Birmingham

The Summerhouse, Hall Green

The Shaftmoor is a pub which has inadvertently shaped part of my upbringing. I never entered until my early thirties, when I would join my brother and dad for beers following my mother’s untimely passing. Prior to that it was the pub I was scared of; the one on the end of nan’s road, opposite the chippy on the wrong side of the area in which I grew up. There would be stories of fights which would spill out on to the carpark and locals you should avoid to the point that even in my late teens I would jog nervously past on the way to my friend Alasdair’s house. Nobody I knew went to The Shaftmoor and neither could I, especially with my supercilious wardrobe of moleskine and pastels in an area where the tracksuit is staff uniform. It’s nonsense of course. The pub would transpire to be a little ragged around the peripherals but inside was a homely space where no one judged three blokes quietly sobbing over a game of pool and drinking cheap lager. I liked it. I liked it’s soul and it’s honesty. They even had a shack outside cooking up seekh kebabs and chicken tikka on weekends, which I swore I would eat and review but never did. Me and my stomach have a bad relationship at the best of times. I’m not prepared to call it completely off by eating from a smoking shed.

That pub is now The Summerhouse. It looks far more inviting from the outside than it used to, with not much of a makeover inside, but enough to add a quid to most of the drinks. Aside from the lick of paint, new chairs, and bizarre Irish wall murals, the majority of the cost appears to have been spent on the kitchen. Gone is the shack, replaced with a glossy new area from which the latest of the city’s Indian Desi pubs will serve vast amounts of meat on sizzling black plates. I should probably take this oppurtunity to moan about yet another one of these opening, but I won’t: they are great at breathing new life into pubs on the way out, and anything that saves a pub from shutting down is fine with me. Plus they have the credentials of being from the previous owner of The Horseshoe. If the food is up to the standard of there, I’ll be running through the doors as opposed to past them.

The good news is it is pretty good. A chicken madras may have had the whiff of jarred sauce but the spicing was rich and fruity, the lumps of poultry only just drying out. I’ve had far worse at places charging twice the price. The mixed grill also impresses, with chunks of fat chicken tikka where the marinade has worked into the centre of the meat, and chicken wings that offer plenty of spiced flesh. The chicken seekh is missing in action, and I’m non-plussed about the lamb seekh which is underwhelming and overworked. Chips are straight out of a bag, into a fryer and dusted with some generic spice. Exactly what we anticipated.

The wait of 50 minutes for the food is passed on the pool table, meaning that I am late back to work and unable to finish the food, or query the missing chicken seekh from the grill. I’m conflicted about the score which sits around the seven mark before the missing bits of food and the lengthy wait. Look, it’s good if you happen to be in the area, which I will be several times a year, though in the grand scheme of desi pubs it’s not going to top my list at present. Given that Dad lives ten minutes walk away and my brother likes to drink here, I’ll be eating here often enough. I sincerely hope that I’ll be reporting an improvement here somepoint in the future.

6/10 

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Folium, Jewellery Quarter

By the time our booking came around I wasn’t really looking forward to dinner at Folium. It was my fault: I’d made the schoolboy error of going out the night prior at 5pm sharp, returning home not far from the start of the next working day. What had started as a polite dinner with wine, descended into a full blown assault on the liver by grown men who really should know better. We’d found out a national chain of cocktail bars was offering a deal that essentially swapped turnips for drinks, resulting in two carrier bags full being lugged from Five Ways to Brindley Place and then on to the business district. Too many cocktails were consumed, one of the group may have been sick, another struggled to find a taxi willing to take him home. Turnips, eh? Who knew they could be so interesting.

There are better uses for the turnip, as I was to find out the following evening after suffering a hangover so severe not even a lunchtime curry could cure it. Try spiralising it into ribbons, blanching in parmesan stock, and then dressing it in an emulsion of the same cheese. Bury flecks of Hen of the Wood mushrooms and lardo in amongst the twisted pieces of faux pasta, and crown it all with a flurry of grated black truffle. This is what we should be doing with turnip; not swapping them for poorly made Zombies. It was a stand-out dish in a meal that hardly ever missed a beat, later to be described by Claire as one of her favourite dishes of the year. And this must be true for she pilfered several forkfuls of mine. It had bags of flavour; reminiscent enough of carbonara for it to feel familiar without the nostalgia attached.

This was course two of six at Folium, a restaurant we’d been meaning to get to for ages yet had never quite gotten around to it; a mistake we won’t be making again. The room is modern and sleek, making the most of the large windows that peer out towards St Paul’s Square. The centre is dominated by a drinks station; the space to the left the pass from which chef Ben Tesh is hard at work. We start with the most delicate of crab tarts given an extra fatty layer from grated duck liver, and move on to layers of cod skin cleverly crafted to look like oyster shells, which are to be submerged in a piquant tatare of oyster emulsion. The sourdough which arrives shortly after these is a work of art; a tight, chewy, crust holding a crumb that is light with uneven pockets of air. So good that I forgot what the butter was like. I’m calling it now: this is the best bread in Birmingham. It is a great start and we haven’t even started properly yet.

The menu starts with smoked eel hidden under a cloud of potato seasoned with chicken skin. The dish has swagger and big hitting flavours. We have the turnip course and then a glistening fillet of turbot. The fish is glorious, dotted with a gel of champagne vinegar, with potato puree and a dashi poured tableside. The genius addition is hay smoked butter that adds a perfumed richness. It has acidity laced throughout. It is an absolute stunner. Lamb follows this, both as a piece of pink saddle and slow cooked neck that it is sweet and soft. We get jerasulem artichokes in various forms including a blob of the silkiest puree, and sea vegetables carefully tweezered into place. In the middle is a sauce that speaks of time and precise seasoning. I ask for another piece of the bread and ensure the plate returns back to the kitchen clean.

The first of the dessert courses is a herbaceous green granita spooned around an unsweetened ice cream of sheep’s milk yogurt and aerated pieces of white chocolate. It’s over-shadowed by the last course: a chocolate creameux covered in a drift of cobnut crumb, with a salted milk ice cream and shards of milk skin tuile. I can’t pinpoint what chocolate bar this reminds me off, but who cares? It’s addictive with a pleasing salt content. It is also one of my favourite desserts of the year.

Service, led by Ben’s partner Lucy, is excellent, with a young and enthusiastic team. Wine is topped-up accurately, dishes explained with real knowledge. It makes the bill – just shy of £200 for two with a bottle of Beaujolais and a glass of dessert wine – feel real value. They have something special going on here, confirmed just 36 hours later when Marina O’Loughlin writes a glowing review in The Sunday Times. It makes this post somewhat irrelevant. Don’t listen to this minor blogger, read the words of one of the finest restaurant critics instead. She thinks that Folium is brilliant, as do we. You really must go.

9/10

Folium

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Pictures by Claire

Harborne Kitchen, October 2018

It feels like every other weekend over spring and summer we were out of town. We’ve been lucky this year; our travels have taken us all over the South coast, into the second city, London, on a couple of occasions, with a similar number of trips to mid-Wales for a certain restaurant. We’ve been to Dublin, and hit food meccas Lyon and San Sebastian for long weekends. Claire has made it to Colombia and New York, whilst I was offered a very fair price to punch a dwarf in Prague (I reluctantly turned it down). We’ve done our bit for the global economy by eating and drinking as much as possible in all of these places but we’re out of annual leave and hard cash now, so it’s time to change tactics. It’s time for us to put our money into the great independents we have in this city, the ones that we’ve neglected a little this year. Over the last few weeks we’ve been to The Wilderness and the below Harborne Kitchen. We have trips to Folium, Opheem, Purnell’s, and Nocturnal Animals coming up very soon. We’re doing this because these places don’t get written about nearly as much as they deserve. Compare these to the number of blog posts for the restaurant in a retirement village that’s handing out free meals and you can see where the best places are going wrong: they’re charging for food. How dare they.

Still, we’re not going to let such a small detail derail us. We love Harborne Kitchen; it’s Claire’s favourite restaurant in Birmingham. I’ve never asked her why, though I assume it has something to do with the relaxed atmosphere, the cool interior, and them not looking down on her when she gets shit-faced by course four. This meal, the fourth in twelve months, continues the trend of improving with every visit. How Michelin overlooked it for a star is beyond me, though if they continue to cook at this standard it seems a given.

There are new nibbles alongside the ox tongue in the way of scallop roe emulsion on crackers tainted with squid ink, and a witty take on cheese and pineapple. Both the bread options are still there and we still can’t agree about having a sweet malt loaf so early on in the meal. I can’t tell you what the salmon is like because the stuff makes me gag. That and cock. I have a Jerusalem artichoke veloute with confit artichoke, camembert mousse, and hazelnut pesto that tastes of the woodland floor, whilst the better half has the wagyu and celeriac lasagne. Utter filth it is, straight into the top five dishes I’ve eaten this year. Sheets of crisp celeriac stand in for the pasta, holding a ragu that makes a case for all animals living a life of booze and daily massages before the trip to the slaughterhouse. A rich cheese sauce is poured tableside that quickly mingles with the basil oil. The dish straddles the line between familiarity and intelligence. It is comfort food of the highest order reminiscent of the fried pizza bread and tomato sauce at Le Calandre. I like it that much.

If you ask nicely they’ll let you play around with the menus here, so we dip into the tasting menu for a supplementary fourth course. It is another stunner. Roscoff onion ring and blue cheese mousse on the silkiest of mash potato might not sound much but it is the broth of onion cut with minus 8 vinegar that transports it to another level. The flavours are huge. Claire’s sister follows this up with cod that riffs on Southern India with a slightly acidic curry sauce, bhaji, and vibrant dhal. Over the period she stays with us she regular reinforces how she doesn’t do ‘posh food’. Not a scrap is left.

Of the other mains we have a pork tenderloin with brawn fritter that first goes dark with heady bits of blood pudding and prune, before lifting it with the lightest note of marjoram. Being a gigantic pain in the arse, I take my main from the tasting menu at the supplement of a tenner. The Longhorn sirloin is good enough to convince me that conventional cuts of beef aren’t that boring, but the party is going on at the level below. A wagyu brisket that breaks down easier than Britney Spears on a break-up, with a mushroom dashi and barley risotto. It is a big mess of umami and meatiness, another comforting dish that packs huge flavour.

We don’t have dessert tonight because we are already late for the rest of the evening’s plans. The bill for three of us eating from the ‘choice’ section (a la carte to you and I) hits just shy of £180 for the four courses, a bottle of white burgundy, and two glasses of expertly chosen red from Ben – one of the city’s most charismatic and knowledgeable sommeliers. It is more outstanding value from a restaurant that knows and appreciates its audience. Travel gives you perspective; it makes life richer with experience and opens eyes to how others live from day to day. It also makes you appreciate what you have at home. Birmingham is an amazing place that I only ever fully admire when I’ve been away. For all of the places we should be proud of and supporting, Harborne Kitchen should be very high up on that list.

Harborne Kitchen

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Pictures by Nosh and Breks

The Wilderness, October 2018

We arrive to the opening bassline of Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’, the long galley restaurant of black floors and black walls, black tables and black chairs lining both sides of the room. At the bottom is a prep station where chefs have been freed from the confines of the kitchen to shape the tartares and tarts that would kick-off this lunch. As the final note of Kurt Cobain’s guitar fades away we are given a sparkly gold menu whilst the naughty version of ‘God Save The Queen’ rips through the speakers. It is an unconventional start, though we expect nothing less from a man whose previous incarnation had a tree in the dining room and whose forthcoming new venture features a warped afternoon tea based on the All-American harbinger of body issues, Barbie.

The last time I was here was at the old place. It got me all excited by refusing to answer to type whilst still retaining a link to the nature that sat at the forefront of Nomad, Claridge’s initial restaurant that changed it’s name when some Yanks got a little shouty with the legal notices. That link to nature is no more, replaced by a brash and louder approach; one that spanks your arse rather than wipes it with a dock leaf. Dishes are tighter in execution; presentation cleaner. Version 2.0 should not be compared to the old in the same way that way that I shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the city’s other ‘food bloggers’. It is carving its own niche, one that occasionally ends up in the newspaper for the wrong reasons. Something I know nothing about.

We get nibbles of raw wagyu bavette shaped into neat cylinders on chickpea crackers that have more than the whiff of a Big Mac about them once the crack-like gherkin ketchup kicks in, and the shortest of pastry casings holding a glorious almalgamation of pumpkin and smoked cheddar. A pumpkin pie, if you will. We take a prettily presented venison tartare where the meat fights for attention with roasted beetroot, pickled shallots, wasabi mayonaise, and can only just be heard. A quick word on the drinks pairing; if given the choice forgo the usual to take these – they stand as the most imaginative and successful pairings I have ever tried, anywhere. The plum and green chilli cocktail with this venison was not only delicious but sat perfectly with this course and the next; a crispy oyster boldly seasoned with tabasco, a punchy aioli, and puffed bits of potato seasoned with smoked paprika. The flavours in the opening two courses are massive. There is no gently easing you in here.

On paper duck teriyaki, foie gras, and pineapple left me drooling, so I was a little disappointed when it was my least favourite course of the afternoon. There was little wrong with it though it wasn’t as cohesive as the other courses, with a lengthy bitter finish I think from the powder of mustard leaf. Claire ate all of hers and half of mine so perhaps its just my jaded palate and miserable demenaour. We’re back on track with a tranche of plaice, so perfectly cooked it practically begged to reveal itself at the mere sight of a fork. What impresses me most about this is the balance; the mushrooms giving an almost surf and turf to the dish without the need for meat. The chimmichurri that coats the top of fish gives the dashi broth an extra layer of light as the flakes bob like jetsam.

The next two courses are special. First up is ‘N.A.F.B Quail’ which I understand to mean ‘Not A Fucking Balti’. Now go wash your mouth out, Alex. The quail is gently cooked with crisp skin but the real fun is elsewhere. A butter sauce that grows in stature in the mouth, puffed wild rice for texture and the samosa to end all samosas. A golden parcel of happiness, filled with braised leg meat and lentil dhaal. This is the best samosa I can recall eating, helped by a deep puree of date and tamarind. Another Fucking Samosa, Please (or A.F.S.P if we are to talk the same language). The following course of guinea fowl and celeriac is the same story: the breast is lovely, as are the various bits of celeriac, but the star sits to one side of the plate. A chou farci of forced meat wrapped in a fermented cabbage leaf, topped with hazelnut pesto and a disc of autumn truffle. It has it all. Pure heaven.

Our transition into the sweet side starts with chocolate speculoos sandwiching peanut ice cream and a centre of salted caramel. You filthy bastards, I love it. We move onto an elegant yogurt ice cream with fig leaf tuille, honey, and blueberries, paired with the most delicious take on a bellini, laced with honeysuckle and peach. Astonishingly good and our pick of the drinks. We conclude the meal with boozy ‘rummy bears’. It’s yet more playful adventure. It must be fun working here.

The bill arrives to the final crescendo of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chains’ and we note that we hardly have noticed any of the music in the last hour. And that there is the magic of The Wilderness. For all of the drama of the interiors and playlist, the attention grabbing star turns are left to the plate. The star parts of the meal – that chou farci and hazlenut pesto, the ice cream sandwich, the drinks pairings, and that samosa – are as good as anything you’ll have in the city. Sure it doesn’t always feel at complete ease with itself but that is part of the fun. It’s bold and eclectic, edge of the seat stuff that sits right on the boundary of bonkers and genius. There is nowhere in Birmingham remotely like here, and that level of bravery should be both admired and supported. This meal was even better than the last. It all sets it up rather nicely for Nocturnal Animals to open next month. I can’t wait to see how they progress.

The Wilderness

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Pictures by Nosh & Breks

The Church, Jewellery Quarter

The Church is a bloody good boozer that by day has the best roof terrace I have been to this side of Soho House NYC, and at night slinks back into a space filled with a good looking crowd looking for merriment and additional bed post notches. It is the embodiment of cool; a place for excessive leather clothing and facial hair, where Birkenstocks with socks are admired and not sneered at. The bar is a handsome blend of booths and victorian tiles, whilst the eyes of the staff show that they know how to party way better than you ever will. It is almost impossible to dislike The Church, but that doesn’t mean I musn’t try.

Because despite the cool attitude it portrays, something was clearly amiss on our recent visit. For a venue that garners much love locally with the food, it was off-key and not memorable in any way. The menu is pizza-led and we take two of these with an additional sandwich to bulk out this review like a sock down the pants. That sandwich, a loose take on a croque monsieur, is arguably the best thing we eat. The cola ham inside tastes mercifully unlike the fizzy drink, glued together with stringy mozzarella. On the outside is a kind of rarebit topping with a tangy cheese and too much mustard. It’s nice, in the same way that spending Christmas Day with your slightly racist nan is.

It is the pizza bit I don’t understand. I’ve had them under the same banner at food festivals and these don’t resemble those. The sourdough base is less pliable and a little overcooked, the tomato sauce unremarkable. The toppings are all over the shop. One has so much merguez sausage on all we can taste is anise, whilst another has chicken fighting with double the amount of pickled onions. The chicken loses. At over a tenner a go they are not great.

We don’t bother with dessert because we have a box full of pizza slices to eat at home. They don’t improve there. Given the people I respect who tell me how good the food at The Church is, I can’t help but feel disappointment. Something wasn’t right, and in a city that contains the brilliant pizzas at Baked in Brick and Otto, that means a recommendation to eat here from me is impossible.

