Fine Dining

Calum Franklin vs Brad Carter, Carters of Moseley

Brad Carter has a cookbook coming out in a couple of weeks. I say cookbook loosely; the recipes are of the staff meals they cook in between shifts, intermittently placed between pages of Brad’s friends, his inspirations, and his producers. I’ve had a quick look and it really is unlike any cookbook I’ve seen before; it’s going to look great on my coffee table. The pages that matter to me are around halfway through, jet black and with ‘Birmingham’ emblazed across the widest points. It is everything you need to know about Brad in a one-word synopsis.

Part of that love for Birmingham extends to the occasional Sunday evening collaborations with friends of his. There have been recent voyages into Chinese and Thai cuisine which I cant tell you about because I never went, and this one with Calum Franklin which I was given no choice about. Mr Franklin of Holborn Dining Room is well known for his pastry skills, a food type that is effectively heroin to my Northern girlfriend. I’m not saying that she was determined to go, but I was sent a calender event for when booking opened, and we had two alarms, three phones and a laptop ready. She may have lost her shit a bit when it wouldnt let us on to the booking screen, and she was elated when we secured a table. Want Claire anywhere? Promise her things that remind her of home like pie, rain, and the decline of the coal industry. Gin also works, but gravy works better.

What follows is three hours of food that I’m still trying to walk off two weeks later and Claire would describe as the most enjoyable night she’s had in a Birmingham restaurant. The first course is listed as a tart, but is really a vol-au-vent of puff pastry filled with the components of lobster thermidore. The luxurious touches come in the form of a breaded claw, rising proudly from the pastry, and a little Exmoor caviar for salinity. It is cheesy, yet with a whack of the ocean. If seventies dinner parties tasted this good I’d gladly wear flares and grow my pubes to travel back in time.

The showpiece was up next, paraded by Brad throughout the dining room like he was in a beauty pageant for bearded men in shorts. A patè en croute bearing the words ‘Carters vs HDR’ the along the length, which when sliced contained a centrepiece of the acid house smiley face – a tattoo that Carter has on the inside of his bicep. To me, this was the strongest course; the filling of rabbit, pork, and pistachio distinct, lightened by the turmeric coloured chicken mousseline that makes up the face. The pastry is rich, though not as rich as the decadent rabbit jelly that has been fed into it all day. On the side are fermented mushrooms cooked in butter, and mustard seeds sweetened with local honey. The acidity is gentle, leaving the pastry as the king. It is the complete dish. Last year we tried a world championship winning patè en croute at Daniel et Denise in Lyon: this was better.

And without wishing to sound like a press release, the fun didnt stop there. A scotch egg was executed perfectly, the filling of white pudding and pork highly seasoned, the bright yolk oozy and luscious. What we really love is the buttermilk and wild garlic sauce that is sharp and has the astrigency of white garlic thanks to last years pickled garlic buds. A pithivier of mutton finishes off the savoury courses, with the suprise of a top-half of layered spuds on entry. It is, as the table next to us point out, essentially a cottage pie encased in puff pastry, and if the sound of that doesn’t turn you please take those eyes of yours elsewhere because we don’t want you here. The asparagus spears cooked in lamb fat are just plain naughty, too. Shout out to my girlfriend who shows the dining room just how Northern she is by filling one half of the pastry shell with gravy. Her mother would be so proud.

Dessert is a Paris Brest – 2019’s most on trend pastry – filled with raspberry creme pattiserie lightly scented with rose. It would have been easy to kill this with floral notes, but they hold on to the essence of those lovely raspberries and choux pastry. I have no idea how I fit it in, but I do. It’s been a long night.

The menu ticks in at £75 a head and we add a considerable amount more tucking into far much pink wine and then red wine and then more pink wine and a little more red wine. It’s not a cheap Sunday evening, nor should it be. Birmingham needs nights like this; chefs of Calum Franklins ability showing us something entirely unique – we’re booking in to Holborn Dining Room to try more of his work as a result, so it’s worked from that perspective. It was a fantastic night, one that makes me smile thinking about it even now. Brad Carter lives and breathes this city. We should all be very thankful for that.

A2B love Birmingham almost as much as Brad and ferried my fat arse around as ever.

Peace and Loaf, Newcastle

It was Masterchef The Professionals that drew my attention to chef Dave Coulson. I like Masterchef The Professionals for numerous reasons. First and foremost it doesn’t contain John Torode, and it has marginally less Greg Wallace which, like those useless Panda bears (who, like Wallace, also chew with their mouth open and mostly do nothing), is still too much but is at least an improvement. The cooking is at least 30% better than the best of the standard show and approximately four million times better than the celebrity version, which does nothing other than shatter my dreams of semi-famous pop stars who gave me semis in my teenage years. It features Monica Galetti and her excellent scowl, though I preferred it in the early years when they had to earn the right to cook for her then boss, Michel Roux Jr, as opposed to now when they get handed open-palmed to Marcus Waring. Dave Coulson was on screen in those early days, impressing Galetti and winning over Roux Jr. I remember him clearly: shy, a little awkward, with a dry wit underpinned by that humbleness which eludes us in the lower end of the UK. Moreover I remember his cooking: his refined take on the flavours of a chicken pie, or the strong nod to Asian flavours. He made the final and I made a promise to myself to get to his restaurant.

We finally get around to this on a little road trip around the North East where his restaurant, Peace and Loaf, would be our first stop. It can be found on a quiet row of shops in Jesmond, the black frontage hiding a large space behind two sets of doors of which opposing sides open to confuse morons like me. Inside the kitchen pass sits on the middle of three floors, with the chef’s beard and tattoos visible at all times from our elevated position. His style of cooking reminds me of a certain David Everitt-Matthias, albeit with less precision in the presentation: there is an earnestness to the way he delivers an ingredient, a dedication to it’s surroundings, and he likes that challenging mix of land and water on the plate.

From the snacks that arrive we know that the trip is worth it. Crab cakes with sriracha mayonnaise are dense and spicy, a tomato loaf has a herbacous balsamic dip, and shards of linseed cracker with apple puree are well mannered if a little underwhelming. Best are cubes of fried corned beef, fatty and unctous, with a little brown sauce, that would be the first of many nods to the food of the North. The next would be a starter of parmo – traditionally a teeside dish of battered chicken cutlet with tomato sauce and melted cheese – reworked here to have octopus as the main protein. It has no right to work to work, yet it does; the tenticle was tender, the batter light. Underneath was a kind of seafood ragu not dissamilar to the one we had two weeks prior at Le Gavroche. The addition of parmesan isn’t too wild when you think about it; lobster stands up to it with thermidore, why shouldn’t octopus? Anyhow, it was very nice and managed to make the other starter of artichokes in various forms look a little boring in comparison. It had tiny forgivable flaws; the veloute is a little heavy on salt, and they make some of the crisp elements a little soggy, though it works, mostly due to the gloaming black garlic at the base of the bowl that sucks in the lighter, earthier bits. Bao buns then arrive. We never order bao buns, but it’s okay because everyone else is getting them. They are good bao buns, light and delicate, filled with braised duck that threatens to exit side door and ruin my shirt. I could eat a lot of these. Yes, I am fully aware that it’s a little batshit crazy to serve a Tawainese street snack in between the starter and main, but then I suppose we’ve just eaten battered octopus with cheese, and still have lamb with kippers to come.

I don’t enjoy that lamb with kipper dish. It suffers from an attention deficit and is loaded with a lengthy list of ingredients that crash into one another at high speed. The lamb is really well cooked, and I’d have probably enjoyed it with the red peppers and the gastrique sauce made from the same vegetable. I liked the goats cheese bonbon, and the little bit of kipper I tried with the lamb made a little sense. Goats cheese with kipper is just plain unpleasant, and the cubes of falafel are too granular and have absorbed a faint fishiness. It’s too much. There is also a lot going on with a monkfish, though this time the various bits bleed into one coherent chorus. The curls of fish are beautifully cooked, with nuggests of cheek in a light batter. There are long straggly bits of carrot, whole roasted carrots and a carrot puree. There is a smear of what I think is tamarind, paneer, and a side of the most addictive dhaal topped with deep fried chilli and onion. What holds it together is the sauce, which is buttery, rich and lightly spiced. It’s busy but everything is running in the same direction. It is a very good bit of cooking. Claire orders a side of salt and pepper chips, which are new to me because I grew up in a cosmopolitan city where Chinese takeaways and chip shops are allowed to exist separately. They are a revelation; the chips snap in the right places, the soft tangle of onion, pepper, and chilli familiar from fried chicken or squid.

Dessert is an easy option. All of them, which the French like to call an assiette and Claire now thinks should be a mandatory option everywhere we eat. I’ll ignore the fact that the four desserts are served on a plank of wood and focus on how good they were to eat. The skill is obvious; they all riff on familar flavours and have a firm finger on the pulse for texture. A take on tiramisu is a boozy affair, as is one that has rum fluid gels with pineapple and coconut sorbet. The sandwich of rhubarb and custard is too sweet, though I am amazed by the wizardry that is the cream that tastes of puff pastry. Best is a chocolate mousse with cherry sorbet and pretzel, the salt level intensifying the flavours in a way I wasn’t expecting. All four of these are just £20: little wonder the table next to us are trying to bargain with us for some of it.

Service is excellent, and three glasses of wine leaves us with a bill of £130 to pay before we get in the car and drive north to our next destination. One dish aside I really enjoyed Peace and Loaf, with its playfulness and feet firmly in its surroundings. As we leave I head over to the pass to personally thank the chef. He smiles and asks me to tell all of my friends about it. Don’t worry about that Chef, I’ve got that bit covered and then some.

8/10

Le Gavroche, May 2019

As I watched the Notre Dame burn live on television I had an overwhelming sense of sadness. Every time I have been to Paris it has been pinned by trips to that cathedral. I’ve stood on the inside of its vast ceiling with three different girlfriends, spanning from sixteen years ago to four. That city has housed me when I’ve been broke financially and also literally following a car accident. I’ve been there on the universal credit that is other people’s generosity, surviving on baguettes and poor French, and I’ve also been on long weekends eating in the best places in town when the pockets have been deeper. It’s always in sunshine; the sun always shines on the Notre Dame, even on bitterly cold winter days timed loosely around Valentines without the higher rentals on the actual day. The spire crashing down took my mind to the back of the building, past the vast gardens to that awful bridge that ajoins the island to the Latin Quarter where couples attach padlocks in a sign of everlasting love. I was once half of one of those couples. Those locks have since been removed, I’m told. It might be just a tourist attraction to some, or an image on tv of a place they’ve never been to, but to me that place holds a million different emotions for people I’ve loved and who never deserved to be hurt by my selfish actions. C’est la vie. If the last paragraph confirms anything, it is that you should never go to Paris with me.

