Pan-Demics, Part Deux

One of the only positives to come from this is the sense of community. Aside from those panic buying pricks, we are starting to look out for another: there are street WhatsApp groups and people prepared to put themselves at risk outdoors for the protection of others. This is a battle, and a big one at that, and I’m personally taking comfort in knowing we are capable of being less selfish as a race when the chips are down. So here, without any more babble from me, is the second instalment of recipes from chefs and bloggers who are way more talented in the kitchen than I will ever be. Apart from Rob, who I beat in a recent cookery competition. Hopefully you’ll find them useful over the long days ahead, there are five absolute crackers here.

1) Luke Tipping of Simpson’s Restaurant – Chicken Noodle Broth

Ingredients: Serves 4

1 Chicken Crown or 2 Legs

2 Carrots pealed and diced

2 Celery sticks diced

1 Leek diced

2 Bay leaves

1 Packet of egg noodles (broken into small pieces)

2 Chicken stock cubes

250g Shitake or Oyster mushrooms sliced

1 Bunch of Wild Garlic

Soya Sauce

Olive Oil

Method:

• Heat a large saucepan over a medium heat, add a splash of Olive Oil

• Fry the leek, celery and carrots without colour for 2 mins

• Add the bay leaves, stock cubes and chicken crown

• Cover with cold water

• Bring to the boil and cover with a tight fitted lid, turn to a simmer and cook for 20 mins or until the chicken is cooked through

• When cooked remove from the heat and leave to cool. Once completely cool carefully remove the chicken from the stock with a slotted spoon. Remove all the chicken from the carcass and dice. Discard the carcass and skin.

• Bring the rest of the stock back to boil

• Add the egg noodles to the boiling stock and cook for 6 mins.

• Return the chopped chicken to the stock along with the mushrooms and heat through for 2 mins

• Add soya sauce to taste with chopped wild garlic leaves

• Serve

2) Si Toft of The Dining Room – Store Cupboard Sausage and Egg McMuffin

To be clear, I’m definitely in the “wait in the car until 11 for the proper stuff“ squad, but I appreciate that some weirdos are struggling without McDonalds breakfasts so as a man of the people….

Sausage & Egg McMuffin

100g Pork Mince

Dried Sage

Dried Thyme

Ground White Pepper

Salt

1 Egg

1 English Muffin

1 Cheapest Cheese Slice Available

For the sausage(burger), combine the pork mince with a pinch of dried sage, thyme, salt and ground pepper and form into a round patty(burger) about the size of the muffin, rest in the fridge until service (it’s definitely still called service). Should add for anyone that struggles with these complicated recipes, Pale Hall’s Gareth Stevenson heartily recommends Aldi’s frozen breakfast sausage patty(burger).

At around 10.57, heat a little oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, add your sausage(burger) and fry gently until golden, carefully turn the sausage(burger), add a knob of butter and leave to cook through. In the same pan gently drop an egg into one of those egg ring things that your aunt definitely gave you one Christmas.

Slice the muffin in half and brush with clarified butter, toast to golden then set aside to go cold before topping with the cheese slice(no idea why it doesn’t go on earlier so it melts but I’m trying to be authentic here)(Also no idea why they’re allowed to call it cheese), add the sausage(burger) and egg, but inexplicably no sauce.

Wrap in grease proof paper to serve.

Wine: I never really bought into breakfast wines having to be white but with a Sausage & Egg McMuffin I always go with a chilled sauvignon blanc that can cut through the stodginess of a cold muffin without overpowering the egg. Nothing fizzy though, this isn’t Riviera.

3) Rob Newsome of Foodie Boys. Pasta Amatriciana

I used to spend quite a bit of time in Italy on business, yes that is correct, business. In between ‘going forward’ and ‘blue sky thinking‘ I ate some of their food – making something of an expert on the subject.

When someone says “Italian food” to you, you probably conjure up images of pizza and pasta because that’s all you know. Well, let me set the record straight, there is so much more than just pizza and pasta – but there’s no time for that.

Here’s a recipe for pasta Amatriciana.

First off, let’s talk pig. Being a successful businessman and award winning food critic means I’m able to acquire chunks of guanciale (cured pork cheek). I appreciate many of you won’t have access to this, so simply use pancetta – but do remember it’s not what you’re supposed to be using and try harder in future.

Next you’ll want some cheese – you’re supposed to use pecorino but you’ll probably use Parmesan because you’re a peasant.

Other ingredients, not necessarily how ‘mama used to make’ but screw your mama.

Shallots, garlic, bit of chilli, red wine, tomatoes, pasta – use bucatini if you have any respect for yourself.

How to cook amatriciana

1 Cook guanciale until the fat renders.

2 Chuck in some shallots and cook them in the pork fat.

3 Add some garlic and a few chilli flakes.

4 Chuck in some red wine and burn off the alcohol.

5 Add a tin of chopped tomatoes.

6 Boil the pasta. Keep it al dente – you’re not a toddler.

7 Remove pasta (keep some of the water to bathe in later, and some for the sauce).

8 Toss pasta in the tomato sauce.

9 Add a bit of the pasta water.

10 Shave some pecorino on top.

11 Eat.

4) Mark Walsh of The Forest Hotel – Onion Bhaji Scotch Egg with Mango Raita

2 red onions

3 cloves of garlic

20g ginger

½ tspn turmeric

¼ tspn chilli powder

¼ tspn ground coriander

¼ tspn ground cumin

3 tbspn gram flour

500g sausage meat

6 eggs

Raita

200g Yoghurt

1 lemon

¼ bunch mint

sugar

salt

2 mangoes

Boil the eggs in water and vinegar for 6.5 mins chill, peel and store in the water.

Slice the onions and sprinkle with salt and allow to stand and bleed out excess liquid

Toast the spices lightly then allow to chill.

Mix the spices in to the crushed garlic and ginger.

Add to the sliced onions and mix in with the spices and the gram flour then add to the sausage meat leave to rest for about 5-10 mins and check the mix it shouldn’t be too tacky and you should be able to roll into 90g balls with moist hands then wrap round the floured egg

Making sure there is no gaps

Then roll in some breadcrumbs and deep fry for 8 mins at 160oc allow to sit and rest for 1mins then cut

Mix the yoghurt with the lemon juice sugar and salt and fold in the peeled diced mango

5) Ben Charlton-Grey of every-bloody-where – Banana bread

This isn’t really a banana bread. Banana bread is typically loaf shaped, and needs either toasting or topping to make remotely enjoyable. Selon moi.

This banana bread/ cake recipe is genuinely unlike any I’ve tried before. It has an almost sticky-toffee like texture, with a great balance of sweetness thanks the the salt and yogurt.

I bake a 10- inch square. Anything with the same surface area will work, too.

150g unsalted butter, soft

400g dark brown sugar

180g natural yoghurt

4 eggs

3.5 tbsp dark rum. I use Brugal.

300g plain flour

2 tsp bicarb of soda (not the same as baking powder)

1 tsp fine sea salt

5 small or 4 large super ripe bananas

Wack the oven on 180 c.

Cream the butter, sugar and yogurt until light in texture and pale in colour. 4 mins in a stand mixer, 6 mins by hand.

Add eggs one at a time, beating between until fully incorporated.

Mix flour, salt and baking powder in a separate bowl.

Mash bananas with potato masher. You can blend them for a smoother texture but I like it left a little chunky.

Add the flour mixture, bananas and rum to the creamed mixture.

Fold until combined.

Line your tin of choice with greaseproof paper, or foil greased with butter.

Pour in the mix and bake. Check after 30 mins, but will probably take more like 40. It’s ready when you can gently press the centre and it slightly springs back.

Let it cool completely in the tin, then portion.

This will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container.

Pan-Demics, part 1

Now would probably be a good time to disclose that I have had anxiety issues for twenty years. Like my girlfriends they tend to come and go in waves, and like my girlfriends the worst ones bring an overwhelming sense of dread, headaches, nausea, and heartache. I joke, because that’s how I deal with these things, but it’s not nice. Over the last two decades I’ve tried CBT, medication, and paid for shrinks. It works. Sometimes. Other times I’m the same pent-up arsehole. The last month or so hasn’t been nice; the media is awash with bad news, keen to tell us the latest death numbers, projected death rates, what isn’t stocked in supermarkets, symptoms, possible symptoms, the latter an issue that anyone with anxiety will tell you is a problem. When the worry takes over the brain you get sweaty and hot and the chest tightens to the point you can’t breath and you feel like you have to cough, even though you know inside you don’t. And if you have just read that last bit thinking the same is happening to you, please message me for my number. I’m here to talk.

I’ve made a recent decision to not mention either of the C words online. In these torrid times you can be part of the panic or part of the positivity, and I know which one I want to choose. So I give to you ‘Pan-Demics’, a likely short series of easy recipes from chefs and bloggers which use (mostly) stuff you’ll (likely) have at home. First four are below, please let me know if you try them at home and how they end up.

1) Jamie Desogus of Harborne Kitchen. Onion Broth

This is so simple but one of the most pleasing things coming out of our kitchen at HK, we like to keep things as simple as possible and not impart any unnecessary flavours so use water as our base. We have also made this with meat and vegetable stocks as the base which adds another dimension.

15 brown onions

10L water

Rapeseed oil

No that’s really it

(Roscoff’s makes the best broth but availability isn’t likely in supermarkets. Italian white onions are also good, but seriously this is delicious with a big standard brown or Spanish onion)

Peel and then half your onions, leaving the root on so they stay in halves, this is important.

Sear off the flat side of every onion in a deep stock/sauce pot with the rapeseed oil, you will not have enough room to do them all at once so work in batches and put to one side on kitchen towel to drain while finishing the other onions. You are looking for an extremely caramelised brown onion.

Once all onions are seared, wipe any excess oil from the pan, but leave the caramelisation from the onions in the pan.

Place the onions back into the pan and top up with water so all the onions are covered.

Bring to a simmer, and let simmer but not boiled for 40 minutes, then remove from the heat and let sit with a lid for 2 hours.

Top back up with water and bring back to a simmer for 20 minutes then again let sit with a lid for 2 hours.

Remove lid and skim any oil (if any) from the top of the liquid

Next remove all onions from the pan and discard, this may seem wasteful, and you can use the onions for a purée if wanted however they have lost all flavour to the stock and no longer have any value.

Pass the stock through a fine strainer and simply bring to the boil and reduce.

How far you reduce is up to you – keep it light and add to a gravy, reduce to a syrup and finish with pepper and cream for a steak sauce, or in between as we do in the restaurant.

We finish the broth with a minus 8 vinegar to add some balance and acidity.

Enjoy

2) Nathan Eades of The Wild Rabbit. Potato, leek, and wild garlic soup.

I collect wild garlic on my daily walk. It can be found alongside most riverbanks. This is a simple recipe, but remember to integrate waste: use the leftovers in other meals and put the potato skins in the compost bin.

1/2 potato

1 leek (washed)

1/4 onion

300ml veg stock (branded is fine)

150g of wild garlic

Start by separating the leek top and saving it for later. Slice the onion and leeks into the same size, use a peeler to slice the potato. This will mean they all cook at the same time. In the largest pan you have sweat the veg in 1 tablespoon of veg oil. If you have bay leaf and/or thyme add them at this stage. Add a generous pinch of salt and sweat for five minutes, until the veg starts to cling to the pan. Add the stock to the pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the veg is tender. Add the wild garlic, cook for 20 seconds. Blend. Eat with crusty bread. Tres Bon.

3) Jonathan Swain of Plate Licked Clean. Tuna spaghetti

This recipe isn’t fancy or intricate or even- brace yourselves- ‘Instagrammable’, but it is easy, quick, tasty and strangely comforting.

Spaghetti (other pastas are available, but this works best with a long thin shape)

Two tins of tuna in oil

Garlic (3 cloves for me, but however much you and your fellow isolationists can bear. Besides, garlic kills C***D I saw it on Facebook. And that’s SCIENCE.)

Chicken stock (warm, ¾ pint)

Dried parsley

Black pepper

Get your pan of heavily salted water on to boil. Heat a little of the tuna can oil – you’ll fry your garlic in this. Give the rest to the cat. Have the drained tuna ready to go. Slice your garlic. Not Goodfellas prison-style thin, you don’t want it to burn. Fry your garlic on a medium heat until it starts to soften. Add the tuna. Stir. Throw in a good scattering of the dried parsley and a few hefty grinds of the black pepper. Raise the heat and gradually add the warmed chicken stock, stirring, so that the mixture stays bubbling away. When the spaghetti is cooked, drain and reserve a few tablespoons of the starchy water. Add it to the tuna mixture. Add the spaghetti to the sauce (not the other way round) and toss over a low heat for 30 seconds. Another grind of black pepper won’t hurt about now. Enjoy. It’s great the next day, too.

4) Chris Wiggin of Canoodle. Wild Garlic and Porcini Polenta

3 cups of polenta

3 teaspoons sea salt crystals

100g Unsalted butter, diced

Coarse ground black pepper

Handful of fresh wild garlic leaves

1 cup dried porcini

Extra butter and olive oil for re-heating

Bring 3 litres of water and salt to the boil. Gradually pour in polenta whilst whisking. Lower heat and continue whisking whilst adding the diced butter. When polenta becomes to thick to whisk, transfer to wooden spoon. Continue cooking for about twelve minutes, stirring frequently unless all the polenta grains are soft. Meanwhile, trim wild garlic of stalks, wash thoroughly and finely chop. Place dried porcini in a small bowl, cover with boiling water and allow to rehydrate for a few minutes until soft. Pour porcini stock into polenta and finely chop porcini. Add a good grind of coarse black pepper and adjust salt if needed. Add wild garlic and porcini and stir thoroughly. Pour in a non-stick 12 x 8-inch baking tin and allow to cool completely. Once cold turn out onto a board and slice into 16 2”x1” portions. To serve heat some extra butter with a tablespoon of olive oil in a small frying pan and cook the polenta slice on all sides for about five minutes until heated through. Note, this makes enough polenta for an Italian family, but you can of course reduce the quantities.

Semplicita at 1000 Trades

The world seems a very different place to when we turned up at the latest kitchen residency at 1000 Trades this time last week. That evening the bar was busy; tables were full, people were drinking and taking heed of the ‘carry on’ attitude being asked from the bell end in number 10. We sanitised and ate and drank and sanitised, saying goodbye to the staff and going home for more wine. Fast forward seven days and the landscape is different. Fear and panic has swept across the country. It’s bleak out there. Everyone is scared. We don’t know when, or if, normality will resume.

I’ve come to realise that the opinion of a food blogger counts for nothing right now. It doesn’t matter where Semplicita stands on the list of residencies, or how it compares to the other Italian restaurants in the city. What matters is that places like 1000 Trades are still there to serve the community when this has all blown over. If you’re near to the JQ feeling healthy and comfortable go inside for a pint and a bowl of that comforting chunky lamb ragu. If you’re anxious swing by to get cans of craft beer and ask if you can have the arancini or bruschetta to go. They may say yes. They may say no. I no longer know anything.

The reality is a bleak one. Right now those in hospitality, aviation, taxiing, retail (and many more industries) are wondering how their bills are going to be paid, whilst the NHS and emergency services are approaching breaking point. When this passes there stands a possibility that places you used to frequent are gone for good. It is our responsibility to ensure that our favourites are still there. Ask them how you can help. Buy stock from them now before they close. Purchase gift vouchers. If you can afford to, pay a meal forward. This blog will take a break to focus on the more important things in life. I hope to see you in 1000 Trades for a pint when the good times return. Please don’t lose hope.

Pub du Vin, Birmingham

I should probably start this by saying that I quite like Hotel du Vin, the hotel which sits above today’s subject matter, Pub du Vin. It has a nice bar that makes a servicable negroni with a great team of staff who are knowledgable and well trained. They have great wines – just as well given the name – and do interesting wine dinners, of which I’ve attended a few. The food is decent; not as refined as it believes it is, but certainly a place that rarely disappoints. All of which makes the following about Pub du Vin more baffling.

The ‘pub’ sits within the basement area, a dark and cavernous space where no light enters and no attempt at lighting from the inside is made. They show sports and have a dartboard where the board is barely visible at any point of the day. Tables are heavy wood, the floor stone; all set around the bar in the centre of the room. You order at the bar, find a table and wait. And wait.

Food eventually arrives from the upstairs kitchen. At least we are told this is our food; we can barely see it, nevermind photograph the thing. Maybe this removal of one of the senses goes some way to explaining the lack of flavour. It’s as bland as an episode of Love Island. The chicken burger achieves neither of the spicy and crispy description, reaching the table a soggy, disappointing mess. If the guacamole is there it tastes of nothing, and even the cheese looks sad; curled over like it’s grieving for me. If darkness is a deciding factor for your meals the chicken burger at Bonehead is 50p cheaper, with equally bad lighting, and is exponentially better. Just saying.

Claire has a fish finger sandwich that reeks of old cooking oil, with a batter coating a concoction of the cheapest white fish known to man. I’d guess at coley, but it could easily be catfish hidden inside the dense crumb. The bread barely holds it together, the mushy peas desperately low on salt. She finishes half. With these we share chilli con carne fries that start well and then, no, sorry, we can’t eat them.

The bill for this is nothing because there is an issue with the fries that brings our meal to a sudden halt. I won’t go into specifics because the team are excellent and refund it without question, but this is the saving grace of the meal. The front of house are some of the best in the city, I just feel for them having to work with this. The food at Pub du Vin is instantly forgettable, which, given it comes from the same kitchen as upstairs, makes it all the more unforgivable.

4/10

Transport by A2B. They won’t leave you in the dark.

Bigfoot Festival, Ragley Hall.

#AD

The hashtag bit above tells you every bit you need to know about the following post. In the effort of full honesty, no I’m not being paid to write this, but yes, should you find yourself purchasing tickets using the link at the bottom, I’ll make a few quid. I don’t make a habit of doing this, and if you want to turn off now that’s fine. Or you can stay and read about what will likely be one of the funnest festivals of the year. I could cut and copy the press release, but I won’t because if you’ve come here to read someone else’s words I’ve well and truly fucked it. Instead, let me tell you about the bits I think you’ll want to know about, in the order that I think you’ll appreciate them in: food, then drink at the top, going all the way to a fad called ‘yoga’ (I believe it’s pronounced ‘yogi’) at the bottom. I should probably mention now that it takes place on 19-21st June, so if you’re busy on those dates, I’m sorry for wasting your time but probably best for you to carry on with your day as usual.

So food. I’m guessing as you’re on a food blog you like food. I do too, allegedly. Big Foot are killing it with the food. Like your festivals to be punctuated with world class dining? Me too. How about pre-bookable dining with Matt Orlando from trailblazing Copenhagen restaurant, Amass? Or Shoreditch’s finest Two Lights (hopefully) bringing their legendary fried chicken to the party, or Doug McMaster bringing his Silo vibe? Fine dining; tick. Next you’ll need something for the inevitable hangovers, to which I’m going to suggest burgers from Brum’s own Original Patty Men, or the capital’s Patty & Bun. You’ll likely find me working through the menu at 10 Greek Street, or getting my morning caffeine fix at Dough & Brew. With more to be announced the food is looking great.

Drinks time. You’ll need hydration for the heatwave we’ll 100%* be having (*this is not a guarantee). Bigfoot have got you, but then that was always going to be the case given it’s from the team behind Beer Central. Forty world class breweries, winemakers, and distillers bringing various ABV’s to the bash. The names on the guest list include Verdant, Northern Monk, Four Pillars Gin, and Ancestral Wines. It’s a festival so breakfast beers are actively encouraged.

The soundtrack to this weekend is supplied from the likes of Little Dragon, Fat White Family, and Hot Chip Megamix, with DJ sets from Maribou State amongst many others who’ll keep you dancing until the wee hours. Then, when you’ve overdone it, you can hang out with my girlfriend in the wellness tent doing the likes of meditation, tarot cards, and sunrise yoga & smoothies, which sounds almost as good as ‘Pilates and Prosecco’. A government register prevents me from telling you about the family section, though I can tell you that for grown-ups they have hot tubs and morning swim clubs, as well as cinema, tree climbing, shuffleboard and much, much more. It should be the summer’s most eclectic, food and drink forward festival. I personally can’t wait. And for those who do attend, you’ll find me with a large gin and tonic in hand, attending hip-hop yoga.

Get your tickets here

Pulperia, Birmingham.

This post finds you from somewhere over the Alps, on RyanAir’s flight from Pisa to Hell. There are drunk Brits (I may be one of them) who have little regard for pandemics, and Italians in masks who don’t know whether to fear the British or Coronavirus more. Two rows in front a slurring man with red wine stains around his mouth made the rear of the plane aware that he was a medic. Behind me a posh lady is scolding her partner for their poor choice of rental vehicle. Despite this, we’ve had a lovely trip, drinking lots of great Tuscan wines and eating far too well. If you are reading this as one of the many people who offered suggestions as to the best steakhouses Florence offers, then thank you for the suggestions but they were dutifully ignored. I find steak boring. There, I’ve said it.

Part of the problem I have with them is how badly they are generally cooked. I cook a serviceable one at home, but my modest cooker struggles to get up to the temperature required and imparts none of the smoke that the best steaks have lingering in the background. The ones in Birmingham, well, let’s say they mostly disappoint. Go find the street food vender Beef On The Block if you want a good bavette, but those within bricks and mortar never hit the mark consistently. Whilst the rest of the country have Goodman’s and Hawksmoor, we have three branches of Miller and Carter. Enough said.

Praise be to Aktar Islam for changing that. He is a man of detail – anyone who has eaten in Opheem will know that – so I had an inkling Pulperia was going to be good. It’s better than good: it’s the steakhouse the city deserves; one which is notionally set in Argentina yet finds itself orienteering around the world to wherever the best produce is. It’s on these menus, amongst the wet aged beef from Argentina, you find rare breeds and dairy cattle whose life has been more than purely raised for meat. All in a dining room which is unmistakably Aktar; that juxtaposition between the masculine heavy textures and the feminine floral displays. The room is as good as Brindley Place has ever seen.

We begin with three starters; chorizo has a gentle smokiness reminiscent of gammon with tomatoes that are far too tasty to be British, all dressed up to the nines in a herby and garlicky chimicurri. Soft sweetbreads kissed with char from the grill so a delicate touch can still be applied over flames. These come with chicory and a burnt lime chimichurri that is bold and smokey whilst still retaining the soul of the condiment. The empanadas – those Argentinian pasties – are good, with the spicy beef better than the chicken. They each need a little more filling inside them, though the romanesco style red pepper dip proves great to dunk the excess pastry in.

Those steaks. Let me tell you about those steaks. In the effort of transparency, we don’t get the steak we order, with the kitchen sending out large two pieces of Holstein Fresian – a rare breed dairy cow aged up to 18 years and listed here under the title of ‘basque cider house’ steak. A kilo prime rib here (for two, unless you’re my girlfriend) will cost you £85 and is worth every penny; delivering a depth of flavour unlike any we are used to, full of umami and beefiness. It’s the ultimate in beef, up there with Bar Nestor though without the terroir, cooked over high heat until the Malliard reaction kicks in and then rested until the juices disperse inside the ruby red interior. It doesn’t need the bone marrow and Malbec sauce, but that sauce is so very rich and so very good. With this we have fries and carrots roasted with chicken butter and the best version of humita I’ve ever tried. Seriously, creamed sweetcorn is the best friend of steak. You heard it here first.

We share a serviceable chocolate fondant for dessert, along with two bottles of Malbec, a couple of cocktails, and finish by making two more bookings to come back. Those looking for a cheap steak should book elsewhere; Pulperia is a celebration of the cow, not a trip to Beefeater. Those on a budget should aim for the Argentinian experience; a fillet with fried egg, Malbec sauce and that humita will come in a touch over £30. But why should you when you can experience some of the best beef in the world? We’ve waited a very long time for Birmingham to have a steakhouse of this quality. It’s time for you to enjoy it.

9/10

We visited during a soft launch and received a discounted bill.

Steak this good needs the best in travel. Time for to take A2B

SY23, Aberystwyth

Never let it be said that I am not invested in this blog. Whilst the rest of the city sit around waiting for their next Captain’s Table invite for a communal get-together of poor food and even worse company, we made the call to continue with our plans to visit SY23 despite the threat to life warning from Storm Dennis. How bad can it really be, we never asked ourselves, as the wind blew both the sea and beach on to the promenade, conveniently closing public access to the bit outside our hotel. Really really bad, is the answer to the question we never asked, as we fought against nature to get through the narrow streets of Aberystwyth and to the restaurant tucked into a corner of a square by the clocktower.

When we do arrive, it’s pretty much as I imagined it would be. This is the first restaurant from the previous head chef of Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s trailblazing restaurant. During his tenure there Nathan had used his previous occupation as a tree surgeon to tap into the local birch for their syrup and helped produce some of the wooden items still found there. He built some of the grills they cook live fire over. And it’s the same here: tables hand built, grill system for cooking over fire hand built, hand-cut sheet of metal bearing restaurant logo. This is very much his work even if the shades on the walls, the cutlery and the plates feel familiar to anyone who has visited his old workplace.

This means it is of little surprise that the dishes follow the same formula of protein heavy, umami-packed flavour bombs. But no complaints here, not when the lunch menu of three courses for £25 might just be the biggest bargain in the UK, backed up by a wine list that offers serious value throughout. Glass of crémant for £6? Don’t mind if I do, and I’ll take a glass of that silky red from Roussillon for the same price whilst you’re there. A loaf of sourdough for the two of us appears that right away confirms we are in safe hands. The texture is good, as is the strong flavour from the local grains. Miso butter brings enough acidity and the entire thing disappears before the first course appears. When that does we are treated to the highpoint of the meal; John Dory topped with nori, soy, with queenie scallops and a crumb made from dehydrating the scallop fringe and then refrying it. It’s an ode to its surroundings; the bounty of the ocean which ends on the coast 100m away. It also has that ideal balance of natural sweetness and lip-smacking savoury. One course in and he’s nailed it.

Main is served in two courses. The first a delicious hot and sour lamb broth with wild mushrooms that is to be drunk from the bowl, the second a lamb rib and slow cooked shoulder combo that feels very familar without stepping into plagiarism. Here the slow cooked meat is fuelled with the deep tang of black garlic and a sticky jus, relying on little croutons and puffed grains for texture and additional nutty character. It’s all perfectly cooked with accurately judged acidity and the kiss of fire lurking in the background. Then the optional cheese course, which, at £6, is far too cheap. A local blue cheese of which the name eludes me, a drift of buttery breadcrumbs, in a puddle of sherry and raisin dressing which is all boozy sweetness. Top produce, not messed about with. It’s exactly what I hoped we would find.

Dessert, in keeping with the rest of the meal, is great. A zesty, fragrant, set lemon cream, with yogurt sorbet, and a burnt meringue. It serves a purpose to finish on a light note, cleaning up the umami and acidity that runs through it’s predecesors. There is a heady burnt butter fudge with the bill that comes to under £40 a head with one us drinking a decent amount of wine.

Now, if I’m being entirely honest, it didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. The restaurant sits above a cocktail bar whose staff were very quick to stop us from going up despite us arriving bang on time. We were then sat for twenty minutes without the offer of a drink until it was alright for us to go upstairs. That silliness needs to stop, especially when Aberyswyth is going to swell with the kind of tourist who might not be forgiving. But after that, once the food and wine arrived, we knew we were going to have a great meal. The guy can really cook and I personally can’t wait to see how his own style develops over time. That said, SY23 is already a restaurant you should have on your hitlist. Get there whilst it is this cheap.

9/10

Ynyshir, February 2020

I hate Valentines Day. Hate the forced romance and the uplift in prices, the public displays of affection, the hand holding, and then the kisses that resemble two fish gulping at air. I hate being told when I should do nice things for a person that I try to do nice things for all the time. I hate the snobbery around it, how it becomes socially unacceptable to eat Pizza Hut on a night when you might normally eat Pizza Hut, but it is okay to eat four courses in a restaurant you would usually only order one in. I hate the marriage proposals. I really hate the marriage proposals. And the price of flowers, and the heart-shaped food that should never be heart-shaped, doused in a sickly amount of saccharine and sold to randy teenagers or adults who really should know better. I hate the cards; either signed or anonymously stalked, with poorly constructed poems and lewd puns about melons, choppers, and jugs. I hate that dining rooms are full of people who are only there because society tells them they need to be. I hate that I did this for seven years because the girl I was with expected it as the norm, and I love that the last two years have been spent on the sofa, watching shit TV and eating homecooked food because she too understands that it’s just another night. And it is just another night.

We spent Valentines Day in our favourite place in the world. It was an accident: honestly. We knew we wanted to return to Ynyshir some time ago, and a look at the diaries left only a few weekends, of which we ended-up knocking the day off and going on the 14th. If you are going to spend that day anywhere, I suggest you do it here, in the middle of bloody nowhere where no additional concession has been made, starting with a duck broth and martini in the bar listening to Boxer on the vinyl record player. Then I suggest you head to the pre-specified room one, washed in petrol blue paint, where the feature windows make it feel like you’re sleeping in the world’s most picturesque cave. We drank Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs and headed back to the bar to drink more cocktails.

The resulting meal is, I think, the best I have ever eaten, anywhere in the world, over the last fifteen years that I’ve taken food seriously. Michelin’s present assessment of one stars is ludricous. Ynyshir are cooking with the world’s best ingridients to a standard that very few are hitting globally. We saw lots of tweaks from our last visit; the Not French Onion Soup is now so unlike it’s starting point it’s dropped the title completely and now just goes by it’s initials. We now start with a chawanmushi base — a silky savoury Japanese custard — dotted with pickled shallots and teeny croutons, and then an onion broth that splits the custard. It’s a more elegant, richer, creamier start that serves its purpose of prepping the mouth for the forthcoming onslaught of flavour. Then crispy duck glazed in hoi sin sauce, and that chicken katsu skewer which I could gladly eat ten of, but only ever receive as a singular no matter how many times I write that sentence on this blog.

Course four brings the first of the new dishes to me. A skewer of otoro tuna belly, sourced from what I understand to be the same Spanish supplier as The Araki, just warmed through so that the fatty cut starts to loosen. This was wonderfully rich, coated in a terayaki sauce that never gets in the way of the fish. Following this is the chilli crab, a dish I called 2018’s best and if anything has got better. The crab is in larger pieces, the sauce with more chilli kick, and now comes with a steamed sweet bun to mop up the bits which evade the fork. Sensational. Mackerel aged in the salt chamber with furikake seasoning, then the two-part cod; the first a slice of black cod, followed by a broth of the bones with shitake mushrooms. Scallop with elderberry vinegar and aged beef fat has gotten bigger; stronger; more defined. A crumb of what I think is dehydrated roe now shifting the centre point of the dish from cow to crustacean. Five consectutive world class fish courses. They might want to change the board near the kitchen which says, amongst other things. ‘Meat Obessessed’.

Next up is the duck liver and smoked eel dish I love, followed by more duck, and the char sui pork belly that has me gobbling down the slices of meat and slurping the liquor like I’ve never seen food before. That pork gives me a boner and I’ve not said that since watching ‘Babe: Pig in The City’. Then the lamb rib which seems less acidic, but maybe that’s because I’m drinking better wine. We get the best version of the cawl dish yet with strands of lamb neck bobbing in a broth that again has me slurping from the bowl.

Now is fireworks. Not genuine fireworks because they shouldn’t be fired indoors, but the proverbial ones that make you stare in amazement and occasionally use obscene language. Because if one thing has changed it is that this restaurant is now sourcing the absolute best in ingredients. The Welsh wagyu once used here was great, but it wasn’t the best, because that happens to A5 Hida from Japan. So that’s what they serve here now; the same beef dishes ramped up to twelve because eleven isn’t loud enough. We get the burger that has a more buttery burst of flavour now, then two courses later the shortrib dish that has a depth of flavour I never knew could come from a cow. Sandwiched in between this is a new dish which could well go on to become Gareth’s signature: a tartare of the sirloin and tuna otoro, a grating of fresh wasabi root, and a generous amount of Imperial caviar. It’s the Ynyshir surf and turf, where the belly works like bone marrow amongst the beef and the rest smashes you in the face with salinity and heat. It’s perfect. Not just a three star moment, but one that stands up alongside any dish I can recall eating.

It was always going to be hard living up to the beef courses, and so the cheese one fell a little bit flat in comparasion. Keen’s cheddar is spun with macaroni that comes out of the machine seconds before and is cooked in the molten cheese, before being topped with pickled truffle that has taken on a dampness and a flavour reminscent of Branston pickle. It’s not my favourite thing of the night. That is rectified by a slushy of rhubarb that takes me long for the sun, and then the white chocolate with fermented black bean that has crazy salted caramel tones throughout. We hit a home run with the nigh on perfect finish of sticky toffee pudding, rhubarb with that insanely indulgent custard, and tiramisu, which I’ll say once again is a three star dessert all day long. Wagyu fudge and dinky rhubarb tarts are served in the bar. I think. I was drinking negroni by now so anything is possible.

A night like this doesn’t come cheap. Dinner is £180 a head in the main room, more where we sat, and there is a hefty (but entirely justified) supplement for the A5 beef. I’ll spare you the total bill but suffice to say that when you include the room, the several bottles we had over dinner, and the cocktails, you could go abroad for a holiday. I mention this because when you book in you should be fully aware of how much it will cost and equally how much it is worth it. The present position of one star in the Michelin guide is ridiculous; more realistic is the Good Food Guide’s assessment of Ynyshir being the third best in the UK. I grab a rum with Gareth in the bar afterwards when he tells me that the plan for the restaurant is to create the best restaurant in the world. Looks to me like he’s heading in the right direction.

Would A2B take me to mid-Wales? I’ll ask them next time

Opheem, January 2020

This was my eighth visit to Opheem since it opened. I am fully aware that there are other restaurants in Birmingham, but Opheem has a brilliant ability to post new dishes online which make me want to book a table to eat them, which I do, very happily. This time it was three dishes all from the new menu; a skewer of chicken tikka, a monochrome monkfish dish, and a goat biryani. I was supposed to go to Opheem with an incredibly nice man called Nick but that was overturned by my evil girlfriend after seeing the image of the chicken skewer. Nick, I’m sorry. We both know you would have made superior company.

Turns out that chicken skewer is worth the trip alone. Served as an amuse, the first bite in the restaurant after the little bits hand delivered by the chef to the bar area, it is Aktar’s homage to butter chicken. Chicken leg deboned, brined, compressed, marinated, and then cooked over fire, served with a chopstick up its proverbial arse and a coating of something buttery and nutty, crisp skin, and puffed rice. It is what you imagine chicken tikka tastes like but never does; a perfect blend of warming spices and juicy poultry. Unimprovable.

Now the boring bit. I’m going to say what I’ve said several times before and tell you that Opheem has improved yet again. The new menu has taken the kitchen to new heights. More processes (I’m told that chicken takes four days) though ultimately less components. Dishes have cut down on the ingredients and focused on ramping up the flavour. Old dishes revisited and improved. The lamb fat bun still has the lamb patè, though now that patè is inside the bun, whilst that bun can (and should) be dunked into a little bowl of spicy lamb broth. What’s left of that broth should be cupped and drank immediately. The first course of the tasting menu sticks with ovine, a mutton ‘porridge’ which is similar to daal in texture only with long braised strands of meat and a deep hit of flavour. Crispy onions and a little bhaji offer a contrast of flavour for an assured and confident start to the meal.

We have the tandoori carrot that you can read about here, followed by a langoustine, caviar, and cauliflower custard dish that I’ve been fortunate enough to try a couple of times during its development. It feels complete now; concise and higher in acidity, it works brilliantly with the tartare of langoustine wrapped up in the celeriac ‘taco’ which cradles a wooden holder to one side. Then the highlight of the meal; a take on monkfish dopiaza, a term literally translating as ‘double onion’. Dark and brooding, the fish has been cooked over charcoal and has just enough smokiness, whilst the onion is present as a sweet compote, spiced roscoff broth, charred shallots, and (I think) crispy spring onion tops. It’s a hell of a dish which could easily sit on a two star menu and not be out of place. It also defines Aktar Islam as a chef: the ability to look at dishes from his heritage and transform them into something refined and modern.

The last of the savoury courses was also the most recognisable: a goat dum biriyani, inspired by the dishes served by his Mother to his younger self, with the pastry lid cut open at the table, as all dum biriyani should. This comes one between two, to be portioned on to the plates containing a goat chop, raita and salad. It is a showstopper, familiar, with an execution of undeniable skill. The biriyani stars; the rice with just a little bite, mingled in with bits of braised goat that whack with spice until licked with the raita. Proper cooking. From the look of social media it appears to be going down a storm. Quite right too.

The first dessert celebrates forced rhubarb, and is, in all honesty, the weak point of the meal given it eats a little one dimensional compared to the vibrancy of everything else. We then move on to a dark chocolate delice with orange gel, and a sweet potato dauphine. It’s a Jaffa Cake we tell them. No it’s not they say. Yes it is: the dark chocolate, the orange, and the dauphine that has a cake-like texture thanks to the choux mixed in with the carb. We’ll agree to disagree here. It’s delicious anyway. There are petit fours because now that they have a star there should be.

The award of the Michelin Star means that prices have risen slightly, but the eight courses at £75 represents one of the best value tasting menus in the region. With this we took the wine pairing that included rose champagne and a very classy Pinot Noir that I am going to be purchasing for home. Service is superb and if they are bored of seeing my face then they haven’t let on just yet. It was as good as rainy Thursdays get. Opheem are unstoppable at present, full of creative flair and desire. Little wonder I’ve neglected most of Birmingham’s restaurants to keep on returning here. Nick, next time, I promise it will be with you.

I travel to and from the best, with the best

Pictures pilfered with permission from the restaurant due to lighting being very low

Moor Hall Restaurant and Rooms, Ormskirk

The design of Moor Hall felt like a collection of our favourite restaurants. The walk from the carpark to the restaurant through the immaculately turned-out garden lined with vegetables and herbs and flowers could easily have been the vast grounds behind The Wild Rabbit. Inside, the large polished kitchen and dining room make use of glass walls to connect it to its environment in the same way that Azurmendi do, whilst the view has a similar serenity to that found in the middle-of-bloody-nowhere at Ynyshir. It’s like they sat down with a blank page and asked what it would take to make the perfect experience, probably laughed at all of the zeros on the page, and then done it anyway. And there is nothing wrong with that.

In fact there is nothing wrong with any of Moor Hall. On the contrary; it is a restaurant defined by a high level of consistency that may explain the two Michelin stars in the three years it has been open, along with its present ranking of numero uno in Restaurant magazine. Every step, from the email asking us to arrive early, to the first courses in the bar, to the tour of the kitchen where the third course was served, lunch, and the small matter of a cheese room (yes, you have read that correctly), felt tightly orchestrated. A lot of thought has gone into every process, but then you would expect this from a Roux scholar who did a stint at Cellar Del Can Roca in between his tenures as head chef at L’Enclume.

We start with charcuterie in the bar, made in-house and some of the best I have ever eaten. Then a parcel of black pudding with a little gooseberry, washed down with a well made martini. Then into the kitchen for smoked eel and fermented wild garlic in a basket of fried potato which was just knockout good. Then to the table for bread with a conventional butter and another a vivid green, blended with parsley and lovage. Three spots each dishing out some very good bits of food.

The following lunch happens at a speed so precise I expect each plate is fitted with a pacemaker. Dish comes, wine is topped up, dish gets eaten, wine gets topped-up, wait seven minutes and dish arrives. Repeat. We get baked carrots with sea buckthorn and Doddington (a hard cheese a little like parmesan), that shows great balance and restraint, and a beetroot dish lifted with a little frozen horseradish and has the bite of quinoa for texture. I usually dislike beetroots; this has me pilfering from Claire’s plate when she’s not looking.

I’ve seen a rendition of the tartare dish before. It allegedly stems from Cellar Del Can Roca and found it’s way back to Cartmel where it’s become something of a signature. Eight years ago, when I first tried it, the idea of charcoal oil to make the raw beef taste cooked was groundbreaking. Now everyone is doing it. This version, with 80 day old beef, barbecued celeriac, mustard, and perfect teeny rings of pickled shallot, seems like the work of a man who has mastered his craft. It’s perfect. A dish with crab and turnip is all about the root vegetable, with the crab fighting for attention. I want to say that crab and turnip is a perfect partnership but I can’t. What I can say is that the turnip broth seasoned with soy is without question the best use for a turnip you will ever come across.

Just one month in, I can absolutely guarantee that the Guinea hen main will be in my top ten dishes of the year. The juicy square of meat with crisp fatty skin, the ragu of offal underneath a cloak of kohlrabi with kale sandwiched between that had been cooked in ham fat. The silkiest of  jerusalem artichoke puree flecked with floral notes, the maggot-like Japanese artichokes which are buttery and nutty, hen of the wood mushrooms, and a jus so clear it could easily have been a reduced consome. That jus got me into trouble with Claire, chasing away at the last of it with my index finger to be told that this isn’t how to behave in places like this. I’ll take the slap on the wrist. There is nothing that could make this dish better. It is an absolute stunner.

We finish on a couple of desserts and the small matter of a trip to a cheese room. First up is a gingerbread ice cream and candied root vegetables under a flurry of pastry sticks, which is grown-up and downright delicious, followed by apples both as a mousse and caramelised terrine. The dish was full of clean herbaceaus notes with birch syrup and woodruff, decorated with the prettiest shards of caramel leaves. Another winner. Then the cheese room, which by now you may have noticed I am a little excited about. Seventeen British cheeses and one from Ireland, all immaculately stored. We chose six between two, served up with quince, red onion chutney, bread, and crackers. Order more wine. My work here is done.

The last time I saw Mark Birchall he was peering out of a gap in the service entrance to the kitchen of L’Enclume, looking pensive. Here, as we are among the last to finish up at lunch he is in a relaxed mood, seemingly helping front of house prepare for that evening’s dinner service. He asks how lunch was. “Pretty much perfect” I reply. Looking back the bill just shy of £300 seems a relative bargain, given the cocktails, the wine, the lunch, and the cheese. Moor Hall is a special restaurant, fully deserving of all the accolades bestowed over such a short period of time.

9/10