Ynyshir, April 2019

Unknowingly we book into Ynyshir the day before they all break for holiday. The restaurant is in a relaxed mood; Jake Buggs ‘Lightning Bolt’ is playing on the record player as we check-in, with all the staff in non-uniform. Some have taken this as an excuse to wear comfy clothing, others excessively loud shirts. Really loud shirts that should never see the light of day. They buzz through the corridor by the kitchen pass, taking out the empty plates from a packed dining room. As we tuck into a welcoming bowl of thick onion with sourdough in the bar area, it is great to see it this busy: eighteen months ago when we first visited there were us and six others present for a lunch service. Five visits later and they are struggling to get us a table, incredible to think for a booking that includes the legendary food blogger who is Claire Tucker and her pathetic boyfriend. I’m happy this way; they deserve it. Hard work pays off, this much is clear.

I won’t hide my love for Ynyshir, nor should I try. My good friend Rory now works here, and over time I have got to know owners Gareth and Amelia as well as several of the team who now recognise my bloated head in their tiny dining room. If there is bias present it is only on my part; I knew no one back in August 2017 when we first went and launched into hyperbole, and I recieve no concession on the £150 tasting menu. Simply put, we are here yet again because it is where we choose to spend our money, which we do a little overzealously every. single. time. Make of that how you wish.

It seems that since our last visit a lot of effort has been made to improve the smallest of details. The soys, mirin, and vinegars have all been upgraded to the best they possibly can be, resulting in more elegant acidity, whilst they have a big tank now that cooks crabs and lobster from fresh during service. The overall experience has been upgraded, a statement I wasn’t expecting to make. The ‘Not French Onion Soup’ is more refined, the duck with sesame more crispy so that the reference to the Chinese takeaway is more obvious. That duck blew my mind this time around. The slice of bread seemed smaller, which is fine because it means the layers of wagyu fat and mirin butter get thicker. Only an idiot would fill up on bread here, anyway.

Four new dishes follow, each of them highlighting just how fast the kitchen has developed. The first is katsu chicken; a relatively simple dish of brined poultry cooked over the japanese barbecue built by one of the chefs. The meat is then rolled through panko breadcrumbs cooked in butter and finished with the katsu ketchup which previously used to coat the crab. It is unbelievable; a smash in the face of flavour that bears only the faintest of resemblances to the now most ubiquitous of British dishes. Take that, Brexit. The crab is now a take on the Singapore dish, chilli crab, with a generous amount of meat bound in sauce packed with garlic, ginger, chilli, and soy. I made the bold statement in saying that the crab katsu was the best dish I ate in 2018: both of these are upgrades on the main components. The mackerel is now aged in the salt chamber to take out much of the oiliness, served in a bowl with a dark and heady sauce, and a little grated fresh wasabi, before we move on to cod in two servings. The first is a take on black cod, which is surprisingly gentle in flavour to allow the cod tell its own story. When this is downed they pour some of the cooking liquor into the same bowl with slices of raw shitake mushroom. I loved this; it has purpose and is an original way of getting the flavour of cod out there. Remember what I said about not filling up on bread? You’ll need another slice here to make sure not a drop is left.

We have the duck with hoisin again, the cawl which I still can’t get on board with, the lamb rib that I can always get on board with, and then the pork char sui, which is fatty and lucious and has me slurping unattractively from the bowl like the man I once sat next to on a flight in Vietnam. I hated him. I love this though and it’s over far too quickly for my liking. It’s a star dish in a lengthy menu littered with them. There is the aged foie gras with birch syrup and smoked eel that I devour in a single mouthful, and then a new dish of scallop roasted on one side only with aged beef fat and pickled elderflower. It’s got bollocks as a plate of food, a contrast of textures and big flavours that somehow holds on to the flavour of the scallop. I was concerned about this not working. It turns out I had nothing to worry about.

A slab of 215 day aged wagyu is presented to us, telling us that this is to be served as a burger and then tartare. But first the garlic prawn arrives; the meat is delicate, the roasted prawn shell sauce noticably better thanks to the higher grade soy used. The wagyu returns as that burger, a thousand times better than the thousand times I tried rip-off versions in the last year and a half. Then the tartare, which is just sit-yourself-down-and-take-stock-of-everything brilliant. A complex mix of barely warm beef, fermented grains, some kind of soy dressing, and egg yolk dressing. It’s mega, reminsecent of the first time I tried the vennison tartare at L’enclume, and up there with the very best raw dishes I’ve ever been served. More wagyu follows as a shortrib with mushroom but by now I am stuffed. I should probably point out to any vegetarians at this point that this may not be the restaurant for you.

By now the music has whizzed through The Prodigy and is onto ‘Doggystyle’. We take the cheese course of Tunworth on a sourdough crumpet with a maple/white truffle lick of magic. Every bit as glorious as it sounds. The yuzu slushie that follows is a clever way of resetting the palate before the dining room halts to mark the first dessert with a plume of nettle scented dry ice, pouring off the tables and on to our feet. The course itself has been defeated by the two cocktails and three bottles of wine we’d consumed up to this point, and if I’m correct I was more concerned with rapping the first verse to Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang than eating the buttermilk pannacotta before me. So as far as the courses in this paragraph go, we’ve had one, two, three, and to the four, as we sign off with the white chocolate and black bean mouthful which is salted caramel when you close your eyes. Perfection is perfected, and with that I promise no more bad Snoop Dog references.

