Asian

Ngopi, Birmingham

Remember Modu? You are lucky if you do. The slow burn restaurant on the edge of town slowly gathered a reputation for uncompromising authentic Korean food from an ageing lady who spoke little English and her daughter. Everything was made in house; fermentation was used to full effect, sweet potato transformed into transparent noodles, chicken wings painstakingly deboned and rolled. It was unlike anything else in the city. Word slowly got around and they got busy. Opening hours extended and just as the success they deserved started to come, Mother Modu fell ill. The heartbeat of the restaurant was unable to cook and they never reopened. Modu is one of the saddest stories of recent years for the hospitality in this city. They deserved far more.

In a way Ngopi reminded me of Modu. Of how the Saturday lunch was mostly full of those familiar with the cuisine, and how the majority of westerners would pop in to look at the menu and then leave. The food is Indonesian, a cuisine I know little about other than rendang and nasi lemak, neither of which feature on the menu. Prices are kind; twelve dishes with nothing over a fiver.

Lets get the big one out of the way first. The reason I’ll be coming back is for the Batagor, a dish that could easily become a cult classic. Fried prawn wontons mingle with fried tofu and meatballs under a blanket of peanut sauce. Every forkful is a lottery; one where it could be bland tofu, dense beef, or sweet prawn meat, all in a satay-style sauce that grows in prowess. On the side is treacle-like ketcap manis and an umami fueled sambal, both of which get thrown in to the mix. The result is a plate of food unlike any other I have tried before. It is worth a visit for this alone.

I probably won’t order the Indomie again, but I think my girlfriend may. The combination of noodles, grated cheese, poached egg, crispy onions, and corned beef is a bit student dinner for my liking, and melted cheese on noodles is something I’ll never fully get on board with. Instead I’ll take more of the Martabak, which is essentially a Findus crispy pancake, and really gets going with a lick of the chilli sauce. Likewise I’ll gladly have more of the Bakwan, which is kind of rosti/bhajii hybrid of vegetables. It’s greaseless and bright in both colour and flavour. We order prawn and chicken dumpling that get eaten before I take a picture. They are good as far as dim sum go.

The bill for all of this is £30, including two very nice cups of Indonesian coffee. Look, I have never been to Indonesia and I know very little about the cuisine. I can’t tell you that it is the greatest of it’s kind because I don’t know that. But what I can tell you is that for the first time since Modu I felt fully immersed in a style of food that was both new to me and extremely tasty. It might not all be as great as the Batagor, though at fifteen quid a head anyone with an interest in food should be paying it a visit to see for themselves.

8/10

A2B got me here, just like they always do

Ngopi don’t have a website per se, though you can find them on Dale End

Tiger Bites Pig, Birmingham

Without wishing to be too hyperbolic, I had decided that Tiger Bites Pig was a new favourite of mine from the very first mouthful. It was a bao with fragrant poached chicken, a thick and pungent chilli oil, spring onions, ginger, and a shard of chicken skin roasted with sesame seeds. It was pleasingly salty with a little heat and acidity; the work of a kitchen that understands how to pack flavour into three mouthfuls whilst still retaining the dominant flavour of the chicken. The bao was textbook in flavour; light and fluffy, with any inherent doughiness left long ago during the proving and subsequent steaming. It was absolute delight. I swivel around from the stool in the window and eye up the tiny room for which the open kitchen takes up almost half. They have more chicken skins on the prep counter, sitting there like pork scratchings in a pub. It makes me long for more of them to smear inch-thick with the chilli sauce.

The menu is concise and inviting from which we order three more baos and a rice bowl. Pork belly bao has deep fatty notes, loads of umami and the pleasing crunch of peanuts, which makes the one with duck breast and XO sauce look way too polite in comparasion. A bao with braised short rib and cured egg yolk draws smiles all around. It is reminiscent of scooping up the bottom of a casserole with shit white bread. The tangles of meat dissipate in the mouth, whilst the bottom half of the bun becomes saturated with cooking juices lifted with a little vinegar. The addition of the jammy yolk only adds to the fun.

Despite being less than a month old it appears that some have questioned the value of baos at the price of between £4.50-£5.50 each. I can’t get on board with that, though those looking for more bao for their buck should ditch the buns and have a rice bowl. At seven quid it is a colossus. We have more of the pork belly, greens, hot and cold pickles, aubergine, and another of those absolute filth egg yolks, all on more rice than is sensible for two people, never mind one. This is the not the order for the carb-considerate. We take the leftovers home and still don’t finish it.

So I liked Tiger Bites Pig. I liked it a lot. It takes skill to create bao this good, skill that has thus far eluded anyone in this city, including the substitute teacher in Stirchley. Our bill hits thirty quid for the above with two soft drinks, though you can add a bit on to this is you indulge in the Japanese spirits or beer. Either way it is a bargain that I will indulge in as often as possible. Tiger Bites Pig is another quality addition to an already bulging independent scene, which in time could prove to be the best one so far.

9/10

Transport provided by Bao-minghams best, A2B

Little Blackwood, Moseley

I am familiar with the dining room of Little Blackwood. It is a space I know well, like my work desk and the contents of my drinks globe. For much of the past 18 months I have spent time and money within its walls, under its previous guise as Cheval Blanc. I hold no shame in my love for its previous incarnation; I drank so frequently at it’s bar I had a stool with my name on, and I mourned its loss in a piece for a regional newspaper when it announced its closure. It gave me some of the very best months of my life. But I’m not one for legacies. The past is just that, a memory, one that slowly dwindles away like the contents of my wine glass. Little Blackwood is now here, tweaking the interior with new lights and mismatched furniture. The sense of deja vu may still be present in the wall murals and turquoise booths, but a new spirit is alive and present.

Now stepping away from my fatty liver and putting my food cap firmly on, I think that what sets chef Ben Taylor apart is a firm sense of identity, one that frequently veers to the East, doing so with purpose and confidence. And whilst the cooking occasionally takes a small misstep, it quickly corrects itself with a stride in the right direction. There is very little about the food here that is delicate; the dishes thud with spice applied through modern technique. We would eat three solid courses each but only after an amuse that fails in its intention of setting out his style. A prawn kissed with the lightest of heat on spiced lentils, with a piece of popcorn dusted in curry powder. The daal was good, the prawn of decent quality with the intestinal tract still in place, which is crap. The popcorn is misjudged – have you ever pined for prawn popcorn? Me neither. They are two textures that should never go together.

And then it all gets good. A mushroom and lemongrass broth is poured tableside into a bowl containing pickled onions, a smoked onion puree, and mushroom wontons. The broth is heady and deep in flavour with the suggestion of mirin lurking in the background. The wontons have the texture of a man who has folded a million of these before. A similar success was had with crab macaroni cheese, rich and molten, with the best bit a croquette of the more pungent brown meat. The balance of crustacean and dairy is a tricky one to get right. He nails it here.

A chicken ballottine main shows strong technique across the plate. The rolled breast meat stuffed with a delicate mousseline that is accurately seasoned and poached. A California roll on the side is not only a playful way of getting carbohydrate on to the plate, it also allows the chef to bring a little wasabi into the mix. It is this, along with a ginger gel and a jus flavoured with sake, that makes the plate sing, even if the pak choi has been show a little too much cooking time. On the flip we have a hefty short rib of beef that relies on classic French technique and no Eastern flavours. The meat is cooked until the bone slides cleanly away from the protein, with a Jerusalem artichoke puree and thick baton of carrot halved lengthways. The very best thing on the plate, indeed that we try all night, is the potato Anna, which is what happens to sliced spuds when you trust them in the company of butter for a long time. These have taken on the best bits of the cow, too, perhaps for being a shelf to the short rib whilst cooking. I don’t bloody know. What I do know is I dream of the day when I can sit on a stool and order a bowl of these potatoes, a good bottle of wine and some of the baos for dessert. Those bao, I’ll get to them now.

Dessert is, you may have guessed, bao, those oriental milk buns usually steamed, though here deep fried to a donut-like consistency. We take three because that particular ratio saves me two quid on the usual £4 price tag, and because I am a greedy bastard. All are very good; the banana and salted caramel, the peanut butter and jelly, and the blackberry and apple. Lovely concise bits of dessert, unlike anything else in the city, and perfect for a one man kitchen operation like here. No doubt others will try to copy it and good for them. I’ll read about it on Twitter whilst sat at the bar here with a bowl of potato Anna, three bao, and a bottle of Nyetimber. I may or may not be on my own. A man has needs and this particular man has a girlfriend not very good at sharing.

Service is kind and well meant, if a little raw. A broth is quite difficult to eat with just a knife and fork. But I liked it here, quite a lot actually. It seems an instant fit to the area, a casual bistro where a meal for two could be had for around £40 a head with wine. At that price point they can expect to see a lot of my business. Cheval Blanc is dead, long live Little Blackwood.

8/10

Chung Ying Central, Birmingham

I’d like to think that my belly is the base of my knowledge. That with every shunned gym visit for a meal with friends that I am learning, little-by-little, more about the cuisine on the plate. Over time I have become well versed in the layering of spices of Indian curries and the balance of sugar, salt, spice, and acidity at the heart of Thai cooking. One country whose food I know very little about is China, partially due to the local Cantonese being relegated to our default takeaway, so when well-travelled friends of ours said they fancy some Dim Sum for dinner I took it as an opportunity to differentiate between Har Gow and Chiu Chow.

