Fine Dining

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.

Chakana, Moseley

The menu at Chakana is full of ingredients I am unfamiliar with. I’d heard of yucca because that’s what they eat on Shipwrecked to not die, and Andean Kiwacha, though I thought he played for Arsenal. Huacatay? Bless you. And something called Tiger Milk which I was pleased to hear is not from a predator’s teat. It’s a lot to take in and many questions are asked. Peruvian food simply isn’t well known north of London. Sure, we have ceviche made by chefs who think that a bit of lime juice on some raw fish will do it, but nothing like Lima which became the first (and only) starred Peruvian in the UK six years ago. Until now.

The chef who won over Michelin in 2013 has a new home, swapping bohemian and artsy Soho for bohemian and artsy Moseley. Robert Ortiz, if our brief encounter is to be believed, is here six days a week, working hard in the kitchen whilst the who’s who of the Birmingham hospitality scene handle front-of-house. The interior matches the tone of the food; it’s bright, and eclectic. The heavy textures of the white walls offset are by bright blues; it’s tasteful and very handsome.

This is my first real experience of this cuisine and I’m impressed. Very, very, impressed. We start with tuna ceviche, the ultra-fresh fish dressed prettily in the pink tigers milk. It’s a million miles away from the ceviche I’m used to: the dressing on the fish keeps going; first acidity, then heat, finishing with a little sweetness, yet still still allowing the tuna to be the star. We follow this up with two from the causas section, which are essentially defined by the cold potato bases. Both the chicken and the king crab are excellent, though if pushed to pick I’d choose the crab one which had less sweetness and more of a chilli kick. Again both are as a pretty as a picture. I’d imagine that some people will order and just stare at the food. We certainly did.

Mains are more wholesome offerings. On paper they appear to be protein and starch, though there are complexities in the subtle spicing and layering of the dishes that lift everything. Beef is marinated in vinegar and chilli so that the pink flesh has a back-note of being cooked over flames. There is a charred corn cake, clusters of black quinoa, a kind of nutty salsa and a purée of something fruity, hot, and squash-like. Apologies if the descriptions are vague; it’s a lot of stuff I’ve not eaten before. I just know I’m intrigued and I want to eat more of it. It is the suckling pig that steals the show. It’s Birmingham’s must-eat dish at present. The slow cooked meat collapses easier than our economy, the sweet yucca root is crushed and cut with herbs and the occasional pop of a tart berry that reminds me of sea buckthorn. There are chillis that linger on the back of the palate and root crisps that give the required texture. It’s an accomplished dish well worth £18 of anyone’s money.

If I’ve fallen into hyperbole, then I’m sorry but there is more to come. Desserts continue the trend for me wanting to go back and eat everything. For now you’re just getting the alfajores. It is as it is sold to us – as a dulce de leche custard with meringue – yes, your dreams really have been answered. The dulce de leche is rich, with coffee and caramel notes, the Italian meringue ethereally light. Claire describes it as the best Angel Delight you’ll ever eat, which is why I’ll always be the second best restaurant blogger in our household.

With this we drink some very good cocktails and enjoy a couple of glasses of very nice wine, gently coaxed into our decisions by a team who are well drilled in all things Peruvian. There’s nothing we didn’t love about Chakana; the cooking is interesting and delivered with real skill, keenly priced, and unlike anything we’ve ever had in Birmingham. Since our lunch I’ve been weighing up the score in my head, wavering between a nine and the ten. But this is my blog and my rules, so it’s top marks. The reason is simple; Chakana is easily the most exciting opening of 2019. You absolutely have to try it for yourself.

10/10

Chakana-restaurant.co.uk

I’d strongly recommend several pisco sours and an A2B home

Opheem, September 2019

We start this piece on Opheem right at the start of the meal. It is where all of my pieces should probably start but never do, given my tendency to try to hook your attention with a story about my upbringing, my alive parent, my dead parent, or that one time I went to bandcamp. Right now we have food to talk about – a lot of food – so we’ll jump straight in at the start; us sat on one of the large circular tables, peering through the large letter ‘O’ which frames the open kitchen where chef Aktar Islam and his brigade are hard at work. Aktar is hunched over the pass, the quiff of his thick black hair fallen forward like a curtain between his face and the dining room. We on the other hand are a glass of champagne down, happily watching this in serenity under the slowly fading light. The first canapes arrive; duck ham with orange is wrapped around a feather, compressed cucumber with a little spice, a tart with the lightest of cheese mousse inside. A cube of toasted bread is next, the inside filled with bone marrow, the top with fig and onion. The flavour is huge. Then the lamb paté, though now the bread has changed to a brioche made with lamb fat and topped with crispy onions. If the kitchen look like they are hard at work it’s because we haven’t got to the first course yet. The generosity towards diners often talked about At Opheem has never been more noticeable.

What is just as noticeable is how far this restaurant has come in a short amount of time. The swagger is there, rippling from the kitchen to the front of house, each knowing that Opheem has gone from a restaurant with a serious amount of potential to one that is fully realising it. It appears to this untrained eye that every detail has been readdressed and improved where needed; that bread and pate course probably didn’t need changing from the sweet potato bread, but they’ve gone and bettered it with the lamb-fat-brioche-thingy. It takes bollocks to do that. Massive bollocks the size of the ‘O’ on the pass window, and the slightly bigger ‘O’ outside on the wall. One is always bigger than the other; they’ve even got that bit of detail right.

Now before we get on to real food I will offer an apology of sorts: when the outside gets dark, so does the inside of here. What started off as great lighting for a food blog quickly turned into my phone not knowing whether to flash or not, a problem I constantly have to fight with myself. So sorry if the food doesn’t look as good as it should. The first course is tandoori carrot, with pickled carrot, carrot puree, spiced carrot soup, carrot tuile, and lentil pakora, because everyone knows you don’t put carrot in a pakora (I have no idea). The dish shimmers with vibrancy; undeniably carrot, it zips between the light acidic notes, the sweeter ones, and the gentle hum of cumin. The tuile at first seemed superflous, though the charcoal in it worked at accentuating the notes from the tandoor, which is why they are top chefs and I’m a prick with a keyboard. The soft shell crab follows; it’s a bonafide classic which made my top five dishes of last year and if anything has only got better.

We move onto a scallop the size of a babies fist, cooked one side only to a crust and drapped in lardo that slowly spoons the side of the shellfish as the fat warms through. It sits in a broth made from the off-cuts off the kitchen; the vegetable waste, prawn heads, gnarly bits of back bacon, spiced and then sharpened with a variety of lime I’ve never heard of so that it has a smokey hot and sour soup vibe to it. Thinking about it now it was probably my favourite course. I liked it a lot more than the cornet of red pepper ice cream dotted with green strawberry that follows, mostly because it reminded me of sucking on a paper cut, a reference that my other half described as ridiculous. Stone Bass is next, the fillet cooked accurately and the head meat a rillette underneath cut with lots of garlic. The courgette puree and pieces of baby veg, along with the potato fondant could have been classically french until the sauce of raw mango and coconut is poured tableside. This brings everything to life, adding a fragrant and perfumed quality to an already stellar dish.

Then there are the two main meat courses. First up is chicken jalfrezi which is about as traditional as I am modest. The Cotswold breast meat has been cooked sous vide and then finished off under the salamander with a topping of the chicken skin, a little fat (I think) and a little spice. This sits on a ‘keema’ of the pulled bits of the bird, heavily spiced and very possibly in my list of favourite things I’ve ever eaten. If Claire wants the broth for lunch everyday then I want a vat of this. A keema this spicy and tasty doesn’t just make your day, it makes your hole weak. The rest of the plate pays homage to the traditions of the dish without needing to go down the route of cast iron bowls and menus under glass tables for authenticity; a red pepper and naga chilli puree, shallots pickled and then charred, spring onion, one of those complex sauces which Aktar has rightly built his career (and previous tenures) upon. By now I’m praying to the food god to offer some relief, though he doesn’t exist so it’s on to the lamb. Barbecued loin, bread filled wih confit shoulder meat, the most morish of ‘kebabs’ rolled-up and coated in crispy onions, courgette, and a bone marrow sauce cut with enough herb oil to give it the acidity it needs. I was going to avoid mentioning the M word in this piece, but this is one star cooking, absolutely no questions about it.

Aktar comes to the table. He’s got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, he’s got whozits and whatzits galore. The trick of poaching the chai flavoured mousse in nitrous oxide might be straight out of The Fat Duck, but it works; the meringue-like structure dissapates on the tongue, leaving nothing but the notes of cinnamon and cardamon. From there we have the highest quality of cherries with sweet cheese that has been quickly frozen to an ice cream-like state, a riff on a Feast ice lolly filled with mango and coconut, and finish off with a rich ball of chocolate and raspberry. Yes, they are showing off but they have every right to; the quality of desserts here has increased dramatically of late.

The sum of this is what Claire would describe as the second best meal she’s eaten in her four years in Birmingham. It’s not difficult to see why; the cooking has gone up a notch in a short time, with those premium ingredients treated with the respect they warrant. Birmingham has a plethora of brilliant restaurants, each doing their own thing, carving their own path. Based on what we ate over this glorious evening Opheem has to be mentioned with the very best of them.

Want to mention the best taxi companies? The list has just one name. A2B.

The Ritz, London

So, it turns out The Ritz is really nice – who would have thought that? They’ve really nailed the five star luxury hotel. From the greetings at the door, to the cloakrooms, to the Rivoli bar with the cocktails that start at £22 and soar through the hundreds, to the gent’s toilets with the expensive toiletries, shaving kits, and warmed thick hand towels. Not a detail has been overlooked in the experience. It succeeds in the sense of occasion: from the generations of ladies celebrating the youngest’s imminent trip to university; to the couple posing for pictures on the staircase prior to their afternoon tea; to us waiting patiently for the dining room doors to swing open at 12.30pm sharp, everyone is dressed-up to the nines and ready to splurge. It is a place of overstated taste, gold-licked, regal and utterly charming in the most British of ways.

I’d built up an idea in my head of what it would be like from the TV show and the countless blogs I read. Some of it rung true; the majesty of the dining room and the dove-tailed waiters gliding around the room whilst the pianist tapped out the safest of Ed Sheeran melodies. Others less so, resulting in a very nice lunch that cost well north of three-hundred-notes but felt like it could have been better value on another day, or maybe for another punter. Take the canapes; the gougeres I’d read so much about are nowhere to be seen, and whilst the ragstone cheese on the parmesan biscuit and the sorrel emulsion on the spoon are very classy, I was kind of looking forward to the coronation chicken cylinders, or even the beef tartare nibbles that seem to blow certain people away. If there is truth in the “we are pushing for the second star” spell then it is a curious statement. They seem to have taken away the more elaborate start and replaced it with a reduced Saturday lunch service for us weekend tourists. I feel a little short-changed and this is before we get to the winelist that starts at £50 a bottle and offers zero value at any point. We opt for a young Latiffe that drinks well enough despite its infancy.

And for this start I’m conflicted because it is clear they are operating mostly at a two star level. The first course of langoustine has beasts of crustacean, all curled up and cooked for possibly a second or ten longer they need to be. What makes this dish is the nage; a sauce of shellfish stock, white wine, herbs, and lots and lots of butter. It is a about as good as sauces get, the ideal foil for the sweet langoustine and anise of fennel nestled underneath. The other starter is veal sweetbread, ariving tableside still smoking in the box of smouldering hay. The sweetbread is probably the best I’ve ever eaten: soft, unctous, and yielding with a light backnote of smoke, paired with an onion jam, shallot and another of those deeply flavoured sauces.

For main we take the beef wellington, a snip at £90 for two. It’s listed with celeriac (very much there) and Perigord truffle (only in the sauce), though also come with some seasonal veg, wild mushrooms, and a side of pastry ends which must be the most Northern side dish to ever appear in Mayfair. It’s very good and overly generous in portion. The pastry is super buttery, the cook on the meat is spot on and the foie gras that runs through the centre a welcome bit of fattiness. I get nowhere close to finishing it.

In keeping with the theme of me pissing and whinging about expectation, I’d sold the idea of the gateau St. Honore to Claire on a picture I’d found on the internet from, you guessed it, The Ritz. On that image layers of pastry, apple, and creme diplomat are topped with elaborate garnishes of sugar, nuts, and delicate chocolate work. The one we got served looked like the technical challenge attempts from Bake Off in comparison; two layers of the puff pastry, each half-piped with cream and the other with apple filled choux buns, almost inedible due to the thick caramel covers that threaten to do more damage than the bill we’re about to be served. In truth it wasn’t a great course; one dimensional and flawed technically. It’s also the small matter of £36. Good job the petit fours were stellar.

It’s The Ritz – we don’t come here expecting it to be cheap – but the final bill of £350 for two felt steep for the experience we personally had. In my eyes it was disjointed; unashamedly stoic French in design, they omitted the little touches traditionally associated with Escoffier’s haute cuisine (the amuse bouche, the pre dessert) for a streamlined service that still takes the same dent out of the wallet. The food is lovely, absolutely no doubt about that, but I wouldn’t rush back. Maybe I built it up too much in my head, but for all the good stuff going on in this grand dining room, you can’t help but think that some people are getting it just a little bit better.

7/10

Craft Dining Rooms, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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

Gauthier, London, 2019

The set-up for the BST festival is a shambles. Weaving our way past the pissed groups of girls here to sing away their heartbreak to Florence and her Machine, over the blanket-marked territories of young families far too in-field for nappy changes, we find ourselves at Hyde Park border control some 100m away from the stage. From here we can see the barren gap of high-vis jackets keeping us, the fans, from the front pit containing, err, not many people at all. That pit, we would find out, is made-up of those who were first through the doors, those who paid a chunk more for the privilege, and those whose careers amount to posting pictures on Instagram as ‘collabs’. I don’t like those who are in it for the ‘gram: the free-loading, waste of perfectly good oxygen, self-entitled jizz stains who think that posting an over structured picture twice a day surmounts to a career. It doesn’t. We reach these barriers as the last of Lykke Li’s ‘I Follow Rivers’ chimes out, as a swarm of flailing arms knock the life out of my six quid pint of beer. If only security hadn’t been so quick to spot the Hubble telescope I tried to sneak in I may have been able to get a view of her. We’re here for The National, a band we follow around far too often. They are as glorious as ever; deft and slow burning, with melodies that creep up on the subconscious over hundreds of listens. We find that we are stood in a community of like-minded people who sway and gently sing the lyrics to each song. It’s a moment that not even BST’s pathetic segregation can ruin; The National are as astonishingly good as ever.

We combined this with a restaurant whose tables I have sat at the same amount of times I have seen The National. I have been coming to Gauthier for many years, the first almost ten years ago to the day when my mate Barry and I were in the capital to watch Kings of Leon at a pre-barrier BST. That day our train was late and we never had time to change, meaning that I was in torn jeans and Barry was wearing a vest with a cardigan and dusty pink tapered trousers that sat around the rim of his buttocks and showed his boxers off. The dining room was a staid affair; there were many business meetings going on that all bore witness to Barry Joseph’s stout arse grazing over their shoulders as he walked to and from the loo. If I remember correctly, the two of us got stuck into a lot of burgundy and I barely remember leaving the restaurant, nevermind the gig. My further visits have all been under the guise of happy relationships. They worked, temporarily at least like a bookies pen, helped out by the most romantic of dining rooms, headed up by a front of house team who could polish the most tired of couples into something gleaming for a couple of hours. When we received a voucher for lunch after purchasing a case of rosé from their inhouse wine business, it became clear that it would be the ideal place to eat before the gig. And what a good decision it was: Gauthier was as astonishingly good as ever.

Somethings have changed since the last visit. My view across the table is now different, though more importantly chef patron, Alexis Gauthier, has gone vegan. It’s a move that can be felt even when not eating from the vegan menu given that the nibbles, amuses, pre-desserts, and canapes are all animal and dairy free. We start with a jar of ‘faux gras’ to share between two with a piece of bread each to spread upon. The pâté is a dense mix of mushrooms, walnuts, beetroot, garlic and onions; rich, earthy, and dare I say it, meaty. We have the recipe to make at home.  This is followed by capanota with bread crumbs. The stewed vegetables, consisting mostly of aubergine and peppers, are quite high on vinegar which is pleasing and stops the mouthfuls from being too rich this early on. The breadcrumbs are inspired. It is a very good start. I over order on bread, taking a raisin roll, tomato roll, and cube of basil foccacia. Whilst I don’t care for the tomato bread, or the butter it is served with, I would go back for more of the other two.

Claire has bavette for her starter, the core of the beef the colour of the Merlot paired with it. The meat is on a slab of brioche, with tapenade and pesto; a kind of open steak sandwich that draws purrs from across the table. I go for the summer truffle risotto because I’ve had it before and there was never any chance that I was ordering anything else. Truffles in Europe generally don’t taste of much this time of year (Australian is an entirely different beast), though these are of good quality; perfumed and not too woody in texture. The risotto is superb, light from more mascarpone than parmesan, the grains loose and with even texture. The meat jus around the peripherals adds another layer of flavour. It’s pretty special.

Both mains contain real ‘wow’ moments. A lamb dish has loin cooked to the ideal medium, slow braised shoulder, carrots, and broccoli. We get a little giddy over the heavily reduced sauce which is meaty without overpowering, and tear up over the black garlic gnocchi. This is the reason black garlic is made; to sit within fluffy pillows of flour and potato and load up the umami in tiny steps, not one big crash. Opposite me is cod poached in olive oil and thyme, lightly cooked until the flakes start to part ways on their own accord. There are morels and something called ‘salty fingers’ which is what I used to give to dates in the cinema during my teenage years. The star this time is the fish veloute; lightly licked with acidity and bursting with the taste of the ocean, it holds everything in place, linking the protein, the earthy notes and the salty verdant.

A pre dessert of lemon granita with peaches is contained within a meringue-like structure made from chickpea water, which I decided I would hate before I ate it and then really enjoyed. It made me think that I could come back here and try the vegan tasting menu, until I considered that would mean no truffle risotto or no Louis XV dessert. The latter of those was the choice for both of us to finish lunch, given that I insisted on it. The Louis XV is one of the great desserts, born in Ducasse’s 3* Monaco dining room. It is a posh kit kat with layers of mousse, feuillantine, and dacquoise, which are culinary terms and not Arsenal’s front three next season. It eats like a dream, indulgent and complex. The table next to use are celebrating: “the problem with that dessert is that there is never enough” they tell us between ordering more champagne. They are not wrong.

What I don’t like are the vegan petit fours, because a cake without dairy is just a stodgy clump of sadness. None of this matters though; this was a very impressive lunch in a restaurant I continue to hold in high regard. The bill for the above with two glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine, two ports, and a couple of dish supplements is just over £150 – a steal given the quality. Gauthier is one of London’s top kitchens. I hope to still be coming back in a further ten years time.