Michelin

Ynyshir, August 2018

The morning after our dinner at Ynyshir we are back in the restaurant eating breakfast. Perched on the pass bench we can see the kitchen hard at work whist Marvin Gaye hums quietly in the background. The smell of bacon lingers in the air. The team are in a great mood, poking gentle fun at one another whilst poaching eggs and frying off the lamb patties, happy to engage in conversation despite the late finish and early start. It was during these exchanges that we discussed ambitions, with one chef saying that after Ynyshir he would only want to work at Nathan Outlaw; to learn fish in the same manner Gareth Ward had taught them meat. This statement only sunk in during the long drive back to Birmingham. In the same way Nathan Outlaw is the place to go for seafood, Ynyshir has become a meat mecca without ever labelling themselves as such. The treatment of animal – from the salt rooms through to the cooking – is like nowhere else. And the team here know that, describing the present feel in the kitchen as similar to ‘the Harveys days’ when a young Marco Pierre White ripped the arse out of cooking in this country, leaving a legacy of shit chain restaurants and ultra talented chefs such as Gordon Ramsey, Phil Howard, and Stephen Terry.

It appears that the association with Harveys may not be far off the mark. As of this morning, Ynyshir have leapt into the top 5 list of the Good Food Guide with Gareth Ward named Chef of The Year. It’s phenomal work for a kitchen that refuses to stand still. A couple of weeks back we saw this firsthand, perched high upon the chef’s pass seats for this, our fourth meal there in a year. I won’t run through all twenty-odd courses again, instead I’ll focus on the new dishes, or those that have improved. And a few favourites: it would be a shame to leave those out. What I will say from the top is that this was the best meal yet, a nigh on perfect riot of flavour that consistently hit the two star standard and occasionally the level above that. Ynyshir is worthy of a special trip. Everything about the place, from the rooms, to the mountain views, the firepit outside, the drinks programme, and especially the restaurant, has a certain magic about it.

After the ‘Not French Onion Soup’, the crispy duck leg with seasame oil, and the bread course starter procession, we get the first of the new dishes on tonights menu. Mackerel cooked under the heat lamps, in a puddle of fermented raspberry juice with the same fruit frozen, and a little freshly grated wasabi (you’ll get none of the dyed green shit here). I have a little issue in general with oily fish, though I really like the clever interplay between the acidic, the sweet, and heat. What follows this is the best thing I’ve eaten this year: crab katsu has picked white meat coated in a katsu sauce that is instanstly recognisable, yet so much better than the Wagamamas version you are now thinking of. All it needs is a soy dressing enriched by the shell, and a little puffed rice for texture. Perfection.

One of Gareth’s main skills is the construction of dishes that have instant conection with food memory. In a similar way that Heston links meals to book narratives or childhood, many here are instant riffs on takeaway dishes, or fast food. We get Char Sui pork which are cuts of slowly cooked pig belly that melt in the mouth, sat in a puddle of the cooking broth. There is duck kissed with hoisin sauce and blanketed in a slice of compressed cucumber. Both in theory could be ordered with a hangover and ate in front of the telly. Neither would taste as perfectly rounded as this. The Wagyu beef burger course is the ultimate Big Mac. You cant help but smile whilst eating.

The whipped foie course has been upgraded to a fermented bilberry juice that cuts through the richness even better than its predecessors, whilst a new dish of tomatoes with lardo is fresh and unuasually restrained for the kitchen. After this is a flurry of our favourite courses; Wagyu short rib with mushrooms, that swoonworthy garlic prawn, the deconstructed Caesar salad, the lamb rib that I tell everyone about, and the lamb with kombucha that is a Sunday roast with mint sauce. Claire has the cheese course because her eyes rule her body: I request a short break.

Sweet courses start with a sharp fermented raspberry slushie, followed by a fermented raspberry jam on toasted sourdough. Jam on toast. They should offer that at breakfast, too. The knockout custard from last time returns with fermented blueberries, the dessert courses slowly edging sweeter whilst still staying true to the ethos. We have the strawberry dessert that riffs on summer cup, the tiramisu (still the best dessert I think I’ve eaten), and finish on the Wagyu fat fudge. Four hours done to the vinyl soundtrack of Stone Roses, INXS, and Kings of Leon. I loved every second of it.

Dinner is a boozy one and there are a couple of courses I struggle to remember in lieu of the cocktails and three bottles of wine consumed. This is a birthday treat so I’m not seeing the bill on this occasion, though you should allow a couple of hundred each for dinner and wine, more if you stay over in the beautiful appointed rooms. Stay in the rooms, treat yourself. The fact is that Ynyshir has made me a worse food blogger over the last year; I should be out using this money to eat in far more varied places. But we don’t want to. Everytime the idea comes around to take a weekend treat, it is here that we discuss first and ultimately last. There is nowhere else like it. They are on to something special; I know it, as does Gareth and all of his team. The accolades 2018 have delivered thus far are just the start; this is a restaurant destined to go all of the way to the top.

good pictures by Nosh & Breks, rest by me

The Greenhouse, Dublin

To say I was impressed by the food scene in Dublin is an understatement of epic proportions. In four days we had really good burritos, a lovely bistro meal, proper beef burgers, and two excellent breakfasts (no, not the White Moose café). There is a thriving independent scene of people passionate about feeding customers well. I loved it a lot more than the beer prices, which for a country with an alleged drink problem are bordering on scandalous. Still Dublin has a lot more going for it than three whisky museums and a street filled with stag parties. I loved it, and when I’ve saved for another twenty years to afford it, I’ll be back.