Of all the places to go for Dim Sum, Chung Ying Central seemed the obvious choice. From the third branch of the long established Chung Ying group they claim to serve the best Dim Sum in the city. Never mind pigeon-holing into it just the city or small dumplings, I would go so far as saying it is some of the best Chinese food I have ever eaten, though how seriously you wish to take that depends on how much you trust a man whose hangover meal is curry sauce and chips in a tray. All of the dishes we ordered sang of authenticity; a bold move in a country that has basterdised the food of every nation to suit our own primitive palette.  Every Dim Sum dish was a success, from the Chiu Chow’s translucent skin with a lean minced pork perked by rice wine and ginger, to the beef packed with ginger and spring onion.  These steamed pieces have a texture that may not to be everyone’s liking.  Its their loss.

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They do street food equally well; Char Sui buns are little pillows of rice flour buns, hiding long braised pieces of unctuous pork belly that call out for regular revisits.  Crisp spring rolls filled with curried chicken is reminiscent of the roadside snacks we purchased for pennies on a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh.  Here, at £4.00 for a substantial portion, they are not much more and are far superior.

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Yuk Shung with coarsely minced lamb is full of umami notes and aromatics.  The meat has bite in all the right places and is quickly piled high on to crisp sheets of lettuce which soon disappears from the table. A wonton soup had a stock deep with shellfish bones, soured with vinegar and tempered with soy.  The prawn and pork dumplings with good flavour and substance whilst never making the dish too heavy.

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A couple of mains are ordered because we are greedy and also to satisfy my partners curiosity of whether or not Chung Yings chicken in blackbean sauce lives up to the dish she orders weekly as a takeaway.  It does.  The chicken is of higher quality, the sauce more complex.  She scrapes the plate clean.  Had we not been with friends she probably would have licked it clean.  Crispy chicken with salt and chilli is perhaps too restrained; it would be nice to see this with the brakes taken off.  Dishes like this should leave a mark on the soul, whereas this was a gentle hug of heat.

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With a bill that works out at approximately thirty quid each, including beers and a cocktail or two thrown in for good measure, Chung Ying is exceptionally good value.  It transports the true essence of Cantonese cooking from China Town into the heart of the city centre, never flinching from its roots for fear of alienating its cliental.  Our dining companions had not long returned from Hong Kong where they were fortunate enough to eat the very best Dim Sum the city could offer.  Their opinion of Chung Ying Central?  “We’ll be back”.  That tells you everything you need to know.

8/10
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MinMin Noodle Bar, Birmingham

Soon I am off to Vietnam for a well earned holiday. For three weeks we plan to do a whistle-stop tour of Hanoi down to Phu Quoc, with stops in all of the usual places and a seventeen hour train ride thrown in for good measure, just because her-indoors knows how much I despise train journeys. With any luck I will return bronzed ready for our one week of Summer, with a cheap suit barely holding its shape and two stone lighter due to the inevitable food poisoning. I will throw myself into the local cuisine and let it do its worst. Onwards and upwards. Inward then probably quickly outward.

And yet, despite the holiday rapidly approaching, I am still to try authentic Vietnamese food. I read up the staples and familiarised myself with a few recipes online: Pho mostly, which is in the most basic form noodles in a broth made from pork stock. I appealed on social media for a good Pho; one friend offered his mothers services whilst another suggested MinMin, a lucid coloured cafe at the back of Birmingham’s Arcadian. If you’ve read this from the top you will know which option I took; after all the post isn’t titled The Home of Trung’s Mother.

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MinMin is a canteen-esque expanse of lime green and white glossy plastic. It is deceptively simple, which is more than can be said of the menu; a vast bounty of dishes with pictures for the more usual offerings and just words for the less enticing pigs ears and chickens feet. We started with chicken spring rolls that avoided both greasiness and any real flavour. It was a subdued start that needed the sticky chilli dipping sauce to some add punch and heat. Mixed skewers came coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried, the pick being a large juicy prawn, opaque in the centre. There was another of a white fish that neither we nor the waitress could recognise and some veg that included a clumpy slice of red onion.

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Crispy squid was well executed with the batter offering a little yield and the cephalopod still tender, the dish benefitting from the extra seasoning from the noodles dressed lightly in soy. A giant bowl of spicy broth was filled with noodles, pork belly and roast duck. The broth was key; the lingering heat eventually giving way to a delicate meatiness which found its way onto every strand of noodle. The cubes of pork belly were tender with crispy shards of skin; a treat, which is more than can be said about the duck.  I feel bad for leaving any animal unconsumed, especially duck, but I am not going to put my dental plan at risk by chowing down on a mixture of gristle and bone.

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Twenty minutes into the soupy noodles I gave in, leaving enough in the bowl for at least another person and meaning that dessert was well out of the question.  In my pre-conceived mind I wanted to love MinMin; it came recommended by people I trust to offer a style of food I am not massively au-fait with.  Shamefully I have used Wagamama as a reference point, with the food here being no better than there. Let’s hope that Vietnam fares a lot better.

6/10

Minmin Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon