Jewellery Quarter

Saint Kitchen, Jewellery Quarter

The last time I ate in Saint Kitchen it all went to shit. I had a breakfast there and got embroiled in a row with a member of staff when I didn’t finish my food, who then took it to Twitter and said some defamatory things about me, to which I got pissed off and said nasty stuff back. Some man from the TV who now lives too close for comfort then became involved and I continued to act like a prick when he was nasty to me, which didn’t help when I went to an awards ceremony, won the stupid thing, stayed up all night and sent said man from TV a picture of the award from my local pub the following morning. Another man, this time from the radio, tried to have my award taken away whilst man from TV blocked me. I then said some really mean things to which telly man kicked off and I ended up on page four of the local paper with my dad phoning me and telling me to behave. Sorry dad. Anyway, I learnt my lesson and now live the model life and still see TV man in the pub from time to time where we pretend not to notice each other. It wasn’t my finest moment and thanks Liam, you absolute arse. The End.

I said I’d never go back. Then they were taken over and I had a really nice and brief online chat with a lovely new owner who almost won me over by saying that Liam no longer worked there, and absolutely had me convinced when she was so obviously proud of the food coming out of the kitchen. I should probably let you know that she offered to get this lunch in and that I turned the kind offer down. One, I wanted to support by giving instead of taking, and two, given the history with Saint Kitchen any praise from my part should be genuine.

So get ready for praise. It’s improved greatly on the old set-up and is very good, if certainly not perfect. The coffee is lovely, up there with the best in the city, and team on the lunch we visited friendly and cool and not Liam. A brunch dish with mushrooms and various greens on sourdough is perked up by romesco and green harissa sauces, and is very well received. My order, a bagel with eggs and chorizo jam, is chosen because the words chorizo jam give me a stonker. It turns out to be the best thing we eat by a distance; simple and packed with flavour, that jam is more a chunky sauce but my chin wears it with the same pride. At six quid it’s also firmly on my Brum bargains list.

Alas, it’s not all to this standard. A sausage roll has technically sound pastry work and is well seasoned, but ultimately lacks oomph and is a slog to finish. Patatas bravas are nothing really of the sort; the spuds are good but the spicy tomato sauce is far removed from what it should be and it’s under seasoned. It’s also too wet overall. But really does this matter? Not to me. I’m personally happy to have the option of great coffee in that area, knowing that I can stay for a bagel and that my girlfriend can eat well if she wants. Moreover I’m happy that I can do so in an environment where I’m wanted as a customer. The new(ish) Saint Kitchen can stay, I’m a fan.

You’ll be pleased to know A2B is also a Liam free zone

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

Jazz Roast @ 1000 Trades

The point of arrival was the precise moment my head went from sceptic to believer for the Sunday roast at 1000 Trades. I’ve become bored of the gentrification of the roast, with the smears and the clean lines; the plate with too many empty voids between the two slices of meat, the lonely potato and its inflated Yorkshire pal, backed up the endless stream of side dishes and part-players, rolled-out like a Pierre Gagnierre course. Right in front of our eyes the roast has done a Paul Potts: we fell in love with its wobbly silhouette and imperfections only to be given a new slender version that hums the same tune through pearly white veneers. But not here. This is a roast that your mother and her mother would be proud of, layered up like a winter outfit and crammed in tight like a replacement bus service. This is how a roast should be done.

The fundamentals are here. A billowy Yorkshire pudding, chunks of potato that have been boiled, then allowed to steam, dry out, tussled, and then roasted until the edges sharpen. There are thick batons of parsnip and carrot, a coiffured scoop of mash potato, tenderstem broccoli, a celeriac puree, red cabbage, and a puddle of gravy that demands donning wellington boots and jumping into. Those ordering protein are rewarded with generosity and pretty much perfect cooking, whether that be the chicken supreme with delicate flesh, or the cannon of sirloin cooked to a spot-on medium rare. The latter might look strong at £17 on paper, but there are restaurants in this city (I’m looking at you, Gaucho) charging almost double that for a lone cut of cow nowhere near this good. Toss a coin between this and a place in Digbeth for bragging rights as to the title of Best Sunday Roast in Brum.

