italian

Top Ten Dishes of 2019

It’s been a huge year for the team here at MAOV HQ. Starting the year after being named Time magazine’s ‘Man of The Year’, I turned down a knighthood from the queen, Cheryl Hole. I won big at the global blogging awards, scooping the ‘Greatest Blogger Alive’, ‘Lifetime Achievement’ and ‘Most Unnecessary Wordcount’ awards, whilst narrowly missing out on the coveted ‘Best Line’ to Tom Carroll. I was immortalised in paper mache at a cafe in Huddersfield despite never have visited Huddersfield.

All of this is of course bollocks. I’ve learned this year that the ‘multi-award’ bit in my bio means absolutely nothing. If my life goal is to have my face flash up on a roundabout on the inner ring road following an award from a local panel best described as dubious, then I’ve fucked it. Properly fucked it. What matters is that this blog is still read, which it is in the largest numbers thus far, and that it is useful, which I think it is, at least 40% of the time. I’ve eaten a lot of food this year, some good, some bad, some great. Here are the ten best.

10) Tagliatelle with pepper dulse sauce and truffles. (0121) at Carters.

Do you find yourself looking at the menu for Carters and thinking it’s too expensive? Work harder, you shits. 0121 may be the answer for you. An unreserved area in the window by the bar with a small menu made up of ever-changing Carters classics. Think chicken liver cereal, oyster in beef fat, and the glorious scallop Brex-O. The pick was this, the best pasta dish I have eaten this year. Tagliatelle using ancient grains in a healthy amount of sauce that coats everything in a cheesey umami. Add truffle to the mix and you have a bowl of food well worth ruining your shirt for.

9) Tuna Ceviche. Chakana

Robert Ortiz’s plates of food are so beautiful to look at I don’t know whether to eat them or sexually harass them via text message. Go for the former and you’ll be rewarded with the complex flavours of Peru, where the quality of the fish stars alongside the sweet and the acidic. It’s finessed and fun. There is nowhere like it in Birmingham.

8) Roscoff Onion. Harborne Kitchen

I know a man called Rob who writes a thing called Foodie Boys. Rob thinks this dish is worthy of seventeen Michelin stars which demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the guide’s processes. It is, without a shadow of doubt, worth the maximum amount of nine stars that they can award a restaurant, being a comforting and well rounded homage to the humble onion. The best bit is the broth, seasoned with minus 8 vinegar for that sweet and acidic finish. Presently off the menu, I see it returning shortly in the future.

7) McYard. Backyard Cafe

The sausage and egg McMuffin of your dreams. One that runs with the basics of sausage patty and muffin, swapping the weird microwaved egg out for one that has been fried and oozes yolk, they’ve also upgraded the slice of a plastic cheese to a rarebit. And crispy onions, got to have those crispy onions. This could only have come from the filthiest of minds. Little wonder Rich’s partner always looks so happy when I see her.

6) Turbot chop. Riley’s Fish Shack

When I look back at the year one of my very favourite days was in Tynemouth. The sun was shining, we drank wine on the beach, and went to Riley’s. There is something beautiful about eating the produce of the sea whilst the waves break metres from your very eyes. That turbot was sublime; swimming in a garlic butter, the fat flakes collapsed at the nudge of a fork.

5) Bakewell tart soufflé. Craft Dining Rooms

Craft have had an interesting opening six months, changing Head Chef and key front of house on a number of occasions, but one consistent has remained; in Howing they have a pastry chef of serious talent. It’s practically impossible to choose a bad dessert here, but given the choice take the soufflé. Our first visit back in August featured this perfectly risen souffle, almond flavoured with a cherry compote at the bottom, just like a Bakewell tart. One of the very best soufflés I’ve ever eaten and I’ve eaten a lot of the fuckers. With Aktar Islam’s involvement and the arrival of Andrew Sheridan as Exec Chef it’s shaping up to be a very big 2020 for Craft.

4) Chicken Katsu. Ynyshir

The difficulty of Ynyshir featuring in a list of best dishes is that every dish potentially could be included. I’m going for Katsu chicken this year, an obscene mix of meat and compressed skin, coated in breadcrumbs and finished with Gareth’s version of a Katsu sauce which is way better than anything Wagamama have ever produced. Like everything they do here it’s direct and straight-to-the-point; a flavour-bomb of umami and acidity. February’s visit can’t come soon enough.

3) Langoustine. The Ritz

The highlight of my birthday lunch at The Ritz was this dish. So precise in delivery, the lightly cooked langoustines and buttery nage compliment each other perfectly. In a meal I have mixed emotions over, this was a three star moment that will live long in memory.

2) Patè en Croute. Carters and Calum Franklin

So good I almost cried, though with this taking place on a Sunday afternoon it might have been a comedown talking. A patè en croute of rabbit, pistachio, and bacon that revealed an acid smiley face throughout the centre when carved. Brad’s elated face when showing it off to the dining room was enough to make it a highlight of the year, though the flavour catapults it towards the top of the list. Incredible stuff. Holborn Dining Rooms is happening in 2020 because of this faultless meal.

1) Chicken Jalfrezi. Opheem.

When drawing up this list I had to ask myself what was the most important factor. I decided on a simple answer; what was the one dish I wanted to eat over and over again. Given that a battered sausage and chips from George and Helen’s lacks the finesse required to top such an elite list, I decided on the Chicken Jalfrezi from Opheem. It’s a dish that showcases exactly what Opheem is about: that marriage between French technique and Indian flavours; how the breast has the skin removed and is cooked sous vide, whilst the aforementioned skin is blitzed-up and reapplied to the meat to form a cripsy coating to the top of the meat. The picked leg meat turned into a spicy keema. The garnishes of different textures of onion, and the little blobs of naga and red pepper puree to be treated like English Mustard to give bright hits of heat. That sauce, gravy-like, which keeps growing in the mouth. It’s delicious. Like really fucking delicious. So delicious that I have phoned up on more than one occasion this year and asked (mid-week of course) if I can go and eat it as one course. I think it’s thirty quid if they say yes, but they might not, as I imagine that you are not Birmingham’s finest restaurant blog. In a world where I barely have time to visit anywhere twice, I have eaten this five times this year. It’s special. The best dish of 2019.

Top one taxi firm for the year goes to A2B Radio Cars

Sugo Pasta Kitchen, Manchester

We were a little tipsy by the time we reached Sugo Pasta Kitchen. I know this because my bank statement tells me so. That one drink we intended to have in Wolf At The Door turned into five apiece, and we sauntered down to the road to Ancoats via a plant shop for a hanging plant we don’t need and a record shop for vinyl to be played on a record player we don’t yet own. This isn’t a bad thing; morning drinking is great fun at the best of times. It happens to be even better when you’re in the best bar in the Northern Quarter, requesting off-menu equal pours of strawberry daiquiri and pina colada to make a Miami Vice – the world’s second greatest drink. Ordering the first – the Negroni, of course – is the first thing I do when I get to Sugo.

So forgive me if the details of this lunch are glazed, or if I approach this with an air of reminiscence that adds a saccharine taste over my usual bitterness. Sugo had been on our radar for an age, and it pretty much ticked the boxes in the flesh. We get sat on a communal table with a young couple and their baby, a scenerio that we are far happier about than they are. We could have ordered starters, but when you call yourself a pasta kitchen it’s important to test the fundamentals out. We order three pasta dishes between two, an order which was at least one and a half bowls of pasta too many.

The food is comforting and rustic and basically everything that you want from a bowl of pasta. There is orrechiettie with a loose ragu of beef, pork, and ‘nduja that nestles in the pasta indentations, and it’s longer sibling, strascinati, with sausage that pops with anise, porcini, and thyme. Two huge bowls of pasta that work because the flavours coming off them are as big as the bowl they rest in. The only time it slips is their take on the classic pomodoro. The tomato and basil sauce gets watered down by the cream heavy burratta. It’s nice, but the choice if cheese is misplaced: often burrata is a welcome upgrade to mozzarella. Not here.

Service is swift and we’re in and out within 45 minutes £70 lighter than when we arrived. I appreciate that from your perspective it would have been nice to have read what the starters are like, or how boozy the tiramasu is, but frankly we came here to eat pasta and that we did. It’s no great secret that Birmingham is short of great pasta options; Laghi’s and Legna aside there is nowhere else that I could reccomend. Sugo seems a perfect fit to a burgeoning Brum restaurant scene. I would love to see them here.

8/10

Gino D’Acampo My Restaurant, Birmingham

Convicted burglar Gino D’Acampo has opened a restaurant in Birmingham. He is so keen on you knowing this that he has not only stuck his name above the door, but also emphasised that it is his restaurant, just on the off-chance you think his name might be used to endorse another restaurant that he also won’t be cooking in. The ego doesn’t stop there; inside is a shrine to D’Acampo, with pictures of him posing with various celebs gracing the decor that is presumably based on his favourite airport departure lounge, right down to the padded stools at the bar knocking out the most acerbic of Prosecco. Just in case you need reminding of his credentials outside of chewing on a kangaroo bollock live on TV, the menu is there to remind you at all times. Dishes are gathered from Gino’s TV shows and cook books, and those cook books are of course available to purchase in the restaurant. Everything has it’s own soundbite description from Gino just on the off-chance that you forget you are in his restaurant, eating food cooked by a chef who has probably never met him. It’s like they decided that the primary reason to visit is to experience the pastiche life of the chef, rather than to actually eat food. A notion they have successfully carried over onto the plate.

The food itself goes from good, to lacklustre, to downright awful. To their credit, the front-of-house remove the plates that haven’t been eaten from the bill without being asked, which softens the experience just enough for me to say that if you were ever in the area and Oyster Club, The Ivy, Fumo, San Carlo, Adams, Pint Shop, Pure Craft, Pieminister, Gusto, Rudy’s, Indian Streatery, Chung Ying Central, and Hotel du Vin were all shut I could probably recommend a dish to eat here. That dish is the bruschetta, the first and best thing I ate all afternoon. The tomatoes are carefully dressed with a lick of vinegar, I think a touch of sugar, and lots of salt. It’s simple and effective. I just wish I could say the same about the rest.

