Fine Dining

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

Ynyshir, August 2018

The morning after our dinner at Ynyshir we are back in the restaurant eating breakfast. Perched on the pass bench we can see the kitchen hard at work whist Marvin Gaye hums quietly in the background. The smell of bacon lingers in the air. The team are in a great mood, poking gentle fun at one another whilst poaching eggs and frying off the lamb patties, happy to engage in conversation despite the late finish and early start. It was during these exchanges that we discussed ambitions, with one chef saying that after Ynyshir he would only want to work at Nathan Outlaw; to learn fish in the same manner Gareth Ward had taught them meat. This statement only sunk in during the long drive back to Birmingham. In the same way Nathan Outlaw is the place to go for seafood, Ynyshir has become a meat mecca without ever labelling themselves as such. The treatment of animal – from the salt rooms through to the cooking – is like nowhere else. And the team here know that, describing the present feel in the kitchen as similar to ‘the Harveys days’ when a young Marco Pierre White ripped the arse out of cooking in this country, leaving a legacy of shit chain restaurants and ultra talented chefs such as Gordon Ramsey, Phil Howard, and Stephen Terry.

It appears that the association with Harveys may not be far off the mark. As of this morning, Ynyshir have leapt into the top 5 list of the Good Food Guide with Gareth Ward named Chef of The Year. It’s phenomal work for a kitchen that refuses to stand still. A couple of weeks back we saw this firsthand, perched high upon the chef’s pass seats for this, our fourth meal there in a year. I won’t run through all twenty-odd courses again, instead I’ll focus on the new dishes, or those that have improved. And a few favourites: it would be a shame to leave those out. What I will say from the top is that this was the best meal yet, a nigh on perfect riot of flavour that consistently hit the two star standard and occasionally the level above that. Ynyshir is worthy of a special trip. Everything about the place, from the rooms, to the mountain views, the firepit outside, the drinks programme, and especially the restaurant, has a certain magic about it.

After the ‘Not French Onion Soup’, the crispy duck leg with seasame oil, and the bread course starter procession, we get the first of the new dishes on tonights menu. Mackerel cooked under the heat lamps, in a puddle of fermented raspberry juice with the same fruit frozen, and a little freshly grated wasabi (you’ll get none of the dyed green shit here). I have a little issue in general with oily fish, though I really like the clever interplay between the acidic, the sweet, and heat. What follows this is the best thing I’ve eaten this year: crab katsu has picked white meat coated in a katsu sauce that is instanstly recognisable, yet so much better than the Wagamamas version you are now thinking of. All it needs is a soy dressing enriched by the shell, and a little puffed rice for texture. Perfection.

One of Gareth’s main skills is the construction of dishes that have instant conection with food memory. In a similar way that Heston links meals to book narratives or childhood, many here are instant riffs on takeaway dishes, or fast food. We get Char Sui pork which are cuts of slowly cooked pig belly that melt in the mouth, sat in a puddle of the cooking broth. There is duck kissed with hoisin sauce and blanketed in a slice of compressed cucumber. Both in theory could be ordered with a hangover and ate in front of the telly. Neither would taste as perfectly rounded as this. The Wagyu beef burger course is the ultimate Big Mac. You cant help but smile whilst eating.

The whipped foie course has been upgraded to a fermented bilberry juice that cuts through the richness even better than its predecessors, whilst a new dish of tomatoes with lardo is fresh and unuasually restrained for the kitchen. After this is a flurry of our favourite courses; Wagyu short rib with mushrooms, that swoonworthy garlic prawn, the deconstructed Caesar salad, the lamb rib that I tell everyone about, and the lamb with kombucha that is a Sunday roast with mint sauce. Claire has the cheese course because her eyes rule her body: I request a short break.

Sweet courses start with a sharp fermented raspberry slushie, followed by a fermented raspberry jam on toasted sourdough. Jam on toast. They should offer that at breakfast, too. The knockout custard from last time returns with fermented blueberries, the dessert courses slowly edging sweeter whilst still staying true to the ethos. We have the strawberry dessert that riffs on summer cup, the tiramisu (still the best dessert I think I’ve eaten), and finish on the Wagyu fat fudge. Four hours done to the vinyl soundtrack of Stone Roses, INXS, and Kings of Leon. I loved every second of it.