With this we get cauliflower cheese, that turns out to be an entire cauliflower bathing in molten cheddar whilst wearing a shower cap of breadcrumbs and thus completely defeats us. Bloody tasty though. And prior we have a sharing board to start; with smoked chicken, smoked salmon, smoked duck breast and was the mackerel smoked? It must have been. It’s the nicotine replacement service for the gentile; a plume of delicate proteins each with their own acidic accompaniment. Eating this will dent your chances of finishing the roast, but don’t let that stop you from ordering it. Like everything else we ate it was pretty much faultless.

They had a tarte tatin which had my name on it (not literally, though this is a wonderful idea that I would gladly endorse), but I was too replete and margainly too hungover to entertain it. Instead I pay the bill and head back home for a deserved snooze. I should probably take this moment to point out that 1000 Trades recently won big in The Guardian’s annual OFM awards. It’s a testament that every detail is looked at, analysed, and then perfected, from the rotating kitchen to the ever-changing beers, the natural wines, the upstairs cocktail bar, and this, Birmingham’s most wholesome Sunday lunch.

If there were an award for best taxi, A2B would have it in the bag

40 St Paul’s, Jewellery Quarter

If 40 St Paul’s were a restaurant they’d have three Michelin Stars. A bold statement, but one I’d be willing to back up. Those awards dont lie: the regional ones; the one for the best gin list; the best gin bar in the UK last year; and the one earlier this year which crowned them the best gin bar in the world. They don’t mess around here. There are a million places to go in the world for gin, but if you want the very best, the numero uno, the big dawg, it’s here in St Paul’s Square behind a black door with no signage.

The comparison with Michelin ends here. Once those restaurants reach the top it’s a case of preservation, of staying at the top by changing as little as possible, by keeping that machine as oiled as possible, having the same car MOT’d every year. 40’s, as it will hereafter be referred to, could have stuck to rattling off the same gin list for years, but that would be too easy. Aman, the man behind the bar, went missing for seven months to reevaulate and get introspective. A little bit like The Revenant, only with less bears and a lot more gin.

They’ve scrapped the one that came with the 3D glasses and moved to a sleek black offering that goes deeper into the gin profiles. The menu is broken up into sections, including avante garde amongst the more traditional offerings. Within these sections are pages for each of the individual gins that contain a description of both the gin and the distillery, whilst the tasting notes below are shown on both a visual key and a list of key botanicals and pairing suggestions. Like it and want to buy it? Just scan the QR code at the bottom and it’ll take you straight to a supplier of that particular gin. There is something in here for everyone, from the most ardent of gin enthusiasts to those just looking for a nice drink. Like clay and beetroot as your botanicals? They have you covered.

In the name of research we try much of the new 140 strong list. It’s all killer and zero filler. Makar cherry gin was, I am reliably told, an award winner just like me. I can see why: fruity but still juniper forward, I’ve since ordered a bottle for my home collection. There is a Calvados gin which might well be my new drug of choice, and the impeccable Hibernation from Dyfi Disterilly. There are floral ones and savoury ones. There are cocktails that still knock the spots off most, including the Champion Cobbler that comes served in a trophy with a side of applause. The two hours sat at the counter pass in a blur thanks to some of Birmingham’s warmest hospitality. I didn’t think it was possible, but with the new menu the best gin bar in the world just got even better. Nowhere else comes remotely close.

Opheem, September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mezze Quarter at 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

As far as compliments go, “When can we go back?” must rank right at the top. Less a case of “Wouldn’t that be nice to eat again” and more “Get it back in my intestines”, nothing speaks of a successful meal like wanting to go back and do it all over again. We had this feeling at the latest of revolving kitchens at 1000 Trades; before we’d even finished my other half was eating my half of the lunch whilst scanning through her phone for dates when we are free. We have two so we’re going back twice. You could say we enjoyed it.

“What is this wonderful food?” I hear nobody ask me. Well, it’s Mezze Quarter time down at the JQ’s finest boozer, and you have four weeks left to fill your boots. The menu might be a familar mix of things on flatbreads, and other things stuffed, and spiced pulses and vegetables, but the delivery happens to be up there with the best of this kind in the city. The flavours are clean, it feels good for the soul, and perhaps most surprisingly, they get the nuance of this cuisine; the balance of heat and acidity; the subtlety of spice and the use of fresh herbs. It feels accomplished. I’d quite like it to stay.