6/10

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Pint Shop, Birmingham

Ten minutes after checking in on Facebook, my phone is red hot with direct messages from chefs, restaurateurs, and industry types, all asking the same thing: is Pint Shop really that good? I can’t remember the last time a new opening generated such hype, especially given that the offering is essentially beer and pub food. Yet it has; stirring up the Twitterati with pictures of scotch eggs, and those more knowledgeable with an all-star line-up of front and back house teams poached from the premium local establishments. The early signs were good, backed-up on the dull Tuesday night when we dine. I leave and respond to them all: Yes, it really is that good.

But before I go into detail about my dinner, a sense of perspective is required. For all of the hype and overexcitement, Pint Shop is not some mythical beast that is going to solve all of the world’s problems. It is not going to reinvent gastromony in Birmingham or stop Brexit. It is not even new as a concept to the city; in fact there is a similar place 148m away that does lots of beers, pub food, and has a scotch egg as good as here. So lets hold to those knickers before accidents start to happen. What it is though is the best of its type: those affordable low-mid range places affordable enough to eat at every night, or just pop into the bar for a pint and a snack. It excels at smart service and occupies a handsome building, with a menu that reads nearly as good as it eats. We find it hard to find fault with anything. It’s slick and everyone knows their stuff despite this being the last session in a soft launch period.

Now, those scotch eggs. The bar and dining room menus both have a different one, and we try both because I’m a greedy and demanding man. And those are just my good points. They are excellent, both cooked to jammy yolks which try to hold their place in the centre of the egg before giving up and making a slow stagger to the sanctuary of the paper underneath. Of the two I happen to prefer the one from the bar menu that tastes of pork with pops of fennel anise, though Claire makes her play for the more dense onion bhaji egg that hides the pig flavour a little deeper under the spicing. We conclude that both are winners in their own right. Be greedy and demanding. Have both. Another starter has roasted beets with a quenelle of cheese curd and lineseed cracker. It feels and looks like the opening course in a much smarter resturant. The beets tender and sweet, with a glossy shine like Anne Diamond. They bleed prettily on to the plate with just a little peppery oil for company.

There is much to be excited about with the mains. They have a dirty burger that is true to it’s name, leaking burger sauce and bacon jam down the brioche bun and fingers, before eventually letting the beefy patty flavour come through in abundance. Another main has pork belly that is braised overnight, transforming the roll into unctous blend where it becomes impossible to tell where the meat and fat layers once were. The skin of the pig has been blanched and then shocked in hot oil, taking the crackling into pork puff territory. Florets of cauliflower are charred, others turned into a silky puree bolsted by yeast. A glossy reduction of the cooking liquor pops with capers and plenty of black pepper. It’s a wholesome plate of food for those who crave the comfort of a Sunday roast everyday. I’ve just noticed that this pork is available as part of their Sunday roast. I’m a genius.

The tandoori chicken flatbread requires a paragraph of it’s own. We reach it after sharing five courses and instantly wish we’d saved more room. The flatbread is the vehicle for what looks like a quarter of a chicken, ruby red in marinade and perfumed spices. Underneath is pickled cabbage cut with mustard and onion seeds that make it almost sauerkraut-like, a fiery hot sauce from which I swear I detect gochujang, and a mint mayo that has dill and coriander in to bolster the freshness. All of this topped with a handful of toasted almonds. It is a monster, and a good value one at that, coming in at £12. I love the nod to the spices ingrained in Birmingham’s culture, even if I am aware that it is also on the menu at one of the other two less diverse Pint Shop locations. It is the most complete dish we try; the one that will top my orders on frequent future visits.

Desserts are described to us as more homely, though there is no letting up on technique. We try the peach melba sundae and lemon meringue fool. The poached peaches in the former steal the show, bringing out the very best in the sweet fruit whilst still maintaining a little bite. The latter has delicate meringues crowning layers of lemon sorbet and curd. A lovely refreshing way to finish a meal.

We eat too much and dip into the beer and gin lists, for which they have plenty. This being a soft launch with 50% off we struggle to nudge over the £50 mark with too much food, though I would suggest that you allow about £30 each for dinner with drinks and much less for a fleeting bar snack visit. I usually loathe judging somewhere during a soft launch, though Pint Shop has hit the ground running and fully warrants this score. It is a great addition to the city; a place that oozes confidence from pass to table. Everything we ate banged with flavour, at a price point that will see us return time over. Pint Shop may not be filling the imaginary void that some will have you believe is there, but is has substantially raised the game for its competition. You’ll find me at the bar for a pint of the good stuff, demolishing a bite to eat.

