they all get the Ghetto Golf treatment of the loud 90’s hip hop, cocktails, and 18 holes of Brum. Come to think of it, 18 Holes of Brum would make a great name for a porno filmed here. Not that they would ever do that, of course; the interior would be far too much of a giveaway for the location. Anyway, it’s great fun and a bargain at a tenner; an hour or two of negotiating buses, dildos, a gimp in a cage, a pub, and Jim Davidson. The latter in photo form and thankfully unable to spout his fifty-year old racist routine.

There have been lots of visits here. Early starts, late starts, midnight runs. The behaviour is never the best; maybe it’s the lack of food and too much booze. Last weekend we tried the different tact of eating. In truth I’d barely noticed Apocalypse Cow was here before; it’s tucked in the far corner on the route to the bathrooms. The menu is a list of booze-friendly products; burgers, loaded fries, something called ‘twisted tapas’. We skip the burgers and order from across the rest.

It’s pissed food, in the best possible sense. Big flavours that requires napkins in the immediate and wet wipes the day after when, like me, you’ve overdone it on the hot sauce and life in general. In the majority it is food I can get on board with. Of the four dishes we try it is the two from the twisted tapas section which work best. Strips of chicken breast are tender and come painted in a sriracha sauce that stains the fingers and demands to be washed down with a cold drink. I like these a lot. Likewise the deepfried bits of lasagna encased in a breaded shell that ooze white sauce dotted with mince meat. It tastes like lasagna if some buxom young Italian had made it, not like the version by a hairy nonna rooted in tradition. There is no room for tradition here, not when hole four has dildos to navigate around. I don’t care too much for the nachos which are basic in design, but I do like the kamikaze fries. The chips themselves are decent, defibrilated by some rather good korean pork, chilli, spring onions, and a char sui sauce that is too sweet but works well. Like I said; it’s food for the pissed, which I was on my way to becoming.

Dishes are good value with none of the above costing more than £7, and they go rather well with the too sweet cocktails that will keep you buzzing from hole-to-hole. Is Apocalypse Cow the kind of place I would hunt down specifically to eat? Probably not. But it is perfect for the environment it sits within. It’s that junk food you crave when the good times kick in, before the bad decisions are made and the following day turns into a write-off of regret. I enjoyed almost everything we ate, and for that alone I’ll be doing it again. And after 532 words I’ve just realised that the name is a play on the movie ‘Apocolypse Now’. How very clever of them.

7/10

Need a nap after all that fun? A2B will get you home

18/81, Birmingham

They never gave much away when 18/81 first opened. No address, telephone number, or real idea of what to expect. We all had our suspicions. At first I thought they had opened a bar specifically for the age range of women I date, until I saw that it was a project from Rob Wood. I’m scared of Rob. Not in a fear that he might beat me up way, but that I could be crushed by his knowledge and ability to make drinks of impeccable balance. There is nothing the man doesn’t know about booze. He is an encyclopedia of the correct way to do liver damage, the pioneer of the brilliant drinks scene that we now have in this city, the guy who put The Man in The Manhattan (although I should point out that this drink does not identify with a gender). He once resulted in my girlfriend being an hour late for dinner because he was talking to her about achieving total clarity in an ice cube. I still haven’t forgiven him that.

So, 18/81. You won’t believe this but they have actually opened a bar specifically for the age range of the women I date. I’m kidding. It’s a bar as hard to label as it is to find. A kind of speakeasy-ish, laid back mecca for world class drinks with the USP of those drinks being pre-mixed so that the flavours amalgamate and the wait time to your table is a lot less. To find it you should head to Thorpe Street to the place that does burgers, turn towards the carpark and follow the signs. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts in a room of neutrals with tasteful additions, and a killer playlist that meanders through genres. It’s relaxed and unprententious.

We’re here on this occasion for the Valentines tasting menu: four courses, topped up by an additional couple each at the end because I’m greedy and bad with money. Perched on stools at the bar we start with slices of apple compressed with yuzu juice, designed to reset the palate. It works. A further nibble of pea tart with miso and mint is the ideal bite for the first drink of the evening. A gin infused with various shrubbery from Rob’s allotment is topped with champagne, tonic, and a couple of peas for the visual cue to it’s name ‘two peas in a pod’. How sickeningly romantic. It is light and fresh and has Claire requesting it for a wedding that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Following this is vermouth infused with tomato, basil, and oregano. It tastes like pizza; incredible stuff. It is called ‘First Dates’, which is a lie. I only started taking my girlfriend out for pizza when I stopped trying to impress her.

