Jewellery Quarter

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

Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

Opheem, November 2018

Let’s cut straight to the chase: last week I had the best curry I’ve ever eaten. Better than the original Balti houses found within our once revered triangle. Better than the Michelin starred Indian restaurants of London. Better than anything I ate in Goa, and better – her words, not mine – than anything Claire has eaten in her multiple trips to Indian, including the Taj Mumbai. You want to know the place? Good, because I want to tell you. It’s Opheem.

These curries only exist away from the weekend, found in a little insert in the centre of the menu marked ‘traditional’. It is within this short list that Aktar Islam steps away from his more contemporary style and looks back to the very dishes that shaped him as a chef. We have slow cooked bits of mutton barely coated in a thick tomato gravy studded with cardamom, and a take on the ubiquitous Chicken Tikka Masala that draws groans of When Harry Met Sally pleasure. Both are decadent and original interpretations with not a stock sauce in sight. Both are so big and rich they demand a lie-down. I’m pretty sure that neither is very good for you, but frankly, that is the last of my concerns. Arteries? Who needs them. With this we order potato wedges tossed in toasted cumin seeds, rice which separates as easy as a Hollywood marriage, a daal, and the lightest of garlic naan breads. It is all mind-blowing good. The marker for all other curries from now on.

There was stuff before this, and I apologise for the effort you’ll need to make in casting your imagination back to before the curry, but this is my narrative and if you don’t like it then go read the other shit available. We start off with spoons of spicy beef tartare and spheres of spicy tamarind water which sit either side of a ball of sesame seed and dehydrated strawberry. It was this last item that evokes most conversation; the sweetness quickly giving way to a long nuttiness that evokes the sweet and savoury style of Indo-Chinese cuisine. We get the bread and paté course that has shrunk a little in size yet still packs a huge punch in flavour.

And then there were two courses to precede the mains; a mutton chop marinated in hung yogurt and then blasted through the tandoor so that the crust gives way to pink meat. It comes with a pumpkin thrice; a soft julienne, little balls and a puree, each showing that despite Aktar’s roots in the food of India, he understands the importance of texture and layered flavour. The soft shell crab dish has become less cluttered on the plate, the main attraction now carved in half and sharing a space with a crab cake and loose pate. The crab is still the star though this now fresher with more natural acidity. Without wishing to dive into names, Claire compares this to another local Indian that may have some association with the chef here. They also do a soft shell crab, though this makes theirs look like a ‘child’s rendition of the Mona Lisa’. She can be so cruel. There is an intermediary course of rosehip and beetroot that is too sweet to sit where it does. It is the only thing we aren’t crazy about.

After the curry there is no room for dessert, but plenty of room for more gin in the bar area. The bill for the above and a good bottle of wine comes in at around a £100 per head, though this is on the greedy side of both food and drink. You could, and likely will, do it for far less. This is my third time at Opheem, following the first in late spring when I came home and told Claire that it would be the most important Indian restaurant in the UK within two years. She didn’t see it, given that her only experience had been on the first night of a soft launch in an unfinished dining room. We hadnt made it through the starters when she conceeded that I was right, which I am. Opheem is a shining light in the Birmingham food scene that not only reinvents the way we see Indian food but also pays homage to its roots. Simply unrivalled in this city.

Opheem (curry is on evenings, Sunday-Thursday)

Transport by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by the birthday girl

Folium, Jewellery Quarter

By the time our booking came around I wasn’t really looking forward to dinner at Folium. It was my fault: I’d made the schoolboy error of going out the night prior at 5pm sharp, returning home not far from the start of the next working day. What had started as a polite dinner with wine, descended into a full blown assault on the liver by grown men who really should know better. We’d found out a national chain of cocktail bars was offering a deal that essentially swapped turnips for drinks, resulting in two carrier bags full being lugged from Five Ways to Brindley Place and then on to the business district. Too many cocktails were consumed, one of the group may have been sick, another struggled to find a taxi willing to take him home. Turnips, eh? Who knew they could be so interesting.

There are better uses for the turnip, as I was to find out the following evening after suffering a hangover so severe not even a lunchtime curry could cure it. Try spiralising it into ribbons, blanching in parmesan stock, and then dressing it in an emulsion of the same cheese. Bury flecks of Hen of the Wood mushrooms and lardo in amongst the twisted pieces of faux pasta, and crown it all with a flurry of grated black truffle. This is what we should be doing with turnip; not swapping them for poorly made Zombies. It was a stand-out dish in a meal that hardly ever missed a beat, later to be described by Claire as one of her favourite dishes of the year. And this must be true for she pilfered several forkfuls of mine. It had bags of flavour; reminiscent enough of carbonara for it to feel familiar without the nostalgia attached.

This was course two of six at Folium, a restaurant we’d been meaning to get to for ages yet had never quite gotten around to it; a mistake we won’t be making again. The room is modern and sleek, making the most of the large windows that peer out towards St Paul’s Square. The centre is dominated by a drinks station; the space to the left the pass from which chef Ben Tesh is hard at work. We start with the most delicate of crab tarts given an extra fatty layer from grated duck liver, and move on to layers of cod skin cleverly crafted to look like oyster shells, which are to be submerged in a piquant tatare of oyster emulsion. The sourdough which arrives shortly after these is a work of art; a tight, chewy, crust holding a crumb that is light with uneven pockets of air. So good that I forgot what the butter was like. I’m calling it now: this is the best bread in Birmingham. It is a great start and we haven’t even started properly yet.

The menu starts with smoked eel hidden under a cloud of potato seasoned with chicken skin. The dish has swagger and big hitting flavours. We have the turnip course and then a glistening fillet of turbot. The fish is glorious, dotted with a gel of champagne vinegar, with potato puree and a dashi poured tableside. The genius addition is hay smoked butter that adds a perfumed richness. It has acidity laced throughout. It is an absolute stunner. Lamb follows this, both as a piece of pink saddle and slow cooked neck that it is sweet and soft. We get jerasulem artichokes in various forms including a blob of the silkiest puree, and sea vegetables carefully tweezered into place. In the middle is a sauce that speaks of time and precise seasoning. I ask for another piece of the bread and ensure the plate returns back to the kitchen clean.

The first of the dessert courses is a herbaceous green granita spooned around an unsweetened ice cream of sheep’s milk yogurt and aerated pieces of white chocolate. It’s over-shadowed by the last course: a chocolate creameux covered in a drift of cobnut crumb, with a salted milk ice cream and shards of milk skin tuile. I can’t pinpoint what chocolate bar this reminds me off, but who cares? It’s addictive with a pleasing salt content. It is also one of my favourite desserts of the year.

Service, led by Ben’s partner Lucy, is excellent, with a young and enthusiastic team. Wine is topped-up accurately, dishes explained with real knowledge. It makes the bill – just shy of £200 for two with a bottle of Beaujolais and a glass of dessert wine – feel real value. They have something special going on here, confirmed just 36 hours later when Marina O’Loughlin writes a glowing review in The Sunday Times. It makes this post somewhat irrelevant. Don’t listen to this minor blogger, read the words of one of the finest restaurant critics instead. She thinks that Folium is brilliant, as do we. You really must go.

9/10

Folium

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by Claire

The Wilderness, October 2018

We arrive to the opening bassline of Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’, the long galley restaurant of black floors and black walls, black tables and black chairs lining both sides of the room. At the bottom is a prep station where chefs have been freed from the confines of the kitchen to shape the tartares and tarts that would kick-off this lunch. As the final note of Kurt Cobain’s guitar fades away we are given a sparkly gold menu whilst the naughty version of ‘God Save The Queen’ rips through the speakers. It is an unconventional start, though we expect nothing less from a man whose previous incarnation had a tree in the dining room and whose forthcoming new venture features a warped afternoon tea based on the All-American harbinger of body issues, Barbie.

The last time I was here was at the old place. It got me all excited by refusing to answer to type whilst still retaining a link to the nature that sat at the forefront of Nomad, Claridge’s initial restaurant that changed it’s name when some Yanks got a little shouty with the legal notices. That link to nature is no more, replaced by a brash and louder approach; one that spanks your arse rather than wipes it with a dock leaf. Dishes are tighter in execution; presentation cleaner. Version 2.0 should not be compared to the old in the same way that way that I shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the city’s other ‘food bloggers’. It is carving its own niche, one that occasionally ends up in the newspaper for the wrong reasons. Something I know nothing about.

We get nibbles of raw wagyu bavette shaped into neat cylinders on chickpea crackers that have more than the whiff of a Big Mac about them once the crack-like gherkin ketchup kicks in, and the shortest of pastry casings holding a glorious almalgamation of pumpkin and smoked cheddar. A pumpkin pie, if you will. We take a prettily presented venison tartare where the meat fights for attention with roasted beetroot, pickled shallots, wasabi mayonaise, and can only just be heard. A quick word on the drinks pairing; if given the choice forgo the usual to take these – they stand as the most imaginative and successful pairings I have ever tried, anywhere. The plum and green chilli cocktail with this venison was not only delicious but sat perfectly with this course and the next; a crispy oyster boldly seasoned with tabasco, a punchy aioli, and puffed bits of potato seasoned with smoked paprika. The flavours in the opening two courses are massive. There is no gently easing you in here.

On paper duck teriyaki, foie gras, and pineapple left me drooling, so I was a little disappointed when it was my least favourite course of the afternoon. There was little wrong with it though it wasn’t as cohesive as the other courses, with a lengthy bitter finish I think from the powder of mustard leaf. Claire ate all of hers and half of mine so perhaps its just my jaded palate and miserable demenaour. We’re back on track with a tranche of plaice, so perfectly cooked it practically begged to reveal itself at the mere sight of a fork. What impresses me most about this is the balance; the mushrooms giving an almost surf and turf to the dish without the need for meat. The chimmichurri that coats the top of fish gives the dashi broth an extra layer of light as the flakes bob like jetsam.

The next two courses are special. First up is ‘N.A.F.B Quail’ which I understand to mean ‘Not A Fucking Balti’. Now go wash your mouth out, Alex. The quail is gently cooked with crisp skin but the real fun is elsewhere. A butter sauce that grows in stature in the mouth, puffed wild rice for texture and the samosa to end all samosas. A golden parcel of happiness, filled with braised leg meat and lentil dhaal. This is the best samosa I can recall eating, helped by a deep puree of date and tamarind. Another Fucking Samosa, Please (or A.F.S.P if we are to talk the same language). The following course of guinea fowl and celeriac is the same story: the breast is lovely, as are the various bits of celeriac, but the star sits to one side of the plate. A chou farci of forced meat wrapped in a fermented cabbage leaf, topped with hazelnut pesto and a disc of autumn truffle. It has it all. Pure heaven.

Our transition into the sweet side starts with chocolate speculoos sandwiching peanut ice cream and a centre of salted caramel. You filthy bastards, I love it. We move onto an elegant yogurt ice cream with fig leaf tuille, honey, and blueberries, paired with the most delicious take on a bellini, laced with honeysuckle and peach. Astonishingly good and our pick of the drinks. We conclude the meal with boozy ‘rummy bears’. It’s yet more playful adventure. It must be fun working here.

The bill arrives to the final crescendo of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chains’ and we note that we hardly have noticed any of the music in the last hour. And that there is the magic of The Wilderness. For all of the drama of the interiors and playlist, the attention grabbing star turns are left to the plate. The star parts of the meal – that chou farci and hazlenut pesto, the ice cream sandwich, the drinks pairings, and that samosa – are as good as anything you’ll have in the city. Sure it doesn’t always feel at complete ease with itself but that is part of the fun. It’s bold and eclectic, edge of the seat stuff that sits right on the boundary of bonkers and genius. There is nowhere in Birmingham remotely like here, and that level of bravery should be both admired and supported. This meal was even better than the last. It all sets it up rather nicely for Nocturnal Animals to open next month. I can’t wait to see how they progress.

The Wilderness

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Pictures by Nosh & Breks