Gino D’Acampo My Restaurant, Birmingham

Convicted burglar Gino D’Acampo has opened a restaurant in Birmingham. He is so keen on you knowing this that he has not only stuck his name above the door, but also emphasised that it is his restaurant, just on the off-chance you think his name might be used to endorse another restaurant that he also won’t be cooking in. The ego doesn’t stop there; inside is a shrine to D’Acampo, with pictures of him posing with various celebs gracing the decor that is presumably based on his favourite airport departure lounge, right down to the padded stools at the bar knocking out the most acerbic of Prosecco. Just in case you need reminding of his credentials outside of chewing on a kangaroo bollock live on TV, the menu is there to remind you at all times. Dishes are gathered from Gino’s TV shows and cook books, and those cook books are of course available to purchase in the restaurant. Everything has it’s own soundbite description from Gino just on the off-chance that you forget you are in his restaurant, eating food cooked by a chef who has probably never met him. It’s like they decided that the primary reason to visit is to experience the pastiche life of the chef, rather than to actually eat food. A notion they have successfully carried over onto the plate.

The food itself goes from good, to lacklustre, to downright awful. To their credit, the front-of-house remove the plates that haven’t been eaten from the bill without being asked, which softens the experience just enough for me to say that if you were ever in the area and Oyster Club, The Ivy, Fumo, San Carlo, Adams, Pint Shop, Pure Craft, Pieminister, Gusto, Rudy’s, Indian Streatery, Chung Ying Central, and Hotel du Vin were all shut I could probably recommend a dish to eat here. That dish is the bruschetta, the first and best thing I ate all afternoon. The tomatoes are carefully dressed with a lick of vinegar, I think a touch of sugar, and lots of salt. It’s simple and effective. I just wish I could say the same about the rest.

The recipe for the paté can be found on page 18 of ‘A Taste of The Sun’ which I implore you never disgrace your kitchen shelves with. It should never have left the kitchen. Freezer cold, the butter on top had to be cracked apart with a knife. The paté underneath grey and granular from overcooked livers, whilst the promised addition of masala is replaced with a backnote of iodine. When asked what he thought of the dish my dining companion noted to staff that ‘the ratio of bread to paté was good’, which is more barbaric than anything I have to say.

From main courses we get seabass that is a little overcooked, but at least servicable, with lentils that are undercooked and tragically underseasoned. A bowl of cavolo nero and tuscan cabbage might look like the remains of a heavy night on the booze but at least has decent flavour. The last dish is pasta and ragu – the acid test for any Italian restaurant worth its salt, and this was once again lacking salt. The pasta is fettucine; the thicker, more clumbersome Roman sibling of the tagliatelle, which was passable despite not being my personal choice to sit with the watery ragu that has the blunt metallic notes of concentrated tomato that hasn’t been cooked out long enough. It’s twelve pounds of misery, enough to make the staunchest of remainers vote to leave the EU. This isn’t Italian food. The accent is faked, the gesticulations purely for show. I’ll leave you to work out where I’m heading with this.

We have the sense not to order dessert, though if you do you could be treated to tiramisu, or rum baba, or chocolate torte; all lovingly made by Gino on TV and then recreated by his kitchen using the recipes from his cookbooks. As previously mentioned our bill wasn’t much because the excellent front-of-house removed the bad bits, but does that make it acceptable? Absolutely not. We ordered four dishes, two of which were sent back. I ate that very afternoon to put some food in my stomach. With its city centre location and celebrity association no doubt punters will flock here to see what it’s about. To make them come back is a entirely different scenerio and they are going to have to be much better. Fantastico it is not.


Wanna know what is fantastico? A2B Radio Cars

The Backyard Cafe, October 2019

At the turn of this year I creamed my pants about The Backyard Café. It was, I said, the best place for breakfast / brunch / lunch in Birmingham, despite not actually being in Birmingham. I stand by that statement. It is worth the detour, the Saturday morning hop on the bus to Kingswinford, or the lazy Sunday morning drive. It is worth arriving famished so that you can eat multiple plates, and cancelling the afternoon and evening meals to enjoy the cakes you’ll inevitably take away. The Backyard Café do it better than everyone else.

I insist we go this time to eat The McYard; their take on the ubiquitous breakfast bap from everyone’s favourite child fattening multi-national. It is familiar in structure and flavour profile, but that is where the comparison ends; this is a McMuffin on steroids, the Backyard’s Hulk to their David Banner. The sausage patty is robustly seasoned and light in texture, with a glazed rarebit (utter filth), fried egg (total filth) and crispy onions (not filthy enough), sandwiched between a halved muffin because that’s how Hamburglar demands it. It’s too much and yet never enough as I mourn it’s demise whilst wondering how I’ll waddle to the car to get home. They even get the Full English right; good quality bangers, bacon with crisp fat, creamy scrambled eggs, a kind of leftover veg hash, beans, black pudding, roast tomatoes and mushroom, toast. It’s £7.75. I’m sure someone, somewhere, thinks that is expensive but lets be real; I’ve paid three times that for a lot worse. I don’t come here enough so we also get the confit duck leg with mac and cheese. At first I thought the citrus glaze on the bird clashed with the cheesey pasta though it grew on me like the mole I should really see the doctor about. By the time we finished it I wanted more.

I know what you’re thinking. What you’re thinking is “get me off this rollercoaster of food excitement. I can’t take anymore”, but no, hold on, because we’ve got one last run left. We take home two cakes; a textbook custart tart with a light dusting of nutmeg, and a toffee, rum, and chocolate donut. I will repeat. A toffee, rum, and chocolate donut. I eat it whilst watching Landscape Artist of The Year, the boozy filling dribbling down my chin and onto my t-shirt. It is here, from the sanctuary of my sofa, I decide that we need to live much closer to The Backyard Cafe.

I probably should have got an A2B here

Laghi’s Deli, 2019

At 5.45pm on a cold Wednesday evening, Laghi’s Deli is rammed. There are people in the bar area discussing work over large glass domes filled with red wine, whilst the restaurant area is packed with those elbows deep in plates of pasta. It’s great to see: some two years after I first stepped foot into here it appears that Laghi’s has reached it’s full potential, one where it has correctly cemented itself as the true authentic Italian in Birmingham. Sure there are others that rely on the same identikit menu with the same tricks and over reliance on a giant pepper grinder, but for real Italian food, for it’s silky pasta, it’s heart, it’s familiarity, you come to Laghi’s.

I’ve been coming fairly solidly since I first wrote about it. The food has got stronger and stronger, with the kitchen cooking more regional dishes from Bologna over what we are told that British will enjoy. This is not the place for spaghetti with your bolognese, nor cream with your carbonara, though if you are the kind of person who expects the above perhaps you’re reading the wrong Birmingham restaurant blog.

On a visit we take full advantage of a recent delivery of truffles from Tuscany. We have little crostinis topped with scrambled egg and black truffle, and taglioni with a lightly smoked cheese sauce and white truffles; a dish that seems very popular in the room, perhaps due to it’s perfume, or the extremely fair price of £30 to try the most prized of ingredients. There are sticks of fried pasta dough to dip into an arrabbiata sauce the right side of fiery, and deep fried bits of cardoon and artichoke, the quality of which are really quite something. I’m told that Luca personally picks the veg via skype from a buyer in Milan’s vegetable market. The mass consumerism of Bella Italia this is not.

The real stand-out moments here are with the pasta. A dish with porcini and coarse sausage meat is dressed in a sauce that contains a touch of cream that bites with lots of black pepper. The rolled pasta has integrity amongst such great company, being the texture it needs to bring every together en masse. Even better is the white crab meat wrapped in a ravioli of jet black squid ink, with onion jam, and a scamorza sauce that threatened to over but actually just gently lifted everything. This is a killer dish; the work of a chef not afraid to play the bold and delicate together, showing a skilled touch at balancing flavours. It might just be my favourite dish on the menu.

