Birmingham

Pub du Vin, Birmingham

I should probably start this by saying that I quite like Hotel du Vin, the hotel which sits above today’s subject matter, Pub du Vin. It has a nice bar that makes a servicable negroni with a great team of staff who are knowledgable and well trained. They have great wines – just as well given the name – and do interesting wine dinners, of which I’ve attended a few. The food is decent; not as refined as it believes it is, but certainly a place that rarely disappoints. All of which makes the following about Pub du Vin more baffling.

The ‘pub’ sits within the basement area, a dark and cavernous space where no light enters and no attempt at lighting from the inside is made. They show sports and have a dartboard where the board is barely visible at any point of the day. Tables are heavy wood, the floor stone; all set around the bar in the centre of the room. You order at the bar, find a table and wait. And wait.

Food eventually arrives from the upstairs kitchen. At least we are told this is our food; we can barely see it, nevermind photograph the thing. Maybe this removal of one of the senses goes some way to explaining the lack of flavour. It’s as bland as an episode of Love Island. The chicken burger achieves neither of the spicy and crispy description, reaching the table a soggy, disappointing mess. If the guacamole is there it tastes of nothing, and even the cheese looks sad; curled over like it’s grieving for me. If darkness is a deciding factor for your meals the chicken burger at Bonehead is 50p cheaper, with equally bad lighting, and is exponentially better. Just saying.

Claire has a fish finger sandwich that reeks of old cooking oil, with a batter coating a concoction of the cheapest white fish known to man. I’d guess at coley, but it could easily be catfish hidden inside the dense crumb. The bread barely holds it together, the mushy peas desperately low on salt. She finishes half. With these we share chilli con carne fries that start well and then, no, sorry, we can’t eat them.

The bill for this is nothing because there is an issue with the fries that brings our meal to a sudden halt. I won’t go into specifics because the team are excellent and refund it without question, but this is the saving grace of the meal. The front of house are some of the best in the city, I just feel for them having to work with this. The food at Pub du Vin is instantly forgettable, which, given it comes from the same kitchen as upstairs, makes it all the more unforgivable.

4/10

Transport by A2B. They won’t leave you in the dark.

Pulperia, Birmingham.

This post finds you from somewhere over the Alps, on RyanAir’s flight from Pisa to Hell. There are drunk Brits (I may be one of them) who have little regard for pandemics, and Italians in masks who don’t know whether to fear the British or Coronavirus more. Two rows in front a slurring man with red wine stains around his mouth made the rear of the plane aware that he was a medic. Behind me a posh lady is scolding her partner for their poor choice of rental vehicle. Despite this, we’ve had a lovely trip, drinking lots of great Tuscan wines and eating far too well. If you are reading this as one of the many people who offered suggestions as to the best steakhouses Florence offers, then thank you for the suggestions but they were dutifully ignored. I find steak boring. There, I’ve said it.

Part of the problem I have with them is how badly they are generally cooked. I cook a serviceable one at home, but my modest cooker struggles to get up to the temperature required and imparts none of the smoke that the best steaks have lingering in the background. The ones in Birmingham, well, let’s say they mostly disappoint. Go find the street food vender Beef On The Block if you want a good bavette, but those within bricks and mortar never hit the mark consistently. Whilst the rest of the country have Goodman’s and Hawksmoor, we have three branches of Miller and Carter. Enough said.

Praise be to Aktar Islam for changing that. He is a man of detail – anyone who has eaten in Opheem will know that – so I had an inkling Pulperia was going to be good. It’s better than good: it’s the steakhouse the city deserves; one which is notionally set in Argentina yet finds itself orienteering around the world to wherever the best produce is. It’s on these menus, amongst the wet aged beef from Argentina, you find rare breeds and dairy cattle whose life has been more than purely raised for meat. All in a dining room which is unmistakably Aktar; that juxtaposition between the masculine heavy textures and the feminine floral displays. The room is as good as Brindley Place has ever seen.

We begin with three starters; chorizo has a gentle smokiness reminiscent of gammon with tomatoes that are far too tasty to be British, all dressed up to the nines in a herby and garlicky chimicurri. Soft sweetbreads kissed with char from the grill so a delicate touch can still be applied over flames. These come with chicory and a burnt lime chimichurri that is bold and smokey whilst still retaining the soul of the condiment. The empanadas – those Argentinian pasties – are good, with the spicy beef better than the chicken. They each need a little more filling inside them, though the romanesco style red pepper dip proves great to dunk the excess pastry in.

Those steaks. Let me tell you about those steaks. In the effort of transparency, we don’t get the steak we order, with the kitchen sending out large two pieces of Holstein Fresian – a rare breed dairy cow aged up to 18 years and listed here under the title of ‘basque cider house’ steak. A kilo prime rib here (for two, unless you’re my girlfriend) will cost you £85 and is worth every penny; delivering a depth of flavour unlike any we are used to, full of umami and beefiness. It’s the ultimate in beef, up there with Bar Nestor though without the terroir, cooked over high heat until the Malliard reaction kicks in and then rested until the juices disperse inside the ruby red interior. It doesn’t need the bone marrow and Malbec sauce, but that sauce is so very rich and so very good. With this we have fries and carrots roasted with chicken butter and the best version of humita I’ve ever tried. Seriously, creamed sweetcorn is the best friend of steak. You heard it here first.

We share a serviceable chocolate fondant for dessert, along with two bottles of Malbec, a couple of cocktails, and finish by making two more bookings to come back. Those looking for a cheap steak should book elsewhere; Pulperia is a celebration of the cow, not a trip to Beefeater. Those on a budget should aim for the Argentinian experience; a fillet with fried egg, Malbec sauce and that humita will come in a touch over £30. But why should you when you can experience some of the best beef in the world? We’ve waited a very long time for Birmingham to have a steakhouse of this quality. It’s time for you to enjoy it.

9/10

We visited during a soft launch and received a discounted bill.

Steak this good needs the best in travel. Time for to take A2B

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

Couch, Stirchley

I was sat at the bar of Couch a couple of Saturdays back when a very nice man called Paul came over to say hello. Aside from making my night with some very kind words, he mentioned that he thought there would be a chance he would see me here: an indictment of my alcohol issues if there ever was one. Later, after posting a photo on social media, another friend asked if I’d secured living accommodation within the bar. Have I really become synonymous with a cocktail bar not even three months old? I hope so.

After spending the first five consective nights sat at MY stool (and it is mine) at the bar, Claire’s birthday eve, Claire’s birthday, Christmas Eve, New Years Eve, and countless other lost evenings, I can confidently say that Couch is up there with the very best cocktail bars I have ever been to. Maybe the best. And that has very little to do with me knowing the team here, which I do, and a lot to do with facts. And also that they have negroni on tap.

So, Your Honor, first bout of evidence in the case of Couch Being Greatest Cocktail Bar In The World is a simple one. It’s the drinks. Presently based on a music theme, each of the cocktails takes inspiration from a track that then weaves an element of that song back into it. Take ‘English Man in New York’, a 1987 hit by tantric testicled twat, Sting. It’s a Manhattan made with English ingredients; mead, Cotswolds single malt whisky, and meadowsweet honey. Clever right? I know. Just wait to you find a free afternoon to ask Jacob about the idea behind ‘Pennyroyal Tea’. And there is ‘The Gambler’, a whisky-based drink which is the best drink I’ve ever tried. Seriously. I’d have this straight into my veins if syringes weren’t frowned upon in public. I may have also tried a drink going onto the next menu (film based this time) that tastes like a salted banana split doused in rum which may be even better. So basically Nobody Does It Better, a drink that should have been on this menu were they all not so sickeningly humble.

Next up is the thing that separates Couch from the other great cocktails that we have in Brum: it’s the vibe, or ambience if you are one of the many readers of this blog over the age of fifty (don’t die! I need you!). For those familar with the second city, think Shoreditch, specifically a bastardisation of Happiness Forgets, Satan’s Whiskers, and Coupette. For those who have never heard of London, which is fine and perfectly understandable, think cool, relaxed, and comforting, with a playlist that starts with soulful rock and ends with a bar sing-a-long of Rocket Man, or any number of tracks by Queen. It helps that it’s small – about twenty seats inside – and it helps that most of those seats are around the bar. It helps that it’s beautifully designed in dark greens and comfy stools, but it helps more that the people behind the bar are the best in Birmingham at making people feel welcome.

I’ve toyed with this piece for a while. Started it. Stopped it. Started it again. It’s what happens when you’re friends with the team involved, even if the team in question have made it abundently clear that they prefer my girlfriend’s company to mine. But if this blog really exists to shine a light on the best of Birmingham then Couch has to be featured. It’s a neighbourhood bar with serious drinks that isn’t afraid to take the piss out itself. In my eyes that makes it perfect. Go, sit at the bar, and try it for yourself, but don’t you dare choose the stool third from the right. It’s mine and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

Don’t drink and drive, take an A2B and make a night of it

Vietnamese Street Kitchen, Resorts World

I write this on a bitterly cold Monday morning which, if the media are to be believed, is the most depressing of the year. How very depressing of them to inform us of this. I was in a good mood until about twenty minutes ago; I’d put a suit on for an important day with the real job, eaten a very small breakfast, and headed into the office. En route I had a flick through my phone. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. It was the latter which did it. A thread came up with people discussing ‘personal brands’, which I believe to explain the personal accounts of those not subjected to enough attention as a child. Is there a more repellent term? It implies the content is manufactured; a contorted marketing ploy to appear more woke, more gammon, more gay, more straight, more left, more right to appeal to a certain group of followers (another term which riles me. Twitter is not a cult, despite what some would have you believe). Remember the episode of Black Mirror where the women on the way to the wedding collects scores based on how strangers perceive her? Social media is doing that to us. We are losing the human. It’s all smoke and mirrors. An abyss of cancel culture, led by those working on their personal brands during the day and plotting the downfall of the popular kids who bullied them at senior school during the night. And then there is those who think that their face need to be in every picture, every Instagram story. Don’t start me on those. It’s those wankers that are killing the planet.

On the flip of this is Oliver. You don’t know who Oliver is, but suffice to say he is a personal brand I can get behind, and he is so unassuming, so quietly driven, that he has no idea what personal brand means. Right now Oliver is Vietnamese Street Kitchen, both branches; the one in Brindley Place and this, a shiny new one in Resorts World. He slingshots to our table from another to say hi, telling us how he’s been up since well before dawn to prep the dough for the bao, get over to Brindley, then here. He takes our drinks order, brings our drinks, takes the food order and then disappears to help cook the food. This is not a joke. Oliver is now in the kitchen.

I should point out that we are not left alone; there are other staff here and they do a fine job of keeping the beer on steady rotation. When the food does arrive it comes in waves, mostly hand-delivered by yes, you’ve guessed it. And it’s mostly very good. Earnest cooking from the heart, which is all I ever want but seldom see. Lightly cooked prawns have it all on show in the see-through PVC mac that is the summer roll, whilst chicken wings have been taken for a roll in thick sauce that starts hot with chilli and ends with the sweetness of palm sugar. Both of these starters are very nice, as were the fried dumplings stuffed with a dice of vegetables that come alive when dredged through a soy based sauce under a canopy of herbs. Three of these snacks for fifteen quid is tremendous value. If you’re reading this Oliver, charge more. Though I doubt he is; he’s probably brewing the beer, or catching the fish for tonight’s service.

I’ll address the pho here and then finish on a high point. I don’t like it. The beef has that boiled texture of being taken to a temperature too high, whilst the stock is too light on flavour for my liking. I tell Oliver this and in his defence he makes a very valid arguement involving the regional varities of Pho and staying true to his family’s style. What I do like are strips of pork belly that manage that perfect point of crispy skin and soft interior, and even more than that the beef curry so fragrant with lemongrass. The meat falls off the bone, the sauce just thick enough to hold on to edges of the rice. It’s glorious.

As touched on, prices are super fair with any sensible couple getting away with less than £25 a head. We are not sensible. I liked it here. I like what they are doing and I like how they are going about it. It’s no secret that neither sites have been particularly kind to independents, so it’s a big gamble to go from Brindley Place to a second site in Resorts World within a year of opening. But I think they’ll be fine. The owner is a superstar who bleeds hospitality; exactly the type of personal brand the world needs. Should you see Oliver please say hi and tell him I’ll be back real soon.

8/10

We took an A2B because we only ever take A2B

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.

OKO at Nuvo Bar, Brindley Place

If part of my role as blogger de rigueur is to make you, Dear Readers, aware of places you may not have known existed, then I think that I’ve cracked it. The subject matter for the post is a restaurant that I fell upon by coincidence, in a building that I know very well, but for all reasons which are not food. It takes a special kind of person to know Nuvo. Those who do generally either work in Brindley Place or are the kind who enjoy sportswear as outerwear, bottle table packages, and dancing to Fat Man Scoop. All of this is fine; I was once that person. My mate used to regularly DJ there when my body was sculpted enough to wear a cardigan with nothing underneath and my jeans deliberately showed off those fresh Calvin Klein y-fronts. I’m sorry if you’re reading this whilst eating. Or planning on eating. Or have eaten at some point today. But it’s the truth. I even worked for RBS at the time in Brindley Place. I was Nuvo personified.

I thought it had gone in all honesty. Lost to the same oceans that swept away 52 Degrees North and Poppy Red and Mechu. But no, it’s still there, and they even do food now. I know this because I went to get dinner nearby and when that was closed went into Nuvo. I’m inquisitive like that. It hasn’t changed.

The food is Japanese, a sushi heavy trip around the more familar dishes of the Far East. There are edamame beans in a perky chilli and garlic mush that required the right amount of pressure to drag from the surface whilst popping the innards into the mouth. There are very good gyozas and less good fried squid that lacks seasoning and is on the chewy side.

Tempura vegetables are greaseless and still crunchy, which is an achievement that eludes some other versions in Birmingham. These are good, which is more than be said for duck filled rolls that are greasy and a little bit unpleasant. The inconsistencies by this point are noticable.

The sushi comes on elaborate platters complete with plumes of dry ice. I imagine that this goes down a storm in a throbbing club, but here, with only around eight people in the room, it feels a little cheap. The sushi is okay; sure the rice is not at body temperature, nor has it been properly seasoned with vinegar, but the cutting of the fish shows solid technique and the quality of the produce is high. Dragon rolls, salmon nigiri, little mounds of rice with spliced tempura prawns. It’s not groundbreaking but it is more than acceptable, which will do for this part of town.

All of this leaves me split on my opinion: there was good and bad, and I imagine that if you went to the right places you could find the good things done a lot better. But for all of this, I liked it, at least I think I did. Service is brilliant, the sake menu is extensive and kindly marked-up, and the food won’t break the bank. Order right and you’ll do okay here. I’m personally just not sure I’d want to do so when it’s a heaving club, memories or otherwise.

6/10

You know who you won’t find in da club? A2B

Craft Dining Rooms, December 2019

It’s all change at Craft Dining Rooms. The end of 2019 saw them appoint Andrew Sheridan of Great British Menu fame as Exec Chef, a move probably in line with Aktar Islam adding the restaurant to his portfolio as Chef Director. Even now, as this post goes live, the final touches are being added to their English garden; a series of pods which line the canal from the opposing side of Brindley Place. The restaurant too is having a once-over; the large bar area is being halved with some of the kitchen being moved out to that space, a new PDR is going in, the mustard pillars are gone with flowers and softer lighting coming in.

I know all of this because the owner of Craft tells me so over a gin and tonic whilst my friends turn up for our lunch date. It’s the last Friday before Christmas, it’s pissing down to Biblical proportions and Birmingham’s roads are besieged with various closures. It’s the perfect storm for delays and I’m drenched to the core. By the time the last of our trio rolls in some 45 minutes after our booking I am soaked in more ways than one. Thanks Sam for the gins, I needed them.

The food is now taking a tighter line, more in keeping with the ideals set when they first opened. It’s highly seasonal, not only using the larder of the UK but an easier style of cooking. The bread rolls are still as good as you’re likely to see in the city, but now you have the choice of a more conventional butter and another heavily flavoured with Marmite. The latter divides the table like – well – I can’t think of an ingredient which is as divisive. A fat scallop has been pan fried on one side to a burnished crust, in one of those buttery sauces that has you chasing the last of it with your finger. So far so very good.

We get unctous pig cheeks with potato puree, squash puree, and batons of pickled squash and apple. It’s a miniature take on something far more substantial; wholesome and perfect for the wintery conditions outside the large panes of glass, it has just enough acidity to cut through it. Then cod in a bubble bath of crab bisque, all delicate and warming. Simple and understated, it lets the produce speak for itself.

I can’t remember eating a piece of venison as well cooked as that on the main course, the meat not overly gamey and robustly seasoned. The pairing of blackberries and beetroots an obvious one, given little touches like the addition of rhubarb to the beetroot puree. It’s not perfect; the disc of beetroot is undercooked, and the overall feel of the dish is a little high in acidity, but all of this is forgotten because they have a rectangle of compressed potato slices that have been deep fried to golden on the side.