Le Gavroche holds a similar spot in my innerbeing to the point that I almost never booked it. Ever had that perfect date day where all the bad points are forgotten and you swear that you will never need another? I had that twice at Le Gavroche. Both times from the same girl at two at very different stages of the relationship. The first was five years ago before this blog started when my obsession was in its infancy. We were high on nerves, unsure of what to expect. Michael Roux Jnr came out and posed for a picture to which Facebook erupted. We had a great lunch, went to a few great bars after and she scoffed a Burger King on the train home before falling to sleep. I had butterflies in my stomach, which was odd because I don’t recall them being served with lunch. The last visit was two years later. We downed a bottle of champagne on the train, another in a bar in Shepherds Market, and another when we reached the restaurant. No MRJ this time, but I did have a rather glorious birthday cake emblazoned with my name, which is a sure fire way to win over this arrogant drunk. We went to more great bars and I went to bed far earlier than anticipated. Memories, hey. Just by thinking of Le Gav I feel like I’m trampling over her. But ultimately the complexities of relationships equate to far more than staring at each other for a couple of hours over food. It is just another room, in another street, of another city. I can’t attach myself to it anymore than a TV show I watched, or a shirt that I wore on a date, or Paris, that beautiful city that I fall in love with every time I visit (do not go with me to Paris). My present girlfriend is my priority and she wants to go to Le Gavroche, so that is where we are going, regardless of what atrium of my cold heart it resides in.

It hasn’t changed. I doubt it ever will. It still reeks of old money and haughty accents. The customer is still king, and certainly not queen, given that females are given a menu devoid of prices. On the lunch we dine we count seven different front of house to our table and there are plenty more orchestrating around the floor in smart attire: the atmosphere starts a little stiff, though the mostly French team slowly open up to a formal service with a little dry humour. At one point I joke that we could just survive on twenty of the mini baguette loaves; thirty seconds later more bread is offered. The best teams communicate in silent gestures. There are few teams better than Le Gavroche.

The food is as old school as the clientele. Well heeled but ultimately of a bygone era. Everything is cooked in mass amounts of butter – no bad thing – and is oligarch rich. Canapés of a chicken tart and a puff pastry twist flavoured with Parmesan do not set the world alight, whilst the amuse of tempura prawn with avocado purée felt too simplistic for a restaurant bestowed with two stars. We do not get near the twenty servings of bread, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t try. Pile it inch thick with some of the best butter you’ll ever taste.

We supplement the lunch menu with a soufflé Suisse to start, because it’s my favourite dish in the world and I want Claire to try it. The volcanic spew of fluffed-up egg whites is cooked on double cream before being finished under the grill with cheddar and gruerye. It is cheesy, light, and probably very bad for you. Much like I was in my early twenties. A Waldorf salad has been spun through a blender; the celery now celeriac remoulade, the apple a little purée with balsamic on the side. It comes with two teeny chicken wings crisscrossed like a pirates flag. The dish works; I just wished there were more of it. The other starter is a kind of a squid ragu on brioche with a wild garlic purée. It’s an assault of big hitting flavours, the squid more a back note and texture. It’s delicious. Michel Roux Jr comes around, smiles, poses for pictures and moves on. It’s a nice touch that adds value.

By now we’re full and yes, I know we’re not halfway yet. I want to give my duck main my full attention but I’ve one eye on the cheese trolley that is sat in the corridor. The duck is a sizeable breast with crisp skin and rare meat. A few spears of asparagus and oyster mushrooms are strewn atop of a potato fondant that tastes more of butter than spud. A potato has no right to taste this good. The star is the deeply flavoured duck sauce that joins all the dots. Sauces like this take time, and that shows. The other main compromises of a large sea bass fillet, endive, broad beans, and blood orange, all coated in a butter sauce just on the off-chance you thought it was sounding a bit healthy. The cooking and seasoning is impeccable. It can’t be faulted.

Before desserts come we play a fun game as I try to steer Claire away from the £50 glass of sweet wine on to one half the price, eventually taking to showing her the prices. How very ungentlemanly of me. We finish with the sorbet trolley for Claire and the cheese trolley for me; I win. It’s the kind of thing missing from modern cooking: we exist in an era where this level of generosity is dead, where choice has gone, and desserts shunned in favour of shrubbery. Le Gavroche refuses to bow to trends and good for them. The bill runs into several hundred, though Claire enjoyed the spectacle and you can’t put a price on that. She’s seen with her own eyes what I’ve told her about on so many occasions. I’ve had another one of those days in Le Gavroche. I don’t think there’ll be a need to visit again.

If I could have got the A2B to London I would have. I didn’t, but they kindly got us to the station and back.

Ynyshir, April 2019

Unknowingly we book into Ynyshir the day before they all break for holiday. The restaurant is in a relaxed mood; Jake Buggs ‘Lightning Bolt’ is playing on the record player as we check-in, with all the staff in non-uniform. Some have taken this as an excuse to wear comfy clothing, others excessively loud shirts. Really loud shirts that should never see the light of day. They buzz through the corridor by the kitchen pass, taking out the empty plates from a packed dining room. As we tuck into a welcoming bowl of thick onion with sourdough in the bar area, it is great to see it this busy: eighteen months ago when we first visited there were us and six others present for a lunch service. Five visits later and they are struggling to get us a table, incredible to think for a booking that includes the legendary food blogger who is Claire Tucker and her pathetic boyfriend. I’m happy this way; they deserve it. Hard work pays off, this much is clear.

