The Bluebell, Henley-In-Arden

This little blog of mine brings out different reactions in restaurants. Some are totally ambivalent to me being present in the dining room, others noticeably different when I start taking pictures and notes. Some don’t want me there at all. I’ve had chefs tweet me from the kitchen to tell me to eat my food before it goes cold, or be annoyed with me because I took the liberty of booking under a different name. Recently I received a phone call from a chef who told me to cancel the reservation I had with the restaurant he worked at because the new menu was, in his words, ‘shite’. Food blogs are a funny thing. Chefs often dismiss us as the underbelly of gastronomic society, but they clearly care way more than they let on. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy drinking with them so much: you’ll get no annoying over-excitement or smoke-blowing bullshit out of a chef; cooking all day for fake dietary requirements has beat that out of them.

I guess that a lot of this reaction stems from a fear (and dislike) of some untrained gobshite daring to criticise their craft and vision. I get that; I can’t handle people judging my Monopoly purchases, let alone my livelihood. But sometimes a rarity occurs. A chef will actively ask me to eat his food, to sling that massive nutsack over his (or her) shoulder and cook without fear of my opinion. Joe Adams did that and I respect him massively for it. I saw him at some awards which I can’t remember the name of and he asked when I was coming to eat at The Bluebell. I said soon and returned to polishing my award. Fast forward a year later when I’m sat in said pub having a glass of wine and he comes out of the kitchen to ask why I still haven’t been. He doesn’t want to give me a free meal; he just wants to show how good he is. It would take a further eight months and another polite ear bashing to finally get there. The man is persistent amongst other things.

It turns out that Joe has the ability to back up the confidence. From the beautifully quaint pub of low beams and lower lighting (apologies about the pictures), he delivered one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a while, turning out smart food that gently coaxes reaction without stepping outside it’s boundaries. The dishes tend to riff on a couple of flavour profiles at a time; nuanced yet homely. All technically competent and boldly seasoned. Fat scallops with a seared hat from brown butter could easily have been lost within the umami rich smoked potato puree and caramelised onions, had batons of fresh apple and a spritely chive oil lifted it all. Same with the chicken liver parfait under a drift of nuts and seeds. It needs the orange marmalade as a counterpoint. Both are impeccably balanced.

A chicken main has the breast cooked expertly to a crisp skin whilst avoiding drying out the meat. A fondant potato sits to one side with the less than conventional additions of puffed rice, coconut milk and a big tomato sauce spiced with loads of garlic, fenugreek, and chilli. From what, on the face of it, is a simple dish has complexities throughout; it may be rooted in Henley but its heart is in India. A hake dish takes top billing for the evening, with the puddle of shellfish bisque the highlight. It’s restrained in its approach, concise with every element warranting its place on the plate. It shows an egoless approach to the cooking, one where everything makes sense. We have desserts, though the wine was flowing a little too freely and I forgot to take pictures. There was a cheesecake and semifreddo from memory, nothing desconstructed and everything working properly. They are sweet, as desserts should be but seldom are anymore. The plates go back to the kitchen cleaned.

Service is friendly and professional, led by a chap called Johnny who knows the menu inside out. It’s easy to see why The Bluebell has gained the listing in the Michelin guide and the rosettes it has in the two years since it opened; it is approachable and refined, priced ideally for its location. I’m treated to dinner tonight by friends who live locally, though I’ll be back soon and won’t be requiring a chef to ask me.

8/10

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Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston

Once a week my Dad goes to see a covers band at his local pub. I’ve never been with him; I have no interest in seeing Fred Zeppelin, however good their version of Kashmir is supposed to be. I just don’t get the point. I want the real thing or I don’t want it at all. I don’t want to watch the simian stroll of a parka wearing Gallagher wannabe when there are two presently touring and doing a good enough job of murdering their own music. And I can’t be sure if Blobbie Williams is a tribute act or a tabloid attributed nickname. For all of the fake swagger and choreographed movements, they are nothing but homages to the real thing. Anyone can pout their lips, wear a sparkly jacket, and put on a mockney accent, but it’s nowhere close to seeing Jagger arch that back of his and thrust out the pelvis in the flesh. Any woman, man, or horse can put on a blonde wig. conical bra, and gash-flashing leotard but it doesn’t make you Madonna. In my younger years I wore cardigans and could play you the opening bars to ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, yet I never said I was Kurt Cobain. Or Lead Belly if you closed your eyes. Impersonators simply don’t have the magic of the real thing; they are imposters in dress-up.