From a young G’s perspective the last three courses are a whistle stop tour of three classic desserts, reimagened in rural Wales. We blitz through a new version of the sticky toffee pudding (now with a flourless date cake replacing the compressed fruit), the rhubarb and custard, and the tiramisu. Each are utterly brilliant in their own way. The last nibble is a piece of fudge made from wagyu fat. We retire to the bar and The National’s classic album ‘Boxer’ is played. And people wonder why this is one of my favourite places in the world.

T.A.P, 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

In the general shithousery that is my life, I have overlooked 1000 Trades too much of late. It is without question one of my favourite places in the city; a laid-back, quietly confident slice of happiness with a killer wine, beer, and spirit offering. You get the feeling that very little bad could happen within these walls. Since they opened a few years back they’ve kept food on rotation from the narrow kitchen in the back. We’ve seen more established restaurants set up, and less established names doing their own thing. We’ve had great meals and a couple that’ve just missed the mark. They’ve shouted out important issues like zero waste with wonderfully curated events, and thrown a few parties that I may have behaved poorly at.

The latest of these resident kitchens is T.A.P, short for Twisted American Pancakes. At first I was sceptical; savoury pancakes could be a disaster of misjudged stodge in the wrong hands. I was wrong. This is the best food to leave the kitchen here in some time. It’s big and wholesome, packed with a serious amount of flavour. It represents value and is the ideal partner to a crisp pint of the good stuff. We order two of the pancakes, one with beef shortrib, the other fried chicken. The shortrib is a hefty portion of pulled meat under a mound of fried onion, salsa, and chipotle sauce, with the pancake a vehicle for a serious amount of sweetcorn. It quickly disappears. The other pancake is studded with squash, with fried chicken, pickled chilli and one of those neon yellow american cheese sauces that I haven’t yet learned to resist. The chicken is posh KFC; moist bird within a spice mixture the colonel would be proud of, even if the flour could have done with a touch more salt. They had fried chicken at the last residency here. This is better.

Don’t think about leaving without ordering the crab cakes. Six quid buys you five balls of deep fried crustacean, bound with a little mashed potato for substance. Eat them quick though, as the idea of sitting them in the tomato sauce means they quickly develop a soggy arse. Triple cooked chips are dubious in description, though are fat fingered chunks of fluffy potato that have enough snap about them. We take ours with more of that American cheese sauce and fresh chilli. Do this; it’s the perfect kind of filth.

Portions are big and flavour is there in huge quantities. Is it pretty? No, and nor does it have a great deal of clarity. There is a lot going on for not a lot of money and this is perfectly fine with me. What matters is that it tastes as good as it can, and how the food fits in with it’s surrounding. The concept of pancakes really isn’t that weird when you consider the same ingredients could be used to make a Yorkshire pudding with the beef, or waffle with the chicken. It’s bold and unpretentious. I liked it a lot. 1000 Trades are back on form and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

8/10

Transport provided by those legends at A2B Radio Cars

Legna, Birmingham, Spring 2019

I went to a pasta masterclass recently. We were downstairs in a tightly packed space, drinking prosecco and rolling out the dough in what was mostly a very enjoyable evening. We made tagliatelle, tortellini, and gnocchi, handing over our work to be served back to us at the tables upstairs. The end product wasn’t great: the pasta was uneven in thickness, cut to strips too wide or not wide enough. The gnocchi were mostly dense balls of boiled flour. Not even the sauces that had been bubbling away all evening could save them. We took to fishing for pieces of Claire’s perfectly shaped tortellini, whilst leaving the rest of the pasta and filling up on ragu and wine. I have Italian blood; its ferocious temper, over-confidence, and insatiable appetite coursing through my veins. I am also a very competent chef for someone who has never done it professionally, yet I was as much to blame as the majority of the room. My pasta just wasn’t good enough. Getting Italian food correct is really difficult.

I have tremendous respect for anyone who does understand it. To anyone who gets the principles of simplicity which dictate Italian cuisine I will doth my cap, curtsey, bow, shake hands, rub noses, wag dicks, kiss both cheeks, or hug. I don’t care whether you’re Italian or not, what your background is, your mother’s maiden name, religion, sexuality, what you identify as, or your views on Brexit. Actually I do want to know how you voted on Brexit; you may have a lot of explaining to do.

Aktar Islam gets Italian food, but why wouldn’t he? So what if his name isn’t Carlo Del Puttanesca, or that he doesn’t wear a crucifix around his neck and have sexual fantasies about his mother. So what if he was born in Aston and not Anconna. You think this man can only cook food of the sub continent? You’re a fucking idiot, but please go watch his Queen of Puddings on Great British Menu before responding in the comments section. It amounts to nothing more than racist assumptions of someone based on a name, accent, or country of descent. A conversation I had this morning with the Polish bus driver, incidentally the same man who scaffolded my house. This is a joke. I would never get the bus.

So, anyway, Legna. New menu time for a restaurant three or four months old that I happen to have a lot of love for. I’ve been a few times now; not everything is perfect yet, though it goes from strength-to-strength in my eyes, turning out the kind of smart Italian food that this kind and smart part-Italian bastard likes to eat. It’s a generous restaurant; you’ll have nibbles to kick-off, and there’ll be breads served with a basil butter (boom! boom!) and oils and balsamic vinegar of real quality. If you’re anything like me you’ll order four courses and start with either the flatbread with blobs of hard cheese emulsion, truffle and confit garlic or the prawns. The latter are flashed through the pizza oven so that the shells blacken. Rip off the head, drink juice, take body meat and apply to toasted bread with that garlicky tomato sauce. Simple.

From pasta I would always take the ragu with parpadelle, which you can read about my thoughts on here. I order it because it’s one of my favourite dishes in the city; that meeting point of tradition and modern technique, where everything aligns and you end up in a heap on the floor crying because life will never be this good again. Or maybe that is just me. Having tried the ravioli with potato and egg yolk, I still think I’ll be sticking to the ragu. Given that my only reference point for this dish was at Royal Hospital Road when Clare Smyth cooked there, perhaps I am being too judgemental. All the components were there but the acidity was a fraction too high, knocking the rich elements out of sync. The ragu returns in the calzone, which is the ideal home for it, with stringy mozzarella and piquant roquito peppers. The blistered dough conceals a hefty portion for not a lot of money. I take half home for lunch the following day. The pick of the new dishes is the roasted chicken with asparagus risotto. The chicken is cooked so accurately I refuse to accept that it hasn’t come out of a sous-vide, whilst the risotto has been cooked to a precise bite. The star though is the jus de roti that sits around the peripheral of the bowl. This is a classic touch not seen often enough; with the dark cooking juices adding a nice contrast to the fresh risotto sharpened with a little lemon. I’ll be eating this a lot over the summer.

There will be a pre-dessert, which, if you’re lucky will be the banana ice cream and chocolate mousse we had. To finish I’ll help you out; order the tiramisu. Maybe twice. Boozy, rich, and indulgement. It remains untouched because thats the way it should be. Indulge in the entirely Italian wine list that won’t break the bank before finishing off with a negroni at the bar. Enjoy yourself. It’s what restaurants like this are designed for.

On a Friday night when I was dining alone at the bar I witnessed an elderly couple verbally castrate Aktar, threatening the dreaded One Star TripAdvisor review for serving his ragu with pappardelle and not spaghetti. Do not be these gammon, especially if this is your level of knowledge of other culture’s food. After the rage settled, I thought long and hard about this: this is what restaurants have to contend with now, the fear of someone publically attacking them for them for their own lack of knowledge or inconvenience. We’ve become a nation of critics and that makes this wannabe critic not want to critique anywhere. I’m serious: It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. In the meantime Birmingham continues to churn out brilliant restaurants, with nobody pushing to improve a little corner of this city quite like Aktar Islam. To those with the closed minds and preconceptions he happens to own the best Indian restaurant in the country. To the rest of you, he also has Legna serving up playful Italian cooking in the most beautiful of dining rooms just a few steps away.

A2B got us from A to B

The Oyster Club, Birmingham

The issue of price is unavoidable when discussing The Oyster Club. On paper they have pitched themselves alongside the big-hitting fish-centric restaurants of London, charging the sort of prices you would find at J Sheekey, or Bentley’s. Looking down the menu the eye immediately takes you to the crab on toast small plate at £18.50, or the asparagus, chorizo, and poached egg larger plate at £19.50. Battered halibut with tartare sauce and minted peas is £24.00, with the additional dozen chips at £4.50 – add your 10% service charge and that fish and chip supper weighs in at a hefty £31.35. It’s ambitious, and it has to be faultless for this kind of money. The precision that Adam Stokes has become renowned for at the one Michelin star Adam’s must be transferable to this, his shiny new casual, fish-focused restaurant next to The Ivy. If it doesn’t, the first thing that people will be moaning about is the price.

Now if you are the kind of person who considers value when going out for dinner, you have it from me that you have nothing to worry about. Yes, it is going to leave a dent in your wallet, but that money will buy you some very fine produce prepared expertly in the sleekest and most elegant of dining rooms. Take the room itself; a rectangular space of marble tops, offset with light greys, soft blues, and pastel pinks. The best seats in the house happen to be those that cant be reserved; the baby blue leather high-chairs that weave around the bar to the oyster section. Being the first booking on the first official night of opening, we are sat adjacent to this, on the area overlooking the dining section below. It is from our table we can watch them shucking oysters that we don’t order, and pouring wine, which I absolutely do. I’ll start the night with a white from Dorset, move on to an albarino, a picpoul, and finish with a Mersault. Those wines are priced between £6-18 per glass. They are very nice wines.

