Fine Dining

Harborne Kitchen, Bar Menu

Not that I’ve been counting, but it’s been 108 days between the time I sat and ate pizza in The Plough, and this, our first meal out since lockdown was eased, some 250 metres up the road in Harborne Kitchen. And whilst some of you are reading this having already rushed out like we did, I believe it’s likely that the majority have decided against it. I’m not going to judge either way, like the self-defence calling card of the most basic of bitches; “you do you, Hun”, whether that be accepting the risk involved with going out, or staying inside quietly judging those who do. We have accepted the risk and we are here, in a room whose skeleton now holds a post lockdown body. It has extra lines and curves, with deep blue partitions fringed with gold, and a glass screen around the kitchen that still allows the counter seats to function. It feels as safe as a room outside your home can feel, which is the best that we can hope to achieve under the circumstance.

Our visit is purely for the new bar menu. I have a feeling it’s going to be good. Some week before our dinner I bump into Jamie, the chef patron, outside his restaurant. He is full of vigour and romance for the reopening, clearly excited for the separate bar and restaurant menus, along with a transitional space in the centre that allows them to react and change booking sizes depending on which of the two are busier. “I can’t wait to sit in the bar and eat the whole menu” he tells me. I offer to be his company. He quickly changes subject.

In truth I could be sat in McDonald’s and be overcome from thrill of eating out, but this is special. Really special. The bar menu maintains the essence of the restaurant, stripped back and accessible. The only crossover is the liver parfait with sourdough which is the first dish to arrive. It’s big and brash, full of iron offal notes offset by macadamia nuts and strawberry. Then a light courgette dish with pops of olive and buttermilk dressing which would be the only dish I wouldn’t reorder. The most expensive dish is a scallop that clocks in at £12. The shellfish is cloaked in lardo and nestled in a puddle of gazpacho water; a clean, fresh essence of tomato, garlic, and red pepper. It quickly disappears. We drink the last of the liquid direct from the bowl.

The dishes that I happen to think will be most popular are the crowd pleasers. Two chicken skewers are yours for £8, yakitori in style with smokey caught edges and delicate flesh, these need nothing more than the discs of sweet pickled cucumber it is served with. We take two pork belly tacos at £4 each, then two more as soon as we are finished. These are too good. Way too good. The meat is yielding and unctuous, a pineapple salsa sweet and acidic. Our future visits will see us order a portion of skewers each, two tacos apiece and a bowl of barbecued Jersey Royals bravas that tick the boxes between booze food and downright delicious. That food order will come in at £19 a head; a steal for this quality.

This bill doesn’t check in at that figure. Instead we get overexcited about being out and splurge from the little black book of fine wines they have, which are hardly marked-up and available to those who know to ask. We also drink excellent cocktails including a cola bottle old fashioned and a punchy rum number. The total bill is a lot and is no way reflective of an average spend more likely to be about £40 a head. This blog is going to be a little different this year; no scores and no review if it’s not positive given we all have a responsibility to support an industry presently on its arse. No such problem for Harborne Kitchen who have hit the ground running with a new area which is sure to be the hottest reservation this summer.

SY23, Aberystwyth

Never let it be said that I am not invested in this blog. Whilst the rest of the city sit around waiting for their next Captain’s Table invite for a communal get-together of poor food and even worse company, we made the call to continue with our plans to visit SY23 despite the threat to life warning from Storm Dennis. How bad can it really be, we never asked ourselves, as the wind blew both the sea and beach on to the promenade, conveniently closing public access to the bit outside our hotel. Really really bad, is the answer to the question we never asked, as we fought against nature to get through the narrow streets of Aberystwyth and to the restaurant tucked into a corner of a square by the clocktower.

When we do arrive, it’s pretty much as I imagined it would be. This is the first restaurant from the previous head chef of Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s trailblazing restaurant. During his tenure there Nathan had used his previous occupation as a tree surgeon to tap into the local birch for their syrup and helped produce some of the wooden items still found there. He built some of the grills they cook live fire over. And it’s the same here: tables hand built, grill system for cooking over fire hand built, hand-cut sheet of metal bearing restaurant logo. This is very much his work even if the shades on the walls, the cutlery and the plates feel familiar to anyone who has visited his old workplace.

This means it is of little surprise that the dishes follow the same formula of protein heavy, umami-packed flavour bombs. But no complaints here, not when the lunch menu of three courses for £25 might just be the biggest bargain in the UK, backed up by a wine list that offers serious value throughout. Glass of crémant for £6? Don’t mind if I do, and I’ll take a glass of that silky red from Roussillon for the same price whilst you’re there. A loaf of sourdough for the two of us appears that right away confirms we are in safe hands. The texture is good, as is the strong flavour from the local grains. Miso butter brings enough acidity and the entire thing disappears before the first course appears. When that does we are treated to the highpoint of the meal; John Dory topped with nori, soy, with queenie scallops and a crumb made from dehydrating the scallop fringe and then refrying it. It’s an ode to its surroundings; the bounty of the ocean which ends on the coast 100m away. It also has that ideal balance of natural sweetness and lip-smacking savoury. One course in and he’s nailed it.

Main is served in two courses. The first a delicious hot and sour lamb broth with wild mushrooms that is to be drunk from the bowl, the second a lamb rib and slow cooked shoulder combo that feels very familar without stepping into plagiarism. Here the slow cooked meat is fuelled with the deep tang of black garlic and a sticky jus, relying on little croutons and puffed grains for texture and additional nutty character. It’s all perfectly cooked with accurately judged acidity and the kiss of fire lurking in the background. Then the optional cheese course, which, at £6, is far too cheap. A local blue cheese of which the name eludes me, a drift of buttery breadcrumbs, in a puddle of sherry and raisin dressing which is all boozy sweetness. Top produce, not messed about with. It’s exactly what I hoped we would find.

Dessert, in keeping with the rest of the meal, is great. A zesty, fragrant, set lemon cream, with yogurt sorbet, and a burnt meringue. It serves a purpose to finish on a light note, cleaning up the umami and acidity that runs through it’s predecesors. There is a heady burnt butter fudge with the bill that comes to under £40 a head with one us drinking a decent amount of wine.

Now, if I’m being entirely honest, it didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. The restaurant sits above a cocktail bar whose staff were very quick to stop us from going up despite us arriving bang on time. We were then sat for twenty minutes without the offer of a drink until it was alright for us to go upstairs. That silliness needs to stop, especially when Aberyswyth is going to swell with the kind of tourist who might not be forgiving. But after that, once the food and wine arrived, we knew we were going to have a great meal. The guy can really cook and I personally can’t wait to see how his own style develops over time. That said, SY23 is already a restaurant you should have on your hitlist. Get there whilst it is this cheap.

9/10

Ynyshir, February 2020

I hate Valentines Day. Hate the forced romance and the uplift in prices, the public displays of affection, the hand holding, and then the kisses that resemble two fish gulping at air. I hate being told when I should do nice things for a person that I try to do nice things for all the time. I hate the snobbery around it, how it becomes socially unacceptable to eat Pizza Hut on a night when you might normally eat Pizza Hut, but it is okay to eat four courses in a restaurant you would usually only order one in. I hate the marriage proposals. I really hate the marriage proposals. And the price of flowers, and the heart-shaped food that should never be heart-shaped, doused in a sickly amount of saccharine and sold to randy teenagers or adults who really should know better. I hate the cards; either signed or anonymously stalked, with poorly constructed poems and lewd puns about melons, choppers, and jugs. I hate that dining rooms are full of people who are only there because society tells them they need to be. I hate that I did this for seven years because the girl I was with expected it as the norm, and I love that the last two years have been spent on the sofa, watching shit TV and eating homecooked food because she too understands that it’s just another night. And it is just another night.

We spent Valentines Day in our favourite place in the world. It was an accident: honestly. We knew we wanted to return to Ynyshir some time ago, and a look at the diaries left only a few weekends, of which we ended-up knocking the day off and going on the 14th. If you are going to spend that day anywhere, I suggest you do it here, in the middle of bloody nowhere where no additional concession has been made, starting with a duck broth and martini in the bar listening to Boxer on the vinyl record player. Then I suggest you head to the pre-specified room one, washed in petrol blue paint, where the feature windows make it feel like you’re sleeping in the world’s most picturesque cave. We drank Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs and headed back to the bar to drink more cocktails.

The resulting meal is, I think, the best I have ever eaten, anywhere in the world, over the last fifteen years that I’ve taken food seriously. Michelin’s present assessment of one stars is ludricous. Ynyshir are cooking with the world’s best ingridients to a standard that very few are hitting globally. We saw lots of tweaks from our last visit; the Not French Onion Soup is now so unlike it’s starting point it’s dropped the title completely and now just goes by it’s initials. We now start with a chawanmushi base — a silky savoury Japanese custard — dotted with pickled shallots and teeny croutons, and then an onion broth that splits the custard. It’s a more elegant, richer, creamier start that serves its purpose of prepping the mouth for the forthcoming onslaught of flavour. Then crispy duck glazed in hoi sin sauce, and that chicken katsu skewer which I could gladly eat ten of, but only ever receive as a singular no matter how many times I write that sentence on this blog.

Course four brings the first of the new dishes to me. A skewer of otoro tuna belly, sourced from what I understand to be the same Spanish supplier as The Araki, just warmed through so that the fatty cut starts to loosen. This was wonderfully rich, coated in a terayaki sauce that never gets in the way of the fish. Following this is the chilli crab, a dish I called 2018’s best and if anything has got better. The crab is in larger pieces, the sauce with more chilli kick, and now comes with a steamed sweet bun to mop up the bits which evade the fork. Sensational. Mackerel aged in the salt chamber with furikake seasoning, then the two-part cod; the first a slice of black cod, followed by a broth of the bones with shitake mushrooms. Scallop with elderberry vinegar and aged beef fat has gotten bigger; stronger; more defined. A crumb of what I think is dehydrated roe now shifting the centre point of the dish from cow to crustacean. Five consectutive world class fish courses. They might want to change the board near the kitchen which says, amongst other things. ‘Meat Obessessed’.

Next up is the duck liver and smoked eel dish I love, followed by more duck, and the char sui pork belly that has me gobbling down the slices of meat and slurping the liquor like I’ve never seen food before. That pork gives me a boner and I’ve not said that since watching ‘Babe: Pig in The City’. Then the lamb rib which seems less acidic, but maybe that’s because I’m drinking better wine. We get the best version of the cawl dish yet with strands of lamb neck bobbing in a broth that again has me slurping from the bowl.

Now is fireworks. Not genuine fireworks because they shouldn’t be fired indoors, but the proverbial ones that make you stare in amazement and occasionally use obscene language. Because if one thing has changed it is that this restaurant is now sourcing the absolute best in ingredients. The Welsh wagyu once used here was great, but it wasn’t the best, because that happens to A5 Hida from Japan. So that’s what they serve here now; the same beef dishes ramped up to twelve because eleven isn’t loud enough. We get the burger that has a more buttery burst of flavour now, then two courses later the shortrib dish that has a depth of flavour I never knew could come from a cow. Sandwiched in between this is a new dish which could well go on to become Gareth’s signature: a tartare of the sirloin and tuna otoro, a grating of fresh wasabi root, and a generous amount of Imperial caviar. It’s the Ynyshir surf and turf, where the belly works like bone marrow amongst the beef and the rest smashes you in the face with salinity and heat. It’s perfect. Not just a three star moment, but one that stands up alongside any dish I can recall eating.

It was always going to be hard living up to the beef courses, and so the cheese one fell a little bit flat in comparasion. Keen’s cheddar is spun with macaroni that comes out of the machine seconds before and is cooked in the molten cheese, before being topped with pickled truffle that has taken on a dampness and a flavour reminscent of Branston pickle. It’s not my favourite thing of the night. That is rectified by a slushy of rhubarb that takes me long for the sun, and then the white chocolate with fermented black bean that has crazy salted caramel tones throughout. We hit a home run with the nigh on perfect finish of sticky toffee pudding, rhubarb with that insanely indulgent custard, and tiramisu, which I’ll say once again is a three star dessert all day long. Wagyu fudge and dinky rhubarb tarts are served in the bar. I think. I was drinking negroni by now so anything is possible.

A night like this doesn’t come cheap. Dinner is £180 a head in the main room, more where we sat, and there is a hefty (but entirely justified) supplement for the A5 beef. I’ll spare you the total bill but suffice to say that when you include the room, the several bottles we had over dinner, and the cocktails, you could go abroad for a holiday. I mention this because when you book in you should be fully aware of how much it will cost and equally how much it is worth it. The present position of one star in the Michelin guide is ridiculous; more realistic is the Good Food Guide’s assessment of Ynyshir being the third best in the UK. I grab a rum with Gareth in the bar afterwards when he tells me that the plan for the restaurant is to create the best restaurant in the world. Looks to me like he’s heading in the right direction.

Would A2B take me to mid-Wales? I’ll ask them next time

Opheem, January 2020

This was my eighth visit to Opheem since it opened. I am fully aware that there are other restaurants in Birmingham, but Opheem has a brilliant ability to post new dishes online which make me want to book a table to eat them, which I do, very happily. This time it was three dishes all from the new menu; a skewer of chicken tikka, a monochrome monkfish dish, and a goat biryani. I was supposed to go to Opheem with an incredibly nice man called Nick but that was overturned by my evil girlfriend after seeing the image of the chicken skewer. Nick, I’m sorry. We both know you would have made superior company.

Turns out that chicken skewer is worth the trip alone. Served as an amuse, the first bite in the restaurant after the little bits hand delivered by the chef to the bar area, it is Aktar’s homage to butter chicken. Chicken leg deboned, brined, compressed, marinated, and then cooked over fire, served with a chopstick up its proverbial arse and a coating of something buttery and nutty, crisp skin, and puffed rice. It is what you imagine chicken tikka tastes like but never does; a perfect blend of warming spices and juicy poultry. Unimprovable.

