Birmingham

The Wilderness, October 2018

We arrive to the opening bassline of Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’, the long galley restaurant of black floors and black walls, black tables and black chairs lining both sides of the room. At the bottom is a prep station where chefs have been freed from the confines of the kitchen to shape the tartares and tarts that would kick-off this lunch. As the final note of Kurt Cobain’s guitar fades away we are given a sparkly gold menu whilst the naughty version of ‘God Save The Queen’ rips through the speakers. It is an unconventional start, though we expect nothing less from a man whose previous incarnation had a tree in the dining room and whose forthcoming new venture features a warped afternoon tea based on the All-American harbinger of body issues, Barbie.

The last time I was here was at the old place. It got me all excited by refusing to answer to type whilst still retaining a link to the nature that sat at the forefront of Nomad, Claridge’s initial restaurant that changed it’s name when some Yanks got a little shouty with the legal notices. That link to nature is no more, replaced by a brash and louder approach; one that spanks your arse rather than wipes it with a dock leaf. Dishes are tighter in execution; presentation cleaner. Version 2.0 should not be compared to the old in the same way that way that I shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the city’s other ‘food bloggers’. It is carving its own niche, one that occasionally ends up in the newspaper for the wrong reasons. Something I know nothing about.

We get nibbles of raw wagyu bavette shaped into neat cylinders on chickpea crackers that have more than the whiff of a Big Mac about them once the crack-like gherkin ketchup kicks in, and the shortest of pastry casings holding a glorious almalgamation of pumpkin and smoked cheddar. A pumpkin pie, if you will. We take a prettily presented venison tartare where the meat fights for attention with roasted beetroot, pickled shallots, wasabi mayonaise, and can only just be heard. A quick word on the drinks pairing; if given the choice forgo the usual to take these – they stand as the most imaginative and successful pairings I have ever tried, anywhere. The plum and green chilli cocktail with this venison was not only delicious but sat perfectly with this course and the next; a crispy oyster boldly seasoned with tabasco, a punchy aioli, and puffed bits of potato seasoned with smoked paprika. The flavours in the opening two courses are massive. There is no gently easing you in here.

On paper duck teriyaki, foie gras, and pineapple left me drooling, so I was a little disappointed when it was my least favourite course of the afternoon. There was little wrong with it though it wasn’t as cohesive as the other courses, with a lengthy bitter finish I think from the powder of mustard leaf. Claire ate all of hers and half of mine so perhaps its just my jaded palate and miserable demenaour. We’re back on track with a tranche of plaice, so perfectly cooked it practically begged to reveal itself at the mere sight of a fork. What impresses me most about this is the balance; the mushrooms giving an almost surf and turf to the dish without the need for meat. The chimmichurri that coats the top of fish gives the dashi broth an extra layer of light as the flakes bob like jetsam.

The next two courses are special. First up is ‘N.A.F.B Quail’ which I understand to mean ‘Not A Fucking Balti’. Now go wash your mouth out, Alex. The quail is gently cooked with crisp skin but the real fun is elsewhere. A butter sauce that grows in stature in the mouth, puffed wild rice for texture and the samosa to end all samosas. A golden parcel of happiness, filled with braised leg meat and lentil dhaal. This is the best samosa I can recall eating, helped by a deep puree of date and tamarind. Another Fucking Samosa, Please (or A.F.S.P if we are to talk the same language). The following course of guinea fowl and celeriac is the same story: the breast is lovely, as are the various bits of celeriac, but the star sits to one side of the plate. A chou farci of forced meat wrapped in a fermented cabbage leaf, topped with hazelnut pesto and a disc of autumn truffle. It has it all. Pure heaven.

Our transition into the sweet side starts with chocolate speculoos sandwiching peanut ice cream and a centre of salted caramel. You filthy bastards, I love it. We move onto an elegant yogurt ice cream with fig leaf tuille, honey, and blueberries, paired with the most delicious take on a bellini, laced with honeysuckle and peach. Astonishingly good and our pick of the drinks. We conclude the meal with boozy ‘rummy bears’. It’s yet more playful adventure. It must be fun working here.