I order the crab and all thought of the end bill dissapears. The crab is of fantastic quality; the white meat bound loosely in mayonaise, with apple and broken shards of crisp chicken skin. My initial misconception of it being small in size is proven wrong when I run out toast and find myself scraping the plate for the last of it. It is simplicity personified; a few simple ingredients treated with the respect they deserve. I’ll be eating this a lot. The same applies to the octopus and chorizo salad with sauce vierge that Claire says is the best octopus she’s ever eaten. She’s not wrong. Only the scallops dont feel like value at £6.50 each for not the plumpest of specimens, though its impossible to fault the cooking of them, or the sensible addition of crispy bacon and samphire. If the flavours seem traditional it’s because they are. It works that way.

For mains Claire has cod, beautifully cooked to a pearlescent centre, with fennel, charred hispi cabbage, and a crab sauce that she thinks was a touch too sweet but I really enjoyed. I can’t resist the fish and chips I mentioned before, and neither should you. The batter around the halibut is a sturdy thing that cracks on impact and lets out a little of the steam that has cooked the fish from within its coating. Little crushed peas are mixed with some unscathed for texture and have just enough mint, whilst the tartare is bright and loaded with both caper and gherkins. Those chips! Who would know that twelve chips stacked like Jenga pieces could be so divisive. They snap and crunch, with light fluffy spud inside. Only twice can I recall eating better chips; both of which were at 2* restaurants. A side of broccoli is ordered and eaten before I have a chance to try them. I can only assume they are good.

Now desserts. On the night we are there they are priced at £12.50 – a figure I pointed out on Twitter I thought was steep – though now the website tells me they have been reduced to between £7.50 and £10. I don’t know why they have been cut in price, though it’s a positive move in my eyes that shows they are firmly on the ball in these very early stages. The fact is that the old price put them in the same bracket as The Cross in Kenilworth and, ahem, The Hand & Flowers. They are not up to those standards, but they are very good, and now correctly priced. A raspberry and lemon pavlova is a classy bit of pastry work, with textbook meringue holding lemon curd, raspberry jam, a raspberry sorbet I recognise from Adams, and fresh fruit. The other dessert of baked apple with frangipane sponge and vanilla ice cream is arguably even better. The apple has a tatin-like quality to it that we can’t get enough of. Those two desserts will now cost you a total of £17.50 and are worth every penny. I should have eaten here a day later.

Now the total bill, which is a fair whack for a Monday dinner. It’s well over £150, though to put it into perspective it is well under half the price I last paid at Adams, and it appears they use the same suppliers and have transferred many of the staff. And I guess that’s my point: a dinner like this shouldn’t be cheap. We pay top money for top steak without batting an eyelid, so why is it we expect quality fish to be more affordable? What ultimately makes up the end price is the raw cost of ingredient, the skill of the team serving it and then the mark-up. When all of this is taken into account the final bill seems quite fair. Can I see us ordering a total of nine dishes any time soon? Probably not. But for a glass of wine and the crab at lunch, or for the fish and chips with a bottle of wine mid-week, I can see us doing it far too often for my bank accounts liking. The Oyster Club is the kind of place we’ve been saying that Birmingham needs for years. Now that it’s here I’m already a massive fan.

9/10

You know who else I’m a massive fan of? Those wonderful people at A2B

Alchemilla, Nottingham

It took roughly an hour before I fell for Alchemilla. It’s not to say I didn’t like it before; I was already romanced by the vaulted bare brick décor, that initial view into the open kitchen from the front door, the sunlight pouring through the occasional squares of glass in the ceiling, and the most charming of sommeliers, but it was a teeny wedge of celeriac which sent me over the edge. The root vegetable had been poached in goat’s butter and covered in a chiffon of herbs that added a fresh layer of mostly anise notes. A smaller blob of black garlic and a larger one of goat’s curd joined them on a plate finished off with a beurre noisette sauce cut with aged balsamic. We were waiting for the fireworks moment and this was it, a dish full of confidence that could stand up against any containing meat. The star was the celeriac, the rest was designed to get the most out of it, bringing fat, umami, and acidity into the mix. Claire tells me that when I compile an end of year list of the best dishes I’ve eaten this will be on it. I will do as I am told.

An hour previous we had entered through the heavy door with the pretty green foliage on Derby Rd, walked down those aforementioned steps past the kitchen, and through to our table under the arched brick walls of the old coachhouse. We start with a nest of potato string dotted with smoked cods roe and dill, move on to delicate tartlets of yeasted cauliflower puree with duckfat, and finish the nibbles with seaweed tapioca crackers, mushroom caramel and a healthy dusting of aged parmasen. Of those it was the tartlet that got the pulse racing, a rich number with distinct flavours. Before the ten courses start bread arrives with butter and an onion jam. That jam. Reason enough to book train tickets to Nottingham by itself, all bread should be served with this.

A savoury egg custard might not seem the obvious base for crab and artichoke, but it works, slowly revealing itself to be a complex plate of food far more harmonious than it originally seemed. I just wish I’d have left some bread to mop up the last of the roast artichoke sauce. Shiitake mushrooms poached in teriyaki sauce had a slightly squidgy texture that I personally struggled with, though Claire loved it, using the lardo it was draped in to wipe the plate free of the umami-bomb that was the ‘tasty paste’. The celeriac course follows. How I loved that celeriac.

We move on to a loose risotto of grains with 3 year old parmasen, served alongside some fried jerasulam artichoke skin dusted with the rarest of things; truffle that tastes of truffle. “This is the first risotto I’ve tried which is richer than yours”, Claire tells me. She’s right; it’s glorious. Top marks for them for taking me to top-level cholesterol. The next course felt a little like work in progress. The gratin wedge of potato, smoked eel, and horseradish is superb but it is beaten by too much of the salted lemon puree on offer. By the time we work out the correct ratio (the tiniest amount) it is too late. Shortrib of beef has no such issue, dressed in a deep mole sauce, nutty and gently spicy like my mate’s ex wife, it arrives at the table shrouded in burnt baby gem lettuce dressed in something sharp, slightly sweet, and a little hot. Just like my mate’s new wife. It’s a great bit of cooking.

The only choices required today are the wine (which I do exceptionally well) and main courses, which we take one each of. On paper it is the hogget that looks most enticing, with bagna cauda, charred leeks, and blackened onion. The loin of hogget is packed with flavour, as is the breaded shoulder, though I don’t see the point in the thumbnail-sized piece of fillet. I like the garlic and anchovy emulsion, love the leeks and onion. Adore the sauce. It’s a very good plate of food. It’s just not as good as the venison. Some dishes make perfect sense on the plate and this was one of them: melt-in-the-mouth meat, mushrooms in various formats and strengths, balanced out by the resinous flavour of spruce, pear, and another killer sauce. The man can cook. He can really cook.

I lost track of a yoghurt thing on a stick with orange because I was too engrossed with a triangle of orange it was served with that was slightly candied and had an unreal depth of flavour. I request more to come at the end of the meal. Three desserts to go. First a drift of something crunchy covering a mound of something soft, with toasty notes and apple notes, and sweet caramelised notes. It echoed eating a toffee apple on bonfire night: I was a massive fan. Then a white and dark chocolate layered dessert that was rich and decadent and not really my kind of thing. And then a dessert that really was my kind of thing; a mille-fuille which was really 982 layers short of accurate representation, loaded with rhubarb, tarragon, and a liquorice flavoured creme patisserie. I won’t eat a braver dessert all year, that much I am certain of. I am also confident I won’t eat any much better; lovely aniseed notes and bright acidity throughout.

Before I wrap this up special praise must go to the front of house, which was some of the best I can recall. Smart, friendly service from a team who knew every dish inside-out, and a sommelier who guided us through an impeccably put together list. Now all of this doesn’t come cheap; ten courses each that ended up being fourteen, a bottle of wine, another glass of red, and two dessert wines clocked in at £273. Was everything to my taste? No, but this is innovative cooking with some risky combinations, and I’d personally rather be challenged over three hours than sleepwalk through the same-old-same-old. It doesn’t to me seem the kind of place to sit still and for that it’s a restaurant I’ll be keeping a firm eye on.

After lunch we enjoyed beers and gin in the rather wonderful Hop Merchant, before moving on to Cottonmouth for some outstanding cocktails. We got back far later than planned, enjoying the best of a city that has much more going for it than Hooters. It’s buzzy and progressive, with an underlying friendliness you don’t find too often elsewhere. And nowhere embodies those principles quite like Alchemilla.

9/10

Tom’s Kitchen, Birmingham

As a man who spends many an hour looking at restaurant menus, I have learnt to appreciate a good one when I see one. A good menu is itself a skill; it has to be concise and clear, and – in my view at least – make correct use of the seasons and flavours that on paper complement each other. Promising red fruits in February? You deserve to be tortured. And thanks for the time you’ve taken to design the dessert of pink grapefruit poached in beef stock but I wouldnt feed that to my gran. And she has been dead for twenty years. It’s overlooked as a minor detail, yet when deciding where I am spending my money, a menu can turn me off as quickly as it can turn me on.

So full credit to the team at Toms Kitchen for curating a menu that reads like a dream. One that is packed with the bounty of the seasons, and British tradition; one that puts the decision of what to eat in quandary. Prior to dinner we had decided on the lamb for two, changed to mains of venison and guinea fowl, and then back to the lamb. Of course by the time we are seated in the far corner of the spacious restaurant with glass of something cold and fizzy in hand we order none of these. It’s the effect that a well written menu can have. You don’t get this problem at a Toby Carvery.

They have snacks so we order snacks. In truth you don’t need these if you’re planning on ordering three courses given the portion sizes, and I should know this considering this is my fourth visit since they opened two years ago. Of those snacks the red pepper hummus is very nice and tasting strongly of all the listed compenents. I am less keen on the lengthy strips of pork crackling that vary from crisp to overly robust in texture. The apple puree it comes with is a silky, smokey thing that we insist stays on the table throughout the table. I’m not saying you should steal this but should you, it would make the ultimate sandwich with some vintage cheddar. From the starters crab cakes are lively things stuffed full of crustacean, with a cucumber and quinoa salsa that serves a purpose, and an oozy macaroni cheese dotted with bits of truffle. We like them both; two very nice plates of food that speak of a confident kitchen. Both faithful renditions of classic dishes.

The best thing we ate happened to be the most intricate. A kind of deconstructed (I really hate that word) bouillabaisse has salmon, pollock, mussels, and scallop, all accurately cooked to order and sat in a puddle of something deep and burnished. A crouton acts as a crossbar, dotted with saffron aoili and pickled fennel. It’s a plate that requires considerable skill; the timing of the fish is crucial, as is the labour intensive sauce. It is a huge success, controlled cooking that smacks of the sea on every level – I’ve certainly had worse renditions at restaurants several times the price. This skill can also be seen on a dish that on paper is far more simple. Chicken snitzel is classic dinner time stuff; breaded poultry shallow fried until it resembles a butter-less Kiev. Aside from the quality of the meat, it is the clever layer of basil between bird and crumb that pushes it up a notch. Add confit tomatoes, a punchy salsa, and what are right now the best triple cooked chips in the city, and you have something I could eat several times a week. I’m going to give that statement a go.

I think they’ve really stepped their game up with desserts. From the specials board is a chocolate delice, with white chocolate mousse and raspberries that ticks all the right boxes. It is upstaged by a cube of milk chocolate and peanut, layered visibly like Marie Kondo’s wardrobe. The bits of textures are spread out, crousilliant-like, so that every spoonful cracks. It is rich and salty, pretty addictive. I finish before Claire, an experience usually reserved only for our bedroom.

Service is excellent from a team who look like they enjoy being at work, and we leave replete and happy. With starters £6-11 and mains £19-28 some have accused Toms Kitchen of lacking value. Nonsense. They have a head chef pilfered from a starred restaurant as well as some pretty premium ingredients. That front of house reads like who’s-who of the best in Brum. I was unsure whether or not to write about here again, though in my eyes it has gone up a level since it opened. There is a consistency to the dining experience that means for me that Tom’s Kitchen is now up there with the very best in casual bistros across this city.

You know the drill. I got tipsy and A2B took me home

Marmaris, Kings Heath

To get to the subject matter of this review, we must first look to Hana, which was the intended piece prior to its premature demise. Word of Hana spread faster than chlamydia in a Magaluf hotel when the signage went up, promising Moseley the enviable position of places that offer Middle Eastern food on three sides of a four-sided crossroad. It eventually opened to little attention, with balloons in the doorway and a couple of pissed-off looking waitresses sat bored in the window. The menu was not what I expected; yes, they had shwarma and baba ghounoush, but they also had kebab burgers with fries and salad, which isn’t instinctively the food that springs to mind when I think of Lebanon. Quickly stories spread on both of Moseley’s Facebook community pages (yes, we have two in Moseley: one ran by despot dictators, the other by a local drunk); unattentive service, incorrect dishes, cash only, and the refusal to give receipts were just some of the reasons I was desperate to go. No one seemed to like it, which made me want to go even more, though the same name popped-up on a reoccurring basis. Marmaris. I’d never heard of it. “It’s not as good as Marmaris”, everyone said, which made this horrid know-it-all seethe at my phone screen. When Hana closed prematurely after three weeks following a Facebook arguement with a paying customer and a waitress there was only one place I was going for koftes. I had to go deep into Kings Heath to see if Marmaris was any good.

It’s not what I expected. From the outside it looks like the kind of place that prides itself on a two out of five hygeine rating, not helped by the Just Eat stickers on the door and an unenviable position next to quite possibly the roughest Wetherspoon in South Birmingham. Inside they have spent at least nine quid on the decor with a few hard chairs and tables to sit at whilst the boss loudly berates the staff for burning bread. They have kebabs with chips and salad, though they also have a glass counter with various bits of impaled chicken and sheep. A lot of cling film is used here: on the hummus, the meat, the rice. I consider wrapping myself in it to protect my clothing from the smoke that leaves the grill and attaches itself to anything of value. That smoke shares the same values as many of my ex girlfriends.

We order too much with a couple of soft drinks and just tip past £30 between two. We can’t decide whether to eat the hummus or hang wallpaper with it, though are rewarded with a version that is light on tahini and heavy on both garlic and lemon when we opt for the former. A salad starts off great but quickly bleeds pickled red cabbage into everything else, and then there is the smoked aubergine dish with kofte and spicy tomato sauce that bears no resemblence at all to the same dish on the wall. The aubergine is lost in a sea of yogurt, with a sauce that tastes like a thickened Heinz soup. It is saved by the meat. That meat could save just about anything.

There is only one reason to be here and that is the grilled meat. They understand protein here better than they understand English, marinading until the proteins start to break down before grilling until that marinade catches at the edges.  A grill for two has some of the most tender chicken I can recall eating, and cubes of lamb with smokey ribbons of fat that yield just enough bite. There is minced chicken kofte and minced lamb kofte, both excellent, treated with the same amount of love and respect. I thought I’d eaten very good renditions of these before: I hadn’t compared to this. This comes with bulgar wheat and rice, a garlicky yoghurt, piquant chilli sauce and flat bread that tastes almost cheesey. All of this is £17. I wish we’d saved the bother and ordered two.

Service is exactly what you’d expect from a business used to pissed-up idiots from Wetherspoons, in that it’s hardly accommodating. We were supposed to be offered a choice of meat with the aubergine let-down but wasn’t, and don’t even think about enquiring about a half portion of the lamb chops. Even a drink mis-order was met with a stare when I dared to question it. But all of this is fine. For 40 minutes I am a tourist in a world I don’t see frequently enough. One full of hustle and smoke, where the emphasis is feeding over pandering. One where cash is king and ego is disregarded. One which has mastered the art of cooking over fire as well as any stuffy steak house with a josper. Facebook was right; Marmaris is ace.

8/10

Just because we never took an A2B doesnt mean that you shouldn’t.

Apocalypse Cow @ Ghetto Golf, Digbeth

Ghetto Golf is the place I always take people who aren’t familar with the city. Friends, extended family members, porn stars who want to make sweaty pornos with me, they all get the Ghetto Golf treatment of the loud 90’s hip hop, cocktails, and 18 holes of Brum. Come to think of it, 18 Holes of Brum would make a great name for a porno filmed here. Not that they would ever do that, of course; the interior would be far too much of a giveaway for the location. Anyway, it’s great fun and a bargain at a tenner; an hour or two of negotiating buses, dildos, a gimp in a cage, a pub, and Jim Davidson. The latter in photo form and thankfully unable to spout his fifty-year old racist routine.

There have been lots of visits here. Early starts, late starts, midnight runs. The behaviour is never the best; maybe it’s the lack of food and too much booze. Last weekend we tried the different tact of eating. In truth I’d barely noticed Apocalypse Cow was here before; it’s tucked in the far corner on the route to the bathrooms. The menu is a list of booze-friendly products; burgers, loaded fries, something called ‘twisted tapas’. We skip the burgers and order from across the rest.

It’s pissed food, in the best possible sense. Big flavours that requires napkins in the immediate and wet wipes the day after when, like me, you’ve overdone it on the hot sauce and life in general. In the majority it is food I can get on board with. Of the four dishes we try it is the two from the twisted tapas section which work best. Strips of chicken breast are tender and come painted in a sriracha sauce that stains the fingers and demands to be washed down with a cold drink. I like these a lot. Likewise the deepfried bits of lasagna encased in a breaded shell that ooze white sauce dotted with mince meat. It tastes like lasagna if some buxom young Italian had made it, not like the version by a hairy nonna rooted in tradition. There is no room for tradition here, not when hole four has dildos to navigate around. I don’t care too much for the nachos which are basic in design, but I do like the kamikaze fries. The chips themselves are decent, defibrilated by some rather good korean pork, chilli, spring onions, and a char sui sauce that is too sweet but works well. Like I said; it’s food for the pissed, which I was on my way to becoming.

Dishes are good value with none of the above costing more than £7, and they go rather well with the too sweet cocktails that will keep you buzzing from hole-to-hole. Is Apocalypse Cow the kind of place I would hunt down specifically to eat? Probably not. But it is perfect for the environment it sits within. It’s that junk food you crave when the good times kick in, before the bad decisions are made and the following day turns into a write-off of regret. I enjoyed almost everything we ate, and for that alone I’ll be doing it again. And after 532 words I’ve just realised that the name is a play on the movie ‘Apocolypse Now’. How very clever of them.

7/10

Need a nap after all that fun? A2B will get you home

18/81, Birmingham

They never gave much away when 18/81 first opened. No address, telephone number, or real idea of what to expect. We all had our suspicions. At first I thought they had opened a bar specifically for the age range of women I date, until I saw that it was a project from Rob Wood. I’m scared of Rob. Not in a fear that he might beat me up way, but that I could be crushed by his knowledge and ability to make drinks of impeccable balance. There is nothing the man doesn’t know about booze. He is an encyclopedia of the correct way to do liver damage, the pioneer of the brilliant drinks scene that we now have in this city, the guy who put The Man in The Manhattan (although I should point out that this drink does not identify with a gender). He once resulted in my girlfriend being an hour late for dinner because he was talking to her about achieving total clarity in an ice cube. I still haven’t forgiven him that.

So, 18/81. You won’t believe this but they have actually opened a bar specifically for the age range of the women I date. I’m kidding. It’s a bar as hard to label as it is to find. A kind of speakeasy-ish, laid back mecca for world class drinks with the USP of those drinks being pre-mixed so that the flavours amalgamate and the wait time to your table is a lot less. To find it you should head to Thorpe Street to the place that does burgers, turn towards the carpark and follow the signs. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts in a room of neutrals with tasteful additions, and a killer playlist that meanders through genres. It’s relaxed and unprententious.

We’re here on this occasion for the Valentines tasting menu: four courses, topped up by an additional couple each at the end because I’m greedy and bad with money. Perched on stools at the bar we start with slices of apple compressed with yuzu juice, designed to reset the palate. It works. A further nibble of pea tart with miso and mint is the ideal bite for the first drink of the evening. A gin infused with various shrubbery from Rob’s allotment is topped with champagne, tonic, and a couple of peas for the visual cue to it’s name ‘two peas in a pod’. How sickeningly romantic. It is light and fresh and has Claire requesting it for a wedding that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Following this is vermouth infused with tomato, basil, and oregano. It tastes like pizza; incredible stuff. It is called ‘First Dates’, which is a lie. I only started taking my girlfriend out for pizza when I stopped trying to impress her.

Part of Rob’s genius is creating a tasting menu that slowly evolves in weight and substance (it’s just a drink; what have I become?), as we move from a drink with tokaji sweet wine laden with lemon notes, through to the final course with aged rum, hazelnuts and dark chocolate. The latter is the boldest drink of the menu; a bloody delight. I mention to Rob that it tastes of Ferroro Rocher. He laughs. It probably tastes of something far more finessed than a Ferroro Rocher.

Slightly inebriated and having far too much fun we stick around for two more drinks each. Claire has The Duchess – a riff on afternoon tea with gin, darjeeling tea, clotted cream and apricot – and another that I can’t remember. I have Butter Scotch, a fat-washed, whisky based cocktail that fills the mouth with big flavours and the heart with happiness. This is a very, very, very good drink that blew my socks off without requiring a large extractor fan, or faux double-barrelled shotgun. And for those who have made it this far (well done, you have far more resilience than me) here is your reward: The Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee. The off-menu homage to the legendary bar in south Manhattan will make you look even cooler than you already aren’t by ordering it. And you should, it’s absolutely class.

Six cocktails apiece and three hours later we saunter out over a ton lighter. Yes, that is a lot of money for drinks, but I see it as value. This trip was a night out, having arguably the best drinks in the city made by unquestionably the man who started the drinks scene off in this city. The detail that goes in to these drinks is comparable to the finest restaurants; they are complex and balanced, made using the finest ingredients. I never anticipated this blog covering off a cocktail bar, but I’m here to talk about the very best, and 18/81 fits firmly in that category. My girlfriend is adamant that this is her favourite place to while a night away; I think she may be right.

A2B will get you to and from Thorpe Street. The rest is up to you.

It was dark and I was tipsy so my pictures were a disgrace. The majority are kindly stolen from the 18/81 Instagram account with permission.

Salt & Earth @ 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

The first thing chef Nikki Astley says to me at the hatch of 1000 Trades is “you’re the bloke who takes the piss out of my name on Twitter?”. He’s right, we’ve not known each for so long, but I can’t help being a gobshite and fair play to him for calling me out on being a dick. But Nikki knows the rules and so do I; it’s just a bit of fun on my part. I apologise on my part and we exchange small talk before ordering my dinner. A full commitment is what I’m thinking of, though Nikki is fair enough to tell me that I’m over-ordering. We reduce the six plates I was intending to eat by myself to just two. He goes back inside to cook, and I return to my wine. He never says goodbye.

Less pop-up and more viagra hard-on, Salt & Earth have been in the kitchen of 1000 Trades for months (maybe a year? I don’t know; only the sober remember dates). The present menu is chicken focused, compromising of fried chicken with sauces, fried chicken in bao-style buns, and a few small plates that focus on vegetables, from which I order one from each section. You wouldn’t get this from any other guy.

The least enjoyable of these is a vegetable dish that suffers from watery carrots on a slightly less watery puree of tofu where the carrot has lost all that lovely natural sweetness. Now if you ask me how I’m feeling about that chicken, I won’t lie to you, it’s good. Really good. It does not let me down. Crispy, brittle coating that cracks in all the right places, it gives way to lovely bits of good quality chicken thigh. To stop me from all ordering all three the kitchen have kindly sent the chicken out nude with pots of each sauce. The scotch bonnet is mercifully restrained in heat, and a honey soy sauce is a sticky sweet mess of happiness. Best is the Korean pepper sauce that is full of umami notes. Sadly the bun is less of a success. Six months ago I might have told you a different story, but the quality of bao in this city has dramatically improved in this city since then. This bun is dense and a little flat with none of the lightness I’ve now come to expect. Not even that stellar chicken can save it. Save for a brownie there is nothing here to dessert me so we call it a night.

Now I’ve timed this badly. It turns out that the residency is to finish at the end of this month, so it’s pointless giving this a score. Truth is I was a bit nonplussed by it. I’ve eaten Nikki’s food before and it was brave and articulate, whereas this was some good fried chicken and not much else. I’ll keep a keen eye out for his next move which will hopefully see this talented chef back in a permanent home, where I can open my wallet to him and not that massive gob of mine.

Planning on drinking as much wine as I did? A2B will get you home.