Birmingham

Independent Birmingham Festival, 2019

I think this Independent Birmingham Festival was my favourite so far. It may have been the excellent company we kept, the stream of friends we bumped into continually throughout the day, or the fact that I was very tipsy by 1pm on the Saturday, but they really nailed it. Here is a super quick post on what we ate and drank at this celebration of the wonderful independents in this great city.

Buddha Belly. <

I’m mentioning this first because the sight of Momma Buddha Belly cooking with Sai melted this cold heart. A slightly different menu this time which we dived straight in to. The more familiar Southern Thai curry was ordered with salmon fish cakes and an outrageous beef noodle broth not dissimilar to a pho. Seriously classy Thai food. It’s impossible to not love Buddha Belly, even when I'm on strict instructions to not swear.

Baked in Brick.

Lee decided to spit roast an entire lamb for this event, which took me back almost twenty years to when we used to party together. We had a hybrid dish of the lamb meat with mac’n’cheese, salsa verde, crispy potatoes cooked in lamb fat, a Yorkshire pudding and gravy. The salsa verde was insane, as was the quality of the meat. Claire drank gravy from the Yorkshire pudding because that’s what Northeners do. Mental.

 18/81.

Because we have very good taste. Claire’s was a profanity laden one that tasted of pumpkin spice, I had the off-menu Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee. I lie. I had three of them. Because we have very good taste.

Loki.

A delicious fizzy pink wine which tasted of tip-tops. Drank two bottles so must have been good.

Zindiya.

You may be aware that I live very close to these guys. I may have had a Deliveroo from them the night before. Still never stopped me eating a chicken tikka kati roll and samosa chaat. Huge amounts of flavour in everything they do.

El Borracho de Oro. </

They had a very attractive looking paella on the go, though it wasn’t ready so we changed tactics and went with patatas bravas and ham croquettes. It was a good choice. Both were crazy good.

Original Patty Men.

I have mad love for the burgers from these gents. The one I had with chorizo was as good as burgers get.

Waylands Yard.

Eggy crumpets. Halloumi. Chilli sauce. Call the fire brigade; this is absolute flames.

There were also custard tarts from Salcooks, plenty of gin at Jekyl and Hyde, and cakes from Bake. There were dogs, more dogs, live music, the best in local businesses, and more dogs. I think that someone complimented me on my coat, but I was pissed by then so they could have been calling me something far less polite. Most of all it was full of Brummies celebrating the best of Brum; sticking two fingers up to anyone who says otherwise. I had the best weekend there. I can’t wait for the next one.

In keeping with the Best of Brum, A2B got us there and back.

Palmyra, Moseley

One of the things about this blog that I find tricky is how to address the decline in standards. I eat out three, maybe four times a week, frequently in the same places. I don’t write about all these meals because a) I can’t arsed, and b) it would be incredibly boring for you to hear about my 176th meal in a place that never changes its menu. It would be naive of me to think that any place keeps to the same level week-in-week-out for years on end, yet my words on a restaurant are merely a singular snapshot of one meal that I’ve had. This I’m extremely aware of. There are presently places – iconic places at that – in Birmingham city centre that I would avoid because I don’t think they are as good as they should be, and likewise there are a few which are marginally better than when I first went. It is a balancing act to know when to steam in on these places, when to praise them, or when to just leave them alone. It is a balancing act that I am yet to master, mostly because I am really shit at balancing. I can tell you that the last pizza we had at Otto was the best we’ve eaten from there, that Bonehead has hit a consistent stride just in time for the head chef to leave, and that my patience with Lewis’s has pretty much ran out.

Damascena is one of those places. It’s probably ill practice for me to mention the competition for a similar restaurant that I am about to rave about, but the truth is Damascena is not as good as it used to be. We used to eat from there once a week. Then once a fortnite. Now hardly ever. The standard has dropped, and I have no problem mentioning this because I wrote to them to tell them some time ago. They wrote back to say that the chef had left, that they had probably lost focus opening other stores, and that yes, they aren’t as good as they used to be. It was an answer that was refreshingly honest and infuriatingly blood boiling in equal parts.