I returned again last week for a Sicilian wine dinner, where the kitchen showed they are far more than capable of turning their hand to an entirely different style of cooking. The food was mostly reminiscent of what we ate a couple of months back, with lightly fried panelle, oily fleshed sardines with plump sultanas and pine nuts, and ricotta frittas that leak soft cheese with every mouthful. When it is good – like the perkily dressed octupus salad, or the mussels gratin – it is very, very good indeed. We finish on cannoli better than any we personally ate in Sicily, including those from the reveered Pasticceria Maria Grammitico in Erice. The wine too was superb. But then it was handpicked from the Tenuta estate so it would be.

Now the disclosure bit. I’ve gotten to know Luca since he opened the restaurant and consider him a friend. We’ve been for lunch together and shared a glass of wine on numerous occasions. I say this because I have no need to hide it; we’re friends because because we share a mutual passion and when I eat at his restaurant my card always leaves my wallet. And the reason why I eat at Laghi’s as much as anywhere else in the city is not because he owns it, but because it is the first place I think of when I think of the rustic and bold cooking of Northern Italy.

Take an A2B and treat yo’self

Bar (0121) at Carters, Moseley

Carters launched a bar menu last week. Repeat. Carters launched a bar menu last week. I’m not sure there is anything more I need to add to that statement. We swung by to collect a book and decided to give it a whirl, despite Claire still wearing her gym clothes and me nursing one of those hangovers which grows with every waking breath. It’s as excellent as you think it would be, a bar spot at one of the best restuarants we have, with a small menu of ever-changing items priced around £6-12.

Keeping it short, we eat a cheese custard with balls of pickled squash, then bread – which seems to have noticably improved – with pork fat spread, and a pate of the best bits of pig and preserved dates to pile inch-thick on to. Chicken liver cereal will be recognisable to anyone who has eaten at the restaurant in the last few years and is now purchasable as a stand-alone, which gave Claire wet dreams about having it for breakfast on the regular. A fillet of dover sole comes with brown shrimps and a buttermilk sauce spiked with wild fennel. This is glorious. Like as good as anything you’ll get anywhere in Brum.

We eat this on the Saturday goverment is voting on the Brexit deal, so it feels right to be eating ‘scallop brex-o’; his piss-take on the shambles. The scallop is barely warm; meaty and fresher than the Prince of Bel-Air. The condiment is a riff on XO with ingriediants found entirely on these shores; the funk of dried crustacean, some serious heat from chillis grown especially for him at Westlands, garlic, some more garlic, sherry and probably a thousand other things that may, or may not be garlic. I vote to let this motion pass, which my arse was only too happy to oblidge to the following morning. And then there is the pasta, which could well be the best way to spend £12 in the entire city. Tagliatelle with plenty of bite, an umami packed sauce of Old Winchester cheese and dulse and a healthy amount of truffle. Seriously. I could eat this every day and never get bored. Unbelievable tekkers, whatever that means.

We finish with white chocolate acid smiley faces because Brad is an absolute legend who has it tattoo’d on his arm. They are delicious. Of course they are. But kids don’t do drugs, it’s not cool. Give them to me instead. Given that the bar only sits four at a time and it’s a first-come-first-serve operation, I toyed with the idea of not writing about this in order to give myself a better chance of grabbing a seat, but that would be a dickish move by these rather large dickish standards. (0121) is a snapshot of my favourite restuarant without the procession of a tasting menu. The food is unmistakingly Carters; sharp and precise, and now very affordable. We leave Moseley in two weeks and it is here that we have chosen to eat our final meal in the village. Whilst we are eating the full menu sat down, I expect to see you perched on a stool at the bar, tucking in to that pasta.

I’ll need A2B to get me here soon.