I won’t hide my love for Ynyshir, nor should I try. My good friend Rory now works here, and over time I have got to know owners Gareth and Amelia as well as several of the team who now recognise my bloated head in their tiny dining room. If there is bias present it is only on my part; I knew no one back in August 2017 when we first went and launched into hyperbole, and I recieve no concession on the £150 tasting menu. Simply put, we are here yet again because it is where we choose to spend our money, which we do a little overzealously every. single. time. Make of that how you wish.

It seems that since our last visit a lot of effort has been made to improve the smallest of details. The soys, mirin, and vinegars have all been upgraded to the best they possibly can be, resulting in more elegant acidity, whilst they have a big tank now that cooks crabs and lobster from fresh during service. The overall experience has been upgraded, a statement I wasn’t expecting to make. The ‘Not French Onion Soup’ is more refined, the duck with sesame more crispy so that the reference to the Chinese takeaway is more obvious. That duck blew my mind this time around. The slice of bread seemed smaller, which is fine because it means the layers of wagyu fat and mirin butter get thicker. Only an idiot would fill up on bread here, anyway.

Four new dishes follow, each of them highlighting just how fast the kitchen has developed. The first is katsu chicken; a relatively simple dish of brined poultry cooked over the japanese barbecue built by one of the chefs. The meat is then rolled through panko breadcrumbs cooked in butter and finished with the katsu ketchup which previously used to coat the crab. It is unbelievable; a smash in the face of flavour that bears only the faintest of resemblances to the now most ubiquitous of British dishes. Take that, Brexit. The crab is now a take on the Singapore dish, chilli crab, with a generous amount of meat bound in sauce packed with garlic, ginger, chilli, and soy. I made the bold statement in saying that the crab katsu was the best dish I ate in 2018: both of these are upgrades on the main components. The mackerel is now aged in the salt chamber to take out much of the oiliness, served in a bowl with a dark and heady sauce, and a little grated fresh wasabi, before we move on to cod in two servings. The first is a take on black cod, which is surprisingly gentle in flavour to allow the cod tell its own story. When this is downed they pour some of the cooking liquor into the same bowl with slices of raw shitake mushroom. I loved this; it has purpose and is an original way of getting the flavour of cod out there. Remember what I said about not filling up on bread? You’ll need another slice here to make sure not a drop is left.

We have the duck with hoisin again, the cawl which I still can’t get on board with, the lamb rib that I can always get on board with, and then the pork char sui, which is fatty and lucious and has me slurping unattractively from the bowl like the man I once sat next to on a flight in Vietnam. I hated him. I love this though and it’s over far too quickly for my liking. It’s a star dish in a lengthy menu littered with them. There is the aged foie gras with birch syrup and smoked eel that I devour in a single mouthful, and then a new dish of scallop roasted on one side only with aged beef fat and pickled elderflower. It’s got bollocks as a plate of food, a contrast of textures and big flavours that somehow holds on to the flavour of the scallop. I was concerned about this not working. It turns out I had nothing to worry about.

A slab of 215 day aged wagyu is presented to us, telling us that this is to be served as a burger and then tartare. But first the garlic prawn arrives; the meat is delicate, the roasted prawn shell sauce noticably better thanks to the higher grade soy used. The wagyu returns as that burger, a thousand times better than the thousand times I tried rip-off versions in the last year and a half. Then the tartare, which is just sit-yourself-down-and-take-stock-of-everything brilliant. A complex mix of barely warm beef, fermented grains, some kind of soy dressing, and egg yolk dressing. It’s mega, reminsecent of the first time I tried the vennison tartare at L’enclume, and up there with the very best raw dishes I’ve ever been served. More wagyu follows as a shortrib with mushroom but by now I am stuffed. I should probably point out to any vegetarians at this point that this may not be the restaurant for you.

By now the music has whizzed through The Prodigy and is onto ‘Doggystyle’. We take the cheese course of Tunworth on a sourdough crumpet with a maple/white truffle lick of magic. Every bit as glorious as it sounds. The yuzu slushie that follows is a clever way of resetting the palate before the dining room halts to mark the first dessert with a plume of nettle scented dry ice, pouring off the tables and on to our feet. The course itself has been defeated by the two cocktails and three bottles of wine we’d consumed up to this point, and if I’m correct I was more concerned with rapping the first verse to Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang than eating the buttermilk pannacotta before me. So as far as the courses in this paragraph go, we’ve had one, two, three, and to the four, as we sign off with the white chocolate and black bean mouthful which is salted caramel when you close your eyes. Perfection is perfected, and with that I promise no more bad Snoop Dog references.

From a young G’s perspective the last three courses are a whistle stop tour of three classic desserts, reimagened in rural Wales. We blitz through a new version of the sticky toffee pudding (now with a flourless date cake replacing the compressed fruit), the rhubarb and custard, and the tiramisu. Each are utterly brilliant in their own way. The last nibble is a piece of fudge made from wagyu fat. We retire to the bar and The National’s classic album ‘Boxer’ is played. And people wonder why this is one of my favourite places in the world.

Alchemilla, Nottingham

It took roughly an hour before I fell for Alchemilla. It’s not to say I didn’t like it before; I was already romanced by the vaulted bare brick décor, that initial view into the open kitchen from the front door, the sunlight pouring through the occasional squares of glass in the ceiling, and the most charming of sommeliers, but it was a teeny wedge of celeriac which sent me over the edge. The root vegetable had been poached in goat’s butter and covered in a chiffon of herbs that added a fresh layer of mostly anise notes. A smaller blob of black garlic and a larger one of goat’s curd joined them on a plate finished off with a beurre noisette sauce cut with aged balsamic. We were waiting for the fireworks moment and this was it, a dish full of confidence that could stand up against any containing meat. The star was the celeriac, the rest was designed to get the most out of it, bringing fat, umami, and acidity into the mix. Claire tells me that when I compile an end of year list of the best dishes I’ve eaten this will be on it. I will do as I am told.

An hour previous we had entered through the heavy door with the pretty green foliage on Derby Rd, walked down those aforementioned steps past the kitchen, and through to our table under the arched brick walls of the old coachhouse. We start with a nest of potato string dotted with smoked cods roe and dill, move on to delicate tartlets of yeasted cauliflower puree with duckfat, and finish the nibbles with seaweed tapioca crackers, mushroom caramel and a healthy dusting of aged parmasen. Of those it was the tartlet that got the pulse racing, a rich number with distinct flavours. Before the ten courses start bread arrives with butter and an onion jam. That jam. Reason enough to book train tickets to Nottingham by itself, all bread should be served with this.

A savoury egg custard might not seem the obvious base for crab and artichoke, but it works, slowly revealing itself to be a complex plate of food far more harmonious than it originally seemed. I just wish I’d have left some bread to mop up the last of the roast artichoke sauce. Shiitake mushrooms poached in teriyaki sauce had a slightly squidgy texture that I personally struggled with, though Claire loved it, using the lardo it was draped in to wipe the plate free of the umami-bomb that was the ‘tasty paste’. The celeriac course follows. How I loved that celeriac.

We move on to a loose risotto of grains with 3 year old parmasen, served alongside some fried jerasulam artichoke skin dusted with the rarest of things; truffle that tastes of truffle. “This is the first risotto I’ve tried which is richer than yours”, Claire tells me. She’s right; it’s glorious. Top marks for them for taking me to top-level cholesterol. The next course felt a little like work in progress. The gratin wedge of potato, smoked eel, and horseradish is superb but it is beaten by too much of the salted lemon puree on offer. By the time we work out the correct ratio (the tiniest amount) it is too late. Shortrib of beef has no such issue, dressed in a deep mole sauce, nutty and gently spicy like my mate’s ex wife, it arrives at the table shrouded in burnt baby gem lettuce dressed in something sharp, slightly sweet, and a little hot. Just like my mate’s new wife. It’s a great bit of cooking.

The only choices required today are the wine (which I do exceptionally well) and main courses, which we take one each of. On paper it is the hogget that looks most enticing, with bagna cauda, charred leeks, and blackened onion. The loin of hogget is packed with flavour, as is the breaded shoulder, though I don’t see the point in the thumbnail-sized piece of fillet. I like the garlic and anchovy emulsion, love the leeks and onion. Adore the sauce. It’s a very good plate of food. It’s just not as good as the venison. Some dishes make perfect sense on the plate and this was one of them: melt-in-the-mouth meat, mushrooms in various formats and strengths, balanced out by the resinous flavour of spruce, pear, and another killer sauce. The man can cook. He can really cook.

I lost track of a yoghurt thing on a stick with orange because I was too engrossed with a triangle of orange it was served with that was slightly candied and had an unreal depth of flavour. I request more to come at the end of the meal. Three desserts to go. First a drift of something crunchy covering a mound of something soft, with toasty notes and apple notes, and sweet caramelised notes. It echoed eating a toffee apple on bonfire night: I was a massive fan. Then a white and dark chocolate layered dessert that was rich and decadent and not really my kind of thing. And then a dessert that really was my kind of thing; a mille-fuille which was really 982 layers short of accurate representation, loaded with rhubarb, tarragon, and a liquorice flavoured creme patisserie. I won’t eat a braver dessert all year, that much I am certain of. I am also confident I won’t eat any much better; lovely aniseed notes and bright acidity throughout.

Before I wrap this up special praise must go to the front of house, which was some of the best I can recall. Smart, friendly service from a team who knew every dish inside-out, and a sommelier who guided us through an impeccably put together list. Now all of this doesn’t come cheap; ten courses each that ended up being fourteen, a bottle of wine, another glass of red, and two dessert wines clocked in at £273. Was everything to my taste? No, but this is innovative cooking with some risky combinations, and I’d personally rather be challenged over three hours than sleepwalk through the same-old-same-old. It doesn’t to me seem the kind of place to sit still and for that it’s a restaurant I’ll be keeping a firm eye on.

After lunch we enjoyed beers and gin in the rather wonderful Hop Merchant, before moving on to Cottonmouth for some outstanding cocktails. We got back far later than planned, enjoying the best of a city that has much more going for it than Hooters. It’s buzzy and progressive, with an underlying friendliness you don’t find too often elsewhere. And nowhere embodies those principles quite like Alchemilla.

9/10

Sauce Supper Club: Laurence and Claire, St Johns House, Lichfield.

I’m a bit of a Masterchef geek. Okay, I’m a huge Masterchef geek. One of my earliest TV memories was the Sunday evening version with the transatlantic drawl of Lloyd Grossman and his elongated vooooeeeeeweeeels. I have a hazy memory of some ageing French chef being a guest judge and talking about how a dish would have been more haute cuisine had they removed the vegetable garnish and just served the duck breast with the sauce. So one of my first TV memories is someone essentially saying that vegetables are bad, to which infant Simon concurred. Years later I enthusiastically tuned-in to watch Tomasina take the inaugral title of the rehash, and subsequently tuned-off when I tried the first Wahaca site she opened. I’ve seen every episode of every season since, the good, the bad and the ‘celebrity’ version. For me, the most interesting development has been the professionals format. This is where the real high and low points happen; the little bits of genius and the chocolate cake with guinea fowl. I’ve booked restaurants purely off the back of that show, I’ve watched a beautiful, bearded Greek almost crash out the first round and then storm through to the semi-finals, and I’ve considered my sexuality watching Michael Roux Jnr before Gregg Wallace opened that huge gob of his and confirmed I will always be heterosexual. I’d quite like Gregg’s job.

The chance to see two of the sucess stories from Masterchef The Professionals is too great to turn down, even if it means leaving the confines of Moseley for a forty minute drive to Lichfield. The winner of this years show, Laurence Henry, is joined by The Rematch champion, Claire Hutchings. Both sous chefs at two star restaurants, the former works at a restaurant in Nottingham which we’re visiting this summer, whilst the latter is based in Spain. We are seated on communal tables in the pristine St Johns House, on thick white chairs and heavy white linen draped tables. Snacks preceed the four courses, a delicate cone of salmon tartare which I am told is delicious (the stuff makes me gag), a gougere that is a tiny bit dense to be up there with the best, a pork croquette with kimchi puree, and most interestingly, a lightly spiced cracker with raw lamb and bulgar wheat that riffs on the Middle Eastern dish, Kibbeh.

Laurence is up first. The first course has mackerel two ways; a delicate fillet soused in a mixture involving beetroot juice which provided a copper sheen, and a panfried fillet which I’m not sure needed to be there. With this was beetroot thrice: as a puree, teeny raw discs, and beautiful cooked white beetroot, with a quenelle of horseradish tempered enough to stop it blowing everything out of the water. His next course wins no beauty contest, though for me was the best of the day: beef short rib, braised down until it retains just enough texture. The meat has a little underlying heat and the gentle funk of dried crustacean; it is a very refined take on some big, pungent flavours, delivered with skill and finesse. The roast onion puree, crispy onions, and shredded scallion it shares the plate with pull it back towards these shores. I could have eaten three more plates of this and left very happy.

Alas, that was not to be. Up steps Claire Hutchings with the dish that won the Rematch over Christmas. Lamb breast slowly cooked until only just holding shape, glazed in a curried sauce which pays homage to her Birmingham roots. It looks like a two star plate of food, with a row of neatly postioned cubes of mango and folds of cucumber, the latter alternating with pipings of mint yogurt and sweet mango puree. We get rice with crispy coconut and a jug of that curried sauce, with which I manage to transform my plate into a biriyani in record time. You can’t take me anywhere. But still, what a dish. Two different chefs, each with very different takes on spice. Both instantly marked out as ones to watch for the future.

Claire is on desserts today, with a set mousse of sheeps yogurt, sorrel granita, compressed apples in some herby liquor (I think), meringue, and dehydrated olives that had taken on a leather-like texture. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it – it took me back to the four ‘dessert’ courses at L’Enclume that featured parsnips and other stuff that should never end a meal. In short I loved it; the complexity and unexpected pellets of sweetness, the balance of it all and how the olive tasted almost candied when combined with the rest of the plate. We finish on wedges of salted chocolate, neck the wine and say our goodbyes to the rest of the table.

I’ve followed Sauce Supper Club for sometime, accidentally so on occasion (we’ve been eating in the same dining room twice in the last year), and I’ve wondered if these events really are for me. They undoubtedly bring a class of chef not usually found in Lichfield, though the travel is part of the fun for us. But these events are really something, delivering a very high quality for the £75 ticket fee. We ate four courses of their own food from chefs presently cooking somebody else’s menu on a daily basis. It was a glimpse into the the next generation of star chefs. If this lunch was anything to go by, the future of our restaurant scene is in very safe hands.

Thanks to A2B for getting us over the Staffordshire border and back

Purnell’s in pictures. Birmingham.

If any of the Purnell’s team are reading this, please take this as a public apology. Know that I normally behave far better and I’m not proud of my state in your restaurant. For clarification, we were celebrating Claire’s birthday a little too heavily; Opheem, Arch 13, Nocturnal Animals and Hotel du Vin until the very early hours the night prior. Back in Little Blackwood at 10am for breakfast and a birthday bottle of Nyetimber, The Edgbaston for a quick four glasses of Moët (and a couple of drams of Japanese whisky), Pint Shop, and then Purnell’s for lunch where we were kindly greeted with more of the fizzy stuff. You do the math. It was a lot of booze before we sat down for lunch.