The bigger plates are a lot of food for the price, which sits around the tenner mark. We order the lamb doner that has slices of (I think) belly with crisp rendered fat on a lightly pickled ‘slaw that has zip throughout. They’ve gone big on the herbs and shoots, a pot of baba ghanoush is a brooding smoky assault and another of harissa adds all the fieriness needed. The chicken is what we are coming back for though (and maybe the beef; the koftas looked great on the adjoining table). The thigh meat has been marinated in enough acidity to start the breakdown of protein before it hits the grill and pops occasionally with little hits of cumin and anise. There are dots of feta for saltiness, a little harissa mayo for heat, a lick of lemon juice, more of that slaw, sweet pops of pomegranate, and plenty of herbs. It’s summer 2019. Ottolenghi bashing out his One Ring to rule from an ex workshop in the Jewellery Quarter. I’ve mentioned the excellent chips here before but they have no place in this order. Instead take the sweet potato that’s been blitzed up with lots of garlic and a little chickpea, and make sure you order the ‘nduja to go on top. The two have both swiped right to make the most harmonious of relationships. The fiery sausage meat is offset by the sweet root vegetable; it’s the love story behind Meat and One Veg all over again.

Now for those who noticed, I’d pretty much taken this month off to enjoy myself away from the blog. I’ve been on a nice long well deserved holiday. During that time I’ve eaten a lot of very good food, but it is a couple of dishes from here that linger in my memory. Do yourself a favour: make a date in your diary to go get the chicken flatbread. Have the sweet potato and ‘nduja thing whilst you’re there. In no time at all they’ll be on to the next kitchen and I’d hate for you to miss out.

Get a pint or two of the rhubarb cider and let A2B ferry you around. You’ve earned it.

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.

Rebel Chicken, 2019

The first year of trading for a business is the hardest. It is the Litmus test for the projections and spreadsheets, the qualifiers for how well you really do understand the users. For restaurants it is the process of getting the diners to hear about you, getting them through the door, and then keeping them coming back. It is the gradual process of the right levels of stock and staff, tweaking the dishes and the prices, the right opening hours, deals, suppliers, and drinks, accumulating (hopefully) the media column inches and the queues out of the door. It is a hard, unforgiving industry. Many fail, sometimes deservedly so, sometimes because of bad luck or location. I had my concerns for Rebel Chicken; the food was always good enough to return and they had one of the best beer gardens in the city, but would just rotisserie chicken be enough to convince people to walk down a side street in the Jewellery Quarter? They’ve adapted, adding far more to the menu, and transforming that big open plan garden into something that East London would be proud of. This is now a year-round area, complete with sliding roof and foliage. It is unique to anywhere else in the city and deserves credit for that alone.

We come on a Saturday when the sun is beating down and decide to make a day of it. They have a brunch menu that appears to be very popular, supplied under the banner of Ocho – their sister tapas venue next door that I have a lot of love for. It makes sense: they already have morcilla and merguez, they put pulses in tomato sauces and stuff on bread; they already have the basis for a breakfast. The breakfast board for one served as a nice size for two, swiftly removed from the wooden boards they arrive on and on to plates, like any sensible man would. It’s a bloody good breakfast, a perfectly poached egg with bright yolk, toast, beans in the same tomato sauce that normally gets served with the meatballs, mushroom, and three bits of minced animal in natural casing. That’s sausages to you, stupid. Of those three I get happy memories from the densely spiced merguez, and give kudos to the morcilla, which everyone knows to be a far superior black pudding. The most recognisable of them is a pork sausage. A British breakfast banger. It tastes of pork, mace, and a little black pepper. It’s a very nice sausage on a very nice breakfast. At nine quid it’s an absolute steal.

Late morning quickly spilled to afternoon and I’ll use this point to declare my drink of the summer. They do a drink here called Damm Lemon, a light, lemon flavoured beer found on the backstreets of Barcelona by the Geordie manager of this establishment. More refreshing than a cold shower, less alchoholic than a Glaswegians breath; it’s the kind of drink you could, and should, lean on to get you through a summer’s day without looking like a twat. And this is coming from someone who specialises in looking like a twat.

