After a 7 month sleep I am the first to walk through the doors of Harborne Kitchen. The atmosphere is upbeat with an air of nervousness. Final checks are being made, glasses given one last polish. From my stool on the far righthand side of the chef’s table, the kitchen are hard at work. There is laughter and pats on the back as the chefs return to what they do best: feeding the souls of the people who pass through their door. The menu choices in front of me are simple. Eight or eleven courses, with or without the drinks pairing. The latter and the former, please. A glass of house fizz arrives called ‘I Wish I Was A Ninja’. I do. They get to ruin people’s lives under the cover of darkness, whereas I make a habit of doing it publicly.
The interior has stayed the same, though the mentality has not. The menu is stripped bare like a renaissance statue, its private parts dangling for all to see. It’s gimmick free. No concepts that need explaining. Zero bullshit. Its only wild combination of flavours demoted from signature dish to canapé. It sits either side of crab on a cracker and a mushroom tart that both punch heavily with flavour.
I can only imagine the look on the chefs’ faces when they came back to be told that the parfait that had made the Good Food Guide’s top dishes list had been replaced with a Sardinian peasant gnocchi, but that’s exactly what they have done. I would learn from Chef Patron Jamie that it is a dish deeply personal to him, but that means nothing to me unless it tastes great. It could be one of the great dishes of Birmingham; gnocchi, chicken butter sauce, truffle and grated sheep’s cheese. Like a fat kid playing hide and seek there is nowhere to go with this; you get it right or you get found out. It’s pretty much perfect. Iconic, even.
The menu plays out like a classic album; sometimes loud and fast, other times gently strummed and contemplative, it builds and changes tone frequently. They choose to follow the gnocchi with a fat scallop draped in lardo with green tomato presumably because it’s the counterpoint of the previous course: fresh, green, acidic. It’s my least favourite course, but I can fully see why it is here. Then a crumpet with confit egg yolk – jam-like in texture – asparagus, black garlic, and topped with an aerated hollandaise. Rich, comforting and verging on Asian in flavour.
Brill with enoki is about as complex as the meal gets. There is ginger soy dressing, lime gel, furikake seasoning, and puffed sushi rice. None of it gets in the way of the brill which shimmers like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night Over The Rhone’. Then lamb, peas, and mint. A skewer of barbecued mutton on the side. Perfect cuisson and rendered fat on the lamb, with the mutton robust and textured. Four years ago the plate would have been busier. 18 months ago it might have thrown in a challenging ingredient. Now it’s classic flavours. No messing about. It’s the business.
After the cheese course a bespoke ice cream trolley kerb crawls next me, a new addition that fits the tone of meal and the dining room. Its contents – a star anise ice cream, miso ice cream, and blood orange granita – work in unison. Then the last course of rum baba; loads of rum, with caramelised pineapple and coconut ice cream. The pairing options of more rum or a cognac. I order both. Baba is one of my favourite things that I seldom order because it’s often rubbish. This is textbook and could have come from a Ducasse restaurant.
A word on the drinks pairing; it’s bright and imaginative and a steal at £50. On the night I eat it’s mostly white, mostly natural and always interesting. I’ve been eating at Harborne Kitchen for four years now, but this felt different. It’s too basic to say that by paring things back they’ve made it easier, but the truth is the opposite. With less flourishes they have to do the little things perfectly, and they have. The gnocchi, the lamb, the baba: these are dishes that highlight a new perspective. It feels like the pressure is off their shoulders and they are cooking for the customer alone. And as a customer who lives a six minute stroll away, I personally could not be happier.