One of the reasons I loved it was The Greenhouse, a smart restaurant on the corner of St Stephens Green. It comes with a big reputation, with many in the know describing it as Ireland’s best kitchen. The interior is smart and compact, with tables a little closer than ideal. It allows us to get acquainted with the couple either side of us; both convivial and possessive of that Irish charm; both celebrating a special occasion. We order a bottle of txakoli from a list that offers little value and take to the nibble that is placed before us. The ball of deep fried pigs head has dense meat lifted by a little apple. Nice enough, though hardly setting the world alight. The sourdough bread that follows is pretty much perfect, with a crumb that snaps and a light texture onto which we smear butter an inch thick. It is a bread we would request more of as the meal progressed to ensure every trace leaves the plate.

The first course is a dish of exceptional balance. On the base of a bowl is a foie gras royale, silky and rich, covered in a green apple jelly. Layered on to the jelly are dots of apple puree, walnut, smoked eel, a powdered foie, and finally a green apple sorbet. There is a lot going on, though everything is complementary to the foie gras that remains the star throughout. For main we both take the suckling pig, loin served sideways with glass-like skin to one edge. The accompaniments are pure Spring; fresh peas, asparagus as spears and a puree, morels, and discs of crisp potato. An aerated vin juane provides the necessary acidity, whilst a glossy reduction of the pig’s meat juices is classic at its finest. This is stellar work, reminiscent of Phil Howard when he cooked at The Square. My kind of cooking.

Dessert is a passion fruit soufflé standing proudly from the ramekin, where we carve a little hole out and pour in a ginger and white chocolate sauce, before crowing it with a passion fruit ice cream. It is dreamy, the prominent flavour of the fruit livened by the slightly spicy sauce, the difference in heat a lovely contrast. Petit fours consist of a citrus and jasmine tea tart topped with finger lime, and a choux bun filled with chocolate cream. Both are excellent.

The above is from a set lunch, which is excellent value at 42 Euros for three courses, to which we add a good amount on top with drinks. To me this is excellent value for a meal that quickly hit top gear and stayed there. I enjoyed the style of cooking here; the strong technique, the restraint, and the occasional modern flourish. It’s a restaurant that very much puts flavour first. Michelin presently bestows The Greenhouse with one star, it seems only a matter of time before a second follows.

9/10

Carters, Moseley

Considering I live 250m away from Carters it is more than a little pathetic that I’ve managed to get here only twice. I have no excuse; I pass the bijou restaurant on St Mary’s Row on my walk to and from work every day, at least twice a week glancing over at the yellow lettering on black frontage and telling myself that I really must return. Now here I am, driven by the need for a midweek treat and a girlfriend who has a total obsession with their staff food Instagram stories. The interior has been tweaked to a darker shade than I recall, though the layout is much the same. It has drama yet a warmth to it. The hole in the far wall means that you can look in to the chefs at work, or they can look in to you eating their work. I am never quite sure which way round it is.

We have a steady three hour dinner which is so good I have decided to put the stuff I should be writing about aside and bring you this. It is one of the very best meals I have eaten in this fine city, one full of nuance and rooted so far in it’s environment you would need a team of gardeners to pull chef Brad Carter out of its soil. Without ever resorting to screaming through the tussles of his beard, Carter has become a champion of the best produce in the central region, only looking further afield when required, such as for caviar from Exmoor, or those heady truffles from Manjimup, Western Australia.

Four nibbles get us quickly underway, the first a parfait of chicken livers with various grains and raisins that I could have eaten a far bigger bowl of, followed by a delicate tart of broad beans and Winchester cheese lifted by a little mint. There are slivers of goose ham cured in house, and kohlrabi compressed in pine oil and topped with a salad of herbs which tastes slightly reminiscent of cucumber. The latter does a great job at prepping the palate though I understand how some, including Claire, could be underwhelmed. We have bread made from flour milled a mile away at Sarehole Mill with a pig fat butter containing a dice of crackling. If that butter doesn’t get the blood flowing to the organs, nothing will. With this the chef kindly brings a little Exmoor caviar over which I never expected, and probably neither should you. Still, caviar on bread and butter is something I’ll never tire of or turn down.

Cured mackerel kicks us off properly, the thin slices layered with gooseberry, bobbing in a bowl of dashi cut with mustard oil that has us slurping the last directly from it. A dish conceived in Japan, delivered in Moseley. That eastern influence runs throughout the meal, from the simplistic presentation, to the constant use of umami, and occasional flashes of deeper knowledge, like in the fermented rice on the last dessert. After this course it is straight back to the local environment; a slice of tomato compressed in elderberry vinegar, clothed in backfat and more elderberry, with basil leaves and seeds. It is one of the evening’s strongest courses, one that turns with every mouthful. There are sweet notes, acidic notes, fatty notes, and most surprisingly, anise from the basil seeds. For something that looks simplistic, there is a lot going on under the surface. I have a lot in common with this dish. Conversely, there is a humbleness to the next course, which means I have absolutely nothing in common with it. A fillet of ray with a sauce made from potato and dots of sea truffle, a type of seaweed that shares similar qualities to the tuber. Three cheap ingredients transformed into a plate that has far more luxurious qualities.

Now when I think of the evolution of Carters cooking it is summed up by the lamb course. A loin cutlet (I think) taken off the bone, cooked and then finished on a barbeque. As good as that is (and it is very, very good) the real points of interest are to be found in the garnish. Umami rich black garlic, peas that have been podded and dressed in the faintest of vinegar, sea lettuce both powdered and gently wilted, a healthy dusting of black truffle and a dressing of lamb fat mixed with aged soy. The complexities on the plate are everywhere, gently positioned into place and allowed to mingle with one another. The result is a dish as perfectly balanced as anything I have eaten this year. I save a slice of burnt fat for last because I know this will be the best bit. It is. What follows this is the best cheese I have ever eaten. A soft cheese called Maida Vale, washed in sour beer and served with malt loaf. It is grown up and addictive, sweet and rich, the beer a genius way of introducing balance.