Dinner is a boozy one and there are a couple of courses I struggle to remember in lieu of the cocktails and three bottles of wine consumed. This is a birthday treat so I’m not seeing the bill on this occasion, though you should allow a couple of hundred each for dinner and wine, more if you stay over in the beautiful appointed rooms. Stay in the rooms, treat yourself. The fact is that Ynyshir has made me a worse food blogger over the last year; I should be out using this money to eat in far more varied places. But we don’t want to. Everytime the idea comes around to take a weekend treat, it is here that we discuss first and ultimately last. There is nowhere else like it. They are on to something special; I know it, as does Gareth and all of his team. The accolades 2018 have delivered thus far are just the start; this is a restaurant destined to go all of the way to the top.

good pictures by Nosh & Breks, rest by me

Opheem; August 2018

My Dad was born in Aston and he is very keen for you to know that. I think he mentioned it about about a dozen times during a two hour lunch at Opheem recently. He says it to part justify and part bemuse himself at being in such a lavish dining room; his blue floral shirt showing a hint of silver chest hair to match his grey suit jacket, the ornate lights that sit central to the dining room reflecting off his tanned bold bonce. For a sixty-six year old widowed pensioner he’s owning it on his first outing to a restaurant that very much sits in the fine dining catergory. He generally doesn’t do this kind of thing; old Dave Carlo’s experience of Michelin stops and starts with a yearly M.O.T on his car. He is an obstinate creature of habit. Same pub every Friday. Same shop with those increasingly loud shirts. Same curry house with the same dishes everytime. Change doesn’t come easy at this age. But this year I’m committed to showing him the better side of things; he deserves it. Dad is both my biggest fan and biggest critic, he is the first to pick up the phone and tell me when I’ve not treated someone with the respect they deserve; the first to congratulate me when I’ve done well (unless it involves beating him). In the increasing parody that is my life he is my biggest constant and I bloody adore him for it. No matter how many I times I fall it is Dad that picks me up, dusts me off, and pushes me back to reality.

Opheem was in my mind the perfect fit for him: Aktar’s cooking has always for me been about family and generosity. Be it the portion sizes, the unstuffy service, or the nod to his own mother’s cooking, his food is egoless; designed with the diner’s pleasure in mind and never his own. I loved Opheem first time around – it is in my eyes the best opening of the year – and I was keen to say how the kitchen is progressing. Plus we have the added bonus of a new lunch menu which is absurd value at £22 for three courses. If Dad hates it then at least it is not going to be an expensive mistake. He doesn’t, of course. He bloody loves every second of it.

First the difficult bit. Try telling a pensioner whose Indian cuisine point of reference is Moghul in Acocks Green that a sperefied ball of tamarind and chilli water is going to be nice and watch his face. He eventually goes with it and is rewarded by the explosion of flavour that lingers long after the liquid dissipates. It’s properly clever stuff. He loves the pani puri that is layer upon layer of texture and spice, and even tries squid ink cracker with smoked cods roe and garlic. He quickly realises that the gulf between here and what he is used to is a huge one. The sweet potato bread appears with the lamb patè. I wait until he swipes the last of it the bowl before telling him those creamy jewels are brain.

I have mutton kebabs which are pucks of ovine and spice so smooth it is almost patè once you’ve broken through the delicately fried coating. The accompaniments of chopped tomato salad and yogurt mixed with mint are wry nods to the humble curry house. Dad had a dish derived from one of my very favourite things I’ve eaten this year. The ham hock samosa, once an element on the pork vindaloo main, is here the star. It has the same carrots roasted in anise, the carrot puree and the vindaloo puree. It is a beautiful piece of cooking that leaves Dad still talking about it one week after eating it when we meet again for beer and pool. Great food does that; it stays forever in the mind, outliving the eating and slowly morphing into a different beast that becomes a reference point that similar dishes will forever be judged by. I’m lucky to be there when my poppa is having that very moment.

Following an intermediary course of tamarind sorbet with sev and cucumber, we both have chicken for main. Thigh meat in a marinade pungent with herb, in a tomato and fenugreek sauce reminiscent of a certain chicken tikka masala. The chicken on both plates goes in record time, and I unashamedly ask for a jug of that sauce to put the rice and naan bread to use. Stained fingers and beard, the old man calls me classless. I hate to break it to him but I’m not the one wearing a brown belt with black shoes. Dessert is a pretty spiced custard with rhubarb ice cream and a fine dice of the barely sweetened fruit. It’s the only time Dad isn’t blown away. I eat both gladly.

There is an unfair association with lunch menus that the cheaper price means less effort. Whilst that is too often the case, it couldn’t be further from the truth at Opheem. Twenty two pound buys you nibbles, bread, four courses with sundries, and a view of one of Birminghams most talented chefs working tirelessly in his shiny new kitchen. The biggest compliment is given by my dining companion, who comfortably states that if my mother were alive she would want to eat here every night. Proof that Opheem isn’t just for those well versed in these type of surroundings, but for everyone. Even the old cantankerous bastard born in Aston.

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The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

A meal at The Wild Rabbit starts two miles away from the pub in Daylesford. It is here, behind the gigantic farmhouse that is the Daylesford organic farmshop, the cooking school, and Bamford Haybarn Spa, that you will find a sprawling farm. They have it all here; a dairy, cheese producers, orchards, poly tunnels and fields and fields and fields of the most incredible produce that I have personally ever seen in this country. On a hot summers afternoon we watch chefs in the distance talk to the head gardener and take back the pick of the crop; tomatoes, courgettes, the fattest of globe artichokes. This is their larder. And what a larder it is. The transition from soil to plate has rarely been more synchronised, or as successful.