But fear not, Dear Readers. Both of you. We have a new kid in town and hopefully this one won’t be tripe in two years time. Palmyra, I gather, comes from a previous employee of Damascena, and is located about 40m away from said establishment. It is absolutely-no-doubt-at-all better than the place over the road: the only questions are whether it is better than Damascena ever was, and if it is the best of its kind in the entire city, to which I say yes on both fronts. The decor is loud and boisterious, with more gold than a rappers mouth and the subtlety of a footballer’s wardrobe. I settle on the soft furnishings by the window and subsequently get told off for not ordering at the counter. I order a mezza for one and strike a deal to add meat to the hummus for an extra quid. I also add barrata harrah and a drink, taking my bill up to the heady heights of £17.09. Please keep that figure in mind.

From that mezza is a tahini heavy hummus, possibly a little overworked, topped with chicken shwarma that has crisp fat and delicate meat. It has a fattoush salad, sharp and spicy, with those addictive shards of pastry that add bite. There is a bowl of fuul with lingering heat, full of ripe tomato notes and thickened with blitzed up fava bean. It is topped with chopped tomatoes and plenty of fresh herbs, and I take pride in pressing the flat breads against the edge of the bowl and not leaving a scrap. That fuul is remarkable, as is the falafel which is the best I’ve eaten anywhere. The coating has been fried to a crisp, the inside soft and dissipating in the mouth. It is how I imagine falafel should tastes but never does. I plough through the two slices of salty halloumi, leaving the olives and salad to be boxed for later. Its a lot of food for what is normally (meat free) £9. It could easily feed two people. The barrata harrah is completely unnecessary but so good. A huge portion of spicy potatoes with flavours that refuse to sit still. Again, as good as I’ve eaten anywhere.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that I enjoyed Palmyra a lot, so much so that I attempt to personally thank the chef whilst paying. He doesn’t see me; he’s too busy dancing in the kitchen. It’s probably for the best. I’ve found somewhere that I love again: a little place down the road from me that serves the most incredible middle-eastern food full of vibrancy and flavour. I really hope that in two years time I’m not moaning about them too, though for now I’ll just take having them around.

9/10

Moseley a little tricky to get to? Let A2B do the hard work

The Mezz Restaurant, Primark, Birmingham

We have the world’s biggest Primark in Birmingham, but then you knew that already, right? It’s been all over the news, the indoor shopping centre that is now one big jumble sale complete with Disney section, hairdresser, nail bars, and oh, I give in. I don’t shop in Primark, mostly because I’m allergic to other people, but you won’t find me whining about the attention it’s getting or the space it’s occupying. I happen to think that any positive news is good for Birmingham. Primark supernova has created hundreds of jobs in this city, and many more further afield in sweatshops around the world. Those aren’t tears of sadness you see on Comic Relief, but happiness from a six year old who has just been given overtime on top of the seventeen hour shift they already work. And all to clothe the people of Birmingham in the latest high street fashion.

I joined the queue to go inside, past the waves of security guards and staff on walkie talkies, heading straight to the level underneath that houses the restaurant. It is, as you may expect, a relatively basic operation. On one end are sandwiches; the other end things cooked in the pizza oven. In the middle is a salad bar where you can mix and match from four unappealing options, half of which amount to a bowl of lettuce, and another of dying leaves. They may have misread the portion of the room with big ears and buck teeth.

That bowl of salad may be the worst thing I have ever eaten. On one side is a mush of chickpea, rice and wild rice bound in a vinegarette the consistency of phlegm. It is topped with what I am told is Parmesan but has the taste and texture of cheddar cheese. The other half of the bowl is a new combination even for this seasoned eater. Quinoa, sweet potato, marshmallows. Yes, you did read that correctly. It is Primark given the El Bulli treatment, if El Bulli was a blind, senile old man with no tastebuds and a penchant for abusing strangers in the street. The quinoa was sodden, possibly with the cooking water secreting from the sweet potato. The marshmallows made no sense what so ever. This is a death row meal, if only for making you wish you were dead after eating it.

The two hot dishes are straight out of the sweatshop concept of build them as cheaply as possibly and offer no apology for it destroying people’s lives. Chicken tikka nacho doms have acrid bits of (I’m guessing) chicken in a bowl with shredded cabbage, a mango chutney that tastes purely of reduced sugar, and a squirt of mint yogurt. The nacho bit of the name stems from the discs of recycled cardboard underneath, whilst I assume the ‘dom’ bit is a reference to the punishment inflicted in ordering it. A lamb sheesh flatbread has meat of the lowest quality hidden in a mass of garlic that I can smell leaving my skin even as I type this. The flatbread is nice, the roasted peppers missing in action, and a hot sauce rudimentary. My favourite part is the beetroot stained cauliflower rice underneath that has whole florets of raw cauliflower amongst the mess. A lovely lady stops by to ask how the man who has ordered too much food and is taking pictures is getting on. I tell her that I’m waiting for my girlfriend to finish in the changing rooms. It’s a half truth; she is trying on clothes, just in a far nicer place than here.

The hot dishes are £4.50 each and that salad is £3.50. They also do sweet things at far heftier mark-ups (donuts are £2 each), presumably more aggressively priced because that extra fabric in the larger dress sizes comes out of their profit margins. Like the clothing at Primark, the experience is cheap, and similarly it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth when you really consider it as a stand-alone product. I clear my own food away into the waste bins, staining the palm of my hand a bloody red from the beetroot juice that sat lazily on the plate. It is here I reach my conclusion: a shit cafe in the world’s biggest Primark is exactly the kind of misery that the First World deserves.

1/10

Be sensible and get an A2B to somewhere you can actually eat.

Herman Ze German, Grand Central, Birmingham

I’ll never forget the first time I went to Herman Ze German. I was in Soho, my favourite spot in London. Soho has a wonderful atmosphere; it’s the melting pot of the capital, the part that is always first to be okay about the things that might not be okay elsewhere. It is the square mile of joyfulness and diversity, where the arts walk gayly down the streets with one another. Nothing suprises me in Soho. It’s maybe why I thought that signage for Herman ze German was just another sex shop. From a distance that cartoonish image of a bratwurst with a handlebar moustache looks like an erect penis. Yes, you just read that correctly. Google it, but please try not to get turned on, it is a tasty sausage, though maybe not the one you hoped it would be. Anyway, I popped inside and popped a lovely bit of meat inside my mouth. Soho converted me.

I’m personally very happy that they have come to Birmingham. You know what you’re getting with Herman, it’s consistent and affordable. For under a tenner you’ll get some bratwurst and some bockwurst under a spritely curry sauce, some fries, and maybe a little extra depending on how much you’ve chosen to spend. That sausage has skin that snaps, having been steamed and then grilled (I’m guessing, they don’t like to disclose the cooking technique). The bratwurst has veal in amongst the pork and is more gentle in flavour compared to the brockwurst, which is all smokey porky goodness.  These are good sausages. The curry sauce starts off like a funky tomato ketchup before the paprika, vinegar, and chilli kicks in. It is a good curry sauce. The fries have bite and colour and are about as good as fries from a bag can be. Overall it is good work. Consistent good work in a part of Birmingham that needs something like this.

In another branded box is chicken schnitzel; crispy outside, moist chicken inside, just how it should be. It’s a very accurate bit of frying. We have it with more of those fries, this time with curry sauce, mayo, and crispy onions. Wash them down with a german lager, or one of the various flavours of Fritz’s soft drinks they offer. Herman is in town and we should be proud that this is his first outside of London. It’s only right you pay him a visit.

7/10

Is there a better combination in life than sausage and A2B Radio Cars? I’m not sure there is

Sunday Lunch at Baked in Brick, Digbeth

An admission: I don’t like Sunday roast dinners. As far as pointless meals go, it’s up there with the Full English breakfast, and don’t start me on that particular beast. The Sunday roast is a belt around the bicep, two slaps to the forearm, and needle into the vein shot of stoic patroism. It is a relentless onslaught of carbohydrates which only sleep can defeat. It is the dish that Brexit was built upon, the one that we still look at as ours in that typically resolute manner we are known for on these shores. You thinking I’m over-egging this, right? It’s okay, others do too.

Many refuse to listen to my sermon, but I have my reasons. I don’t like them because they are never done right. Honestly — ask yourself — when was the last time you were served a perfect Sunday lunch? It’s a myth: a fallacy. The tangibles are too big; it could be the roasties that go wrong, or the meat is overcooked, or the Yorkshire pudding is too dense, or the vegetables have been boiled to death, or the the vegetables haven’t been cooked enough. Much like my hairline, it is not quite all there. I’ve been dragged all over the country to experience this. Yes, they are the best roast potatoes I have ever tried, but the beef is like leather. And shouldn’t that cauliflower cheese taste of cheese? It goes wrong because all the best things happen in the oven, and each of those best things need different temperatures and times to cook. Some things need to be checked on constantly and others you can’t open the oven door. The Sunday Roast may take 3-4 hours on paper, but in reality it takes a lifetime.

When we go out for Sunday lunch I always try to find somewhere that can appease the both of us. If Claire wants a roast then great, but I would like to eat from the practised bit of the menu if I may, to see what the chef’s vision is instead of what he has been told he must cook on JC’s rest day. I had that intention when we booked in at Baked in Brick on Easter Sunday. I’d sit outside in the sun, underneath the burgeoning olive trees with a cold glass of wine in hand, eating pizza. But the menu was too good not to try out, and far too cheap at £20 for three courses. I could pretend that I was concerned about their prophet margins on this holy day, but I was sitting outside in the sun, underneath a burgeoning olive tree with a cold glass of wine in my hand, ordering suckling pig for lunch.

We take both starters, both of the available meats, and both desserts. We’d had one of the starters before; tomatoes and burrata in a bowl, into which a tomato essence the colour of blushed cheeks was poured. The dish was finished with a few dots of basil oil that immediately forms a relationship with the other liquid. The joys of spring in a bowl. The other starter is aubergine, roasted in the pizza oven until the flesh is spoonable and almost sweet, a pea hummus levelled out a little with ras el hanout, and scattered with the sweet and sour pops of pommegrante. It is balanced and refined; probably not the kind of dish you expect to see in somewhere that primarly markets itself for pizza. It should also be on the menu full time; this is the ideal lunch for one.

Drum roll please. Why does no one ever do a drum roll when I ask? Don’t these people know who I am? Drum roll. The roast is really good. The best I’ve eaten in Birmingham. Maybe not as good as the White Post, which I said was the best Sunday lunch I’ve ever eaten and subsequently went on to win that national title (and people say I know nothing), but not that far off. We cheekily ask for both the suckling pig and rib of beef which they are happy to do. The beef is rare, with that dark crust giving the Malliard reaction too often missing, whilst the suckling pig has that slight gelantinous quality to the meat from layers of fat protected by scorched skin. There is a tart apple puree, a jug of gravy that tastes of animal, and the ultimate in Yorkshire pudding. That pudding is an eruption of oil and batter, light and burnished; as good as a Yorkshire pudding gets. We request seconds. The vegetables on the side include roasted carrots, green beans, roasted mayan gold potatoes (a curious choice, but one that pays off), and monks beard. If I’m being hyper critical the monks beard would have been far nicer with the lamb, and the pedant in me likes to see green beans trimmed. But these are just small pickings. It was really rather good.

Desserts consist of a classic tiramasu and tarte tatin. The former is a generous portion of creamy things that happen to taste lovely, the latter a tiny amount of caramel away from being a very true rendition of a classic. I have a love affair with tarte tatins that goes back way further than this blog, and here it showed skill in getting a good cook on the apples and an ice cream full of honey flavour, if a little soft-set. The bill for all of this with two glasses of wine and a soft drink is £54. Way too cheap. With a second site already in place in Sheffield, rumour has it that Baked in Brick may also be looking for a more central location as a second site. More people with access to food of this quality can only be great for the city.

Regardless of the location A2B will get you there and back

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Before the inevitable accusations of me attacking a Birmingham institution start, let’s clear one thing up: I have a lot of love for The Old Joint Stock as a pub. It is the original of the Colmore Row options, the pub that backs on to the also brilliant The Wellington, long a part of Birmingham’s boozing scene before the polished concrete and bare bricks arrived. The grade II listed building is beautiful; the gold frills around the glass domed room sit high above a tiered space with the square bar central on the entry level. Designed originally as a library, it ended up being utilised as a bank before its final transition to a watering hole for the area’s solicitors, accountants, and bankers. It is a pub that defies trends. Upstairs is the hundred-odd seater studio theatre where smaller productions get a chance to shine. That theatre is the reason why we are in the building, and the production itself is excellent. There are many things to admire about The Old Joint Stock. The food is not one of those.