Butlers Arms, Sutton

The Butlers Arms have been in business for fifteen years. I’m told. Shamefully my laziness meant I’d never been there prior to this visit, despite the various people who go regularly and tell me that the food is worth the trip, and the friends who say stuff like ‘I can’t believe that you are supposed to be a food blogger and you still haven’t been to The Butlers Arms’, to which I dip my eyebrows and ask them to not call me a blogger if they really value me as a friend. Anyway, I make plans to go for lunch there with a very nice Italian gentleman called Luca, meeting him for a pre-drink at his Italian restaurant before boarding the train for a few stops to Butlers Lane, walking the two minute walk and, oh, that is far closer to Birmingham city centre than I thought it was.

I’m an idiot for not getting here sooner, I wholeheartedly mean that. From the eclectic interior with its lairy wallpaper, to the choice of furniture that occasionally pulls up hairdressing salon chairs, it’s quirky and unashamedly camp in the cheeriest of ways. The family affair of father and daughter, with mother in the kitchen is clearly working; tables are being turned on the Saturday afternoon we are here. The pace is relaxed; everyone appears to be having a good time.

The food is generous and comforting and far too cheap, with little twists and turns to keep you on your toes in the way that good grub should. From the multiple starters we try a punchily seasoned chicken liver parfait comes dressed in a port jelly with brioche toast to work onto, whilst I almost missed the addition of miso in amongst the buttery breadcrumbs which kiss the scallop with just enough acidity. Some beautifully ripe figs take centre stage in a salad of walnuts, rocket and pomegranate, before we move on to a gratin of crab that contains both the white meat and the best meat. Everything is ramped up to the maximum flavour it can be without ever deviating from what is ultimately pub food, but bloody good pub food at that. We wash these down with the lovely Riesling Calcaire 2012 from a page on the wine list that features a small stock priced either around or under its present retail price.

Smoked haddock with mash was perfect for the bitter conditions outside, an oozy poached egg and properly cheesey mornay sauce lifting it to a level well above the norm. The mash containing no lumps unlike the two seasoned diners eating it. That mash returns on another main – this time given umph by mustard – alongside the pork belly and apple sauce. This is a seriously good bit of cooking and a bargain to boot at under fifteen quid. The pig is braised and then roasted so that the layers of meat and fat amalgamate, the removed skin turned into a shard of crackling more perfect than many of the starred restaurants can manage. It’s finished with a puddle of something so piggy tasting I automatically assume it’s the reduced cooking liqueur, though I’m probably wrong. We wash this down with Vina Pomal 2004 Rioja. And if I’m mentioning the wine a little more specifically than usual, it’s because the list is a wine lover’s joy.

Dessert is so good. Like good enough to travel for by itself, maybe even from another continent. I say maybe because by now I’m two negronis, a G&T, two bottles of wine, a glass of Chardonnay, and now a glass of port down, so if you do board a flight from Asia (I’m massive in Asia. Massive. Mostly because they are all tiny) purely based on this blog, then how much money do you have? You should be sponsoring me. But that dessert, a sticky ginger flavoured sponge with a big backnote of booze is so very good. Like really good. Worth travelling from Eastern Europe for, but maybe no further afield.

I don’t remember leaving, nor do I recall what the precise bill was, though the food is very reasonable indeed. Just maybe drink less than we did. The Butlers Arms is one of those pubs you wish were on your doorstep; warm and friendly, with humble cooking that occasionally blows your socks off, backed-up by one of the best wine lists I can remember seeing in a pub. Sutton, so often accused of being slow to react to the dining trends seen elsewhere, has somewhere that it can be truly proud of, knocking out it’s own tune to its own, unique, beat. It’s a joy. I can’t wait to go back.


Don’t fancy the train? A2B have got you

Chilango, Birmingham

I own two copies of Chilango’s ‘Burrito Bible’. It’s a very good cookbook and one that I’d highly recommend, though one copy is probably enough. Within those pages are recipes for braised bits of meat, sauces and salsas, pickles, and ways to make rice taste less like rice. There are sections on different types of chilli pepper, yet no mention of Anthony Kiedis, and the whole thing speaks of an understanding of Mexican food in a jittery, colourful way. Loving meat and rice wrapped tightly with a flour tortilla as much as I do, I keep my Burrito Bible next to my bed, reading a passage a night.

For the none of you thinking ‘how does a man acquire two of the same cookbook’, let me tell you. The second copy came in the goody bag of the opening of the Birmingham branch a few months back. I swung by for an hour, necked some frozen margaritas and had a brief chat with the group’s owner. I also tried some food. It was okay. I thought I’d give it some time before trying it properly, and err, if anything it’s gotten slightly worse. The portions are meagre; half a spoon of meat, half a spoon of rice, but loads of chalky black beans. The hottest salsa lacking any punch. All rolled-up in such an amateurish way that my last mouthful contains too much tin foil for my liking. A burrito bowl is similarly miserable. I bulk out the order with lukewarm pinto beans with cold sour cream and a bag of corn tortillas that are every bit as unappetising as they sound.

This answers the question of why it’s never seemingly busy. A part of me initially thought that maybe burritos were a fading commodity, given that the last twelve months have also seen both Mission Burritos shut. The hard truth is that Chilango just isn’t good enough; the queues at Tortilla keep going strong because they have better food and far greater generosity. A week later I’m working in London and have a quick dinner at Benitos Hat. The experience is a world away; the fillings are vibrant, thought-out and above all tasty. Sorry Chilango, that is the burrito chain we need in Birmingham.


A2B never let me down

Some Things I Ate in Sicily

I wasn’t going to write anything about Sicily. Why should I? It’s my holiday and I went to escape you lot, not pack you into my suitcase and have you steal our fun when it’s us that dropped the mortgage deposit on a holiday, not you. But I’m home alone with a cold and I’m bored and Question Time doesn’t start for an hour so here you go, here are the best bits of what we ate with no mention of the rubbish bits because I don’t want to share my side of the bed with a horses head:

Street food in Palermo.

Friggitoria Chiluzzo

They don’t have a Digbeth Dining Club in Palermo which was disappointing, but they have a street food history going back hundreds of years which is nearly as good. The pick by a country mile is Friggitoria Chiluzzo, a little spot by the harbour full of locals. It’s the panelle sandwich they all come for – chickpea flour fritter and potato croquette sandwiched between two slices of bread. Carb cubed, morish and suprisingly not too dry. Add some caponata, a portion of fried aubergine, two large beers and you have a bill for five euros. No wonder it’s always rammed.

Ke Palle

We ate a lot of arancini and this is the best of the streetfood vendors for your fix of deep fried rice balls. Without going into full geek mode, the thing that made it the best was the texture of the rice which still retained a little bite and avoided clagginess. The more traditional fillings were very good, but it was two that veered a little off-course that stole it: first a filling of chicken curry and another with nutella that had a brioche-like casing. Really superb.

Drinks in Palermo. Specifically Negroni.

Two to mention here a few seconds walk away from each other: Bar Garibaldi describes itself rather wonderfully as a ‘working class cocktail bar’ which is perhaps the most endearing thing I’ve heard since the ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ scene in Elf. We drank all night here and left with a joint bill of about £30. Loved it. Better drinks were had at Botteghi Colletti for significantly more money. A speakeasy 1940’s vibe except everyone has piled out on to the street, thus defeating the point. Great negroni. Killer soundtrack.

Special shoutout to Bar Bocum which I initially hated but ended-up loving thanks to complimentary arancini filled with prawns that were the best we ate across the island. Cocktails were around £14 a pop which makes them the most expensive by a distance, but we stayed for several which tells you all you need to know.

Cefalu. Booze, grub, and the greatest lasagne in the world.

I knew I’d love Cefalu because I’d seen it approx. nine million times on Cinema Paradiso. Nine million might be an exaggration. Maybe six million. Whether sat in the square by the Duomo, or looking down it from the top of La Rocca, it’s a pretty place where the city ends and the sea starts with little gap. Drinks were a mixed bag, though perhaps our favourite place was St George; an English ‘pub’ that is nothing like an English pub, ran by two young Italians who happen to speak perfect English. Cheap, well made drinks including a killer negroni sblagiato.

Galleria is where you should be heading in Cefalu for a nice meal in pretty surroundings. We had a very nice meal there including a carpaccio of slow cooked suckling pig, with peach, honey, and almonds. Or you could save a lot of money by eating the lasagne for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Capricio Sicilano. A mixture of pork, veal, and beef, with three cheeses and a little heat. It is my life goal to recreate this dish.

Tenuta Regaleali

Quite simply heaven and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. A vineyard in the middle of nowhere, high up in the mountanous region of Siciliy. Despite the fact that they have seven rooms we were the only people there because they limit the number of people on the premises for couples to give them the maximum experience. Lunch is a lengthy tasting with some exceptional wines, then down to the pool with it’s outdoor bed and fully stocked fridge, up to the highest point of the vineyard for sunset and then dinner in the table laid in the courtyard. Roberto, our host for the stay, was exceptional in every way. The wines are fantastic and plentiful; the food (especially the homemade ricotta) as good as anywhere on the island. The pricetag of over £500 a night may seem a lot, though once the setting, food, and drink are factored in, a stay here seems a relative bargain.

Castelbuono. Of mountains and mistaken identites.

Ristorante Palazzioccio has been in the Michelin guide for ten years. It’s nice in a homely sort of way, even if they did try to pass off a vividly green pesto with fusilli as the white veal ragu with taglioni that I ordered. Still, the portions are huge and they’re happy to decant 120 euro bottles of wine into plastic bottles if you’re running late for a gig.

Better, in our humble opinion, was Zerokilometre, a catchily named restaurant who claim to source every ingredient from within 1000 metres, though doesn’t explain where they found the squid that ended up whole on a lunchtime plate. We ate here three times in as many days because it was consistent, the porcetta was very good and the pasta better than most.

Social media plays a funny part in holidays, as everyone is living their best life and putting on the gloss for every element of the holiday to make it look like its faultless. The reality is that nowhere is really that good – we had duff meals in San Sebastian with two months research. Looking back over the hundreds of pictures we took I can see that the food in Erice wasn’t great, and in Ustica it would appear that we chose badly; maybe the dishes, maybe the places themselves. If you find yourself reading this because you too are going to Sicily please drop me an email: you can have my notes and my thoughts on the good and the bad. It’s a beautiful part of the world that is still recovering from the reputation of a certain crime syndicate.

need a taxi to the hotel? A2B have got you

Diwan, Moseley

The choice of where to go for a Balti was once so easy. It used to be the answer to ‘where is the best place to eat a balti?’ and then that’s where we’d go. Now it has other factors to include. Have I written about it before? Do people want to read about it? What’s my angle? All these things that you couldn’t care less for and that keep me awake at night, sweating like I’ve just double-dropped in Miss Moneypenny’s circa 2001. We considered Kabbabish as it’s consistent, a couple on Ladypool Rd, and the one my Mom and Dad went to every week which I kind of like keeping to myself. In the end we opt for Diwan, because the people on the Everything Moseley Facebook page seem to like it and because David Cameron once ate there. It was literally for those reasons. Want my angle? I’ve got two: one is phallic-shaped and the other has a snout.

Because that is how pathetic I’ve become. Give me a cheap shot and I’ll neck it and then order another tray. By the time we pull up outside I have an idea for a piece laden with innuendo and profanity; one that would write itself regardless of what the cooking is like. Except it doesn’t work out that way. I ended up having far too much respect for them to do that. The decor might be on the tired side but they are proud to be here; the service is quiet and efficient, the team more in sync than far flashier kitchens in Birmingham. I request lime pickle for the poppadoms that arrive in less than a minute, the same with drinks, whilst our table is cleaned and reset in the time it takes Claire to go to the ladies and back. They are polite and quiet. We are paying guests in their little world and for that I’ll lay off the cheap tricks for once.

During our meal someone I haven’t seen in ages comes over to the table. “Bloody lovely, isn’t it? We come here at least at week”. Whilst I doubt I’ll ever make it weekly, I can see what she means. The casing for the samosa might be too thick but the inside is accurately spiced, whilst under the canopy of salad is an addictive chicken chaat with rich notes of fenugreek and curry leaf. The three curries we try (well one and two further half-portions) are a little too similar in make-up, though that make-up has a good foundation and is evenly applied. The meat is nicely cooked. It’s a bloody good Balti, better than the vast majority in the neighbouring Balti belt. The rice is good and the garlic naan is more than competent. I’d come back. The bill is under £40 including a couple of soft drinks apiece. It appears that our ex Prime Minister was capable of making at least one decent decision during goverment.


Taxis are a far easier choice than Balti’s. Take A2B

40 St Paul’s, Jewellery Quarter

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

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

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

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

In Defence of Chains.

I always wanted to write a blog on Pizza Express, though ultimately it would have been just another piece not by AA Gill, using phrases that aren’t as good as Gill’s were, not capturing the essence of Pizza Express in the same way that Gill did. AA Gill’s piece on the chain remains one of my favourite by any food writer. It meanders from Richard Curtis hating him to Desert Island Discs and dates with girls. More importantly it is the perfect eulogy to the group; how it belongs ‘to no particular group or social class; from Buddhist dukes to Methodist lesbian dustman’, and how it is ‘a sort of gastronomic post-modern version of The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special’. I miss him and I’ve never met him, unlike a friend of mine who once shared a hot tub with him in Dubai. Hearing that was one of the very few times in my life I’ve been truly jealous.

If Pizza Express does close following the reported debts, it’s a loss to us all. You know what to expect in a Pizza Express; a cardboard like base for a very average pizza, served on a faux-marble table, washed down with a pint of Peroni priced according to predicted inflation rates in 2080. And that’s any Pizza Express, anywhere. From the one down the road from where I live to the Dubai airport branch; the only variable is the accent of your server. It’s a child friendly, lay-back-and-think-of-England small dent in the wallet for a sizeable feed, packaged up in a black cardboard box. They gave us chilli oil on tables, warm greetings, consistency, and a healthy attitude towards leftovers.

The urge to pile onto a business that has dodgy foundations is an easy one; chains are bad! Good riddance to all! Bullshit. Chains are chains because they have mass appeal. What might not appeal to this food snob might be your ideal dinner, in much the same way your gas mask wearing group sessions of how’s your mother with the neighbours might not appeal to the next person’s nine pm missionary with their life partner. It’s okay to appeal to the middle ground; if our political parties applied the same logic as Café Rouge we wouldn’t be on the brink of civil war. Most people aren’t bothered about how long the dough has proved for, the place of birth of the beetroot, or how many sisters the roast chicken once had. They just want convenience; a place where they can reserve tables, order something for everyone, and split the bill seventy-seven ways if they want to, maybe even using a voucher to subsidise the bill. And who am I to tell them otherwise. I cater for the few people in the world who have the disposable income and lifestyle to make dinner choices based on where is best, not where circumstance dictates what they eat.

For the many low scores I’ve dished out over the years my problem has never been with chains; it’s been about cynicism and value for money. For every new Lounge Group opening serving inedible food there is a Pho committed to affordable quality, whilst I’d take a McDonalds breakfast every day over the shite I experienced from a local farm shop this weekend. I’d personally rather eat a Byron than the peanut butter sugary mess of a burger I ate from an award winner a few weeks back, and give me a Wagamama over Katsu Kitchen every day. Remember the very first Jamie’s Kitchen in this country? Of course you don’t. You’re still too busy trampling over his legacy because he dared mess with your turkey twizzlers. Chains feed the families, the first dates, the work parties, and they mean that I can get a table in my favourite places. For all of these reasons, they aren’t that bad.