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The Abyss of Another Lockdown

Right now the world feels like the end scene of Fight Club, the bit where two people stand hand-in-hand watching as the world crumbles to nothing in front of them. The apocalypse played out to the reverberating notes of The Pixies as the demolition job reduces the skyline to dust. Tyler Durden, full of arrogance and bravado, is dead, whilst his pessimistic, nervous, and bleak counterpart looks to the outside world emotionless and cold. He has little understanding of how it got to this.

This post was scheduled to be a lovely weekend stay, though that chipper piece will have to wait. The government’s decision to band the country into ‘fucked’, ‘really fucked’, and ‘really fucked with financial support’ is yet another blow which will impact hospitality the hardest. A recent study showed that hospitality accounted for under 3% of COVID transmissions outside the household, yet it’s being held as a scapegoat for a boom in cases widely attributed to the return of education and workplace reopenings. This is further compounded by Johnson himself using the Eat Out to Help Out scheme as a cause of a rise in cases when the science suggests otherwise. That mop headed blundering balloon head in number ten is using an entire sector to cover up his incompetence. It’s impossible to not be angry about.

The reality here in Birmingham is a bleak one. Taking the middle tier of ‘really fucked’, we’re not allowed to mix with other households inside, effectively sounding the death knell for places that had previously been the only viable source of socialising.  Couples with children can no longer take turns going out with friends, whilst those in single households are now preparing for a long winter wearing several layers of clothing if they are to see anyone at all. The knock on effect is obvious: tables of four and six will now become twos and nones. Those without outdoor spaces and food options will suffer most, leaving the rest scrambling to make ends meet. What’s this going to achieve? Birmingham, with a declining rate of 160 cases per 100k sits outside the top 50 of worst affected areas, whilst Liverpool, the only region forced to close pubs completely, occupies third place with two areas higher than them. There has been no dialogue with local authorities. It’s almost like they are making this up as they go along.

Moaning about this on Twitter does nothing, as does me using this post as a place to vent. Right now hospitality needs support not empathy. It needs firm and direct action when the government offers nothing to them. I’m working with someone as of this morning to match up ‘wet’ only businesses with others who can supply them food to sell. Still go out to eat if you can, brave the cold for a drink if you have to, and if you don’t feel safe – which is perfectly understandable – order a takeaway, or an ‘at home’ pack like the ones Aktar Islam is presently banging out. Encourage the businesses you love to diversify for the winter to offer their products to have at home at your convenience, but most importantly don’t neglect someone because their size and location doesn’t play to a government narrative which is still being written. Buy vouchers as presents if you have to. Sure it’ll make Christmas Day a bit shitter, but Mrs Brown’s Boys has already done that.

I need to make it clear that I’ve personally never supported the idea of letting COVID rip through the country like our Prime Minister did back in February. The idea of condemning an entire generation to death is to me the end of humanity. This situation is almost as bad; it achieves neither supporting businesses or protecting the vulnerable. It’s likely that the next loss you mourn will be your favourite bar and restaurant if we don’t all pull together on this. It’s time that Boris Johnson retrained to be the Prime Minister he claims to be.

Ynyshir, October 2020

The bad news is this blog post is even worse than my usual crap. The good news is I’m back at Ynyshir in a few weeks to rectify it. And whilst I offer no apologies for getting in the state I did, I probably should have done it in the pub and saved myself a very large sum of money. We’d never been and shared a table with anyone other than ourselves, but we like Kyle and Lucy and they drink a lot, so it made sense. There were beers and wines consumed whilst getting ready, then gin in the bar before Kyle suggested double vodkas (no mixer) which seemed like a great idea at the time. Then wine. So many bottles of wine, five good bottles I think, with an interval of two rounds of Jaeger bombs (don’t ask). I’m well aware that usually my memory of dessert is hazy. On this instance I’m struggling to remember well before that.

So what can I tell you? I tell you that they’ve had a makeover. The exterior white walls are now a dusky grey, the fire pit is gone, replaced by a all-weather pit which fits seamlessly into an indentation of the facade. Inside the bar has been taken out for more seating, and there is a vending machine now to get pickled onion Monster Munch, Pom Bears, and booze from. I can tell you the tipis were ready, and that due to the unusually warm weather we were one of the first people to stay in them. Log burners and big cosy beds inside, outdoor seating and soon-to-be barbecues outside. Two of the party lay on the grass for hours after dinner watching the shooting stars in the clear night sky, and one of those caught a cold for doing so. I was tucked up in a lovely warm tent under a duvet at this point.

Food-wise it now starts the second you check in, being taken through the chilled contents of the fridge. A5 Hida wagyu from Japan, tuna belly from the Bay of Biscay, caviar, English wasabi root, a dozing lobster on some ice. Foreplay for a meal you simply know is going to be great. The first courses are now served in the bar; squid tempura, all puffed and ethereal, with sweet chilli sauce, then skewers of warmed through tuna belly doused in teriyaki. Gareth’s Geordie sense of humour with raw lobster in Jim’s Nan’s sauce (for those at back it’s a feisty take on Thai condiment, nanjim), which is an alien texture at first but ends up a firm favourite. Then shrimps in Thai green sauce that has only been slightly cooked using the kaffir lime juice in the sauce. It’s all very minimal intervention and Asian flavours. I love it.

Not sure what I can add to the rest of the meal. I remember the chicken katsu is now a deboned and rolled wing, breaded and covered in the sauce, and that the chilli crab has had similar treatment to the lobster in that it’s been frozen in a minus 80 freezer so that the shell can be removed without cooking. The use of the minus 80 freezers appears to be fairly groundbreaking, apart from an ex-girlfriend who used it on her heart many years ago. I remember one of the wagyu courses is now a maki roll of beef, caviar, wasabi, and tuna which made me emotional, and that a dessert of strawberries and cream had a similar effect. I think a slushie machine was involved at some point, but I can’t be certain.

I came into breakfast to Gareth grinning at me. ”You were fucked last night”, he laughed. I apologised and he doesn’t care because it’s our money we don’t remember blowing, and also because I’m fabulous company when pissed as long as I’m not rapping. It was over the obscene ’Mach Muffin’ that we realise that none of us had really taken many pictures. I’m an awful blogger and I don’t care. For a night we were enjoying every second, able to share great company in our favourite place. This blog is important to me, but it isn’t life or death. I’ll try to do it properly when we return for the 8th time on Claire’s birthday early November.

8, Birmingham

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8 is a restaurant which needs to be seen rather than read about. On paper the 16 seater restaurant where all of the 8 courses are based around the number 8 might seem a little gimmicky, until, that is, you are on one of those stools, with those plates in front of you eating some seriously good food. It is here that you see a chef unleashed; his own food and ideas on a plate, following a career of cooking to other people’s briefs in high profile restaurants.

Cards on the table, I have had a tiny amount of involvement in the restaurant. I arranged a couple of launch events – one for chefs, the other for press – and gave my opinion at a drinks tasting, and I suggested the services of someone to make the mixed drinks a little better. I’ve received payment for some things and have done others purely out of wanting to see them succeed. The meal you are reading about is from a press night I helped organise. Whilst it’s important to establish facts, it’s also important to remember that I’ve been critical of dishes before they reached this stage. I’ve eaten almost all of them in isolation, though this is the first time I’ve had them as one cohesive dinner.

But first the dining room, which is unlike anything in Birmingham and has very few reference points outside of the city. A kitchen table of 16 seats, each lit individually by a spotlight that beams on to the logo set upon the oxidised concrete. To one side of the room is a neon infinity wall, to the other a large screen which plays the media for each course. It’s ballsy and in your face. It’s full of talking points. It’s the room which is going to be all over your social media for the rest of the year.

Spelt bread arrives first clad in a sticky apple caramel glaze, to be torn apart between two and clad in butter. Then ‘V8’, the first course proper and named after the juice, a tart of mostly tomato and beetroot, with a warm consommé from the same veg. Delicate pastry, almost sweet filling offset with parsley. It’s a cracking start. It’s followed by ‘oxidised’, a fairly classic tartare of dairy cow with mushrooms, truffle, and a gooey yolk, set between two discs of pressed brioche. Well balanced and rich, it continues to set a high standard. ‘Square Root of Eight’ sees a cube of roasted celeriac share a bowl with a dice of the same veg pickled and a broth of the off-cuts, with little more than a grating of hazelnut for adornment. It comes alive thanks to an incredibly clever drink pairing that contains bourbon, Hungarian sweet wine, and toasted barley oil. I’m biased, but those drink pairings are up there with the best in the country.

From here it gets very, very good. ‘Lucky 8’ is a naughty double mouthful of bread, pork liver parfait, a riff on a famous pickle, cheddar cheese, and lardo. It’s big and moreish. A very famous chef may have eaten three of them. Then a light tartare of scallops and apples, bolstered by a bonito infused cream, which forms the ‘8 Days A Week’ course. We finish the savoury courses with ‘Resurrection’, a venison Wellington studded with foie gras, sauce and that’s it. It doesn’t need anything else. Stellar work, it’s up there with my favourite things to eat in the city. On a side plate is pastry ends. What’s pissed off a kitchen of chefs only adds to the happiness in the dining room.

The first dessert happens to be the first dish that Andrew learnt to make. ‘8-10-2006’ is the date he started as a chef, knocking out carrot cake for afternoon teas. This carrot cake is given an upgrade; one between two, with cream cheese and carrot jam. It’s a stunner. With this a drink that contains carrot vodka. Turns out I like carrot vodka. Last course is ‘8.01’; After Eight, if you like. There’s a chocolate ganache with a puddle of minty chocolate grappa, covered in a spikey alpine of chocolate tuiles. Given the complexity of the work gone into the previous courses, it’s nice to finish on something more simplistic.

The price for the food is £88, more if you go for the drinks pairing, which you really should. I dined in 8 three nights in a row this week prior to the official launch today, and already I have seen minor tweaks and improvements. Given that Andrew describes these as “the eight courses of his career”, it only seems fitting that the dishes continue to evolve, much like him as a chef. As far as experiences go, 8 is as cinematic and widescreen as Birmingham has ever seen. It’s bolshy and ambitious. It demands to be experienced.

You’ve probably correctly guessed I didn’t pay for this.

Better pictures by Where is Claire. Best taxis by A2B.

Another Place, Ulswater

We were several hours late to check in to Another Place because I insisted we take the scenic route. “Let’s get some pictures” I said, as we crawled through the cars that block the road on the tourist trap that is Bowness upon Windermere, taking the wrong turn towards Ambleside, then eventually up to Ullswater. We needn’t have bothered. All the scenery we needed was found at the hotel. The view from the bedroom directly on to the lake, the lakeside position of the badminton, the jetty that looks over to Arthur’s Pike and across to the boat club, and that infinity pool that seamlessly joins the line of the eye with the warm and colder waters, with just a sheet of glass and 100m between them. I’d forgotten about the price tag by the time we watched the sunrise from the hot tub, and was asking to book again when I was able to catch up on work from the terrace whilst Claire went open water swimming. I have rarely felt more relaxed in any environment, anywhere.

We went on a two night, three day stay which formed the backbone of our Lake District holiday. One night in the casual restaurant, the other in the more formal Rampsbeck. Some very nice food, some less so, but then I am a fussy bastard and this was a break between the big guns of L’Enclume and Lake Road Kitchen. The breakfasts were all a good standard, as were the lunches. Claire found a £44 bottle of Pinot Noir she liked on the first night and we drank this throughout the stay. I winced a little when the checkout bill arrived.

I won’t bore you with every dish but I’ll try to provide a snapshot. A bowl of root veg on the first night is the classiest moment in the more casual restaurant, with the roasted stuff sitting comfortable with the pickled stuff and the subtle use of cumin. Also good is a confit duck with potato hash that’s big on seasoning, even if the fried duck egg could have been used as a space hopper. Less impressive was a Keralan chicken curry that was so bland I momentarily thought I’d contracted COVID. There was a lunchtime lamb kebab which looked like a car crash but tasted great.

The following night within the petrol blue walls of Rampsbeck we kick off with ras el hanout popcorn which gave me preconceptions about them trying too hard. It settled down with a ham terrine which packed loads of flavour and had Jerusalem artichokes in various guises for texture and sweet earthiness. Scallops come accurately cooked and pickled bits of cauliflower, with the same veg reappearing on a later vegetarian dish with spiced potato parcels that are inoffensive and enjoyable. They handle vegetables very well here. Best dish by a distance is halibut with crab, fresh as a daisy and punchily seasoned, with a potato and fennel salad. Desserts are a mixed bag; a cake of plums, damson, and almond is a solid bit of pastry, though the meadowsweet mousse with the roasted peaches is absolutely tasteless. They ask why I haven’t finished it. I feel bad for telling them the truth given how great the waiter is.

That waiter was not alone; the service throughout our stay is the perfect blend of distance and hospitality. Every member of staff is warm and kind, with every request dealt with efficiently. It takes the edge off the price, which, after a large deposit is taken, sits at many many hundreds for the two of us. This isn’t a foodie retreat, more a little piece of luxury serenity which will feed you well. And when I’m sat on the jetty of Ulswater watching the sunset across the lake, that’s more than enough for me.

The better pictures are taken by Where Is Claire

Peacer, Moseley, September 2020

Peacer have a wine machine and that’s enough inspiration for me to write about them again. It won’t be a big post, nor should it be. Just a brief love letter to one of my favourite places in my old home. That’s Moseley, not Peacer. I never lived in Peacer, despite trying to claim squatters rights on numerous occasions.

They’ve reopened. It took them a while. Inside not much has changed other than the length of Jack’s hair, which lockdown has created a mane of, and the small matter of a wine machine. Have I mentioned the wine machine? All natural from Wine Freedom, it fits the tone of the space perfectly. Not only do they do pizza by the slice but they now do wine by the glass. Clever guys. Buy a card, pop a card in machine, press size of wine you want. Drink. Repeat. The wines were great. Accessible. Interesting. Youthful.

The pizza is still New York style by the slice. Great big things that need two hands to successfully control. The ‘Smokey’ is very good, the ‘Hot’ with hot honey is even better. Those in the know head straight to ‘Tangy’ with blue cheese, crispy onions, and the house buffalo sauce. It’s one of my favourite things to eat in Birmingham. Always, and I repeat always, ask for a pot of that sauce on the side. I think the tomato and mozzarella salad is new, and goes down very well. It’s simple and well executed.

It’s been a year to the day that we viewed the house in Harborne and I saw the look in Claire’s eyes. I knew then it was the right thing to up and move us, away from the parties, and to a quieter part of town. It’s been a good move us. But for all of its faults I miss Moseley. How one pint on a Wednesday night ends up in someone’s house drinking until daybreak. The ad hoc Zindiya meals and free scallops from Flakes chippy. Miss shopping in Nima Stores and then feeling sad because something so pure can’t last forever. Miss Little Blackwood, and the garden of The Prince, and Joe whipping out a bottle of rum for us to neck in The Dark Horse when he probably should be taking money from us. I miss how the top ranked hotel in the area was our sofa and came with direct access to a free bar. I miss the Tangy from Peacer, so much so that we purchase another four slices to take home with us, before swearing that we’ll go back once a month to make a night of it. Moseley ain’t perfect, but then neither am I. Did I mention that Peacer has a wine machine?

After all that wine we needed to get an A2B home.

L’Enclume, Cartmel

It’s fair to say that L’Enclume changed the way I looked at restaurants. Eight years ago I’d been to maybe five or six one star restaurants, but L’Enclume would be the first real journey, 3 and a bit hours up the M6 to Cartmel, for a meal. It was, at the time, ‘the place’; a one star restaurant who people were talking up as the UK’s next 3* star, with Simon Rogan owning that year’s Great British Menu, and Mark Birchall on the pass, fresh from a stint at El Cellar Del Can Roca. The meal was great, a four hour study in local terroir. Afterwards I understood the hype of the place completely grounded in the ingredients of its landscape. That year they bagged a second star, a position they have kept since then.

In the elapsed period of time since, almost every restaurant has followed suit to an extent. Who doesn’t have an allotment/garden/roof terrace to grow their own veg/herbs/honey? The fingerprint that Rogan has left on the UK dining scene is permanently stored in the DNA files.

The restaurant has changed a little, I think. If memory serves me correct, there once was a bar area that’s now more seating, and I think the anvil from which they take the name has gone. The corridor where junior front of house would pass food to more senior members is now an open kitchen. The food feels familiar, but maybe that’s because everyone else is now doing it, though it is certainly more refined than I recall. After a broth of something cold and beetrooty, we move on to the only dish still in place; a deep fried bon bon of smoked eel and pork, it’s outer crisp tapioca coating dotted with fermented sweet corn. We do as we are told and dredge it through the lovage purée it nestles upon. It’s meaty and dense and everything I remembered it to be. It’s also the weakest course of the day. A loaf of good bread between the two of us has the options of cultured butter and whipped pork fat topped with crispy pork skin. You know which one I chose. The fat had that depth of slow roasting, like the pale brown wedges of fat on the scratchings from your local butchers.

From herein it gets real good. Courgette is compressed and has the funk of dried shrimp which I’m assured was toasted yeast, covered in a whey sauce with burnt chive and perch roe. It’s skill is in being unable to pinpoint the central point of the dish, with it all coming together to be one vegetal, umami hit. Then various local mushrooms and romaine lettuce; the latter brined in marjoram and roasted in brown butter. A purée of pickled walnuts and a truffle cream. Deep, nutty woodland flavours. More umami. This is the cooking we came for.

They bring a teapot out for the next course. From it is poured a fennel tea onto a course of cod with crispy kale. The genius is in the addition of dried shrimps that bring a hint of darkness to the otherwise politely mannered dish. Texel lamb finishes off the savoury courses. First dainty slices of rare meat with crisped up fat, some practically raw green beans, discs of nasturtiums, and a fig leaf sauce that I drank direct from the bowl. In a bowl behind lay little cubes of potato cooked in lamb fat, leeks, and a miso foam. I think I preferred it to the loin.

On paper a dessert of gooseberry and sweet cicely does nothing for me, though the reality is it outshone the signature ‘anvil’ which followed. It had perfect balance of fresh herbal notes from the custard, with sweetness coming from a beautifully light sponge underneath. The anvil looks great but is lacklustre in comparison. The tried and tested combination of apple and caramel works but lacks the complexity of everything else we eat. We share an all British cheese board from the ever-excellent Cartmel Cheeses around the corner and finish up on a very generous serving of petit fours. The last time I was here they were three ice creams made from vegetables. In that respect they’ve improved greatly.

Service is some of the best around, with Thomas Mercier able to exude more charm from behind his mask than most pre-pandemic General Managers. The pairings, too, are fantastic; interesting and ideally suited to a style of cooking that leans on verdant dishes etched out with subtle acidity. Given that we indulged in the pairing options and the four extra glasses of wine on top, and the cheese and the four glasses of sweet wine, we spent a mortgage payment on lunch. But it was worth it. The legacy of L’Enclume is that it has provided the backbone of cuisine in this country for over a decade. It’s great to see them continue to drive that on.

Saint Kitchen, Jewellery Quarter

The last time I ate in Saint Kitchen it all went to shit. I had a breakfast there and got embroiled in a row with a member of staff when I didn’t finish my food, who then took it to Twitter and said some defamatory things about me, to which I got pissed off and said nasty stuff back. Some man from the TV who now lives too close for comfort then became involved and I continued to act like a prick when he was nasty to me, which didn’t help when I went to an awards ceremony, won the stupid thing, stayed up all night and sent said man from TV a picture of the award from my local pub the following morning. Another man, this time from the radio, tried to have my award taken away whilst man from TV blocked me. I then said some really mean things to which telly man kicked off and I ended up on page four of the local paper with my dad phoning me and telling me to behave. Sorry dad. Anyway, I learnt my lesson and now live the model life and still see TV man in the pub from time to time where we pretend not to notice each other. It wasn’t my finest moment and thanks Liam, you absolute arse. The End.

I said I’d never go back. Then they were taken over and I had a really nice and brief online chat with a lovely new owner who almost won me over by saying that Liam no longer worked there, and absolutely had me convinced when she was so obviously proud of the food coming out of the kitchen. I should probably let you know that she offered to get this lunch in and that I turned the kind offer down. One, I wanted to support by giving instead of taking, and two, given the history with Saint Kitchen any praise from my part should be genuine.

So get ready for praise. It’s improved greatly on the old set-up and is very good, if certainly not perfect. The coffee is lovely, up there with the best in the city, and team on the lunch we visited friendly and cool and not Liam. A brunch dish with mushrooms and various greens on sourdough is perked up by romesco and green harissa sauces, and is very well received. My order, a bagel with eggs and chorizo jam, is chosen because the words chorizo jam give me a stonker. It turns out to be the best thing we eat by a distance; simple and packed with flavour, that jam is more a chunky sauce but my chin wears it with the same pride. At six quid it’s also firmly on my Brum bargains list.

Alas, it’s not all to this standard. A sausage roll has technically sound pastry work and is well seasoned, but ultimately lacks oomph and is a slog to finish. Patatas bravas are nothing really of the sort; the spuds are good but the spicy tomato sauce is far removed from what it should be and it’s under seasoned. It’s also too wet overall. But really does this matter? Not to me. I’m personally happy to have the option of great coffee in that area, knowing that I can stay for a bagel and that my girlfriend can eat well if she wants. Moreover I’m happy that I can do so in an environment where I’m wanted as a customer. The new(ish) Saint Kitchen can stay, I’m a fan.

You’ll be pleased to know A2B is also a Liam free zone

Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside

We start dinner as we usually do; me knocking back a negroni like I’ve never seen one before, my more delicate other half nursing the most expensive cocktail on the list, this time a £19 mixture of champagne, aquavit, and bitters. From our centrally positioned table we can hear Chef Patron, James Cross, speak to the table next to the pass. “Any chef who tells you he has invented something is a liar. We are all borrowing from something. Most of my techniques are 700 years old”. I like the man already.

Four hours later we leave, stumbling back to the hotel discussing one of the best meals we’ve eaten in recent years. Lake Road Kitchen might look unassuming from the outside, but this is one of the best in the UK. The techniques of pickling and fermentation and cooking over flames may well be as old as time, but here they have taken them and stamped their identity on them to produce dish after dish of winners, each bringing a distinct narrative to the central story. The thin sheets of ham with gossamer ribbons of fat have little to do with the course of barbecue quail tacos other than they are both delicious. I could eat a hundred of those tacos. In between these comes possibly the UK’s best bread with an almost cheese-like butter. Again, another hundred portions, please.

Then prawn toast happens. Or prawn Kiev, whichever way you want to view the starting point of the dish. Should we make it to the end of 2020 – which is doubtful at present – I’ll look back and see this as possibly the year’s best plate of food: plump prawns bound in a mousseline of the same shellfish, itself set within a casing and a pocket of garlic butter. Pick up slice, dunk into tomato ketchup. Regret nothing.

The langoustine in a light tomato broth which follows lacks the same punch and is more a study of floral notes and gentle spice, before a beef and onion broth that works as a bread-less French Onion soup with the gratings of Beaufort that mingle and add much needed layers of fattiness. A risotto of pine nuts rich in saffron – and slightly too high in salt – is funky, umami driven, with raw slices of button mushroom and slithers of 7yr old parmesan. We tilt the bowl to get the last out of it.

Gigha Halibut cooked to a gelatinous texture somehow, served with a beurre blanc sauce that pops with trout roe salinity, is the only time the food doesn’t feel original. I’ve had similar dishes at several restaurants in the last twelve months. Then pig, specifically an entire chop of Saddleback for two. First as a singular slice of glistening meat and fat, with carrots both puréed and pickled, pickled onions, and a sauce studded with pickled ransom capers. Then a second plate this bearing the rest of the chop, complete with bone. Some of the best pork I can remember eating; the meat glaze on the outside almost sweet, bathed in bright acidity throughout. Pretty much perfect work.

We finish on three dishes which take us seamlessly from savoury to sweet. Herbaceous, almost hay-like, woodruff ice cream is followed by a blackberry marshmallow ice cream and cassis with the most incredible viscosity that will live long in the memory. Final course is baked cheesecake reminiscent of La Vina, light and creamy in texture, with apricot compote and ice cream. It’s fun and original, a rarity in fine dining.

Service is great and the wine pairings – almost all leaning towards the acidity of alpine regions – is excellent value at £70. It’s a meal that stands out for it’s singular vision; James Cross’s CV starts at Simpson’s, before moving on to a 3* in Rome and a lengthy period at Noma, yet none of these appear on the dishes in an obvious form. Lake Road utilises the best of its Lake District larder and turns it into something unique which has it’s own identity. It’s without question one of the best restaurants in the land.

Greens, Solihull

Greens do a cocktail called ‘Death by Whisky’. Over lockdown it was suggested to me on numerous occasions that I should have a death by whisky, though whether this was a reference to the drink or a wish from my enemies is unclear. “I’m not sure if I can afford a death by whisky” I responded, often whilst sipping on a whisky, often in the morning. It’s true. Whilst the world was going to shit, I was spending a lot of money on mixed drinks. Mixed drinks make me happy.

I’ve now had a death by whisky and as this is not a posthumous blog piece, you can rightly assume it involved a trip to Greens in Solihull. It sits in the centre of a shopping square, sharing a unit with a coffee bar (Vita) and street food space (Taste Collective), each with outside terrace space and its own identity. The name of the cocktail bar might give you an idea of the colour scheme here, the giant pages of glass ensuring it stays bright and well lit. It’s a comfy, almost Mediterranean way of people watching with a glass of something strong in hand.

Before the drinks, let’s get a quick word about the food. The cheese board is impeccable, which might have something to do with the general manager previously being responsible for looking after the cheese at Simpsons. All British, they have more conventional options like Black Bomber mingling with lesser known such as the superb Waterloo, which won the war when I was defeated. The meats too are all British including wagyu salami, venison bresaola and coppa, which is a far better use of a pigs neck than David Cameron ever suggested.

And the drinks. Headed up by Rob Wood (that name should mean something to you if you care about drinks), it’s about time that Solihull laid claim to a bar that made top-tier drinks. I really like the Death by Whisky, which is a boozy four-blend of various types with sherry and maple, maybe more so than the gadgetry of Smoke and Mirrors that requires you to pull a cherry and chocolate flavoured whisky drink from a smoke box. Fantastic Mr. Fig is punchy and decadent mouthful of wonder, whilst Whoopsy Daisy is all jammy fruitiness. Maybe best of all is Flowers and Blossoms, with its light floral notes and gentle acidity from sakè. It’s a really great drink.

Service is genuine and kind, on this night led by someone who used to run a bar in Harborne and another who was always too good to break up fights in Moseley. Now I don’t usually make a thing of writing about bars, but I feel compelled to spread the word about here. The nightlife in Solihull is dismal; it’s a place where Slug and Lettuce reigns supreme fuelled by Pornstar Martinis. Green’s offers something different, a classier, more cultured way of drinking in a part of town that can afford it but somehow never had it. Those who had to travel before for good drinks now can stay within their own postal code.

The Coach, Marlow

I started the week convinced I had COVID, which is regrettable in every way apart from the symptom of lack of taste and smell, which I was intrigued to experience so that I can know what it’s like to be other food bloggers. It turns out I don’t, which is a result given that it was my birthday weekend and tracking would have been a nightmare. Last week we did the Rishi thing, then the pre-birthday drinks in the cocktail bar, then the other cocktail bar, then the hotel cocktail bar because everywhere else is closed. Then the birthday trip away, then back for the birthday dinner with my mate, before the inevitable trip to a couple of pubs. Sunday went back to the pub, and the cocktail bar, and then the different pub. Then Monday night it’s like, okay, this doesn’t feel right at all. If anything it’s made me realise that I should slow down at the moment. Less groups of people over less locations and time from now on for me.

The trip away started with lunch at The Coach. Marlow is a pretty place with pretty ex-London faces spending pretty sums of money on pretty much anything. There are houses that sit on the banks of the Thames with boats just for the hell of it, and butchers which promote their wines of the week for the paltry amount of £40 a bottle. It is a mix of old Buckinghamshire money and new London money with the common denominator of money. Tom Kerridge has a two star pub here which I’ve been to before, and a one star pub which I’m about to write about. To call either the Hand & Flowers or The Coach a pub is a statement I’m not going to back-up with substance here.

It’s a nice spot. Cosy and well appointed, the palate of Victorian green and white so de rigueur, to join the small plates menu that is a very easy way of scaling up a bill quickly. Knowing that we have dinner in a few hours time we keep the order small, and it proves to be a wise choice.

I can’t pretend to love everything we eat. A venison chilli is a wholesome bit of cooking, but is a bit gritty and over seasoned, whilst the caramelised onion and Ogleshield cheese scotch egg is technically sound but the Parmesan veloute it sits in is underwhelming stuff. If it sounds like I’m giving it a hard time, I’m not, but this is a pub with one Michelin star that is presently ranked no.5 on the Top 50 Gastropub list.

When it’s good, it is so very good. The strongest dish of the day is chicken from the rotisserie. Brined and cooked until it’s borderline done, it comes swathed in opaque sheets of lardo and crisps of Jerusalem artichokes. Hidden underneath the lardo is a scattering of seeds and finely chopped herbs, whilst at the base of the dish are a dice of the Jerusalem artichoke bound in, I think, a purée of the same veg. It’s cohesive and rich, the poultry an ideal companion to the earthy, buttery tones of the veg. A chicken Kiev relies on the same meat and one veg (not me, stupid) tactic, using courgette this time as the foil. A courgette purée spun with basil is the highlight of a very nice plate of food.

A word on the chips. I’ve said for years that I consider the chips at Hand and Flowers to be the best chips I’ve ever eaten. These are better; chunkier, with a different cut that benefits the triple-cooked process and gives more potato. You might sniff when I tell you they are £7.50 for a portion including bearnaise sauce, but we’re paying and you’re not. And I’d pay it a lot more frequently if I was local.

Dishes are mostly over a tenner and all under £20, and whilst we escape with a bill under a ton, slightly bigger appetites should allow a bit more including wine. Overall I enjoyed it; the standard is similar to that of Kerridge’s other pub, and the menu is appealing. The best dishes are very good indeed. And those chips. You have to try those chips.