As a result I’ve contemplated not putting this on the blog. I’ve been hazy on detail before, but that usually happens during the meal; I have never turned up for dinner drunk – I happen to think it’s fantastically poor form. I’ve decided to utilise Claire; her pictures and her memory (she skipped many of the morning’s drinks), and just write about the bits I’m certain on. What is clear is that Purnell’s delivered another brilliant lunch; one that is witty and theatrical, that still has real technique and flavour at its core. We have many brilliant Michelin starred restaurants in this fine city, yet none wear all that is brilliant about the city quite like this fine restaurant.

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The highlights were the coal potatoes with chorizo dip that echoed the river pebbles at Mugaritz, the cheese and pineapple that remains one of my favourite dishes in Birmingham, the cod with satay, and a couple of really excellent desserts; a chocolate and mint number that worked on a multi-sensory level, and that brilliantly iconic 10/10/10 egg custard. Service was exemplary from start to finish, the chosen wines from Sonal for each course perfectly judged. It was all very, very good. I just wish I was a little less ashamed of it.

So Thank You to Sonal for looking after us so well, to Glynn and to Luke for popping out the kitchen and saying hello. Claire had an incredible birthday and the two hours at Purnell’s were a huge part of that. If you’ll have me, we’ll come back and I’ll stay sober this time. Purnell’s deserves far more than the above pictures and a few words.

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

Core by Claire Smyth, London

I don’t think you ever fully get over losing a parent. Almost four years on, with the pain all but diminished and just the good times lingering on in the heart, I am still reminded of Mom in the smallest of gestures. A few weeks back it was in the bathroom of a flat she has never visited, me bent over the sink, taking that beard of mine down from unkempt to preened. I cleaned out the sink to the best of my manly capabilities; a few hairs remained dotted around the peripherals. I laughed internally. These dozen or so specks of my face will probably go unnoticed by Claire, but to my Mom they would have been the catalyst for war. In her world you left the bathroom as you found it or you risked her wrath. And we never risked her wrath; we were too wise to that. More recently we were sat in Core by Clare Smyth when it happened again; a carrot cooked in lamb fat and topped with straggly bits of the meat, sat in a puddle of heavily reduced cooking liquor. Once again I was a child; six, maybe seven years old, dunking thick slices of Warburtons bread into Mom’s lamb stew whilst watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on telly. A happy place. My mother was generally an awful cook: everything was left on the heat for far too long, which is what made her stews so special. The cheap cuts would be braised down over endless hours so that the fat became wobbly nuggets of flavour and the sinew broke down to nothing. Vegetables would be cut too chunkily so that the edges crumbled and the insides a soggy mess, whilst the sauce had globules of meat fat dotted around the surface and was thick enough to paint a wall with. Everything tasted of lamb. I adored it and this starter in a two star restaurant in West London served as a reminder of why I did. It conjured up memories of the smell wafting through the house whilst Mom and I played cards on the living floor. Of how regardless of how swanky the location the most important ingredients are love and the desire to feed. I could have cried, had I not been very conscious that every member of the floor team had an eye on every movement of every table at all times. Nobody likes a crying diner. They ruin the appetite.

We’d been looking forward to this lunch for some time. I’d eaten the food of Clare Smyth before, a few years back when she was chef patron of Ramsay’s three star gaff on Royal Hospital Road. At that point in my life it was the highlight of my culinary experiences, the first time that food and service of the highest quality alligned. I met her briefly afterwards and thanked her. It is another great memory. Fast forward to a freezing cold November afternoon and we had fought through the tourists of Portobello Road to the smart white-fronted building that bears her name. The inside is deliberatly unfussy. No tableclothes, books elevating lights, neutral coloured walls and tasteful art. The touch of a women is obvious. Nothing is harsh; it is soft and appealing. Claire is obsessed by the dried flowers that are tucked neatly in to the menu and spends ten minutes taking pictures whilst I peruse the menus. £65 for three courses is a bargain, less so the wine list. We take a Beaujolais at £90 that you can pick up for about £30.

Tables are quickly rearranged for the opening play, a spread of small bites on an array of custom made surfaces. A tartlet of eel with dashi jelly, nori, and vinegar is exceptionally well balanced, as are cheese and onion gougeres made with the lightest of choux. Crispy duck wings arrive under a cloche of orange smoke and are quickly devoured. Best is the foie gras tartlet with madeira jelly that is silky smooth and massive in flavour. A wholegrain sourdough follows with butter from Normandy. I’ve become a little obsessed with sourdough of late: this is up there with the very best.

I had that carrot and lamb dish as a starter, the memories flooding back as the rich ovine flavour surrounded everything, with only a dollop of sheep milk yogurt and carrot top pesto for respite. On the side was a little bun made with lamb fat that had more confit meat in the centre. It was designed to mop up the sauce, which we do with great pleasure. Claire had a dish she had long been eyeing up on social media: A pan fried sweetbread with a gently cooked langoustine, pickled carrot and the hint of anise from fennel seeds. To this was poured two sauces that met concisely in the centre; a vin juane and the lightest of lobster bisques. Proper three star cooking that balances the rich and the acidic with ballerina-like poise. It was the sum of equals, where nothing outdoes its counterparts. Harmonious perfection.