The bill arrives to the final crescendo of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chains’ and we note that we hardly have noticed any of the music in the last hour. And that there is the magic of The Wilderness. For all of the drama of the interiors and playlist, the attention grabbing star turns are left to the plate. The star parts of the meal – that chou farci and hazlenut pesto, the ice cream sandwich, the drinks pairings, and that samosa – are as good as anything you’ll have in the city. Sure it doesn’t always feel at complete ease with itself but that is part of the fun. It’s bold and eclectic, edge of the seat stuff that sits right on the boundary of bonkers and genius. There is nowhere in Birmingham remotely like here, and that level of bravery should be both admired and supported. This meal was even better than the last. It all sets it up rather nicely for Nocturnal Animals to open next month. I can’t wait to see how they progress.

The Wilderness

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Pictures by Nosh & Breks

The Church, Jewellery Quarter

The Church is a bloody good boozer that by day has the best roof terrace I have been to this side of Soho House NYC, and at night slinks back into a space filled with a good looking crowd looking for merriment and additional bed post notches. It is the embodiment of cool; a place for excessive leather clothing and facial hair, where Birkenstocks with socks are admired and not sneered at. The bar is a handsome blend of booths and victorian tiles, whilst the eyes of the staff show that they know how to party way better than you ever will. It is almost impossible to dislike The Church, but that doesn’t mean I musn’t try.

Because despite the cool attitude it portrays, something was clearly amiss on our recent visit. For a venue that garners much love locally with the food, it was off-key and not memorable in any way. The menu is pizza-led and we take two of these with an additional sandwich to bulk out this review like a sock down the pants. That sandwich, a loose take on a croque monsieur, is arguably the best thing we eat. The cola ham inside tastes mercifully unlike the fizzy drink, glued together with stringy mozzarella. On the outside is a kind of rarebit topping with a tangy cheese and too much mustard. It’s nice, in the same way that spending Christmas Day with your slightly racist nan is.

It is the pizza bit I don’t understand. I’ve had them under the same banner at food festivals and these don’t resemble those. The sourdough base is less pliable and a little overcooked, the tomato sauce unremarkable. The toppings are all over the shop. One has so much merguez sausage on all we can taste is anise, whilst another has chicken fighting with double the amount of pickled onions. The chicken loses. At over a tenner a go they are not great.

We don’t bother with dessert because we have a box full of pizza slices to eat at home. They don’t improve there. Given the people I respect who tell me how good the food at The Church is, I can’t help but feel disappointment. Something wasn’t right, and in a city that contains the brilliant pizzas at Baked in Brick and Otto, that means a recommendation to eat here from me is impossible.

6/10

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Pint Shop, Birmingham

Ten minutes after checking in on Facebook, my phone is red hot with direct messages from chefs, restaurateurs, and industry types, all asking the same thing: is Pint Shop really that good? I can’t remember the last time a new opening generated such hype, especially given that the offering is essentially beer and pub food. Yet it has; stirring up the Twitterati with pictures of scotch eggs, and those more knowledgeable with an all-star line-up of front and back house teams poached from the premium local establishments. The early signs were good, backed-up on the dull Tuesday night when we dine. I leave and respond to them all: Yes, it really is that good.

But before I go into detail about my dinner, a sense of perspective is required. For all of the hype and overexcitement, Pint Shop is not some mythical beast that is going to solve all of the world’s problems. It is not going to reinvent gastromony in Birmingham or stop Brexit. It is not even new as a concept to the city; in fact there is a similar place 148m away that does lots of beers, pub food, and has a scotch egg as good as here. So lets hold to those knickers before accidents start to happen. What it is though is the best of its type: those affordable low-mid range places affordable enough to eat at every night, or just pop into the bar for a pint and a snack. It excels at smart service and occupies a handsome building, with a menu that reads nearly as good as it eats. We find it hard to find fault with anything. It’s slick and everyone knows their stuff despite this being the last session in a soft launch period.

Now, those scotch eggs. The bar and dining room menus both have a different one, and we try both because I’m a greedy and demanding man. And those are just my good points. They are excellent, both cooked to jammy yolks which try to hold their place in the centre of the egg before giving up and making a slow stagger to the sanctuary of the paper underneath. Of the two I happen to prefer the one from the bar menu that tastes of pork with pops of fennel anise, though Claire makes her play for the more dense onion bhaji egg that hides the pig flavour a little deeper under the spicing. We conclude that both are winners in their own right. Be greedy and demanding. Have both. Another starter has roasted beets with a quenelle of cheese curd and lineseed cracker. It feels and looks like the opening course in a much smarter resturant. The beets tender and sweet, with a glossy shine like Anne Diamond. They bleed prettily on to the plate with just a little peppery oil for company.

There is much to be excited about with the mains. They have a dirty burger that is true to it’s name, leaking burger sauce and bacon jam down the brioche bun and fingers, before eventually letting the beefy patty flavour come through in abundance. Another main has pork belly that is braised overnight, transforming the roll into unctous blend where it becomes impossible to tell where the meat and fat layers once were. The skin of the pig has been blanched and then shocked in hot oil, taking the crackling into pork puff territory. Florets of cauliflower are charred, others turned into a silky puree bolsted by yeast. A glossy reduction of the cooking liquor pops with capers and plenty of black pepper. It’s a wholesome plate of food for those who crave the comfort of a Sunday roast everyday. I’ve just noticed that this pork is available as part of their Sunday roast. I’m a genius.

The tandoori chicken flatbread requires a paragraph of it’s own. We reach it after sharing five courses and instantly wish we’d saved more room. The flatbread is the vehicle for what looks like a quarter of a chicken, ruby red in marinade and perfumed spices. Underneath is pickled cabbage cut with mustard and onion seeds that make it almost sauerkraut-like, a fiery hot sauce from which I swear I detect gochujang, and a mint mayo that has dill and coriander in to bolster the freshness. All of this topped with a handful of toasted almonds. It is a monster, and a good value one at that, coming in at £12. I love the nod to the spices ingrained in Birmingham’s culture, even if I am aware that it is also on the menu at one of the other two less diverse Pint Shop locations. It is the most complete dish we try; the one that will top my orders on frequent future visits.

Desserts are described to us as more homely, though there is no letting up on technique. We try the peach melba sundae and lemon meringue fool. The poached peaches in the former steal the show, bringing out the very best in the sweet fruit whilst still maintaining a little bite. The latter has delicate meringues crowning layers of lemon sorbet and curd. A lovely refreshing way to finish a meal.

We eat too much and dip into the beer and gin lists, for which they have plenty. This being a soft launch with 50% off we struggle to nudge over the £50 mark with too much food, though I would suggest that you allow about £30 each for dinner with drinks and much less for a fleeting bar snack visit. I usually loathe judging somewhere during a soft launch, though Pint Shop has hit the ground running and fully warrants this score. It is a great addition to the city; a place that oozes confidence from pass to table. Everything we ate banged with flavour, at a price point that will see us return time over. Pint Shop may not be filling the imaginary void that some will have you believe is there, but is has substantially raised the game for its competition. You’ll find me at the bar for a pint of the good stuff, demolishing a bite to eat.

9/10

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Pictures by Nosh and Breks

Mowgli, Grand Central, Birmingham

I think it was the keema curry that sent me careering over the edge. I was sat alone, sipping on my Estrella whilst forking out huge clumps of tepid lamb mince from the silver tin. Once someone had caught wind of the sadness in my eyes they would go on to tell me that these balls are normal. They are not, I tell them, they have occurred because the meat hasn’t been broken up enough during the frying process, and anyway, it is still cold. They apologise for me not enjoying and depart to a different table. Minutes later someone else is over, probably because they’ve cottoned on to the fact that all might not be well with the guy eating alone and taking pictures of his dinner. Would I like another lamb keema curry? No. Would I like to try a different lamb curry? Okay, though I needn’t have bothered.

This all took place in Mowgli, the latest in a long list of Indian street food type places to hit Birmingham, and very possibly my least favourite of them all. I took exception from the first steps into the restaurant, where the light is set to a year-long winter with the mood to match. There are empty jars which line the walls and a row of tables visible from the outside that have swings for chairs. It is an interior where Instagram has been given as much consideration as practicality. The menu, too, has that infuriating speech of chip butties and bombs, with a tiffin that is a ‘food roulette’ of ‘meat, veg, and carb jeopardy’. I order this, hoping that one of the four dishes contains the bullet.

Brushing aside the barely warm lumps of sheep that is the returned house keema, the other three quarters of the stack contain rice, ginger chicken, and a ginger and rhubarb dhal. The roulette must love ginger and hate me. The rice and ginger chicken are okay, the latter of those warming with okay meat, and spicing that sits in the boring middle section between elegant and crude. The dhal is a horrible, acrid thing with lentils cooked to a mush normally associated with God’s waiting room, or worse, a bingo hall. Nothing has the delicate touch of someone who understands spice. I honestly prefer the food of my Indian-obsessed, cookery school taught, girlfriend.

The replacement lamb curry arrives within seconds of them taking the keema away, giving the suspicion that the food has been cooked a long time ago and kept warm in bain-maries. It has a heavy dose of anise and not much else, with lamb that would work the tightest of jawlines. The additional side of puri breads are usually one of my favourite things. Here they are greasy and heavy in texture. Much of what was ordered remains when I ask for the bill which arrives with both a service charge and charity donation. How very kind of me.

As I pay the thirty-odd quid my mind wanders out of the doors to the Indian Streatery one hundred metres away. It was here, a couple of weeks ago, that we ordered a mini-feast of smokey bhartha, a methi chicken laced with fenugreek, chicken pakora burgers, home style curries, and chaats. All of it a million miles away in class to the food served here. Mowgli may have the aura of a heavily-backed, fast expanding empire, but it is missing the beating heart. It feels contrived; a concept with the sole purpose of rolling out and selling on. I can’t be a part of that, not when there is a family doing it so much better around the corner.

5/10

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Nando’s, bloody everywhere

I was discussing dinner with my girlfriend the other night. “Where do you want to eat?”, I asked. “Nando’s”, she said. I tell her I don’t want to eat in Nando’s, but she does, so we compromise and go to Nando’s. It’s how all sucessful relationships work, I’m told. Plus it can’t be that bad, right? I mean Ed Sheeran and Example wrote a song about it and those two are the height of cool. And it’s always full, with the queue extending out of the door of the Bullring branch on the afternoon we go. Everyone loves a cheeky Nando’s. Except me, who hasn’t been to one in over a decade despite living on the stuff in my late teens.

I feel old just by being here. It’s not the clientele who don’t know better, or the torturous method of ordering at a till and repeating your order over and over and over again to a man who clearly has no interest. I think its the attempt at comedy which veers from downright lame (‘Piri-piri nuts. WARNING: may contain traces of nuts’) to the leching adulterous (‘cheat on your old flame with a spicy new dish’). Please, just fuck off and give me chicken and a large glass of overly-expensive red wine. That wine is awful by the way: maybe the worst I’ve tried from Portugal, which is saying something if you’ve ever tried the tinto in ASDA.

The menu is a kaleidoscope of child friendly colours, spoken in a language that appeals to the type of teenager who sees eating here as a prequel to a night of fingering behind a skip. It has grown a lot from when I remember it, expanding on the burgers and adding ‘fino’ options, which Google translate tells me means ‘up’ and presumably explains the price hike for a sorry bowl of sweaty veg. I have an extra hot fino pitta with peri-peri fries, Claire goes for the chicken breast and two of those fino sides. She takes her bird in hot, which is a relief, because I would have had to leave her had she ordered lemon and herb.

It has suceeded in not changing in a decade. The meat on that breast is still on the dry side and tastes of very little, whilst the fries are still truly awful and cant be saved by any amount of any of their sauces. From the new stuff I admire them for sticking thigh meat in the pitta because the fat content means it has retained some moisture, even if the halloumi has been welded to it by some form of voodoo. I get none of the promised aioli, a little of the red onion relish, and a lot of lettuce. Whisper it, but it is alright for £7.20. The same cannot be said for the chargrilled veg that bring back the horrors of Sorrento Lounge, or the watery sweet potato mash.

We dont have dessert because ice cream or cake must be the most half-arsed attempt at retaining customers I’ve ever seen. Considering that nobody made any effort to see how our food was at any point in the meal, I never hated it, because it is almost impossible to hate. They don’t need to care how the food is because the big boys in Nando’s head office have created a machine that churns out consistently average chicken tens of thousands of times a day across the country, by pre-cooking the chicken in an oven and removing the danger from the minimum wage grill operators. It is the epitomy of a chain restaurant; the ideal business model for anyone looking to make a large buck from the average eater. It may take me another ten years to return to here, but to those who know no better, you keep on being cheeky.

5/10

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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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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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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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