Fine Dining

Chakana, Moseley

The menu at Chakana is full of ingredients I am unfamiliar with. I’d heard of yucca because that’s what they eat on Shipwrecked to not die, and Andean Kiwacha, though I thought he played for Arsenal. Huacatay? Bless you. And something called Tiger Milk which I was pleased to hear is not from a predator’s teat. It’s a lot to take in and many questions are asked. Peruvian food simply isn’t well known north of London. Sure, we have ceviche made by chefs who think that a bit of lime juice on some raw fish will do it, but nothing like Lima which became the first (and only) starred Peruvian in the UK six years ago. Until now.

The chef who won over Michelin in 2013 has a new home, swapping bohemian and artsy Soho for bohemian and artsy Moseley. Robert Ortiz, if our brief encounter is to be believed, is here six days a week, working hard in the kitchen whilst the who’s who of the Birmingham hospitality scene handle front-of-house. The interior matches the tone of the food; it’s bright, and eclectic. The heavy textures of the white walls offset are by bright blues; it’s tasteful and very handsome.

This is my first real experience of this cuisine and I’m impressed. Very, very, impressed. We start with tuna ceviche, the ultra-fresh fish dressed prettily in the pink tigers milk. It’s a million miles away from the ceviche I’m used to: the dressing on the fish keeps going; first acidity, then heat, finishing with a little sweetness, yet still still allowing the tuna to be the star. We follow this up with two from the causas section, which are essentially defined by the cold potato bases. Both the chicken and the king crab are excellent, though if pushed to pick I’d choose the crab one which had less sweetness and more of a chilli kick. Again both are as a pretty as a picture. I’d imagine that some people will order and just stare at the food. We certainly did.

Mains are more wholesome offerings. On paper they appear to be protein and starch, though there are complexities in the subtle spicing and layering of the dishes that lift everything. Beef is marinated in vinegar and chilli so that the pink flesh has a back-note of being cooked over flames. There is a charred corn cake, clusters of black quinoa, a kind of nutty salsa and a purée of something fruity, hot, and squash-like. Apologies if the descriptions are vague; it’s a lot of stuff I’ve not eaten before. I just know I’m intrigued and I want to eat more of it. It is the suckling pig that steals the show. It’s Birmingham’s must-eat dish at present. The slow cooked meat collapses easier than our economy, the sweet yucca root is crushed and cut with herbs and the occasional pop of a tart berry that reminds me of sea buckthorn. There are chillis that linger on the back of the palate and root crisps that give the required texture. It’s an accomplished dish well worth £18 of anyone’s money.

If I’ve fallen into hyperbole, then I’m sorry but there is more to come. Desserts continue the trend for me wanting to go back and eat everything. For now you’re just getting the alfajores. It is as it is sold to us – as a dulce de leche custard with meringue – yes, your dreams really have been answered. The dulce de leche is rich, with coffee and caramel notes, the Italian meringue ethereally light. Claire describes it as the best Angel Delight you’ll ever eat, which is why I’ll always be the second best restaurant blogger in our household.

With this we drink some very good cocktails and enjoy a couple of glasses of very nice wine, gently coaxed into our decisions by a team who are well drilled in all things Peruvian. There’s nothing we didn’t love about Chakana; the cooking is interesting and delivered with real skill, keenly priced, and unlike anything we’ve ever had in Birmingham. Since our lunch I’ve been weighing up the score in my head, wavering between a nine and the ten. But this is my blog and my rules, so it’s top marks. The reason is simple; Chakana is easily the most exciting opening of 2019. You absolutely have to try it for yourself.

10/10

Chakana-restaurant.co.uk

I’d strongly recommend several pisco sours and an A2B home

Opheem, September 2019

We start this piece on Opheem right at the start of the meal. It is where all of my pieces should probably start but never do, given my tendency to try to hook your attention with a story about my upbringing, my alive parent, my dead parent, or that one time I went to bandcamp. Right now we have food to talk about – a lot of food – so we’ll jump straight in at the start; us sat on one of the large circular tables, peering through the large letter ‘O’ which frames the open kitchen where chef Aktar Islam and his brigade are hard at work. Aktar is hunched over the pass, the quiff of his thick black hair fallen forward like a curtain between his face and the dining room. We on the other hand are a glass of champagne down, happily watching this in serenity under the slowly fading light. The first canapes arrive; duck ham with orange is wrapped around a feather, compressed cucumber with a little spice, a tart with the lightest of cheese mousse inside. A cube of toasted bread is next, the inside filled with bone marrow, the top with fig and onion. The flavour is huge. Then the lamb paté, though now the bread has changed to a brioche made with lamb fat and topped with crispy onions. If the kitchen look like they are hard at work it’s because we haven’t got to the first course yet. The generosity towards diners often talked about At Opheem has never been more noticeable.