Back in the pub the dining room is square, unimposing, and smaller than you may think. The pass lines up one side of the wall, through which we can see the relatively new team at work. Since the turn of the year the pub has gone through a drastic change of staff, the kitchen now led by Chef Patron Alyn Williams of namesake restaurant in Mayfair, and Head Chef Nathan Eades, previously of Simpsons. That is some team. According to them the cuisine has become more simplified, reliant on the produce from the farm more than ever. Whilst the bit about the produce is true, the food is not simple in the slightest. The technique is tight, the combination of flavours brave at times.

We go with the tasting menu because it seems silly not to, given that it is £65 and three courses would only be marginally less. I also opt for the better of the two wine pairings at £95 because I want to, and because this seems to be the best way of rubbing it into Claire’s nose, who is today’s designated driver to this beautiful part of the world. Crudités arrive swiftly in the form of spring onions, courgettes, cucumber, and fennel, served with a broad bean hummus. The quality of the vegetables are breath-taking, fresh and clean in profile, with the hummus lifted by an olive oil that has us begging to find out where it is from. From here we have two more nibbles, the first being knockout. A take on the ubiquitous Big Mac has beef tartare on a little brioche bun with burger sauce. The tartare has been cut with gherkins and capers, the sauce almost like a spicy béarnaise. It is glorious, up there with the best canapés I can recall eating. Following this is a croquette of pigs head with a puree of apple and red wine. The deep fried pig is rich and meaty, though I’m less keen on the puree that seems to ramp it up rather provide the acidity to cut through it. But still, what a world class start to the meal. Two types of bread roll keep up the standard. The attention to detail, right down to the butter churned back at the farm, is staggering.

The first course was a cracker. Tomatoes straight from those poly tunnels, picked white crab meat, Thai basil, burrata, and a mayo made from the brown meat. Everything is there to showcase the tomatoes which are stunning in quality. It’s bright and clean in flavour. The next plate has folds of iberico ham with peach, compressed and charred watermelon, fennel, and baby courgette. It’s a similar story to the first course, the ham is here to bring out the best in the peach and melon, the cured meat intensifying the sweetness of the fruit. A two part course sees rarebit on toast swiftly followed by an intense onion broth, cheese dumpling and jalapeño; just a few simple ingredients twisted into something magical. We ask for more bread rolls, smear thick with butter and work the last of the sticky broth out of the peripherals of the bowl.

A stone bass course would be Claire’s favourite of the day due to a rather genius garnish. The fish is impeccable; skin crisp, flesh opaque at the core, and even better with the shellfish cream perfumed with lemongrass. To the side are griddled courgettes, with mushrooms laced with cavier crisped up in a pan with a little onion and potato. I am not doing this element justice; it takes some very good produce and makes it exceptional, adding a luxury and salty element to the plate. Chicken has the unenvyiable job of following this, though manages to keep up the standards with a shard of breast and leek jaqueline and a side bowl of chicken casserole, finished with a kind of vichyssoise foam and a healthy dusting of truffle. As good as the chicken breast is I kind of lost all interest once I’d tried the casserole. Light and summery, the flavour from the less favoured parts of the bird are fantastic, lifted by the foam and frangrant truffle. Brilliant stuff.

A kind of summer cup slushy with raspberries sees us into the latter stages of the meal before the final fireworks. A millefeuille takes the same ethos as the savoury courses and places some beautiful plums at the forefront, both sandwiched between flaky puff pastry and as an icecream with unbelievable depth. Hands up, I’m a sucker for desserts like this, but there can be no doubting that this some serious pastry work. Chocolate macaroons conclude the meal. By now I’m full and more than a little tipsy.

I am reminded of an episode of Chef’s Table that focused on Dan Barber of Blue Hills. During that he recounts a story that defined Blue Hills; when they had an abundance of asparagus and he made the call to use the vegetable on every course. Whilst not on that extreme, the similarities are there: the repetitions of ingredients are not driven by anything other than prime seasonality. The ability to pluck something out of the ground in its best condition and transfer it to the plate with minor intervention. The meal is not about the protein, but about those courgettes, leeks, tomatoes and plums. It’s an ode to those who plough the fields at Daylesford. I really don’t want to keep on handing out perfect tens, but The Wild Rabbit leaves me no choice. Both Alyn Williams and Nathan Eades have created a menu totally unique to their environment which needs to be both applauded and celebrated.

10/10

The Greenhouse, Dublin

To say I was impressed by the food scene in Dublin is an understatement of epic proportions. In four days we had really good burritos, a lovely bistro meal, proper beef burgers, and two excellent breakfasts (no, not the White Moose café). There is a thriving independent scene of people passionate about feeding customers well. I loved it a lot more than the beer prices, which for a country with an alleged drink problem are bordering on scandalous. Still Dublin has a lot more going for it than three whisky museums and a street filled with stag parties. I loved it, and when I’ve saved for another twenty years to afford it, I’ll be back.

One of the reasons I loved it was The Greenhouse, a smart restaurant on the corner of St Stephens Green. It comes with a big reputation, with many in the know describing it as Ireland’s best kitchen. The interior is smart and compact, with tables a little closer than ideal. It allows us to get acquainted with the couple either side of us; both convivial and possessive of that Irish charm; both celebrating a special occasion. We order a bottle of txakoli from a list that offers little value and take to the nibble that is placed before us. The ball of deep fried pigs head has dense meat lifted by a little apple. Nice enough, though hardly setting the world alight. The sourdough bread that follows is pretty much perfect, with a crumb that snaps and a light texture onto which we smear butter an inch thick. It is a bread we would request more of as the meal progressed to ensure every trace leaves the plate.

The first course is a dish of exceptional balance. On the base of a bowl is a foie gras royale, silky and rich, covered in a green apple jelly. Layered on to the jelly are dots of apple puree, walnut, smoked eel, a powdered foie, and finally a green apple sorbet. There is a lot going on, though everything is complementary to the foie gras that remains the star throughout. For main we both take the suckling pig, loin served sideways with glass-like skin to one edge. The accompaniments are pure Spring; fresh peas, asparagus as spears and a puree, morels, and discs of crisp potato. An aerated vin juane provides the necessary acidity, whilst a glossy reduction of the pig’s meat juices is classic at its finest. This is stellar work, reminiscent of Phil Howard when he cooked at The Square. My kind of cooking.

Dessert is a passion fruit soufflé standing proudly from the ramekin, where we carve a little hole out and pour in a ginger and white chocolate sauce, before crowing it with a passion fruit ice cream. It is dreamy, the prominent flavour of the fruit livened by the slightly spicy sauce, the difference in heat a lovely contrast. Petit fours consist of a citrus and jasmine tea tart topped with finger lime, and a choux bun filled with chocolate cream. Both are excellent.

The above is from a set lunch, which is excellent value at 42 Euros for three courses, to which we add a good amount on top with drinks. To me this is excellent value for a meal that quickly hit top gear and stayed there. I enjoyed the style of cooking here; the strong technique, the restraint, and the occasional modern flourish. It’s a restaurant that very much puts flavour first. Michelin presently bestows The Greenhouse with one star, it seems only a matter of time before a second follows.

9/10

Carters, Moseley

Considering I live 250m away from Carters it is more than a little pathetic that I’ve managed to get here only twice. I have no excuse; I pass the bijou restaurant on St Mary’s Row on my walk to and from work every day, at least twice a week glancing over at the yellow lettering on black frontage and telling myself that I really must return. Now here I am, driven by the need for a midweek treat and a girlfriend who has a total obsession with their staff food Instagram stories. The interior has been tweaked to a darker shade than I recall, though the layout is much the same. It has drama yet a warmth to it. The hole in the far wall means that you can look in to the chefs at work, or they can look in to you eating their work. I am never quite sure which way round it is.

We have a steady three hour dinner which is so good I have decided to put the stuff I should be writing about aside and bring you this. It is one of the very best meals I have eaten in this fine city, one full of nuance and rooted so far in it’s environment you would need a team of gardeners to pull chef Brad Carter out of its soil. Without ever resorting to screaming through the tussles of his beard, Carter has become a champion of the best produce in the central region, only looking further afield when required, such as for caviar from Exmoor, or those heady truffles from Manjimup, Western Australia.

Four nibbles get us quickly underway, the first a parfait of chicken livers with various grains and raisins that I could have eaten a far bigger bowl of, followed by a delicate tart of broad beans and Winchester cheese lifted by a little mint. There are slivers of goose ham cured in house, and kohlrabi compressed in pine oil and topped with a salad of herbs which tastes slightly reminiscent of cucumber. The latter does a great job at prepping the palate though I understand how some, including Claire, could be underwhelmed. We have bread made from flour milled a mile away at Sarehole Mill with a pig fat butter containing a dice of crackling. If that butter doesn’t get the blood flowing to the organs, nothing will. With this the chef kindly brings a little Exmoor caviar over which I never expected, and probably neither should you. Still, caviar on bread and butter is something I’ll never tire of or turn down.

Cured mackerel kicks us off properly, the thin slices layered with gooseberry, bobbing in a bowl of dashi cut with mustard oil that has us slurping the last directly from it. A dish conceived in Japan, delivered in Moseley. That eastern influence runs throughout the meal, from the simplistic presentation, to the constant use of umami, and occasional flashes of deeper knowledge, like in the fermented rice on the last dessert. After this course it is straight back to the local environment; a slice of tomato compressed in elderberry vinegar, clothed in backfat and more elderberry, with basil leaves and seeds. It is one of the evening’s strongest courses, one that turns with every mouthful. There are sweet notes, acidic notes, fatty notes, and most surprisingly, anise from the basil seeds. For something that looks simplistic, there is a lot going on under the surface. I have a lot in common with this dish. Conversely, there is a humbleness to the next course, which means I have absolutely nothing in common with it. A fillet of ray with a sauce made from potato and dots of sea truffle, a type of seaweed that shares similar qualities to the tuber. Three cheap ingredients transformed into a plate that has far more luxurious qualities.

Now when I think of the evolution of Carters cooking it is summed up by the lamb course. A loin cutlet (I think) taken off the bone, cooked and then finished on a barbeque. As good as that is (and it is very, very good) the real points of interest are to be found in the garnish. Umami rich black garlic, peas that have been podded and dressed in the faintest of vinegar, sea lettuce both powdered and gently wilted, a healthy dusting of black truffle and a dressing of lamb fat mixed with aged soy. The complexities on the plate are everywhere, gently positioned into place and allowed to mingle with one another. The result is a dish as perfectly balanced as anything I have eaten this year. I save a slice of burnt fat for last because I know this will be the best bit. It is. What follows this is the best cheese I have ever eaten. A soft cheese called Maida Vale, washed in sour beer and served with malt loaf. It is grown up and addictive, sweet and rich, the beer a genius way of introducing balance.

Desserts are bold because they follow the same ethos as the rest of the meal, meaning that they are marginally sweeter, though not by much. More traditional of the two is the grilled strawberry, a beast the size of Claire’s Beetlejuice sized bonce. It has intrinsic sweetness, cut through by the clever use of unripened green strawberry and a soured cream. The last dessert is an ice cream of fig leaf, with local raspberries and fermented rice that adds a sophisticated sour note. Even the petit four – a silky chocolate ganache with rapeseed oil and sea salt – refuses to get the sugar levels going. I admire this; it is clear that Carter is now functioning with a singular belief.

Looking back on my 2015 review I used the words ‘uncluttered’ and ‘concise’ to describe the style of cooking. Although that ethos is still very much in play, the reality is that now Carters is an entirely different beast; it has matured into a restaurant entirely comfortable in its own skin, a place that looks to the best in local produce and pays respect to them on the plate. Claire considers it to be the best meal she has eaten in Birmingham, so much so that she pays the bill in full as a treat without me seeing it, though with two bottles of wine over the two and a bit hours it would work out to be about £130 a head. The best bit? All of this is on my doorstep. Moseley is lucky to have Carters, and I for one plan on coming here as often as possible.

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

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Opheem, Birmingham

Such was the brilliance of Opheem that we found ourselves arguing about the best bits for hours after our meal. Was it the deboned, rolled and stuffed trotter on the pork main course? Or the subtle use of jaggery to add a treacle flavour on the lamb dish? Maybe it was the acidity of the raw mango with the softshell crab? I always think that it says a lot about a place if you remember the garnish as much as the protein, and here we are, two blokes sat in a boozer discussing the finer merits of what my mate Jim thinks it is the best meal he’s eaten in Birmingham and me adamant is the finest Indian food I’ve ever had. We go over the small elements over and over, where on the plate every ingredient matters. It is a meal of outstanding taste, that much we can both agree on.

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This will come as less of a shock when you learn that Opheem is the new restaurant of Aktar Islam, long servant to the city from his time at Lasan where he won The F Word’s best local restaurant, and TV chef from Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen. Aktar has gone it alone now, with a large dining room and bar where a notorious nightclub once stood. The space has an industrial feel with lots of brushed concrete effects, whilst tables are spaced far enough apart to upset an accountant. A glass partition separates the dining room from the open kitchen. Aktar is present at the pass, tasting and casting his eye over every dish. There is fire in those eyes.

I’ve been eating his food for years now, and this feels like him cooking without fear or constraint. The flavours are familiar, though there is a lighter touch to the spice in general, and more purpose in the complex techniques. Of the three snacks that launch our dinner the clearest example of this is the use of sphererification, the gel membrane releasing a spicy tamarind water when popped whole in the mouth. It is pani puri reimagined via molecular gastronomy that has more in common with Indian Accent and Gaggan than the Ladypool Rd. And then there is a tempura oyster with spiced batter and puree that tastes cleanly of tomato chutney. Only a onion bhaji style fritter is instantly recognisable and even then it’s greaseless and a world away from the norm.

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There are nods to his previous accolades on the menu and from this we take the soft shell crab dish that pays homage to his winning fish course on Great British Menu. The batter on the crustacean is delicate, the crab itself tender. A silky puree of raw mango has all the acidity and sweetness it needs, whilst the fermented rice batter bowl it comes in at first feels superfluous until you realise it adds a nuttiness and additional texture that enhances the dish. Everything has a purpose.

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Chicken comes smothered in a moss green mass of herbs, the marinade breaking down the protein in the meat so that it is implausibly tender. A simple salad of heritage tomatoes is all it requires, along with a little more of the same diced fruit and a yogurt dressing. It is fresh and clean in taste, with a predominant flavour of herb over spice. There is an intermittent course of sweet potato and cumin bread with a lamb brain pate; a nod to him smearing his mothers cooking on to crusty white bread as a youngster. The delicate jewels of offal still pronounced in amongst the robust spices. His mother clearly taught him well.

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Mains show the concept of Opheem in full force; one that takes the traditions of India and recreates them. Traditionally a spicy mutton curry, Laal Maans is reimagined with slices of pink lamb loin and crisp beignets of tongue joining pearls of smokey aubergine and barley. The gravy style sauce pulls it back towards its roots though there is obvious alchemy involved with the liberal use of chilli and silky bone marrow. Pork is given a similar treatment with pink cuts of loin, a pastilla of smoked ham hock, and the rolled trotter that I am still dreaming of. There is so much to get excited about on the plate, like the carrots cooked with star anise and another killer sauce, but the genius element is the puree of vindaloo that is ferociously hot with chilli and soured with vinegar, just how you’d find it in the beach shacks of Goa. It is this that is the highlight of the meal. It takes everything it touches and throws it into the clouds.

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Dessert is a fragrant rice pudding panacotta served with various preparations of rhubarb, which include more molecular dots of jammy fruit and a sorbet of astonishing depth of flavour. Indian desserts are often the weak link, yet here he is proving that a little classic European cooking technique can go a long way at rectifying that. It is a smart move and one that guarantees I go home happy. It is is well balanced and pretty impeccable in delivery; Oh boy, does this man do flavour.

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And that concludes a truly superb meal. One that isn’t just a coup for the city of Birmingham, but is important to Indian cooking in this country. I’ve seen what the best in this cuisine has to offer and in my eyes Opheem already stands up to them, even surpassing them in places. Aktar Islam has been long touted as a standout talent, yet Opheem feels bolder than ever before; the product of a man cooking without shackle and allowing that creative stream to run riot. It is fresh yet relatable, distinctive cooking from a man clearly in tune with his craft. We are lucky to have Opheem in this city, but we must share far and wide. Food as good as this deserves celebrating.

10/10

https://opheem.com

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Paul Ainsworth at No.6, Padstow

Had our booking at Paul Ainsworth been three-to-four weeks earlier, I am almost certain that my thoughts would have been different. The diary had been unkind to it, sticking it on the end of a six week spell of gluttony that saw a trip to a food mecca sandwiched either side by multiple starred restaurants and some others pushing for similar accolades. Aside from a bulging waistline, this brings another problem, one that comes from short-term saturation of too much of the good stuff. We had a stable memory for ingredient quality, for seasoning and technique, and for service. I could still taste some of the best dishes we had. Coming out to play last they were always on an uphill battle, though that is not an excuse for them never getting out of second gear.

I don’t have much negative to say about our meal here, though I’ll struggle to hit superlatives over the next few hundred words. The building is nice, in particular the very smart CiCi’s bar upstairs, and the staff are eager to please. On arrival we get a nibble of deep fried Porthilly oyster with a smoked cod roes dip that is fairly unremarkable, followed by nice bread with two types of butter; one a sunflower yellow, the other caramelised. The former is okay, the latter unique and slightly unpleasant.

I’d been looking forward to the starter for a long time. A ragout of Jacobs ladder with tagliatelle sounds right up my alley, the kind of reinterpretation of homely cooking that gets me a little giddy in these kind of places. The ragu meat is lovely though it is too light; the late application of tomato concasse and a splash of vinegar has taken it too far away from its roots. The pasta is marginally too thick, though has nice flavour. It has little in the way of identity and is very light on seasoning. I’m disappointed.

Smoked haddock quiche Lorraine is another starter that sounded better on paper than the reality. The portion of haddock is generous and nicely smoked, the pastry case underneath rich with lardons, onions and an oozy egg yolk. The dollop of salty caviar gives it a nice luxury seasoning, with the whole thing covered in a foam that tastes of little, if anything at all. I thought foams had died by now. Claire sums it up with a subtle shrug of her dainty shoulders. “It’s alright”, she says, “we’ve just eaten so much better recently”.

The frustrations continue into the mains. There is some good stuff bought down a level or two by the company it keeps. A new take on Tournedos Rossini has chicken replacing beef as the protein. The poultry has been rolled with a duxelle stuffing and is unforgivably dry given that Michelin has bestowed this building with a star. Around this lay ceps, the rock star of the mushroom world, though these are lacking in the intensity of flavour that the very best have. The best bit is the brioche and liver parfait which crowns the chicken, the parfait in particular packing a real punch. The side bowl of peas, lettuce and bacon, again light on seasoning, does little for the dish. The other main was mutton in a rich suet pie, with a moat of red garlic ketchup. This eats far better than the other main; bold in taste, meaty, and with a nice acidity from the ketchup. On the side this time is fricassee of sweetbread, consisting of mostly cucumber and one solitary thumbnail sized piece of sweetbread. We order a side of asparagus that arrives on the bill later that evening priced at £10 for five spears and praise ourselves on not ordering the two portions they suggested. The table of four next to us are going to have a shock when their bill arrives and they have a £40 bill for twenty spears.

