1 Star

Staycations at Hampton Manor

If the intention of this press trip was to get bookings for the staycation then they succeeded before we left. At midnight after a fair amount to drink, a whole lot of fun, and a severe beating at pool, we succumbed to the inevitable and asked if we could book a stay for September. I’m already excited about it.

Hampton Manor has that effect on us. It almost certainly will on you, too. The way the drive meanders through the estate and the manor comes into sight on the right-hand side, before it fully reveals its majesty direct and to the left. How the scale of the house becomes immediately apparent when you step into the reception hall, with ceilings that could house a beanstalk and the most immaculate of interior design. It helps of course when the very small party are being watered on Nyetimber magnums.

We are given a tour of the new Nyetimber summer house, a beautiful space where the staycation starts with the afternoon tea on arrival. Then a walk through the extensive gardens where much of the produce is grown, through to the smokehouse, another new area which is where we are having dinner tonight, and is the dinner location for the first of the two nights in the package. The old stable building is transformed, with a large communal table and wine on tap, its shell still its beating heart with bare brick walls and stone flooring. We have two starters from the Michelin starred Peels restaurant, both vegetable led with fish used mostly for accent: first tomatoes with sourdough crumb and turbot roe, then a roast potato with xo butter and garden herbs. The potato is good enough to make lockdown worthwhile; absorbing the curry and crustacean notes of the butter with sharply dressed salad of fennel, dill, and chervil adding layers of intrigue.

Whilst eating these our mains cook in the fire in front of us. Rolled pork belly, barbecue lentils, broccoli, and apple sauce. Looked great, ate better. Washed down with a lot of natural wine from a team who are clearly passionate about grapes crushed in a particular way. Dessert was toasted almond cake, raspberries, and ice cream with an almost indistinguishable note of lavender. Simple and delicious. A description that’s also my Tinder profile.

So what’s the craic with the staycation? Two nights, £360 per person. Your money gets you afternoon tea on arrival, dinner in the smokehouse, a bed, breakfast in the morning, craft/wellbeing/food workshops, wine tasting, five or more courses over dinner in the 1* Peels restaurant, the same bed, breakfast in the morning, and a wave goodbye. They operate an honesty bar in the day, and if like us you have no idea when to stop, the midnight hours can be filled in the new pool room, in the bar listening to vinyl, or sat at the whisky bar. It’s not a small amount of money, nor should it be; this is luxury. We’ve debated booking it since they announced it a month or so ago, but after last night decided that we should go and make a weekend of it with friends. I’d spend that amount getting abroad for a couple of nights, we deserve the break.

This was a press event and as such was complimentary. The subsequent booking will be paid in full.

Opheem, July 2020

Almost six years ago to the day I was sat in the Eiffel Tower, eating a wild strawberry vacherin dessert, in the Ducasse restaurant which once occupied the central section of the iconic landmark. That dessert was arguably the highlight of a very expensive lunch; a Ducasse signature, less well known than the baba, the vacherin is a tidier sibling of the pavlova or the Eton mess, with fruit and meringue and cream. The reason it dazzled was the gariguettes, my first experience of those prized wild strawberries that are vibrant and intensely sweet. I said it was the best strawberry dessert I’d ever eaten, which was likely true at the time, but certainly isn’t now. On my subsequent travels I’ve eaten far better strawberry desserts several times over. I ate better strawberries at Opheem last weekend.

But it’s relative, isn’t it? Six years ago, I had been to less than 10 Michelin starred restaurants, wasn’t on that much money, and was recovering from a severe road accident where I thought I may never walk properly again. We’d saved hard to go, dropping in our change into a box designed to save up for special occasions like eating in the bloody Eiffel bloody tower. Everything tastes better when it’s hard earned. I used to spend hours sat at my desk scouring menus on the internet for value in places to eat, then we had a good joint income and it became more about where we wanted to go and less to do with how much the these things actually cost. How very privileged. Now value is a factor again; as of last week I’m redundant. Until work comes my way I’m going to have to consider the final bill whilst the sum for twelve years service heading towards my bank slowly dwindles down.

The lunch menu at Opheem is value. £40 for three courses, with the nibbles in the bar, and the bread would be value by itself. Add half a bottle of wine per person and it’s up there for best value Michelin starred lunch in the country. I know, I check these things. We start in the bar area, gently throbbing with pre-lunch energy, with a bone dry negroni and canapés. An oyster emulsion with jalapeño juice and pickled onions, then a kind of caponata in a pastry case with just enough warming spice to remind you that this is an Indian restaurant at its core. A shard of flaxseed cracker dotted with gels of vinegar and mustard complete the opening scene. Claire remarks that it tastes like a burger, but I can’t be sure as I’ve lost my sense of taste and smell. This is a joke. I’ve just had a negroni; I feel great.

The dining room has always been spacious and here it proves no problem to socially distance, as staff on both floor and kitchen deliver dishes in a uniform which now includes branded face masks. We have milk bread with an onion butter studded with lamb offal. Then starters; one a zingy tartare of aged friesian beef which requires a little jaw work to get the best of the flavour out, the other bowl of pink fir potatoes, I think pickled then barbecued, with a puddle of tamarind purée and a foam of potato. We both agree we could eat a mixing bowl sized portion in front of the telly and be gladly content. It’s comfort food of the highest order.

We both take chicken for the mains because it closely resembles the jalfrezi dish which I had as my top dish of 2019, if not quite as magical; chicken breast cooked in a water bath them finished under the salamander to crisp up the crumb of reapplied skin. Charred spring onion, a baby onion stuffed with keema, a vivid green purée that tastes faintly of (I think) coriander and could be bumped up a little. On the side is a jug of makhani sauce which is the best makhani sauce you’ll ever try, anywhere, from any man, women, or child to make makhani sauce. The key to Aktar’s talent is to make the most familiar of flavours feel uniquely special.

In a callback from the first paragraph that only the most talented of unemployed writers looking for work can manage, you will now recall I had a strawberry dessert. It’s based on a lassi, but really it could have been a vacherin. The meringue is crisp, the strawberries with a deep hit of flavour and the faintest note of vinegar in the background. Take that Ducasse, you big old Frenchy. The other dessert was better. Pear and ginger and pandan, each a clear and distinct flavour which layers up and sings in harmony. It gets real murmurs of happiness as opposed to the fake ones I’m used to hearing. I try it. The murmurs for once are justified.

The wine is lovely. A buttery white and a red that is a true expression of what Tempranillo should be, leaving a bill for £110 for two that includes the negronis and service. Now, I have no idea what your financial situation is, but that sum of money is a relative bargain. To be sat in one of Birmingham’s six starred restaurants – in what I think is the best of the restaurants across the country in the Indian category – and have a meal of that standard is a steal. I’ve already agreed to come back twice in August with friends so that they too can experience it.

Ynyshir, February 2020

I hate Valentines Day. Hate the forced romance and the uplift in prices, the public displays of affection, the hand holding, and then the kisses that resemble two fish gulping at air. I hate being told when I should do nice things for a person that I try to do nice things for all the time. I hate the snobbery around it, how it becomes socially unacceptable to eat Pizza Hut on a night when you might normally eat Pizza Hut, but it is okay to eat four courses in a restaurant you would usually only order one in. I hate the marriage proposals. I really hate the marriage proposals. And the price of flowers, and the heart-shaped food that should never be heart-shaped, doused in a sickly amount of saccharine and sold to randy teenagers or adults who really should know better. I hate the cards; either signed or anonymously stalked, with poorly constructed poems and lewd puns about melons, choppers, and jugs. I hate that dining rooms are full of people who are only there because society tells them they need to be. I hate that I did this for seven years because the girl I was with expected it as the norm, and I love that the last two years have been spent on the sofa, watching shit TV and eating homecooked food because she too understands that it’s just another night. And it is just another night.

We spent Valentines Day in our favourite place in the world. It was an accident: honestly. We knew we wanted to return to Ynyshir some time ago, and a look at the diaries left only a few weekends, of which we ended-up knocking the day off and going on the 14th. If you are going to spend that day anywhere, I suggest you do it here, in the middle of bloody nowhere where no additional concession has been made, starting with a duck broth and martini in the bar listening to Boxer on the vinyl record player. Then I suggest you head to the pre-specified room one, washed in petrol blue paint, where the feature windows make it feel like you’re sleeping in the world’s most picturesque cave. We drank Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs and headed back to the bar to drink more cocktails.

The resulting meal is, I think, the best I have ever eaten, anywhere in the world, over the last fifteen years that I’ve taken food seriously. Michelin’s present assessment of one stars is ludricous. Ynyshir are cooking with the world’s best ingridients to a standard that very few are hitting globally. We saw lots of tweaks from our last visit; the Not French Onion Soup is now so unlike it’s starting point it’s dropped the title completely and now just goes by it’s initials. We now start with a chawanmushi base — a silky savoury Japanese custard — dotted with pickled shallots and teeny croutons, and then an onion broth that splits the custard. It’s a more elegant, richer, creamier start that serves its purpose of prepping the mouth for the forthcoming onslaught of flavour. Then crispy duck glazed in hoi sin sauce, and that chicken katsu skewer which I could gladly eat ten of, but only ever receive as a singular no matter how many times I write that sentence on this blog.

Course four brings the first of the new dishes to me. A skewer of otoro tuna belly, sourced from what I understand to be the same Spanish supplier as The Araki, just warmed through so that the fatty cut starts to loosen. This was wonderfully rich, coated in a terayaki sauce that never gets in the way of the fish. Following this is the chilli crab, a dish I called 2018’s best and if anything has got better. The crab is in larger pieces, the sauce with more chilli kick, and now comes with a steamed sweet bun to mop up the bits which evade the fork. Sensational. Mackerel aged in the salt chamber with furikake seasoning, then the two-part cod; the first a slice of black cod, followed by a broth of the bones with shitake mushrooms. Scallop with elderberry vinegar and aged beef fat has gotten bigger; stronger; more defined. A crumb of what I think is dehydrated roe now shifting the centre point of the dish from cow to crustacean. Five consectutive world class fish courses. They might want to change the board near the kitchen which says, amongst other things. ‘Meat Obessessed’.

Next up is the duck liver and smoked eel dish I love, followed by more duck, and the char sui pork belly that has me gobbling down the slices of meat and slurping the liquor like I’ve never seen food before. That pork gives me a boner and I’ve not said that since watching ‘Babe: Pig in The City’. Then the lamb rib which seems less acidic, but maybe that’s because I’m drinking better wine. We get the best version of the cawl dish yet with strands of lamb neck bobbing in a broth that again has me slurping from the bowl.

Now is fireworks. Not genuine fireworks because they shouldn’t be fired indoors, but the proverbial ones that make you stare in amazement and occasionally use obscene language. Because if one thing has changed it is that this restaurant is now sourcing the absolute best in ingredients. The Welsh wagyu once used here was great, but it wasn’t the best, because that happens to A5 Hida from Japan. So that’s what they serve here now; the same beef dishes ramped up to twelve because eleven isn’t loud enough. We get the burger that has a more buttery burst of flavour now, then two courses later the shortrib dish that has a depth of flavour I never knew could come from a cow. Sandwiched in between this is a new dish which could well go on to become Gareth’s signature: a tartare of the sirloin and tuna otoro, a grating of fresh wasabi root, and a generous amount of Imperial caviar. It’s the Ynyshir surf and turf, where the belly works like bone marrow amongst the beef and the rest smashes you in the face with salinity and heat. It’s perfect. Not just a three star moment, but one that stands up alongside any dish I can recall eating.