What is just as noticeable is how far this restaurant has come in a short amount of time. The swagger is there, rippling from the kitchen to the front of house, each knowing that Opheem has gone from a restaurant with a serious amount of potential to one that is fully realising it. It appears to this untrained eye that every detail has been readdressed and improved where needed; that bread and pate course probably didn’t need changing from the sweet potato bread, but they’ve gone and bettered it with the lamb-fat-brioche-thingy. It takes bollocks to do that. Massive bollocks the size of the ‘O’ on the pass window, and the slightly bigger ‘O’ outside on the wall. One is always bigger than the other; they’ve even got that bit of detail right.

Now before we get on to real food I will offer an apology of sorts: when the outside gets dark, so does the inside of here. What started off as great lighting for a food blog quickly turned into my phone not knowing whether to flash or not, a problem I constantly have to fight with myself. So sorry if the food doesn’t look as good as it should. The first course is tandoori carrot, with pickled carrot, carrot puree, spiced carrot soup, carrot tuile, and lentil pakora, because everyone knows you don’t put carrot in a pakora (I have no idea). The dish shimmers with vibrancy; undeniably carrot, it zips between the light acidic notes, the sweeter ones, and the gentle hum of cumin. The tuile at first seemed superflous, though the charcoal in it worked at accentuating the notes from the tandoor, which is why they are top chefs and I’m a prick with a keyboard. The soft shell crab follows; it’s a bonafide classic which made my top five dishes of last year and if anything has only got better.

We move onto a scallop the size of a babies fist, cooked one side only to a crust and drapped in lardo that slowly spoons the side of the shellfish as the fat warms through. It sits in a broth made from the off-cuts off the kitchen; the vegetable waste, prawn heads, gnarly bits of back bacon, spiced and then sharpened with a variety of lime I’ve never heard of so that it has a smokey hot and sour soup vibe to it. Thinking about it now it was probably my favourite course. I liked it a lot more than the cornet of red pepper ice cream dotted with green strawberry that follows, mostly because it reminded me of sucking on a paper cut, a reference that my other half described as ridiculous. Stone Bass is next, the fillet cooked accurately and the head meat a rillette underneath cut with lots of garlic. The courgette puree and pieces of baby veg, along with the potato fondant could have been classically french until the sauce of raw mango and coconut is poured tableside. This brings everything to life, adding a fragrant and perfumed quality to an already stellar dish.

Then there are the two main meat courses. First up is chicken jalfrezi which is about as traditional as I am modest. The Cotswold breast meat has been cooked sous vide and then finished off under the salamander with a topping of the chicken skin, a little fat (I think) and a little spice. This sits on a ‘keema’ of the pulled bits of the bird, heavily spiced and very possibly in my list of favourite things I’ve ever eaten. If Claire wants the broth for lunch everyday then I want a vat of this. A keema this spicy and tasty doesn’t just make your day, it makes your hole weak. The rest of the plate pays homage to the traditions of the dish without needing to go down the route of cast iron bowls and menus under glass tables for authenticity; a red pepper and naga chilli puree, shallots pickled and then charred, spring onion, one of those complex sauces which Aktar has rightly built his career (and previous tenures) upon. By now I’m praying to the food god to offer some relief, though he doesn’t exist so it’s on to the lamb. Barbecued loin, bread filled wih confit shoulder meat, the most morish of ‘kebabs’ rolled-up and coated in crispy onions, courgette, and a bone marrow sauce cut with enough herb oil to give it the acidity it needs. I was going to avoid mentioning the M word in this piece, but this is one star cooking, absolutely no questions about it.

Aktar comes to the table. He’s got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, he’s got whozits and whatzits galore. The trick of poaching the chai flavoured mousse in nitrous oxide might be straight out of The Fat Duck, but it works; the meringue-like structure dissapates on the tongue, leaving nothing but the notes of cinnamon and cardamon. From there we have the highest quality of cherries with sweet cheese that has been quickly frozen to an ice cream-like state, a riff on a Feast ice lolly filled with mango and coconut, and finish off with a rich ball of chocolate and raspberry. Yes, they are showing off but they have every right to; the quality of desserts here has increased dramatically of late.

The sum of this is what Claire would describe as the second best meal she’s eaten in her four years in Birmingham. It’s not difficult to see why; the cooking has gone up a notch in a short time, with those premium ingredients treated with the respect they warrant. Birmingham has a plethora of brilliant restaurants, each doing their own thing, carving their own path. Based on what we ate over this glorious evening Opheem has to be mentioned with the very best of them.

