Fine Dining

Legna, Birmingham

I’ve long been of the mindset that Italian food doesn’t translate well into fine dining. That by tidying the edges and reducing the portion side you are taking away the essence of the culture that has family at it’s core. There is nothing dainty about Italians; they welcome with huge hugs and kisses that cover both sides of the face, not gentile handshakes or softly gestured bows. They seldom speak in soft tones, both literally and metaphorically, with their loud voice always joined by gesticulations that reinforce every syllable. This is not the language of refinement: pasta does not need a softness of hand to gently manouvere it into place; it needs a bowl-shaped bed to lie in and a blanket of sauce to keep it warm. A pizza is essentially a sandwich that is not afraid to show it’s true emotions, the risotto a rice dish that never wants to leave home. They are embraces from a Catholic mother. This is the heart of Italian food.

It is also a cuisine that is difficult to perfect – just look what we do to it in homes across this country. Pasta should never be boiled to it’s cooking instructions; it should be taken out of the water two minutes early and teased through a little of the sauce in a pan so that the residual heat finishes it off, with the finished product requiring the same pressure between the teeth as a nipple during a bit of rough and tumble. Ingredients should be as fresh as possible; herbs that release oils between the fingers, and mozzarella that sobs a little when squeezed, not set to the consistency of a cooked cows bollock. The fact that we think it acceptable to construct dishes of this cuisine directly from jars tells you just how much the average person respects Italian food. Perhaps the older generation still hasn’t forgiven them for ze war.

So I was a tiny bit sceptical when I heard the plans for Legna, which is to be a more refined take on Italian food from a non-Italian chef. Si prego. But then it is from Aktar Islam, a man who has done wonders for Indian food next door at Opheem. In truth, I’ve got to know Aktar fairly well to the point that if Legna wasn’t very good I probably wouldn’t write about it. The four hundred words or so it has taken to get to this point can be taken that is worthy of writing about. In parts it is spectacular.

The opening play is gone in a blur of flavour. A little spherified mozarella with basil that needs tweaking, a parmesan cake with black garlic that is a pure umami bomb, the most delicate of grissini and foccacia with oil, vinegar, and a butter that tastes like pesto. We have a bowl of torn burrata, basil pesto, and slices of tomato, onto which a tomato consomme is poured. The burrata and tomato have been flown over that day and it shows; the flavours are clean and allowed to speak for themselves. We devour it.

I’m guessing that the recipe for the pappardelle that comes next has a higher concentration of egg yolk than normal, given the richness of the pasta sheets that retain the perfect level of bite. It serves as a bed for a meat-rich ragu of beef and wild boar that has nuggets of cheek and shin throughout. It is boldly seasoned, enriched with bone marrow and lightened with tomato concasse and a little vinegar. More importantly it encompasses everything that is great about Legna: a homage to the true flavours of Italy whilst using modern technique. A veal dish is given the impossible job of following this. The meat is gentle in flavour in comparison though we love the garnish of charred onion and capanota where the vegetables have almagamated and have just a little sharpness. The use of acidity is very carefully deployed throughout the meal.

We lean into the sweet courses with a ball of tempered chocolate containing a little espresso martini, and finish on a rectangle of lemon tart that has the thinnest of pastry bases and a filling which balances the sweet and sharp with real skill. A lemon sorbet on the side gives it a real cleanness in flavour. It is one of the best desserts I have eaten this year.

And then there is the small matter of the dining room which is right now Birmingham’s most beautiful. From the amber hues of the sleek bar comes exceptional Negronis to be enjoyed at heavy wooden tables under ornate lights. The wine is an all Italian list from which the superb front of house are happy to offer expert pairing advice on those available by the glass. It all makes for a very impressive restaurant; a place that plays homage to core values of Italian cuisine whilst maintaining its own sense of style. I’ve gone to its sister venue, Opheem, more than any other this year, though now it has serious competition for my sterling. Aktar has done it once again; Legna is an absolute joy.

9/10

We dined during a soft launch period and received a discount on the bill.

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Pictures by Claire

Purnell’s in pictures. Birmingham.

If any of the Purnell’s team are reading this, please take this as a public apology. Know that I normally behave far better and I’m not proud of my state in your restaurant. For clarification, we were celebrating Claire’s birthday a little too heavily; Opheem, Arch 13, Nocturnal Animals and Hotel du Vin until the very early hours the night prior. Back in Little Blackwood at 10am for breakfast and a birthday bottle of Nyetimber, The Edgbaston for a quick four glasses of Moët (and a couple of drams of Japanese whisky), Pint Shop, and then Purnell’s for lunch where we were kindly greeted with more of the fizzy stuff. You do the math. It was a lot of booze before we sat down for lunch.

As a result I’ve contemplated not putting this on the blog. I’ve been hazy on detail before, but that usually happens during the meal; I have never turned up for dinner drunk – I happen to think it’s fantastically poor form. I’ve decided to utilise Claire; her pictures and her memory (she skipped many of the morning’s drinks), and just write about the bits I’m certain on. What is clear is that Purnell’s delivered another brilliant lunch; one that is witty and theatrical, that still has real technique and flavour at its core. We have many brilliant Michelin starred restaurants in this fine city, yet none wear all that is brilliant about the city quite like this fine restaurant.

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The highlights were the coal potatoes with chorizo dip that echoed the river pebbles at Mugaritz, the cheese and pineapple that remains one of my favourite dishes in Birmingham, the cod with satay, and a couple of really excellent desserts; a chocolate and mint number that worked on a multi-sensory level, and that brilliantly iconic 10/10/10 egg custard. Service was exemplary from start to finish, the chosen wines from Sonal for each course perfectly judged. It was all very, very good. I just wish I was a little less ashamed of it.

So Thank You to Sonal for looking after us so well, to Glynn and to Luke for popping out the kitchen and saying hello. Claire had an incredible birthday and the two hours at Purnell’s were a huge part of that. If you’ll have me, we’ll come back and I’ll stay sober this time. Purnell’s deserves far more than the above pictures and a few words.

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Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

Core by Claire Smyth, London

I don’t think you ever fully get over losing a parent. Almost four years on, with the pain all but diminished and just the good times lingering on in the heart, I am still reminded of Mom in the smallest of gestures. A few weeks back it was in the bathroom of a flat she has never visited, me bent over the sink, taking that beard of mine down from unkempt to preened. I cleaned out the sink to the best of my manly capabilities; a few hairs remained dotted around the peripherals. I laughed internally. These dozen or so specks of my face will probably go unnoticed by Claire, but to my Mom they would have been the catalyst for war. In her world you left the bathroom as you found it or you risked her wrath. And we never risked her wrath; we were too wise to that. More recently we were sat in Core by Clare Smyth when it happened again; a carrot cooked in lamb fat and topped with straggly bits of the meat, sat in a puddle of heavily reduced cooking liquor. Once again I was a child; six, maybe seven years old, dunking thick slices of Warburtons bread into Mom’s lamb stew whilst watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on telly. A happy place. My mother was generally an awful cook: everything was left on the heat for far too long, which is what made her stews so special. The cheap cuts would be braised down over endless hours so that the fat became wobbly nuggets of flavour and the sinew broke down to nothing. Vegetables would be cut too chunkily so that the edges crumbled and the insides a soggy mess, whilst the sauce had globules of meat fat dotted around the surface and was thick enough to paint a wall with. Everything tasted of lamb. I adored it and this starter in a two star restaurant in West London served as a reminder of why I did. It conjured up memories of the smell wafting through the house whilst Mom and I played cards on the living floor. Of how regardless of how swanky the location the most important ingredients are love and the desire to feed. I could have cried, had I not been very conscious that every member of the floor team had an eye on every movement of every table at all times. Nobody likes a crying diner. They ruin the appetite.