Now the boring bit. I’m going to say what I’ve said several times before and tell you that Opheem has improved yet again. The new menu has taken the kitchen to new heights. More processes (I’m told that chicken takes four days) though ultimately less components. Dishes have cut down on the ingredients and focused on ramping up the flavour. Old dishes revisited and improved. The lamb fat bun still has the lamb patè, though now that patè is inside the bun, whilst that bun can (and should) be dunked into a little bowl of spicy lamb broth. What’s left of that broth should be cupped and drank immediately. The first course of the tasting menu sticks with ovine, a mutton ‘porridge’ which is similar to daal in texture only with long braised strands of meat and a deep hit of flavour. Crispy onions and a little bhaji offer a contrast of flavour for an assured and confident start to the meal.

We have the tandoori carrot that you can read about here, followed by a langoustine, caviar, and cauliflower custard dish that I’ve been fortunate enough to try a couple of times during its development. It feels complete now; concise and higher in acidity, it works brilliantly with the tartare of langoustine wrapped up in the celeriac ‘taco’ which cradles a wooden holder to one side. Then the highlight of the meal; a take on monkfish dopiaza, a term literally translating as ‘double onion’. Dark and brooding, the fish has been cooked over charcoal and has just enough smokiness, whilst the onion is present as a sweet compote, spiced roscoff broth, charred shallots, and (I think) crispy spring onion tops. It’s a hell of a dish which could easily sit on a two star menu and not be out of place. It also defines Aktar Islam as a chef: the ability to look at dishes from his heritage and transform them into something refined and modern.

The last of the savoury courses was also the most recognisable: a goat dum biriyani, inspired by the dishes served by his Mother to his younger self, with the pastry lid cut open at the table, as all dum biriyani should. This comes one between two, to be portioned on to the plates containing a goat chop, raita and salad. It is a showstopper, familiar, with an execution of undeniable skill. The biriyani stars; the rice with just a little bite, mingled in with bits of braised goat that whack with spice until licked with the raita. Proper cooking. From the look of social media it appears to be going down a storm. Quite right too.

The first dessert celebrates forced rhubarb, and is, in all honesty, the weak point of the meal given it eats a little one dimensional compared to the vibrancy of everything else. We then move on to a dark chocolate delice with orange gel, and a sweet potato dauphine. It’s a Jaffa Cake we tell them. No it’s not they say. Yes it is: the dark chocolate, the orange, and the dauphine that has a cake-like texture thanks to the choux mixed in with the carb. We’ll agree to disagree here. It’s delicious anyway. There are petit fours because now that they have a star there should be.

The award of the Michelin Star means that prices have risen slightly, but the eight courses at £75 represents one of the best value tasting menus in the region. With this we took the wine pairing that included rose champagne and a very classy Pinot Noir that I am going to be purchasing for home. Service is superb and if they are bored of seeing my face then they haven’t let on just yet. It was as good as rainy Thursdays get. Opheem are unstoppable at present, full of creative flair and desire. Little wonder I’ve neglected most of Birmingham’s restaurants to keep on returning here. Nick, next time, I promise it will be with you.

I travel to and from the best, with the best

Pictures pilfered with permission from the restaurant due to lighting being very low

Moor Hall Restaurant and Rooms, Ormskirk

The design of Moor Hall felt like a collection of our favourite restaurants. The walk from the carpark to the restaurant through the immaculately turned-out garden lined with vegetables and herbs and flowers could easily have been the vast grounds behind The Wild Rabbit. Inside, the large polished kitchen and dining room make use of glass walls to connect it to its environment in the same way that Azurmendi do, whilst the view has a similar serenity to that found in the middle-of-bloody-nowhere at Ynyshir. It’s like they sat down with a blank page and asked what it would take to make the perfect experience, probably laughed at all of the zeros on the page, and then done it anyway. And there is nothing wrong with that.

In fact there is nothing wrong with any of Moor Hall. On the contrary; it is a restaurant defined by a high level of consistency that may explain the two Michelin stars in the three years it has been open, along with its present ranking of numero uno in Restaurant magazine. Every step, from the email asking us to arrive early, to the first courses in the bar, to the tour of the kitchen where the third course was served, lunch, and the small matter of a cheese room (yes, you have read that correctly), felt tightly orchestrated. A lot of thought has gone into every process, but then you would expect this from a Roux scholar who did a stint at Cellar Del Can Roca in between his tenures as head chef at L’Enclume.

We start with charcuterie in the bar, made in-house and some of the best I have ever eaten. Then a parcel of black pudding with a little gooseberry, washed down with a well made martini. Then into the kitchen for smoked eel and fermented wild garlic in a basket of fried potato which was just knockout good. Then to the table for bread with a conventional butter and another a vivid green, blended with parsley and lovage. Three spots each dishing out some very good bits of food.

The following lunch happens at a speed so precise I expect each plate is fitted with a pacemaker. Dish comes, wine is topped up, dish gets eaten, wine gets topped-up, wait seven minutes and dish arrives. Repeat. We get baked carrots with sea buckthorn and Doddington (a hard cheese a little like parmesan), that shows great balance and restraint, and a beetroot dish lifted with a little frozen horseradish and has the bite of quinoa for texture. I usually dislike beetroots; this has me pilfering from Claire’s plate when she’s not looking.

I’ve seen a rendition of the tartare dish before. It allegedly stems from Cellar Del Can Roca and found it’s way back to Cartmel where it’s become something of a signature. Eight years ago, when I first tried it, the idea of charcoal oil to make the raw beef taste cooked was groundbreaking. Now everyone is doing it. This version, with 80 day old beef, barbecued celeriac, mustard, and perfect teeny rings of pickled shallot, seems like the work of a man who has mastered his craft. It’s perfect. A dish with crab and turnip is all about the root vegetable, with the crab fighting for attention. I want to say that crab and turnip is a perfect partnership but I can’t. What I can say is that the turnip broth seasoned with soy is without question the best use for a turnip you will ever come across.

Just one month in, I can absolutely guarantee that the Guinea hen main will be in my top ten dishes of the year. The juicy square of meat with crisp fatty skin, the ragu of offal underneath a cloak of kohlrabi with kale sandwiched between that had been cooked in ham fat. The silkiest of  jerusalem artichoke puree flecked with floral notes, the maggot-like Japanese artichokes which are buttery and nutty, hen of the wood mushrooms, and a jus so clear it could easily have been a reduced consome. That jus got me into trouble with Claire, chasing away at the last of it with my index finger to be told that this isn’t how to behave in places like this. I’ll take the slap on the wrist. There is nothing that could make this dish better. It is an absolute stunner.

We finish on a couple of desserts and the small matter of a trip to a cheese room. First up is a gingerbread ice cream and candied root vegetables under a flurry of pastry sticks, which is grown-up and downright delicious, followed by apples both as a mousse and caramelised terrine. The dish was full of clean herbaceaus notes with birch syrup and woodruff, decorated with the prettiest shards of caramel leaves. Another winner. Then the cheese room, which by now you may have noticed I am a little excited about. Seventeen British cheeses and one from Ireland, all immaculately stored. We chose six between two, served up with quince, red onion chutney, bread, and crackers. Order more wine. My work here is done.

The last time I saw Mark Birchall he was peering out of a gap in the service entrance to the kitchen of L’Enclume, looking pensive. Here, as we are among the last to finish up at lunch he is in a relaxed mood, seemingly helping front of house prepare for that evening’s dinner service. He asks how lunch was. “Pretty much perfect” I reply. Looking back the bill just shy of £300 seems a relative bargain, given the cocktails, the wine, the lunch, and the cheese. Moor Hall is a special restaurant, fully deserving of all the accolades bestowed over such a short period of time.

9/10

Carters of Moseley, Winter 2019

This was supposed to be a recap of both the meals we had booked in at Carters over the festive period, but no, Claire had to pick up a spluttering, bubonic, germfest that had us cancelling all plans and turned me into a tea waiter for two weeks. There are many reasons to hate the know-it-all, boyfriend stealing, Kardashian obsessed, clever clogs tax nazi that is Claire, but few more valid than her ruining me eating good food. As it was, I managed to guilt shame her into getting a curry in as a replacement meal, so swings and roundabouts and all that.

The mathematicians amongst you may have worked out that ‘both’ minus one bout of illness equals one meal. You are going to read about that meal because it was four hundred quid and I want to preserve what already hasn’t been sacrificed to the porcelain gods a long time ago.

It was another amazing meal; I think maybe the best yet. It appears to the eye of this bloated epicurean (yes, I did just refer to myself in the wankiest way possible) that the reins are off and that now we are eating what Brad and the team here want to cook and, more importantly, what they want to eat. Take the partridge that comes at half time; poached in master stock, the bird is butchered, it’s elements cooked seperately, and then reassembled to its original form, albeit axed in two for sharing purposes. The breast meat isn’t going to offend anyone, though some might object to the claws left intact on the braised legs (I don’t), and those people will take equal offence to the skewer of innards which happen to be the best bit. The biggest talking point is up top. The unctous neck meat that leads up the birds skull, beak intact, brain ready to be sucked out. I’m told that this made an appearance last year, but only to the tables they thought would be receptive to it. Now everyone gets it. That’s where Carters is at presently; a brilliant point of realisation of what they do best is what is going out of the kitchen. We ate every bit with Claire not only cleaning the bones but sucking out the last of my share of the brain. It’s yet another reason to hate her.

The rest of the meal was another tour de force of what is right now the best kitchen in Birmingham. The nibbles and bread are pretty identical to this meal, whilst the brilliant scallop brex-o description can save me eighty words by reading it here. We eat barely warmed through razor clams in pepper dulse sauce that is pepe e cacio reimagined by a wizard, followed by sturgeon in a velvety sauce bobbing with caviar. The sturgeon is a new one to me given that I’m only used to eating the eggs of it’s unborn children. I struggle with it as its texture is too reminiscent of trout (the true evil of this planet) though make up for it by mopping up the sauce whilst Claire finishes off mine. She eats mother and daughter. Another reason to hate her.

The menu tells me that we had the partridge at this point, so it’s onto the eight year old Holstein with fermented hen of the wood mushrooms and ‘beer mustard’ which, if I remember correctly from the Calum Franklin event is pickled mustard seeds fermented in beer. I think. They are incredible anyway. The cow meat has a maturity to it that only comes from dairy cattle, layered with funk and umami from it’s accompaniments. It’s a proper plate of food. Then Baron Bigod stuffed with truffle because life is too short to eat it any other way.

I should point out at this point that Alex and Holly had curated a truly fantastic (and very generous) wine flight for Claire’s birthday and I’m less half cut, more impaled on my own spike. It’s all a bit blurry from here on in, which is probably our fault for polishing off a bottle of something fizzy before the food started. There is a mousse of cornish honey with a prettily decorated shard of something sweet and crispy containing the very bits that the bee feeds off. Lucky bee: my diet is made up of bitterness and partridge brain. The last picture I took was of a chocolate and cobnut tart which I remember being delicious. I think there was something after that, though it could just be more port. I think it was more port. We pay the bill and saunter to Couch for more drinks and a rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, capping off a perfect night. The style of cooking at Carters is in a new phase which may not be for everyone. It is most certainly for us. I can’t get enough of it.

Wanna know what else I can’t get enough of? That sweet, sweet 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.

Adam Reid at The French, Manchester

I like Manchester. I know as a Brummie I’m supposed to be belittling it as a way of confirming our rightful status as the second city, but frankly I can’t be arsed. It’s a nice place, the people are kind, and it looks decent even when it’s pissing with rain, which it does every time I visit. They have a proud cultural heritage and in the Northern Quarter have a arguably the best district in the country. Whilst Birmingham is beautifully self-deprecating, Manchester has swagger; an arm-swinging, have-you-shit-yourself, broad simian stroll with added bad haircuts. And it’s wonderful. I think it owes this attitude to it’s music over any artist or football team. The Smiths, Buzzcocks, The Stone Roses, Oasis; they all have that can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it special ingredient that makes Manchester the most musically rich city in the country. But not Simply Red. Simply Red are shit.

They play a lot of that music in the dining room of The French. Over the course of the two hours nestled in the deep boothes, directly under one of the oversized chandeliers, we get Elbow and Stone Roses and Oasis and Joy Divison. It’s just one of many connections to it’s terroir, the glue that binds it to the base of Manchester. It’s an atmosphere that works against convention; the decor is smart, befitting of the five star hotel it resides in, yet the ambience is one without pretence; there appears to be no dress code and everyone – including the staff – look like they are enjoying themselves. This may have to do with the lack of Simply Red. Simply Red are shit.

The opening passage comes thick and fast. A broth is syrupy in texture, with a depth of flavour obtained from browned vegetables and quickly reduced added water. There are bowls of lightly smoked whipped cods roe, to be dredged with shards of chicken skin and lineseed crackers, and then slabs of cheeses and hefty pieces of cold ham with piccalilli and house-made mustard. As fun as it is, it is the most underwhelming part of the meal. Whilst the rest of the menu proves to be high in skill, these feel like a collection of ingredients thrown together for the purpose of generosity. The bread is better and the beefy butter even better than that.

The first course on the lunch menu would sit high on the list of best things I have eaten this year. A tartare of aged sirloin is mixed with fine of dice of root veg, all loosely bound in a mushroom condiment that brings an earthiness to it rife with umami. It does what it intends in riffing on the flavours of a potato hash, albeit with a subtlety and clever change of textures. It is genuinely fantastic; that kind of clever cooking that every chef tries but very few successfully pull off. Then cod with lightly pickled mussels and a chowder that hugs the acidity away. It shows great self-control to let the produce speak in such a simple style. The gamble pays off; we go back to the bowls until all four are wiped clean with the last of the bread.

I’m slightly less taken by thin slices of red deer which appear to have lost more temperature than those being eaten by my girlfriend and her parents. There is plenty of bright acidity in the sauce and from the pickled quince, whilst the accompaniemnts of bacon and mushroom further echo the sentiment of a one-pot casserole. It’s clear that this is where Adam Reid’s skill is at; the ability to take familiarity and spin it on it’s head to something more finessed.

There is no such finesse with the dessert, though nor should there be. This is a plate of food designed to be eaten, not fawned over with cameras. Apples baked until their form has long dissapeared and the texture is softer than the soulful tones of Mick Hucknell. A disc of caramelised pastry and a quenelle of cold custard. I don’t need to tell you what it tastes like because you can probably guess, but I will, because I am better at describing food than you are. It was fucking fantastic. There you go. We get a boozy cake to finish. Also fucking fantastic. You came here for the descriptions and I’ve given them to you.