I happen to be a big fan of the pastry chef, a man who answers to the name of Howing. Dessert on this occasion was a white chocolate orange; a frozen shell depicting peel which contains a caramelised white chocolate mousse, macerated orange, and blood orange. This is on a crumb of salted dark chocolate which had maybe a little too much salt. It’s cold, it’s rich, it’s complex. And I really hope I’ve taken the notes correctly for this because by now we’ve drank a fair amount of wine and are making plans to carry on throughout the afternoon.

I don’t know how much this came to because a friend was picking up the bill, though I can tell you that as before the English wines, in particular an orange wine from Litmus, were delicious. Speaking to Andrew Sheridan afterwards I got the feel for his vision of what Craft should be; a full on celebration of the seasons of the UK, laid out simply and without compromise. I have a lot of time for that. Just two weeks into his appointment we got a sense of that and it really delivered. The future is a bright one for Craft.

As ever, A2B got me from A to B.

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

Indico Street Kitchen, Birmingham

Seconds after walking through the doors of the latest branch of Indico Street Kitchen I am greeted by the General Manager

“Hello Simon”

“Hello, have we met?”

“No, we have a picture of you out back. We thought you might be paying us a visit”.

WHAT. (this word never looks correct in capitals).

It’s a bizarre admission and one that immediately puts me on the backfoot. If it is true, what is the purpose of telling me? To knock me off guard, perhaps, or to let me know that they know why I am here? Have they done it so that I am hesitant to write anything negative, given that they know my face and name, because that is never going to work. Sure I’ve been to Indico in Shirley, but as far as I can recall I’ve not met this chap. And anyway that was under totally different circumstance, one which was back when I went under a PR invite, whereas this involves a table for one straight after work, along with a bill of £33 for my dinner. I’m introduced to the entire team and taken to the table. Would I like papadum? Of course, and lovely they are too. Would I also like some Far Far? Actually given how this secret visit has panned out, I’d like to be far far away from here, please. Whilst the papad’s (or poppadum; same thing) are worth the £3 I wouldn’t bother with the multicoloured far far which taste of nothing other than cooking oil. I barely touch them. They appear on the bill at £2.45.

The menu is huge. In my eyes too big, though possibly perfectly pitched at the type of person who would be eating after a day shopping within The Mailbox, where Indico now replaces the truly awful Gourmet Burger Kitchen. And before I move on to my opinion on the food, it is without question a welcome addition to a bit of Birmingham that needs better places to eat. I’m given the full spiel on how to order: three of the chaat dishes, or a chaat dish and a main, or a thali and nothing else, or one tandoor and two chaat, or a lunch dish and a chaat if I’m not that hungry. I order a thali. Would I like to order a chaat dish with that? But you said… oh, of course I will, I’ll take the chilli chicken 65 you mentioned, presumably named after the minimum spend they aim for with every diner.

The food is nice. Just nice. Inoffensive anglicised Indian for tame English palates. The chilli chicken tingles rather than threatens, the sauce cloying like sweet and sour chicken from the local takeaway. It’s nothing in comparison to the similar version at Zindiya. The thali has a glorious dry spinach dish cut with loads of garlic, which is the undoubted highlight of the afternoon, along with a good naan, and a papadum which could have saved me three quid fifteen minutes ago. Dhaal is the Kate Moss variety; rich, smokey, and addictive, whilst of the two curries the creamy paneer one is better than the taka tak chicken, mostly because the quality of the meat isn’t that great. I don’t like the stodgy potato pakoras that would have bounced back had they fallen off the table, and should be slamdunked into the nearest bin. It’s a lot of food for £17 and something I’d consider ordering again. It certainly doesn’t need the extra dishes.

I’m asked if I want dessert to finish. And then asked again. And then asked again on the way out after I’ve paid my bill. At one point I almost say yes, mostly because they keep on using my name and I get confused and think I’m at the in-laws. It’s a difficult meal to think about in hindsight; I didn’t really enjoy it, but that was more to do with the constant overtly personal attention I received, over the food that was mostly pleasant in a mostly inoffensive fashion. They’ve gone from a space behind the ASDA in Shirley to a prime location in Brum’s most elite shopping centre and that takes balls way bigger than I’ve got. I’m sure that in time they’ll iron out the inconsistencies and have a restaurant worthy of its grand location. They’ll be pleased to see your face should you visit. They may even know the name of it.

6/10

A2B know my face and I am 100% okay with this