I’d like to think it’s always been difficult to get a ten out of me for the score at the bottom. They are reserved for the meals that thrill and excite, the food which stands out for being special. I’ve given a couple out recently; one to Hampton Manor that provided the most picturesque meal in a greenhouse which was all about the terroir, and another to a lengthy evening at Harborne Kitchen which was about as enjoyable as a three hours in a restaurant on your own will ever be. There’ll be another meal getting a ten next week, but for now take Caneat, long one of Birmingham’s best brunch and lunch venues: one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in Birmingham in years and the newest recruit to the perfect score club.
First let’s take the menu of the recently launched evening service. Small plates, actually not that small, priced under a tenner bar two dishes, and so enticing that we order one of everything. It’s the menu which Birmingham needs; seasonal, lean, and affordable. No frivolities and no corners cut. A plate of pickles is deceptive for the amount of individual work gone into each, and whilst a NYC-style chopped salad is my least favourite of the evening’s courses, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the complexity of the dressing using harissa made in-house. A salad of tomato and goats cheese gets its point of interest from a loose mayonnaise made from lovage oil. They’ve plucked what’s ready out of the ground and made it great.
Invest in the higher priced dishes and they’ll reward you. A whole sea bream (the most expensive item at £14), dusted in rice flour and deep fried, lounges horizontally on a jalapeño salsa as smooth and pungent as a post-gig Mick Hucknall, whilst a sizeable pork neck chop has all of that caramelised fat cut through with a pickled watermelon salad layered with chilli and herbs. The pork takes me straight back to a tiny island off the coast of Cambodia, the bream a refined version of something similar in Campeche. When the reference points become jumbled, such as the North African-meets-Greece mash-up of curry roasted cauliflower, dukkah, and skordalia, they are geographically so close it feels incestuous. The skordalia is a potatoey garlicky revelation; fully befitting of the “hipster hummus” tagline given on delivery to the table.
And the rest? Pizza fritti that’s close to the Indian bread bhature in both look and texture, with sour cream, chives, and pickled chillis, and is a kind of deconstructed giant Pringle. An umami driven breaded chicken thigh with a pokey romesco-style sauce and pickled cauliflower, and a ceviche of trout that relies on citrus to propel it forward. There’s a salad of asparagus and sugar snap peas, Stichelton, and deep fried egg which proves that the best salads are bad for you, and fried jersey royals, buttery and crisp, with aioli and a seaweed salt. It’s concise cooking. Every ingredient serves a purpose. It’s far too much food for two people but we finish it all. It’s too good not to.
With this we drink natural wine and espresso martinis and maybe a gin or three at the end of the night, settle a bill and leave, before regretting not ordering the deep fried jam sandwich. The website for Caneat downplays the offering as ‘Good sandwiches. Good coffee. Good cake’. It’s so much more that. It’s pretty perfect, fully befitting of the top marks. On the way out owner Dom Clarke asks me not to write about it, telling me how they “don’t want any wrong’uns here”. I consider keeping it for myself but that wouldn’t be fair. Caneat have shifted from the best brunch in Birmingham to the best place to go for a casual dinner. I’ll see you out the back this summer, chilled rosè in hand, for lots more of the same.