Desserts are bold because they follow the same ethos as the rest of the meal, meaning that they are marginally sweeter, though not by much. More traditional of the two is the grilled strawberry, a beast the size of Claire’s Beetlejuice sized bonce. It has intrinsic sweetness, cut through by the clever use of unripened green strawberry and a soured cream. The last dessert is an ice cream of fig leaf, with local raspberries and fermented rice that adds a sophisticated sour note. Even the petit four – a silky chocolate ganache with rapeseed oil and sea salt – refuses to get the sugar levels going. I admire this; it is clear that Carter is now functioning with a singular belief.

Looking back on my 2015 review I used the words ‘uncluttered’ and ‘concise’ to describe the style of cooking. Although that ethos is still very much in play, the reality is that now Carters is an entirely different beast; it has matured into a restaurant entirely comfortable in its own skin, a place that looks to the best in local produce and pays respect to them on the plate. Claire considers it to be the best meal she has eaten in Birmingham, so much so that she pays the bill in full as a treat without me seeing it, though with two bottles of wine over the two and a bit hours it would work out to be about £130 a head. The best bit? All of this is on my doorstep. Moseley is lucky to have Carters, and I for one plan on coming here as often as possible.

Paul Ainsworth at No.6, Padstow

Had our booking at Paul Ainsworth been three-to-four weeks earlier, I am almost certain that my thoughts would have been different. The diary had been unkind to it, sticking it on the end of a six week spell of gluttony that saw a trip to a food mecca sandwiched either side by multiple starred restaurants and some others pushing for similar accolades. Aside from a bulging waistline, this brings another problem, one that comes from short-term saturation of too much of the good stuff. We had a stable memory for ingredient quality, for seasoning and technique, and for service. I could still taste some of the best dishes we had. Coming out to play last they were always on an uphill battle, though that is not an excuse for them never getting out of second gear.

I don’t have much negative to say about our meal here, though I’ll struggle to hit superlatives over the next few hundred words. The building is nice, in particular the very smart CiCi’s bar upstairs, and the staff are eager to please. On arrival we get a nibble of deep fried Porthilly oyster with a smoked cod roes dip that is fairly unremarkable, followed by nice bread with two types of butter; one a sunflower yellow, the other caramelised. The former is okay, the latter unique and slightly unpleasant.

I’d been looking forward to the starter for a long time. A ragout of Jacobs ladder with tagliatelle sounds right up my alley, the kind of reinterpretation of homely cooking that gets me a little giddy in these kind of places. The ragu meat is lovely though it is too light; the late application of tomato concasse and a splash of vinegar has taken it too far away from its roots. The pasta is marginally too thick, though has nice flavour. It has little in the way of identity and is very light on seasoning. I’m disappointed.

Smoked haddock quiche Lorraine is another starter that sounded better on paper than the reality. The portion of haddock is generous and nicely smoked, the pastry case underneath rich with lardons, onions and an oozy egg yolk. The dollop of salty caviar gives it a nice luxury seasoning, with the whole thing covered in a foam that tastes of little, if anything at all. I thought foams had died by now. Claire sums it up with a subtle shrug of her dainty shoulders. “It’s alright”, she says, “we’ve just eaten so much better recently”.

The frustrations continue into the mains. There is some good stuff bought down a level or two by the company it keeps. A new take on Tournedos Rossini has chicken replacing beef as the protein. The poultry has been rolled with a duxelle stuffing and is unforgivably dry given that Michelin has bestowed this building with a star. Around this lay ceps, the rock star of the mushroom world, though these are lacking in the intensity of flavour that the very best have. The best bit is the brioche and liver parfait which crowns the chicken, the parfait in particular packing a real punch. The side bowl of peas, lettuce and bacon, again light on seasoning, does little for the dish. The other main was mutton in a rich suet pie, with a moat of red garlic ketchup. This eats far better than the other main; bold in taste, meaty, and with a nice acidity from the ketchup. On the side this time is fricassee of sweetbread, consisting of mostly cucumber and one solitary thumbnail sized piece of sweetbread. We order a side of asparagus that arrives on the bill later that evening priced at £10 for five spears and praise ourselves on not ordering the two portions they suggested. The table of four next to us are going to have a shock when their bill arrives and they have a £40 bill for twenty spears.

Dessert sees them up their game. A cheese course of sorts has a fat wedge of Barkham Blue served alongside a little jug of cider and a slice of tarte tatin. It is a combination that makes perfect sense, the salt and sweetness in harmony. It’s lovely, held together by some top quality ingredient and a killer tarte tatin that has apples just holding their shape and lots of caramel. The bread and butter pudding seems a perfect way to finish the evening. The cubes of bread in a custard-like sauce dotted with rum soaked raisins, covered in a chocolate ginger snap. On the this goes cream, with a puddle of sherry for good measure. It’s bloody brilliant; that spark we’ve been waiting for all evening. It has character in abundance, is fun, and most of all is an improvement on the original.

Service was considered, if a little keen on the upsell at times, and there was an issue with a glass full of sediment that I personally felt could have been handled better. We pay a bill of £180 for the above, a bottle of Beaujolais, two cocktails, and a glass of dessert wine. Not a life changing amount of money for dinner, but one that I expect not to be littered with small errors. Paul Ainsworth comes across on television as a cheerful and passionate chef, and everyone I know in the industry says he is one of the good guys. As much as I wanted to enjoy No.6 it left me a little disappointed. There is a playfulness to the concepts of each plate that simply doesn’t translate into the eating, which coupled with some erratic seasoning issues left me feeling cold.

6/10

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Azurmendi, Bilbao

We first spotted Azurmendi perched high upon a hill as our taxi roared down the motorway. It briefly disappears as we swing left to disembark the quicker roads and then rapidly grows in size again as we go around the roundabout up a very steep hill and up to the top, where the gigantic glass building stands proudly at the top. We enter the leafy reception and are immediately given a glass each of the txakoli they grow on their own vineyards at the rear, followed by a picnic basket that contains the first four courses. It would be thirty-five minutes and ten small courses from here before we sit down in the restaurant. Azurmendi don’t do things the normal way.

That picnic basket is Chapter 1, the first of four chapters that takes four hours from start to finish. Inside is a seafood broth, a dainty brioche burger with anchovy and smoked eel, and a cider parfait with chorizo crumb. What amazes me is the intensity of the flavours; everything is ramped up to the maximum it can be, the burger having the flavour of barbequed fish despite any direct heat being applied to any of the filling. My favourite is a false peanut, with uncompromisingly rich filling of foie gras and peanut, before being finished with mushroom powder. It is very clever.

From here we are taken into the kitchen for the next instalment. A chicken consommé greets us, the strong, clean chicken flavour lifted with a little sherry. Whilst we are drinking this an egg yolk has a little removed by syringe and then replaced with a hot truffle reduction that cooks the yolk from the inside out. A truffled egg yolk. Absolute filth. I am demanding this on every breakfast from now. The third chapter takes us into the greenhouse for four more nibbles, a glass of fermented apple juice, which we know of course to be cider, then the most remarkable cornet of tomato, red pepper and garlic that nods at the strident flavours of Spain. We get alchemy in a curd that transitions from water to a yogurt-like state in front of our very eyes. The fireworks are reserved for the final nibble; a caiprinha cocktail which explodes in the mouth from the thinnest of chocolate spheres. The cachaça spirit has been replaced with local txakoli which seems to lengthen the sugar and lime notes. Talk to Claire about our meal here and this is the first thing she will mention. Had there been more attached to the miniature tree she would have picked them up and made a run for the door. It’s the Macclesfield girl in her.

After these ten pretty astounding nibbles we get led to our table. The dining room is huge, the tables well distanced from one another. The art is to the left of us; the glass wall that looks out on to the Basque countryside, serving as a constant remainder of the environment and restaurant’s attachment to it. Indeed, for all of the modernist tricks that the kitchen applies here, the overwhelming feel was that of one of community; the use of local wine, of Basque traditions such as the chicken consommé, of local ciders, and a wider appreciation of the national flavours like in that cornet. There would be many, many more references throughout the remainder of the meal.

Four more nibbles arrive together before they move on to the tasting menu. The lightest of foie gras served within a followed-out lime, topped with a syrup of the citrus that works as a brilliant foil for the rich liver. There is a beignet of spider crab, and mushrooms coated in praline that attract the mushroom and liquorice powder they lay on. Finally we get txakoli infused with sea herbs that takes on a fresh dimension. We order a bottle of txakoli. It turns out that I like txakoli.

Still with me? Good. We’ll get started properly now. The first course is the only one I didn’t love, but only because I don’t like the texture of poached oysters. The mollusc is a beast, the biggest I’ve seen, with a vibrant herb oil, herb emulsion, a little apple, and a tempura of oyster topped with oyster leaf lurking in the back. This feels wasted on me and I should have swapped out like Claire did. Loved the tempura oyster though, which is meaty and still bursting with the taste of the sea.

Following this is sea urchin in various forms. Within the ceramic shell is cooked and raw sea urchin, tasting like the most pungent of brown crab meat, topped with a foam of you guessed it, sea urchin. On the side is a tilted glass of Bloody Mar, their take on a Bloody Mary, with more sea urchin, tabasco, Worcester sauce, and tomato juice. It shouldn’t work, yet it does, the urchin flavour working perfectly in harmony with the spice which sticks around for the various layers within the pot. If sea urchin isn’t your thing this will not be for you, but I liked it, it has an elegance about it and flavours that aren’t afraid of standing up for themselves.

A little veloute of asparagus is next, the flavours clean and defined with a dice of asparagus at the base. Even better is the ‘pil-pil’ of vine asparagus it is served with, which we are told to eat with our hands. The tangle of vegetable has been cooked with garlic and ancho chilli so that the heat grabs from the second it enters the mouth. Together with the veloute this course is nothing short of exceptional. The lobster which follows is beautiful, the tail meat centre to the bowl with just a glossy sauce American and pickled onions for company. It is topped tableside with a coffee butter that adds a subtle depth and richness to a dish that riffs lightly on acidity. The lobster is the best I have ever eaten, but does that really surprise you? By now I’m sold, hook, line, and sinker.

Beans and assorted meats are a playful take on the homely cooking within the Basque region. The beans have been produced using spherification, the gel membranes each releasing a different flavour note when popped in the mouth. Also in the bowl is a rich sauce, thickened, I think, with a little pigs blood. A cube of slowly braised pork sits behind it. I have no idea what the kitchen intended with this, though in my eyes it was the taste of Morcilla when all was combined. Rich and elegant, with meat and a little spice. This was an incredible course that used modern techniques to its full advantage.

We get the Red Mullet in three servings. The first a fritter of the fish innards which was a little too pokey in taste for even me. The second the most perfect piece of slightly smoked melt-in-the-mouth sashimi with charred edges and opaque centre. The last is a fillet, pan fried to a crisp skin on a circular of rich herb emulsion and stewed wheat. On top of the fish is a little potato soufflé filled with another puree of parsley. It is perfection in simplicity.

Our final soiree in the savoury section leaves me gobsmacked. I’ve done the three star Michelin thing before, I know how they like to flash their expensive cuts of meat, so to serve me a faggot as a main takes bigger balls than those I’m looking at on the plate. The faggots are made from the sweetbread of the pig, and are rich and delicate, glazed in a sauce so heavily reduced I could almost see my face in its sheen. With this are liquid balls of Idiazabel (a local sheeps milk cheese) that explode in the mouth, and cubes of salt baked turnip. It is one of the most remarkable dishes I have ever eaten, the cheese a brilliant partner to the sweetbread faggot. For once words fail me in giving this the culinary blowjob it deserves.