Want to mention the best taxi companies? The list has just one name. A2B.

The Ritz, London

So, it turns out The Ritz is really nice – who would have thought that? They’ve really nailed the five star luxury hotel. From the greetings at the door, to the cloakrooms, to the Rivoli bar with the cocktails that start at £22 and soar through the hundreds, to the gent’s toilets with the expensive toiletries, shaving kits, and warmed thick hand towels. Not a detail has been overlooked in the experience. It succeeds in the sense of occasion: from the generations of ladies celebrating the youngest’s imminent trip to university; to the couple posing for pictures on the staircase prior to their afternoon tea; to us waiting patiently for the dining room doors to swing open at 12.30pm sharp, everyone is dressed-up to the nines and ready to splurge. It is a place of overstated taste, gold-licked, regal and utterly charming in the most British of ways.

I’d built up an idea in my head of what it would be like from the TV show and the countless blogs I read. Some of it rung true; the majesty of the dining room and the dove-tailed waiters gliding around the room whilst the pianist tapped out the safest of Ed Sheeran melodies. Others less so, resulting in a very nice lunch that cost well north of three-hundred-notes but felt like it could have been better value on another day, or maybe for another punter. Take the canapes; the gougeres I’d read so much about are nowhere to be seen, and whilst the ragstone cheese on the parmesan biscuit and the sorrel emulsion on the spoon are very classy, I was kind of looking forward to the coronation chicken cylinders, or even the beef tartare nibbles that seem to blow certain people away. If there is truth in the “we are pushing for the second star” spell then it is a curious statement. They seem to have taken away the more elaborate start and replaced it with a reduced Saturday lunch service for us weekend tourists. I feel a little short-changed and this is before we get to the winelist that starts at £50 a bottle and offers zero value at any point. We opt for a young Latiffe that drinks well enough despite its infancy.

And for this start I’m conflicted because it is clear they are operating mostly at a two star level. The first course of langoustine has beasts of crustacean, all curled up and cooked for possibly a second or ten longer they need to be. What makes this dish is the nage; a sauce of shellfish stock, white wine, herbs, and lots and lots of butter. It is a about as good as sauces get, the ideal foil for the sweet langoustine and anise of fennel nestled underneath. The other starter is veal sweetbread, ariving tableside still smoking in the box of smouldering hay. The sweetbread is probably the best I’ve ever eaten: soft, unctous, and yielding with a light backnote of smoke, paired with an onion jam, shallot and another of those deeply flavoured sauces.

For main we take the beef wellington, a snip at £90 for two. It’s listed with celeriac (very much there) and Perigord truffle (only in the sauce), though also come with some seasonal veg, wild mushrooms, and a side of pastry ends which must be the most Northern side dish to ever appear in Mayfair. It’s very good and overly generous in portion. The pastry is super buttery, the cook on the meat is spot on and the foie gras that runs through the centre a welcome bit of fattiness. I get nowhere close to finishing it.

In keeping with the theme of me pissing and whinging about expectation, I’d sold the idea of the gateau St. Honore to Claire on a picture I’d found on the internet from, you guessed it, The Ritz. On that image layers of pastry, apple, and creme diplomat are topped with elaborate garnishes of sugar, nuts, and delicate chocolate work. The one we got served looked like the technical challenge attempts from Bake Off in comparison; two layers of the puff pastry, each half-piped with cream and the other with apple filled choux buns, almost inedible due to the thick caramel covers that threaten to do more damage than the bill we’re about to be served. In truth it wasn’t a great course; one dimensional and flawed technically. It’s also the small matter of £36. Good job the petit fours were stellar.

It’s The Ritz – we don’t come here expecting it to be cheap – but the final bill of £350 for two felt steep for the experience we personally had. In my eyes it was disjointed; unashamedly stoic French in design, they omitted the little touches traditionally associated with Escoffier’s haute cuisine (the amuse bouche, the pre dessert) for a streamlined service that still takes the same dent out of the wallet. The food is lovely, absolutely no doubt about that, but I wouldn’t rush back. Maybe I built it up too much in my head, but for all the good stuff going on in this grand dining room, you can’t help but think that some people are getting it just a little bit better.

7/10

Craft Dining Rooms, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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

Gauthier, London, 2019

The set-up for the BST festival is a shambles. Weaving our way past the pissed groups of girls here to sing away their heartbreak to Florence and her Machine, over the blanket-marked territories of young families far too in-field for nappy changes, we find ourselves at Hyde Park border control some 100m away from the stage. From here we can see the barren gap of high-vis jackets keeping us, the fans, from the front pit containing, err, not many people at all. That pit, we would find out, is made-up of those who were first through the doors, those who paid a chunk more for the privilege, and those whose careers amount to posting pictures on Instagram as ‘collabs’. I don’t like those who are in it for the ‘gram: the free-loading, waste of perfectly good oxygen, self-entitled jizz stains who think that posting an over structured picture twice a day surmounts to a career. It doesn’t. We reach these barriers as the last of Lykke Li’s ‘I Follow Rivers’ chimes out, as a swarm of flailing arms knock the life out of my six quid pint of beer. If only security hadn’t been so quick to spot the Hubble telescope I tried to sneak in I may have been able to get a view of her. We’re here for The National, a band we follow around far too often. They are as glorious as ever; deft and slow burning, with melodies that creep up on the subconscious over hundreds of listens. We find that we are stood in a community of like-minded people who sway and gently sing the lyrics to each song. It’s a moment that not even BST’s pathetic segregation can ruin; The National are as astonishingly good as ever.

We combined this with a restaurant whose tables I have sat at the same amount of times I have seen The National. I have been coming to Gauthier for many years, the first almost ten years ago to the day when my mate Barry and I were in the capital to watch Kings of Leon at a pre-barrier BST. That day our train was late and we never had time to change, meaning that I was in torn jeans and Barry was wearing a vest with a cardigan and dusty pink tapered trousers that sat around the rim of his buttocks and showed his boxers off. The dining room was a staid affair; there were many business meetings going on that all bore witness to Barry Joseph’s stout arse grazing over their shoulders as he walked to and from the loo. If I remember correctly, the two of us got stuck into a lot of burgundy and I barely remember leaving the restaurant, nevermind the gig. My further visits have all been under the guise of happy relationships. They worked, temporarily at least like a bookies pen, helped out by the most romantic of dining rooms, headed up by a front of house team who could polish the most tired of couples into something gleaming for a couple of hours. When we received a voucher for lunch after purchasing a case of rosé from their inhouse wine business, it became clear that it would be the ideal place to eat before the gig. And what a good decision it was: Gauthier was as astonishingly good as ever.

Somethings have changed since the last visit. My view across the table is now different, though more importantly chef patron, Alexis Gauthier, has gone vegan. It’s a move that can be felt even when not eating from the vegan menu given that the nibbles, amuses, pre-desserts, and canapes are all animal and dairy free. We start with a jar of ‘faux gras’ to share between two with a piece of bread each to spread upon. The pâté is a dense mix of mushrooms, walnuts, beetroot, garlic and onions; rich, earthy, and dare I say it, meaty. We have the recipe to make at home.  This is followed by capanota with bread crumbs. The stewed vegetables, consisting mostly of aubergine and peppers, are quite high on vinegar which is pleasing and stops the mouthfuls from being too rich this early on. The breadcrumbs are inspired. It is a very good start. I over order on bread, taking a raisin roll, tomato roll, and cube of basil foccacia. Whilst I don’t care for the tomato bread, or the butter it is served with, I would go back for more of the other two.

Claire has bavette for her starter, the core of the beef the colour of the Merlot paired with it. The meat is on a slab of brioche, with tapenade and pesto; a kind of open steak sandwich that draws purrs from across the table. I go for the summer truffle risotto because I’ve had it before and there was never any chance that I was ordering anything else. Truffles in Europe generally don’t taste of much this time of year (Australian is an entirely different beast), though these are of good quality; perfumed and not too woody in texture. The risotto is superb, light from more mascarpone than parmesan, the grains loose and with even texture. The meat jus around the peripherals adds another layer of flavour. It’s pretty special.

Both mains contain real ‘wow’ moments. A lamb dish has loin cooked to the ideal medium, slow braised shoulder, carrots, and broccoli. We get a little giddy over the heavily reduced sauce which is meaty without overpowering, and tear up over the black garlic gnocchi. This is the reason black garlic is made; to sit within fluffy pillows of flour and potato and load up the umami in tiny steps, not one big crash. Opposite me is cod poached in olive oil and thyme, lightly cooked until the flakes start to part ways on their own accord. There are morels and something called ‘salty fingers’ which is what I used to give to dates in the cinema during my teenage years. The star this time is the fish veloute; lightly licked with acidity and bursting with the taste of the ocean, it holds everything in place, linking the protein, the earthy notes and the salty verdant.

A pre dessert of lemon granita with peaches is contained within a meringue-like structure made from chickpea water, which I decided I would hate before I ate it and then really enjoyed. It made me think that I could come back here and try the vegan tasting menu, until I considered that would mean no truffle risotto or no Louis XV dessert. The latter of those was the choice for both of us to finish lunch, given that I insisted on it. The Louis XV is one of the great desserts, born in Ducasse’s 3* Monaco dining room. It is a posh kit kat with layers of mousse, feuillantine, and dacquoise, which are culinary terms and not Arsenal’s front three next season. It eats like a dream, indulgent and complex. The table next to use are celebrating: “the problem with that dessert is that there is never enough” they tell us between ordering more champagne. They are not wrong.

What I don’t like are the vegan petit fours, because a cake without dairy is just a stodgy clump of sadness. None of this matters though; this was a very impressive lunch in a restaurant I continue to hold in high regard. The bill for the above with two glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine, two ports, and a couple of dish supplements is just over £150 – a steal given the quality. Gauthier is one of London’s top kitchens. I hope to still be coming back in a further ten years time.

Audela, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Google tells me that Northumberland was once the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, which sounds like something out of Game of Thrones, only with a far better ending. Once the drive into the furthermost north of England is complete it is easy to see why: the coastline is rugged and handsome, as wide as it is long, dotted with castles perched high upon the banks of land that lay above the dunes. Like Game of Thrones these castles were once a defence point to stop the Wildlings from passing beyond a great wall, and just like the ending I’d quite like to live among those Wildlings having seen the mess that is the battle to be leader of our realm.

Back in reality, I fell hard for this part of the world. The beaches had the brutal quality that I love about North Cornwall only without the crowds, and there is an attachment to nature here unlike anywhere else in the country. I defy anyone to not be enchanted by the beauty of Barter Books in Alnwick, or the total charm of The Origami Cafe around the corner. I’ll be checking for a pulse if anyones fails to fall in love with the walk from Craster to Dunstanburgh castle, or looks to the majestic Bamburgh castle with anything other than doe eyes. Northumberland gave me a once in lifetime view of puffin season over on the Farne Isles, and then the best fish I’ve eaten later that day in Seahouses. It does it all with a shrug of the shoulders. There is no ego here, no bravado. Despite the postcard perfect locations that roll one after another, the residents of these towns seem happy to help everyone. Even the bloke from Birmingham who asks far too many questions.

Central to this little visit was an afternoon in Berwick-upon-Tweed, with dinner booked at Audela. It was the menu that swung it for us; one that sang of local produce at every point, utilising the North Sea and the meat from beyond the borders. The room is tasteful, though very warm, with deep chairs and heavy wooden tables. It is clear that they have aspirations, even if those are aligned to a style of cooking that Michelin has edged away from over recent years. We start with an amuse for our bouche of mushroom soup, a dish rooted in 80’s dinner parties. The soup has good clarity, the ideal consistency, and seasoning is punchy in a good way. It’s a very good cup of soup. The bread on the inside is a fraction dense, though this makes it the ideal vessel for chasing out the last of the liquid.

Twice cooked cheese and leek souffle continues with the dishes not seen on Masterchef since the Lloyd Grossman years. It’s the weak point of the meal; too hot, too heavy, with not enough cheese flavour. Another starter has delicately dressed crab meat with an accurately cooked scallop, pea mousse, fresh peas, and mint. The handling of the seafood is impeccable, though it would be improved by removing the pea mousse which overloads the softer textures.

The best bit of a monkfish main sits on the base of the plate. Both sauces – one a slightly saccharine bisque, the other lightly scented with lemongrass – play off one another to tease the natural sweetness out of the fish. The fish has been finished in plenty of butter so that a golden crust forms on top and the muscle inside remains translucent. Pink fir potatoes taste like they have also absorbed a lot of the butter, which is never a bad thing, whilst the tussle of veg in the middle are presumably here to fool you into thinking that this dish is healthy. Do not be fooled by the green stuff in the middle.

Top billing goes to a chicken breast with haggis that packs the biggest of punches, served with a caramelised cauliflower puree, carrots, and silky mashed potato. It sums up what the kitchen do best; maximising a few basic ingredients with salt and pepper. The sauce is a deep glossy reduction that speaks loudly of roasted carcasses and joins the dots. It’s a proper bit of cookery.

Desserts look glorious on paper though there is no room for them and we find ourselves apologising to the charming front of house for not ordering them. The bill, with three glasses of wine, hits just over £70, which is clear value when you consider the skill shown in the plates. Audela isn’t pushing the envelope of pioneering food, instead choosing to focus on familiar flavours done well, to a room filled with customers who know what to expect. They do that mostly sucessfully. Should we find ourselves this close to the border again, I’d gladly return.

7/10

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.