Dessert sees them up their game. A cheese course of sorts has a fat wedge of Barkham Blue served alongside a little jug of cider and a slice of tarte tatin. It is a combination that makes perfect sense, the salt and sweetness in harmony. It’s lovely, held together by some top quality ingredient and a killer tarte tatin that has apples just holding their shape and lots of caramel. The bread and butter pudding seems a perfect way to finish the evening. The cubes of bread in a custard-like sauce dotted with rum soaked raisins, covered in a chocolate ginger snap. On the this goes cream, with a puddle of sherry for good measure. It’s bloody brilliant; that spark we’ve been waiting for all evening. It has character in abundance, is fun, and most of all is an improvement on the original.

Service was considered, if a little keen on the upsell at times, and there was an issue with a glass full of sediment that I personally felt could have been handled better. We pay a bill of £180 for the above, a bottle of Beaujolais, two cocktails, and a glass of dessert wine. Not a life changing amount of money for dinner, but one that I expect not to be littered with small errors. Paul Ainsworth comes across on television as a cheerful and passionate chef, and everyone I know in the industry says he is one of the good guys. As much as I wanted to enjoy No.6 it left me a little disappointed. There is a playfulness to the concepts of each plate that simply doesn’t translate into the eating, which coupled with some erratic seasoning issues left me feeling cold.

6/10

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Azurmendi, Bilbao

We first spotted Azurmendi perched high upon a hill as our taxi roared down the motorway. It briefly disappears as we swing left to disembark the quicker roads and then rapidly grows in size again as we go around the roundabout up a very steep hill and up to the top, where the gigantic glass building stands proudly at the top. We enter the leafy reception and are immediately given a glass each of the txakoli they grow on their own vineyards at the rear, followed by a picnic basket that contains the first four courses. It would be thirty-five minutes and ten small courses from here before we sit down in the restaurant. Azurmendi don’t do things the normal way.

That picnic basket is Chapter 1, the first of four chapters that takes four hours from start to finish. Inside is a seafood broth, a dainty brioche burger with anchovy and smoked eel, and a cider parfait with chorizo crumb. What amazes me is the intensity of the flavours; everything is ramped up to the maximum it can be, the burger having the flavour of barbequed fish despite any direct heat being applied to any of the filling. My favourite is a false peanut, with uncompromisingly rich filling of foie gras and peanut, before being finished with mushroom powder. It is very clever.

From here we are taken into the kitchen for the next instalment. A chicken consommé greets us, the strong, clean chicken flavour lifted with a little sherry. Whilst we are drinking this an egg yolk has a little removed by syringe and then replaced with a hot truffle reduction that cooks the yolk from the inside out. A truffled egg yolk. Absolute filth. I am demanding this on every breakfast from now. The third chapter takes us into the greenhouse for four more nibbles, a glass of fermented apple juice, which we know of course to be cider, then the most remarkable cornet of tomato, red pepper and garlic that nods at the strident flavours of Spain. We get alchemy in a curd that transitions from water to a yogurt-like state in front of our very eyes. The fireworks are reserved for the final nibble; a caiprinha cocktail which explodes in the mouth from the thinnest of chocolate spheres. The cachaça spirit has been replaced with local txakoli which seems to lengthen the sugar and lime notes. Talk to Claire about our meal here and this is the first thing she will mention. Had there been more attached to the miniature tree she would have picked them up and made a run for the door. It’s the Macclesfield girl in her.

After these ten pretty astounding nibbles we get led to our table. The dining room is huge, the tables well distanced from one another. The art is to the left of us; the glass wall that looks out on to the Basque countryside, serving as a constant remainder of the environment and restaurant’s attachment to it. Indeed, for all of the modernist tricks that the kitchen applies here, the overwhelming feel was that of one of community; the use of local wine, of Basque traditions such as the chicken consommé, of local ciders, and a wider appreciation of the national flavours like in that cornet. There would be many, many more references throughout the remainder of the meal.

Four more nibbles arrive together before they move on to the tasting menu. The lightest of foie gras served within a followed-out lime, topped with a syrup of the citrus that works as a brilliant foil for the rich liver. There is a beignet of spider crab, and mushrooms coated in praline that attract the mushroom and liquorice powder they lay on. Finally we get txakoli infused with sea herbs that takes on a fresh dimension. We order a bottle of txakoli. It turns out that I like txakoli.

Still with me? Good. We’ll get started properly now. The first course is the only one I didn’t love, but only because I don’t like the texture of poached oysters. The mollusc is a beast, the biggest I’ve seen, with a vibrant herb oil, herb emulsion, a little apple, and a tempura of oyster topped with oyster leaf lurking in the back. This feels wasted on me and I should have swapped out like Claire did. Loved the tempura oyster though, which is meaty and still bursting with the taste of the sea.

