Birmingham

8, Birmingham

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8 is a restaurant which needs to be seen rather than read about. On paper the 16 seater restaurant where all of the 8 courses are based around the number 8 might seem a little gimmicky, until, that is, you are on one of those stools, with those plates in front of you eating some seriously good food. It is here that you see a chef unleashed; his own food and ideas on a plate, following a career of cooking to other people’s briefs in high profile restaurants.

Cards on the table, I have had a tiny amount of involvement in the restaurant. I arranged a couple of launch events – one for chefs, the other for press – and gave my opinion at a drinks tasting, and I suggested the services of someone to make the mixed drinks a little better. I’ve received payment for some things and have done others purely out of wanting to see them succeed. The meal you are reading about is from a press night I helped organise. Whilst it’s important to establish facts, it’s also important to remember that I’ve been critical of dishes before they reached this stage. I’ve eaten almost all of them in isolation, though this is the first time I’ve had them as one cohesive dinner.

But first the dining room, which is unlike anything in Birmingham and has very few reference points outside of the city. A kitchen table of 16 seats, each lit individually by a spotlight that beams on to the logo set upon the oxidised concrete. To one side of the room is a neon infinity wall, to the other a large screen which plays the media for each course. It’s ballsy and in your face. It’s full of talking points. It’s the room which is going to be all over your social media for the rest of the year.

Spelt bread arrives first clad in a sticky apple caramel glaze, to be torn apart between two and clad in butter. Then ‘V8’, the first course proper and named after the juice, a tart of mostly tomato and beetroot, with a warm consommé from the same veg. Delicate pastry, almost sweet filling offset with parsley. It’s a cracking start. It’s followed by ‘oxidised’, a fairly classic tartare of dairy cow with mushrooms, truffle, and a gooey yolk, set between two discs of pressed brioche. Well balanced and rich, it continues to set a high standard. ‘Square Root of Eight’ sees a cube of roasted celeriac share a bowl with a dice of the same veg pickled and a broth of the off-cuts, with little more than a grating of hazelnut for adornment. It comes alive thanks to an incredibly clever drink pairing that contains bourbon, Hungarian sweet wine, and toasted barley oil. I’m biased, but those drink pairings are up there with the best in the country.

From here it gets very, very good. ‘Lucky 8’ is a naughty double mouthful of bread, pork liver parfait, a riff on a famous pickle, cheddar cheese, and lardo. It’s big and moreish. A very famous chef may have eaten three of them. Then a light tartare of scallops and apples, bolstered by a bonito infused cream, which forms the ‘8 Days A Week’ course. We finish the savoury courses with ‘Resurrection’, a venison Wellington studded with foie gras, sauce and that’s it. It doesn’t need anything else. Stellar work, it’s up there with my favourite things to eat in the city. On a side plate is pastry ends. What’s pissed off a kitchen of chefs only adds to the happiness in the dining room.

The first dessert happens to be the first dish that Andrew learnt to make. ‘8-10-2006’ is the date he started as a chef, knocking out carrot cake for afternoon teas. This carrot cake is given an upgrade; one between two, with cream cheese and carrot jam. It’s a stunner. With this a drink that contains carrot vodka. Turns out I like carrot vodka. Last course is ‘8.01’; After Eight, if you like. There’s a chocolate ganache with a puddle of minty chocolate grappa, covered in a spikey alpine of chocolate tuiles. Given the complexity of the work gone into the previous courses, it’s nice to finish on something more simplistic.

The price for the food is £88, more if you go for the drinks pairing, which you really should. I dined in 8 three nights in a row this week prior to the official launch today, and already I have seen minor tweaks and improvements. Given that Andrew describes these as “the eight courses of his career”, it only seems fitting that the dishes continue to evolve, much like him as a chef. As far as experiences go, 8 is as cinematic and widescreen as Birmingham has ever seen. It’s bolshy and ambitious. It demands to be experienced.

You’ve probably correctly guessed I didn’t pay for this.

Better pictures by Where is Claire. Best taxis by A2B.

Wine Freedom, Digbeth

A couple of nights ago we were fortunate enough to do a staycation at Hampton Manor. On the Saturday of this glorious weekend, hungover on whisky and feeling very full, we attended a wine tasting with MD James Hill which forms part of the schedule. James would start by telling us this was a session led by an enthusiast and not an expert, one whose eyes had been opened by a wine specialist named Sam Olive. With a copy of the book ‘Natural Wine’ nestled on the counter, James spoke about how Sam had stripped away the bullshit behind wine, and used a language which was accessible. He told the group how Sam and business partner Taylor now had a garage in Digbeth from which they operate a little wine shop called Wine Freedom, incidentally the name of their bullshit free natural wine business.

Rewind ten days prior and I’m sat in that plant-filled, white washed garage drinking wine with my lovely friend Jo. I knew about Wine Freedom already. Over lockdown we had deliveries from them, and prior to that their produce is in many of my favourite places (Ynyshir, 1000 Trades, The Plough et al). Taylor worked a few hours in my favourite pub and and it seemed like you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing them, including my home, where my girlfriend stores a laminated picture of Sam in a tight grey t-shirt underneath the bed.

I quintuple parked as soon as we got there. I wanted to try all of the wines available by the glass. These seem to be the most user friendly of their range; approachable, young wine which contains grapes and nothing else. I’m still trying to fully understand natural wine but I’m getting there slowly. I do like the ones which taste of wine, but give me the wild ones that have notes of cider and perry and I’ll show you ciders and perry I prefer more. If it means anything I liked all the wines we tried that afternoon, and really really liked a number of them.

In the effort of research we also ordered all the food from the shortish menu. They’ve kept it simple; three cheeses from Neals Yard, good bread and butter, chutneys and pickles, and a potted pork. That potted pork recipe can be found on page 60 of The Book of St John and is possibly the best rillettes recipe you will find, loaded with Madeira, garlic, and spice. The chutneys and pickles too mostly come from the same book, though some have been touched by the grace of Dom Clarke of Caneat. It’s all great, from the squash chutney with ras al hanout, to the pleasingly acidic green tomatoes pickles. It’s all rather special and very inexpensive.

Alas it wasn’t supposed to be like this. There were plans to make it a more finished space, but then the world went to shit and they decided to spend the revised and much lower budget on plants and pallets. They were supposed to have a kitchen and a chef and they still might, but I don’t think it needs it. The wine and the charming service and the communal bit of food do they is just a perfect way to whittle away a few hours with friends, especially when that friend insists on paying the bill. But what do I know? I’m no expert. I’m just another enthusiast trying to understand a little bit more.

Peacer, Moseley, September 2020

Peacer have a wine machine and that’s enough inspiration for me to write about them again. It won’t be a big post, nor should it be. Just a brief love letter to one of my favourite places in my old home. That’s Moseley, not Peacer. I never lived in Peacer, despite trying to claim squatters rights on numerous occasions.

They’ve reopened. It took them a while. Inside not much has changed other than the length of Jack’s hair, which lockdown has created a mane of, and the small matter of a wine machine. Have I mentioned the wine machine? All natural from Wine Freedom, it fits the tone of the space perfectly. Not only do they do pizza by the slice but they now do wine by the glass. Clever guys. Buy a card, pop a card in machine, press size of wine you want. Drink. Repeat. The wines were great. Accessible. Interesting. Youthful.

The pizza is still New York style by the slice. Great big things that need two hands to successfully control. The ‘Smokey’ is very good, the ‘Hot’ with hot honey is even better. Those in the know head straight to ‘Tangy’ with blue cheese, crispy onions, and the house buffalo sauce. It’s one of my favourite things to eat in Birmingham. Always, and I repeat always, ask for a pot of that sauce on the side. I think the tomato and mozzarella salad is new, and goes down very well. It’s simple and well executed.

It’s been a year to the day that we viewed the house in Harborne and I saw the look in Claire’s eyes. I knew then it was the right thing to up and move us, away from the parties, and to a quieter part of town. It’s been a good move us. But for all of its faults I miss Moseley. How one pint on a Wednesday night ends up in someone’s house drinking until daybreak. The ad hoc Zindiya meals and free scallops from Flakes chippy. Miss shopping in Nima Stores and then feeling sad because something so pure can’t last forever. Miss Little Blackwood, and the garden of The Prince, and Joe whipping out a bottle of rum for us to neck in The Dark Horse when he probably should be taking money from us. I miss how the top ranked hotel in the area was our sofa and came with direct access to a free bar. I miss the Tangy from Peacer, so much so that we purchase another four slices to take home with us, before swearing that we’ll go back once a month to make a night of it. Moseley ain’t perfect, but then neither am I. Did I mention that Peacer has a wine machine?

After all that wine we needed to get an A2B home.

Greens, Solihull

Greens do a cocktail called ‘Death by Whisky’. Over lockdown it was suggested to me on numerous occasions that I should have a death by whisky, though whether this was a reference to the drink or a wish from my enemies is unclear. “I’m not sure if I can afford a death by whisky” I responded, often whilst sipping on a whisky, often in the morning. It’s true. Whilst the world was going to shit, I was spending a lot of money on mixed drinks. Mixed drinks make me happy.

I’ve now had a death by whisky and as this is not a posthumous blog piece, you can rightly assume it involved a trip to Greens in Solihull. It sits in the centre of a shopping square, sharing a unit with a coffee bar (Vita) and street food space (Taste Collective), each with outside terrace space and its own identity. The name of the cocktail bar might give you an idea of the colour scheme here, the giant pages of glass ensuring it stays bright and well lit. It’s a comfy, almost Mediterranean way of people watching with a glass of something strong in hand.

Before the drinks, let’s get a quick word about the food. The cheese board is impeccable, which might have something to do with the general manager previously being responsible for looking after the cheese at Simpsons. All British, they have more conventional options like Black Bomber mingling with lesser known such as the superb Waterloo, which won the war when I was defeated. The meats too are all British including wagyu salami, venison bresaola and coppa, which is a far better use of a pigs neck than David Cameron ever suggested.

And the drinks. Headed up by Rob Wood (that name should mean something to you if you care about drinks), it’s about time that Solihull laid claim to a bar that made top-tier drinks. I really like the Death by Whisky, which is a boozy four-blend of various types with sherry and maple, maybe more so than the gadgetry of Smoke and Mirrors that requires you to pull a cherry and chocolate flavoured whisky drink from a smoke box. Fantastic Mr. Fig is punchy and decadent mouthful of wonder, whilst Whoopsy Daisy is all jammy fruitiness. Maybe best of all is Flowers and Blossoms, with its light floral notes and gentle acidity from sakè. It’s a really great drink.

Service is genuine and kind, on this night led by someone who used to run a bar in Harborne and another who was always too good to break up fights in Moseley. Now I don’t usually make a thing of writing about bars, but I feel compelled to spread the word about here. The nightlife in Solihull is dismal; it’s a place where Slug and Lettuce reigns supreme fuelled by Pornstar Martinis. Green’s offers something different, a classier, more cultured way of drinking in a part of town that can afford it but somehow never had it. Those who had to travel before for good drinks now can stay within their own postal code.

Fazenda, August 2020

To write about Fazenda post apocalypse feels like writing about a new restaurant, more so than anywhere that I would consider visiting for pleasure. I’m not going to overlook the struggles that all restaurants have faced in the last eight weeks to reopen, but I’m specifically referring to the model that this business previously ran on. This is a place that pre-COVID involved having the whole cuts of animal carved at the table, whilst the gaps in between were filled with trips to a vast salad bar; the latter simply not possible at present, whilst the former has its own issues. When the government closed restaurants part of me feared that we’d never see Fazenda again.

They are back and it’s clear that they’ve considered the right way of going about things before they did. They’ve dropped a lot of covers – 50 or so – meaning that tables are well spaced and mostly behind screens, and whilst the meat is still carved, it is done from a safe distance with individual prongs to collect it as flops from the skewer. The biggest change is with sides and the wine, now accessed via a link and ordered from phone to table by a dedicated server.