Three desserts to go. First up is avocado and mango, a dish that I most feared when looking at the menu. It is a delight; arguably the best of the trio. The success lies in the use of lime acidity and ancho chilli to sharpen the plate. Avocado puree is warming and spicy, with mango parfait and meringues. There is a lime cream and granita, and white chocolate leaf-shaped shards. It eats so well. Following this is red berries as various purees, the most decadent of sorbets, as well as fresh and frozen. A white chocolate sorbet and shards coated in basil join it along with a crème of something I cant recall. On the side is a bit of fun; a raspberry ice cream, aerated and frozen that disappears in the mouth leaving nothing but the taste of fruit. Drink was getting the better of me by this point so apologies for the hazy detail, but the overriding memory is of the unbelievable flavour of the fruit. With this we drink the most astonishing dessert wine I have ever tried; an iced cider which we dare not ask the price of such is its quality, and later appears on the bill for five euro a glass. Take that, extortionate UK wine prices. I know they said its not available on the consumer market, but if anyone is reading this that can source me the Malus Mama please hit me up. I could do without the air fares to have another glass.

The last dessert was possibly the one time the kitchen witchcraft didn’t pay off to its full potential. A forest scene has a chocolate leaf and twig protruding from black olive soil, with a sweetened ice cream of the sheep milk cheese from earlier and chocolate truffles. The flavours work great but the proportions are slightly out; there is too much of the soil which becomes claggy in the mouth without the moisture from the ice cream that soon runs out. We take coffee with the petit fours, which fold from a box that reveals eight gems including jellies, macaroons, and chocolates. We have these boxed up to take home, which make a wonderful breakfast the following morning. The red wine chocolate even helped ease my hangover.

This, of course, does not come cheap. The tasting menu comes in at 230 Euro each, and I’ll spare you the total bill that includes two good bottles of wine, and glasses of dessert wine to boot. Though to put it in perspective our total bill is well under half of a friend who ate in a Parisian three star around the same time, so I personally consider it value. It’s inevitable with longer tastings that there are going to be dishes you are less keen on, yet it was clear that the technique on show throughout was of the highest order. The four hours we enjoyed at Azurmendi are the absolute pinnacle of my culinary journey thus far, a carefully crafted experience that pulls in and out of their environment. My handful of other three star experiences were blown completely out of the water. If, like me, you enjoy the theatre of eating, modern techniques, and the most perfect of meals, Azurmendi may also be your idea of the best restaurant in the world.

10/10

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Peels Restaurant at Hampton Manor, Hampton-In-Arden

As Birmingham’s premier food tosser I feel somewhat ashamed that it has taken me this long to get out to Hampton-In-Arden, considering they’ve held a star for two years now and with everyone I know telling me just how good it is. But Hampton-In-Arden is forty minutes away, and I sometimes forget that the greatest taxi company in the world do nice things for me. Most pathetically, the pictures I see never really inspire me into booking. Hold those cackles in; I am fully aware that me judging anyone on their photo skills is as hypocritical as me commenting on monogamy, but the pictures always look a little bit gloomy, and when you can fully see what is on the plate it looks classically French over contemporary. And I’m sorry for such a blunt comment, but if I’m making a one-hour-twenty round trip then I want some excitement in my life.

Well, I was wrong. Massively so. Firstly the building is jaw droppingly beautiful; an imposing country house with grand features. We take drinks in the lounge area overlooking the vast gardens with canapés following quickly afterwards. There is white crab meat dressed in a slightly spiced sauce, and a cube of duck meat dressed lightly in sesame oil on a blood orange gel which I cant decide is a nod towards duck a l’orange, or the duck from the local Chinese takeaway. Either way its delicious. It is the cheesey, trufflefully, custard thing on delicate crackers that sends us a bit potty. It’s after eating this that I curse myself repeatedly for not getting here sooner.

I am in love with the dining room from the very second we are led in to start the proper eating. It is the perfect juxtaposition between the past and the present. The fireplace, massive windows and ceiling height confirm we are in an old home, though these have been offset by more modern, luxurious touches and a beautiful centrepiece table made from a singular cut of tree that sits two tables of four. With wine ordered we receive our amouse; a jacket potato veloute topped with puffed potato pieces seasoned with salt and vinegar, and a drizzle of thyme oil. The depth of flavour is staggering, boldly seasoned, yet true to the unmistakable flavour that occurs when you leave a spud in the oven whilst nipping out for two pints at the local. Claire has a brilliant reference point for the taste that I have to promise I wont nick. It in no way references cheap crisps. Keep an eye out for when she eventually gets around to writing this meal up sometime in 2019.

Asparagus, burrata, and chicken are three ingredients that when listed together will make things happen within my pants. It is a combination that makes perfect sense; the cream-laden cheese which beds the spears not that different to a poached egg, or hollandaise. The chicken is represented as a blitzed crispy skin and seasons the dish whilst adding a meaty note. The clever bit is the fermented asparagus juice which adds the acidity required to cut through the dish. What follows is as good, if not better. Cubes of pork belly and shoulder are joined at the bottom of the bowl by pickled shallots, onion mouse, and croutons. On to this is a heavily reduced onion broth, deep in allium flavour with the back note of cumin. It has texture and purpose, the meat tender and not lost within the big flavours. We chase the last bits of the sauce with the house bread, pour in more of that broth and repeat. These two dishes were without doubt the highlight of the meal for me.

Mains never quite reached the dizzying heights of the first two courses, though lets be clear, they were both delicious. Lamb rump is a consistent pink, the meat tender, layer of fat rendered down. It looks simple; peas, lovage, malt vinegar, though there is complexity throughout. The lovage is bound in yogurt that brings a light touch, and the malt vinegar in tiny jellied cubes that adds zip and acidity when discovered. Opposite me is buttery wagyu beef, with pungent black garlic and the unmistakeable flavour of St George’s mushroom. I think it is lacking in texture, and I probably wouldn’t pay the £20 supplement again to take it from Longhorn to wagyu, but not a speck is left on the plate.

Pre-dessert is whipped buttermilk with passion fruit and a caramel from the same fruit that eats far better than it photographs, which is why I’m sparing you my horrific pictures. And then dessert, clearly from a very talented pastry section. Honey cake with fennel in various forms eats very well. It has spice and controlled sweetness. It is my kind of dessert. Claire has chocolate, sherry and vanilla. She loves it and I don’t get a sniff, so I can’t comment on it at all. Petit fours, a riff on cookies and cream, are excellent, coffee strong. Life is good here.

Our bill is heavily subsidised because we snagged a deal in Birmingham’s best weekly email, though we still hit over a ton a head with the wagyu supplement and far too much to drink on a school night. I just wished we’d stayed over. Our meal at Peels could hardly be considered a shock considering the Michelin star and four rosettes, but expecting it to be this good? It’s an instant favourite. They do flavour and precision, with the best dishes causing genuine table silence. I’m reliably told it takes less than twenty minutes on the train from Birmingham New Street to get here. And get here you should. Everything about Hampton Manor is special, none more than the food at Peels.

9/10

The good guys at A2B Radio Cars got me here and back to Moseley.

I’m up for an award, and so are a few of the staff at Hampton Manor. Vote for us, please. I’m category 17.

Simpsons, April 2018

Given the chance to treat a friend to their first Michelin starred meal, the choice of venue was an easy one. Simpsons has it all; a beautiful restaurant in lovely grounds, food that pushes on without the need to challenge, and importantly, as we are paying, a very affordable lunch offer at the weekends of three courses for £45.00. I couldn’t be more happy with our choice, they were on top form yet again, cooking cohesive flavours with flair and hints at wit that to me is closer to 2* than its present one in the Michelin guide. I make no excuses for my love of Simpsons. I have come on dozens of occasions over the last decade and long may that continue. It is my personal favourite in Birmingham. I’ll keep this brief as I not so long ago wrote about Simpsons here.

After the usual snacks and bread offering we move to a bowl with cubes of beef cheek, pickled onions, little pickled mushrooms, crowned with a flurry of deep fried mushrooms. Into this is poured a mushroom broth, thick and rich like a Tory backbencher, balanced out by the light acidity from the pickled veg. A disc of cured salmon follows, dotted with kolrabi puree and little balls of the same veg. We get another sauce poured tableside, this one a split buttermilk milk that has a lovely tang at the finish.

The main of chicken ate so well. The meat cooked just as I was taught at their cooking school, the perfect example of how to treat poultry. Cheers, Nathan. I think what makes the dish is the undercurrent of black garlic that adds a brooding quality to the plate. Combine that with salsify, cabbage, and a jus that just holds on to the fingertip and you have a dish that is singing with Springtime flavours. I reserve the best bit until the end; a nugget of thigh meat with the skin that cracks under the fork. A pre dessert of lemon curd and oats comes hidden under a drift of sorrel granite. It’s fresh if maybe not my favourite pre dessert I’ve eaten here – can we have the vodka jelly back please, chef?

Desserts today are tremendous spelt with a capital T if that wouldn’t already add to this posts grammatical error count. Fermented blackberries lay underneath skyr yogurt that somehow tastes of cream cheese. It eats, with the help of an almond crumb and a little squeeze of grapefruit, just like a cheesecake. Pretty astonishing. Likewise a carrot cake, sweet and cinnamon spicy, with a decadent praline and pecan ice cream. I want to say they’ve hidden the acidity this time around in the carrot gel which tasted faintly of orange to me, but I’m probably talking out of my arse. We finish on a textbook soufflé of rhubarb with a crumble topping into which a custard ice cream is nestled. The soufflé is one of the lightest I can recall eating, almost cloud-like in texture. It eats like a dream.

The bill for three with two bottles of wine and a glass of the sweeter stuff hits £80 per head, though it goes without saying that you could spend a lot less with a more modest drink spend. The lunch menu is a bargain, available on the weekend when the other starred restaurants offer only long tasting options. Afterwards we saunter a hundred steps or so to The Edgbaston, perch at the bar and drink some of the finest cocktails to be found anywhere. Two of Birmingham’s finest and almost the perfect afternoon. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Gymkhana, London

The last day of our London blowout saw the bluster of snow quickly gather around our ankles as The Beast rolled onto our shores from the east. We find solace in Mayfair, firstly with the perfect martini in The Connaught, thereafter in the plush leather booths of Gymkhana. The dark panelled upstairs of the restaurant feels like a plush gentleman’s club, with low lighting that that doesn’t bode well for cameras and therefore ideal for one of the most famous men on the planet to enjoy lunch. No, its not me. Mid-lunch I send a picture to my best friend with said superstar accidentally in the background, stating the inevitable of who it is. “Are you eating curry at 2.30pm?” is his response. Yes Nathan, I am. I am in Mayfair, there are no rules here.

Not just any curry though. Curry bestowed with a star by a tyre company and uniformly loved by the denizens of the capital. The service here is slick and discreet, polished more frequently than the table we sit at. Greeting us are three types of popadom; lentil, potato, and tapioca, with three types of chutney. A sweet mango one, another of mint and coriander with a verdant kick, and a feisty dried shrimp one that starts spicy and finishes with the crash of the ocean.

A large plate of potato and chickpea chaat marks the first course. It’s generous as a dish for two to share, though we make a good go at working through the beguiling mix of textures; the snap of wafer, the crunch of sev and little fried bits of potato that have soaked up the tamarind chutney that have kissed everything. Another sharer plate follows of tandoori cauliflower, the florets wearing a cap of thick yogurt. Two very good plates of food that showcase how Indians manage to extract more flavour from vegetables than any other cuisine.

The curry course is less main and more banquet. We don’t even get close to finishing it. There is decadent butter chicken masala that adds weight just by looking at it, and a more a dry spinach and paneer curry that pops with flavour with every mouthful. There is a smoky dal maharani that we mop up with the lightest of naans, and we take a supple roti to spicy potatoes coated in a thick gravy that has us instantly googling the recipe. It is called Dum Aloo Banarasi if you’re interested. And rice. Cant forget the rice. It’s mammoth in portion and obscenely good. Some of the best curry I can recall eating anywhere, and I have eaten a lot of curry as my ghee filled arteries will testify.

Desserts are a bit lost on me in comparison on account of teeth generally not being required to eat them with. Rasmalai is a very good rendition of gloppy cheese balls in milky custard, shown a little bit of wit with the addition of popping candy. Also being eaten by my other half was kheer, a rice pudding, with slices of Seville orange that bring a bright acidity. She loves them both, but then that’s understandable given that she was chowing down on baby food just a few years ago. I can appreciate them, which is an upgrade on my usual stance.

All of this is more remarkable given that eating here can be affordable. The above is all from a £35 four course set menu, to which we add a very good value pinot noir, and some superb cocktails that are worthy of the splurge. It seems remarkably fair given the Mayfair address. I’m late to this particular club as Gymkhana has been sweeping up the awards for several years now, but do I care? Do I heck. I am an instant fan, one that looks forward to future visits. They can give me Indian food this good anytime they like. Yes Nathan, even at 2.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.

8/10

Ynyshir, 1st Visit of 2018

I feel like I am going to get used to the drive to Ynyshir. The nondescript hard concrete of the motorways and a-roads until Shrewsbury, with Welshpool marking that we have entered a different country. From there its rolling green hills and sheep and not much else. Roads meander in direct correlation with the streams that tumble alongside them. Homes are sparse and thinly spread apart out here – the scenery is ample friendship. It’s beautiful. I love how much the seasons have altered the landscape in the five months since we last visited. Winter has rooted itself firmly in rural Wales; the trees have exposed their souls to the elements, grass sodden and under the permanent shadow of cloud. Even in the company of a woman, the last two of the three and a bit hour journey is peaceful and revitalising.

We roll through stone posts that mark the entrance and wind around to the large white building. There have been some tweaks made. The white linen has been replaced by oversized wooden tables . The bowls and plates more dramatic, as are the hand carved spoons that greet the first course. It is a deliberate ploy to be more in tune with the surrounding environment. And it’s working. My best meal of 2017 just delivered an even better one in 2018.

I won’t go over every dish again – there is all of that on my previous post. Dinner here takes up to four hours and involves a large quantity of small dishes. The not French onion soup is still the first thing you eat and is still perfect. This is followed by a wedge of duck leg, cooked slowly, blasted through hot oil, dressed in sesame oil and topped with spring onions. It’s like the best crispy duck from your local Chinese. We have the bread course again. The sour dough seems to have improved – the pockets of air beneath the dark crust less restrained, the flavour deeper.

Mackerel is warmed through on the pass lights so that the texture has altered but the fish still retains the bright qualities of its raw state. With this is a rhubarb ketchup, slices of fermented rhubarb, and grated lardo. It is a dish that leans on acidity. It is bright and brilliantly conceived. A crab dish with sweet corn was a highlight of our last visit, this time the seasons dictate that we have turnip with the crustacean instead. It improves the dish, the earthiness working with the sweet meat and soy dressing that has the flavour of roasted shells. It is a nailed on three star dish. We have the wagyu beef burger course that takes the profile of a Big Mac and putting them in a dice sized piece of beef you hold between finger and thumb, and then the short rib from the same beast with shiitake mushroom and seaweed. I’ve eaten both dishes three times within six months. They still amaze me.

When I’m asked about Ynyshir I always say the same thing; nobody in England does flavour like Gareth Ward. Every dish is built around the maximum impact, that smashes you in the mouth with a closed fist. Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, with grated smoked eel, a spelt cracker, and cubes of apple that cuts clean through the richness. It has pinpoint balance. We have the grilled prawn with umami rich soy bisque again. The langoustine, fat and sweet, is the best I’ve eaten, anywhere. The seasons have been kind.

We surge on to more protein. Duck breast with salted plum excites me a lot less than deer with crisped fat and pickled black beans. There is nothing technically wrong with the former, the breast meat just fights a little too hard to keep up with its company. The latter has more bravado, more swagger. It threatens to be too big until you grow a pair and man, or woman, up. Pork belly with a sauce using last year’s cherries is equally massive. I have no idea how long and slowly it takes to cook pork belly this well but my guess is that it’s long enough for a man, or woman, to grow a beard.

A salt baked swede, alit and sinister looking, marks the cawl course. I don’t like it. The bits of lamb heart at the base are lovely, but the rest of the stew is a bit nonplus. A dish based around swede – that watery root veg – is always going to be an uphill struggle with me. And then it’s the same two Welsh lamb courses that marked our first lunch here. The lamb spare rib is still in my top three dishes ever, the lamb neck with kombucha still the best lamb with mint sauce you’ll ever eat.

Two courses bridge the savoury to the sweet. The first is less conventional; onions, cooked for a couple of days in beer and wagyu fat, in a bowl with thickened cooking juices and torn sour dough. They call it bread and gravy, though to me it echoes French onion soup. It’s dark and heady and absolutely delicious. Beauvale cheese with pear takes two ingredients in peak condition and let’s them run with one another.

There are four desserts. The first is Manjari chocolate, cremeux-like in texture without (I think) the cream. A shard made from shiitake mushroom might not seem an obvious ally but the chocolate makes the fungi taste like coffee. It’s super clever. This is followed by a dense reduction of parsnips where the sugars have released and caramelised the veg. On to this goes a puddle of maple syrup, rye, and nitrogen set verjus. The combination is a revelation, sweet, nutty, slightly acidic, not like anything I’ve ever tried before.

S.T.P might sound like something I caught in 2004 Tenerife but the smart amongst you may know it to be sticky toffee pudding. This has the sponge replaced with dates that have been dehydrated and glued together, onto which is placed the strongest vanilla ice cream I have ever tried and that all important toffee sauce. I have no idea what they have done to the sauce to make it taste so good, but it is a skill to rework a dish purely around the memory of the best bit of an iconic. They use the same tactic with rhubarb and custard, the fruit mostly an acidic foil to the reimagining of custard that tastes just like the Birds custard that I grew up on. Its rich and oozy and probably the result of a trillion egg yolks. I could eat this every night of my life and be happy. We finish with that tiramisu course which I firmly believe is the best sweet course I have eaten. It simply cannot be improved.

With this the record player in the corner changes from Kings of Leon to Bob Marley, and we head off to bed to sleep off another outstanding meal. An experience like this doesn’t come cheap; dinner with a couple of bottles of wine, cocktails, and a bed for the night clocks close to six hundred, but it is just that: An experience. Fat Duck withstanding, I know of no place that evokes such emotion through the gentle suggestion of food memory. Coming to Ynyshir requires commitment; the travel and the expense. It pays this back with course after course after course of brilliance. I’ll reiterate what I said the last time I wrote about here: Ynyshir is right now the most exciting restaurant in the UK. And we are in it for the long haul, watching it every step along the way.

Adams, Birmingham

Given that Claire whisked me away to Ynyshir for my birthday, it was always going to be a struggle to get close to her efforts for her birthday. My idea was a simple one; to saturate her with saturates, to become the quintessential feeder and ply her with good food over a sustained period of time. We end up doing eight meals in eight days, lots of daytime boozing and as many late afternoon naps. Central to this was a meal in the multi award winning Adams, which also has the added bonus of being the only decent restaurant in the city in which I have not been on a date to with a girl. I’ve been several times before with mates, on those long boozy lunches that end with hazy memories and self loathing.

The interior is smart here, with a polished team operating on a level way above the one star currently bestowed by Michelin. The noise levels are low and it is more intimate than I recall, but perhaps that is a more a reflection of the company I’m in keeping of tonight. We quickly receive a number of amouse bouches; artichoke crisps with earthy purees of the same vegetable and black truffle, and squid ink macaroon with creamed cod’s roe filling. This is followed in rapid succession by tuna sashimi with ponzo jelly and a tartare of steak with charcoal mayo. The last of these is the star, the meat of real quality and the charcoal mayo giving the flavour of roast beef without heat touching it. It’s not my first encounter of the use of charcoal in a similar ilk, but it’s right up there with L’Enclume for precision delivery.

This is a kitchen that means business, that much is clear from the off. Bread comes as two types of sourdough with whipped lard and the richest of butters. First course is a successful pile of lightly dressed crab meat shrouded by pickled kohlrabi, with dots of a puree of apple and another of soy mayonnaise. It is precise in the balance, a light yet punchy dish to properly start the show with.

And then comes the only technical error of the meal. A veal sweetbread with finely sliced raw mushroom blanketing a mushroom ketchup, and a cup of shitake broth on the side. The umami rich mushrooms are the perfect foil for the creamy sweetbread had mine not been undercooked and gummy in texture. It is worth pointing out that Claire’s sweetbread, smaller in size and with a requested black pudding dish from the a la carte, was perfect, and I watched in envy as she demolished it with pleasure. We move on to a thick fillet of monkfish, the fish meaty and pearlescent, with crayfish and bisque. The bisque was astonishing; bold and with a good acidity level from vinegar and lemongrass. Ginger provides a sophisticated background heat that lingers.

We share an optional course of lobster with peanut satay. I say share – the cold chunks of crustacean disappear so quickly I only get one piece. The bit I try is superbly cooked without a hint of chewiness, the satay an unusual match that seemingly bolsters the meatiness of the lobster through the use of umami. Indeed, much of the food here relies on an almost Japanese use of vinegar and umami to give clarity and depth to dishes. This is again apparent with a pigeon dish that has another unique pairing of Colton Bassett and brambles. Who knew that pungent blue cheese went so well with the gaminess of pigeon? Not me, that’s for sure. Yet they sit side-by-side with one another, separated only the tart flavour of the berry. It’s really very clever.

The following course is without doubt my favourite of the night. Scallop, seared heavily and opaque in the centre, with a various onion preparations and a tempura of eel. It’s up there with the best dishes I’ve eaten this year, true to the scallop and perfect in balance between the sweet and acidic elements. We love the lightness of the tempura almost as much as the purée of white onion that showers everything in acidity. It overshadows the duck that comes afterwards. The rectangle of breast meat is perfectly tender, the heart of the bird an accurate blushing pink. We finish it, of course we do, using the last of the bread to mop up the last of the light jus, all whilst talking about the dish that came before.

If I remember one thing about our first dessert it’s how quickly it was eaten. The tart plum only marginally tempered by the sweeter elements as a transitional course into the final sweeter moments. The pistachio sponge (microwaved, El Bulli style?) threatened to disappear into thin air whilst the brown butter added a wonderful nuttiness to the plate. This is a grown up dessert, which is great, because I think I am one, though I’m not sure that Claire’s age qualifies her to be one yet. The last course is listed as ‘raspberry, lemon curd, clotted cream, sherbet’. I could probably stop this right here and leave you with that. It’s brilliant, a riot of the sharp and the sweet and the playful, the star being the raspberry sorbet that had astonishing depth of flavour. It’s everything a dessert should be.

This being a birthday treat I’m not going to say how much it cost, other than pointing out that with a good bottle of champagne and a nice bottle of red it would be a mortgage payment to some. Sweetbread issue aside, if was for me a clear indication that Adams is up there with the absolute finest in the city, with inventive cooking that nudges the boundaries without trampling all over them. Some of the dishes, like the crab, the tartare amouse, and the scallop were truly outstanding and as the seasons change it will be a place that we will come back to soon. And for Claire, she loved every second, grinning for days on end and sharing pictures of the meal with anyone who feigned interest for more than a second. That is all the reaction I need to tell you that Adams is worth every penny. It’s a special restaurant worthy of any special occasion.

9/10

Adam's Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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