I felt the same way about Italian food in Birmingham. We have Italian restaurants but none ever felt real to me; they are homogenized tributes to what we think is Italian food – a tour of an imagined Italy with dishes reconstructed for those delicate Anglicised palates of ours. Our ‘nduja has been stripped of the searing heat and offal that bangs down doors, to be replaced with a more polite neighbour that goes to bed at 9pm, whilst our carbonara has cream added because we are fed the lies that eggs have be completely cooked. This isn’t an issue; there is clearly a market for this, but I want the real Italy.

In a way Laghi’s Deli is more a project of love than business. Luca, the owner, comes from a family of restauranteurs back in Bologna and wanted to bring a Northern Italian slice of pizza back to Birmingham. And it is a resounding success, easily delivering the most authentic take on that cuisine I have eaten outside of it, backed up by a wine list that punches with hard-hitting reds and zesty whites. From the three starters we take it is the quality of the ingredients that shines through, nowhere more so than on a Caprese salad. As a dish it is a simple sum of its parts, yet here it speaks loudly of a real Italy; one that gestiticulates with every word. Everything is imported, from the young mozzerella to the olive oil that adds a peppery summeriness to a grey September evening. It may not have the best of carbon footprints, but frankly who cares when it tastes this good.

Our other two starters are big hitting. A parmesan cake with pancetta is an oozy umami bomb which cleverly shifts textures between a molten centre and crisp ham that guards its walls. It is a beautiful example of how when done correctly, this style of food doesnt need a handful of salt to get going; the seasoning is already embedded in the ingredients. A scallop the size of a baby’s fist is gratinated under breadcrumbs, served simply in its own cooking juices alongside a lightly dressed salad. At £7 for the special it feels too cheap, though they taint the perfectly cooked shellfish by leaving the less-than-perfectly cooked roe on.

For mains we take pasta, the hallmark of any Italian restaurant worth its dusting of parmesan. Yes they do pizza, but I can get great examples elsewhere. There is nowhere – I repeat, nowhere – that does good pasta anywhere in this brilliant city. Laghi’s is made fresh (rumour has it by Momma Laghi) and is properly lovely. We have egg and flour transformed into silky ribbons of tagliatelle with a loose ragu of beef that draws silence across the table, and parcels of ravioli that deliver verdant flavours of spinach and ricotta in a puddle of melted butter scented with sage. Oh, how I’ve waited for this moment. Even when the pasta isn’t made fresh it still trumps its competitors. The penne for the carbonara may be from a packet, but it is cooked to a careful bite that won’t have you screaming out the safe word. This is a real carbonara; one with salty guancialle ham and a sauce of warmed yolks that is mercifully cream free. It has been made by someone who understands the principles of the dish.

Desserts are a chocolate molten cake and an affogato. Both have good stuff going on, in particular the raspberry and gin sorbet with the cake, though I happen to have the sold out donuts on my mind for next time. A quick word on the service: I had heard murmurs about the service being occasionally poor, and, truthfully, this had put us off going. I can only comment on the evening we eat when it was faultless; dishes come out of the kitchen correctly and well-spaced, numerous orders for glasses of wine are swiftly taken and delivered. With mains hovering a little over a tenner, the bill for this would usually sit around £30-40 per head, which is super value, though we indulge in far too many dishes and drinks. Regardless, it was a great meal in presently the stand-out Italian offering, only missing out on the top marks because the menu feels a bit safe (being September I would have loved to have seen rabbit or wild mushrooms for that true Bologna experience), but this is just a small detail to a neighbourhood restaurant I can see us constantly returning to. Finally Birmingham has an authentic Italian that I can recommend. And without wishing to sound like an Etta James tribute act. At Last.

9/10

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Arch 13, Jewellery Quarter

In that massive head of mine I’ve been harbouring a piece on Arch 13 for some time. I would go in, pretty blonde in hand. We would take the bar stools on the left-hand side of the bar. Our order would be simple; all of the cheese and all of the meat. Sixty quid well spent. We would wash down this feast with wine. Loads of wine. Glasses of bright whites and Provençal rosé for my companion, bigger reds for me. We would get a bit drunk and Abi would give me the eyes to say I’ve had enough. It would be perfect.