We’d been looking forward to this lunch for some time. I’d eaten the food of Clare Smyth before, a few years back when she was chef patron of Ramsay’s three star gaff on Royal Hospital Road. At that point in my life it was the highlight of my culinary experiences, the first time that food and service of the highest quality alligned. I met her briefly afterwards and thanked her. It is another great memory. Fast forward to a freezing cold November afternoon and we had fought through the tourists of Portobello Road to the smart white-fronted building that bears her name. The inside is deliberatly unfussy. No tableclothes, books elevating lights, neutral coloured walls and tasteful art. The touch of a women is obvious. Nothing is harsh; it is soft and appealing. Claire is obsessed by the dried flowers that are tucked neatly in to the menu and spends ten minutes taking pictures whilst I peruse the menus. £65 for three courses is a bargain, less so the wine list. We take a Beaujolais at £90 that you can pick up for about £30.

Tables are quickly rearranged for the opening play, a spread of small bites on an array of custom made surfaces. A tartlet of eel with dashi jelly, nori, and vinegar is exceptionally well balanced, as are cheese and onion gougeres made with the lightest of choux. Crispy duck wings arrive under a cloche of orange smoke and are quickly devoured. Best is the foie gras tartlet with madeira jelly that is silky smooth and massive in flavour. A wholegrain sourdough follows with butter from Normandy. I’ve become a little obsessed with sourdough of late: this is up there with the very best.

I had that carrot and lamb dish as a starter, the memories flooding back as the rich ovine flavour surrounded everything, with only a dollop of sheep milk yogurt and carrot top pesto for respite. On the side was a little bun made with lamb fat that had more confit meat in the centre. It was designed to mop up the sauce, which we do with great pleasure. Claire had a dish she had long been eyeing up on social media: A pan fried sweetbread with a gently cooked langoustine, pickled carrot and the hint of anise from fennel seeds. To this was poured two sauces that met concisely in the centre; a vin juane and the lightest of lobster bisques. Proper three star cooking that balances the rich and the acidic with ballerina-like poise. It was the sum of equals, where nothing outdoes its counterparts. Harmonious perfection.

There has been much talk of Core’s emphasis on vegetables, though to me the most obvious skill was the continuation of flavour. Just like the lamb carrot dish, my main may have listed Roscoff Onion as the main ingredient but the dominant flavour is that of beef. The onion is beautifully decorated with flowers and stuffed with oxtail that melts in the mouth, with a rectangle of short rib braised for two days. A cylinder of confit potato topped with bone marrow tastes like it has been basted in animal fat, though that could just be the sauce that joins the dots and speaks of multiple days labour. If anything the duck main served opposite is even better, with a breast that has crisp rendered skin and meat the colour of Provençal rosè. To the side is a tart of braised duck leg and grapes. Magnificent. Clever additions of Timut pepper and a gel of honey and thyme add light floral notes. But that sauce! Oh my, that sauce. The greatest I can remember, made with duck juices, Madeira, and probably much more. I lean over to swipe some with my bread; a pot arrives of my own to save me the bother and Claire her lunch. Three star service.

Pre-dessert is an apple in appearance and unadulterated flavour. A caramelised apple mousse contains a centre of diced apples in brandy, which combined riffs on the flavours of toffee apple. It’s about as simple as the meal gets. Of the two desserts I am less fussed with the carrot cake that mimics the appearance of the starter, and more taken with their take on the malteaser. It’s a crash of malt, chocolate, and hazelnut on a plate of elaborate feathers. For the first time I finish a course faster than my other half. It is that good.

Petit fours of molten chocolate tart and jellies of sweet wine traditionally conclude the meal before a tiny birthday cake arrives. It’s the little touches that count. Lunch clocks in just shy of £300 and for once I don’t bat an eyelid. It feels value given the level of food and service received. It’s one of the best meals we’ve had, where the flavours are massive, the presentation beautiful, the service slick. It evokes memory of the past whilst pushing boundaries. In the year since Core opened they’ve attained a perfect ten in the Good Food Guide and two Michelin stars, whilst Clare herself has been awarded the world’s best female chef. It seems only a matter of time before Core emulates the previous home of its chef and is awarded the ultimate recognition. Make no doubt about it, this is a true three star restaurant in every sense.

10/10

Pictures by Claire

Opheem, November 2018

Let’s cut straight to the chase: last week I had the best curry I’ve ever eaten. Better than the original Balti houses found within our once revered triangle. Better than the Michelin starred Indian restaurants of London. Better than anything I ate in Goa, and better – her words, not mine – than anything Claire has eaten in her multiple trips to Indian, including the Taj Mumbai. You want to know the place? Good, because I want to tell you. It’s Opheem.