Back to the food. We make the most of the day by seeing how far the food has progressed in a year at Rebel Chicken. Back then it was rotisserie chicken and not much else – now it is only true to its name if the chicken’s way of rebelling is to identify as a cow. There is chicken everyway you can think of — roasted, fried, coated, pulled — but there is also a big section of beef burgers, and stuff like halloumi and falafel just incase the rebel chicken wants to disappoint his father by becoming a vegetarian. We try two burgers, one more conventional, the other a bastardisation of all the bits I want to try in a bun. The food has improved, absolutely no doubt about that. The Yard Bird burger has a chunk of poultry in a buttermilk batter which is brittle and well made. The other burger has (wait for it) beef patty, pulled chicken, halloumi, jalepenos, and caramelised red onion. I wasn’t sure I’d like the beef but it’s good stuff; carefully cooked to a consumer friendly light pink, with good quality meat and a nice fat ratio. The pulled chicken comes from the tasty part of the bird, possibly dressed in too much BBQ sauce, though that’s me being difficult for the sake of it. The rest of it works. Don’t ask me how it tastes as a whole because I have no idea. I’m no animal, despite what you’ll read elsewhere. They have chips, which have improved since the last visit. We don’t finish them, mostly become some idiot made a burger with everything on it.

I guess what I am trying to say is it has improved since the last time I was here, fairly substantially in parts. The wider menu has allowed them more freedom to be expressive and it shows; the dishes have a certain swagger to them that matches the decor. Rebel Chicken have not only survived that first year, but have come out in a far better position than when they started it.

I used A2B to get me from A to B

T.A.P, 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

In the general shithousery that is my life, I have overlooked 1000 Trades too much of late. It is without question one of my favourite places in the city; a laid-back, quietly confident slice of happiness with a killer wine, beer, and spirit offering. You get the feeling that very little bad could happen within these walls. Since they opened a few years back they’ve kept food on rotation from the narrow kitchen in the back. We’ve seen more established restaurants set up, and less established names doing their own thing. We’ve had great meals and a couple that’ve just missed the mark. They’ve shouted out important issues like zero waste with wonderfully curated events, and thrown a few parties that I may have behaved poorly at.

The latest of these resident kitchens is T.A.P, short for Twisted American Pancakes. At first I was sceptical; savoury pancakes could be a disaster of misjudged stodge in the wrong hands. I was wrong. This is the best food to leave the kitchen here in some time. It’s big and wholesome, packed with a serious amount of flavour. It represents value and is the ideal partner to a crisp pint of the good stuff. We order two of the pancakes, one with beef shortrib, the other fried chicken. The shortrib is a hefty portion of pulled meat under a mound of fried onion, salsa, and chipotle sauce, with the pancake a vehicle for a serious amount of sweetcorn. It quickly disappears. The other pancake is studded with squash, with fried chicken, pickled chilli and one of those neon yellow american cheese sauces that I haven’t yet learned to resist. The chicken is posh KFC; moist bird within a spice mixture the colonel would be proud of, even if the flour could have done with a touch more salt. They had fried chicken at the last residency here. This is better.

Don’t think about leaving without ordering the crab cakes. Six quid buys you five balls of deep fried crustacean, bound with a little mashed potato for substance. Eat them quick though, as the idea of sitting them in the tomato sauce means they quickly develop a soggy arse. Triple cooked chips are dubious in description, though are fat fingered chunks of fluffy potato that have enough snap about them. We take ours with more of that American cheese sauce and fresh chilli. Do this; it’s the perfect kind of filth.

Portions are big and flavour is there in huge quantities. Is it pretty? No, and nor does it have a great deal of clarity. There is a lot going on for not a lot of money and this is perfectly fine with me. What matters is that it tastes as good as it can, and how the food fits in with it’s surrounding. The concept of pancakes really isn’t that weird when you consider the same ingredients could be used to make a Yorkshire pudding with the beef, or waffle with the chicken. It’s bold and unpretentious. I liked it a lot. 1000 Trades are back on form and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

8/10

Transport provided by those legends at A2B Radio Cars

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