stirchley

Eat Vietnam, Stirchley

Many, many, many years ago there was a shop in Birmingham called A Too. It was a bloody good shop, ran by a painfully hip man called Ming. I used to go to that shop a lot; I had a decent job doing shitty things for a shitty bank, lived at home with my parents, and I had many girlfriends – often at the same time – using their goodwill and natural competitiveness to full advantage in letting them pay for me. I was an original Fuckboy. And a good one at that. I used to shop in A Too because it was the coolest place to shop. I say shop; I would sit in a chair in the middle of the room making small conversation whilst Ming buzzed around collating the latest in printed t-shirts and Japanese denim, giving me just enough discount on my purchases to make me feel special. This preamble is important because Ming plays an important part of this piece, and also because I want you to understand that I have always been an arsehole with an over-sense of entitlement.

A Too came to a sad end and Ming moved on to form Eat Vietnam, first with a number of pop-ups and then with a stint at streetfood. I tried both. The food at Stirchley’s Loaf was an attack on the senses that felt like the Vietnam I loved; no Pho or Banh Mi, but grilled bits of animal and curries that have woody notes and then kick out of the three count with lots of spice. The street food I was a little less taken with, mostly because everything seemingly was drowned in fish sauce. There is a sign in the new restaurant which reads ‘fish sauce is not for everyone’ that had me worried when we sat down. I can take it, just only in tiny quantities. Like sambucca. Or the company of Luke Beardsworth.

With a permanent resturant comes the most refined of his takes on this cuisine up to this point. Pho now makes an appearance, as does Banh Mi at the weekend, joined by more familiar dishes from Vietnam; papaya salad, fried fish, chicken wings, and curries. There is little to startle the people of Stirchley. From memory the food punches less now, coaxing the flavours out slowly, with the emphasis on freshness above all else. That papaya salad has nailed the balance of salt and sugar in the dressing, with loads of fresh, crunchy notes even if it does skimp a little of the amount of poultry. A plate of pork comes as thinly sliced bits of belly; skin taut and crisp, the meat dressed in something that has chilli, vinegar, and I think a little of that fish sauce. It’s a bloody good plate of food.

The pho is the only thing that doesn’t excite me. It’s the one time that it all feels a bit safe; the stock that makes up the soup is devoid of any real flavour, lacking the zip and zing that I remember so much from a country I hold so dear to my heart. I could personally take more herbs, more lime, more fish sauce if I have to. I ask for a half portion of the vegan curry with something called banana blossom; an ingriedient that is new to me. The curry is a delight; pugent and spicy, we scrape the last of the sauce out of the bowl using the rice, leaving the blossom itself which is an acquired taste that I doubt I’ll ever aquire. We finish on the tamarind chicken wings; plump bits of bird with crisp skin, a scattering of peanuts, and a sauce full of funk and umami. Order the chicken wings, whatever happens here.

They presently don’t do booze in the week which is a downer, though my mood is in a much better place when my mate picks up the bill and takes me over the road to Wildcat to carry on the evening. The bill for the above and two soft drinks falls a quid short of £50, which feels fair. I really like Eat Vietnam with its effortlessly cool love letter to the food of its native country and I can see us going back a lot. Ming comes over to the table to say hello and I spy a branded sweater hanging on the wall from the corner of my eye. All of a sudden I feel twenty one all over again.

8/10

Know how to say ‘A2B‘ in Vietnamese? Neither do I. Just make the correct choice and order them to get you here.

Alicia’s Micro Bakehouse, Stirchley

Getting to Alicia’s has been unusually tricky. Upon the initial glowing praise we first tried the takeaway route which took two hours longer than planned to arrive and — when it did arrive — was lukewarm and not particularly memorable. We decided to give them time to settle, trying again on a Saturday lunchtime when we were plant shopping in Stirchley, except at this point they never opened on a Saturday afternoon. We phoned for a table a few months after and were told there were none available until 9.30pm. On the Tuesday we finally do bag a table it almost never happens because first they tell us they ‘might’ have a table for two at 7pm, leaving us dangling on the phone before confirming they can fit us in. I’ve had more fun at 9am in the morning listening to the Le Gavroche hold music for forty minutes trying to book a table for exactly three months time.

Inside it is equally haphazardous, albeit in a joyful, scatty, way. There should probably be a ‘Men at Work’ sign, and hardhats should be worn. It is very busy: tables are frantically being turned; pizzas are whizzed through the narrow passageways and are occasionally lowered at incorrect tables; there may be a lengthy wait whilst they locate the only bottle of chilli oil. You may also have to point out where the affogato option can be found on the menu. This kind of behaviour would normally reduce me to tears, though I found myself sucked into the chaotic atmosphere. Everyone wears smiles here: the chefs, the front of house, the paying customers in the adjoining dining areas. Given that it has taken six months or so to get here, the forty-five minutes we spend inside passes in a blur.

The menu is a list of stuff on dough, supplemented by a few things that could be served on dough but aren’t. We forgo the starters and aim straight for the pizza. The important bits are there; a sourdough base as good as anywhere in Brum right now, a tomato sauce the right side of sweet, and a good blister on the crust. It is a little too soupy in the middle, and I personally would have liked a little more generosity with the toppings, but it is good pizza. In addition to the usual ingredients mine had fennel sausage and gorgonzola supplemented with a little ‘nudja, whilst Claires went all out on the vegetables. Those pizzas are around a tenner each, the affogato a couple of quid more. The bill hits fifteen quid a head with a couple of soft drinks.

It is incredible to think that three years ago it was impossible to get great pizza in Birmingham, yet here I am about to dissect the competition. Alicia’s is good. I’ve said the base is great, but realistically does it have the quality of meat sourcing as somewhere like Otto, or a star dish up its sleeve like the calzone at Baked in Brick? I’m not sure it does. And then there is the small matter of the big guns of Rudy’s Pizza and Franco Manca hitting town (the latter armed with a true sourdough base) anytime now. Luckily none of this will impact Alicia’s who have joined a burgeoning Stirchley High Street full of independents. They don’t need my endorsement to pack out the resturant every night, they’re doing a good enough job of that themselves.

7/10

When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie, ride A2B

Caneat Cafe, Stirchley


On the day we go for brunch at Caneat Café the ever-changing menu has an item listed as ‘green eggs and ham’. It sounds like something my Mother would have turned out for dinner by accident, along with ‘southern fried chicken and black chips’ and ‘beige sausages with beige mash’.  It is, of course, a nod to Dr. Suess and his beginners books, but then you knew that already.  What you don’t know is that this may be the best brunch dish I have ever eaten, certainly since this blog started.  Two softly boiled and halved eggs lounge on thick sheets of ham and sourdough.  It’s the green bit that makes it, a phrase I haven’t used since describing a boil I once had.  It’s zingy and bright and full of herby notes of coriander and parsley.  It has a depth that goes way beyond a little place in a tired row of shops in Stirchley.  It manages to take ham and eggs on toast and rocket them skywards after a quick detour via every taste bud.  If you go, which you absolutely should, and this is on the menu then you absolutely should order it.  It’s not on the menu, then my life is automatically better than yours.  But then we knew that already.

And so to the rest of this short post on Caneat Cafe, a pale wooded, plant heavy, square room on a high street that is fast becoming the place for independent’s on this side of the city.  We take the stroll from Moseley and arrive late morning to a full house, ordering the green eggs and two other dishes.  Of those three the banana bread is the most conventional, smeared with peanut butter, and topped with both sliced banana, blueberries and pumpkin seeds.  There is a drizzle of something sweet and lemony.  It is a well put together bit of breakfast.

Look deeper and there is a nutty professor at work.  Roast peaches on brioche are hardly ground breaking, but the miso caramel that lurks underneath is.  It has a deep umami flavour that makes it a salted caramel for adults.  There is yogurt and more of that lemony stuff.  The result is a deeply satisfying plate of sweet things.

They do sweet things and quiches that we turn down, despite some glowing references on both.  And it’s cheap, with these three dishes and two drinks failing to hit £25 for the two of us.  What I love about this place is the focus is on the eating, not about pretty plates that look far better than they taste.  All three dishes had flavour in abundance; quirky little turns that enhanced the taste of the main event.  The chef is a man of obvious talent; dare I say maybe too much talent for the location it is in.  Stirchley needs places like this if it is going to fulfil its potential.  I hope the people of it reward it by filling it on a daily basis.  Caneat?  I will eat.  And frequently, too.

8/10