Following this is sea urchin in various forms. Within the ceramic shell is cooked and raw sea urchin, tasting like the most pungent of brown crab meat, topped with a foam of you guessed it, sea urchin. On the side is a tilted glass of Bloody Mar, their take on a Bloody Mary, with more sea urchin, tabasco, Worcester sauce, and tomato juice. It shouldn’t work, yet it does, the urchin flavour working perfectly in harmony with the spice which sticks around for the various layers within the pot. If sea urchin isn’t your thing this will not be for you, but I liked it, it has an elegance about it and flavours that aren’t afraid of standing up for themselves.

A little veloute of asparagus is next, the flavours clean and defined with a dice of asparagus at the base. Even better is the ‘pil-pil’ of vine asparagus it is served with, which we are told to eat with our hands. The tangle of vegetable has been cooked with garlic and ancho chilli so that the heat grabs from the second it enters the mouth. Together with the veloute this course is nothing short of exceptional. The lobster which follows is beautiful, the tail meat centre to the bowl with just a glossy sauce American and pickled onions for company. It is topped tableside with a coffee butter that adds a subtle depth and richness to a dish that riffs lightly on acidity. The lobster is the best I have ever eaten, but does that really surprise you? By now I’m sold, hook, line, and sinker.

Beans and assorted meats are a playful take on the homely cooking within the Basque region. The beans have been produced using spherification, the gel membranes each releasing a different flavour note when popped in the mouth. Also in the bowl is a rich sauce, thickened, I think, with a little pigs blood. A cube of slowly braised pork sits behind it. I have no idea what the kitchen intended with this, though in my eyes it was the taste of Morcilla when all was combined. Rich and elegant, with meat and a little spice. This was an incredible course that used modern techniques to its full advantage.

We get the Red Mullet in three servings. The first a fritter of the fish innards which was a little too pokey in taste for even me. The second the most perfect piece of slightly smoked melt-in-the-mouth sashimi with charred edges and opaque centre. The last is a fillet, pan fried to a crisp skin on a circular of rich herb emulsion and stewed wheat. On top of the fish is a little potato soufflé filled with another puree of parsley. It is perfection in simplicity.

Our final soiree in the savoury section leaves me gobsmacked. I’ve done the three star Michelin thing before, I know how they like to flash their expensive cuts of meat, so to serve me a faggot as a main takes bigger balls than those I’m looking at on the plate. The faggots are made from the sweetbread of the pig, and are rich and delicate, glazed in a sauce so heavily reduced I could almost see my face in its sheen. With this are liquid balls of Idiazabel (a local sheeps milk cheese) that explode in the mouth, and cubes of salt baked turnip. It is one of the most remarkable dishes I have ever eaten, the cheese a brilliant partner to the sweetbread faggot. For once words fail me in giving this the culinary blowjob it deserves.

Three desserts to go. First up is avocado and mango, a dish that I most feared when looking at the menu. It is a delight; arguably the best of the trio. The success lies in the use of lime acidity and ancho chilli to sharpen the plate. Avocado puree is warming and spicy, with mango parfait and meringues. There is a lime cream and granita, and white chocolate leaf-shaped shards. It eats so well. Following this is red berries as various purees, the most decadent of sorbets, as well as fresh and frozen. A white chocolate sorbet and shards coated in basil join it along with a crème of something I cant recall. On the side is a bit of fun; a raspberry ice cream, aerated and frozen that disappears in the mouth leaving nothing but the taste of fruit. Drink was getting the better of me by this point so apologies for the hazy detail, but the overriding memory is of the unbelievable flavour of the fruit. With this we drink the most astonishing dessert wine I have ever tried; an iced cider which we dare not ask the price of such is its quality, and later appears on the bill for five euro a glass. Take that, extortionate UK wine prices. I know they said its not available on the consumer market, but if anyone is reading this that can source me the Malus Mama please hit me up. I could do without the air fares to have another glass.

The last dessert was possibly the one time the kitchen witchcraft didn’t pay off to its full potential. A forest scene has a chocolate leaf and twig protruding from black olive soil, with a sweetened ice cream of the sheep milk cheese from earlier and chocolate truffles. The flavours work great but the proportions are slightly out; there is too much of the soil which becomes claggy in the mouth without the moisture from the ice cream that soon runs out. We take coffee with the petit fours, which fold from a box that reveals eight gems including jellies, macaroons, and chocolates. We have these boxed up to take home, which make a wonderful breakfast the following morning. The red wine chocolate even helped ease my hangover.

This, of course, does not come cheap. The tasting menu comes in at 230 Euro each, and I’ll spare you the total bill that includes two good bottles of wine, and glasses of dessert wine to boot. Though to put it in perspective our total bill is well under half of a friend who ate in a Parisian three star around the same time, so I personally consider it value. It’s inevitable with longer tastings that there are going to be dishes you are less keen on, yet it was clear that the technique on show throughout was of the highest order. The four hours we enjoyed at Azurmendi are the absolute pinnacle of my culinary journey thus far, a carefully crafted experience that pulls in and out of their environment. My handful of other three star experiences were blown completely out of the water. If, like me, you enjoy the theatre of eating, modern techniques, and the most perfect of meals, Azurmendi may also be your idea of the best restaurant in the world.

10/10

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