brindley place

Craft Dining Rooms, Birmingham

The opening of Craft managed to elude me. I had heard murmuration of it through various channels: how the exec chef had previously cooked excellent food for a friend and was one to watch, how the ex-head chef of the now deceased Tom’s Kitchen was moving over to man the pans and call the checks during service, and how they were taking up the large space at the rear of the ICC where Strada once resided. I followed it with interest; the ‘coming soon’ on the Twitter accounts, and the work in progress posts from the pastry chef I’ve followed on Instagram from Cheal’s to Adam’s to here. It would take a tweet asking for new openings to find out they had opened. There was, to my knowledge at least, none of the usual fanfare; no opening parties or bloggers tables, no cosying up to Birmingham Live for a soundbite in between their usual stories on Love Island or Danielle Lloyd’s vagina. They just opened the doors and let the passing public work out the rest, which is a commendable idea had anyone actually passed through the ICC this time of year.

A few things immediately stand out on our visit ten days into opening. First the space, which is a huge mass of ash grey and soft furnishings cut occasionally with the warm tones of mustard yellow across the pillars that stop the conferences above from piling through the roof. The second is the concept, rolled out at every opportunity across the pages of the menus, the tome of the wine list, the wordy reservation email, and in person by the waiting team. I’m generally not a fan of concepts. By all means have a vision, but I work by the rule that if you have to spell it out then you’re not doing it properly. They have something good here, something that is clear from the off and maybe they can be less eager about spilling it everywhere. It’s a celebration of Britishness — more Buckingham Palace and long country walks than Boris waving a kipper — the good stuff from the good people doing good things. The produce is carefully curated from the best of British suppliers: from the Cotswold White chickens, to the cheese trolley, and Cadbury’s cocoa. The wine list is roughly 80% British growers, subsidised by expats making wines in warmer climes. They have dozens and dozens of gins all distilled on these shores, some using all-British botanicals, some not. You get the picture. Brexit doesn’t scare these guys one bit.

The extended effort to source the best of the country’s larder is backed up by some rather sterling (I know what I’ve done there) work coming out of the kitchen. Sourdough is the first thing we eat and boy is it good, right up there with Folium for the best of its kind in the city. The butter less so, whipped to the point that it starts to taste like cheese. We order three from the ‘snack’ section between two, and this seems the ideal portion size, even if it does creep the price up a little. Of these the ‘pork pie’ is most meagre portion, though also the cheapest at £6. It is a pastry-less spin on the picnic staple, with apple cider jelly, glorious pickled vegetables, and a mustard emulsion that has beer added for umami depth. Both mouthfuls were lovely. A fat scallop comes perfectly cooked and served in its shell with peas, charred baby gem, and apple. A rich smokiness is hidden somewhere amongst it which needs light acidity from the apple to cut through it. It has great balance. The buttermilk chicken is the biggest departure. Crisp coating on the poultry, the thigh meat cooked to the point the meat has just turned from opaque to white, with a vivid yellow sauce that conjures up the flavours of South East Asia without ever being able to pinpoint precisely where. It’s refined junk food, addictive and wholesome.

Mains take a leap in size and price. These are big portions, and so they should be for a £17-£30 price bracket that puts it up there with the city’s big hitters. The star of these sits at the top of that level: a large fillet of halibut, golden in colour and cooked until the large flakes fall away at the suggestion of pressure.  To the side is a fish pie, vol-au-vent in style, with more chunks of fish spun through buttered leeks, spinach, and dressed in a mornay sauce. This is a proper bit of cooking, showing off precision, technique, and a little bit of wit. The puddled parsley sauce is all the acidity the dish needs, the length of charred leek adding another level of flavour. I would order this time and time again. Likewise the chicken dish, a tenner under the price of the halibut but in no way less considered. You might look at the pictures and think that supreme looks good and you would be right too, but the real fun is to the side of it. A nugget of of shredded confit meat, bound with wild garlic (presumably fermented given it’s out of season) and butter, before being fried in breadcrumbs. It is the essence of chicken kiev dressed up in a suit. Take one of the many onion elements on the plate, a piece of that chicken, drag it through the heavily reduced sauce and again through the black garlic puree, before giving yourself a pat on the back for reading Birmingham’s finest restaurant blog. You’re welcome. And a final word on the side dish of potatoes. Those potatoes! Cubes of burnished spud with a hint of animal and of garlic. We fight over the last of them. I win, because I’m stronger than her. I jest. She beats me everytime.

