Japanese

Asia Asia, Birmingham

Of all the many, many, many restaurants I write about, none conflict me more than those originating from Asia. Asia is my favourite continent by a distance. I love how it’s the Western world with the lid off, a place that is growing too fast for itself to handle in every sense. I get hypnotised by the bright colours and vivid smells, the lack of health and safety assesments, and the cheap beer. Every time I fall in love with the people that greed is yet to taint, the young who still dream in technicolour, and who would rather feed you than themselves. Let me choose where I want to go on holiday and it’s Asia (Sri Lanka next if any Sri Lankan PR companies are reading this and want to comp this multi-award winning arsehole a 50p hopper). Ask me where I’ll be living next and it’s either Singapore, Saigon, or Mumbai. But here is the bit I struggle with: for a food blog I know fuck-all about the food. Nowhere near enough. I lived on banana and nutella pancakes for two weeks in Cambodia, for Christ’s sake. So I am warning you in advance the next few paragraphs on an Asian food court in Birmingham might not be great. Now, if you are an actual expert on this matter you may want to stop reading here. It will hurt your eyes and I will give zero fucks on your opinion.

So Asia Asia, a continent so good they named it twice. Also the name of a food court on the peripherals of Brum’s very own China Town. It takes up the first and second floors of a space above another restaurant. Units are small and go from the familiar to stuff I’d not seen before like chicken chow mein and green curry. I jest. Payment is made via a pre-topped-up card which is irritating and presumably only in place to allow management to deduct the commission without that old British virtue of trust. On the night we are there was an arrest made on an old gentlemen. I’ll avoid the big trouble in little china town pun.

Now on to the food, which I was expecting to be universally brilliant, occasionally was, and often fell well short of expectation; though I should make it clear now that we hardly scratched the surface of potential dishes. We started on the top floor at Afandim, with skewers of lamb that taste faintly middle-eastern and another of thinly-sliced potato dusted with spice. Food nearly as intriguing as the less-talked-about Uyghur region of China it hails from – we’ll be back for more. We also really enjoyed the Pad Kaprow from Bangkok Kitchen that brims with fire and almost medicinal herbs, with rice and a fried egg I dont eat because of my awful morals with caged birds. We try the triple roast from Phat Duck which is not phat at all. The pork belly and char sui are good, though the duck is full of bone and sinew, with soggy, unappealing, skin. There are way better triple roasts in the city. Someone in the know really needs to do a definitive roast battle of them all. I’m on the case.

Down a level we visit a Japanese unit to try yakitori. I love yakitori; the hint of smokiness, those slightly charred bits where the marinade catches. This wasn’t very good. My first mouthful is full of cartiledge and sinew from a spongey bird. Two of these skewers are £6.80, one gets left unfinished. We use up the last of the £40 credit I have put on the card on seasame pancakes. Never again. The filling is claggy and bitter, leaving an unpleasant taste that lingers in the mouth for far too long.

And for all of this I’m not willing to write off Asia Asia just yet. I’ll go back and give it another thirty or forty quid of my wages and try something different. I’ll try the congee and the ramen, maybe the teppanyaki, and absolutely return to Afandim for those hand-spun noodles. There is too much potential here to not find brilliance. The key is to know what is good, and that is where us first-timers failed. Asian food; it’s clear that I still know nothing.

6/10

A2B ferried my phat ass about as ever

Lucky Duck, Jewellery Quarter

It didn’t take much. Just a image of an pretty blue and white bowl containing some soup and some noodles and a couple of slices of pink duck breast. Pants were pissed in excitement. Cries of RAMEN! like a beaten Rocky Balboa were heard around the city by people whose only reference point is the Bullring branch of Wagamama. Lucky Duck was coming, bringing bowls and buns. We got very excited. And then the opening weekend happened, chock-a-block with people genuinely excited by the prospect of bao and ramen hitting our city with gusto. The initial feedback wasn’t great; it’s not right the forthright people said. It’s awful said the expert who has never had the bollocks to put his money where his insidious mouth is. Concerned looks were everywhere. Lucky Duck has gone from flight to fallen in the space of three weeks.

I went for that duck last night. I sat in the well-lit room on the wooden chairs in the window seat. I used the ornate chopsticks to work the noodles out of the soup and into my massive gob. I quite enjoyed it, the breast meat a virginal pink, the soup with good flavour, a perfect soft boiled egg, and accurate seasoning. The best bits were the jewels of brown meat hidden at the base like sunken treasure. It could be better though, some optional seasoning like bottles of soy and chilli oil, maybe a flurry of herbs, or some Nori flotsam. Little bits of make-up to turn it from bit-part to Oscar winner.

Make-up isn’t going to save those buns, they need a complete re-haul of design. We try one of each, and the positives are in the cooking of the main ingredient. Pork belly braised until the fat turns ivory jelly and cod with brittle batter – just like the duck it is obvious the man knows how to handle protein. But the bao is too dense and the fillings not good enough. The pork belly comes with nothing but a smear of apple sauce, the cod just mayo and a few sorry slices of cucumber. It needs more; crushed peanuts, a mooli salad, some chilli sauce, a squeeze of lime, or herbs. Just about anything to give it character. The eureka moment comes when we order one more and ask them to do the pork belly with the accompaniments of the aubergine. The addition of peanut and chilli gives it life. It deserves this more than apple sauce.

Dessert is roast pineapple, pecans and coconut cream that could have been my breakfast, though it serves a purpose of providing a fresh way to finish up. The bill for all this is £33, a small enough sum to try them again soon. And I will; despite this meal being too average to recommend to anyone, I believe that they could eventually be on to something here. Everything is fixable, nothing terminal. The issue is that the hysteria the concept has caused means that they have an entire city expecting them to run whilst they are still taking baby steps, and that needs to change. The improvements need to come quick if they are going to fulfil the potential. A rethink of those bun fillings seem an obvious place to start.

6/10

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here; http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Tonkotsu, Birmingham

Tonkotsu comes to this city on the back of high praise, beloved of paid food critics and those pesky bloggers alike, throughout the six locations across London.  The groups first steps outside the capital is a curious one; being the food hall of Selfridges, where shoppers presumably show what taste they lack by going between Yo Sushi and Krispy Kreme.  We go three days into the launch and already the fifteen or so counter chairs are almost full.  Either Birmingham has a very knowing food crowd or I have underestimated just how hungry shopping for a Michael Kors handbag makes you.

 

The name Tonkotsu apparently translates as “pork bone”, which makes up a large portion of the menu – a long simmered stock of piggy bits that would normally be discarded as waste.  The result of this process is the backbone for this type of ramen; a stock soup with noodles and a few added bits and bobs that the Japanese have been chowing and slurping on for decades.  Ramen verdict later, we start with pork gyoza and chicken kara-age.  The gyoza’s are a disappointment, watery and flat on seasoning, only springing to life when dredged through the soy sauce.  Much better are the kara-age, crisp bits of deep fried chicken thighs, with a batter that snaps like fortune cookies when tore apart by hand.  They do a burger here with this chicken which on this form will be the sole reason for my return.

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The Tonkotsu arrives in branded bowls.  The signature bowl is a murky off-white colour of pork stock, creamy in texture with thin bouncy noodles that they are rightly proud to say they make in-house.  There are thin slices of pork belly, half a boiled egg that has discoloured in the stock, spring onions and bean sprouts.  The first slurp is comforting, thereafter it is too salty.  I persist in the name of gluttony and awake the following day so dehydrated I feel hungover, despite sticking only to the yuzu lemonade that evening.  Another bowl with a pork and chicken broth is cleaner in taste and vibrant with a homemade chilli oil that first smacks the mouth and then the lips.  The chicken portion is meagre and we find it difficult to get excited about.  It reminds me of a similar dish at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York which punched well above its weight.  This version was only just treading water.

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We play it safe and go for dessert elsewhere, not before being passed an incorrect bill which requires amending.  I welcome London’s finest coming to our city, though it needs to be done with the same quality.  No doubt others will love it, but crispy chicken aside, Tonkotsu left me underwhelmed.

5/10

Yakinori, Selly Oak

Yakinori sits on a section of the Bristol Road not noted for its culinary excellence. It’s student central; a stone’s throw from Birmingham University, where cheap beer and average Indian restaurants walk hand-in-hand together, whilst pissed-up students cavort or do whatever pissed-up students do these days.  I like this part of Brum because I can come with low expectation and not go home disappointed or broke.  But good food?  No, that’s a myth.  Or at least it was until Yakinori arrived.

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We visit on a Saturday afternoon when the place is thriving.  We take the last remaining seats at the counter overlooking the open kitchen and look to the parts of the menu we find familiarity  at.  Its as authentic a Japenese as you could wish to find in Birmingham, from the lucid cartoon décor, to the menu that broadly strokes the length of the cuisine with varying takes on sushi, noodles and curries.

We start with duck gyoza, five fat dumplings steamed and then shown a little direct heat.  The filling of minced meat is well seasoned, the thick plum sauce both sweet and savoury.  These were a fiver.  And here is me stating the obvious before it becomes apparent shortly; Yakinori is outstanding value.

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A bento box is a meal in itself, with everything (bar one mishap which I will get on to) spot on.  The beef in black bean sauce was meltingly tender, the sauce full of deep umami notes.  We love the little pumpkin croquettes that give way to a sweet mush and the pickles that are full of zing.  The fish sushi is clean tasting with the rice served correctly at room temperature. Its just the chicken katsu sushi that is a poorly concieved idea, but this matters little as all of this cost under £15.00.  Served with this was a miso soup, which was alright, if a tad on the thin side. Chicken Katsu curry is a monster portion for a tenner.  Its a dish that lives or dies on the quality of the sauce and this was stellar stuff, all vibrant and spice and depth.  I started off thinking that I was never going to finish it, and quickly found myself staring at an empty plate.

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And that was it for that particular lunch – a bill at under twenty quid each and a genuine surprise at just how good it was.  We’ve been back since where we had the fish bento box that had beautiful chunks of salmon and vegetable tempura with the lightest of batter.  And we may have driven there to pick up the katsu curry as a takeaway.  I hope you get the idea.  We like it.  A lot.  It single handily destroys the notion that food can’t be quick, cheap and good.  And its in Selly Oak of all places.  Yakinori has quickly become one of my favourite places in the city for quick, affordable and tasty food

8/10

Yakinori Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato