Hall Green

The Summerhouse, Hall Green

The Shaftmoor is a pub which has inadvertently shaped part of my upbringing. I never entered until my early thirties, when I would join my brother and dad for beers following my mother’s untimely passing. Prior to that it was the pub I was scared of; the one on the end of nan’s road, opposite the chippy on the wrong side of the area in which I grew up. There would be stories of fights which would spill out on to the carpark and locals you should avoid to the point that even in my late teens I would jog nervously past on the way to my friend Alasdair’s house. Nobody I knew went to The Shaftmoor and neither could I, especially with my supercilious wardrobe of moleskine and pastels in an area where the tracksuit is staff uniform. It’s nonsense of course. The pub would transpire to be a little ragged around the peripherals but inside was a homely space where no one judged three blokes quietly sobbing over a game of pool and drinking cheap lager. I liked it. I liked it’s soul and it’s honesty. They even had a shack outside cooking up seekh kebabs and chicken tikka on weekends, which I swore I would eat and review but never did. Me and my stomach have a bad relationship at the best of times. I’m not prepared to call it completely off by eating from a smoking shed.

That pub is now The Summerhouse. It looks far more inviting from the outside than it used to, with not much of a makeover inside, but enough to add a quid to most of the drinks. Aside from the lick of paint, new chairs, and bizarre Irish wall murals, the majority of the cost appears to have been spent on the kitchen. Gone is the shack, replaced with a glossy new area from which the latest of the city’s Indian Desi pubs will serve vast amounts of meat on sizzling black plates. I should probably take this oppurtunity to moan about yet another one of these opening, but I won’t: they are great at breathing new life into pubs on the way out, and anything that saves a pub from shutting down is fine with me. Plus they have the credentials of being from the previous owner of The Horseshoe. If the food is up to the standard of there, I’ll be running through the doors as opposed to past them.

The good news is it is pretty good. A chicken madras may have had the whiff of jarred sauce but the spicing was rich and fruity, the lumps of poultry only just drying out. I’ve had far worse at places charging twice the price. The mixed grill also impresses, with chunks of fat chicken tikka where the marinade has worked into the centre of the meat, and chicken wings that offer plenty of spiced flesh. The chicken seekh is missing in action, and I’m non-plussed about the lamb seekh which is underwhelming and overworked. Chips are straight out of a bag, into a fryer and dusted with some generic spice. Exactly what we anticipated.

The wait of 50 minutes for the food is passed on the pool table, meaning that I am late back to work and unable to finish the food, or query the missing chicken seekh from the grill. I’m conflicted about the score which sits around the seven mark before the missing bits of food and the lengthy wait. Look, it’s good if you happen to be in the area, which I will be several times a year, though in the grand scheme of desi pubs it’s not going to top my list at present. Given that Dad lives ten minutes walk away and my brother likes to drink here, I’ll be eating here often enough. I sincerely hope that I’ll be reporting an improvement here somepoint in the future.

6/10 

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Raja Monkey, Hall Green

I’ll keep this post nice and short, just like Paul, my dining companion on this evening. Just last week, Michelin starred chef and fellow Moseleyite, Brad Carter, was interviewed by the Good Food Guide about his favourite places to eat in Birmingham, whereupon he stated that Raja Monkey was his ‘best place for dinner’. I’m going to stop there and call it quits. Brad has the palate of a fine artist, making mine look like etch-a-sketch in comparison. I’ll be honest, given the choice of Brad’s recommendation or reading my badly put together, slightly angry, and marginally tainted opinion, you should 100% switch off this crap, Google the piece I’m talking about and take his word about going. Do as he says. The End. It was a pleasure knowing you.

Still there? WHY?! Can you not take instruction? You are worse than my hamster. Should you want my opinion, I am going to echo that of Mr Moseley Michelin Man. Raja Monkey is a brilliant little place in a spot worth travelling to, occupying a little crevice in the Indian dining scene quite unlike anywhere else. They do curries and dosa, and all encompassing thali. It’s the spirit of roadside India, those cheap dinner stop-off joints filled with locals and stale, humid air. Here we are in Hall Green, opposite Waitrose, sat in deep leather booths whilst others wait for spaces to come available in a packed dining room. I’d much rather be here, if only for the air conditioning.

I was in love from the first mouthful. It was the lime pickle which got me, blood red and aggressive. It has acidity at the front, lingering heat at the back. It takes considerable effort and skill to make pickle this good, not buy it in a jar like ever other Indian restaurant in the city. The mango chutney, too, with a back note of clove and onion seed, was impressive. I use this to spoon into a dosa filled with potato, mustard seed and curry leaf. The savoury pancake is delicate, the filling generous. I really like the punchy tomato chutney, less so the coconut one. It is as good a dosa as I have eaten anywhere, India included. Opposite me Paul is destroying a mixed fish starter. I don’t try it so we’ll have to take his past career as Birmingham Mail’s food critic as word that it is good. If you’ve read his previous work I’ll leave that decision up to you.

I do get to try his Chicken Bhuna and when I say ‘try’ I really mean finish off the third that he has left and work the last of the sauce out of the crevices with a roti. The curry is drier in style than I expect, fragrant with garam masala, and rich with the base of onions took well past the point of colouring. It is special but nothing compared to my thali. Thali, for those who have fell upon this blog by mistake and still order chicken tikka masala, is a complete meal on a tray. The components within the little pots is changeable, but this has paratha for bread, rice, an onion and tomato salad that zings with light pickling liquor, a dhal, vegetable dish, and curry. My curry is a chicken korma, a dish that Brits have destroyed by labelling it as the not spicy option in the post-pub curry houses. This is how it should be; a gravy base not destroyed by coconut, comforting and perfumed by cardamom. The meat has taken on the curry flavour, a hard boiled egg adding further richness. I like it, but it is the vegetable dish that amazes me. Whoever can take red kidney beans and elevate them to a rich, smoky dish is a magician. I bet they have beanstalks in their back garden. I’d gladly sell my cow to get my hands on them.

We skip dessert because there is no room at the inn for any more. Paul picks up the bill and we finish off our beers and idle gossip. My dining companion is clearly a huge fan, but let’s be real about it, he has skin in the game. Me, I owe it nothing other than more frequent visits to eat all of the menu. And I will. Raja Monkey is but three miles from our home, conveniently over the road from where we like to shop. It’s too good to ignore, a true taste of the no-frills dining in India. It shakes its thang better than any of its kind in Birmingham. That bloke from Carters is right, but then I did tell you that right at the beginning.

9/10

I did not see the bill on this occasion.

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The Horseshoe, Hall Green

The plate on which I portioned my half of the starter now resembles a Jackson Pollock painting; a drunken blend of vivid mint yogurt and a crimson chilli sauce that has the background funk of molasses and tamarind. The platter, once sizzling, is now a luke warm graveyard of bones. We have left nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch. The waitress, a young and affable lady in her early twenties, asks how it was, to which I respond with a simple and concise ‘excellent’. She is pleased, like she had cooked it herself, and goes on to tell us how the new menu for the refit centred around creating this mixed grill to be as good as it can be. She goes into details about the different marinades they trialled for the three types of tikka, and how the lamb chops cooking time was constantly tweaked. It is a level of attention that I was not expecting, yet alone to hear of in such detail from the staff. Frankly, I am impressed. Welcome to The Horseshoe version 2.0.

It is still The Horseshoe, I just added to the version 2.0 bit on the end to make it sound like a Hollywood movie. They’ve sharpened up the lines of the old interior. They’ve tweaked the menu to give it a more Desi pub feel. And they still offer a European menu which is sent back as soon as it is offered on account of the kitchen team looking more Mumbai than Milan. I blame the local community for this who clearly cannot accept that a pub which used to do pub food badly can now exist in the same bricks and mortar under a different cuisine. Would you ever go into a Fish and Chip shop and ask for Nasi Goreng? Exactly. If you come here and complain about the state of your carbonara, you’re an idiot and you only have yourself to blame.

That mixed grill starts and pretty much finishes us off. It’s gargantuan in size and only a starter to the optimistic or American amongst us. Three types of chicken tikka; one a conventional marinade, another sharp with the acidity of pickle, and one fiery with green chilli. Two types of mince kebab; one lamb, the other chicken. Both with personality, the latter packed with the hot stuff. Lamb chops that have the funk of a James Brown record only without the domestic violence. Chicken drumsticks. I think I’m done. No, sorry, I forgot the quarter of tandoori chicken, all communist in colour and scorched on the fringes. It’s all good; some, such as the chicken tikka, minced chicken kebab and tandoori chicken, are knock out brilliant. It is, right now as a collection, the best mixed grill in Birmingham. And I say that with the confidence of a man who has eaten many of recent in those considered as the premium.

We take a couple of curries and a dhal, because we are greedy and promiscuous with our choices. The tarka dhal gets ordered again, as does the methi chicken whose fenugreek flavour slowly reveals like a burlesque dancer. The punchy achari gosht is a little more one dimensional – we get heat and tomato and not much else with the tender cubes of lamb. From a bread basket is a good naan and roti, with a stellar paratha that’s all buttery wafer.

What we don’t finish they are happy to box up, and the following day we load the last of the lamb curry onto the leftover roti, with some yogurt which they correctly guess we would need. And there in a leftover box is all you need to know about The Horseshoe – they have their finger on the pulse and a firm eye on giving the customer what they want. And if you go looking for a mixed grill you really can’t do much better in Birmingham. Just go hungry.

8/10

The meal was complimentary and arranged by Delicious PR

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Chilli and Spice at The Horseshoe, Hall Green

The previous incarnation of The Horseshoe was a local for my family. Probably twice a week my brother and I would go with my parents there for a 2-4-1 meal that would do little for the development of my taste buds. Dad would his work way through a huge portion of mixed grill, whilst Mom would order the same and pick at the chips for forty minutes before sneaking all of the meat into a tissue for our pet dog at home. My brother and I, now into our late teens, made the most of the fact that Dad was picking up the bill. For it was these afternoons that we developed a taste for beer in epic proportions that still haunts me now. I never cared much the gammon steaks full of sinew, the chicken devoid of any moisture, or the curries whipped straight out of the microwave.

The curries at The Horseshoe have thankfully moved on from those days. Since they change ownerships they have featured in the British Curry Awards finals for the last three years, thanks to their Chilli & Spice menu, which was a good enough reason for me to go. I do love a curry. Inside the large pub things had changed from how I remembered. The bar was still there, though the stains had been polished out and lacquered to a mirrored shine. The bar area has soft furnishings and the look of somewhere I could easily enjoy a pint of Cobra after work. The restaurant, segregated by glass, is all wood, leather, and white walls. We sit down and quickly order poppadoms, which are not the freshest I had, though are still a cut above your local balti house.

217

Starters suggest a serious operation: Lamb chops have a dark char and crust from the time spent inside a seriously hot tandoor. Inside the meat is pink with the flavour of the animal matched with a spicing that elevates it way above the norm.  They are delicious to point that I consider ordering more.  Paneer tikka had cubes of the size of children’s building blocks, also given the tandoor treatment.  The spicing again was spot on, with each of the blend distinct and traceable against the blandness of the paneer, which is similar to cottage cheese.  Baked chunks of pepper and onion provided the textural difference that was needed.

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After all this I was expecting the curries to be some kind of revelation, an expectation that would fall well short. A fish curry leant heavily on coconut – a combination I am familiar with from my travels in Goa.  The sauce was muted to allow the fish to be present, which would have been fine had the fillet not been overcooked to a mush.  We nearly sent it back.  In hindsight, perhaps we should have.  A feisty Kadhai with good quality chicken was more successful, the chilli flavour bullish though mitred by clumpy chunks of onion.  Rice with flecks of crispy onions and spiced with cumin were a revelation, less so were the parantha which bordered on greasy.

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We could have stayed for gulab jamun or kulfi but the work here was already done.  With polished service and obvious skill in the kitchen The Horseshoe is aiming well above others in the neighbourhood, with a raised price tag to suit.  Just don’t, as we did, believe the accolades and expect it to be one of the best in the country

7/10

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