You may have reached this point thinking that we had enjoyed our meal, and you’d be correct, though if anything it gets better from here. If classical desserts are your thing, then Craft is your Mecca, or, in keeping with the ethos here, your Stonehenge. We eat two desserts as good as any you’ll find in this city, delivering a sweet finish with finesse. First up it’s the bakewell tart soufflé. You read that correct. Bakewell. Tart. Soufflé. Stop the world, I can’t take this much fun. Cherry compote at the bottom, frangipane soufflé base, more almonds, and an toasted almond ice cream for good measure. The soufflé stood proud, shoulders apart, like a Beefeater at the Tower of London (I know what I did there), and ate like a dream. Across from these are choux buns flavoured with Bournville’s finest cocoa powder. A chocolate creme patisserie sits inside, salted caramel and nut brittle underneath, pecan praline ice cream in the centre. Dreamy. I suggest a dessert tasting menu to the ever excellent service team. They laugh it off. I’m only half joking.

Our bill is quite a lot because the wine list is really great, and in particular because they have the staggeringly good white pinot from Litmus on at £56 a bottle, which might seem a lot until you realise it retails at £26, showing kind mark-ups for one of the best wines to come from England. Seriously, treat yourself, it drinks like a far more expensive Mersault. Anyway, I digress. Craft was fantastic, from the first mouthfuls to the petit fours that come with the bill marked ‘the damage’. It’s not cheap, but nor should it be. This is the finest that Britain has to offer, packaged up with great front of house delivering smart cooking to your table. When the rest of the country is busy booing politicians, and staring into the abyss of what the future may or may not hold, Craft are looking to celebrate what we have on our little island. And when the results are this good, that is absolutely fine with me.

9/10

Drank too much white pinot? A2B will gladly get you home

Maribel, Birmingham

My personal experience of Richard Turner is a mixed bag. Years back I passed him en route to the bathroom of his tiny restaurant in Harborne when he was coming out of the kitchen. “Fantastic pork, Chef” I tell him. He just looks back. No words. Just a blank stare that he must have borrowed from every character Danny Dyer has ever played. Then more recently I see him at a restaurant opening where he is lovely and jovial and kind to me until some idiot tells him I write a food blog. Then nothing. Back to the stare which cuts holes in the back of the head. Others will tell you similar stories, though I can empathise with him; I am dreadful at pretending to be nice. I am bloody lovely to both the people I like, but the rest? Why bother. And although it is unfair to judge a man on the two occasions we meet, it is where the similarities between him and I finish. Ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that Turner is one of the finest cooks to come out of this city; a chef’s chef who prefers to be behind the pass than the television screen. He is a man who understands flavour. I wish someone would say something that nice about me instead of just insulting my grammar on Twitter.

His new home is Maribel, a lavish restaurant in Brindley Place which will surely benefit from it’s space directly underneath a load of bankers. The room is tasteful and considered, with well appointed tables and thick carpet. Many of the team have followed Turner in the transition from Harborne to the city centre, meaning that a month in from opening the service and food already feels like it is operating at the level of his previous restaurant when it held a star. A flurry of nibbles arrive within minutes of us sitting down. There is a deep fried croquette of smoked eel and apple on a horseradish puree, followed by a gougere of aged gruyere. The choux is delicate, the cheese crème rich. It’s as good an example I’ve had; right up there with Ramsay’s three star flagship at Royal Hospital Road. We get an elegant spoon of diced scallop with cucumber and a grating of fresh wasabi, and a final nibble of soft boiled quail’s egg, Berkswell cheese, anchovy, and chicken skin on lettuce that brilliantly riffs on chicken Caesar salad. It achieves something rarely found within classical cooking; originality. It also tastes incredible; rich, salty, and decadent.

The further nine courses veer from very good to outstanding, showcasing a respect for the finest of ingredients in allowing them to take to the plate with as little interference as possible. We have firm heritage tomatoes with goats curd and marjoram doggy-paddling in a labour intensive tomato essence, followed by the slenderest of mackerel fillets that has it’s inherent oiliness cut through by fresh gooseberry and cubes of buttermilk jelly. There is an ease to the cooking here, the simple understanding that two or three elements on a plate can make more sense than one loaded with unnecessary showy technique. A bowl of Jersey Royals and caviar reinforced that for me, the pureed potato loaded with butter and offset by the salinity of the luxurious sturgeon eggs. It is a dream dish, one that sucks you into the table and makes you forget the environment you are in.