These curries only exist away from the weekend, found in a little insert in the centre of the menu marked ‘traditional’. It is within this short list that Aktar Islam steps away from his more contemporary style and looks back to the very dishes that shaped him as a chef. We have slow cooked bits of mutton barely coated in a thick tomato gravy studded with cardamom, and a take on the ubiquitous Chicken Tikka Masala that draws groans of When Harry Met Sally pleasure. Both are decadent and original interpretations with not a stock sauce in sight. Both are so big and rich they demand a lie-down. I’m pretty sure that neither is very good for you, but frankly, that is the last of my concerns. Arteries? Who needs them. With this we order potato wedges tossed in toasted cumin seeds, rice which separates as easy as a Hollywood marriage, a daal, and the lightest of garlic naan breads. It is all mind-blowing good. The marker for all other curries from now on.

There was stuff before this, and I apologise for the effort you’ll need to make in casting your imagination back to before the curry, but this is my narrative and if you don’t like it then go read the other shit available. We start off with spoons of spicy beef tartare and spheres of spicy tamarind water which sit either side of a ball of sesame seed and dehydrated strawberry. It was this last item that evokes most conversation; the sweetness quickly giving way to a long nuttiness that evokes the sweet and savoury style of Indo-Chinese cuisine. We get the bread and paté course that has shrunk a little in size yet still packs a huge punch in flavour.

And then there were two courses to precede the mains; a mutton chop marinated in hung yogurt and then blasted through the tandoor so that the crust gives way to pink meat. It comes with a pumpkin thrice; a soft julienne, little balls and a puree, each showing that despite Aktar’s roots in the food of India, he understands the importance of texture and layered flavour. The soft shell crab dish has become less cluttered on the plate, the main attraction now carved in half and sharing a space with a crab cake and loose pate. The crab is still the star though this now fresher with more natural acidity. Without wishing to dive into names, Claire compares this to another local Indian that may have some association with the chef here. They also do a soft shell crab, though this makes theirs look like a ‘child’s rendition of the Mona Lisa’. She can be so cruel. There is an intermediary course of rosehip and beetroot that is too sweet to sit where it does. It is the only thing we aren’t crazy about.

After the curry there is no room for dessert, but plenty of room for more gin in the bar area. The bill for the above and a good bottle of wine comes in at around a £100 per head, though this is on the greedy side of both food and drink. You could, and likely will, do it for far less. This is my third time at Opheem, following the first in late spring when I came home and told Claire that it would be the most important Indian restaurant in the UK within two years. She didn’t see it, given that her only experience had been on the first night of a soft launch in an unfinished dining room. We hadnt made it through the starters when she conceeded that I was right, which I am. Opheem is a shining light in the Birmingham food scene that not only reinvents the way we see Indian food but also pays homage to its roots. Simply unrivalled in this city.

Opheem (curry is on evenings, Sunday-Thursday)

Transport by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by the birthday girl

Folium, Jewellery Quarter

By the time our booking came around I wasn’t really looking forward to dinner at Folium. It was my fault: I’d made the schoolboy error of going out the night prior at 5pm sharp, returning home not far from the start of the next working day. What had started as a polite dinner with wine, descended into a full blown assault on the liver by grown men who really should know better. We’d found out a national chain of cocktail bars was offering a deal that essentially swapped turnips for drinks, resulting in two carrier bags full being lugged from Five Ways to Brindley Place and then on to the business district. Too many cocktails were consumed, one of the group may have been sick, another struggled to find a taxi willing to take him home. Turnips, eh? Who knew they could be so interesting.

There are better uses for the turnip, as I was to find out the following evening after suffering a hangover so severe not even a lunchtime curry could cure it. Try spiralising it into ribbons, blanching in parmesan stock, and then dressing it in an emulsion of the same cheese. Bury flecks of Hen of the Wood mushrooms and lardo in amongst the twisted pieces of faux pasta, and crown it all with a flurry of grated black truffle. This is what we should be doing with turnip; not swapping them for poorly made Zombies. It was a stand-out dish in a meal that hardly ever missed a beat, later to be described by Claire as one of her favourite dishes of the year. And this must be true for she pilfered several forkfuls of mine. It had bags of flavour; reminiscent enough of carbonara for it to feel familiar without the nostalgia attached.

This was course two of six at Folium, a restaurant we’d been meaning to get to for ages yet had never quite gotten around to it; a mistake we won’t be making again. The room is modern and sleek, making the most of the large windows that peer out towards St Paul’s Square. The centre is dominated by a drinks station; the space to the left the pass from which chef Ben Tesh is hard at work. We start with the most delicate of crab tarts given an extra fatty layer from grated duck liver, and move on to layers of cod skin cleverly crafted to look like oyster shells, which are to be submerged in a piquant tatare of oyster emulsion. The sourdough which arrives shortly after these is a work of art; a tight, chewy, crust holding a crumb that is light with uneven pockets of air. So good that I forgot what the butter was like. I’m calling it now: this is the best bread in Birmingham. It is a great start and we haven’t even started properly yet.

The menu starts with smoked eel hidden under a cloud of potato seasoned with chicken skin. The dish has swagger and big hitting flavours. We have the turnip course and then a glistening fillet of turbot. The fish is glorious, dotted with a gel of champagne vinegar, with potato puree and a dashi poured tableside. The genius addition is hay smoked butter that adds a perfumed richness. It has acidity laced throughout. It is an absolute stunner. Lamb follows this, both as a piece of pink saddle and slow cooked neck that it is sweet and soft. We get jerasulem artichokes in various forms including a blob of the silkiest puree, and sea vegetables carefully tweezered into place. In the middle is a sauce that speaks of time and precise seasoning. I ask for another piece of the bread and ensure the plate returns back to the kitchen clean.

The first of the dessert courses is a herbaceous green granita spooned around an unsweetened ice cream of sheep’s milk yogurt and aerated pieces of white chocolate. It’s over-shadowed by the last course: a chocolate creameux covered in a drift of cobnut crumb, with a salted milk ice cream and shards of milk skin tuile. I can’t pinpoint what chocolate bar this reminds me off, but who cares? It’s addictive with a pleasing salt content. It is also one of my favourite desserts of the year.

Service, led by Ben’s partner Lucy, is excellent, with a young and enthusiastic team. Wine is topped-up accurately, dishes explained with real knowledge. It makes the bill – just shy of £200 for two with a bottle of Beaujolais and a glass of dessert wine – feel real value. They have something special going on here, confirmed just 36 hours later when Marina O’Loughlin writes a glowing review in The Sunday Times. It makes this post somewhat irrelevant. Don’t listen to this minor blogger, read the words of one of the finest restaurant critics instead. She thinks that Folium is brilliant, as do we. You really must go.

9/10

Folium

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by Claire

Harborne Kitchen, October 2018

It feels like every other weekend over spring and summer we were out of town. We’ve been lucky this year; our travels have taken us all over the South coast, into the second city, London, on a couple of occasions, with a similar number of trips to mid-Wales for a certain restaurant. We’ve been to Dublin, and hit food meccas Lyon and San Sebastian for long weekends. Claire has made it to Colombia and New York, whilst I was offered a very fair price to punch a dwarf in Prague (I reluctantly turned it down). We’ve done our bit for the global economy by eating and drinking as much as possible in all of these places but we’re out of annual leave and hard cash now, so it’s time to change tactics. It’s time for us to put our money into the great independents we have in this city, the ones that we’ve neglected a little this year. Over the last few weeks we’ve been to The Wilderness and the below Harborne Kitchen. We have trips to Folium, Opheem, Purnell’s, and Nocturnal Animals coming up very soon. We’re doing this because these places don’t get written about nearly as much as they deserve. Compare these to the number of blog posts for the restaurant in a retirement village that’s handing out free meals and you can see where the best places are going wrong: they’re charging for food. How dare they.

Still, we’re not going to let such a small detail derail us. We love Harborne Kitchen; it’s Claire’s favourite restaurant in Birmingham. I’ve never asked her why, though I assume it has something to do with the relaxed atmosphere, the cool interior, and them not looking down on her when she gets shit-faced by course four. This meal, the fourth in twelve months, continues the trend of improving with every visit. How Michelin overlooked it for a star is beyond me, though if they continue to cook at this standard it seems a given.

There are new nibbles alongside the ox tongue in the way of scallop roe emulsion on crackers tainted with squid ink, and a witty take on cheese and pineapple. Both the bread options are still there and we still can’t agree about having a sweet malt loaf so early on in the meal. I can’t tell you what the salmon is like because the stuff makes me gag. That and cock. I have a Jerusalem artichoke veloute with confit artichoke, camembert mousse, and hazelnut pesto that tastes of the woodland floor, whilst the better half has the wagyu and celeriac lasagne. Utter filth it is, straight into the top five dishes I’ve eaten this year. Sheets of crisp celeriac stand in for the pasta, holding a ragu that makes a case for all animals living a life of booze and daily massages before the trip to the slaughterhouse. A rich cheese sauce is poured tableside that quickly mingles with the basil oil. The dish straddles the line between familiarity and intelligence. It is comfort food of the highest order reminiscent of the fried pizza bread and tomato sauce at Le Calandre. I like it that much.

If you ask nicely they’ll let you play around with the menus here, so we dip into the tasting menu for a supplementary fourth course. It is another stunner. Roscoff onion ring and blue cheese mousse on the silkiest of mash potato might not sound much but it is the broth of onion cut with minus 8 vinegar that transports it to another level. The flavours are huge. Claire’s sister follows this up with cod that riffs on Southern India with a slightly acidic curry sauce, bhaji, and vibrant dhal. Over the period she stays with us she regular reinforces how she doesn’t do ‘posh food’. Not a scrap is left.

Of the other mains we have a pork tenderloin with brawn fritter that first goes dark with heady bits of blood pudding and prune, before lifting it with the lightest note of marjoram. Being a gigantic pain in the arse, I take my main from the tasting menu at the supplement of a tenner. The Longhorn sirloin is good enough to convince me that conventional cuts of beef aren’t that boring, but the party is going on at the level below. A wagyu brisket that breaks down easier than Britney Spears on a break-up, with a mushroom dashi and barley risotto. It is a big mess of umami and meatiness, another comforting dish that packs huge flavour.

We don’t have dessert tonight because we are already late for the rest of the evening’s plans. The bill for three of us eating from the ‘choice’ section (a la carte to you and I) hits just shy of £180 for the four courses, a bottle of white burgundy, and two glasses of expertly chosen red from Ben – one of the city’s most charismatic and knowledgeable sommeliers. It is more outstanding value from a restaurant that knows and appreciates its audience. Travel gives you perspective; it makes life richer with experience and opens eyes to how others live from day to day. It also makes you appreciate what you have at home. Birmingham is an amazing place that I only ever fully admire when I’ve been away. For all of the places we should be proud of and supporting, Harborne Kitchen should be very high up on that list.

Harborne Kitchen

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Pictures by Nosh and Breks

The Wilderness, October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wilderness

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Pictures by Nosh & Breks

Ynyshir, August 2018

The morning after our dinner at Ynyshir we are back in the restaurant eating breakfast. Perched on the pass bench we can see the kitchen hard at work whist Marvin Gaye hums quietly in the background. The smell of bacon lingers in the air. The team are in a great mood, poking gentle fun at one another whilst poaching eggs and frying off the lamb patties, happy to engage in conversation despite the late finish and early start. It was during these exchanges that we discussed ambitions, with one chef saying that after Ynyshir he would only want to work at Nathan Outlaw; to learn fish in the same manner Gareth Ward had taught them meat. This statement only sunk in during the long drive back to Birmingham. In the same way Nathan Outlaw is the place to go for seafood, Ynyshir has become a meat mecca without ever labelling themselves as such. The treatment of animal – from the salt rooms through to the cooking – is like nowhere else. And the team here know that, describing the present feel in the kitchen as similar to ‘the Harveys days’ when a young Marco Pierre White ripped the arse out of cooking in this country, leaving a legacy of shit chain restaurants and ultra talented chefs such as Gordon Ramsey, Phil Howard, and Stephen Terry.

It appears that the association with Harveys may not be far off the mark. As of this morning, Ynyshir have leapt into the top 5 list of the Good Food Guide with Gareth Ward named Chef of The Year. It’s phenomal work for a kitchen that refuses to stand still. A couple of weeks back we saw this firsthand, perched high upon the chef’s pass seats for this, our fourth meal there in a year. I won’t run through all twenty-odd courses again, instead I’ll focus on the new dishes, or those that have improved. And a few favourites: it would be a shame to leave those out. What I will say from the top is that this was the best meal yet, a nigh on perfect riot of flavour that consistently hit the two star standard and occasionally the level above that. Ynyshir is worthy of a special trip. Everything about the place, from the rooms, to the mountain views, the firepit outside, the drinks programme, and especially the restaurant, has a certain magic about it.

After the ‘Not French Onion Soup’, the crispy duck leg with seasame oil, and the bread course starter procession, we get the first of the new dishes on tonights menu. Mackerel cooked under the heat lamps, in a puddle of fermented raspberry juice with the same fruit frozen, and a little freshly grated wasabi (you’ll get none of the dyed green shit here). I have a little issue in general with oily fish, though I really like the clever interplay between the acidic, the sweet, and heat. What follows this is the best thing I’ve eaten this year: crab katsu has picked white meat coated in a katsu sauce that is instanstly recognisable, yet so much better than the Wagamamas version you are now thinking of. All it needs is a soy dressing enriched by the shell, and a little puffed rice for texture. Perfection.

One of Gareth’s main skills is the construction of dishes that have instant conection with food memory. In a similar way that Heston links meals to book narratives or childhood, many here are instant riffs on takeaway dishes, or fast food. We get Char Sui pork which are cuts of slowly cooked pig belly that melt in the mouth, sat in a puddle of the cooking broth. There is duck kissed with hoisin sauce and blanketed in a slice of compressed cucumber. Both in theory could be ordered with a hangover and ate in front of the telly. Neither would taste as perfectly rounded as this. The Wagyu beef burger course is the ultimate Big Mac. You cant help but smile whilst eating.

The whipped foie course has been upgraded to a fermented bilberry juice that cuts through the richness even better than its predecessors, whilst a new dish of tomatoes with lardo is fresh and unuasually restrained for the kitchen. After this is a flurry of our favourite courses; Wagyu short rib with mushrooms, that swoonworthy garlic prawn, the deconstructed Caesar salad, the lamb rib that I tell everyone about, and the lamb with kombucha that is a Sunday roast with mint sauce. Claire has the cheese course because her eyes rule her body: I request a short break.

Sweet courses start with a sharp fermented raspberry slushie, followed by a fermented raspberry jam on toasted sourdough. Jam on toast. They should offer that at breakfast, too. The knockout custard from last time returns with fermented blueberries, the dessert courses slowly edging sweeter whilst still staying true to the ethos. We have the strawberry dessert that riffs on summer cup, the tiramisu (still the best dessert I think I’ve eaten), and finish on the Wagyu fat fudge. Four hours done to the vinyl soundtrack of Stone Roses, INXS, and Kings of Leon. I loved every second of it.

Dinner is a boozy one and there are a couple of courses I struggle to remember in lieu of the cocktails and three bottles of wine consumed. This is a birthday treat so I’m not seeing the bill on this occasion, though you should allow a couple of hundred each for dinner and wine, more if you stay over in the beautiful appointed rooms. Stay in the rooms, treat yourself. The fact is that Ynyshir has made me a worse food blogger over the last year; I should be out using this money to eat in far more varied places. But we don’t want to. Everytime the idea comes around to take a weekend treat, it is here that we discuss first and ultimately last. There is nowhere else like it. They are on to something special; I know it, as does Gareth and all of his team. The accolades 2018 have delivered thus far are just the start; this is a restaurant destined to go all of the way to the top.

good pictures by Nosh & Breks, rest by me

Opheem; August 2018

My Dad was born in Aston and he is very keen for you to know that. I think he mentioned it about about a dozen times during a two hour lunch at Opheem recently. He says it to part justify and part bemuse himself at being in such a lavish dining room; his blue floral shirt showing a hint of silver chest hair to match his grey suit jacket, the ornate lights that sit central to the dining room reflecting off his tanned bold bonce. For a sixty-six year old widowed pensioner he’s owning it on his first outing to a restaurant that very much sits in the fine dining catergory. He generally doesn’t do this kind of thing; old Dave Carlo’s experience of Michelin stops and starts with a yearly M.O.T on his car. He is an obstinate creature of habit. Same pub every Friday. Same shop with those increasingly loud shirts. Same curry house with the same dishes everytime. Change doesn’t come easy at this age. But this year I’m committed to showing him the better side of things; he deserves it. Dad is both my biggest fan and biggest critic, he is the first to pick up the phone and tell me when I’ve not treated someone with the respect they deserve; the first to congratulate me when I’ve done well (unless it involves beating him). In the increasing parody that is my life he is my biggest constant and I bloody adore him for it. No matter how many I times I fall it is Dad that picks me up, dusts me off, and pushes me back to reality.

Opheem was in my mind the perfect fit for him: Aktar’s cooking has always for me been about family and generosity. Be it the portion sizes, the unstuffy service, or the nod to his own mother’s cooking, his food is egoless; designed with the diner’s pleasure in mind and never his own. I loved Opheem first time around – it is in my eyes the best opening of the year – and I was keen to say how the kitchen is progressing. Plus we have the added bonus of a new lunch menu which is absurd value at £22 for three courses. If Dad hates it then at least it is not going to be an expensive mistake. He doesn’t, of course. He bloody loves every second of it.

First the difficult bit. Try telling a pensioner whose Indian cuisine point of reference is Moghul in Acocks Green that a sperefied ball of tamarind and chilli water is going to be nice and watch his face. He eventually goes with it and is rewarded by the explosion of flavour that lingers long after the liquid dissipates. It’s properly clever stuff. He loves the pani puri that is layer upon layer of texture and spice, and even tries squid ink cracker with smoked cods roe and garlic. He quickly realises that the gulf between here and what he is used to is a huge one. The sweet potato bread appears with the lamb patè. I wait until he swipes the last of it the bowl before telling him those creamy jewels are brain.

I have mutton kebabs which are pucks of ovine and spice so smooth it is almost patè once you’ve broken through the delicately fried coating. The accompaniments of chopped tomato salad and yogurt mixed with mint are wry nods to the humble curry house. Dad had a dish derived from one of my very favourite things I’ve eaten this year. The ham hock samosa, once an element on the pork vindaloo main, is here the star. It has the same carrots roasted in anise, the carrot puree and the vindaloo puree. It is a beautiful piece of cooking that leaves Dad still talking about it one week after eating it when we meet again for beer and pool. Great food does that; it stays forever in the mind, outliving the eating and slowly morphing into a different beast that becomes a reference point that similar dishes will forever be judged by. I’m lucky to be there when my poppa is having that very moment.

Following an intermediary course of tamarind sorbet with sev and cucumber, we both have chicken for main. Thigh meat in a marinade pungent with herb, in a tomato and fenugreek sauce reminiscent of a certain chicken tikka masala. The chicken on both plates goes in record time, and I unashamedly ask for a jug of that sauce to put the rice and naan bread to use. Stained fingers and beard, the old man calls me classless. I hate to break it to him but I’m not the one wearing a brown belt with black shoes. Dessert is a pretty spiced custard with rhubarb ice cream and a fine dice of the barely sweetened fruit. It’s the only time Dad isn’t blown away. I eat both gladly.

There is an unfair association with lunch menus that the cheaper price means less effort. Whilst that is too often the case, it couldn’t be further from the truth at Opheem. Twenty two pound buys you nibbles, bread, four courses with sundries, and a view of one of Birminghams most talented chefs working tirelessly in his shiny new kitchen. The biggest compliment is given by my dining companion, who comfortably states that if my mother were alive she would want to eat here every night. Proof that Opheem isn’t just for those well versed in these type of surroundings, but for everyone. Even the old cantankerous bastard born in Aston.

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