I think I preferred the new way. I think. Certainly not the face masks and the distance, but the side plates that are now cooked to order and have improved. After the opening board of cured meats, cheeses, and other bits, we get mushrooms pan fried in lots of garlic and a little cream that benefit from fresh preparation, as do fries straight out of the fryer dusted in parmesan and a little slush of truffle oil. We both love the dinky balls of mozzarella and tomato dressed in the spiky green of chimichurri, and the red peppers roasted until the skin blackens and makes the flesh sweet throughout. Perhaps the Brazilian black bean stew isn’t quite as deep a flavour as I remember, but that’s okay because now we have a purée of sweet potato so soft it could be baby food. That purée is given bags of character with feta and mint, crunch from sweet potato crisps, and would be ordered again later in the night.

I’m well aware that very few customers book Fazenda off the back of the side dishes (RIP salad bar 2018-2020). Its draw for most is the meat, and so it should be. Over the two or so hours we eat long slivers of rare beef sirloin and rump that glisten a ruby haze when cut, and generous chunks of fillet cooked almost blue. Lamb cutlets are smokey, tender bites whilst Brazil’s favourite cut of beef, picanha (rump cap is as close as you’ll get here) is cooked with absolute precision. Indeed all the meat is nailed-on for accuracy tonight. I’ll be nitpicking if I told you that the sausage was way too salty, which it was, but fine for pointing out that the gammon was correctly high in salt. Pork collar with honey was all kinds of excellent.

Front of house was flawless from start to finish, and I’ll fight anyone who tells me that there is a better place to drink the wines of South America in Brum than here. The price of £34.50 per person in the evening can quickly spiral when desserts and booze are factored in, but this is money well spent. We leave the restaurant and head to the hotel over the road for an extended night cap. In a world where every movement is restricted I’m pleased we are able to still have these experiences. Fazenda, it’s great to have you back.

Apologies to the A2B driver I had drive us around at 1am looking for a pool table

Bop Kitchen @ The Juke, Kings Heath.

I was told about Bop Kitchen’s pop-up first by one of the city’s best chefs, who knew one half of the team, and then by my girlfriend who knew nothing other than she wanted a kebab. Both are perfectly valid reasons. So back to Kings Heath we go; first to the wonderful Grace & James for some cold rosé in the bright heat, then across the road to the equally wonderful Juke for a G&T and a kebab. That classic flavour combination.

It’s thriving. It would appear that the duo on the grills have brought most of South Birmingham with them. The Juke has never been the biggest of spaces and today they are open purely outside, with tables stretching out across York Road.

I’ll save you my pitiful pictures but these are the best kebabs I’ve eaten in Birmingham. Soft, pillowy flatbreads enclosing flavours that are reminiscent of everyone’s favourite pissed food yet skilled enough to have come from someone who knows their way around a chopping board. They remind me of a more polite Black Axe Mangal. The mutton kofta is pleasingly dense and full of ovine flavour, with hummus that’s retained a little texture and the occasional bite of pistachio. But it’s the chicken that you need to order. The pomegranate glazed bird and the hot sauce and apricot dukka, with the filthy addition of shards of chicken skin which crack between teeth. I’m in love with it and refuse to share.

They sell out by the time we finish up, which is excellent for a set-up only trading for the second time. I hope The Juke get them back and soon. It’s perfect beer food. I’m too old and grey and flabby to live somewhere that cool anymore, but it’s great to dip in and out of York Road. I really like The Juke. I really like Bop Kitchen. They make a great couple.

A2B took my drunk ass home for free.

Eat Out to Help Out, Week 1

It turns out that Rishi Sunak, the former hedge fund manager who personally profited from the collapse of RBS to the tune of many millions, is an actual angel. A tiny, 5’7″ angel, sent from the heavens to sit atop of my Christmas tree. First the furlough scheme which has allowed me to complete Netflix over the last four months, and now the salaciously named Eat Out to Help Out incentive. I went out several times this week to get Rishi’d, fully embracing the 50% off food (and soft drinks) to the maximum tune of a tenner. And here, my gift to you, a super quick post about what I ate. I won’t give prices because you’re all adults and frankly I can’t be arsed to look on the internet. In your face, RBS.

Arch 13.

What’s that Rishi? No discount on vino? Damn you and your insistence on taking all that sweet sweet alcohol tax. We had a cheese board, couple of meats, and some mighty fine hummus. It was all in stellar condition, hand picked from the best possible suppliers. I’ve missed Arch 13 a lot. It’s a bloody great bar.

Zen Metro.

People are shits. Absolutely horrid shits. Zen got stung the weekend before with 25% of bookings not showing. Horrid shits. The power of the internet meant that one tweet later Zen had twenty or so jaded readers of a food blog in for dinner. Claire had a very serviceable salmon dish, whilst I went for the Zen Inferno, a mild curry in no way steeped in Birdseye chillis. I finished it with sweat pouring off my brow, holding in the internal burning by not coughing. My arse still hasn’t recovered. Service by Jaimon was as sharp and personable as ever.

Purecraft Kitchen.

Behold the greatest bar snack in the world! Smoked potato, crushed and then crisped up in fat, doused in beer cheese sauce. Whatever beer cheese is I want it my belly. All the beer cheese time. Add the best scotch egg in Brum, a killer sausage roll, burgers of beef and of chicken (have the latter), and you have an extremely enjoyable lunch. Praise be to Rishi, my little gnome friend.

Little Blackwood.

Is there a better way to spend a Wednesday evening than at Little Blackwood? How about bao and ramen at Little Blackwood. Twenty quid (well a tenner because of Rishibabes) gets two of the former and one of the latter. We eat them all; the salmon bao and the duck bao wolfed down in record time. The spicy laksa with just-cooked prawns bobbing on the surface and the ramen with its chewy noodles and a broth with a dashi base and the texture of long simmered bones. Do it.

Baked in Brick.

Not technically on the scheme yet, but we went on Thursday when pizza is two-for-one all day, thus effectively adding one more day to destroyer of banks Rishi Sunak’s scheme. Lee has been working on his dough all lockdown and it shows. This was the best pizza I’ve eaten at Baked in Brick. I’m reliably told that you should keep your eyes peeled for a special pop-up in the next week or two. See, you come here for dreadful writing and I give you an exclusive. Ain’t that grand.

I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure I heard Rishi say everyone should use A2B

Dishoom, Birmingham

The interior of Dishoom is a throbbing hive of clinking cutlery and conversation. As I peruse the menu a waiter passes me bearing a tray full of chai, then reappears, as if by magic, from the same side bearing more. It is an atmosphere which echoes the Iranian style of cafe in Mumbai from which Dishoom is modelled, a city within a country that I have visited and love. My girlfriend knows more about the city previously known as Bombay than I do; understands it’s culture far more than I ever will. She has been to Mumbai on multiple occasions. She sponsors the education of a child she has never met at a school there, one whose grades are deteriorating by the year and who she perseveres with when I suggest otherwise. She has an internal commitment to the betterment of the area, just like Dishoom, who donate two meals (one in India, the other in the UK) for every meal purchased.

That opening paragraph was tough, but I think I’ve covered most of Foodie Boys guide to writing a food blog, and if I haven’t, then I’m sorry, I’m just really not very good at this. I went on a press trip with Dishoom in January and whilst others were asking important questions, I was doubling-up on the free drinks and standing under signs in the Kings Cross site that read ‘Simon Go Back’. What I did get was the sense of a business wanting to do things the right way; to give back to those in need, and to bring communities together over food. When Simon eventually did go back, he did so drunkenly muttering about wanting to work for such inspiring owners. Yes, I did just reference myself in third person and kiss the arse of the business I’m about to write about. I’m pathetic.

So the food. We’ve been a few times now, twice for breakfast (one time far superior to the other) and once for lunch. All three over soft launch periods with 50% discount on food that will make me overlook the bits they fell short on. At breakfast they have quite the reputation for the bacon naans and so they should, given the quality of the bacon, and the supple bread which houses cream cheese and the addictive tomato chilli jam. Don’t overlook the eggs on chilli cheese toast that is kejriwal, or the akuri scrambled eggs that punch with spice. We have the Big Bombay that has parts we love and parts we don’t. Of those we love we build our own buns of peppery sausage and more of that scrambled egg. At £12.50 I’d suggest more enjoyment would be had from two bacon naans.

Lunch brings more happiness. Murgh malai is an ode to tenderising chicken thighs over lengthy marinades, and produces a must order of soft, slightly smokey meat. Likewise the black daal must be taken; a dark and brooding affair, cooked slowly overnight until the lentils fray at the shell and offer no bite. It’s rich and addictive and worthy of the individual box on the menu. I could take you to other places in the city for better chana, but none that I’m aware have the foresight to serve it with sweetened carrot halwa and batons of pickled veg that when loaded on to the puffy fried bread add contrast and depth to the gingery chickpea curry. It’s a genuine game changer.

Back in January Naved Nassir, the group’s executive chef, spoke of the pressure of coming to a city that has curry at its very foundation. Perhaps it’s why they choose to put a curry as the Birmingham special. The base, a gravy with heady notes of clove, cinnamon, and cashew, is the vehicle for slow braised mutton that quite literally falls from the bone. To say it reminds me of a korma cooked by a very young Aktar Islam gives you an idea of how highly I regard it. The same for the technical workmanship involved with making the roomali roti that holds the chicken tikka. The detail is as impressive as the taste, which, given the size of the operation, is impressive in itself.

Three separate meals each with 50% off, the most of which is around £40 without booze. And herein lies my personal conflict; am I likely to pay the full £80 at lunch when the same sum gets me food and wine for two at the immaculate Opheem? Probably not. But I can see it being a permanent fixture for breakfast, a regular stop off for a one-dish lunch, and the occasional dinner with friends. But this isn’t about me. It’s about Birmingham finally being taken seriously by the big-hitters from the capital, how it’s still attractive in the middle of global pandemic to be here, and how the city have already repaid that faith by packing it out before they properly open the doors next week. Dishoom could have played it safe and yet they’ve gone all in. I have a feeling the hand is going to play out well.

We take A2B to get from A to B

Sabai Sabai, Harborne

“I might not make it for dinner tonight” – a text from my friend reads – “I’m in A&E after falling through a false ceiling”. And there underneath the text was a picture of the hole he had fallen through for evidence, all fourteen or so stone of him, and a second, more gruesome one, of an open gash. I won’t share it, because it’ll ruin your appetite and frankly that’s my job, but it looked nasty; like one of those fake plastic cuts you pick up at Halloween when you want to make a bit of an effort but not quite go the whole hog. Or Katie Hopkins as she prefers to be called.

As it was he does turn up, getting to the restaurant mere seconds after we arrive, followed by his less accidental wife some minutes afterwards. “I’m starving” he tells us whilst lifting his forearm to show the stitched-up skin covered by dressing. We have prawn crackers and I get sweet chilli sauce down my shirt, then more prawn crackers, then the first of three bottles of red. He orders too much food for us all; chargrilled giant prawns the length of your hand in a zingy, spicy sauce. Then a meat platter with shredded duck rolls, crispy chicken wings, spare ribs, and the kind of lamb chops I’ve been missing all lockdown. Smokey and tender and caught on the edges, served with a sweet and garlicky pineapple salsa.

Top tip for the next time you find yourself in a Thai restaurant; ask for a dipping pot of Thai soy sauce with a squeeze of lime, loads of birds eye chillis and some diced shallot. It makes everything come alive. Also top tip; don’t draw attention to yourself by pouring all of it over your food like I did with the duck laab. Laab is one of my favourite things in the world; the hot and sour salad of torn meat and the funk of toasted rice powder, now with the added fire that would make breakfast the following morning very interesting. A papaya salad was textbook in delivery, with its back note of the ocean lurking whilst the lime sits upfront.

Mains, we had too many of them. There was a massaman, sweet and sour from the tamarind, and a weeping tiger dish which showed that the chef can accurately cook a bit of rib eye to medium rare. The more familiar red curry paste made an appearance on the less familiar stir fry dish of pad pik geng and would have stolen the show had it not been for the Sabai Sabai hot platter with beef. Again the meat was good, but the spicy, umami rich sauce with whisky and holy basil had us fighting for the last of it. Sides of broccoli and pak Choi were ambitious and totally unwarranted, whereas bowls of sticky rice are essential to mop up the best bits.

The bill, with three bottles of wine from the higher end of the list and several rounds of martinis is more than you should spend on a Tuesday night, but a sensible person should allow £30-40 per head. If we got carried away it’s because the food was genuinely superb. Maybe it’s the lack of going out this year, or the quantity of booze, but this was I think the strongest meal I’ve had at any Sabai Sabai in the ten years I’ve been going. We stepped outside the usual curries, away from the pad Thai, and into the parts of the menu we don’t usually look to. And it paid off. The food at Sabai Sabai has literally gone through the ceiling.

Just because I never took an A2B doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Craft, July 2020

I booked a table for one at Craft with the best of intentions. They had launched a new menu with a ‘picnic’ section that I wanted to try; £25 for five small plates seemed a bargain lunch, throw in a glass of wine and I’m back within the hour, fed and watered for £35. Sign me up. Except life doesn’t always go to plan. Let’s be honest, it never goes to plan. Well not mine, anyway. I turn up, take to my table, and two of my friends, who I had no idea would be there, do the same. They offer a seat at their table, I take the seat and that in and out quickie ends up five or six bottles later, with a headache that keeps on giving well into that weekend. I still need to try the picnic meal.

I knew the food was going to be good. The two weeks we do ‘Craft At Home’ over lockdown turn out to be two of the tastiest meals we have. Two pies; one ox cheek with a deep gravy, the other a chicken, ham hock and leek number which is at once creamy and rich, with notes of fennel from the seed and tarragon. Is this a sign of a simpler new direction? No, not really. The only new direction is the entrance, which comes straight off Brindley Place, through the ‘garden’ that houses the pods, past the bar and down the steps into the restaurant. Inside there are less covers, the space more intimate. It’s leaner. Lockdown has done them good.

We start with a croquette specifically requested from the picnic menu, full of smokey chorizo notes and cauliflower. Then a millefeuille of crab and apple, with precise pastry work and lots of brown crab flavour cut through with acidity from the fruit. Two courses in and it’s clear that the flavours are stripped back; two or three core ingredients, strong technique which allows them play off each other.

For main I have pork and pineapple. The loin is beautiful, blushing pink and tender, as is the belly that has been braised until the layers of fat and meat amalgamate. I find a pineapple caramel on the sweet side – the cube of the same fruit provides enough contrast for the rich mangalitsa breed. The mashed potato is glorious. I get to try a lamb dish which is superb. Deep and smokey from aubergine and black garlic, the loin and belly cuts treated with care and attention. Apricots reinforce an almost Middle Eastern feel to the dish. Andrew Sheridan can really cook. I mean really cook.

By now the three of us are on bottle number four and I’m really regretting skipping breakfast. A creme brulee Cambridgeshire burnt cream is spot on for luscious texture, whilst donuts with coffee ice cream hit all the right spots. We leave the table happy and head outside for more wine.

The supreme pontiff of the trio offers to pay the bill and this drunk accepts, meaning I have no idea what the bill is. Craft is lovely, slowly taking things up a gear to the high level it now operates at. I’m a big fan of what they are doing; how the drinks are all British, how the focus is on affordable premium dining using the finest of seasonal ingredients. And I gather there may be a few twists in store for later on in the year. With prices starting at a little over £20 and with them utilising the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, now is the ideal time to check them out for yourself.

Pictures by Conrad because mine were awful.

You can’t drive after drinking this much so we take an A2B