The bill is £400 for the four of us with a bottle of wine and a round of drinks. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Claire’s father for offering to pay almost half of that. It’s value for a lunch that goes from solidly good to exceptional in parts. It’s clear that the kitchen is around the level it wants to be; the tartare, the cod, and the dessert are clearly at one star level. In my eyes it’s only a matter of time before they get the recognition they deserve.

8/10

Top Ten Dishes of 2019

It’s been a huge year for the team here at MAOV HQ. Starting the year after being named Time magazine’s ‘Man of The Year’, I turned down a knighthood from the queen, Cheryl Hole. I won big at the global blogging awards, scooping the ‘Greatest Blogger Alive’, ‘Lifetime Achievement’ and ‘Most Unnecessary Wordcount’ awards, whilst narrowly missing out on the coveted ‘Best Line’ to Tom Carroll. I was immortalised in paper mache at a cafe in Huddersfield despite never have visited Huddersfield.

All of this is of course bollocks. I’ve learned this year that the ‘multi-award’ bit in my bio means absolutely nothing. If my life goal is to have my face flash up on a roundabout on the inner ring road following an award from a local panel best described as dubious, then I’ve fucked it. Properly fucked it. What matters is that this blog is still read, which it is in the largest numbers thus far, and that it is useful, which I think it is, at least 40% of the time. I’ve eaten a lot of food this year, some good, some bad, some great. Here are the ten best.

10) Tagliatelle with pepper dulse sauce and truffles. (0121) at Carters.

Do you find yourself looking at the menu for Carters and thinking it’s too expensive? Work harder, you shits. 0121 may be the answer for you. An unreserved area in the window by the bar with a small menu made up of ever-changing Carters classics. Think chicken liver cereal, oyster in beef fat, and the glorious scallop Brex-O. The pick was this, the best pasta dish I have eaten this year. Tagliatelle using ancient grains in a healthy amount of sauce that coats everything in a cheesey umami. Add truffle to the mix and you have a bowl of food well worth ruining your shirt for.

9) Tuna Ceviche. Chakana

Robert Ortiz’s plates of food are so beautiful to look at I don’t know whether to eat them or sexually harass them via text message. Go for the former and you’ll be rewarded with the complex flavours of Peru, where the quality of the fish stars alongside the sweet and the acidic. It’s finessed and fun. There is nowhere like it in Birmingham.

8) Roscoff Onion. Harborne Kitchen

I know a man called Rob who writes a thing called Foodie Boys. Rob thinks this dish is worthy of seventeen Michelin stars which demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the guide’s processes. It is, without a shadow of doubt, worth the maximum amount of nine stars that they can award a restaurant, being a comforting and well rounded homage to the humble onion. The best bit is the broth, seasoned with minus 8 vinegar for that sweet and acidic finish. Presently off the menu, I see it returning shortly in the future.

7) McYard. Backyard Cafe

The sausage and egg McMuffin of your dreams. One that runs with the basics of sausage patty and muffin, swapping the weird microwaved egg out for one that has been fried and oozes yolk, they’ve also upgraded the slice of a plastic cheese to a rarebit. And crispy onions, got to have those crispy onions. This could only have come from the filthiest of minds. Little wonder Rich’s partner always looks so happy when I see her.

6) Turbot chop. Riley’s Fish Shack

When I look back at the year one of my very favourite days was in Tynemouth. The sun was shining, we drank wine on the beach, and went to Riley’s. There is something beautiful about eating the produce of the sea whilst the waves break metres from your very eyes. That turbot was sublime; swimming in a garlic butter, the fat flakes collapsed at the nudge of a fork.

5) Bakewell tart soufflé. Craft Dining Rooms

Craft have had an interesting opening six months, changing Head Chef and key front of house on a number of occasions, but one consistent has remained; in Howing they have a pastry chef of serious talent. It’s practically impossible to choose a bad dessert here, but given the choice take the soufflé. Our first visit back in August featured this perfectly risen souffle, almond flavoured with a cherry compote at the bottom, just like a Bakewell tart. One of the very best soufflés I’ve ever eaten and I’ve eaten a lot of the fuckers. With Aktar Islam’s involvement and the arrival of Andrew Sheridan as Exec Chef it’s shaping up to be a very big 2020 for Craft.

4) Chicken Katsu. Ynyshir

The difficulty of Ynyshir featuring in a list of best dishes is that every dish potentially could be included. I’m going for Katsu chicken this year, an obscene mix of meat and compressed skin, coated in breadcrumbs and finished with Gareth’s version of a Katsu sauce which is way better than anything Wagamama have ever produced. Like everything they do here it’s direct and straight-to-the-point; a flavour-bomb of umami and acidity. February’s visit can’t come soon enough.

3) Langoustine. The Ritz

The highlight of my birthday lunch at The Ritz was this dish. So precise in delivery, the lightly cooked langoustines and buttery nage compliment each other perfectly. In a meal I have mixed emotions over, this was a three star moment that will live long in memory.

2) Patè en Croute. Carters and Calum Franklin

So good I almost cried, though with this taking place on a Sunday afternoon it might have been a comedown talking. A patè en croute of rabbit, pistachio, and bacon that revealed an acid smiley face throughout the centre when carved. Brad’s elated face when showing it off to the dining room was enough to make it a highlight of the year, though the flavour catapults it towards the top of the list. Incredible stuff. Holborn Dining Rooms is happening in 2020 because of this faultless meal.

1) Chicken Jalfrezi. Opheem.

When drawing up this list I had to ask myself what was the most important factor. I decided on a simple answer; what was the one dish I wanted to eat over and over again. Given that a battered sausage and chips from George and Helen’s lacks the finesse required to top such an elite list, I decided on the Chicken Jalfrezi from Opheem. It’s a dish that showcases exactly what Opheem is about: that marriage between French technique and Indian flavours; how the breast has the skin removed and is cooked sous vide, whilst the aforementioned skin is blitzed-up and reapplied to the meat to form a cripsy coating to the top of the meat. The picked leg meat turned into a spicy keema. The garnishes of different textures of onion, and the little blobs of naga and red pepper puree to be treated like English Mustard to give bright hits of heat. That sauce, gravy-like, which keeps growing in the mouth. It’s delicious. Like really fucking delicious. So delicious that I have phoned up on more than one occasion this year and asked (mid-week of course) if I can go and eat it as one course. I think it’s thirty quid if they say yes, but they might not, as I imagine that you are not Birmingham’s finest restaurant blog. In a world where I barely have time to visit anywhere twice, I have eaten this five times this year. It’s special. The best dish of 2019.

Top one taxi firm for the year goes to A2B Radio Cars

Harbone Kitchen, November 2019

I can’t be bothered to trawl through older posts for evidence, but I’m pretty sure that at some point in the past I referred to Harborne Kitchen as the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. And it is. So perfect that we have decided to make it our neighbourhood restuarant and chose to spend our first night as Harbornite’s eating there when we really should be unpacking cookbooks and feeding ourselves. In short, the meal was everything we hoped it would be; sharp, precise, and nuanced. The flavour profiles gently layered up, proving that few chefs understand the finer details of ingredients than Jamie Desogue.

We opt for the ‘choice’ menu and supplement it with the onion course, because it’s the onion course and I’m not leaving here without it. We get the nibbles and the bread course, and I order the liver parfait from the tasting menu to start because I’m a gigantic pain in the derriere. This seasons offering is the unconventional pairing of brambles, macadamia nuts, and white chocolate, that really works. The white chocolate creates a fatty layer at the roof of the mouth that holds in the liver flavour, the nuts a contrast, and the brambles the acidity to cut through it all. It’s all very clever. Claire has a mushroom and egg yolk thingy that is gone too quickly for me to try, but she would like you all to know that she very much enjoyed it. The onion course is every bit as good as I remember. I would say you all have to try it, but they’ve since taken it off the menu. The Bastards.

Mains show a different side to Harborne Kitchen, one that cements the choice in moving to this area. A fat fillet of cod has one of those pearlescant centres only acheivable with the correct amount of heat judged over the correct amount of time. The charred hispi cabbage the ideal bridge for a romesco sauce that is light and rife with metaliic, acidic, and garlicky notes. I have a cube of pork belly with head fritter, plums and swede. I’ve eaten elements of this dish in various guises and this is the best yet. The fritter has improved, now looking like a posh fish finger and less dense in texture.  The overall seasoning of the dish about as perfect as it gets. It’s the food that you want to eat after a tough day in the office.

Desserts include an upgraded version of the honey parfait that I’ve been eating since the first visit almost three years ago, and carrot cake with carrot ice cream and coffeee zabablione which I imagine is great at mantaining great eye sight. It was a seriously good dessert, and that is coming from someone who firmly believes that vegetables should be kept out of the sweet courses in a meal.

The kitchen is clearly on form, maybe more than ever, but there is something I want to mention before I finish this up and work on the cover letter for a job I want. The front of house here is a team that not only rivals the best in the city, but is one of the strongest I have seen anywhere in the last year. They all know their respective roles, ducking in and out when needed. And they have incorporated one of the great steals in a wine book that has small number batches of great wine marked-up at levels not seen enough in this industry, encouraging the diner to spend more on better wine. As an example the £90 wine we drank would be in excess of £150 elsewhere thanks to the set margin placed on top. It’s just another reason to visit one of the very best restaurants in a city crammed with immense talent.

I guess I won’t need A2B to get me here anymore, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing the same.