It was always going to be hard living up to the beef courses, and so the cheese one fell a little bit flat in comparasion. Keen’s cheddar is spun with macaroni that comes out of the machine seconds before and is cooked in the molten cheese, before being topped with pickled truffle that has taken on a dampness and a flavour reminscent of Branston pickle. It’s not my favourite thing of the night. That is rectified by a slushy of rhubarb that takes me long for the sun, and then the white chocolate with fermented black bean that has crazy salted caramel tones throughout. We hit a home run with the nigh on perfect finish of sticky toffee pudding, rhubarb with that insanely indulgent custard, and tiramisu, which I’ll say once again is a three star dessert all day long. Wagyu fudge and dinky rhubarb tarts are served in the bar. I think. I was drinking negroni by now so anything is possible.

A night like this doesn’t come cheap. Dinner is £180 a head in the main room, more where we sat, and there is a hefty (but entirely justified) supplement for the A5 beef. I’ll spare you the total bill but suffice to say that when you include the room, the several bottles we had over dinner, and the cocktails, you could go abroad for a holiday. I mention this because when you book in you should be fully aware of how much it will cost and equally how much it is worth it. The present position of one star in the Michelin guide is ridiculous; more realistic is the Good Food Guide’s assessment of Ynyshir being the third best in the UK. I grab a rum with Gareth in the bar afterwards when he tells me that the plan for the restaurant is to create the best restaurant in the world. Looks to me like he’s heading in the right direction.

Would A2B take me to mid-Wales? I’ll ask them next time

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

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.

Top Ten Dishes of 2019

It’s been a huge year for the team here at MAOV HQ. Starting the year after being named Time magazine’s ‘Man of The Year’, I turned down a knighthood from the queen, Cheryl Hole. I won big at the global blogging awards, scooping the ‘Greatest Blogger Alive’, ‘Lifetime Achievement’ and ‘Most Unnecessary Wordcount’ awards, whilst narrowly missing out on the coveted ‘Best Line’ to Tom Carroll. I was immortalised in paper mache at a cafe in Huddersfield despite never have visited Huddersfield.

All of this is of course bollocks. I’ve learned this year that the ‘multi-award’ bit in my bio means absolutely nothing. If my life goal is to have my face flash up on a roundabout on the inner ring road following an award from a local panel best described as dubious, then I’ve fucked it. Properly fucked it. What matters is that this blog is still read, which it is in the largest numbers thus far, and that it is useful, which I think it is, at least 40% of the time. I’ve eaten a lot of food this year, some good, some bad, some great. Here are the ten best.

10) Tagliatelle with pepper dulse sauce and truffles. (0121) at Carters.

Do you find yourself looking at the menu for Carters and thinking it’s too expensive? Work harder, you shits. 0121 may be the answer for you. An unreserved area in the window by the bar with a small menu made up of ever-changing Carters classics. Think chicken liver cereal, oyster in beef fat, and the glorious scallop Brex-O. The pick was this, the best pasta dish I have eaten this year. Tagliatelle using ancient grains in a healthy amount of sauce that coats everything in a cheesey umami. Add truffle to the mix and you have a bowl of food well worth ruining your shirt for.

9) Tuna Ceviche. Chakana

Robert Ortiz’s plates of food are so beautiful to look at I don’t know whether to eat them or sexually harass them via text message. Go for the former and you’ll be rewarded with the complex flavours of Peru, where the quality of the fish stars alongside the sweet and the acidic. It’s finessed and fun. There is nowhere like it in Birmingham.

8) Roscoff Onion. Harborne Kitchen

I know a man called Rob who writes a thing called Foodie Boys. Rob thinks this dish is worthy of seventeen Michelin stars which demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the guide’s processes. It is, without a shadow of doubt, worth the maximum amount of nine stars that they can award a restaurant, being a comforting and well rounded homage to the humble onion. The best bit is the broth, seasoned with minus 8 vinegar for that sweet and acidic finish. Presently off the menu, I see it returning shortly in the future.