Part of Rob’s genius is creating a tasting menu that slowly evolves in weight and substance (it’s just a drink; what have I become?), as we move from a drink with tokaji sweet wine laden with lemon notes, through to the final course with aged rum, hazelnuts and dark chocolate. The latter is the boldest drink of the menu; a bloody delight. I mention to Rob that it tastes of Ferroro Rocher. He laughs. It probably tastes of something far more finessed than a Ferroro Rocher.

Slightly inebriated and having far too much fun we stick around for two more drinks each. Claire has The Duchess – a riff on afternoon tea with gin, darjeeling tea, clotted cream and apricot – and another that I can’t remember. I have Butter Scotch, a fat-washed, whisky based cocktail that fills the mouth with big flavours and the heart with happiness. This is a very, very, very good drink that blew my socks off without requiring a large extractor fan, or faux double-barrelled shotgun. And for those who have made it this far (well done, you have far more resilience than me) here is your reward: The Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee. The off-menu homage to the legendary bar in south Manhattan will make you look even cooler than you already aren’t by ordering it. And you should, it’s absolutely class.

Six cocktails apiece and three hours later we saunter out over a ton lighter. Yes, that is a lot of money for drinks, but I see it as value. This trip was a night out, having arguably the best drinks in the city made by unquestionably the man who started the drinks scene off in this city. The detail that goes in to these drinks is comparable to the finest restaurants; they are complex and balanced, made using the finest ingredients. I never anticipated this blog covering off a cocktail bar, but I’m here to talk about the very best, and 18/81 fits firmly in that category. My girlfriend is adamant that this is her favourite place to while a night away; I think she may be right.

A2B will get you to and from Thorpe Street. The rest is up to you.

It was dark and I was tipsy so my pictures were a disgrace. The majority are kindly stolen from the 18/81 Instagram account with permission.

Salt & Earth @ 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

The first thing chef Nikki Astley says to me at the hatch of 1000 Trades is “you’re the bloke who takes the piss out of my name on Twitter?”. He’s right, we’ve not known each for so long, but I can’t help being a gobshite and fair play to him for calling me out on being a dick. But Nikki knows the rules and so do I; it’s just a bit of fun on my part. I apologise on my part and we exchange small talk before ordering my dinner. A full commitment is what I’m thinking of, though Nikki is fair enough to tell me that I’m over-ordering. We reduce the six plates I was intending to eat by myself to just two. He goes back inside to cook, and I return to my wine. He never says goodbye.

Less pop-up and more viagra hard-on, Salt & Earth have been in the kitchen of 1000 Trades for months (maybe a year? I don’t know; only the sober remember dates). The present menu is chicken focused, compromising of fried chicken with sauces, fried chicken in bao-style buns, and a few small plates that focus on vegetables, from which I order one from each section. You wouldn’t get this from any other guy.

The least enjoyable of these is a vegetable dish that suffers from watery carrots on a slightly less watery puree of tofu where the carrot has lost all that lovely natural sweetness. Now if you ask me how I’m feeling about that chicken, I won’t lie to you, it’s good. Really good. It does not let me down. Crispy, brittle coating that cracks in all the right places, it gives way to lovely bits of good quality chicken thigh. To stop me from all ordering all three the kitchen have kindly sent the chicken out nude with pots of each sauce. The scotch bonnet is mercifully restrained in heat, and a honey soy sauce is a sticky sweet mess of happiness. Best is the Korean pepper sauce that is full of umami notes. Sadly the bun is less of a success. Six months ago I might have told you a different story, but the quality of bao in this city has dramatically improved in this city since then. This bun is dense and a little flat with none of the lightness I’ve now come to expect. Not even that stellar chicken can save it. Save for a brownie there is nothing here to dessert me so we call it a night.

Now I’ve timed this badly. It turns out that the residency is to finish at the end of this month, so it’s pointless giving this a score. Truth is I was a bit nonplussed by it. I’ve eaten Nikki’s food before and it was brave and articulate, whereas this was some good fried chicken and not much else. I’ll keep a keen eye out for his next move which will hopefully see this talented chef back in a permanent home, where I can open my wallet to him and not that massive gob of mine.

Planning on drinking as much wine as I did? A2B will get you home.

The Old Crown, Digbeth

The Old Crown looks like it has no place on Digbeth High Street. It sits between the handsome façade of the Custard Factory and a less than desirable row of shops, its monochrome timber exterior wonkily perched roadside, with small leaded windows that look too small for its wide face. There is history here; six hundred and fifty years of drunks passing through the doors, its shell created in the midst of the Hundred Year War. I wonder if used to be called The Crown. Inside it wears the age proudly: low beams, flag stones, and heavy wooden bars. Back in the days of farcical facial hair and baggy trousers tapered at the ankle I used to drink here frequently and wonder what went on between these walls. Two world wars and one world cup, probably. It appears to be the only way we can define ourselves as a nation.

The history of the building was in full force on the day we lunch, with the start of a Peaky Blinders tour occurring in the space to the side of our table in the back of the pub. I instantly like the place on account of them listing a kilo of meat under ‘light snacks’. We don’t order it. What we do have is cod cheeks and prawns in a greaseless panko crumb, and a sausage roll that is heavy on both sausage meat and black pepper. There is nothing light about the roll, it is a big portion of something filling for not a lot of money which we take pride in finishing. The mango chutney and chipotle mayo it comes with are sucessful at introducing heat and acidity in an unusual way.

Now if someone had told me that one of the most enjoyable things I’d eaten so far this year would be in a six-hundred-year-old pub in Digbeth I would have laughed. If they had told me it would be vegan I may have passed out. The Trinidadian curry was just that; a spicy whack of blackbeans and pumpkin stewed down so that the flavours merge into one of the best Caribbean plates of food I can recall eating outside of the Carribean. Even the roti was a cut above the norm. Given the choice I’d take this over the chicken burger that failed to deliver on the double-dipped coating it promised. The chicken was good – brined, by the look of it – accurately cooked and a hefty piece for the tenner it is. The rest of the burger more than competent; lightly pickled onions, jalepenos, a guacomole which was a little too smooth for my liking, but it didn’t excite me in the way the curry did. A steak and ale pie is delivered to the next table along which draws groans. I’ll order that next time.

Portions this size leave no room for dessert, leaving us to finish up the drinks and head next door to Clean Kilo for the most ethical of shops. I can own up to being naive about The Old Crown – I’d partied here without ever considering food as an option; it was Claire that got us here, having eaten the food and enjoyed it BC (before Carlo). She was right, it really is an option, delivering honest food in a comfortable environment with very little priced at over a tenner. This building started off as coach house, where people passing through would come to be fed, watered, and bed. Remarkably for a world that has changed so much, that has stayed a constant for over six centuries. Long may that tradition continue.

7/10

A2B is my horse and carriage of choice.

Margheri, 2019, Lichfield

Back when this blog was in nappies Margheri was it’s first real success story. I went with my mate Jim on a Saturday night when there was just him and I, along with another table of two. I was blown away by the quality of the food, wondering why, at that time at least, I would have to come to Lichfield to get great pizza. I wrote nice things about it and, for the first time in my life, it did some good. People went. Lots of people in fact. They sent me a lovely message telling me how they were in the enviable position of turning tables away at the weekend. In truth it had little to do with me: food this good was always going to reach its audience eventually; I was just in the right place at the right time to drop the proverbial Mentos into the neck of the Cola bottle.

Since then I’ve been back maybe half a dozen times. Usually before the boxing evenings Jim hosts at his home, and always involving copious amounts of limoncello accompanied by the sort of piss-poor behaviour that happens when you’re old and don’t get out enough. It’s great, and I should shout about it more often, but I’ve wrote about it already. Except I should shout about it again. That first post, one of my most popular at the time, maxed out at just under 800 views. To put it in perspective I often pass that number in a day, my most average of posts get multiples of that, and the more popular many times that figure. It’s time to tell you once again that Margheri is really, really, really good.

This time we add Fritturini to the usual Deli Doughball starters. The basket contains a variety of beige domes that only reveal their identity once bitten into. There are textbook arancini, potato croquettes with heavily seasoned mash, and balls of cheesey pasta that are new to me. It’s Italian streetfood served in the quiet town of Lichfield. The dough balls are still excellent; crunchy exteriors giving way to the same dough that makes up those oh-so-good pizzas I’ll shortly get to. The rocket and tomato salad on top tastes of both ingredients; a minor miracle given this is the end of January.

Now those pizzas. I think it may be the best pizza I’ve eaten in the UK. It’s all here; the 00 flour dough that stretches out slowly like the holes of an old belt, the tomato base made from the San Marzano variety, and the buffalo mozzarella, all imported from their home region: the commitment to a true Neapolitan pizza experience has rarely been greater. On this occasion we share a Calabrese that has fiery ‘nduja and fresh basil leaves, and a special with parma ham and an entire bulb of burrata that oozes heavy cream when pierced. Both have dough blistered at a soaring heat that leaves more leopard spots than a Lilly Savage tribute act. Both have that slightly soupy centre. Both are really, really excellent.

I’ve never had dessert here, unless you count limoncello as dessert, in which case I love dessert here. The bill on this occasion is £90 between five, a figure that doesnt require the accountant amongst us to declare as a bargain. For something so simple good pizza is difficult to find. After writing this food blog for what feels like an eternity I can recommend only three in Birmingham, another three in London, one in Bristol, and Margheri in Lichfield; maybe the best of them all.

Transport provided by those local heroes, A2B

The Early Bird, Kings Heath

If I look back to the early days of this blog I can clearly see the areas that improved the most in this city. Four years ago we had the Michelin stars, the high-end and low-end Indian restaurants, the street food resurgence, and the cheap eats in China Town. We never had the burger joints, the sushi bars, the craft beer pubs that take grub seriously, or many places to go for breakfast. Seriously, the last point is a big one. If breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, we have neglected it to the point that the authorities should have got involved. There were a couple of coffee shops in the city centre doing a very average job and receiving far more praise than they deserved, whilst the best happened to be found in a pub in Harborne and a delicatessen in Moseley. How times have changed. We have an abundance of choice now; an assortment of cuisines and cultures delivering great food in every area. I have my favourites and you probably already have yours. Mine may be different to yours and that is perfectly fine, you are allowed to be wrong sometimes. It’s why I have the awards and you don’t.

Whatever your position on this subject may be, please add The Early Bird to your lists of ‘must visits’ with immediate effect. I could, but won’t, harp on about how they turn yesterday’s leftover produce into some of today’s cakes, and how sustainability and zero-waste is at the forefront of what they do. Instead I’ll focus on the dishes we ate, which puts it straight to the top of those within walking distance of my gaff. A bacon bap is a good starting point given the effort it demonstrates. The meat has been marinated in ginger beer and fried so that the thick ribbons of fat have browned and turned crispy. The brioche bun is delicate, with a little sweet chilli jam that has little in the way of heat but plenty of sweetness. It is British in notion though conjures up the use of sweetness, texture, and spice of Hong Kong side streets. At less than a fiver I can see this becoming a regular fixture in my life. Another brunch dish has sourdough with scrambled eggs, chorizo, peppers, and almonds. The eggs could do with a little more salt, but that aside it’s another example of taking a familar dish and tweaking it to add contrast and bite.

Whatever you order, do not attempt to leave without ordering the french toast made from yesterdays cinnamon roll. It’s sweet and unrelenting and naughty, but so very good. The toast is stodgy in the best possible way, with charred orange, mascarpone, and a pecan praline so dangerously addictive they could sell it for forty pound a gram. I end up sharing it against my will and very nearly order another. Instead I go to the cake counter and order a rhubarb and custard brioche to takeaway. Later that evening we cut it in half to reveal a set custard encased in what I think is yesterday’s brioche. There is a hint of orange blossom that works with the rhubarb. It’s rather brilliant.

