Jewellery Quarter

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

Salt & Earth @ 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

The first thing chef Nikki Astley says to me at the hatch of 1000 Trades is “you’re the bloke who takes the piss out of my name on Twitter?”. He’s right, we’ve not known each for so long, but I can’t help being a gobshite and fair play to him for calling me out on being a dick. But Nikki knows the rules and so do I; it’s just a bit of fun on my part. I apologise on my part and we exchange small talk before ordering my dinner. A full commitment is what I’m thinking of, though Nikki is fair enough to tell me that I’m over-ordering. We reduce the six plates I was intending to eat by myself to just two. He goes back inside to cook, and I return to my wine. He never says goodbye.

Less pop-up and more viagra hard-on, Salt & Earth have been in the kitchen of 1000 Trades for months (maybe a year? I don’t know; only the sober remember dates). The present menu is chicken focused, compromising of fried chicken with sauces, fried chicken in bao-style buns, and a few small plates that focus on vegetables, from which I order one from each section. You wouldn’t get this from any other guy.

The least enjoyable of these is a vegetable dish that suffers from watery carrots on a slightly less watery puree of tofu where the carrot has lost all that lovely natural sweetness. Now if you ask me how I’m feeling about that chicken, I won’t lie to you, it’s good. Really good. It does not let me down. Crispy, brittle coating that cracks in all the right places, it gives way to lovely bits of good quality chicken thigh. To stop me from all ordering all three the kitchen have kindly sent the chicken out nude with pots of each sauce. The scotch bonnet is mercifully restrained in heat, and a honey soy sauce is a sticky sweet mess of happiness. Best is the Korean pepper sauce that is full of umami notes. Sadly the bun is less of a success. Six months ago I might have told you a different story, but the quality of bao in this city has dramatically improved in this city since then. This bun is dense and a little flat with none of the lightness I’ve now come to expect. Not even that stellar chicken can save it. Save for a brownie there is nothing here to dessert me so we call it a night.

Now I’ve timed this badly. It turns out that the residency is to finish at the end of this month, so it’s pointless giving this a score. Truth is I was a bit nonplussed by it. I’ve eaten Nikki’s food before and it was brave and articulate, whereas this was some good fried chicken and not much else. I’ll keep a keen eye out for his next move which will hopefully see this talented chef back in a permanent home, where I can open my wallet to him and not that massive gob of mine.

Planning on drinking as much wine as I did? A2B will get you home.

Lunch at Arch 13. Jewellery Quarter

It wasn’t so long ago that I waxed lyrical about Arch 13; a place that I have huge amounts of love for. And now I’m back, albeit this time in a much shorter format, to wax lyrical once more, about a lunch offering that I’ve tried and believe justifies a couple of hundred words and a few minutes of your time. Let’s talk toasties. Cheese toasties in particular. A lunch that optimises the produce of the fridge, puts them between bread slices and applies heat. A toastie doesnt require skill to make, but is a sum of its parts. Use cheap cheese and it will leak the fat of a cow spent clamped down in a shed; put in baked beans packed with preservatives and watch that filling’s heat rise to the point that it is preceded by a pyroclastic flow. Fortunately the fridge here has the best of cured meat and cheese. I know this because it is where I buy my cheese from for home.

Claire and I go on a miserable afternoon and decide the only way to proceed is to share all four options. I take the optional wine pairing with all of them because Dry January is a marketing ploy by ISIS to gradually move us all to a Sharia State, or at least that is what the drunk man in a Tommy Robinson t-shirt at the bus stop told me. They have a vegan one made with vegan sheese (this is a real word) and chargrilled vegetables that works because vegan sheese (I know) tastes of nothing and the chargrilled vegetables taste great. The rest are sheese (sorry, I cant stop) free. We add chorizo to the goats cheese and chilli jam one and congratulate ourselves on our excellent taste, and marvel at a mutton, Lincolnshire Poacher, and farmhouse chutney one that is all intense oozy notes. My favourite is the bresaola style beef with blue cheese and caramelised onions. It works, but then you knew that as soon as you read the ingredients.

The matching wines are brilliant because Abigail really knows her shit. And also a little bit about wine. There are Turkish reds, a smart semillion from Chile, a beefy red from Spain for the beef, and rather brilliantly a white from Romania that more than assisted the washing down of the sheese (Sheesus Christ). It’s a fiver for the toasties and an extra £3 for the matching wine, making it an absolute steal for a feed and watering. It’s yet another reason to love this wonderful wine bar. I’ll see you there.

A2B insist all their drivers do Dry January so you don’t have to.

Ocho, Jewellery Quarter

It’s 2019, which is remarkable for being the highest number so far in my existence. It’s the ‘new year, new me’ time of prosperity, when we replace a deflated bank balance with false hopes and self-deceit, only to be broken when Julie from accounts offers out the dregs of her Quality Street. I don’t ‘do’ resolutions in the same way I don’t ‘do’ Broad Street’s Revolution, and for more reason than just idle illiteration. Both involve lying to myself that it will be worth it and involve me wasting money I don’t care for. Both make me feel a little bit dirty.

For this blog I can’t see much in the way of change the forthcoming year. It will continue as it has been for the last seven months: free from the mass blog-by-number press dinners, PR invites to coffee shops and salad bars. I will restrain from introducing myself to business owners as ‘the prick who writes Two Bollocks and a Meat’ in the hope of blagging a free burger, and I absolutely promise that this blog will remain ferociously against the culture of emailing begging letters. It’s not and has never been a collaboration. It’s a scam to get free dinner.

We ended the final days of last year with a trip to Ocho, a kind of pop-up that looks like sticking around. The inside is quaint and comforting, with tasteful art and low beams. The menu is tapas in notion, if not in authenticity, from a chef whose CV includes a stint at Purnell’s. In many ways it reminds me of Rico Libre when they first started, when the ties to Spain were more obvious, before the chef was let loose on a more global cuisine. Dishes are between £3.50 and £8. Everything we eat feels like value, and we eat a lot.

The chef clearly has talent and, moreover, tastebuds. Every plate is boldly seasoned with not a grain of salt or twist of pepper required. Lean and spicy merguez sausages are made onsite, simply grilled and garnished with a dice of mango and pink peppercorns that add bite, further heat, and a little sweetness. A square of pork belly is a late replacement for the cut of cheek that hasn’t arrived on the day’s delivery. The fat is rendered down, the skin delicately crisp: it takes skill to cook this part of the animal so well. The sticky beer reduction may not the be a Spaniards traditional choice of sauce but it adds a nice level of umami that we enthusiastically mop up with foccacia made here that morning. Another bowl of pork meatballs is heavy on the black pepper in a good way. The arrabbiata sauce less so; it is thin and lacking both depth and heat.

In a plot twist that neither of us saw coming the meatless dishes were the best things we ate, even forgiving that arrabbiata sauce making another appearance on the-not-quite-there-yet patatas bravas. Top billing goes to a vegetable stew that is hearty and deep in flavour which cleans the soul from the inside-out, and roast wedges of butternut squash with quinoa (it’s pronounced kin-noah) and goats cheese, that straddles the line of sweet and savoury brilliantly. Even the faux pasta dish of courgette ribbons with a refined take on red pesto works because they understand that the veg still needs to be toothsome. Desserts are a baked cheesecake that I find too sweet and a chocolate mousse with raspberry that leaves me swiping out the last with my finger. Finish off with the mousse; it’s a winner.

With the uncertainty of the next six months I don’t blame anyone for testing the market with a pop-up, but I hope that Ocho makes this a permanent fixture. With a few minor tweaks (better wines by the glass for a starter), this could be a lovely addition to an already thriving Jewellery Quarter. You could start 2019 far worse than by paying Ocho a visit to show them we want them to stay.

8/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

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.

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by Claire