Fine Dining

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.

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