The bill for all of this with two good coffees is less than thirty pound, and that could be shaved by a third if you’re half as greedy as we are. We both really enjoyed it, agreeing that right here is our new local go-to. Some places feel like they’re trying too hard, pushing ingredients on to plates because trend dictates they do so. Not here. The Early Bird is completely at ease with itself, putting flavour and technique ahead of everything else. Exactly my kind of place.

8/10

Can’t walk there? A2B it like the pro traveller you are

Nyetimber dinner at Little Blackwood

Last October I attended the inaugural Nyetimber dinner at Little Blackwood. It was the night before my best mate’s stag in Prague, a gentle five courses with matching fizz to ease into an eventful four days which saw my liver hand in it’s notice period two days before we flew home. We knew the dinner was going to be great fun when we arrived at 7pm; the wine merchant was here, the street food pioneer, several restauranteurs, the spirits agency (booze, not Derek Accora), and me, date partner for my very beautiful editor/photographer/accountant/life partner. We’re all here because we can spot a bargains when we see one: £75 quid for a dinner at one of the best neighbourhood bistros in the city with wine whose retail value alone can’t be far off the ticket price. It was great; a man spoke about the fizzy stuff, we drank the fizzy stuff and ate the food. I may have got tipsy and the night may have ended many hours after it should have. It was one of my favourite nights of 2018.

When they announced further sets of dates I threw my deposit straight at them without checking that Claire wasn’t skiing in Canada. She was. I end up on a boys date; just two absolute lads doing the absolute lads thing of drinking fine wine, discussing global politics, and eating really, really good food in a relaxed enviroment. What lads. The menus here just keep on getting better. More appealing, more balanced. There is a skill in writing menus and Ben has nailed it. The first course is more canape in size; a tapioca and seaweed cracker with blobs of mint gel and carrot puree that is bright and earthy and goes very well with the classic cuvee. Following this is a pig cheek in a lobster bisque the bronzed colour of a Benidorm pensioner. The bisque is heavily reduced and super rich, almost too much for the cheek which is cooked to a soft and gelatinous texture. Caviar adds an elegant salinity. It’s lovely, classical cooking, that would benefit from a bit of respite somewhere. With this is the Blanc de Blanc, my personal favourite of the Nyetimber range.

The highlight of the night would be the monkfish, dusted in Indian spices and cooked to an opaque centre. We have a little flatbread topped with tarka dahl, slithers of charred mango, and best all of a curry leaf pesto that provides huge waves of flavour. I’ve said it before, Ben really knows how to work spice; he judges it better than most chefs who specialise in that cuisine. This is no different – it’s bold and skilled and downright delicious. It also goes very well with the pricey, but very tasty, 2013 Tillington Single Vineyard.

By now I’m getting full. The last savoury course is duck breast, skin precisely rendered down, the meat cooked to a consistent pink. A little cottage pie of the leg meat on the side is where the fun is at, balanced out by roasted carrots and a vivid beetroot puree. Nyetimbers Rose sees us through this course excellently. We finish on half a custard tart each, a little stewed rhubarb, a poached baton of the same fruit, and some clotted cream. The pastry is excellent to the point that I’d like to see more of it here. I could have easily had a full one to myself and then some again. I should have asked. With all of this we drink a really lovely Rhone Valley red from a wine list curated by Chris Connolly in the way he does, before bidding farewell to the night.

Little Blackwood has been open less than a year and I’ve lost count of the amounts of time I’ve eaten here. For me it encapsulates exactly what a neighbourhood restaurant should be; friendly, affordable, embracing the spirit of the community. They do all of this whilst offering a menu that changes frequently and these occasional evenings filled with pizzaz. I hide no facts that it is 120m from my front door, and to anyone that thinks this may affect my judgement please consider that Deolali and Sorrento Lounge are almost as close. The location of Little Blackwood is a perk, nothing more, and they have carved out their own audience with smart cooking at fair prices. I honestly don’t think I could ask for a better local restaurant.

Sauce Supper Club: Laurence and Claire, St Johns House, Lichfield.