9/10

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Pictures by Nosh and Breks

Mowgli, Grand Central, Birmingham

I think it was the keema curry that sent me careering over the edge. I was sat alone, sipping on my Estrella whilst forking out huge clumps of tepid lamb mince from the silver tin. Once someone had caught wind of the sadness in my eyes they would go on to tell me that these balls are normal. They are not, I tell them, they have occurred because the meat hasn’t been broken up enough during the frying process, and anyway, it is still cold. They apologise for me not enjoying and depart to a different table. Minutes later someone else is over, probably because they’ve cottoned on to the fact that all might not be well with the guy eating alone and taking pictures of his dinner. Would I like another lamb keema curry? No. Would I like to try a different lamb curry? Okay, though I needn’t have bothered.

This all took place in Mowgli, the latest in a long list of Indian street food type places to hit Birmingham, and very possibly my least favourite of them all. I took exception from the first steps into the restaurant, where the light is set to a year-long winter with the mood to match. There are empty jars which line the walls and a row of tables visible from the outside that have swings for chairs. It is an interior where Instagram has been given as much consideration as practicality. The menu, too, has that infuriating speech of chip butties and bombs, with a tiffin that is a ‘food roulette’ of ‘meat, veg, and carb jeopardy’. I order this, hoping that one of the four dishes contains the bullet.

Brushing aside the barely warm lumps of sheep that is the returned house keema, the other three quarters of the stack contain rice, ginger chicken, and a ginger and rhubarb dhal. The roulette must love ginger and hate me. The rice and ginger chicken are okay, the latter of those warming with okay meat, and spicing that sits in the boring middle section between elegant and crude. The dhal is a horrible, acrid thing with lentils cooked to a mush normally associated with God’s waiting room, or worse, a bingo hall. Nothing has the delicate touch of someone who understands spice. I honestly prefer the food of my Indian-obsessed, cookery school taught, girlfriend.

The replacement lamb curry arrives within seconds of them taking the keema away, giving the suspicion that the food has been cooked a long time ago and kept warm in bain-maries. It has a heavy dose of anise and not much else, with lamb that would work the tightest of jawlines. The additional side of puri breads are usually one of my favourite things. Here they are greasy and heavy in texture. Much of what was ordered remains when I ask for the bill which arrives with both a service charge and charity donation. How very kind of me.

As I pay the thirty-odd quid my mind wanders out of the doors to the Indian Streatery one hundred metres away. It was here, a couple of weeks ago, that we ordered a mini-feast of smokey bhartha, a methi chicken laced with fenugreek, chicken pakora burgers, home style curries, and chaats. All of it a million miles away in class to the food served here. Mowgli may have the aura of a heavily-backed, fast expanding empire, but it is missing the beating heart. It feels contrived; a concept with the sole purpose of rolling out and selling on. I can’t be a part of that, not when there is a family doing it so much better around the corner.

5/10

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Nando’s, bloody everywhere

I was discussing dinner with my girlfriend the other night. “Where do you want to eat?”, I asked. “Nando’s”, she said. I tell her I don’t want to eat in Nando’s, but she does, so we compromise and go to Nando’s. It’s how all sucessful relationships work, I’m told. Plus it can’t be that bad, right? I mean Ed Sheeran and Example wrote a song about it and those two are the height of cool. And it’s always full, with the queue extending out of the door of the Bullring branch on the afternoon we go. Everyone loves a cheeky Nando’s. Except me, who hasn’t been to one in over a decade despite living on the stuff in my late teens.

I feel old just by being here. It’s not the clientele who don’t know better, or the torturous method of ordering at a till and repeating your order over and over and over again to a man who clearly has no interest. I think its the attempt at comedy which veers from downright lame (‘Piri-piri nuts. WARNING: may contain traces of nuts’) to the leching adulterous (‘cheat on your old flame with a spicy new dish’). Please, just fuck off and give me chicken and a large glass of overly-expensive red wine. That wine is awful by the way: maybe the worst I’ve tried from Portugal, which is saying something if you’ve ever tried the tinto in ASDA.

The menu is a kaleidoscope of child friendly colours, spoken in a language that appeals to the type of teenager who sees eating here as a prequel to a night of fingering behind a skip. It has grown a lot from when I remember it, expanding on the burgers and adding ‘fino’ options, which Google translate tells me means ‘up’ and presumably explains the price hike for a sorry bowl of sweaty veg. I have an extra hot fino pitta with peri-peri fries, Claire goes for the chicken breast and two of those fino sides. She takes her bird in hot, which is a relief, because I would have had to leave her had she ordered lemon and herb.

It has suceeded in not changing in a decade. The meat on that breast is still on the dry side and tastes of very little, whilst the fries are still truly awful and cant be saved by any amount of any of their sauces. From the new stuff I admire them for sticking thigh meat in the pitta because the fat content means it has retained some moisture, even if the halloumi has been welded to it by some form of voodoo. I get none of the promised aioli, a little of the red onion relish, and a lot of lettuce. Whisper it, but it is alright for £7.20. The same cannot be said for the chargrilled veg that bring back the horrors of Sorrento Lounge, or the watery sweet potato mash.

We dont have dessert because ice cream or cake must be the most half-arsed attempt at retaining customers I’ve ever seen. Considering that nobody made any effort to see how our food was at any point in the meal, I never hated it, because it is almost impossible to hate. They don’t need to care how the food is because the big boys in Nando’s head office have created a machine that churns out consistently average chicken tens of thousands of times a day across the country, by pre-cooking the chicken in an oven and removing the danger from the minimum wage grill operators. It is the epitomy of a chain restaurant; the ideal business model for anyone looking to make a large buck from the average eater. It may take me another ten years to return to here, but to those who know no better, you keep on being cheeky.

5/10

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Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston

Once a week my Dad goes to see a covers band at his local pub. I’ve never been with him; I have no interest in seeing Fred Zeppelin, however good their version of Kashmir is supposed to be. I just don’t get the point. I want the real thing or I don’t want it at all. I don’t want to watch the simian stroll of a parka wearing Gallagher wannabe when there are two presently touring and doing a good enough job of murdering their own music. And I can’t be sure if Blobbie Williams is a tribute act or a tabloid attributed nickname. For all of the fake swagger and choreographed movements, they are nothing but homages to the real thing. Anyone can pout their lips, wear a sparkly jacket, and put on a mockney accent, but it’s nowhere close to seeing Jagger arch that back of his and thrust out the pelvis in the flesh. Any woman, man, or horse can put on a blonde wig. conical bra, and gash-flashing leotard but it doesn’t make you Madonna. In my younger years I wore cardigans and could play you the opening bars to ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, yet I never said I was Kurt Cobain. Or Lead Belly if you closed your eyes. Impersonators simply don’t have the magic of the real thing; they are imposters in dress-up.

I felt the same way about Italian food in Birmingham. We have Italian restaurants but none ever felt real to me; they are homogenized tributes to what we think is Italian food – a tour of an imagined Italy with dishes reconstructed for those delicate Anglicised palates of ours. Our ‘nduja has been stripped of the searing heat and offal that bangs down doors, to be replaced with a more polite neighbour that goes to bed at 9pm, whilst our carbonara has cream added because we are fed the lies that eggs have be completely cooked. This isn’t an issue; there is clearly a market for this, but I want the real Italy.

In a way Laghi’s Deli is more a project of love than business. Luca, the owner, comes from a family of restauranteurs back in Bologna and wanted to bring a Northern Italian slice of pizza back to Birmingham. And it is a resounding success, easily delivering the most authentic take on that cuisine I have eaten outside of it, backed up by a wine list that punches with hard-hitting reds and zesty whites. From the three starters we take it is the quality of the ingredients that shines through, nowhere more so than on a Caprese salad. As a dish it is a simple sum of its parts, yet here it speaks loudly of a real Italy; one that gestiticulates with every word. Everything is imported, from the young mozzerella to the olive oil that adds a peppery summeriness to a grey September evening. It may not have the best of carbon footprints, but frankly who cares when it tastes this good.

Our other two starters are big hitting. A parmesan cake with pancetta is an oozy umami bomb which cleverly shifts textures between a molten centre and crisp ham that guards its walls. It is a beautiful example of how when done correctly, this style of food doesnt need a handful of salt to get going; the seasoning is already embedded in the ingredients. A scallop the size of a baby’s fist is gratinated under breadcrumbs, served simply in its own cooking juices alongside a lightly dressed salad. At £7 for the special it feels too cheap, though they taint the perfectly cooked shellfish by leaving the less-than-perfectly cooked roe on.

For mains we take pasta, the hallmark of any Italian restaurant worth its dusting of parmesan. Yes they do pizza, but I can get great examples elsewhere. There is nowhere – I repeat, nowhere – that does good pasta anywhere in this brilliant city. Laghi’s is made fresh (rumour has it by Momma Laghi) and is properly lovely. We have egg and flour transformed into silky ribbons of tagliatelle with a loose ragu of beef that draws silence across the table, and parcels of ravioli that deliver verdant flavours of spinach and ricotta in a puddle of melted butter scented with sage. Oh, how I’ve waited for this moment. Even when the pasta isn’t made fresh it still trumps its competitors. The penne for the carbonara may be from a packet, but it is cooked to a careful bite that won’t have you screaming out the safe word. This is a real carbonara; one with salty guancialle ham and a sauce of warmed yolks that is mercifully cream free. It has been made by someone who understands the principles of the dish.

Desserts are a chocolate molten cake and an affogato. Both have good stuff going on, in particular the raspberry and gin sorbet with the cake, though I happen to have the sold out donuts on my mind for next time. A quick word on the service: I had heard murmurs about the service being occasionally poor, and, truthfully, this had put us off going. I can only comment on the evening we eat when it was faultless; dishes come out of the kitchen correctly and well-spaced, numerous orders for glasses of wine are swiftly taken and delivered. With mains hovering a little over a tenner, the bill for this would usually sit around £30-40 per head, which is super value, though we indulge in far too many dishes and drinks. Regardless, it was a great meal in presently the stand-out Italian offering, only missing out on the top marks because the menu feels a bit safe (being September I would have loved to have seen rabbit or wild mushrooms for that true Bologna experience), but this is just a small detail to a neighbourhood restaurant I can see us constantly returning to. Finally Birmingham has an authentic Italian that I can recommend. And without wishing to sound like an Etta James tribute act. At Last.

9/10

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Arch 13, Jewellery Quarter

In that massive head of mine I’ve been harbouring a piece on Arch 13 for some time. I would go in, pretty blonde in hand. We would take the bar stools on the left-hand side of the bar. Our order would be simple; all of the cheese and all of the meat. Sixty quid well spent. We would wash down this feast with wine. Loads of wine. Glasses of bright whites and Provençal rosé for my companion, bigger reds for me. We would get a bit drunk and Abi would give me the eyes to say I’ve had enough. It would be perfect.

But life isn’t a movie script, is it? Four months after it has opened and we still haven’t got around to it. Sure, we both go and sit on those stools, but it tends to be for a couple of drinks max. I’ve gone with friends, ordered a good bottle, a little cheese, and destroyed the competition at Connect 4. I’ve also collected a very tipsy girlfriend from there, her sat with a pissed grin at the bar, sipping on champagne and picking from a bowl of pork scratchings. It’s that type of wine bar; unstuffy and friendly. So not very wine bar-like at all.

The wines are brilliant. Of course they are. The wine shop that once encompassed the entire unit is still here, albeit caged into a space half of what it used to own. It’s from this shop, Connollys wine merchants if you’re asking, that Abigail Connolly curates the bar’s list. The choices by the glass are small but perfectly formed; the work of someone young enough to appreciate what the new generation of wine drinkers want, with a badge pinned to her blouse that confirms those choices are well considered. The recent list has a beautiful pinot noir by Pascal Marchand that we recently drank in Lyon, a perfumed Reisling with bags of acidity, and a Californian Chardonnay that is a true expression of a grape which deserves far more respect than generally given. A Portugese tinto sits at the lower end of the scale at about a fiver, whereupon the prices rise to a little over a tenner for a large glass of the better stuff. There is a selection by the bottle with the added bonus of an inhouse wine shop that applies a small corkage fee to drink in the bar. It’s the little things that count and they have the small details down to a tee here, right down to a succinct list of cocktails.

Now the food, because, y’know, that’s what’s expected of me nowadays. The reality is that people probably come here to drink wine and graze on food, as opposed to the opposite. And that’s a shame, for some serious thought has gone into the offering. The cheeses have all bases covered from an entirely UK sourced selection. They have the wonderful Maida Vale which I’ve only previously seen in Carters, cave aged cheddars, Alex James’ Blue Monday, and Oxford Isis, the world’s only middle class terror cell produced dairy product. I jest. Though it is the bomb. They do many more, but those are the ones I tend to stick to. They also do cured meats such as lomo, speck, and saucisson, along with a venison salami that might just be the ultimate partner to the pinot noir I mention above. Even the pork scratchings are bloody delicious. At lunch times they do a daily hot dish which was vegan chilli on the last day I went. I never ordered it; there was something in the name that gave me nightmares.

The soundtrack to all of this is a nigh on perfect blend of Bowie, Earth Wind and Fire, The Rolling Stones, and various other too-cool-for-school bands. It all makes for one of my very favourite places in Birmingham; a place where top class wine and quality food is equalled by friendly service in a welcoming and casual environment. This being a food blog, I don’t feel it right to score what is essential superior shopping. But please, take this as a recommendation, wine bars simply don’t get much better than Arch 13.

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