The menu is mostly a list of beige items, both as a colour reference and metaphor. Beige pies, batters, carbohydrates, buns and breads. We try four dishes that are servicable and instantly forgettable. The best of these is the chicken madras pie, which is a perfectly acceptable curried chicken pie with no heat whatsoever. It is madras for the generation who have been going to the same curry house for the last three decades. It has no adventure, no understanding of spice. It is, however, a well made pie and one that gets finished. The chips it comes with are miserable flaccid things. The greying overcooked veg even worse. Claire has some chicken and salad thing. The chicken is well cooked and the veg have retained some of their intregrity. I’d love to tell you more about her dish, but honestly neither of us can remember.

Desserts are classic pub chain teritory. The apple crumble is the pick of the two; a little overcooked but sweet and crumbly and tasting of apple. Lets not mention the custard that has started to coagulate on the hot plate. The other dessert is treacle tart in notion. It is a sweet blast of nothingness, the most boring thing I’ve had to endure since The Reverant. I can’t be arsed to say anything else on it other than the raspberries were nice.

Service is polite, if achingly slow and the bill isn’t much. It’s worth pointing out that we’re perhaps not the target audience given that we are the youngest on the surrounding tables by several decades. The food is simplistic, the pies adequate, the rest of the menu dreary. Go drink in the bar of The Old Joint Stock because its lovely, and support the future stars of the stage in their wonderful theatre. But get dinner elsewhere. There are so many better options to be had.

5/10

Have a gin or twelve, then let A2B get you home

@pizza, Birmingham

The marketing department of @pizza have a lot to answer for.

“Hey guys, we have this great concept for pizzas that sees them treated like burritos and cooked on one of those archaic bread conveyor belts you find in cheap continental hotels. What do we call it?”

“I’ve got it. Lets forgo the use of the English language and catchy names for a symbol that precedes all Twitter and Instagram accounts. THE KIDS WILL LOVE IT. Lets use the ‘at’ symbol. Lets call it ‘@pizza'”.

“Excellent. Has anyone checked that the Twitter and Instagram for ‘@pizza’ is available? Or what the search results on Google are like?”

“Yeah, erm, it is literally impossible to find using that. But it’s okay because the kids will know to search ‘@atpizza'”

“Doesn’t that defeat the point in trying to sound young and trendy?”

“We don’t need this negativity here. You’re fired”

Maybe I’m just too old for it. Maybe I’ve given up on the idea of being relevant again, knowing full well that only the saddest of bastards take to posting song lyrics on Twitter. Maybe there is a great idea in here somewhere that I can’t see and it will go on to be a roaring success. But it’s not for me. I just want to be fed well, not spun through an exercise in style over substance. Not sat in a glossy room and talked through a concept that involves standing back up to queue and list off what I want on my cardboard, before waiting for it to cook and be garnished so that I can pay for it and take it back to the table.

It’s flawed. The choice of cheeses would have been easier had I not been looking at them. Do I want the cubed cheap stuff, or the grated cheap stuff? How you spoil me. Yes, I would love peppers, but no, not that bit that should be in the bin. And the meats?! It’s like being transported back to Subway, only these look even drier. I want to ask if the spicy sausage is made of sawdust, but the staff are so lovely I’m concerned they’ll disappear out the back to show me what brand of sawdust is being used.

Those staff are well trained. Every element is carefully measured and portioned so that all eight squares have the same toppings, layered in the same order. By the time it comes out of the industrial toaster it looks alright.

The eating is entirely different. This is late night kebab shop pizza tarted up for the train station commuters. The base is thin and presumably made from pulped wood chips and tears, the tomato base tasteless, the cheese claggy. The fundamentals are fucked. We order listed pizzas instead of making our own. The meat one is meaty; the spicy one spicy. That’s about as much as I can remember.

The bill is not much. Pizzas are a tenner each, two bottles of beers just under a fiver apiece. This is the only saving grace. Ten pound doesn’t buy you much in town, and keeping the prices low is key when attracting the one-visit-passing-through-trade of Grand Central. But it’s rubbish. On paper @pizza might have seemed a good idea. The reality proves that to be far from the truth.