I’m a bit of a Masterchef geek. Okay, I’m a huge Masterchef geek. One of my earliest TV memories was the Sunday evening version with the transatlantic drawl of Lloyd Grossman and his elongated vooooeeeeeweeeels. I have a hazy memory of some ageing French chef being a guest judge and talking about how a dish would have been more haute cuisine had they removed the vegetable garnish and just served the duck breast with the sauce. So one of my first TV memories is someone essentially saying that vegetables are bad, to which infant Simon concurred. Years later I enthusiastically tuned-in to watch Tomasina take the inaugral title of the rehash, and subsequently tuned-off when I tried the first Wahaca site she opened. I’ve seen every episode of every season since, the good, the bad and the ‘celebrity’ version. For me, the most interesting development has been the professionals format. This is where the real high and low points happen; the little bits of genius and the chocolate cake with guinea fowl. I’ve booked restaurants purely off the back of that show, I’ve watched a beautiful, bearded Greek almost crash out the first round and then storm through to the semi-finals, and I’ve considered my sexuality watching Michael Roux Jnr before Gregg Wallace opened that huge gob of his and confirmed I will always be heterosexual. I’d quite like Gregg’s job.

The chance to see two of the sucess stories from Masterchef The Professionals is too great to turn down, even if it means leaving the confines of Moseley for a forty minute drive to Lichfield. The winner of this years show, Laurence Henry, is joined by The Rematch champion, Claire Hutchings. Both sous chefs at two star restaurants, the former works at a restaurant in Nottingham which we’re visiting this summer, whilst the latter is based in Spain. We are seated on communal tables in the pristine St Johns House, on thick white chairs and heavy white linen draped tables. Snacks preceed the four courses, a delicate cone of salmon tartare which I am told is delicious (the stuff makes me gag), a gougere that is a tiny bit dense to be up there with the best, a pork croquette with kimchi puree, and most interestingly, a lightly spiced cracker with raw lamb and bulgar wheat that riffs on the Middle Eastern dish, Kibbeh.

Laurence is up first. The first course has mackerel two ways; a delicate fillet soused in a mixture involving beetroot juice which provided a copper sheen, and a panfried fillet which I’m not sure needed to be there. With this was beetroot thrice: as a puree, teeny raw discs, and beautiful cooked white beetroot, with a quenelle of horseradish tempered enough to stop it blowing everything out of the water. His next course wins no beauty contest, though for me was the best of the day: beef short rib, braised down until it retains just enough texture. The meat has a little underlying heat and the gentle funk of dried crustacean; it is a very refined take on some big, pungent flavours, delivered with skill and finesse. The roast onion puree, crispy onions, and shredded scallion it shares the plate with pull it back towards these shores. I could have eaten three more plates of this and left very happy.

Alas, that was not to be. Up steps Claire Hutchings with the dish that won the Rematch over Christmas. Lamb breast slowly cooked until only just holding shape, glazed in a curried sauce which pays homage to her Birmingham roots. It looks like a two star plate of food, with a row of neatly postioned cubes of mango and folds of cucumber, the latter alternating with pipings of mint yogurt and sweet mango puree. We get rice with crispy coconut and a jug of that curried sauce, with which I manage to transform my plate into a biriyani in record time. You can’t take me anywhere. But still, what a dish. Two different chefs, each with very different takes on spice. Both instantly marked out as ones to watch for the future.

Claire is on desserts today, with a set mousse of sheeps yogurt, sorrel granita, compressed apples in some herby liquor (I think), meringue, and dehydrated olives that had taken on a leather-like texture. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it – it took me back to the four ‘dessert’ courses at L’Enclume that featured parsnips and other stuff that should never end a meal. In short I loved it; the complexity and unexpected pellets of sweetness, the balance of it all and how the olive tasted almost candied when combined with the rest of the plate. We finish on wedges of salted chocolate, neck the wine and say our goodbyes to the rest of the table.

I’ve followed Sauce Supper Club for sometime, accidentally so on occasion (we’ve been eating in the same dining room twice in the last year), and I’ve wondered if these events really are for me. They undoubtedly bring a class of chef not usually found in Lichfield, though the travel is part of the fun for us. But these events are really something, delivering a very high quality for the £75 ticket fee. We ate four courses of their own food from chefs presently cooking somebody else’s menu on a daily basis. It was a glimpse into the the next generation of star chefs. If this lunch was anything to go by, the future of our restaurant scene is in very safe hands.

Thanks to A2B for getting us over the Staffordshire border and back