The recipe for the paté can be found on page 18 of ‘A Taste of The Sun’ which I implore you never disgrace your kitchen shelves with. It should never have left the kitchen. Freezer cold, the butter on top had to be cracked apart with a knife. The paté underneath grey and granular from overcooked livers, whilst the promised addition of masala is replaced with a backnote of iodine. When asked what he thought of the dish my dining companion noted to staff that ‘the ratio of bread to paté was good’, which is more barbaric than anything I have to say.

From main courses we get seabass that is a little overcooked, but at least servicable, with lentils that are undercooked and tragically underseasoned. A bowl of cavolo nero and tuscan cabbage might look like the remains of a heavy night on the booze but at least has decent flavour. The last dish is pasta and ragu – the acid test for any Italian restaurant worth its salt, and this was once again lacking salt. The pasta is fettucine; the thicker, more clumbersome Roman sibling of the tagliatelle, which was passable despite not being my personal choice to sit with the watery ragu that has the blunt metallic notes of concentrated tomato that hasn’t been cooked out long enough. It’s twelve pounds of misery, enough to make the staunchest of remainers vote to leave the EU. This isn’t Italian food. The accent is faked, the gesticulations purely for show. I’ll leave you to work out where I’m heading with this.

We have the sense not to order dessert, though if you do you could be treated to tiramisu, or rum baba, or chocolate torte; all lovingly made by Gino on TV and then recreated by his kitchen using the recipes from his cookbooks. As previously mentioned our bill wasn’t much because the excellent front-of-house removed the bad bits, but does that make it acceptable? Absolutely not. We ordered four dishes, two of which were sent back. I ate that very afternoon to put some food in my stomach. With its city centre location and celebrity association no doubt punters will flock here to see what it’s about. To make them come back is a entirely different scenerio and they are going to have to be much better. Fantastico it is not.

4/10

Wanna know what is fantastico? A2B Radio Cars

Laghi’s Deli, 2019

At 5.45pm on a cold Wednesday evening, Laghi’s Deli is rammed. There are people in the bar area discussing work over large glass domes filled with red wine, whilst the restaurant area is packed with those elbows deep in plates of pasta. It’s great to see: some two years after I first stepped foot into here it appears that Laghi’s has reached it’s full potential, one where it has correctly cemented itself as the true authentic Italian in Birmingham. Sure there are others that rely on the same identikit menu with the same tricks and over reliance on a giant pepper grinder, but for real Italian food, for it’s silky pasta, it’s heart, it’s familiarity, you come to Laghi’s.

I’ve been coming fairly solidly since I first wrote about it. The food has got stronger and stronger, with the kitchen cooking more regional dishes from Bologna over what we are told that British will enjoy. This is not the place for spaghetti with your bolognese, nor cream with your carbonara, though if you are the kind of person who expects the above perhaps you’re reading the wrong Birmingham restaurant blog.

On a visit we take full advantage of a recent delivery of truffles from Tuscany. We have little crostinis topped with scrambled egg and black truffle, and taglioni with a lightly smoked cheese sauce and white truffles; a dish that seems very popular in the room, perhaps due to it’s perfume, or the extremely fair price of £30 to try the most prized of ingredients. There are sticks of fried pasta dough to dip into an arrabbiata sauce the right side of fiery, and deep fried bits of cardoon and artichoke, the quality of which are really quite something. I’m told that Luca personally picks the veg via skype from a buyer in Milan’s vegetable market. The mass consumerism of Bella Italia this is not.

The real stand-out moments here are with the pasta. A dish with porcini and coarse sausage meat is dressed in a sauce that contains a touch of cream that bites with lots of black pepper. The rolled pasta has integrity amongst such great company, being the texture it needs to bring every together en masse. Even better is the white crab meat wrapped in a ravioli of jet black squid ink, with onion jam, and a scamorza sauce that threatened to over but actually just gently lifted everything. This is a killer dish; the work of a chef not afraid to play the bold and delicate together, showing a skilled touch at balancing flavours. It might just be my favourite dish on the menu.

I returned again last week for a Sicilian wine dinner, where the kitchen showed they are far more than capable of turning their hand to an entirely different style of cooking. The food was mostly reminiscent of what we ate a couple of months back, with lightly fried panelle, oily fleshed sardines with plump sultanas and pine nuts, and ricotta frittas that leak soft cheese with every mouthful. When it is good – like the perkily dressed octupus salad, or the mussels gratin – it is very, very good indeed. We finish on cannoli better than any we personally ate in Sicily, including those from the reveered Pasticceria Maria Grammitico in Erice. The wine too was superb. But then it was handpicked from the Tenuta estate so it would be.

Now the disclosure bit. I’ve gotten to know Luca since he opened the restaurant and consider him a friend. We’ve been for lunch together and shared a glass of wine on numerous occasions. I say this because I have no need to hide it; we’re friends because because we share a mutual passion and when I eat at his restaurant my card always leaves my wallet. And the reason why I eat at Laghi’s as much as anywhere else in the city is not because he owns it, but because it is the first place I think of when I think of the rustic and bold cooking of Northern Italy.

Take an A2B and treat yo’self

Some Things I Ate in Sicily

I wasn’t going to write anything about Sicily. Why should I? It’s my holiday and I went to escape you lot, not pack you into my suitcase and have you steal our fun when it’s us that dropped the mortgage deposit on a holiday, not you. But I’m home alone with a cold and I’m bored and Question Time doesn’t start for an hour so here you go, here are the best bits of what we ate with no mention of the rubbish bits because I don’t want to share my side of the bed with a horses head:

Street food in Palermo.

Friggitoria Chiluzzo

They don’t have a Digbeth Dining Club in Palermo which was disappointing, but they have a street food history going back hundreds of years which is nearly as good. The pick by a country mile is Friggitoria Chiluzzo, a little spot by the harbour full of locals. It’s the panelle sandwich they all come for – chickpea flour fritter and potato croquette sandwiched between two slices of bread. Carb cubed, morish and suprisingly not too dry. Add some caponata, a portion of fried aubergine, two large beers and you have a bill for five euros. No wonder it’s always rammed.

Ke Palle

We ate a lot of arancini and this is the best of the streetfood vendors for your fix of deep fried rice balls. Without going into full geek mode, the thing that made it the best was the texture of the rice which still retained a little bite and avoided clagginess. The more traditional fillings were very good, but it was two that veered a little off-course that stole it: first a filling of chicken curry and another with nutella that had a brioche-like casing. Really superb.

Drinks in Palermo. Specifically Negroni.

Two to mention here a few seconds walk away from each other: Bar Garibaldi describes itself rather wonderfully as a ‘working class cocktail bar’ which is perhaps the most endearing thing I’ve heard since the ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ scene in Elf. We drank all night here and left with a joint bill of about £30. Loved it. Better drinks were had at Botteghi Colletti for significantly more money. A speakeasy 1940’s vibe except everyone has piled out on to the street, thus defeating the point. Great negroni. Killer soundtrack.

Special shoutout to Bar Bocum which I initially hated but ended-up loving thanks to complimentary arancini filled with prawns that were the best we ate across the island. Cocktails were around £14 a pop which makes them the most expensive by a distance, but we stayed for several which tells you all you need to know.

Cefalu. Booze, grub, and the greatest lasagne in the world.

I knew I’d love Cefalu because I’d seen it approx. nine million times on Cinema Paradiso. Nine million might be an exaggration. Maybe six million. Whether sat in the square by the Duomo, or looking down it from the top of La Rocca, it’s a pretty place where the city ends and the sea starts with little gap. Drinks were a mixed bag, though perhaps our favourite place was St George; an English ‘pub’ that is nothing like an English pub, ran by two young Italians who happen to speak perfect English. Cheap, well made drinks including a killer negroni sblagiato.

Galleria is where you should be heading in Cefalu for a nice meal in pretty surroundings. We had a very nice meal there including a carpaccio of slow cooked suckling pig, with peach, honey, and almonds. Or you could save a lot of money by eating the lasagne for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Capricio Sicilano. A mixture of pork, veal, and beef, with three cheeses and a little heat. It is my life goal to recreate this dish.

Tenuta Regaleali

Quite simply heaven and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. A vineyard in the middle of nowhere, high up in the mountanous region of Siciliy. Despite the fact that they have seven rooms we were the only people there because they limit the number of people on the premises for couples to give them the maximum experience. Lunch is a lengthy tasting with some exceptional wines, then down to the pool with it’s outdoor bed and fully stocked fridge, up to the highest point of the vineyard for sunset and then dinner in the table laid in the courtyard. Roberto, our host for the stay, was exceptional in every way. The wines are fantastic and plentiful; the food (especially the homemade ricotta) as good as anywhere on the island. The pricetag of over £500 a night may seem a lot, though once the setting, food, and drink are factored in, a stay here seems a relative bargain.

Castelbuono. Of mountains and mistaken identites.

Ristorante Palazzioccio has been in the Michelin guide for ten years. It’s nice in a homely sort of way, even if they did try to pass off a vividly green pesto with fusilli as the white veal ragu with taglioni that I ordered. Still, the portions are huge and they’re happy to decant 120 euro bottles of wine into plastic bottles if you’re running late for a gig.

Better, in our humble opinion, was Zerokilometre, a catchily named restaurant who claim to source every ingredient from within 1000 metres, though doesn’t explain where they found the squid that ended up whole on a lunchtime plate. We ate here three times in as many days because it was consistent, the porcetta was very good and the pasta better than most.

Social media plays a funny part in holidays, as everyone is living their best life and putting on the gloss for every element of the holiday to make it look like its faultless. The reality is that nowhere is really that good – we had duff meals in San Sebastian with two months research. Looking back over the hundreds of pictures we took I can see that the food in Erice wasn’t great, and in Ustica it would appear that we chose badly; maybe the dishes, maybe the places themselves. If you find yourself reading this because you too are going to Sicily please drop me an email: you can have my notes and my thoughts on the good and the bad. It’s a beautiful part of the world that is still recovering from the reputation of a certain crime syndicate.

need a taxi to the hotel? A2B have got you

Legna, July 2019

I have this idea for a streetfood business called ‘Simon Le Bon Bon’. Now I know that you are sat reading this thinking “what a great name for a streetfood business”, and yes, you’re correct, it really is. It works on so many levels; it has my first name, it has the name of a Brummie celebrity, and it tells you what type of food the business does. The term ‘bon bon’ may have originated from the sweet candies consummed by the French after dinner to mask the smell of garlic and BO, though it now has a broader home in the culinary food. If it’s round it gets called a bon bon, and thats what my (sorry Claire, our) business will do. Swedish style meatballs, Moroccan meatballs, arancini with mushrooms like they eat in the North of Italy, and others with offal like they eat in the very South. We might feature croquettes of slow cooked meat, rolled with the heel of the hand to big roundels, breadcrumbed and then fried. You get the idea. The tagline will be ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’, though I must point out that no wolves will be eaten because that behaviour is frowned upon. The queues will be around the block, possibly due to a copyright infringement that will see lots of disappointed Duran Duran fans, but this is but a small detail: Simon Le Bon Bon has legs. Round, deep-fried legs. Scottish legs, if you like.

Alas, don’t get too excited. Simon Le Bon Bon will be joining ‘Mr Strippy’ – my portable lapdancing vehicle where ‘Perfect Gentlemen’ signals the arrival and you order a 69 instead of a 99 – and the Swiss Army prosthetic hand as ideas that will never see the light of day, though would make excellent episodes of Dragons Den. If you can’t be the best at it there really is no point – it’s why I blog and don’t ski – I’ve no interest in being second best at anything. And we can’t win the great bon bon war of 2019. I tried the arancini at Legna and knew my dream was over. A portion of three golden squashball sized bites that yield just a little bite, giving way to a mixture of rice, ‘nduja, and tallegio, each in perfect harmony with one another. It has a little spice, savoury notes, and cheesey richness. It is as good as arancini gets, one-hundred-percent better than anything I could acheive with these fat fingers. Simon Le Bon Bon is now Simon Le Non Non.

This was one of the four starters at Legna, before the four pasta dishes, the skipping of the main courses and two desserts. A bottle of white, three glasses of red, two negroni, and a cocktail complete the order between the two of us, so if the details get hazy towards the end, you now know why. We came in search of pasta dishes, because they were always the strong point here and I’m pleased that they’ve stretched that particular part of the menu, though it was the starters that really grabbed our attention. Those perfect arancini sit in between scallops and bruschetta. The former are three queenies, accurately cooked almostly entirely on the presentation side, with a molita style crumb, and a lemon gel that lifts everything. A similar approach is taken with the bruschetta; the garlic is heavy, it has has plenty of basil and supremely high quality cherry tomatoes. The clever bits are the dehydated tomato petals that add almost floral notes to it. It’s summer in four mouthfuls, helped by us sitting in the glass part of the restaurant, doors pulled back to make the most of the canalside location. The biggest oyster I have ever seen completes Act 1, traditionally dressed, and in no rush to go anywhere. It takes a knife to get it down in two parts.

Those pasta dishes confirm Legna is performing better than ever. Taglioni with crab is spun through a sweet bisque that tastes of roasted shell and cream, whilst cacio e pepe is really aglio e olo. This doesn’t matter too much – we still destroyed it – but it had none of the emulsified cheese sauce made from the cooking water that defines cacio e pepe. It is the filled pasta that really impress; one with ‘nduja, tallegio, and truffle, the other cured  pork and sage. Both have a perfect texture to the pasta, heavily seasoned fillings, and are dressed in some seriously addictive olive oil. There are twelve dishes listed in this section of the menu; I suggest you make it your target this summer to try them all.

We have dessert. I say we; I get no choice in the two that Claire wants to eat half of. She chooses tiramisu and lemon tart, two that we’ve had before but are assured have changed. That they have. The tiramisu is more stable than ever, which I prefer but Claire doesn’t. The biggest change is to the lemon tart. The acidity from the Amalfi lemons are still there in spades, but now we have Italian meringue for a little sweetness, and the most buttery of bases. What was already a very good dessert has morphed into the full package.

With this we drink wine from Sicily because we’re going in a few weeks time, before moving to the bar to continue drinking. From what I can tell they seem to have ditched the tasting menus, and the pizza, both of which are fine with me. In the new menu they are capitalising on what they do best; the pastas in particular, opening up a menu full of choice and desire. It’s the best meal here that we have had by some distance, helped by some of the most charming front of house in the city. In writing this I’ve just remembered I had a whisky before I stumbled out of the doors. And that we booked a holiday. It was that kind of night. I really must go to Legna more often.

Got an A2B there sober. Got an A2B back home drunk.

Legna, Birmingham, Spring 2019

I went to a pasta masterclass recently. We were downstairs in a tightly packed space, drinking prosecco and rolling out the dough in what was mostly a very enjoyable evening. We made tagliatelle, tortellini, and gnocchi, handing over our work to be served back to us at the tables upstairs. The end product wasn’t great: the pasta was uneven in thickness, cut to strips too wide or not wide enough. The gnocchi were mostly dense balls of boiled flour. Not even the sauces that had been bubbling away all evening could save them. We took to fishing for pieces of Claire’s perfectly shaped tortellini, whilst leaving the rest of the pasta and filling up on ragu and wine. I have Italian blood; its ferocious temper, over-confidence, and insatiable appetite coursing through my veins. I am also a very competent chef for someone who has never done it professionally, yet I was as much to blame as the majority of the room. My pasta just wasn’t good enough. Getting Italian food correct is really difficult.

I have tremendous respect for anyone who does understand it. To anyone who gets the principles of simplicity which dictate Italian cuisine I will doth my cap, curtsey, bow, shake hands, rub noses, wag dicks, kiss both cheeks, or hug. I don’t care whether you’re Italian or not, what your background is, your mother’s maiden name, religion, sexuality, what you identify as, or your views on Brexit. Actually I do want to know how you voted on Brexit; you may have a lot of explaining to do.

Aktar Islam gets Italian food, but why wouldn’t he? So what if his name isn’t Carlo Del Puttanesca, or that he doesn’t wear a crucifix around his neck and have sexual fantasies about his mother. So what if he was born in Aston and not Anconna. You think this man can only cook food of the sub continent? You’re a fucking idiot, but please go watch his Queen of Puddings on Great British Menu before responding in the comments section. It amounts to nothing more than racist assumptions of someone based on a name, accent, or country of descent. A conversation I had this morning with the Polish bus driver, incidentally the same man who scaffolded my house. This is a joke. I would never get the bus.

So, anyway, Legna. New menu time for a restaurant three or four months old that I happen to have a lot of love for. I’ve been a few times now; not everything is perfect yet, though it goes from strength-to-strength in my eyes, turning out the kind of smart Italian food that this kind and smart part-Italian bastard likes to eat. It’s a generous restaurant; you’ll have nibbles to kick-off, and there’ll be breads served with a basil butter (boom! boom!) and oils and balsamic vinegar of real quality. If you’re anything like me you’ll order four courses and start with either the flatbread with blobs of hard cheese emulsion, truffle and confit garlic or the prawns. The latter are flashed through the pizza oven so that the shells blacken. Rip off the head, drink juice, take body meat and apply to toasted bread with that garlicky tomato sauce. Simple.

From pasta I would always take the ragu with parpadelle, which you can read about my thoughts on here. I order it because it’s one of my favourite dishes in the city; that meeting point of tradition and modern technique, where everything aligns and you end up in a heap on the floor crying because life will never be this good again. Or maybe that is just me. Having tried the ravioli with potato and egg yolk, I still think I’ll be sticking to the ragu. Given that my only reference point for this dish was at Royal Hospital Road when Clare Smyth cooked there, perhaps I am being too judgemental. All the components were there but the acidity was a fraction too high, knocking the rich elements out of sync. The ragu returns in the calzone, which is the ideal home for it, with stringy mozzarella and piquant roquito peppers. The blistered dough conceals a hefty portion for not a lot of money. I take half home for lunch the following day. The pick of the new dishes is the roasted chicken with asparagus risotto. The chicken is cooked so accurately I refuse to accept that it hasn’t come out of a sous-vide, whilst the risotto has been cooked to a precise bite. The star though is the jus de roti that sits around the peripheral of the bowl. This is a classic touch not seen often enough; with the dark cooking juices adding a nice contrast to the fresh risotto sharpened with a little lemon. I’ll be eating this a lot over the summer.

There will be a pre-dessert, which, if you’re lucky will be the banana ice cream and chocolate mousse we had. To finish I’ll help you out; order the tiramisu. Maybe twice. Boozy, rich, and indulgement. It remains untouched because thats the way it should be. Indulge in the entirely Italian wine list that won’t break the bank before finishing off with a negroni at the bar. Enjoy yourself. It’s what restaurants like this are designed for.

On a Friday night when I was dining alone at the bar I witnessed an elderly couple verbally castrate Aktar, threatening the dreaded One Star TripAdvisor review for serving his ragu with pappardelle and not spaghetti. Do not be these gammon, especially if this is your level of knowledge of other culture’s food. After the rage settled, I thought long and hard about this: this is what restaurants have to contend with now, the fear of someone publically attacking them for them for their own lack of knowledge or inconvenience. We’ve become a nation of critics and that makes this wannabe critic not want to critique anywhere. I’m serious: It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. In the meantime Birmingham continues to churn out brilliant restaurants, with nobody pushing to improve a little corner of this city quite like Aktar Islam. To those with the closed minds and preconceptions he happens to own the best Indian restaurant in the country. To the rest of you, he also has Legna serving up playful Italian cooking in the most beautiful of dining rooms just a few steps away.

A2B got us from A to B

Margheri, 2019, Lichfield

Back when this blog was in nappies Margheri was it’s first real success story. I went with my mate Jim on a Saturday night when there was just him and I, along with another table of two. I was blown away by the quality of the food, wondering why, at that time at least, I would have to come to Lichfield to get great pizza. I wrote nice things about it and, for the first time in my life, it did some good. People went. Lots of people in fact. They sent me a lovely message telling me how they were in the enviable position of turning tables away at the weekend. In truth it had little to do with me: food this good was always going to reach its audience eventually; I was just in the right place at the right time to drop the proverbial Mentos into the neck of the Cola bottle.

Since then I’ve been back maybe half a dozen times. Usually before the boxing evenings Jim hosts at his home, and always involving copious amounts of limoncello accompanied by the sort of piss-poor behaviour that happens when you’re old and don’t get out enough. It’s great, and I should shout about it more often, but I’ve wrote about it already. Except I should shout about it again. That first post, one of my most popular at the time, maxed out at just under 800 views. To put it in perspective I often pass that number in a day, my most average of posts get multiples of that, and the more popular many times that figure. It’s time to tell you once again that Margheri is really, really, really good.

This time we add Fritturini to the usual Deli Doughball starters. The basket contains a variety of beige domes that only reveal their identity once bitten into. There are textbook arancini, potato croquettes with heavily seasoned mash, and balls of cheesey pasta that are new to me. It’s Italian streetfood served in the quiet town of Lichfield. The dough balls are still excellent; crunchy exteriors giving way to the same dough that makes up those oh-so-good pizzas I’ll shortly get to. The rocket and tomato salad on top tastes of both ingredients; a minor miracle given this is the end of January.

Now those pizzas. I think it may be the best pizza I’ve eaten in the UK. It’s all here; the 00 flour dough that stretches out slowly like the holes of an old belt, the tomato base made from the San Marzano variety, and the buffalo mozzarella, all imported from their home region: the commitment to a true Neapolitan pizza experience has rarely been greater. On this occasion we share a Calabrese that has fiery ‘nduja and fresh basil leaves, and a special with parma ham and an entire bulb of burrata that oozes heavy cream when pierced. Both have dough blistered at a soaring heat that leaves more leopard spots than a Lilly Savage tribute act. Both have that slightly soupy centre. Both are really, really excellent.

I’ve never had dessert here, unless you count limoncello as dessert, in which case I love dessert here. The bill on this occasion is £90 between five, a figure that doesnt require the accountant amongst us to declare as a bargain. For something so simple good pizza is difficult to find. After writing this food blog for what feels like an eternity I can recommend only three in Birmingham, another three in London, one in Bristol, and Margheri in Lichfield; maybe the best of them all.

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Legna, Birmingham

I’ve long been of the mindset that Italian food doesn’t translate well into fine dining. That by tidying the edges and reducing the portion side you are taking away the essence of the culture that has family at it’s core. There is nothing dainty about Italians; they welcome with huge hugs and kisses that cover both sides of the face, not gentile handshakes or softly gestured bows. They seldom speak in soft tones, both literally and metaphorically, with their loud voice always joined by gesticulations that reinforce every syllable. This is not the language of refinement: pasta does not need a softness of hand to gently manouvere it into place; it needs a bowl-shaped bed to lie in and a blanket of sauce to keep it warm. A pizza is essentially a sandwich that is not afraid to show it’s true emotions, the risotto a rice dish that never wants to leave home. They are embraces from a Catholic mother. This is the heart of Italian food.

It is also a cuisine that is difficult to perfect – just look what we do to it in homes across this country. Pasta should never be boiled to it’s cooking instructions; it should be taken out of the water two minutes early and teased through a little of the sauce in a pan so that the residual heat finishes it off, with the finished product requiring the same pressure between the teeth as a nipple during a bit of rough and tumble. Ingredients should be as fresh as possible; herbs that release oils between the fingers, and mozzarella that sobs a little when squeezed, not set to the consistency of a cooked cows bollock. The fact that we think it acceptable to construct dishes of this cuisine directly from jars tells you just how much the average person respects Italian food. Perhaps the older generation still hasn’t forgiven them for ze war.

So I was a tiny bit sceptical when I heard the plans for Legna, which is to be a more refined take on Italian food from a non-Italian chef. Si prego. But then it is from Aktar Islam, a man who has done wonders for Indian food next door at Opheem. In truth, I’ve got to know Aktar fairly well to the point that if Legna wasn’t very good I probably wouldn’t write about it. The four hundred words or so it has taken to get to this point can be taken that is worthy of writing about. In parts it is spectacular.

The opening play is gone in a blur of flavour. A little spherified mozarella with basil that needs tweaking, a parmesan cake with black garlic that is a pure umami bomb, the most delicate of grissini and foccacia with oil, vinegar, and a butter that tastes like pesto. We have a bowl of torn burrata, basil pesto, and slices of tomato, onto which a tomato consomme is poured. The burrata and tomato have been flown over that day and it shows; the flavours are clean and allowed to speak for themselves. We devour it.

I’m guessing that the recipe for the pappardelle that comes next has a higher concentration of egg yolk than normal, given the richness of the pasta sheets that retain the perfect level of bite. It serves as a bed for a meat-rich ragu of beef and wild boar that has nuggets of cheek and shin throughout. It is boldly seasoned, enriched with bone marrow and lightened with tomato concasse and a little vinegar. More importantly it encompasses everything that is great about Legna: a homage to the true flavours of Italy whilst using modern technique. A veal dish is given the impossible job of following this. The meat is gentle in flavour in comparison though we love the garnish of charred onion and capanota where the vegetables have almagamated and have just a little sharpness. The use of acidity is very carefully deployed throughout the meal.

We lean into the sweet courses with a ball of tempered chocolate containing a little espresso martini, and finish on a rectangle of lemon tart that has the thinnest of pastry bases and a filling which balances the sweet and sharp with real skill. A lemon sorbet on the side gives it a real cleanness in flavour. It is one of the best desserts I have eaten this year.

And then there is the small matter of the dining room which is right now Birmingham’s most beautiful. From the amber hues of the sleek bar comes exceptional Negronis to be enjoyed at heavy wooden tables under ornate lights. The wine is an all Italian list from which the superb front of house are happy to offer expert pairing advice on those available by the glass. It all makes for a very impressive restaurant; a place that plays homage to core values of Italian cuisine whilst maintaining its own sense of style. I’ve gone to its sister venue, Opheem, more than any other this year, though now it has serious competition for my sterling. Aktar has done it once again; Legna is an absolute joy.

9/10

We dined during a soft launch period and received a discount on the bill.

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Pictures by Claire

Buonissimo, Harborne

With all the new openings, burger bars, street kitchens, and trendy Asian joints, it is easy to forget about those neighbourhood restaurants that have seemingly kept areas full on food forever. I’m guilty of this more than most: my diary is an endless list of tasting menus, of baos and ramen, masala chaat, and burrata, all in the name of telling you what is good and what is Deolali. I had almost forgotten that Buonissimo existed, despite the fact that I lived in Harborne for six years, with a proportion of those a twenty second walk away from this quaint spot just off the high street. Before this blog I used to eat there relatively frequently; I’ve spent Valentines evenings there, I’d gone for the cheaper evening meals, and memorably on one evening watched a drunk man topple backwards down the stairs whilst I grazed on a whole baked garlic and sipped on a just warm glass of Appassimento. He lived. I think.

It hasn’t changed much in the two or so years since I last visited. It’s still warm and homely; almost affectionate in service. The heavy wooden tables and chairs more comfortable than they look, with only plants disturbing the blue and white colour scheme. The menu is still concise and changes with the seasons, whilst they still proudly list their suppliers on the reverse. And what a list of suppliers. Meat from my favourite butcher, Roger Brown, bread from Peel and Stone. We work through the bread whilst taking in our options; it is all very good, more so with the peppery olive oil and almost sweet balsamic vinegar.

We take two pasta dishes for starters. Orecchiette has mortadella sausage, peas, and pistachio for company, with the little indentations of the pasta catching the silky tomato sauce enriched with lots of cream. It is elegant and seriously tasty. A ravioli of ‘nduja and pecorino takes the opposite approach, boasting lots of chilli and garlic in amongst the olive oil dressing. This is rustic and big-hitting. Both are winners for which we will return for larger sized portions.

Mains stay on that rustic route. This is Italian home cooking, a kind of meat and two veg (which would make a fantastic name for a foodblog) approach that fills the plate to all edges and dares you to try and finish. There is nothing pretty about either dish, but the flavour is there. I have a duck leg that has been confited and then blasted over heat so that the skin breaks into crisp shards, with a sticky and rich sauce dotted with prunes. Opposite me is chicken breast wearing a winter jacket of courgette and melted cheese. The quality of the meat is obvious, as is the skill in handling the protein. The cavalo nero is nice, as are the garlic potatoes served with the duck, though we’ll gloss over the wedges with the chicken that suspiciously look and taste like they have come from a bag.

By now we’re full. Super full. We have no room for dessert but the menu leads us into first agreeing to share one, before ordering two. It’s the right move. A crepe containing stewed apple and mascapone is good, though is overshadowed by an excellent take on bread and butter pudding using panetone that should come accessorised with a pillow and duvet. We wash it down with a chocolate hazelnut liquor and leave very happy.

Stay away from the fillet steak here and nothing will break the bank. Starters are all under ten, mains around £15, and wine that starts late teens. Exactly how a neighbourhood restaurant should be. There is nothing finessed about Bounissmo, it channels a completely different type of restaurant built around the principals of family cooking. By the time we’ve drank up on the wine we feel almost sad about leaving. The world needs more places like this; we won’t be leaving it so long next time.

8/10

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