3/10

There are good choices you can make. A2B Radio Cars are one of those.

T.A.P, 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

In the general shithousery that is my life, I have overlooked 1000 Trades too much of late. It is without question one of my favourite places in the city; a laid-back, quietly confident slice of happiness with a killer wine, beer, and spirit offering. You get the feeling that very little bad could happen within these walls. Since they opened a few years back they’ve kept food on rotation from the narrow kitchen in the back. We’ve seen more established restaurants set up, and less established names doing their own thing. We’ve had great meals and a couple that’ve just missed the mark. They’ve shouted out important issues like zero waste with wonderfully curated events, and thrown a few parties that I may have behaved poorly at.

The latest of these resident kitchens is T.A.P, short for Twisted American Pancakes. At first I was sceptical; savoury pancakes could be a disaster of misjudged stodge in the wrong hands. I was wrong. This is the best food to leave the kitchen here in some time. It’s big and wholesome, packed with a serious amount of flavour. It represents value and is the ideal partner to a crisp pint of the good stuff. We order two of the pancakes, one with beef shortrib, the other fried chicken. The shortrib is a hefty portion of pulled meat under a mound of fried onion, salsa, and chipotle sauce, with the pancake a vehicle for a serious amount of sweetcorn. It quickly disappears. The other pancake is studded with squash, with fried chicken, pickled chilli and one of those neon yellow american cheese sauces that I haven’t yet learned to resist. The chicken is posh KFC; moist bird within a spice mixture the colonel would be proud of, even if the flour could have done with a touch more salt. They had fried chicken at the last residency here. This is better.

Don’t think about leaving without ordering the crab cakes. Six quid buys you five balls of deep fried crustacean, bound with a little mashed potato for substance. Eat them quick though, as the idea of sitting them in the tomato sauce means they quickly develop a soggy arse. Triple cooked chips are dubious in description, though are fat fingered chunks of fluffy potato that have enough snap about them. We take ours with more of that American cheese sauce and fresh chilli. Do this; it’s the perfect kind of filth.

Portions are big and flavour is there in huge quantities. Is it pretty? No, and nor does it have a great deal of clarity. There is a lot going on for not a lot of money and this is perfectly fine with me. What matters is that it tastes as good as it can, and how the food fits in with it’s surrounding. The concept of pancakes really isn’t that weird when you consider the same ingredients could be used to make a Yorkshire pudding with the beef, or waffle with the chicken. It’s bold and unpretentious. I liked it a lot. 1000 Trades are back on form and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

8/10

Transport provided by those legends at A2B Radio Cars

Legna, Birmingham, Spring 2019

I went to a pasta masterclass recently. We were downstairs in a tightly packed space, drinking prosecco and rolling out the dough in what was mostly a very enjoyable evening. We made tagliatelle, tortellini, and gnocchi, handing over our work to be served back to us at the tables upstairs. The end product wasn’t great: the pasta was uneven in thickness, cut to strips too wide or not wide enough. The gnocchi were mostly dense balls of boiled flour. Not even the sauces that had been bubbling away all evening could save them. We took to fishing for pieces of Claire’s perfectly shaped tortellini, whilst leaving the rest of the pasta and filling up on ragu and wine. I have Italian blood; its ferocious temper, over-confidence, and insatiable appetite coursing through my veins. I am also a very competent chef for someone who has never done it professionally, yet I was as much to blame as the majority of the room. My pasta just wasn’t good enough. Getting Italian food correct is really difficult.

I have tremendous respect for anyone who does understand it. To anyone who gets the principles of simplicity which dictate Italian cuisine I will doth my cap, curtsey, bow, shake hands, rub noses, wag dicks, kiss both cheeks, or hug. I don’t care whether you’re Italian or not, what your background is, your mother’s maiden name, religion, sexuality, what you identify as, or your views on Brexit. Actually I do want to know how you voted on Brexit; you may have a lot of explaining to do.

Aktar Islam gets Italian food, but why wouldn’t he? So what if his name isn’t Carlo Del Puttanesca, or that he doesn’t wear a crucifix around his neck and have sexual fantasies about his mother. So what if he was born in Aston and not Anconna. You think this man can only cook food of the sub continent? You’re a fucking idiot, but please go watch his Queen of Puddings on Great British Menu before responding in the comments section. It amounts to nothing more than racist assumptions of someone based on a name, accent, or country of descent. A conversation I had this morning with the Polish bus driver, incidentally the same man who scaffolded my house. This is a joke. I would never get the bus.

So, anyway, Legna. New menu time for a restaurant three or four months old that I happen to have a lot of love for. I’ve been a few times now; not everything is perfect yet, though it goes from strength-to-strength in my eyes, turning out the kind of smart Italian food that this kind and smart part-Italian bastard likes to eat. It’s a generous restaurant; you’ll have nibbles to kick-off, and there’ll be breads served with a basil butter (boom! boom!) and oils and balsamic vinegar of real quality. If you’re anything like me you’ll order four courses and start with either the flatbread with blobs of hard cheese emulsion, truffle and confit garlic or the prawns. The latter are flashed through the pizza oven so that the shells blacken. Rip off the head, drink juice, take body meat and apply to toasted bread with that garlicky tomato sauce. Simple.

From pasta I would always take the ragu with parpadelle, which you can read about my thoughts on here. I order it because it’s one of my favourite dishes in the city; that meeting point of tradition and modern technique, where everything aligns and you end up in a heap on the floor crying because life will never be this good again. Or maybe that is just me. Having tried the ravioli with potato and egg yolk, I still think I’ll be sticking to the ragu. Given that my only reference point for this dish was at Royal Hospital Road when Clare Smyth cooked there, perhaps I am being too judgemental. All the components were there but the acidity was a fraction too high, knocking the rich elements out of sync. The ragu returns in the calzone, which is the ideal home for it, with stringy mozzarella and piquant roquito peppers. The blistered dough conceals a hefty portion for not a lot of money. I take half home for lunch the following day. The pick of the new dishes is the roasted chicken with asparagus risotto. The chicken is cooked so accurately I refuse to accept that it hasn’t come out of a sous-vide, whilst the risotto has been cooked to a precise bite. The star though is the jus de roti that sits around the peripheral of the bowl. This is a classic touch not seen often enough; with the dark cooking juices adding a nice contrast to the fresh risotto sharpened with a little lemon. I’ll be eating this a lot over the summer.

There will be a pre-dessert, which, if you’re lucky will be the banana ice cream and chocolate mousse we had. To finish I’ll help you out; order the tiramisu. Maybe twice. Boozy, rich, and indulgement. It remains untouched because thats the way it should be. Indulge in the entirely Italian wine list that won’t break the bank before finishing off with a negroni at the bar. Enjoy yourself. It’s what restaurants like this are designed for.

On a Friday night when I was dining alone at the bar I witnessed an elderly couple verbally castrate Aktar, threatening the dreaded One Star TripAdvisor review for serving his ragu with pappardelle and not spaghetti. Do not be these gammon, especially if this is your level of knowledge of other culture’s food. After the rage settled, I thought long and hard about this: this is what restaurants have to contend with now, the fear of someone publically attacking them for them for their own lack of knowledge or inconvenience. We’ve become a nation of critics and that makes this wannabe critic not want to critique anywhere. I’m serious: It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. In the meantime Birmingham continues to churn out brilliant restaurants, with nobody pushing to improve a little corner of this city quite like Aktar Islam. To those with the closed minds and preconceptions he happens to own the best Indian restaurant in the country. To the rest of you, he also has Legna serving up playful Italian cooking in the most beautiful of dining rooms just a few steps away.

A2B got us from A to B

The Oyster Club, Birmingham

The issue of price is unavoidable when discussing The Oyster Club. On paper they have pitched themselves alongside the big-hitting fish-centric restaurants of London, charging the sort of prices you would find at J Sheekey, or Bentley’s. Looking down the menu the eye immediately takes you to the crab on toast small plate at £18.50, or the asparagus, chorizo, and poached egg larger plate at £19.50. Battered halibut with tartare sauce and minted peas is £24.00, with the additional dozen chips at £4.50 – add your 10% service charge and that fish and chip supper weighs in at a hefty £31.35. It’s ambitious, and it has to be faultless for this kind of money. The precision that Adam Stokes has become renowned for at the one Michelin star Adam’s must be transferable to this, his shiny new casual, fish-focused restaurant next to The Ivy. If it doesn’t, the first thing that people will be moaning about is the price.

Now if you are the kind of person who considers value when going out for dinner, you have it from me that you have nothing to worry about. Yes, it is going to leave a dent in your wallet, but that money will buy you some very fine produce prepared expertly in the sleekest and most elegant of dining rooms. Take the room itself; a rectangular space of marble tops, offset with light greys, soft blues, and pastel pinks. The best seats in the house happen to be those that cant be reserved; the baby blue leather high-chairs that weave around the bar to the oyster section. Being the first booking on the first official night of opening, we are sat adjacent to this, on the area overlooking the dining section below. It is from our table we can watch them shucking oysters that we don’t order, and pouring wine, which I absolutely do. I’ll start the night with a white from Dorset, move on to an albarino, a picpoul, and finish with a Mersault. Those wines are priced between £6-18 per glass. They are very nice wines.

I order the crab and all thought of the end bill dissapears. The crab is of fantastic quality; the white meat bound loosely in mayonaise, with apple and broken shards of crisp chicken skin. My initial misconception of it being small in size is proven wrong when I run out toast and find myself scraping the plate for the last of it. It is simplicity personified; a few simple ingredients treated with the respect they deserve. I’ll be eating this a lot. The same applies to the octopus and chorizo salad with sauce vierge that Claire says is the best octopus she’s ever eaten. She’s not wrong. Only the scallops dont feel like value at £6.50 each for not the plumpest of specimens, though its impossible to fault the cooking of them, or the sensible addition of crispy bacon and samphire. If the flavours seem traditional it’s because they are. It works that way.

For mains Claire has cod, beautifully cooked to a pearlescent centre, with fennel, charred hispi cabbage, and a crab sauce that she thinks was a touch too sweet but I really enjoyed. I can’t resist the fish and chips I mentioned before, and neither should you. The batter around the halibut is a sturdy thing that cracks on impact and lets out a little of the steam that has cooked the fish from within its coating. Little crushed peas are mixed with some unscathed for texture and have just enough mint, whilst the tartare is bright and loaded with both caper and gherkins. Those chips! Who would know that twelve chips stacked like Jenga pieces could be so divisive. They snap and crunch, with light fluffy spud inside. Only twice can I recall eating better chips; both of which were at 2* restaurants. A side of broccoli is ordered and eaten before I have a chance to try them. I can only assume they are good.

Now desserts. On the night we are there they are priced at £12.50 – a figure I pointed out on Twitter I thought was steep – though now the website tells me they have been reduced to between £7.50 and £10. I don’t know why they have been cut in price, though it’s a positive move in my eyes that shows they are firmly on the ball in these very early stages. The fact is that the old price put them in the same bracket as The Cross in Kenilworth and, ahem, The Hand & Flowers. They are not up to those standards, but they are very good, and now correctly priced. A raspberry and lemon pavlova is a classy bit of pastry work, with textbook meringue holding lemon curd, raspberry jam, a raspberry sorbet I recognise from Adams, and fresh fruit. The other dessert of baked apple with frangipane sponge and vanilla ice cream is arguably even better. The apple has a tatin-like quality to it that we can’t get enough of. Those two desserts will now cost you a total of £17.50 and are worth every penny. I should have eaten here a day later.

Now the total bill, which is a fair whack for a Monday dinner. It’s well over £150, though to put it into perspective it is well under half the price I last paid at Adams, and it appears they use the same suppliers and have transferred many of the staff. And I guess that’s my point: a dinner like this shouldn’t be cheap. We pay top money for top steak without batting an eyelid, so why is it we expect quality fish to be more affordable? What ultimately makes up the end price is the raw cost of ingredient, the skill of the team serving it and then the mark-up. When all of this is taken into account the final bill seems quite fair. Can I see us ordering a total of nine dishes any time soon? Probably not. But for a glass of wine and the crab at lunch, or for the fish and chips with a bottle of wine mid-week, I can see us doing it far too often for my bank accounts liking. The Oyster Club is the kind of place we’ve been saying that Birmingham needs for years. Now that it’s here I’m already a massive fan.

9/10

You know who else I’m a massive fan of? Those wonderful people at A2B