7) McYard. Backyard Cafe

The sausage and egg McMuffin of your dreams. One that runs with the basics of sausage patty and muffin, swapping the weird microwaved egg out for one that has been fried and oozes yolk, they’ve also upgraded the slice of a plastic cheese to a rarebit. And crispy onions, got to have those crispy onions. This could only have come from the filthiest of minds. Little wonder Rich’s partner always looks so happy when I see her.

6) Turbot chop. Riley’s Fish Shack

When I look back at the year one of my very favourite days was in Tynemouth. The sun was shining, we drank wine on the beach, and went to Riley’s. There is something beautiful about eating the produce of the sea whilst the waves break metres from your very eyes. That turbot was sublime; swimming in a garlic butter, the fat flakes collapsed at the nudge of a fork.

5) Bakewell tart soufflé. Craft Dining Rooms

Craft have had an interesting opening six months, changing Head Chef and key front of house on a number of occasions, but one consistent has remained; in Howing they have a pastry chef of serious talent. It’s practically impossible to choose a bad dessert here, but given the choice take the soufflé. Our first visit back in August featured this perfectly risen souffle, almond flavoured with a cherry compote at the bottom, just like a Bakewell tart. One of the very best soufflés I’ve ever eaten and I’ve eaten a lot of the fuckers. With Aktar Islam’s involvement and the arrival of Andrew Sheridan as Exec Chef it’s shaping up to be a very big 2020 for Craft.

4) Chicken Katsu. Ynyshir

The difficulty of Ynyshir featuring in a list of best dishes is that every dish potentially could be included. I’m going for Katsu chicken this year, an obscene mix of meat and compressed skin, coated in breadcrumbs and finished with Gareth’s version of a Katsu sauce which is way better than anything Wagamama have ever produced. Like everything they do here it’s direct and straight-to-the-point; a flavour-bomb of umami and acidity. February’s visit can’t come soon enough.

3) Langoustine. The Ritz

The highlight of my birthday lunch at The Ritz was this dish. So precise in delivery, the lightly cooked langoustines and buttery nage compliment each other perfectly. In a meal I have mixed emotions over, this was a three star moment that will live long in memory.

2) Patè en Croute. Carters and Calum Franklin

So good I almost cried, though with this taking place on a Sunday afternoon it might have been a comedown talking. A patè en croute of rabbit, pistachio, and bacon that revealed an acid smiley face throughout the centre when carved. Brad’s elated face when showing it off to the dining room was enough to make it a highlight of the year, though the flavour catapults it towards the top of the list. Incredible stuff. Holborn Dining Rooms is happening in 2020 because of this faultless meal.

1) Chicken Jalfrezi. Opheem.

When drawing up this list I had to ask myself what was the most important factor. I decided on a simple answer; what was the one dish I wanted to eat over and over again. Given that a battered sausage and chips from George and Helen’s lacks the finesse required to top such an elite list, I decided on the Chicken Jalfrezi from Opheem. It’s a dish that showcases exactly what Opheem is about: that marriage between French technique and Indian flavours; how the breast has the skin removed and is cooked sous vide, whilst the aforementioned skin is blitzed-up and reapplied to the meat to form a cripsy coating to the top of the meat. The picked leg meat turned into a spicy keema. The garnishes of different textures of onion, and the little blobs of naga and red pepper puree to be treated like English Mustard to give bright hits of heat. That sauce, gravy-like, which keeps growing in the mouth. It’s delicious. Like really fucking delicious. So delicious that I have phoned up on more than one occasion this year and asked (mid-week of course) if I can go and eat it as one course. I think it’s thirty quid if they say yes, but they might not, as I imagine that you are not Birmingham’s finest restaurant blog. In a world where I barely have time to visit anywhere twice, I have eaten this five times this year. It’s special. The best dish of 2019.

Top one taxi firm for the year goes to A2B Radio Cars

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

Calum Franklin vs Brad Carter, Carters of Moseley

Brad Carter has a cookbook coming out in a couple of weeks. I say cookbook loosely; the recipes are of the staff meals they cook in between shifts, intermittently placed between pages of Brad’s friends, his inspirations, and his producers. I’ve had a quick look and it really is unlike any cookbook I’ve seen before; it’s going to look great on my coffee table. The pages that matter to me are around halfway through, jet black and with ‘Birmingham’ emblazed across the widest points. It is everything you need to know about Brad in a one-word synopsis.

Part of that love for Birmingham extends to the occasional Sunday evening collaborations with friends of his. There have been recent voyages into Chinese and Thai cuisine which I cant tell you about because I never went, and this one with Calum Franklin which I was given no choice about. Mr Franklin of Holborn Dining Room is well known for his pastry skills, a food type that is effectively heroin to my Northern girlfriend. I’m not saying that she was determined to go, but I was sent a calender event for when booking opened, and we had two alarms, three phones and a laptop ready. She may have lost her shit a bit when it wouldnt let us on to the booking screen, and she was elated when we secured a table. Want Claire anywhere? Promise her things that remind her of home like pie, rain, and the decline of the coal industry. Gin also works, but gravy works better.

What follows is three hours of food that I’m still trying to walk off two weeks later and Claire would describe as the most enjoyable night she’s had in a Birmingham restaurant. The first course is listed as a tart, but is really a vol-au-vent of puff pastry filled with the components of lobster thermidore. The luxurious touches come in the form of a breaded claw, rising proudly from the pastry, and a little Exmoor caviar for salinity. It is cheesy, yet with a whack of the ocean. If seventies dinner parties tasted this good I’d gladly wear flares and grow my pubes to travel back in time.

The showpiece was up next, paraded by Brad throughout the dining room like he was in a beauty pageant for bearded men in shorts. A patè en croute bearing the words ‘Carters vs HDR’ the along the length, which when sliced contained a centrepiece of the acid house smiley face – a tattoo that Carter has on the inside of his bicep. To me, this was the strongest course; the filling of rabbit, pork, and pistachio distinct, lightened by the turmeric coloured chicken mousseline that makes up the face. The pastry is rich, though not as rich as the decadent rabbit jelly that has been fed into it all day. On the side are fermented mushrooms cooked in butter, and mustard seeds sweetened with local honey. The acidity is gentle, leaving the pastry as the king. It is the complete dish. Last year we tried a world championship winning patè en croute at Daniel et Denise in Lyon: this was better.

And without wishing to sound like a press release, the fun didnt stop there. A scotch egg was executed perfectly, the filling of white pudding and pork highly seasoned, the bright yolk oozy and luscious. What we really love is the buttermilk and wild garlic sauce that is sharp and has the astrigency of white garlic thanks to last years pickled garlic buds. A pithivier of mutton finishes off the savoury courses, with the suprise of a top-half of layered spuds on entry. It is, as the table next to us point out, essentially a cottage pie encased in puff pastry, and if the sound of that doesn’t turn you please take those eyes of yours elsewhere because we don’t want you here. The asparagus spears cooked in lamb fat are just plain naughty, too. Shout out to my girlfriend who shows the dining room just how Northern she is by filling one half of the pastry shell with gravy. Her mother would be so proud.

Dessert is a Paris Brest – 2019’s most on trend pastry – filled with raspberry creme pattiserie lightly scented with rose. It would have been easy to kill this with floral notes, but they hold on to the essence of those lovely raspberries and choux pastry. I have no idea how I fit it in, but I do. It’s been a long night.

The menu ticks in at £75 a head and we add a considerable amount more tucking into far much pink wine and then red wine and then more pink wine and a little more red wine. It’s not a cheap Sunday evening, nor should it be. Birmingham needs nights like this; chefs of Calum Franklins ability showing us something entirely unique – we’re booking in to Holborn Dining Room to try more of his work as a result, so it’s worked from that perspective. It was a fantastic night, one that makes me smile thinking about it even now. Brad Carter lives and breathes this city. We should all be very thankful for that.

A2B love Birmingham almost as much as Brad and ferried my fat arse around as ever.

Ynyshir, April 2019

Unknowingly we book into Ynyshir the day before they all break for holiday. The restaurant is in a relaxed mood; Jake Buggs ‘Lightning Bolt’ is playing on the record player as we check-in, with all the staff in non-uniform. Some have taken this as an excuse to wear comfy clothing, others excessively loud shirts. Really loud shirts that should never see the light of day. They buzz through the corridor by the kitchen pass, taking out the empty plates from a packed dining room. As we tuck into a welcoming bowl of thick onion with sourdough in the bar area, it is great to see it this busy: eighteen months ago when we first visited there were us and six others present for a lunch service. Five visits later and they are struggling to get us a table, incredible to think for a booking that includes the legendary food blogger who is Claire Tucker and her pathetic boyfriend. I’m happy this way; they deserve it. Hard work pays off, this much is clear.

I won’t hide my love for Ynyshir, nor should I try. My good friend Rory now works here, and over time I have got to know owners Gareth and Amelia as well as several of the team who now recognise my bloated head in their tiny dining room. If there is bias present it is only on my part; I knew no one back in August 2017 when we first went and launched into hyperbole, and I recieve no concession on the £150 tasting menu. Simply put, we are here yet again because it is where we choose to spend our money, which we do a little overzealously every. single. time. Make of that how you wish.

It seems that since our last visit a lot of effort has been made to improve the smallest of details. The soys, mirin, and vinegars have all been upgraded to the best they possibly can be, resulting in more elegant acidity, whilst they have a big tank now that cooks crabs and lobster from fresh during service. The overall experience has been upgraded, a statement I wasn’t expecting to make. The ‘Not French Onion Soup’ is more refined, the duck with sesame more crispy so that the reference to the Chinese takeaway is more obvious. That duck blew my mind this time around. The slice of bread seemed smaller, which is fine because it means the layers of wagyu fat and mirin butter get thicker. Only an idiot would fill up on bread here, anyway.

Four new dishes follow, each of them highlighting just how fast the kitchen has developed. The first is katsu chicken; a relatively simple dish of brined poultry cooked over the japanese barbecue built by one of the chefs. The meat is then rolled through panko breadcrumbs cooked in butter and finished with the katsu ketchup which previously used to coat the crab. It is unbelievable; a smash in the face of flavour that bears only the faintest of resemblances to the now most ubiquitous of British dishes. Take that, Brexit. The crab is now a take on the Singapore dish, chilli crab, with a generous amount of meat bound in sauce packed with garlic, ginger, chilli, and soy. I made the bold statement in saying that the crab katsu was the best dish I ate in 2018: both of these are upgrades on the main components. The mackerel is now aged in the salt chamber to take out much of the oiliness, served in a bowl with a dark and heady sauce, and a little grated fresh wasabi, before we move on to cod in two servings. The first is a take on black cod, which is surprisingly gentle in flavour to allow the cod tell its own story. When this is downed they pour some of the cooking liquor into the same bowl with slices of raw shitake mushroom. I loved this; it has purpose and is an original way of getting the flavour of cod out there. Remember what I said about not filling up on bread? You’ll need another slice here to make sure not a drop is left.

We have the duck with hoisin again, the cawl which I still can’t get on board with, the lamb rib that I can always get on board with, and then the pork char sui, which is fatty and lucious and has me slurping unattractively from the bowl like the man I once sat next to on a flight in Vietnam. I hated him. I love this though and it’s over far too quickly for my liking. It’s a star dish in a lengthy menu littered with them. There is the aged foie gras with birch syrup and smoked eel that I devour in a single mouthful, and then a new dish of scallop roasted on one side only with aged beef fat and pickled elderflower. It’s got bollocks as a plate of food, a contrast of textures and big flavours that somehow holds on to the flavour of the scallop. I was concerned about this not working. It turns out I had nothing to worry about.