There has been much talk of Core’s emphasis on vegetables, though to me the most obvious skill was the continuation of flavour. Just like the lamb carrot dish, my main may have listed Roscoff Onion as the main ingredient but the dominant flavour is that of beef. The onion is beautifully decorated with flowers and stuffed with oxtail that melts in the mouth, with a rectangle of short rib braised for two days. A cylinder of confit potato topped with bone marrow tastes like it has been basted in animal fat, though that could just be the sauce that joins the dots and speaks of multiple days labour. If anything the duck main served opposite is even better, with a breast that has crisp rendered skin and meat the colour of Provençal rosè. To the side is a tart of braised duck leg and grapes. Magnificent. Clever additions of Timut pepper and a gel of honey and thyme add light floral notes. But that sauce! Oh my, that sauce. The greatest I can remember, made with duck juices, Madeira, and probably much more. I lean over to swipe some with my bread; a pot arrives of my own to save me the bother and Claire her lunch. Three star service.

Pre-dessert is an apple in appearance and unadulterated flavour. A caramelised apple mousse contains a centre of diced apples in brandy, which combined riffs on the flavours of toffee apple. It’s about as simple as the meal gets. Of the two desserts I am less fussed with the carrot cake that mimics the appearance of the starter, and more taken with their take on the malteaser. It’s a crash of malt, chocolate, and hazelnut on a plate of elaborate feathers. For the first time I finish a course faster than my other half. It is that good.

Petit fours of molten chocolate tart and jellies of sweet wine traditionally conclude the meal before a tiny birthday cake arrives. It’s the little touches that count. Lunch clocks in just shy of £300 and for once I don’t bat an eyelid. It feels value given the level of food and service received. It’s one of the best meals we’ve had, where the flavours are massive, the presentation beautiful, the service slick. It evokes memory of the past whilst pushing boundaries. In the year since Core opened they’ve attained a perfect ten in the Good Food Guide and two Michelin stars, whilst Clare herself has been awarded the world’s best female chef. It seems only a matter of time before Core emulates the previous home of its chef and is awarded the ultimate recognition. Make no doubt about it, this is a true three star restaurant in every sense.

10/10

Pictures by Claire

Opheem, November 2018

Let’s cut straight to the chase: last week I had the best curry I’ve ever eaten. Better than the original Balti houses found within our once revered triangle. Better than the Michelin starred Indian restaurants of London. Better than anything I ate in Goa, and better – her words, not mine – than anything Claire has eaten in her multiple trips to Indian, including the Taj Mumbai. You want to know the place? Good, because I want to tell you. It’s Opheem.

These curries only exist away from the weekend, found in a little insert in the centre of the menu marked ‘traditional’. It is within this short list that Aktar Islam steps away from his more contemporary style and looks back to the very dishes that shaped him as a chef. We have slow cooked bits of mutton barely coated in a thick tomato gravy studded with cardamom, and a take on the ubiquitous Chicken Tikka Masala that draws groans of When Harry Met Sally pleasure. Both are decadent and original interpretations with not a stock sauce in sight. Both are so big and rich they demand a lie-down. I’m pretty sure that neither is very good for you, but frankly, that is the last of my concerns. Arteries? Who needs them. With this we order potato wedges tossed in toasted cumin seeds, rice which separates as easy as a Hollywood marriage, a daal, and the lightest of garlic naan breads. It is all mind-blowing good. The marker for all other curries from now on.

There was stuff before this, and I apologise for the effort you’ll need to make in casting your imagination back to before the curry, but this is my narrative and if you don’t like it then go read the other shit available. We start off with spoons of spicy beef tartare and spheres of spicy tamarind water which sit either side of a ball of sesame seed and dehydrated strawberry. It was this last item that evokes most conversation; the sweetness quickly giving way to a long nuttiness that evokes the sweet and savoury style of Indo-Chinese cuisine. We get the bread and paté course that has shrunk a little in size yet still packs a huge punch in flavour.

And then there were two courses to precede the mains; a mutton chop marinated in hung yogurt and then blasted through the tandoor so that the crust gives way to pink meat. It comes with a pumpkin thrice; a soft julienne, little balls and a puree, each showing that despite Aktar’s roots in the food of India, he understands the importance of texture and layered flavour. The soft shell crab dish has become less cluttered on the plate, the main attraction now carved in half and sharing a space with a crab cake and loose pate. The crab is still the star though this now fresher with more natural acidity. Without wishing to dive into names, Claire compares this to another local Indian that may have some association with the chef here. They also do a soft shell crab, though this makes theirs look like a ‘child’s rendition of the Mona Lisa’. She can be so cruel. There is an intermediary course of rosehip and beetroot that is too sweet to sit where it does. It is the only thing we aren’t crazy about.

After the curry there is no room for dessert, but plenty of room for more gin in the bar area. The bill for the above and a good bottle of wine comes in at around a £100 per head, though this is on the greedy side of both food and drink. You could, and likely will, do it for far less. This is my third time at Opheem, following the first in late spring when I came home and told Claire that it would be the most important Indian restaurant in the UK within two years. She didn’t see it, given that her only experience had been on the first night of a soft launch in an unfinished dining room. We hadnt made it through the starters when she conceeded that I was right, which I am. Opheem is a shining light in the Birmingham food scene that not only reinvents the way we see Indian food but also pays homage to its roots. Simply unrivalled in this city.

Opheem (curry is on evenings, Sunday-Thursday)

Transport by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by the birthday girl