But life isn’t a movie script, is it? Four months after it has opened and we still haven’t got around to it. Sure, we both go and sit on those stools, but it tends to be for a couple of drinks max. I’ve gone with friends, ordered a good bottle, a little cheese, and destroyed the competition at Connect 4. I’ve also collected a very tipsy girlfriend from there, her sat with a pissed grin at the bar, sipping on champagne and picking from a bowl of pork scratchings. It’s that type of wine bar; unstuffy and friendly. So not very wine bar-like at all.

The wines are brilliant. Of course they are. The wine shop that once encompassed the entire unit is still here, albeit caged into a space half of what it used to own. It’s from this shop, Connollys wine merchants if you’re asking, that Abigail Connolly curates the bar’s list. The choices by the glass are small but perfectly formed; the work of someone young enough to appreciate what the new generation of wine drinkers want, with a badge pinned to her blouse that confirms those choices are well considered. The recent list has a beautiful pinot noir by Pascal Marchand that we recently drank in Lyon, a perfumed Reisling with bags of acidity, and a Californian Chardonnay that is a true expression of a grape which deserves far more respect than generally given. A Portugese tinto sits at the lower end of the scale at about a fiver, whereupon the prices rise to a little over a tenner for a large glass of the better stuff. There is a selection by the bottle with the added bonus of an inhouse wine shop that applies a small corkage fee to drink in the bar. It’s the little things that count and they have the small details down to a tee here, right down to a succinct list of cocktails.

Now the food, because, y’know, that’s what’s expected of me nowadays. The reality is that people probably come here to drink wine and graze on food, as opposed to the opposite. And that’s a shame, for some serious thought has gone into the offering. The cheeses have all bases covered from an entirely UK sourced selection. They have the wonderful Maida Vale which I’ve only previously seen in Carters, cave aged cheddars, Alex James’ Blue Monday, and Oxford Isis, the world’s only middle class terror cell produced dairy product. I jest. Though it is the bomb. They do many more, but those are the ones I tend to stick to. They also do cured meats such as lomo, speck, and saucisson, along with a venison salami that might just be the ultimate partner to the pinot noir I mention above. Even the pork scratchings are bloody delicious. At lunch times they do a daily hot dish which was vegan chilli on the last day I went. I never ordered it; there was something in the name that gave me nightmares.

The soundtrack to all of this is a nigh on perfect blend of Bowie, Earth Wind and Fire, The Rolling Stones, and various other too-cool-for-school bands. It all makes for one of my very favourite places in Birmingham; a place where top class wine and quality food is equalled by friendly service in a welcoming and casual environment. This being a food blog, I don’t feel it right to score what is essential superior shopping. But please, take this as a recommendation, wine bars simply don’t get much better than Arch 13.

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Ox & Origin, Zero Waste Week, 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

I first found out about Zero Waste Week when my girlfriend told me I owed her sixty quid for the two dinners she had booked us in for at 1000 Trades. That’s how all good relationships work, isn’t it? With her charging me to fulfil her inner eco warrior needs on the two nights the diary said we’re free. I’m fine with it; I really like 1000 Trades and it’s for a great cause. We’re conscious about waste in our home. We recycle cardboard, tins, restaurant reviews, and socks. We never buy processed foods and try to ensure it never gets wasted. Stale bread gets blitzed up with garlic and stored in the freezer to top pasta dishes; chicken carcasses and vegetable offcuts boiled down and stored for soup bases. Without ever realising it, we’re already giving this Zero Waste lark our best efforts.

We do a Thursday evening dinner that is nice, if unspectacular, followed by a cocktail zero waste three course menu at 18/81 which has two superb drinks sandwiching a zombie which is merely good in comparison. Friday sees us back at 1000 Trades for the meal with Ox & Origin which is brilliant from start to finish.

It is not a meal for the faint hearted. This is a tour of the discarded bits of animal holding hands with company that can be plucked from a tree or hedgerow. A starter of pork jowl is subsidised with a little cheek meat. Both need love and hours of cooking to turn a working muscle into something special. The jowl is the star, all wobbly fat and layers of sweet meat, offset by lightly pickled plums and a burnt onion puree. It is brilliant.

A veal Chou Farci sees cabbage leaves stuffed with various organs of child cow. The dominant flavour is that of liver mixed with fattier cuts, a little pig’s brain used as an unctuous filler. A veal heart ragu is a little funky in flavour for my taste though I give it a go. The use of the calf meat is an important one; veal is no longer as controversial as it once was, though the lean nature of the meat means often a high proportion of the meat and all organs, bar the valued sweetbreads, are discarded. Beetroot both as salty crisps and wedges roasted in beef fat (I think) pins the plate down in earthy territory. A sauce made with elderberries and oxidised wine lifts it all whilst providing the acidity to cut through the dish.

Dessert shows serious technical skill. A buxom pannacotta has the teeter of a drunk lady in heels, made with the spent grounds from 200 Degrees coffee. With this is a sorbet of milk waste from the same coffee shop, and a bread tuile containing a cherry mousse. It is balanced and by far the evening’s most approachable dish. We demolish both plates in record time. It is at this point that Tommy from The Edgbaston turns up and quickly knocks out a zero waste cocktail using single estate rum, discarded bits of watermelon and some other stuff (I was eating; my ears were closed). I happen to love that man almost as much as his drinks. It’s delicious. More so when they refuse payment for it.

The above three courses were pre-paid to the sum of £25 each, and I drink a good amount of the beaujolais-style natural red that they sell too cheaply for £14 a carafe. It all made for a rather good night and we head back home to rave about it to anybody in ear shot. Zero waste is an important issue that needs to be addressed; whether it be food or usables, we bin far too much because of the entitled lives we lead. Good on everybody who pitched in across the city to show that we do care. For Ox & Origin it was also the chance to show themselves as a major talent. Rumour has it they are looking at a restaurant in Moseley. Let’s hope there is some truth in that.

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Ynyshir, August 2018

The morning after our dinner at Ynyshir we are back in the restaurant eating breakfast. Perched on the pass bench we can see the kitchen hard at work whist Marvin Gaye hums quietly in the background. The smell of bacon lingers in the air. The team are in a great mood, poking gentle fun at one another whilst poaching eggs and frying off the lamb patties, happy to engage in conversation despite the late finish and early start. It was during these exchanges that we discussed ambitions, with one chef saying that after Ynyshir he would only want to work at Nathan Outlaw; to learn fish in the same manner Gareth Ward had taught them meat. This statement only sunk in during the long drive back to Birmingham. In the same way Nathan Outlaw is the place to go for seafood, Ynyshir has become a meat mecca without ever labelling themselves as such. The treatment of animal – from the salt rooms through to the cooking – is like nowhere else. And the team here know that, describing the present feel in the kitchen as similar to ‘the Harveys days’ when a young Marco Pierre White ripped the arse out of cooking in this country, leaving a legacy of shit chain restaurants and ultra talented chefs such as Gordon Ramsey, Phil Howard, and Stephen Terry.

It appears that the association with Harveys may not be far off the mark. As of this morning, Ynyshir have leapt into the top 5 list of the Good Food Guide with Gareth Ward named Chef of The Year. It’s phenomal work for a kitchen that refuses to stand still. A couple of weeks back we saw this firsthand, perched high upon the chef’s pass seats for this, our fourth meal there in a year. I won’t run through all twenty-odd courses again, instead I’ll focus on the new dishes, or those that have improved. And a few favourites: it would be a shame to leave those out. What I will say from the top is that this was the best meal yet, a nigh on perfect riot of flavour that consistently hit the two star standard and occasionally the level above that. Ynyshir is worthy of a special trip. Everything about the place, from the rooms, to the mountain views, the firepit outside, the drinks programme, and especially the restaurant, has a certain magic about it.

After the ‘Not French Onion Soup’, the crispy duck leg with seasame oil, and the bread course starter procession, we get the first of the new dishes on tonights menu. Mackerel cooked under the heat lamps, in a puddle of fermented raspberry juice with the same fruit frozen, and a little freshly grated wasabi (you’ll get none of the dyed green shit here). I have a little issue in general with oily fish, though I really like the clever interplay between the acidic, the sweet, and heat. What follows this is the best thing I’ve eaten this year: crab katsu has picked white meat coated in a katsu sauce that is instanstly recognisable, yet so much better than the Wagamamas version you are now thinking of. All it needs is a soy dressing enriched by the shell, and a little puffed rice for texture. Perfection.

