Birmingham

Kuula Poke, Birmingham

This post comes to you high above France onboard a RyanAir flight to Sicily. I’m in holiday mode, on my sixth unit of booze and trying to forget the fact that I’m sandwiched between two volatile Italians, both of whom look fully aware that the last time a Carlo was on the island he was frog marched on to a boat by a man with a gun. It is as you expect a RyanAir flight to be; there is a screaming child, our plane was late, dirty, and my pull-down table doesn’t work, The uneven top threatening to spill the cheap red wine on to a surface that has a suspicious white residue from the previous flight. I’ll likely drink a few more of these wines between now and our landing at an airport which will probably be geographically closer to Palma, Spain, than Palermo, Italy.

There is a reason for me mentioning flight 666 from BHX to Hell. We have these shitty low budget flights to thank for the vast array of cuisines on our doorstep. Without flights we would still be clinging onto the empire for the sense of the exotic, with ships bringing spices from the sub continent, rum from the Caribbean, and an overdose of testosterone from Australia. Without air travel there would be no sushi, no ceviche, no hummus. Imagine a life without hummus. It’s no life for this drunk (seventh unit).

We would certainly have no Kuula Poke. How else would you get to Hawaii? Frankly I’m more astounded that anyone from Birmingham has ever been there. One, it takes a lot of effort and too many flights, and secondly, I imagine it’s full of yanks calling each other ‘bro’, crushing cans of piss-weak lager into their huge enamelled gobs and grinding on girls to the sound of Nelly. Or that’s how it is in my head. Well it’s here, smack bang in the heart of the business quarter, bringing bowls of healthy goodness to the suits of Birmingham.

And it’s lovely. Really really lovely. I wasn’t sure it would be my thing, but the bowl of tahini miso chicken is clean and fresh and zings with the exotic whilst still clinging on to the value of being a bowl of things that are good for the waistline. Not wanting to mess with the principles I take it as it comes; chicken, edamame beans, pickled carrots, brown rice, chilli, a super slaw — which is a very accurate description — topped with a creamy dressing that tastes a bit like hummus. Mmmm, hummus. I could have had the raw tuna, or the salmon; could have jazzed those up with pickled onions, or pineapple, or a variety of things I can’t remember now. Eighth unit.

Tenth unit. I’m told that they got Richard Turner in here to consult and that makes a lot of sense. For what is essentially a lunch offering, it has a certain swag and clarity that is clear from the second you enter. The service is top notch, the beer I drank ace, and the price fair. It’s class.

Over the next eleven days we’ll be avoiding car bombs in Palermo, climbing into the mountains in Erice, diving in the crystal clear waters of Ustica, strolling hand-in-hand on the beaches of Cefalu, staying in one of Italy’s finest vineyards, and seeing The National headline a festival in a castle. After that, should RyanAir deliver us safely back to the UK, I’ll be heading straight back to Kuula Poke.

8/10

Flying is overrated. Take an A2B instead

Craft Dining Rooms, Birmingham

The opening of Craft managed to elude me. I had heard murmuration of it through various channels: how the exec chef had previously cooked excellent food for a friend and was one to watch, how the ex-head chef of the now deceased Tom’s Kitchen was moving over to man the pans and call the checks during service, and how they were taking up the large space at the rear of the ICC where Strada once resided. I followed it with interest; the ‘coming soon’ on the Twitter accounts, and the work in progress posts from the pastry chef I’ve followed on Instagram from Cheal’s to Adam’s to here. It would take a tweet asking for new openings to find out they had opened. There was, to my knowledge at least, none of the usual fanfare; no opening parties or bloggers tables, no cosying up to Birmingham Live for a soundbite in between their usual stories on Love Island or Danielle Lloyd’s vagina. They just opened the doors and let the passing public work out the rest, which is a commendable idea had anyone actually passed through the ICC this time of year.

A few things immediately stand out on our visit ten days into opening. First the space, which is a huge mass of ash grey and soft furnishings cut occasionally with the warm tones of mustard yellow across the pillars that stop the conferences above from piling through the roof. The second is the concept, rolled out at every opportunity across the pages of the menus, the tome of the wine list, the wordy reservation email, and in person by the waiting team. I’m generally not a fan of concepts. By all means have a vision, but I work by the rule that if you have to spell it out then you’re not doing it properly. They have something good here, something that is clear from the off and maybe they can be less eager about spilling it everywhere. It’s a celebration of Britishness — more Buckingham Palace and long country walks than Boris waving a kipper — the good stuff from the good people doing good things. The produce is carefully curated from the best of British suppliers: from the Cotswold White chickens, to the cheese trolley, and Cadbury’s cocoa. The wine list is roughly 80% British growers, subsidised by expats making wines in warmer climes. They have dozens and dozens of gins all distilled on these shores, some using all-British botanicals, some not. You get the picture. Brexit doesn’t scare these guys one bit.

The extended effort to source the best of the country’s larder is backed up by some rather sterling (I know what I’ve done there) work coming out of the kitchen. Sourdough is the first thing we eat and boy is it good, right up there with Folium for the best of its kind in the city. The butter less so, whipped to the point that it starts to taste like cheese. We order three from the ‘snack’ section between two, and this seems the ideal portion size, even if it does creep the price up a little. Of these the ‘pork pie’ is most meagre portion, though also the cheapest at £6. It is a pastry-less spin on the picnic staple, with apple cider jelly, glorious pickled vegetables, and a mustard emulsion that has beer added for umami depth. Both mouthfuls were lovely. A fat scallop comes perfectly cooked and served in its shell with peas, charred baby gem, and apple. A rich smokiness is hidden somewhere amongst it which needs light acidity from the apple to cut through it. It has great balance. The buttermilk chicken is the biggest departure. Crisp coating on the poultry, the thigh meat cooked to the point the meat has just turned from opaque to white, with a vivid yellow sauce that conjures up the flavours of South East Asia without ever being able to pinpoint precisely where. It’s refined junk food, addictive and wholesome.

Mains take a leap in size and price. These are big portions, and so they should be for a £17-£30 price bracket that puts it up there with the city’s big hitters. The star of these sits at the top of that level: a large fillet of halibut, golden in colour and cooked until the large flakes fall away at the suggestion of pressure.  To the side is a fish pie, vol-au-vent in style, with more chunks of fish spun through buttered leeks, spinach, and dressed in a mornay sauce. This is a proper bit of cooking, showing off precision, technique, and a little bit of wit. The puddled parsley sauce is all the acidity the dish needs, the length of charred leek adding another level of flavour. I would order this time and time again. Likewise the chicken dish, a tenner under the price of the halibut but in no way less considered. You might look at the pictures and think that supreme looks good and you would be right too, but the real fun is to the side of it. A nugget of of shredded confit meat, bound with wild garlic (presumably fermented given it’s out of season) and butter, before being fried in breadcrumbs. It is the essence of chicken kiev dressed up in a suit. Take one of the many onion elements on the plate, a piece of that chicken, drag it through the heavily reduced sauce and again through the black garlic puree, before giving yourself a pat on the back for reading Birmingham’s finest restaurant blog. You’re welcome. And a final word on the side dish of potatoes. Those potatoes! Cubes of burnished spud with a hint of animal and of garlic. We fight over the last of them. I win, because I’m stronger than her. I jest. She beats me everytime.

You may have reached this point thinking that we had enjoyed our meal, and you’d be correct, though if anything it gets better from here. If classical desserts are your thing, then Craft is your Mecca, or, in keeping with the ethos here, your Stonehenge. We eat two desserts as good as any you’ll find in this city, delivering a sweet finish with finesse. First up it’s the bakewell tart soufflé. You read that correct. Bakewell. Tart. Soufflé. Stop the world, I can’t take this much fun. Cherry compote at the bottom, frangipane soufflé base, more almonds, and an toasted almond ice cream for good measure. The soufflé stood proud, shoulders apart, like a Beefeater at the Tower of London (I know what I did there), and ate like a dream. Across from these are choux buns flavoured with Bournville’s finest cocoa powder. A chocolate creme patisserie sits inside, salted caramel and nut brittle underneath, pecan praline ice cream in the centre. Dreamy. I suggest a dessert tasting menu to the ever excellent service team. They laugh it off. I’m only half joking.

Our bill is quite a lot because the wine list is really great, and in particular because they have the staggeringly good white pinot from Litmus on at £56 a bottle, which might seem a lot until you realise it retails at £26, showing kind mark-ups for one of the best wines to come from England. Seriously, treat yourself, it drinks like a far more expensive Mersault. Anyway, I digress. Craft was fantastic, from the first mouthfuls to the petit fours that come with the bill marked ‘the damage’. It’s not cheap, but nor should it be. This is the finest that Britain has to offer, packaged up with great front of house delivering smart cooking to your table. When the rest of the country is busy booing politicians, and staring into the abyss of what the future may or may not hold, Craft are looking to celebrate what we have on our little island. And when the results are this good, that is absolutely fine with me.

9/10

Drank too much white pinot? A2B will gladly get you home

Rudy’s, Birmingham

It is possible to eat a three course meal at Rudy’s for £9.80. Let that sink in. That’s a starter, a sizeable pizza, and a dessert for under a tenner. A few doors down at ASK it wouldn’t, and should never, buy you the main event. Over the road at Franco Manca it would get you the pizza and not much else, provided that they remember to bring your food. Okay, your meal will consist of a caprese salad, a marinara pizza, and finish up with tartufo, but for this price beggars can’t be choosers. It’s a figure that plays on my mind over both visits; the Friday night when I have a £12 cocktail nearby, or shed £40 for a bucket of six beers around the corner; again on the Saturday lunch when I pay £9 for two disappointing cakes to take home from a nearby bakery. £10 doesn’t get you much. I’ll pay a premium gladly, because I work hard and I like nice things, but it does make you consider profit margins when these guys are knocking out such quality for so little.

Over these two visits I’ve quickly come to the conclusion that Rudy’s might be the last in a spate of recent pizza openings, but it is also the best. And I’ll go further; it is Birmingham’s finest pizza. And further still; I like it as much, if not more, than Lichfield’s Margheri, which makes it probably the best pizza I’ve eaten in this country. High enough praise? Good, we can continue. The decor, or lack of it, gets Claire excited, mostly due to the number of plants here that add a lushness to the exposed structure of what was once a pretty dreadful Spanish restaurant. In the middle of the room the chef’s are hard at work; contorting dough by hand to uneven circles like warped vinyl, layering the base sauces, the cheese, the toppings. The front of house on top of their game, quick to see if I want another negroni every time the glass gets low. I always want another negroni, especially when they are made this well.

Ready for the pizza? Sit down, you’ll have to wait a little while. We’ll start with that caprese salad I mentioned up top, yours for £2. For that you’ll get a bowl of tomato and mozzarella, dressed liberally in olive oil, salt, and pepper, with four basil leaves. It’s basic but executed well. It’s also two quid you tightwad. And then there are the campanas – sharing platters if you like – more mozzarella, some excellent sourdough, one with cured meat, the other roasted vegetables. They work because the produce quality is high.

When the pizza does arrive it is clear they are so rooted in Naples they should be delivered in a Fiat 500 by Diego Maradona. The dough is noticeably sour, scorched to leopard spots, and puddled in the middle. The tomato sauce has little intervention, heavily seasoned and tasting purely of tomato. I apologise now if I’m going into too much detail, but having eaten a lot of pizza of late, you notice the tiny details, and it is in those detail that they excel. All the pizzas go down great; the meat ones, the ones with fish (this, I will never understand), and the vegetarian ones. So far I have ordered the Carni and the Calabrese, because I Am Man and I like it hot. Cut pizza. Fold between finger and thumb. Eat pizza, reserving the crusts to be dredged through chilli oil. If you’re here at least do it properly. Have a negroni whilst you’re at it.

My forthcoming trip to Italy means no desserts are ordered, as I’d like to be able to snorkel without being dragged ashore by Greenpeace, though I should point out that at almost entirely under a fiver you shouldn’t be so prudent. Now, as a Birmingham food blog I should really take this point to showcase the local independents who also do pizza and pretend that they are as good as here. But I won’t. Rudy’s is brilliant, end of story. Better than the rest, smack bang in the centre of town with a sensible no reservation system that means I can rock up, put my name down and eat pizza when they text me to say my table is ready. I don’t care that they originated elsewhere and have crept down to us for their fourth branch. I care about quality, service, and value. For that much, Rudy’s is perfect.

10/10

Like your taxis as perfect as your pizza? You need A2B in your life

Rudy’s ran an opening promotion which meant the pizzas were free on both occasions. I paid for drinks and additional courses.

Peacer, Moseley

Some friends of ours told me a story about the origin of Peacer. Allegedly two friends were sending messages to one another after a big night out, both craving pizza to cure them of their hangover. The story continues with them not being able to get the type of pizza they wanted, whereupon they made a pact to open their own pizza shop. It took three years from that point to open Peacer, a new space in half of what used to be the ill-fated Starfish and Coffee on a burgeoning Woodbridge Rd that is fast becoming the food hub of Moseley. Is it true? Well, I have no idea, but I certainly hope so. Restaurants born out of friendship, passion, and silly ideas may be the accountants worst nightmare, though to me it’s brilliant. If you want a New York style slice shop, why not open one? It’s an attitude so fantastically up-and-at-them they could actually be in NYC. Except they are in Moseley, where the people are nicer and a little bit more smelly.

Now let’s keep this real short. Did I like Peacer? Yes I did, Dear Reader, quite a bit actually. I like what they have done with the place, which is both minimalist and practical with petrol blue walls and wooden tables of various shades. I like that they have looked at the small details hard, coming to the right conclusion that every table should have a bottles of Pip’s hot sauce, even if this is optimistic about the honesty of humans. I like that they are doing something different. The premise is simple; large slices of pizza by the slice, five options a day, at £3.50 each. This isn’t the soupy Neapolitan style doing the rounds at the moment that billows hot air from puffed-up crusts, but one that was born in the US of A, like Bruce Springsteen and obesity. The texture is more one dimensional, fillings go from the centre right to the edge, and those crusts are more like crimps. I try three slices, of which I like them all in varying degrees. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is one containing pineapple I like the least, though the sweetcorn and spring onion give it a brightness I wasn’t expecting. I thought the chilli and hot honey one would be my favourite, though as good as it was, it was the halloumi with smoked cheddar that I almost went back for seconds of. This is inspired; sweet and smokey, rife with fatty notes cut through with just a little red onion. £3.50 for a slice? Give me the entire wheel and cancel my meetings for the rest of the day. And pour me another pint of Tiny Rebel whilst you’re at it.

Now we’re going to have to discuss the elephant in the room. The more observant of you may have noticed the lack of meat in the above. I never questioned it, but it would appear that Peacer have opened a vegetarian pizza slice and beer bar without ever saying they are vegetarian. Now I kind of have to point this out because I know some of you can’t operate without a bit of meat in your mouth, but having lived with a vegetarian for six years I was happy about it. These pizzas simply don’t need meat; they are considered, carefully constructed, and, most importantly, really tasty. I can see myself coming here a lot, probably mid-walk from The Prince to The Dark Horse, maybe on the way home for a sneaky slice on the nights we are going to eat boring – sorry, I mean healthy – food. One thing is absolutely sure: in a city saturated with pizza, Peacer is the ideal fit for this particular neighbourhood.

8/10

Want a slice of Brum’s best taxi firm? Download the A2B app

Legna, July 2019

I have this idea for a streetfood business called ‘Simon Le Bon Bon’. Now I know that you are sat reading this thinking “what a great name for a streetfood business”, and yes, you’re correct, it really is. It works on so many levels; it has my first name, it has the name of a Brummie celebrity, and it tells you what type of food the business does. The term ‘bon bon’ may have originated from the sweet candies consummed by the French after dinner to mask the smell of garlic and BO, though it now has a broader home in the culinary food. If it’s round it gets called a bon bon, and thats what my (sorry Claire, our) business will do. Swedish style meatballs, Moroccan meatballs, arancini with mushrooms like they eat in the North of Italy, and others with offal like they eat in the very South. We might feature croquettes of slow cooked meat, rolled with the heel of the hand to big roundels, breadcrumbed and then fried. You get the idea. The tagline will be ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’, though I must point out that no wolves will be eaten because that behaviour is frowned upon. The queues will be around the block, possibly due to a copyright infringement that will see lots of disappointed Duran Duran fans, but this is but a small detail: Simon Le Bon Bon has legs. Round, deep-fried legs. Scottish legs, if you like.

Alas, don’t get too excited. Simon Le Bon Bon will be joining ‘Mr Strippy’ – my portable lapdancing vehicle where ‘Perfect Gentlemen’ signals the arrival and you order a 69 instead of a 99 – and the Swiss Army prosthetic hand as ideas that will never see the light of day, though would make excellent episodes of Dragons Den. If you can’t be the best at it there really is no point – it’s why I blog and don’t ski – I’ve no interest in being second best at anything. And we can’t win the great bon bon war of 2019. I tried the arancini at Legna and knew my dream was over. A portion of three golden squashball sized bites that yield just a little bite, giving way to a mixture of rice, ‘nduja, and tallegio, each in perfect harmony with one another. It has a little spice, savoury notes, and cheesey richness. It is as good as arancini gets, one-hundred-percent better than anything I could acheive with these fat fingers. Simon Le Bon Bon is now Simon Le Non Non.

This was one of the four starters at Legna, before the four pasta dishes, the skipping of the main courses and two desserts. A bottle of white, three glasses of red, two negroni, and a cocktail complete the order between the two of us, so if the details get hazy towards the end, you now know why. We came in search of pasta dishes, because they were always the strong point here and I’m pleased that they’ve stretched that particular part of the menu, though it was the starters that really grabbed our attention. Those perfect arancini sit in between scallops and bruschetta. The former are three queenies, accurately cooked almostly entirely on the presentation side, with a molita style crumb, and a lemon gel that lifts everything. A similar approach is taken with the bruschetta; the garlic is heavy, it has has plenty of basil and supremely high quality cherry tomatoes. The clever bits are the dehydated tomato petals that add almost floral notes to it. It’s summer in four mouthfuls, helped by us sitting in the glass part of the restaurant, doors pulled back to make the most of the canalside location. The biggest oyster I have ever seen completes Act 1, traditionally dressed, and in no rush to go anywhere. It takes a knife to get it down in two parts.

Those pasta dishes confirm Legna is performing better than ever. Taglioni with crab is spun through a sweet bisque that tastes of roasted shell and cream, whilst cacio e pepe is really aglio e olo. This doesn’t matter too much – we still destroyed it – but it had none of the emulsified cheese sauce made from the cooking water that defines cacio e pepe. It is the filled pasta that really impress; one with ‘nduja, tallegio, and truffle, the other cured  pork and sage. Both have a perfect texture to the pasta, heavily seasoned fillings, and are dressed in some seriously addictive olive oil. There are twelve dishes listed in this section of the menu; I suggest you make it your target this summer to try them all.

We have dessert. I say we; I get no choice in the two that Claire wants to eat half of. She chooses tiramisu and lemon tart, two that we’ve had before but are assured have changed. That they have. The tiramisu is more stable than ever, which I prefer but Claire doesn’t. The biggest change is to the lemon tart. The acidity from the Amalfi lemons are still there in spades, but now we have Italian meringue for a little sweetness, and the most buttery of bases. What was already a very good dessert has morphed into the full package.

With this we drink wine from Sicily because we’re going in a few weeks time, before moving to the bar to continue drinking. From what I can tell they seem to have ditched the tasting menus, and the pizza, both of which are fine with me. In the new menu they are capitalising on what they do best; the pastas in particular, opening up a menu full of choice and desire. It’s the best meal here that we have had by some distance, helped by some of the most charming front of house in the city. In writing this I’ve just remembered I had a whisky before I stumbled out of the doors. And that we booked a holiday. It was that kind of night. I really must go to Legna more often.

Got an A2B there sober. Got an A2B back home drunk.

Katsu Kitchen, Moseley

I can list as many reasons as I like for starting this blog, but there was only ever one: to gain the respect of chefs. I’ve long had an obsession with the industry, the skill of the knifework, the craft in being able to construct dishes, almagamating flavours into one cohesive dish that balances acidity and sweet, as well as understanding viscosity and texture. Part of me wishes I could have been a chef – I’m a good amateur – and it could have been so different. When I was fifteen I was due to do two weeks work experience at the UCB, only to fall off a bike the afternoon prior and tear up my hand in such a manner that they sent me straight home without passing reception. Maybe this blog is a continuation of the fifteen year old Simon, minus the acne and the obsession with my English teacher, Miss Pope. I’ve said for a while that as soon as I felt like I’ve gained the respect of the industry I’ll call time on this and find a new hobby. If I haven’t got there yet, I am certainly very close to that position. The end is nigh.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine within the industry let me see the other side of the counter. Yes, some idiot really did entrust me with serving customers for his business. I didn’t cook – he’s not that stupid – but I did put bits of meat on breads and fold and roll and ask if they needed sauces and chips. I had a great time working 18 hours over a two day period, drinking more gin than I probably should have and wearing inappropiate footwear. It’s tough work, let me tell you that. I left with tremendous admiration for anyone who could do this full time, promising myself that I would remember how hard it is everytime I was about to say something not nice about someone else’s cooking.

This brings me to Katsu Kitchen, a new restaurant in Moseley that I desperately want to be really nice about but can’t. As great an idea it is to specialise in breaded cutlets of meat, it has to be better than this for me to say otherwise. And that has to start with the raw produce. What they presently have is a small list of things priced mostly under a tenner. Those things are delivered with mostly a good level of skill, but the end product is lack lustre because the proteins they start with are of such poor quality.

We order a chicken katsu, a tonkatsu (the breaded pork from where this movement originated) donburi, and a side of chicken dippers served with a mug of katsu sauce. Despite being fried the chicken has a spongyness to the texture and doesn’t really taste of much, whilst the katsu sauce has a deep flavour with slight burnt notes on the finish. For your £9.90 you get this, rice, an egg which I don’t eat because its from a caged bird, and some lovely pickles. For a fiver less you can have five pieces of the chicken and the mug of sauce that is more of the same. The pork on the donburi is not good: stringy, fatty, and grey. Like Sam Alladyce. I try one piece and decide that rice is the way to go. The rest of the dish is a curryless katsu, though credit to the service who get us more of the brown sauce which is loaded with umami. The front of house are great throughout.

The above and an orange juice clock in at just over £25.00, an affordable amount but one that I won’t be running back to anytime soon. Throughout the meal we were trying to find positives, yet the biggest we could come to is that it is walking distance from our home. For me, there is no comparison to be had with the rice bowl at Tiger Bites Pig which is less money than this, and those looking for katsu will have a better time at Yakinori or even Wagamama. These are the hard facts. You want the best food, start with the best possible ingredients. It’s that simple. The kitchen are working with cheap meats and unforgivable eggs at present, and it’s showing in the finished product. There might be a decent restaurant in here with time if these things change. Maybe.

5/10

You don’t need to walk to a restaurant, not when A2B can take you there

Rebel Chicken, 2019

The first year of trading for a business is the hardest. It is the Litmus test for the projections and spreadsheets, the qualifiers for how well you really do understand the users. For restaurants it is the process of getting the diners to hear about you, getting them through the door, and then keeping them coming back. It is the gradual process of the right levels of stock and staff, tweaking the dishes and the prices, the right opening hours, deals, suppliers, and drinks, accumulating (hopefully) the media column inches and the queues out of the door. It is a hard, unforgiving industry. Many fail, sometimes deservedly so, sometimes because of bad luck or location. I had my concerns for Rebel Chicken; the food was always good enough to return and they had one of the best beer gardens in the city, but would just rotisserie chicken be enough to convince people to walk down a side street in the Jewellery Quarter? They’ve adapted, adding far more to the menu, and transforming that big open plan garden into something that East London would be proud of. This is now a year-round area, complete with sliding roof and foliage. It is unique to anywhere else in the city and deserves credit for that alone.

We come on a Saturday when the sun is beating down and decide to make a day of it. They have a brunch menu that appears to be very popular, supplied under the banner of Ocho – their sister tapas venue next door that I have a lot of love for. It makes sense: they already have morcilla and merguez, they put pulses in tomato sauces and stuff on bread; they already have the basis for a breakfast. The breakfast board for one served as a nice size for two, swiftly removed from the wooden boards they arrive on and on to plates, like any sensible man would. It’s a bloody good breakfast, a perfectly poached egg with bright yolk, toast, beans in the same tomato sauce that normally gets served with the meatballs, mushroom, and three bits of minced animal in natural casing. That’s sausages to you, stupid. Of those three I get happy memories from the densely spiced merguez, and give kudos to the morcilla, which everyone knows to be a far superior black pudding. The most recognisable of them is a pork sausage. A British breakfast banger. It tastes of pork, mace, and a little black pepper. It’s a very nice sausage on a very nice breakfast. At nine quid it’s an absolute steal.

Late morning quickly spilled to afternoon and I’ll use this point to declare my drink of the summer. They do a drink here called Damm Lemon, a light, lemon flavoured beer found on the backstreets of Barcelona by the Geordie manager of this establishment. More refreshing than a cold shower, less alchoholic than a Glaswegians breath; it’s the kind of drink you could, and should, lean on to get you through a summer’s day without looking like a twat. And this is coming from someone who specialises in looking like a twat.

Back to the food. We make the most of the day by seeing how far the food has progressed in a year at Rebel Chicken. Back then it was rotisserie chicken and not much else – now it is only true to its name if the chicken’s way of rebelling is to identify as a cow. There is chicken everyway you can think of — roasted, fried, coated, pulled — but there is also a big section of beef burgers, and stuff like halloumi and falafel just incase the rebel chicken wants to disappoint his father by becoming a vegetarian. We try two burgers, one more conventional, the other a bastardisation of all the bits I want to try in a bun. The food has improved, absolutely no doubt about that. The Yard Bird burger has a chunk of poultry in a buttermilk batter which is brittle and well made. The other burger has (wait for it) beef patty, pulled chicken, halloumi, jalepenos, and caramelised red onion. I wasn’t sure I’d like the beef but it’s good stuff; carefully cooked to a consumer friendly light pink, with good quality meat and a nice fat ratio. The pulled chicken comes from the tasty part of the bird, possibly dressed in too much BBQ sauce, though that’s me being difficult for the sake of it. The rest of it works. Don’t ask me how it tastes as a whole because I have no idea. I’m no animal, despite what you’ll read elsewhere. They have chips, which have improved since the last visit. We don’t finish them, mostly become some idiot made a burger with everything on it.

I guess what I am trying to say is it has improved since the last time I was here, fairly substantially in parts. The wider menu has allowed them more freedom to be expressive and it shows; the dishes have a certain swagger to them that matches the decor. Rebel Chicken have not only survived that first year, but have come out in a far better position than when they started it.

I used A2B to get me from A to B

Poli, Kings Heath

In lieu of another pizza place garnering significant exposure by handing out a week’s worth of free pizza to every blogger, Instagrammer, and grammar poor journalist, I’d almost forgot that Poli was opening last weekend. I am reminded by my girlfriend who is keen to try it out on account of her love for the sister venue, Grace + James. Expectations are set to high: Grace + James is an annoyingly perfect neighbourhood wine bar, where every bottle, decoration, and cheese is tailored into the most considered of rooms. It is a place where we spend a lot of time and money, a place where every visit is a lesson on natural wines. They’ve become very good at knowing what wine I will and won’t like, which is equal parts scary and impressive for a business that has only been open a year.

Poli is two doors down, unmissable given the teal painted frontage and pink logo. Inside it is a wash of baby pinks and soft blues, the walls bearing 80’s style prints, neon signs, and some terracotta plant pots that start a twenty minute conversation of admiration. It’s beautiful. The negroni I start with is the only thing I don’t like, as we plough into the menu: pickled grapes, a couple of small plates, two pizzas. Pickled grapes are the future, I know, I’ve tasted them.

Let’s start with the filth.  Potatoes roasted in lamb fat with a little mint. Sunday roast without the overcooked meat. All blistered skins and deep ovine flavour. I’m sad that it’s taken 36 years on the planet to eat these. Three dense meat balls with the backnotes of fennel, on a ragu of tomatoes thick with chunks of onion, homemade ricotta, and chive oil. It’s a big old portion for not much money. We fight over the rights to the last one, and then fight again to work the last of the ricotta out of the sides of the plate with the crusts of the pizza.

That pizza is good, in Birmingham’s top three at present and quite possibly the best in a very competitive market. It won’t be to everyone’s taste; the centre of both of ours are loose and soupy, the kind of pizza that would find the plate with ease should it be tilted. The rest is textbook. The crust is blistered, the dough pleasingly sour, with the same tomato sauce returning from the meatballs. One with guanciale, pecorino, and egg riffs on the flavours of carborna, whilst the other with chorizo, ‘nduja, and honey is a sweet meaty treat. The quality of the ingredients stands out with every bite. We plunge the crusts into an aioli coloured with squid ink that I don’t care for, and a fermented chilli sauce that I demand is bottled and sold. It’s complex and hot, which also happens to be my Tinder bio.

We don’t have dessert, though fear not, we are not alone and our company do. In a move never seen before on this singular-minded rampage of ego which is my food blog, I am now about to hand over the reigns to drink maestro, Jacob Clarke, who will talk you through his his strawberry, marshmallow, and jam shortbread sandwich from Happy Endings.

I’m getting a lot of strawberry, but also marshmallow and jam, too.

Wise words, Jacob. Wise words.

The bill hits £120 between four with a lot of booze, and we retire to the sanctuary of Grace and James to drink more wine. In all honestly, I was a little deflated when I heard the plans for yet another pizza place, and then it clicked: I’ve been eating Sophie and Henrys food for years, way before the cheese boards at Grace + James when they made their own chorizo and put them on tacos with the street food business they brought to Birmingham. In Poli they have created much more than a pizzeria; it has great craft beers and wines and a killer play list of indie classics. It has great food at a fair price and with impeccable taste. It is, without question, my favourite opening of the year so far.

9/10

Can’t walk to Kings Heath? A2B love that journey

Franco Manca, Birmingham

The first Franco Manca I had was also my first great pizza experience. Let me take you back. It was the Summer of 2010, way before any idea of this blog occurred, when I was lean and with a full head of hair. I was in London with my mate Barry to see Kings of Leon, a band who were once good, despite what their last three albums will argue. We had lunch at Gauthier, beers in Camden, the gig, and then back to Camden. In the morning we hopped on to the blue line for what seemed like an eternity, stopping at Brixton for pizza at the original Franco Manca. I’d done my research; I got the joke about Frank being missing; I knew the queue would be big and the menu short. We went and it was incredible. In my head it is one of the best meals I’ve eaten – nonsense of course, but still a testament to how thrilling some cooked dough and a few ingredients can be. Franco Manca is the primary reason we have Neopolitan style pizza in the UK: they gave this style to the masses with thirty-six sites in London, and another eleven further afield, including a new shiny Birmingham site.

Now cutting to the crux (or should that be crust?), do they still provide a great pizza experience? No. And I don’t think they have for years in all honesty. I recall a really average pizza at Broadway market three years back, and likewise at Kings Cross a year or so after that. Maybe they were never as good as I think they were, or maybe the competition that they created have surpassed them with ease. It’s a good pizza, but good pizza isnt going to pass muster when we have some excellent pizza already established in this city. It starts well enough; a starter of lamb sausage with potato and spicy tomato sauce is comforting and big on flavour. Better is the aubergine parmigiana, that is firm and meaty. I’d say this is the nicest rendition of this dish I’ve had had it not caught in parts and taken on burnt notes.

Well then the generator overheated, granite spewed on to Bennett’s Hill, and they had a full on meltdown. It became quickly clear that some parts of the dining room were making full use of that oven which blasts pizzas in about a minute, turning tables quickly. We were not in that part of the room. It took one hour to get our pizza and that was only after raising it with a manager. They turn up, one five minutes before the other, the two looking visibly like they’d been given five minutes difference in cooking time. The pizza is okay: it’s clearly not a true sourdough base, one seems a little underdone, the other is heavily scorched. The toppings are unevenly distributed, a minor detail, but one that others seem to get right. I don’t enjoy the No.7, which surprises me, because almost all of the ingredients appeared successfully over the two starters. The one with chorizo is better, but only because that cured meat is superb in quality. Claire notes that the pizza she had for lunch the day before was way better, a worrying thought for inconsistencies across sticking some dough in an oven.

Now we know they’ve had a bad day, and so do they. The manager reappears, apologises and wipes the bill. He also does the same for the table next to us who’ve had a similar experience. He asks that we come back and give them another go, a fair request given how well it is handled, and one that we will do when they’ve settled in over to months to come. The previous night we went to another pizza place that opened on the same day here. The difference was huge; they were operating like clockwork and turning out some of the best pizza we’ve had in Birmingham. Part of me thinks that Franco Manca believe they can walk into a central spot and live off their reputation. They can’t. For now it appears that they’ve cut off too large a slice to swallow.

6/10

Thankfully the wait times for the A2B that took us there and back were much shorter.

Steamhouse Bagels, Birmingham

I went into town to meet Claire for lunch recently. I was early, so I softened her up with a present from a shop she loves, went for an espresso in one coffee shop by her work, and then the same in another. We hadn’t decided where to go for lunch; I had in my head a grander feed; one that weighs heavy on the stomach for some time, washed down with a glass or six of crushed grapes. Claire wanted a bagel from the fairly new place around the corner from her office. A text debate ensued whereupon I made the case for various restaurants and she said she wanted a bagel. We compromised in the way that young lovers do and go for a bagel. It was busy and inexpensive. I wore my blogger cap to lunch (it is a cap that says ‘blogger’ just in case anyone is unsure), preceding to dissect the bread and its filling in a way that only us attention seeking twats do. Claire pointed out that it’s a fiver or so, and that had she not worked for a generous business that supplies lunch for its staff for free, she would be here all the time. It rendered my opions invalid and is probably all you need to know about Steamhouse Bagels.

So you can close down the browser now and move on with your life if that’s what you really want, or you can hang around for my verdict and score. It’s pretty good there; not ground breaking, but functional and affordable. The bagels are pleasingly dense and chewy, baked on site and fresh for the busy lunch that has them queueing out of the door. The fillings are nice, if a little bland. A chicken bagel lacks promised heat but has a generous amount of mozzerlla, whilst the one with falafel and other healthy-ish ingredients is quickly destroyed by the girl who so desperately wanted to eat here. They do cakes which look great which we don’t have room for, though probably should have for greater longevity of this post. Given that my office has only the world’s worst Subway for company, anyone who is able to walk here from their work has it lucky. Chaps, should your girlfriend ever tell you that she don’t mind where you go for food, she’s lying. She knows exactly what she wants, and the liklihood is that it is a far better choice than yours.

7/10

A2B love a bagel, I think. They also like getting me from A to B.