A slab of 215 day aged wagyu is presented to us, telling us that this is to be served as a burger and then tartare. But first the garlic prawn arrives; the meat is delicate, the roasted prawn shell sauce noticably better thanks to the higher grade soy used. The wagyu returns as that burger, a thousand times better than the thousand times I tried rip-off versions in the last year and a half. Then the tartare, which is just sit-yourself-down-and-take-stock-of-everything brilliant. A complex mix of barely warm beef, fermented grains, some kind of soy dressing, and egg yolk dressing. It’s mega, reminsecent of the first time I tried the vennison tartare at L’enclume, and up there with the very best raw dishes I’ve ever been served. More wagyu follows as a shortrib with mushroom but by now I am stuffed. I should probably point out to any vegetarians at this point that this may not be the restaurant for you.

By now the music has whizzed through The Prodigy and is onto ‘Doggystyle’. We take the cheese course of Tunworth on a sourdough crumpet with a maple/white truffle lick of magic. Every bit as glorious as it sounds. The yuzu slushie that follows is a clever way of resetting the palate before the dining room halts to mark the first dessert with a plume of nettle scented dry ice, pouring off the tables and on to our feet. The course itself has been defeated by the two cocktails and three bottles of wine we’d consumed up to this point, and if I’m correct I was more concerned with rapping the first verse to Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang than eating the buttermilk pannacotta before me. So as far as the courses in this paragraph go, we’ve had one, two, three, and to the four, as we sign off with the white chocolate and black bean mouthful which is salted caramel when you close your eyes. Perfection is perfected, and with that I promise no more bad Snoop Dog references.

From a young G’s perspective the last three courses are a whistle stop tour of three classic desserts, reimagened in rural Wales. We blitz through a new version of the sticky toffee pudding (now with a flourless date cake replacing the compressed fruit), the rhubarb and custard, and the tiramisu. Each are utterly brilliant in their own way. The last nibble is a piece of fudge made from wagyu fat. We retire to the bar and The National’s classic album ‘Boxer’ is played. And people wonder why this is one of my favourite places in the world.

Purnell’s in pictures. Birmingham.

If any of the Purnell’s team are reading this, please take this as a public apology. Know that I normally behave far better and I’m not proud of my state in your restaurant. For clarification, we were celebrating Claire’s birthday a little too heavily; Opheem, Arch 13, Nocturnal Animals and Hotel du Vin until the very early hours the night prior. Back in Little Blackwood at 10am for breakfast and a birthday bottle of Nyetimber, The Edgbaston for a quick four glasses of Moët (and a couple of drams of Japanese whisky), Pint Shop, and then Purnell’s for lunch where we were kindly greeted with more of the fizzy stuff. You do the math. It was a lot of booze before we sat down for lunch.

As a result I’ve contemplated not putting this on the blog. I’ve been hazy on detail before, but that usually happens during the meal; I have never turned up for dinner drunk – I happen to think it’s fantastically poor form. I’ve decided to utilise Claire; her pictures and her memory (she skipped many of the morning’s drinks), and just write about the bits I’m certain on. What is clear is that Purnell’s delivered another brilliant lunch; one that is witty and theatrical, that still has real technique and flavour at its core. We have many brilliant Michelin starred restaurants in this fine city, yet none wear all that is brilliant about the city quite like this fine restaurant.

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The highlights were the coal potatoes with chorizo dip that echoed the river pebbles at Mugaritz, the cheese and pineapple that remains one of my favourite dishes in Birmingham, the cod with satay, and a couple of really excellent desserts; a chocolate and mint number that worked on a multi-sensory level, and that brilliantly iconic 10/10/10 egg custard. Service was exemplary from start to finish, the chosen wines from Sonal for each course perfectly judged. It was all very, very good. I just wish I was a little less ashamed of it.

So Thank You to Sonal for looking after us so well, to Glynn and to Luke for popping out the kitchen and saying hello. Claire had an incredible birthday and the two hours at Purnell’s were a huge part of that. If you’ll have me, we’ll come back and I’ll stay sober this time. Purnell’s deserves far more than the above pictures and a few words.

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