It’s not all delicate flavours; occasionally he metaphorically whacks you in the gob, though as a blogger I never rule out the literal, either. A cube of barbequed lamb (from the shoulder, I think) is about as unrefined as this dinner gets, in the best way possible. The flavour of the ovine is pure with just a hint of smokiness. Sharing the plate are slithers of garlic, peas both fresh and pureed, and the most textbook of hollandaise sauces I have ever tried. To extract so much from so few components is nothing short of outstanding. Dover sole sees two fillets glued together with some sort of crustacean paste, and then pan fried until the flesh just begins to tan. It is crowned with teeny shrimps that ramp up the taste of the ocean, and a little puree of parsley that pulls it back towards the shore. A sauce split with parsley oil is stellar stuff, but then all of the sauces are. These take time, skill and a lot of patience.

When I think back to the meal it is three dishes that stand out: the potato and caviar, a dessert I’ll get on to soon, and the guinea fowl that was next up. It had everything I look for in a plate of food; interest, technique and flavour. The breast is delicate with crisp skin, the leg stuffed with a mousseline of langoustine. Morels for earthiness, the vegetal freshness of asparagus, and another killer sauce. I would kill for this dish and then demand it once more on Death Row. I find myself checking that no diners or staff are watching before chasing the last dots of sauce around the plate with my fingertips. A kind of cheese course is next that suffers from following the guinea fowl. It has Lincolnshire poacher mousse at the base, topped with a parsley oil, lardons, and spring onions. On to the dish is spooned pastry that has been cooked, quickly frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed up. On its own the pastry has developed a raw note, though the intentions become clear when combined with the rest; its quiche Loraine and very nice it is, too. My mate who I’m having dinner with thinks it is too rich but then he eats fish in a bag at Mooch Bar, so you can trust me on this one.

Desserts are frankly brilliant. A rice pudding leaves us both speechless; decadent with vanilla it has the very costly Mara de Bois strawberries cooked down to a jam-like puree at the bottom. The meringues and frozen strawberries on top are delicate yet offer just enough texture. I know upon reading this my Dad will insist on me taking him for this and Dad, you’re welcome, I’ll do it without the usual passive aggression. It is followed by the bastard relative of the baba, the savarin, sliced apart and soaked in sherry. We load this with the puree of golden raisins and a healthy dose of cream. It is the Spanish rum baba. Your mind is pure filth, Turner. Filth.

Petit fours are a very interesting cornet of raspberry, rose, and beetroot that ate far more cohesively than it sounds. We leave stuffed and giddy, given up two hours of the evening to a tasting menu that comes in at ninety-quid a head and the wine pairing, that includes some special wines from the Coravin system, adding a bit more on top of top. It’s not cheap, but nor should it be, just look at the ingredients used above. A night at Maribels is one of luxury, of the finest food cooked by a man who knows what he is doing. It is clearly at one star level, something the tyre company will pick up on soon enough. As we’re finishing up on the wine Turner pops out the kitchen to ask how everything was. He is interested in feedback, affable, and dare I say it, happy. Maribel may just be what was needed to reignite the fires of this super talented chef.

10/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Siamais, Birmingham

Siamais replaces Thai Edge, an stalwart of Brindley that had long outrun itself. What we now have is a sister venue to the Mailbox’s Aluna Bar, serving up a similar menu to the old place, albeit with a glossy interior and fanciful cocktails. The new place looks great, tastefully flashy, with lanterns dangling low and murals of ladies faces. We get sat on a long table lit a stark white which extends up the walls. They are impressive to look at but hardly conducive to food images. Those with epilepsy may want to look away.

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We start with a platter that tops out with a lovely chicken satay that really packs a punch.  There are crisp spring rolls, delicate prawn rolls, and nuggets of chicken that are fragrant from the pandanus leaves they are wrapped in.  Only the fish cakes need work, being a little short on seasoning and flavour.

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I take chicken for the main, stir fried in a red chilli paste full of heat.  Its the kind of food I enjoy eating – vibrant and full of attitude.  If it says chilli on the menu I want heat and here it was plentiful.  The veg was crunchy, the chicken moreish.  A good wholesome plate of food.

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I miss ordering dessert on account of enjoying the company and the cocktails a little too much.  Is this the best Thai cooking in Birmingham?  Not in my opinion.  But the cocktails, that is where this place comes alive.  They are surprisingly good, served by a knowledgeable team that know how to blend spirits.  For that reason I see this place being a roaring success, a little similar to the original Chaophraya in Liverpool that has made a solid reputation out of cocktails and Thai food in a glamorous setting.  The location in Brindley Place is a perfect one, readily set for the more elegant of Broad Street to have a drink and a bite to eat.  And the crucial part is that Siamais is significantly better than Thai Edge.  Progress is everything.

Thanks to Delicious PR for the launch party invite.

Ju Ju’s Cafe, Birmingham

The front of the menu at Ju Ju’s reads ‘Welcome to Ju Ju’s’ in large font.  Rarely has such a statement been so simple yet so accurate.  Its a place where the worst of people could go in and leave smiling.  I know this because I have been and I fall very much into that worst category.  It does not offer much to the culinary world other than a big hug and a kiss to the forehead, but that’s fine with me; comfort is underrated is modern cooking.  Flavour is too often sacrificed for finesse, heartiness lost to dainty dressing.  Not here.  At Ju Ju’s Julia is boss and her world is about feeding others.

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We find Ju Ju’s tucked away in a canal basin stacked high with glossy residential apartments, five minutes walk away from Brindley Place.  Its not an easy place to find, though others seemingly have with ease and the place is thriving late into Saturday brunch.  From the three dishes we order (two from the mains, one from the breakfast for my girlfriend who is still to wake up) the trio of pies impresses least.  The Shepherds pie works well with its topping of crisped potato cubes and well balanced mince ragu, the cottage pie on similar ground with a less successful topping of under-seasoned mash.  The cheese and onion pie is the disappointment; good puff pastry opening up to a watery and salty interior that remained uneaten.

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Fortunately everything else was far better.  The breakfast hash was a finely diced mix of the good stuff.  Bits of sausage meat, onion and potato, topped with a couple of fried eggs that gradually find their way into the nooks of the frying pan when released.   It feels value at £8.50, too, unless you opt to add grated cheese for a scandalous £2.50 extra.  The main courses finish with a burger filled to the brim with a tangle of ham hock and braised belly that’s been bound in a hollandaise the right side of sharp.  A mound of braised red cabbage at the base of the bun is the perfect foil for both the meat and hollandaise.  There is a dusting of bacon bits because there always should be.  Its all bloody delicious.  If you have one dish when you come here, make it this.

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With portions this size it was of no surprise that there was no room for dessert, leaving us to pay the bill and head home.  Ju Ju’s isn’t rewriting any cookery books any time soon, but it will feed you for a fair price and leave you with a belly full of food and a smile on your face.  The constant table turning during our lunch is a testament that others feel the same way.  Sometimes you just need an honest feed and Ju Ju’s knows how to do that very well.

7/10

Ju Ju's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

Cau, Birmingham

Today it’s a whistle-stop visit at Cau, a new South American style steakhouse in Brindley Place. Inside the monochrome interior is broken up by lucid green wallpaper that echoes grass, whilst clouds dangle from the high ceiling. Its an odd space, seemingly kitsch and intent on dividing opinion. With little time to wonder around the menu, we plunge straight in to the beef for mains. The cow, or cau as they would have it, would prove to be very good, maybe even surprisingly so, full of deep bovine flavour from an animal properly sauced and hung. The sirloin appeared central to the plate with no accompaniments – a ballsy move that lives or dies on the quality and cooking of the meat. It was cooked rare as requested, and correctly rested so that the meat juices had remained where they should be and not on the plate. The seasoning was exact and the flavour of the cow good. It was hard not to be impressed and impossible not to love. On the side came chips the size of a fat mans thumb, which were crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle. At fifteen quid it was a serious bargain.

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A burger also impressed.  Stacked high, the patty came pink as requested, with an onion ring, American cheese and piquant ketchup.  What made it was the addition of sticky bits of braised short rib, that reinforced the bovine flavour and added a subtle fattiness.  It wasn’t easy to eat, but then the best things never are.  More of those fat chips and another fifteen quid left us replete and pleased with the afternoons work.

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We never took desserts, though the website shows some interesting options.  Perhaps next time, eh, when I can also explore a seemingly well crafted list of Malbecs.  Cau impressed for having a product that far exceeds the mid price range it promotes.  And they deliver via those efficient scooter boys over at Deliveroo, which makes that steak / burger dinner at home all the more luxurious.   I normally insist on several dishes before I can give a score,though in this instance I can confidently say that if you’re looking for a lump of Cau, you’ve come to the right place.

8/10

Cau Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato