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Eat Out to Help Out, Week 1

It turns out that Rishi Sunak, the former hedge fund manager who personally profited from the collapse of RBS to the tune of many millions, is an actual angel. A tiny, 5’7″ angel, sent from the heavens to sit atop of my Christmas tree. First the furlough scheme which has allowed me to complete Netflix over the last four months, and now the salaciously named Eat Out to Help Out incentive. I went out several times this week to get Rishi’d, fully embracing the 50% off food (and soft drinks) to the maximum tune of a tenner. And here, my gift to you, a super quick post about what I ate. I won’t give prices because you’re all adults and frankly I can’t be arsed to look on the internet. In your face, RBS.

Arch 13.

What’s that Rishi? No discount on vino? Damn you and your insistence on taking all that sweet sweet alcohol tax. We had a cheese board, couple of meats, and some mighty fine hummus. It was all in stellar condition, hand picked from the best possible suppliers. I’ve missed Arch 13 a lot. It’s a bloody great bar.

Zen Metro.

People are shits. Absolutely horrid shits. Zen got stung the weekend before with 25% of bookings not showing. Horrid shits. The power of the internet meant that one tweet later Zen had twenty or so jaded readers of a food blog in for dinner. Claire had a very serviceable salmon dish, whilst I went for the Zen Inferno, a mild curry in no way steeped in Birdseye chillis. I finished it with sweat pouring off my brow, holding in the internal burning by not coughing. My arse still hasn’t recovered. Service by Jaimon was as sharp and personable as ever.

Purecraft Kitchen.

Behold the greatest bar snack in the world! Smoked potato, crushed and then crisped up in fat, doused in beer cheese sauce. Whatever beer cheese is I want it my belly. All the beer cheese time. Add the best scotch egg in Brum, a killer sausage roll, burgers of beef and of chicken (have the latter), and you have an extremely enjoyable lunch. Praise be to Rishi, my little gnome friend.

Little Blackwood.

Is there a better way to spend a Wednesday evening than at Little Blackwood? How about bao and ramen at Little Blackwood. Twenty quid (well a tenner because of Rishibabes) gets two of the former and one of the latter. We eat them all; the salmon bao and the duck bao wolfed down in record time. The spicy laksa with just-cooked prawns bobbing on the surface and the ramen with its chewy noodles and a broth with a dashi base and the texture of long simmered bones. Do it.

Baked in Brick.

Not technically on the scheme yet, but we went on Thursday when pizza is two-for-one all day, thus effectively adding one more day to destroyer of banks Rishi Sunak’s scheme. Lee has been working on his dough all lockdown and it shows. This was the best pizza I’ve eaten at Baked in Brick. I’m reliably told that you should keep your eyes peeled for a special pop-up in the next week or two. See, you come here for dreadful writing and I give you an exclusive. Ain’t that grand.

I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure I heard Rishi say everyone should use A2B

DDC at Coventry Cathedral

There is a very serious conversation to be had about the future of hospitality. I know you haven’t come here for serious conversations – I haven’t either – but it needs to be said, so you’ll be quiet and listen whilst I talk. The landscape has evolved, though nobody seems sure to what extent, given that the government changes its mind more frequently than Boris changes partners. You may have noticed that your favourite restaurant or bar has yet to open, and if they have it resembles nothing like it used to. One way routes like it’s the canteen at IKEA lead to santitiser stations and tables with paper menus and staff in ice hockey masks. Sheets of Perspex divide tables and eating out divides opinion. Is it safe? We used to cough to hide a fart; now we fart to hide a cough. It’s been that kind of year.

What we do know is that rents still need to be paid. The ‘Rishi for 2024 PM’ juggernaut has covered employee wages to a certain extent yet has done nothing to stop the landlords raking it in when the soil is arid. Businesses are left with little choice but to operate with reduced captivity and increased scrutiny, or close. Except there is another option. One that involves closing the bricks and mortar and switching to a street food model that puts the customer in an open air setting which has significantly lower transmission risk and allows a greater flexibility of getting out to the people as opposed to the people getting to them. For years those in the know have said that street food is the future: right now it feels vital to the industry.

Digbeth Dining Club know this. They also know that space is a huge factor in successful distancing, hence why the original site is presently sidelined whilst they work on bringing food to Warwick, Longbridge and Coventry, perhaps the most beautiful of them all. I’ve never been to the cathedral before, its morbid ruins a reminder of the devastation of WWII with an altar still in place and the windowless arches in its stone skeleton. It’s beautiful. The shadows cast under this bright Sunday afternoon stretching out across the tables which sit where pews once were. Hitler was an awful man who did awful things, but it appears he was great at providing excellent al fresco locations in the sunshine.

And what an afternoon. A stellar line-up for an interstellar location. We can’t choose between the traders so aim for one each, and fail admirably after just three dishes. First fried chicken and chips from Yardbird whose operation has got better and better over the last twelve months. Chicken strips that have likely been given the flour-egg-flour treatment for a crunchy salty hit of batter, with a buffalo sauce that’s the right blend of vinegar and chilli, and chips dusted in Cajun spice. It’s a bloody good start.

Then over to Dicks Smokehouse where I annoyingly go off-piste and ask for a side of nachos topped with both the beef and pork (I told you it was annoying). Soft, slightly yielding and smokey meat, crunchy nachos. Back of the net. Then to Dim Sum Su for battered chunks of chicken with salt and pepper chips and a curry sauce that has me begging for the recipe. Then even better, a huge bao of panko breadcrumbed portobello mushroom from the same trader, that’s meaty and dense, with further interest from the rock sugar, chilli, and spring onion which adorns it. We abandon any hopes of eating from Buddha Belly or getting the Bournville Waffle we intended to finish on.

Sessions are capped to roughly 300 people each time, and everyone has their own table in which to enjoy their time. It’s rather perfect, so much so if I were unable to open my restaurant yet I’d be on the phone begging for a spot at further dates. None of us have any idea what the future is going to be like, but we do know that outdoors is better than indoors, and that’s where DDC do what they do best. I’m paying Warwick a visit next. I’ve got a summer to enjoy.

Dishoom, Birmingham

The interior of Dishoom is a throbbing hive of clinking cutlery and conversation. As I peruse the menu a waiter passes me bearing a tray full of chai, then reappears, as if by magic, from the same side bearing more. It is an atmosphere which echoes the Iranian style of cafe in Mumbai from which Dishoom is modelled, a city within a country that I have visited and love. My girlfriend knows more about the city previously known as Bombay than I do; understands it’s culture far more than I ever will. She has been to Mumbai on multiple occasions. She sponsors the education of a child she has never met at a school there, one whose grades are deteriorating by the year and who she perseveres with when I suggest otherwise. She has an internal commitment to the betterment of the area, just like Dishoom, who donate two meals (one in India, the other in the UK) for every meal purchased.

That opening paragraph was tough, but I think I’ve covered most of Foodie Boys guide to writing a food blog, and if I haven’t, then I’m sorry, I’m just really not very good at this. I went on a press trip with Dishoom in January and whilst others were asking important questions, I was doubling-up on the free drinks and standing under signs in the Kings Cross site that read ‘Simon Go Back’. What I did get was the sense of a business wanting to do things the right way; to give back to those in need, and to bring communities together over food. When Simon eventually did go back, he did so drunkenly muttering about wanting to work for such inspiring owners. Yes, I did just reference myself in third person and kiss the arse of the business I’m about to write about. I’m pathetic.

So the food. We’ve been a few times now, twice for breakfast (one time far superior to the other) and once for lunch. All three over soft launch periods with 50% discount on food that will make me overlook the bits they fell short on. At breakfast they have quite the reputation for the bacon naans and so they should, given the quality of the bacon, and the supple bread which houses cream cheese and the addictive tomato chilli jam. Don’t overlook the eggs on chilli cheese toast that is kejriwal, or the akuri scrambled eggs that punch with spice. We have the Big Bombay that has parts we love and parts we don’t. Of those we love we build our own buns of peppery sausage and more of that scrambled egg. At £12.50 I’d suggest more enjoyment would be had from two bacon naans.

Lunch brings more happiness. Murgh malai is an ode to tenderising chicken thighs over lengthy marinades, and produces a must order of soft, slightly smokey meat. Likewise the black daal must be taken; a dark and brooding affair, cooked slowly overnight until the lentils fray at the shell and offer no bite. It’s rich and addictive and worthy of the individual box on the menu. I could take you to other places in the city for better chana, but none that I’m aware have the foresight to serve it with sweetened carrot halwa and batons of pickled veg that when loaded on to the puffy fried bread add contrast and depth to the gingery chickpea curry. It’s a genuine game changer.

Back in January Naved Nassir, the group’s executive chef, spoke of the pressure of coming to a city that has curry at its very foundation. Perhaps it’s why they choose to put a curry as the Birmingham special. The base, a gravy with heady notes of clove, cinnamon, and cashew, is the vehicle for slow braised mutton that quite literally falls from the bone. To say it reminds me of a korma cooked by a very young Aktar Islam gives you an idea of how highly I regard it. The same for the technical workmanship involved with making the roomali roti that holds the chicken tikka. The detail is as impressive as the taste, which, given the size of the operation, is impressive in itself.

Three separate meals each with 50% off, the most of which is around £40 without booze. And herein lies my personal conflict; am I likely to pay the full £80 at lunch when the same sum gets me food and wine for two at the immaculate Opheem? Probably not. But I can see it being a permanent fixture for breakfast, a regular stop off for a one-dish lunch, and the occasional dinner with friends. But this isn’t about me. It’s about Birmingham finally being taken seriously by the big-hitters from the capital, how it’s still attractive in the middle of global pandemic to be here, and how the city have already repaid that faith by packing it out before they properly open the doors next week. Dishoom could have played it safe and yet they’ve gone all in. I have a feeling the hand is going to play out well.

We take A2B to get from A to B

Sabai Sabai, Harborne

“I might not make it for dinner tonight” – a text from my friend reads – “I’m in A&E after falling through a false ceiling”. And there underneath the text was a picture of the hole he had fallen through for evidence, all fourteen or so stone of him, and a second, more gruesome one, of an open gash. I won’t share it, because it’ll ruin your appetite and frankly that’s my job, but it looked nasty; like one of those fake plastic cuts you pick up at Halloween when you want to make a bit of an effort but not quite go the whole hog. Or Katie Hopkins as she prefers to be called.

As it was he does turn up, getting to the restaurant mere seconds after we arrive, followed by his less accidental wife some minutes afterwards. “I’m starving” he tells us whilst lifting his forearm to show the stitched-up skin covered by dressing. We have prawn crackers and I get sweet chilli sauce down my shirt, then more prawn crackers, then the first of three bottles of red. He orders too much food for us all; chargrilled giant prawns the length of your hand in a zingy, spicy sauce. Then a meat platter with shredded duck rolls, crispy chicken wings, spare ribs, and the kind of lamb chops I’ve been missing all lockdown. Smokey and tender and caught on the edges, served with a sweet and garlicky pineapple salsa.

Top tip for the next time you find yourself in a Thai restaurant; ask for a dipping pot of Thai soy sauce with a squeeze of lime, loads of birds eye chillis and some diced shallot. It makes everything come alive. Also top tip; don’t draw attention to yourself by pouring all of it over your food like I did with the duck laab. Laab is one of my favourite things in the world; the hot and sour salad of torn meat and the funk of toasted rice powder, now with the added fire that would make breakfast the following morning very interesting. A papaya salad was textbook in delivery, with its back note of the ocean lurking whilst the lime sits upfront.

Mains, we had too many of them. There was a massaman, sweet and sour from the tamarind, and a weeping tiger dish which showed that the chef can accurately cook a bit of rib eye to medium rare. The more familiar red curry paste made an appearance on the less familiar stir fry dish of pad pik geng and would have stolen the show had it not been for the Sabai Sabai hot platter with beef. Again the meat was good, but the spicy, umami rich sauce with whisky and holy basil had us fighting for the last of it. Sides of broccoli and pak Choi were ambitious and totally unwarranted, whereas bowls of sticky rice are essential to mop up the best bits.

The bill, with three bottles of wine from the higher end of the list and several rounds of martinis is more than you should spend on a Tuesday night, but a sensible person should allow £30-40 per head. If we got carried away it’s because the food was genuinely superb. Maybe it’s the lack of going out this year, or the quantity of booze, but this was I think the strongest meal I’ve had at any Sabai Sabai in the ten years I’ve been going. We stepped outside the usual curries, away from the pad Thai, and into the parts of the menu we don’t usually look to. And it paid off. The food at Sabai Sabai has literally gone through the ceiling.

Just because I never took an A2B doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Craft, July 2020

I booked a table for one at Craft with the best of intentions. They had launched a new menu with a ‘picnic’ section that I wanted to try; £25 for five small plates seemed a bargain lunch, throw in a glass of wine and I’m back within the hour, fed and watered for £35. Sign me up. Except life doesn’t always go to plan. Let’s be honest, it never goes to plan. Well not mine, anyway. I turn up, take to my table, and two of my friends, who I had no idea would be there, do the same. They offer a seat at their table, I take the seat and that in and out quickie ends up five or six bottles later, with a headache that keeps on giving well into that weekend. I still need to try the picnic meal.

I knew the food was going to be good. The two weeks we do ‘Craft At Home’ over lockdown turn out to be two of the tastiest meals we have. Two pies; one ox cheek with a deep gravy, the other a chicken, ham hock and leek number which is at once creamy and rich, with notes of fennel from the seed and tarragon. Is this a sign of a simpler new direction? No, not really. The only new direction is the entrance, which comes straight off Brindley Place, through the ‘garden’ that houses the pods, past the bar and down the steps into the restaurant. Inside there are less covers, the space more intimate. It’s leaner. Lockdown has done them good.

We start with a croquette specifically requested from the picnic menu, full of smokey chorizo notes and cauliflower. Then a millefeuille of crab and apple, with precise pastry work and lots of brown crab flavour cut through with acidity from the fruit. Two courses in and it’s clear that the flavours are stripped back; two or three core ingredients, strong technique which allows them play off each other.

For main I have pork and pineapple. The loin is beautiful, blushing pink and tender, as is the belly that has been braised until the layers of fat and meat amalgamate. I find a pineapple caramel on the sweet side – the cube of the same fruit provides enough contrast for the rich mangalitsa breed. The mashed potato is glorious. I get to try a lamb dish which is superb. Deep and smokey from aubergine and black garlic, the loin and belly cuts treated with care and attention. Apricots reinforce an almost Middle Eastern feel to the dish. Andrew Sheridan can really cook. I mean really cook.

By now the three of us are on bottle number four and I’m really regretting skipping breakfast. A creme brulee Cambridgeshire burnt cream is spot on for luscious texture, whilst donuts with coffee ice cream hit all the right spots. We leave the table happy and head outside for more wine.

The supreme pontiff of the trio offers to pay the bill and this drunk accepts, meaning I have no idea what the bill is. Craft is lovely, slowly taking things up a gear to the high level it now operates at. I’m a big fan of what they are doing; how the drinks are all British, how the focus is on affordable premium dining using the finest of seasonal ingredients. And I gather there may be a few twists in store for later on in the year. With prices starting at a little over £20 and with them utilising the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, now is the ideal time to check them out for yourself.

Pictures by Conrad because mine were awful.

You can’t drive after drinking this much so we take an A2B

Staycations at Hampton Manor

If the intention of this press trip was to get bookings for the staycation then they succeeded before we left. At midnight after a fair amount to drink, a whole lot of fun, and a severe beating at pool, we succumbed to the inevitable and asked if we could book a stay for September. I’m already excited about it.

Hampton Manor has that effect on us. It almost certainly will on you, too. The way the drive meanders through the estate and the manor comes into sight on the right-hand side, before it fully reveals its majesty direct and to the left. How the scale of the house becomes immediately apparent when you step into the reception hall, with ceilings that could house a beanstalk and the most immaculate of interior design. It helps of course when the very small party are being watered on Nyetimber magnums.

We are given a tour of the new Nyetimber summer house, a beautiful space where the staycation starts with the afternoon tea on arrival. Then a walk through the extensive gardens where much of the produce is grown, through to the smokehouse, another new area which is where we are having dinner tonight, and is the dinner location for the first of the two nights in the package. The old stable building is transformed, with a large communal table and wine on tap, its shell still its beating heart with bare brick walls and stone flooring. We have two starters from the Michelin starred Peels restaurant, both vegetable led with fish used mostly for accent: first tomatoes with sourdough crumb and turbot roe, then a roast potato with xo butter and garden herbs. The potato is good enough to make lockdown worthwhile; absorbing the curry and crustacean notes of the butter with sharply dressed salad of fennel, dill, and chervil adding layers of intrigue.

Whilst eating these our mains cook in the fire in front of us. Rolled pork belly, barbecue lentils, broccoli, and apple sauce. Looked great, ate better. Washed down with a lot of natural wine from a team who are clearly passionate about grapes crushed in a particular way. Dessert was toasted almond cake, raspberries, and ice cream with an almost indistinguishable note of lavender. Simple and delicious. A description that’s also my Tinder profile.

So what’s the craic with the staycation? Two nights, £360 per person. Your money gets you afternoon tea on arrival, dinner in the smokehouse, a bed, breakfast in the morning, craft/wellbeing/food workshops, wine tasting, five or more courses over dinner in the 1* Peels restaurant, the same bed, breakfast in the morning, and a wave goodbye. They operate an honesty bar in the day, and if like us you have no idea when to stop, the midnight hours can be filled in the new pool room, in the bar listening to vinyl, or sat at the whisky bar. It’s not a small amount of money, nor should it be; this is luxury. We’ve debated booking it since they announced it a month or so ago, but after last night decided that we should go and make a weekend of it with friends. I’d spend that amount getting abroad for a couple of nights, we deserve the break.

This was a press event and as such was complimentary. The subsequent booking will be paid in full.

Eat Out to Help Out: The Right Way

There is no doubt that the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme comes with the best intentions. That, along with the VAT reduction, is designed to kickstart a sector in desperate need of help. Hospitality is on its arse. It’s the first place we were told not to go to, it’s the place we are now told we should visit with extreme caution. It’s the place that has all the stigma attached to it, even when it’s been okay to stand in supermarkets for the last four months, picking up and putting back down the same products. And this is without those who work within the industry generally having less furlough pay due to a deeply flawed TRONC system. But for all its good intentions there is little denying the scheme has more benefit to the chains with deep pockets and multiple locations across the breadth of the land. Already we are seeing the likes of Wetherspoons and McDonalds passing on a percentage of the VAT saving to the customer, when it’s designed to reduce costs. They have an unfair advantage. Look to the press and it’s the same chain names who are being lauded for joining the scheme; maybe because it’s lazy journalism, maybe because they hold more leverage. The independents of the West Midlands might as well not exist in the eyes of some local press.

They do exist. And they need your help. Make the most of the Monday to Wednesday offer of 50% off for your food and soft drinks to a maximum value of £10 per person. Don’t make Wednesday the new Saturday; make it another Saturday. Use this scheme to try new places, to support the fine independents we have and to show them you care. Below is a regularly updated list of independent businesses who are using the scheme, with not a chain in sight.

Craft. Wednesday only

Purecraft Bar and Kitchen. Tuesday-Wednesday

Harborne Kitchen. Tuesday – Wednesday.

Chakana. Wednesday only

Warwick Street Kitchen. Monday – Wednesday

Saint Kitchen. Monday – Wednesday

Little Blackwood. Wednesday only.

Pulperia. Wednesday only.

Opheem. Wednesday only.

Plough Harborne. Monday – Wednesday

Laghi’s Deli. Monday – Wednesday

Otto’s. Wednesday only.

Indian Streatery. Monday – Wednesday

1000 Trades. Tuesday – Wednesday.

Arch 13. Monday – Wednesday

Kuula Poke. Monday – Wednesday

Sabai Sabai. Locations vary for days

Adams. Tuesday and Wednesday

The Highfield. Monday – Wednesday

Damascena. Monday – Wednesday

Tiger Bites Pig. Wednesday only

Cherry Reds. Wednesday only

The Old Crown. Tuesday – Wednesday

The Wild Rabbit. Wednesday only.

Umami. Wednesday only.

Chung Ying. Monday – Wednesday

Cucina Rustica. Wednesday only

Pasta di Piazza. Wednesday only

Zen Metro. Monday – Wednesday

Loft Kitchen. Tuesday – Wednesday

Pinchuan. Monday – Wednesday

Topokki. Monday – Wednesday

Hot 7. Monday – Wednesday

Pepper Chef. Monday – Wednesday

Xiong Qi Hot Pot. Monday – Wednesday

Takumi. Monday – Wednesday

Ming Moon. Monday – Wednesday

We Shuang. Monday – Wednesday

Quarter Horse. Tuesday – Wednesday

No 1 Chinese Cafe. Monday – Wednesday

Ruga Bistro. Tuesday – Wednesday

Butlers Arms. Monday – Wednesday

The Dark Horse. Monday – Wednesday

Zindiya. Wednesday only

Land. Tuesday – Wednesday

La Plancha. Monday – Wednesday

Palmyra. Monday – Wednesday

Ponte Di Legno. Monday – Wednesday

Kababish. Monday – Wednesday

La Fibule. Monday – Wednesday

Tipu Sultan. Monday – Wednesday

Byzantium. Monday – Wednesday

Kitchen Garden Cafe. Monday – Wednesday

Purnells Bistro. Wednesday only

Sarehole Bakehouse Pizza. Wednesday only

Becketts Farm. Monday – Wednesday

Please let me know if you would like to be added to this list.

Opheem, July 2020

Almost six years ago to the day I was sat in the Eiffel Tower, eating a wild strawberry vacherin dessert, in the Ducasse restaurant which once occupied the central section of the iconic landmark. That dessert was arguably the highlight of a very expensive lunch; a Ducasse signature, less well known than the baba, the vacherin is a tidier sibling of the pavlova or the Eton mess, with fruit and meringue and cream. The reason it dazzled was the gariguettes, my first experience of those prized wild strawberries that are vibrant and intensely sweet. I said it was the best strawberry dessert I’d ever eaten, which was likely true at the time, but certainly isn’t now. On my subsequent travels I’ve eaten far better strawberry desserts several times over. I ate better strawberries at Opheem last weekend.

But it’s relative, isn’t it? Six years ago, I had been to less than 10 Michelin starred restaurants, wasn’t on that much money, and was recovering from a severe road accident where I thought I may never walk properly again. We’d saved hard to go, dropping in our change into a box designed to save up for special occasions like eating in the bloody Eiffel bloody tower. Everything tastes better when it’s hard earned. I used to spend hours sat at my desk scouring menus on the internet for value in places to eat, then we had a good joint income and it became more about where we wanted to go and less to do with how much the these things actually cost. How very privileged. Now value is a factor again; as of last week I’m redundant. Until work comes my way I’m going to have to consider the final bill whilst the sum for twelve years service heading towards my bank slowly dwindles down.

The lunch menu at Opheem is value. £40 for three courses, with the nibbles in the bar, and the bread would be value by itself. Add half a bottle of wine per person and it’s up there for best value Michelin starred lunch in the country. I know, I check these things. We start in the bar area, gently throbbing with pre-lunch energy, with a bone dry negroni and canapés. An oyster emulsion with jalapeño juice and pickled onions, then a kind of caponata in a pastry case with just enough warming spice to remind you that this is an Indian restaurant at its core. A shard of flaxseed cracker dotted with gels of vinegar and mustard complete the opening scene. Claire remarks that it tastes like a burger, but I can’t be sure as I’ve lost my sense of taste and smell. This is a joke. I’ve just had a negroni; I feel great.

The dining room has always been spacious and here it proves no problem to socially distance, as staff on both floor and kitchen deliver dishes in a uniform which now includes branded face masks. We have milk bread with an onion butter studded with lamb offal. Then starters; one a zingy tartare of aged friesian beef which requires a little jaw work to get the best of the flavour out, the other bowl of pink fir potatoes, I think pickled then barbecued, with a puddle of tamarind purée and a foam of potato. We both agree we could eat a mixing bowl sized portion in front of the telly and be gladly content. It’s comfort food of the highest order.

We both take chicken for the mains because it closely resembles the jalfrezi dish which I had as my top dish of 2019, if not quite as magical; chicken breast cooked in a water bath them finished under the salamander to crisp up the crumb of reapplied skin. Charred spring onion, a baby onion stuffed with keema, a vivid green purée that tastes faintly of (I think) coriander and could be bumped up a little. On the side is a jug of makhani sauce which is the best makhani sauce you’ll ever try, anywhere, from any man, women, or child to make makhani sauce. The key to Aktar’s talent is to make the most familiar of flavours feel uniquely special.

In a callback from the first paragraph that only the most talented of unemployed writers looking for work can manage, you will now recall I had a strawberry dessert. It’s based on a lassi, but really it could have been a vacherin. The meringue is crisp, the strawberries with a deep hit of flavour and the faintest note of vinegar in the background. Take that Ducasse, you big old Frenchy. The other dessert was better. Pear and ginger and pandan, each a clear and distinct flavour which layers up and sings in harmony. It gets real murmurs of happiness as opposed to the fake ones I’m used to hearing. I try it. The murmurs for once are justified.

The wine is lovely. A buttery white and a red that is a true expression of what Tempranillo should be, leaving a bill for £110 for two that includes the negronis and service. Now, I have no idea what your financial situation is, but that sum of money is a relative bargain. To be sat in one of Birmingham’s six starred restaurants – in what I think is the best of the restaurants across the country in the Indian category – and have a meal of that standard is a steal. I’ve already agreed to come back twice in August with friends so that they too can experience it.

Chung Ying, Chinatown

It’s hard to remember life before lockdown, but before we started abandoning each other, this country turned its back on the Chinese community a full eight weeks prior. Since mid-January they had to endure unforgivable xenophobia because of something that was happening 5500 miles away, with takeaways and restaurants up and down the country empty and stories of unprovoked violence towards them a regular occurrence. Here in Birmingham, where our Chinatown bleeds into our Gay Quarter and is just a stone’s throw away from our central train station, the window displays of roast ducks and slow cooked bits of pig acted as shields to hide the empty chairs which lay inside. A large proportion of this city let our fear turn into casual racism, and casual racism is still racism, whatever way you want to gloss over it. As bad as you think your three months lockdown have been for you, the Chinese community have had this for 2 months longer. Their restaurant industry was crippled when the rest was still taking body shots.

Three days into restaurants being allowed to reopen and Chinatown still cuts an eerily quiet scene. I get out of the taxi at the bottom of Hurst Street and walk up through its spine, passing through the Arcadian and into Chung Ying where I’m having lunch. It is here that I have my temperature checked by a remote sensor, onto a sanitiser station, before being taken to a member of staff in a face visor. The table is not in the restaurant as I know it, but in a new covered outdoor seating area which will serve as the restaurant until it is deemed safe enough by them to go inside. Two pieces of paper appear; one for my contact details to trace, the other to tick the dim sum boxes which I wish to order. It seems like they have looked at the guidance and decided to go above and beyond them to make this the safest experience it can be.

I’ve known co-owner James Wong for ten years, which is twice the length of this blog’s life. If memory serves me correctly I was the drunkest person at his stag party and I was absolutely the drunkest at his wedding when I got on stage, took the mic off the band’s singer and proceeded to rap verses from ‘Ready To Die’ over something from The Beatles back catalogue. This conflict of interest and general love for his family is the reason why I don’t write about his and brother Will’s restaurants. But this isn’t normal circumstance. For clarification, this is the final soft launch day and for the most part James is sat opposite me. I make several attempts to pay and he tells me to buy him beers in The Plough as repayment.

We eat very well. Char Sui buns are delicate, fluffy clouds bound around sweet pork filling, whilst chicken gyoza zip into life when licked with a Chinese vinegar that I’m unfamiliar with. A bean curd dish isn’t to my taste, and I once again have gelatinous chicken feet forced upon. Previous experience tells me that to get the most out of them you need to suck hard and have a bowl ready for the discarded knuckles. I like the baby octopuses in light batter, which are meaty and still tender. A lunch time trade of both Chinese and Western clientele are well catered for, but this is a restaurant that has been adapting for 39 years. This year is going be a tough one for all of the industry. Chung Ying are going to need your support to ensure they make 40 next year.

I took my first A2B in a long time and felt as safe as houses. Screens and PPE are their priority.

Harborne Kitchen, Bar Menu

Not that I’ve been counting, but it’s been 108 days between the time I sat and ate pizza in The Plough, and this, our first meal out since lockdown was eased, some 250 metres up the road in Harborne Kitchen. And whilst some of you are reading this having already rushed out like we did, I believe it’s likely that the majority have decided against it. I’m not going to judge either way, like the self-defence calling card of the most basic of bitches; “you do you, Hun”, whether that be accepting the risk involved with going out, or staying inside quietly judging those who do. We have accepted the risk and we are here, in a room whose skeleton now holds a post lockdown body. It has extra lines and curves, with deep blue partitions fringed with gold, and a glass screen around the kitchen that still allows the counter seats to function. It feels as safe as a room outside your home can feel, which is the best that we can hope to achieve under the circumstance.

Our visit is purely for the new bar menu. I have a feeling it’s going to be good. Some week before our dinner I bump into Jamie, the chef patron, outside his restaurant. He is full of vigour and romance for the reopening, clearly excited for the separate bar and restaurant menus, along with a transitional space in the centre that allows them to react and change booking sizes depending on which of the two are busier. “I can’t wait to sit in the bar and eat the whole menu” he tells me. I offer to be his company. He quickly changes subject.

In truth I could be sat in McDonald’s and be overcome from thrill of eating out, but this is special. Really special. The bar menu maintains the essence of the restaurant, stripped back and accessible. The only crossover is the liver parfait with sourdough which is the first dish to arrive. It’s big and brash, full of iron offal notes offset by macadamia nuts and strawberry. Then a light courgette dish with pops of olive and buttermilk dressing which would be the only dish I wouldn’t reorder. The most expensive dish is a scallop that clocks in at £12. The shellfish is cloaked in lardo and nestled in a puddle of gazpacho water; a clean, fresh essence of tomato, garlic, and red pepper. It quickly disappears. We drink the last of the liquid direct from the bowl.

The dishes that I happen to think will be most popular are the crowd pleasers. Two chicken skewers are yours for £8, yakitori in style with smokey caught edges and delicate flesh, these need nothing more than the discs of sweet pickled cucumber it is served with. We take two pork belly tacos at £4 each, then two more as soon as we are finished. These are too good. Way too good. The meat is yielding and unctuous, a pineapple salsa sweet and acidic. Our future visits will see us order a portion of skewers each, two tacos apiece and a bowl of barbecued Jersey Royals bravas that tick the boxes between booze food and downright delicious. That food order will come in at £19 a head; a steal for this quality.

This bill doesn’t check in at that figure. Instead we get overexcited about being out and splurge from the little black book of fine wines they have, which are hardly marked-up and available to those who know to ask. We also drink excellent cocktails including a cola bottle old fashioned and a punchy rum number. The total bill is a lot and is no way reflective of an average spend more likely to be about £40 a head. This blog is going to be a little different this year; no scores and no review if it’s not positive given we all have a responsibility to support an industry presently on its arse. No such problem for Harborne Kitchen who have hit the ground running with a new area which is sure to be the hottest reservation this summer.