One of Gareth’s main skills is the construction of dishes that have instant conection with food memory. In a similar way that Heston links meals to book narratives or childhood, many here are instant riffs on takeaway dishes, or fast food. We get Char Sui pork which are cuts of slowly cooked pig belly that melt in the mouth, sat in a puddle of the cooking broth. There is duck kissed with hoisin sauce and blanketed in a slice of compressed cucumber. Both in theory could be ordered with a hangover and ate in front of the telly. Neither would taste as perfectly rounded as this. The Wagyu beef burger course is the ultimate Big Mac. You cant help but smile whilst eating.

The whipped foie course has been upgraded to a fermented bilberry juice that cuts through the richness even better than its predecessors, whilst a new dish of tomatoes with lardo is fresh and unuasually restrained for the kitchen. After this is a flurry of our favourite courses; Wagyu short rib with mushrooms, that swoonworthy garlic prawn, the deconstructed Caesar salad, the lamb rib that I tell everyone about, and the lamb with kombucha that is a Sunday roast with mint sauce. Claire has the cheese course because her eyes rule her body: I request a short break.

Sweet courses start with a sharp fermented raspberry slushie, followed by a fermented raspberry jam on toasted sourdough. Jam on toast. They should offer that at breakfast, too. The knockout custard from last time returns with fermented blueberries, the dessert courses slowly edging sweeter whilst still staying true to the ethos. We have the strawberry dessert that riffs on summer cup, the tiramisu (still the best dessert I think I’ve eaten), and finish on the Wagyu fat fudge. Four hours done to the vinyl soundtrack of Stone Roses, INXS, and Kings of Leon. I loved every second of it.

Dinner is a boozy one and there are a couple of courses I struggle to remember in lieu of the cocktails and three bottles of wine consumed. This is a birthday treat so I’m not seeing the bill on this occasion, though you should allow a couple of hundred each for dinner and wine, more if you stay over in the beautiful appointed rooms. Stay in the rooms, treat yourself. The fact is that Ynyshir has made me a worse food blogger over the last year; I should be out using this money to eat in far more varied places. But we don’t want to. Everytime the idea comes around to take a weekend treat, it is here that we discuss first and ultimately last. There is nowhere else like it. They are on to something special; I know it, as does Gareth and all of his team. The accolades 2018 have delivered thus far are just the start; this is a restaurant destined to go all of the way to the top.

good pictures by Nosh & Breks, rest by me

Little Blackwood, August 2018

In my usual frantic rush to write about anywhere decent first, I may have been a little hasty with my original review of Little Blackwood. For a start I decsribe the service as “kind and well meant, if a little raw”. Well you can scrap the raw bit from that now. I make note that the Asian influences that run through the menu, which, although still there, could be joined by flourishes of European or occasionally South American on what is a now distinctly British restaurant. Reading the first review back it’s clear there was potential which has been realised now for several months. Little Blackwood has transformed into a neighbourhood bistro perfect for its Moseley enviroment.

It helps that they change the menu in full every month, each one based on the success of the last. They have a firm understanding of what the customer wants, tailoring the dishes likewise. When we first came there was ‘steak if you want’, now it seems that beef is omnipresent, whether that be as a crispy salad starter or as sharing cote du beouf for two as main. The wine list, an initial bugbear of mine, is now an ass-kicking list of low to mid range beauties, joined by a carefully curated cocktail menu. The evolution has taken four months. On the Friday we first visit the dining room is pretty much empty; on this early evening Thursday visit they are turning tables away.

It helps that the food has got better and better and better. A hash of chorizo and black pudding is big and earthy, becoming an unrestrained party when the poached egg yolk is cut loose. A jus with the sweet and sour notes of tamarind turns the volume up to eleven rather than calms it down. On the flip of this is bruscetta where notes of garlic lurk somewhere between the dice of tomato and bread. On the side of this is burrata, smoked under the cloche the plate arrives in. It’s simple in practice with enough nuanced flavours cleverly hidden across it to keep fools like me interested.

The best bit of the meal here happens to be the best dish I’ve eaten at Little Blackwood. A supreme of chicken, I assume first cooked sous-vide and then finished in the pan, is all beautiful flesh and crisped, salty, skin. The adornments of tenderstem brocolli, chanterelles, and light-as-a-feather gnocchi are all it needs, with a jus of the cooking juices lightened with a touch of lemon juice. I don’t think this dish would have happened four months back, when the desire was to show technique and load the plate with elements. This is simple cooking, perfectly seasoned. Simplistic enough to fulfil a midweek dinner, special enough to warrant eating on a more lavish occasion. Also special was panfried hake with a paella of clams, rabbit, and chorizo. The paella is as good as any in the city, the rice accurately cooked and taking on all the rabbit stock. It looks and eats great. Dessert is still the deep fried baos. They are still great, in particular the banoffee that packs plenty of flavour.

Pricing has altered now to £24 for two courses, three for £30, and a good amount less at lunch. It’s a steal for the quality. We’ve been to Little Blackwood on numerous times since they opened, to eat a couple of courses, sometimes to just sit at the bar and soak up the atmosphere. It’s great seeing the growth, watching a passionate young couple develop a very good local restaurant. The people of Moseley are clearly lapping it up. Long may that continue.

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Wreckfish, Liverpool

Kickstarter as a business model is very effective. It cuts out the banks and those pesky interest rates. It is free and ultra effective PR. Somewhat more importantly, and often overlooked, it allows the prospective restauranteur to gauge how welcome you are. Nothing quite says ‘open me’ like a city full of people willing to pay in advance for their dinner. Make this vast amount of money in a short period of time and you not only have a shiny new restauarant, but one that has the interest of the country, begging to know what the secret to success is. Step forward Gary Usher; belligerent, shouty, sweary chef patron of the Elite Bistro group. I’ve been to a few of these now, so I can tell you that the key to success is twofold: first make the kind of neighbourhood restaurant that has menus where choice is impossible at a price that most people can afford. Secondly, make as much noise as possible online. Slag TripAdvisor and those who post on it, call someone a cunt, maybe even turn up at a butchers for a scrap and post pictures about it on Twitter. This approach works, that much is obvious.

Wreckfish started as a Kickstarter project, I know because the very pretty lady opposite who dined opposite me backed it to the tune of a ton. We’d kind of forgotten about the dinner for two it entitled her to until it was nearly too late, making a last minute booking at the pretty building on Seel Street, and jumping aboard a train filled with football fans intent on spoiling my morning G&T. Inside the restaurant the space is arguably the prettiest of the group; the large open kitchen to the left of the door a nice touch, the shades of grey and petrol blue smart and modern.

Having been a fanboy of Ushers (Gary; not the singer) food for some time, the menu is familar to me. We intentially stay clear of his classics; the parfait, or the slowly braised beef shiny with a heavily reduced sauce, and look to the bits of the menu that are new to us. We order a very fairly priced red and set to work. The foccacia is springy and delicious, though not as rich with olive oil as I recall. I save a couple of pieces for the starter of potato and leek soup that is thin and short on seasoning, though comes together a little more once the pancetta cream starts to merge with it. The other starter of cauliflower risotto is by now a famaliar trick, blitz cauliflower until they look like grains and cook in stock. The nuggets of the same veg cooked in vadouvan spice are lovely, as is the clever addition of puffed rice. It’s the highlight of the meal.

Mains mostly fail to deliver. A nicely cooked piece of stonebass is ruined by a basil flavoured broth that contains solid borlotti beans and more inept seasoning. And I’m sorry for the constant whining about salt, but with only pepper mills on the table there isnt much I can do about it. And it’s not like those awful Ducasse brasseries that intentionally keep it light; I’ve eaten the group’s food before, I know how bold it can be. A hulk of pork is just too generous in size, atop of a saffron risotto that has too much lemon juice so that it clashes with the slow cooked pig. That pork is lovely around the outer where the meat has caramelised, less so as you approach the bone. We have the parmesan and truffle chips purely out of greed that lack crunch.

Dessert raises the game, though not without its imperfections for all to see. Claire loves her pear and almond tart, but I cant get past the fact that the pastry has cracked and is effectively served as two pieces. Maybe I’m being silly, but in my mind it shows an arrogance to serve something that clearly isn’t as it is intended. The other dessert has Guinness ice cream, baked treacle, prunes, and peanuts. It’s very well balanced; heady and adult. Almost a grown up sticky toffee pudding.

Service was slick, and we are in and out in an hour. The bill, with that pre-paid dinner voucher and a chargeable bottle of wine, is just over £130, though you could shave 20% off that by going a la carte and not backing them on Kickstarter. This was a meal hard to love, the worst I have personally had from a group continuing to expand at a rapid rate. Not that they need our money, but we won’t be backing them anymore. After a train journey especially to eat here, I’ve completely lost interest.

