craft

Craft, July 2020

I booked a table for one at Craft with the best of intentions. They had launched a new menu with a ‘picnic’ section that I wanted to try; £25 for five small plates seemed a bargain lunch, throw in a glass of wine and I’m back within the hour, fed and watered for £35. Sign me up. Except life doesn’t always go to plan. Let’s be honest, it never goes to plan. Well not mine, anyway. I turn up, take to my table, and two of my friends, who I had no idea would be there, do the same. They offer a seat at their table, I take the seat and that in and out quickie ends up five or six bottles later, with a headache that keeps on giving well into that weekend. I still need to try the picnic meal.

I knew the food was going to be good. The two weeks we do ‘Craft At Home’ over lockdown turn out to be two of the tastiest meals we have. Two pies; one ox cheek with a deep gravy, the other a chicken, ham hock and leek number which is at once creamy and rich, with notes of fennel from the seed and tarragon. Is this a sign of a simpler new direction? No, not really. The only new direction is the entrance, which comes straight off Brindley Place, through the ‘garden’ that houses the pods, past the bar and down the steps into the restaurant. Inside there are less covers, the space more intimate. It’s leaner. Lockdown has done them good.

We start with a croquette specifically requested from the picnic menu, full of smokey chorizo notes and cauliflower. Then a millefeuille of crab and apple, with precise pastry work and lots of brown crab flavour cut through with acidity from the fruit. Two courses in and it’s clear that the flavours are stripped back; two or three core ingredients, strong technique which allows them play off each other.

For main I have pork and pineapple. The loin is beautiful, blushing pink and tender, as is the belly that has been braised until the layers of fat and meat amalgamate. I find a pineapple caramel on the sweet side – the cube of the same fruit provides enough contrast for the rich mangalitsa breed. The mashed potato is glorious. I get to try a lamb dish which is superb. Deep and smokey from aubergine and black garlic, the loin and belly cuts treated with care and attention. Apricots reinforce an almost Middle Eastern feel to the dish. Andrew Sheridan can really cook. I mean really cook.

By now the three of us are on bottle number four and I’m really regretting skipping breakfast. A creme brulee Cambridgeshire burnt cream is spot on for luscious texture, whilst donuts with coffee ice cream hit all the right spots. We leave the table happy and head outside for more wine.

The supreme pontiff of the trio offers to pay the bill and this drunk accepts, meaning I have no idea what the bill is. Craft is lovely, slowly taking things up a gear to the high level it now operates at. I’m a big fan of what they are doing; how the drinks are all British, how the focus is on affordable premium dining using the finest of seasonal ingredients. And I gather there may be a few twists in store for later on in the year. With prices starting at a little over £20 and with them utilising the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, now is the ideal time to check them out for yourself.

Pictures by Conrad because mine were awful.

You can’t drive after drinking this much so we take an A2B

Craft Dining Rooms, December 2019

It’s all change at Craft Dining Rooms. The end of 2019 saw them appoint Andrew Sheridan of Great British Menu fame as Exec Chef, a move probably in line with Aktar Islam adding the restaurant to his portfolio as Chef Director. Even now, as this post goes live, the final touches are being added to their English garden; a series of pods which line the canal from the opposing side of Brindley Place. The restaurant too is having a once-over; the large bar area is being halved with some of the kitchen being moved out to that space, a new PDR is going in, the mustard pillars are gone with flowers and softer lighting coming in.

I know all of this because the owner of Craft tells me so over a gin and tonic whilst my friends turn up for our lunch date. It’s the last Friday before Christmas, it’s pissing down to Biblical proportions and Birmingham’s roads are besieged with various closures. It’s the perfect storm for delays and I’m drenched to the core. By the time the last of our trio rolls in some 45 minutes after our booking I am soaked in more ways than one. Thanks Sam for the gins, I needed them.

The food is now taking a tighter line, more in keeping with the ideals set when they first opened. It’s highly seasonal, not only using the larder of the UK but an easier style of cooking. The bread rolls are still as good as you’re likely to see in the city, but now you have the choice of a more conventional butter and another heavily flavoured with Marmite. The latter divides the table like – well – I can’t think of an ingredient which is as divisive. A fat scallop has been pan fried on one side to a burnished crust, in one of those buttery sauces that has you chasing the last of it with your finger. So far so very good.

We get unctous pig cheeks with potato puree, squash puree, and batons of pickled squash and apple. It’s a miniature take on something far more substantial; wholesome and perfect for the wintery conditions outside the large panes of glass, it has just enough acidity to cut through it. Then cod in a bubble bath of crab bisque, all delicate and warming. Simple and understated, it lets the produce speak for itself.

I can’t remember eating a piece of venison as well cooked as that on the main course, the meat not overly gamey and robustly seasoned. The pairing of blackberries and beetroots an obvious one, given little touches like the addition of rhubarb to the beetroot puree. It’s not perfect; the disc of beetroot is undercooked, and the overall feel of the dish is a little high in acidity, but all of this is forgotten because they have a rectangle of compressed potato slices that have been deep fried to golden on the side.

I happen to be a big fan of the pastry chef, a man who answers to the name of Howing. Dessert on this occasion was a white chocolate orange; a frozen shell depicting peel which contains a caramelised white chocolate mousse, macerated orange, and blood orange. This is on a crumb of salted dark chocolate which had maybe a little too much salt. It’s cold, it’s rich, it’s complex. And I really hope I’ve taken the notes correctly for this because by now we’ve drank a fair amount of wine and are making plans to carry on throughout the afternoon.

I don’t know how much this came to because a friend was picking up the bill, though I can tell you that as before the English wines, in particular an orange wine from Litmus, were delicious. Speaking to Andrew Sheridan afterwards I got the feel for his vision of what Craft should be; a full on celebration of the seasons of the UK, laid out simply and without compromise. I have a lot of time for that. Just two weeks into his appointment we got a sense of that and it really delivered. The future is a bright one for Craft.

As ever, A2B got me from A to B.

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