Cocktails

18/81, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birmingham’s Top 5 Cocktails

I went and saw my doctor the other day. He asked me how much I’ve been drinking, to which I glanced away nervously into the sterile corner of the room and shook internally, incurring further damage to the organs which I am worried about. I reluctantly told him the truth. He wanted more detail on the type of booze; I said the expensive stuff, mostly blended into expertly crafted drinks. My doctor leans forward, the smell of stale coffee filling the decreasing void between his face and mine. “Sounds fucking fantastic” he says, “You must utilise your multi-award winning blog to write about these, because I need to try them pronto. But heed this warning, young Simon: do not get caught-up in the in the grandeur of awards; even Adolf Hitler won Time Magazine Man of The Year in 1938”. What a wise doctor he is, even if he is the last remaining man alive to use the word ‘pronto’.

So here is a list of the best Birmingham drinks, which, after multiple trips to some place called Londium, really do stand-up to anything in the country. We’re so blessed with what we have here in Brum, which is a small group of hugely talented people bringing the best out of one another. No Pornstar Martinis have been harmed in the making of this list. Give them a go and tell them Ol’ Meaty from the Interweb sent you. You’ll get nothing, but I might get a free drink out of it somewhere down the line.

5) FKD, £7, Nocturnal Animals

The name might be a giveaway, but this is a witty take on teenage boys’ favourite fingering juice. It’s neon blue in colour, bloody lovely in flavour, and rather brilliantly poured on draft straight out of the tap. Nocturnal Animals is too new for me to remotely consider myself an expert on their drinks program, but this is already a highlight for a venue not afraid to take the piss out of fickle aspects of modern life.

4) Negroni, £10, Legna

Ordering a Negroni is like watching Babestation drunk; rarely satisfying. Everywhere in Birmingham has them, very few do them well. For me the best is at Legna where the gin has been steeped in parmesan to give the drink added length and umami. It is up there with the negroni at Bar Termini, which, if drinks is your thang, is the ultimate in Negroni-based compliments.

3) Champion Cobbler, £12, 40 St Pauls

All hail the greatest gin bar in the universe. I’m not making that up, they really are. Right now I’d say get down there for the salted caramel gin hot chocolate, but otherwise take the Gin Cobbler; a fruity little number that comes in a trophy. Because you, Dear Reader, are a deserving champion.

4987AA7C-7C8F-454A-810E-3023724C7CF02) Hit The Rum Jack, £12, The Edgbaston

Simply my favourite place in the city. Indulgent, luxurious, with perfect service, it is everything the bar of a luxury boutique hotel should be. Settle in for the night and work towards this drink; a short, boozy, and complex rum based drink that works on nutty flavours. The truth is you’ll be hard pushed here to find a drink that you didn’t like.

1) Amber Nectar, £10, 18/81

Honestly, the reason I knocked this list up. I was a bit taken aback when I recently tried it; it’s not just one of the best drinks I’ve had in Birmingham, but one of the best drinks I can remember ever having. For what is essentially a double measure of a single malt whisky, they have managed to add a dashes of maple, pecan, and tonka bean to draw out the flavour profile of the whisky. A world class drink that converted Claire to the joys of the fire water.

8057EA13-A94D-43AB-9322-778B3EA07CB2Don’t drink and drive, kids. Take an A2B Radio Car like I do.

 

 

 

 

The Heisenbar, Digbeth


It’s a dreary Thursday night and we’re in Digbeth patiently waiting outside a 40ft RV to be let in at 7pm sharp. Inside there are men in yellow boiler suits, test tubes, and various other scientific equipment. It’s science, bitch. Tonight we will be cooking blue meth – not the standard meth because that can be easily obtained elsewhere in Digbeth for a lot less than the forty quid ticket fee. I look around at the other guests to this press night; a hearty mix of hacks and media types, some industry workers. Meth is not their usual choice of Class A but they will go with it tonight.



The blue meth is of a course a reference to Breaking Bad, the product of six seasons of cooking before Jesse Pinkman drove howling into the night and Walter White lay dead on the lab floor. And we’re not making real meth, because that would be slightly illegal however tempting. Instead we’re here with drinks hero, Rob Wood, a man who knows more about spirits than Derek Acorah. The deal is six cocktails and two plates of food from Los Pollos Hermanos, the chicken shop owned by Gus Fring.


Over the course of two or so hours we extract the flavour from jalapenos using a process called nitro cavitation, whip up a clear cocktail that tastes like blackberries and raspberries, and find the elusive blue meth within a lychee and prosecco cocktail complete with suspicious plastic bag of blue powder that may or may not be popping candy. We finish with ‘Breakfast with Walter Junior’ which is essentially a White Russian with cereal. And eggs. And bacon. Everything we make is brilliant. Here there are no half measures.


This being a food blog I should point out that the food consists of chicken wings and macaroni and have not had the same amount of effort put in as the drinks. They should have thrown in some pizza on the house. Not that this matters; Heisenbar is the perfect ode to one of TV’s greatest shows, an evening of fun and plenty of booze. For fans of the show it’s the perfect way to get methy.

There are limited tickets still available here; eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-breaking-bad-cocktail-experience-tickets-38134851367?aff=es2

 I attended a press evening for The Heisenbar. Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Click here to download the app http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Siamais, Birmingham

Siamais replaces Thai Edge, an stalwart of Brindley that had long outrun itself. What we now have is a sister venue to the Mailbox’s Aluna Bar, serving up a similar menu to the old place, albeit with a glossy interior and fanciful cocktails. The new place looks great, tastefully flashy, with lanterns dangling low and murals of ladies faces. We get sat on a long table lit a stark white which extends up the walls. They are impressive to look at but hardly conducive to food images. Those with epilepsy may want to look away.

IMG_8709

We start with a platter that tops out with a lovely chicken satay that really packs a punch.  There are crisp spring rolls, delicate prawn rolls, and nuggets of chicken that are fragrant from the pandanus leaves they are wrapped in.  Only the fish cakes need work, being a little short on seasoning and flavour.

IMG_8710

I take chicken for the main, stir fried in a red chilli paste full of heat.  Its the kind of food I enjoy eating – vibrant and full of attitude.  If it says chilli on the menu I want heat and here it was plentiful.  The veg was crunchy, the chicken moreish.  A good wholesome plate of food.

IMG_8711

I miss ordering dessert on account of enjoying the company and the cocktails a little too much.  Is this the best Thai cooking in Birmingham?  Not in my opinion.  But the cocktails, that is where this place comes alive.  They are surprisingly good, served by a knowledgeable team that know how to blend spirits.  For that reason I see this place being a roaring success, a little similar to the original Chaophraya in Liverpool that has made a solid reputation out of cocktails and Thai food in a glamorous setting.  The location in Brindley Place is a perfect one, readily set for the more elegant of Broad Street to have a drink and a bite to eat.  And the crucial part is that Siamais is significantly better than Thai Edge.  Progress is everything.

Thanks to Delicious PR for the launch party invite.

Zindiya, Moseley

Chicken Tikka.  It’s really all I remember about the opening party at Zindiya.  Being a very short walk from my house I decided to attend for an hour despite being in a haze of tonsillitis and antibiotics.  I recall chatting to a nice man from a local newspaper when the food started coming out from the kitchen.  We both agreed that it was the best chicken tikka we had ever eaten.  Another man who has happened to win an award or two for street food came and joined us.  He commented on just how much it tasted of chicken, a rarity in the age of tasteless barn reared poultry, we all agreed.  Soon newspaper guy and I were raiding the kitchen pass directly, and I was being pushed out the door by my girlfriend with my coat pockets full of the stuff to eat at home.  It was a good night.

img_8483

I’ve waited two weeks for that bloody tikka, so apologies for my poor manners in ordering it before our drinks request was taken.  It’s every bit as good as I remember; the marinade has broken down the proteins, the tandoor catching the edges so that they are charred and slightly bitter; the meat sweet and tender.  They tasted even better with a lick of lemon juice and a dunk into the thick vivid green puree that is the mint sauce.  You can stop at this point if you like, close down the window and go purely to eat this.  That’s okay with me – I wouldn’t blame you.  Or you can read the rest and see if anything else takes your fancy.

img_8486

Zindiya isn’t the first of its kind to focus on ‘street food’ but it is easily Birmingham’s finest of this type.  Obvious care has been taken with every detail to ensure this is the case.  Beer is from Purity, wine from local merchants Connolly’s, and a stellar cocktail list curated by drinks legend Rob Wood.  The interior is a flash of colour with wall murals depicting the food markets of India.  The menu is mostly familiar and we order widely across it.  Fish Amritsari are morsels of firm white fish (pollock, I think) in a batter vibrant with cumin and ginger.  Chilli paneer see’s the pale cheese purely as a vessel for the pungent sauce – a good thing when the main ingredients best quality is it’s ability to take on other flavours.  The Papri Chaat here is probably the best I have tried anywhere.  Think of it as a wedge salad for the interesting.  The dough wafers are intact so that they can lifted from bowl to mouth with minimum fuss – get them loaded with both sauces, the red onion, and plenty of herbs and wait for the magic to happen.  It’s lighter and fresher than the Indian food we have come to know in this country, and is all the better for it.

img_8488

Back to the tandoor we go for  charred lamb chops, still wearing the thick marinade like a winter jacket.  The meat is well judged to just beyond medium, the flavour good, if not perhaps the best example to be found in the city.  Personally, I thought it could have been a little more bolder with the spicing.  No such problems with the pani puri, which are as textbook as you like.  The shells are properly assembled and hold their own when sunk into the murky tamarind water.  Pani puri are the ultimate amouse bouche; a mouthful of everything that is good about Indian street food – how to take cheap staple carbohydrate’s like potato and chickpea and fuse them together with spices into something utterly bewildering.  The last dish to arrive is the chicken dosa, taking a break from tradition with a presentation more akin to tacos.  The filling is light and aromatic, with chunks of chicken in a coconut milk marinade that ties in nicely with a coarse chutney from the same fruit.  Throw in a sambhar that contains all of the flavour of lentils without the chalkiness and what you have is one of the better ways to spend £6.50 in the city.

img_8490

I was being treated to dinner by a friend with an expense account, so we get stuck in to the cocktail list.  Put simply, it’s brilliant – an excursion through India’s different states, each pinned to the vast countries larder.  The pick is the vodka with the lime pickle cordial, worthy of a trip to try on it’s own, with the bourbon and masala bitters a close second.  Bravo, Mr Wood.  Bravo.  All of this combined makes for a rather wonderful experience.  I’ve often bemoaned the quality of food in Moseley at all levels below Carters, but Zindiya now joins Cheval Blanc in places I can grab a good bite to eat without breaking the bank.  This place is a class act in every respect.

9/10

A very nice man from Deliveroo paid for my dinner, so I’ll give them a little shout-out as thanks.  Zindiya are not on Deliveroo yet, though when they are grab some chicken tikka from them here; http://www.deliveroo.co.uk