6/10

Opheem; August 2018

My Dad was born in Aston and he is very keen for you to know that. I think he mentioned it about about a dozen times during a two hour lunch at Opheem recently. He says it to part justify and part bemuse himself at being in such a lavish dining room; his blue floral shirt showing a hint of silver chest hair to match his grey suit jacket, the ornate lights that sit central to the dining room reflecting off his tanned bold bonce. For a sixty-six year old widowed pensioner he’s owning it on his first outing to a restaurant that very much sits in the fine dining catergory. He generally doesn’t do this kind of thing; old Dave Carlo’s experience of Michelin stops and starts with a yearly M.O.T on his car. He is an obstinate creature of habit. Same pub every Friday. Same shop with those increasingly loud shirts. Same curry house with the same dishes everytime. Change doesn’t come easy at this age. But this year I’m committed to showing him the better side of things; he deserves it. Dad is both my biggest fan and biggest critic, he is the first to pick up the phone and tell me when I’ve not treated someone with the respect they deserve; the first to congratulate me when I’ve done well (unless it involves beating him). In the increasing parody that is my life he is my biggest constant and I bloody adore him for it. No matter how many I times I fall it is Dad that picks me up, dusts me off, and pushes me back to reality.

Opheem was in my mind the perfect fit for him: Aktar’s cooking has always for me been about family and generosity. Be it the portion sizes, the unstuffy service, or the nod to his own mother’s cooking, his food is egoless; designed with the diner’s pleasure in mind and never his own. I loved Opheem first time around – it is in my eyes the best opening of the year – and I was keen to say how the kitchen is progressing. Plus we have the added bonus of a new lunch menu which is absurd value at £22 for three courses. If Dad hates it then at least it is not going to be an expensive mistake. He doesn’t, of course. He bloody loves every second of it.

First the difficult bit. Try telling a pensioner whose Indian cuisine point of reference is Moghul in Acocks Green that a sperefied ball of tamarind and chilli water is going to be nice and watch his face. He eventually goes with it and is rewarded by the explosion of flavour that lingers long after the liquid dissipates. It’s properly clever stuff. He loves the pani puri that is layer upon layer of texture and spice, and even tries squid ink cracker with smoked cods roe and garlic. He quickly realises that the gulf between here and what he is used to is a huge one. The sweet potato bread appears with the lamb patè. I wait until he swipes the last of it the bowl before telling him those creamy jewels are brain.

I have mutton kebabs which are pucks of ovine and spice so smooth it is almost patè once you’ve broken through the delicately fried coating. The accompaniments of chopped tomato salad and yogurt mixed with mint are wry nods to the humble curry house. Dad had a dish derived from one of my very favourite things I’ve eaten this year. The ham hock samosa, once an element on the pork vindaloo main, is here the star. It has the same carrots roasted in anise, the carrot puree and the vindaloo puree. It is a beautiful piece of cooking that leaves Dad still talking about it one week after eating it when we meet again for beer and pool. Great food does that; it stays forever in the mind, outliving the eating and slowly morphing into a different beast that becomes a reference point that similar dishes will forever be judged by. I’m lucky to be there when my poppa is having that very moment.

Following an intermediary course of tamarind sorbet with sev and cucumber, we both have chicken for main. Thigh meat in a marinade pungent with herb, in a tomato and fenugreek sauce reminiscent of a certain chicken tikka masala. The chicken on both plates goes in record time, and I unashamedly ask for a jug of that sauce to put the rice and naan bread to use. Stained fingers and beard, the old man calls me classless. I hate to break it to him but I’m not the one wearing a brown belt with black shoes. Dessert is a pretty spiced custard with rhubarb ice cream and a fine dice of the barely sweetened fruit. It’s the only time Dad isn’t blown away. I eat both gladly.

There is an unfair association with lunch menus that the cheaper price means less effort. Whilst that is too often the case, it couldn’t be further from the truth at Opheem. Twenty two pound buys you nibbles, bread, four courses with sundries, and a view of one of Birminghams most talented chefs working tirelessly in his shiny new kitchen. The biggest compliment is given by my dining companion, who comfortably states that if my mother were alive she would want to eat here every night. Proof that Opheem isn’t just for those well versed in these type of surroundings, but for everyone. Even the old cantankerous bastard born in Aston.

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Burger Shop, Hereford

Given the previous night’s disappointment and that morning’s excess of booze on a distillery tour, our visit to Burger Shop was impulsive to say the least. But we are so glad we did. It was a proper burger experience, standing up to the better burgers I’ve eaten anywhere. They have an air of confidence here, the young team warm and professional, working from a menu that on paper looks small – it is – but in reality translates into a meal that never misses a beat. There is a lot to be said for conciseness; it shortens the margin for error.

Given that the evening’s dinner would take four hours and consist of twenty or so courses, we keep it simple. Beer for me, juice for the good lady, two burgers; one pulled lamb, the other essentially a bacon cheeseburger. The burger has genuine firework moments; loosely packed and properly beefy. There is a brioche bun that holds its shape throughout, and the usual accompaniments joined by dill pickles, and a mustard mayo, both of which provides clever acidity. The pulled lamb has shoulder meat that still retains texture, with pickled onions, charred red pepper, and celeriac ‘slaw. It’s delicious, if not quite as special as the beef.

And that’s it. £30 shorter and with the lingering sadness that we chose not to eat here the evening prior. Burger Shop is ace, taking the best of the local produce and putting them to the best of their use with the minimum of fuss. Many people told us it was here we should be eating in Hereford. If you too find yourself in this pretty city, you should heed their advice.

8/10

Beefy Boys, Hereford

I’ve come to the conclusion that Birmingham does two things better than any other city in the country; cocktails and burgers, both of which I think is driven by talent and competition that we have here in the Greatest City In The WorldContinentCountryWest Midlands Birmingham. Take the second city, London, for example; I love the negronis at Bar Termini, the ultra expensive martini at The Connaught, and the quirkiness of Calloy Callah, but I’d rather be sat drinking cocktails in The Edgbaston, 18/81, and Nocturnal Animals (eventually). And as for their burgers, yes, they might have Bleecker but dont even try to compare the likes of MeatLiquor, Honest, and Burger Bear to The Meat Shack, OPM, and Flying Cows, because I wont stand for it. It is the two areas where we have geniune competition and exceptional talent driving the best out of one another.

I can’t tell you much about the cocktail scene in Hereford, though I do know that they take their burgers seriously. It’s why we are here. Beefy Boys are the originators of this, multi award winning like yours truly, except they have a coverted Best Burger in The World award from 2015 instead of a cynical piece of glass handed out by one set up by a PR company. It would appear that these awards have paid off; the restaurant is a large glass fronted new build in amongst the chains. Inside both floors have well-spaced tables and some of the nicest front of house I can recall meeting who offer a complimentry cocktail as its my birthday. We order a lot of food; more than is sensible for two people, resulting in a bill that is in no way reflective of an average spend.

And then, well, I dont know what went wrong. What we had was not the best burgers in the world, or even Hereford for that matter. For a region known for the quality of the cow, it is the meat that I have the biggest issue with. From both the beef burgers the patty is a little wet, undercharred, overcooked, and underseasoned. It is a burger with the mute button on, the only flavours coming from the the toppings. A Rude Boy is better than the Hay Boy special due to the balance of chilli heat being spot on, compared to that special with ‘nduja that is possibly the most disappointing use of my favourite ingredient I have come across. What I find most weird is that for all of my bugbears on the patty the chilli topped fries are great; the beef flavour robust and accurately seasoned. It makes little sense.

A chicken burger would be the lowpoint of the meal. The meat has completely dried out, the advertised buffalo sauce not great, and the blue cheese barely present, if at all. The less said about it the better. The deep fried mac and cheese balls would be the best thing we ate, full of flavour and geniunely very good. It’s just you know the meal has been a let down when the highlight is a side dish.

So three disappointing burgers and two good sides. Throw in a couple of cocktails and a well warranted service tip and you end up with a bill of just over £60. A lot of money for burgers, more so when the meal is a massive dissapointment. I can imagine that at some point Beefy Boys really did have the best burger; one that made the most of this wonderful aged cattle, bringing it to life with robust seasoning, high heat and a little steam. Be it for what ever reason those standards appear to have slipped. Over a brief twenty four hours Hereford proved to be a great city. It is a crying shame that Beefy Boys happened to be the low point.

5/10