Gastro Pub

Pure Bar and Kitchen, Birmingham

Unlike most of my culinary ramblings, the post that you are currently reading is not based on my first reaction. There is no need for me to type whimsy about the décor into the notes of my iPhone for later reference, nor did I need to study the menu on-line prior to eating. I knew exactly what I was getting before I sat down in the sparse landscape of bare concrete and metal that is Pure Bar and Kitchen, because I have been eating there well before this blog reared its ugly head. I should have wrote about its virtues long ago had I not been drawn into the blackboard listing endless beers time and time again. It’s the place I always start with the best intentions and leave disappointing myself.

I go frequently because the food seldom disappoints. The menu has clarity, though it should having been designed by the man behind local Michelin triumphs Simpsons and The Cross. There are nods to ales on taps and suggestions for what beers to drink your food with that all tie in nicely with its links to Purity. A small plate of barbecued chicken sees cuts from the breast, leg, and wing cooked accurately. The bird is of obvious quality, the skin crisp and with a back note of Dunkel lager that sits well without overpowering. Soured cream provides the little amount of acidity needed to level it all out.

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I always turn to the scotch egg here. The runny yoke glistening against the still warm layer of minced pig never fails to disappoint. Here was the worst example I have had at Pure Bar, with the yolk all but missing from one half, which still makes it the best scotch egg in the city. What sets it apart from its competition is the beer ketchup, full of umami savour, which should be bottled and sold on every street corner. A thick slice of toasted sourdough with haricot beans steeped in a spiced tomato with pancetta was good, though all it succeeded in doing was make me remember how great the version at Lewis’s was.

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Scotch eggs, beans on toast and bbq chicken.  The more deft of you more may have noticed that the small plates all reference classic pub grub, a theme that continues into the mains.  Chicken Kiev stayed true to its roots with a breast that oozed a garlic heavy sauce when carved.  Its richness countered by a well dressed salad.  Best was the fish, chips and mushy peas.  The firm Fish of the Day (Coley, I would guess) flaking apart at the suggestion of a prod, with good crisp batter.  The peas had enough texture to create interest, whilst the tartar was piquant and sharp.

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We have no room for dessert, though I can tell you from previous boozy excursions that they never fail to deliver on a sweet hit of sugar.  If ever there was a bar and kitchen that was ready to expand its Pure Bar; the food and drink set-up makes All Bar One look like a Weatherspoon.  The food is well judged and deserves a wider audience.  In a market littered with sub-standard chains, it is a refreshing change to see thought gone into every process.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Pure Bar finds its way to other major cities, which, quite frankly, would be a good thing for everyone.

8/10 

Pure Bar & Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Talbot Inn, Newnham Bridge

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It seems obvious, yet so few abide by a simple rule of cooking; start with great ingredients and you will end up with a great dish. I am living proof that with a good butcher (Roger Browns of Harborne, if you’re interested) and a trusty place to get veg, even the most inept of cooks can rustle up something edible. Transfer the produce to someone much more capable and what you have is culinary fireworks. The Talbot Inn, a sleepy pub in Newnham Bridge, doesn’t have far to look for its raw material. Nestled in amongst the borders of Worcestershire, Shropshire, and Herefordshire, it has some of England’s finest bounty on it’s doorstep. From the windows of the former coaching inn it is possible to see tomorrows dinner grazing up on the hills.

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It is pleasing to know that the Talbot is making the most of its location by sourcing as much as possible from its doorstep, and its at these moments that the menu really sings. Bubble and Squeak, a leftover dish often relegated to breakfast in our household, came with a poached egg and a sharp hollandaise that made for a gutsy starter. In between the mound of veg and egg sat a piece of back bacon from a pig that had led a happy life; the porcine flavour present with a layer of unctuous fat to coat the mouth.

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A hefty portion of goats cheese was warmed through came with some lightly pickled pear that provided contrast and acidity.  A fig and balsamic dressing balanced the whole dish out by further interplaying the sweet and the sour.  A fish cake of salmon and crayfish that  benefited from not being overloaded with mash potato nodded politely at the far east with a salad of spring onions and sweet chilli sauce.

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A carefully roasted beef dinner and another of pork both had some good roasties, creamed cabbage, and heritage carrots that were seemingly plucked out of the ground just hours before.  We sat around the table discussing how the meat was of obvious quality whilst agreeing that the carrots were the best things on the plate.  Another plate had more of the superb carrots with a compression of sweet potato and parsnip as the centrepiece.  A tomato and herb sauce added vibrancy to the earthiness of the root veg, all of which were impeccably fresh.

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After all this, desserts failed to reach the expectations set from earlier on.  Not because they were bad in any way, but because they followed the same rustic lines as the savoury courses and lacked the refinement required to make it stand out.  A fruit crumble was well made, though a lemon and lime posset was the pick of the bunch; the marginally over-set cream was sharp with citrus and worked well with both the sweet mango salsa and coconut shortbreads.

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Speaking to our waitress after the meal I got a sense of the ambitions here. The Talbot’s website may play down the cooking here as “relaxed rustic food”, but it’s obvious they are aiming much higher than that.  It’s a well thought out operation with real care made to the sourcing and cooking of its food.  For a business that has only been operating for two years it has found its feet remarkably fast;  it can only be a matter of time before the accolades and crowds come trotting along just as quickly.

8/10

Talbot Inn on Urbanspoon

The Mariners, Rock

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No trip to Cornwall would be complete without a visit to Rock. Whether or not the Camel estuary tide is in, there cannot be many places as equally beautiful and dramatic. It is easy to see why it’s my partners favourite place in North Cornwall though amid the long stretches’ of sand and view over to Padstow I have always found it too aloof to meet my ideal. You can smell the money in the air here. The promenade has 4×4’x as chunky as the knitwear wrapped over the shoulders as its drivers, whilst on the beach has pure-bred dogs nearly as large as its owners trust fund. With such wealth, it is completely understandable why Nathan Outlaw had until recently based his two Michelin star restaurant here. He has since upped and moved to a larger premises and the passing trade of Doc Martin in nearby Port Isaac, leaving behind a gap to fill in the local market. In it’s place is The Mariners, a much more casual offering, steering away from the precise seafood Outlaw has made a name from and in to much more familiar pub food territory.

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Mini chorizo sausages seemed a good place to start a light lunch. Five of them, good meaty things, for a fiver. See, I told you Rock was expensive. A sausage sandwich, picked from the specials menu, saw wonderful things done with onions braised in ale. Less wonderful were the sausages itself, with the casing flaccid in parts from not being sufficiently browned off. Fries were fine.

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On paper a main of pork schnitzel, fried duck egg, anchovies and rocket salad sounded heavenly, though by the time it reached the table the pork had dried out a little and the egg yolk had progressed some distance past runny.  The anchovies were of a high quality and suggested that despite the carnivore offerings, perhaps fish really is the way to go when in a Outlaw establishment.  A meatless Bourguignon had chunks of beetroot as the main element, along with button mushroom, baby onions and a dollop of sour cream for freshness.  It had nice acidity from wine but ultimately was Death by Beetroot.  I get that its the trendy vegetable of the last few years but there is only so many times you can dip a spud into some spiked beet juice before worrying what it might be doing to your bowel movements.

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We never bothered with dessert, mostly because the opportunity for a sunset walk was too enticing, though a glance at a nearby tables indicated that we may have been missing out.  There is no question that The Mariners is going to be a huge success; even on a warm December afternoon both inside and out on the terrace was heaving.  They have the location, the great beers and the backing of a superstar chef, though, for the standards that Nathan Outlaw has set, it felt very much to me like work in progress.

6/10

The Mariners on Urbanspoon

The Highfield, Edgbaston

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Upon entering The Highfield I was greeted four times, which is four more times than I am usually greeted going about my everyday life. I have lived with a women long enough to take false sentiments wherever I can get them, and although it’s nice to imagine each of these polite and smartly turned-out folk actually care for my well being, it’s more than likely this has been ingrained into their psyche. It is this absurdly polished service that typifies The Highfield. It offered immediate reassurance that food was going to be good before I looked at the menu. I knew that I could trust them. Not with my life, mind, but to cook a piece of meat correctly. And last Sunday that was good enough for me.

It takes time to be become this polished, time that The Highfield hasn’t had. It’s a new pub in a new development in Edgbaston that will in time see the cities wealth gravitate towards it. The owners are seasoned professionals when it comes to this type of client, as they already have similar set ups dotted around in nice places just outside of Birmingham. The building is faux Georgian, befitting its neighbours, with the interiors channelling the pizazz of the 1920’s. It’s all monochrome and glass chandlers. Calling it a nice place to visit would be doing it a injustice.

The menu is an appealing mix of pub staples and the more adventurous. A salad starter saw some lovely Serrano ham paired with creamy goats curd and slightly under ripe figs. Unfortunately it was all a bit sweet, even more so with the addition of truffle honey. Still, it was a worthy attempt at offering a cut above the norm. The following slab of gammon was a mighty success. The meat still slightly pink and with the depth of flavour only obtained from a lengthy cure. The poached egg provided richness and the chips were proper things; crispy on the outside and fluffy in the centre. It’s pub grub on steroids.

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The weekend roasts are a further example of how well they understand customers here. The plate contains the main element, a measly two roast potatoes, a Yorkshire pudding and a small jug of gravy. Alongside of this is large bowl of accurately cooked greens. Throughout the meal they visit the table to offer additional spuds and puddings for free, like a U2 album, only wanted. The roast this time being a hefty slice of a vegetarian Wellington, the filling of squash and blue cheese, with the pastry avoiding any sogginess. It was all very good, the spuds in particular excellent specimens.

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In comparison to the mains, desserts were a bit of let down. A hazelnut parfait lacked flavour and any real texture, whilst a chocolate tart, as tasty as it was, was dense and more of a brownie than anything else. Yet, despite the dip at the end, we left full and satisfied. The Highfield isn’t going to rewrite any books, nor are people going to travel far and wide for its food.  What it will do is slot into the area nicely and feed its patrons well, which is I assume is its intent. It brings a little more glamour and class to an area that already has it in abundance. The food is good and the service slick. What’s not to like about that?

8/10

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Highfield on Urbanspoon

The Plough, Harborne

Every neighbourhood dreams of having a great local pub. A boozer within staggering distance home that is friendly, with good beers and food that hasn’t been blitzed beyond recognition in a microwave. Sadly, only a tiny percentage are this lucky. Pubs in general are a dying breed. Some close because the culture for a pint or six after work is diminishing, others because they fail to react to a market that is forever changing. Birmingham is a city blessed with enthusiastic young souls trying to buck this trend. There has been a boom of pubs changing hands and reinventing themselves as places that offer a cut-above in both beers and grub. Some have failed miserably, others range from mediocre to very good. One is outstanding.

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Being the difficult bastard that I am, I realise that I am sticking my neck on the line by calling The Plough outstanding, but believe me, it really is. They have done what others neglect and grasped the basic needs of the customer. The beer and wine selection is current and well kept. The service both friendly and unobtrusive. They make you feel valued, which is an achievement in its own right, given the piss-poor service too often encountered from across a bar. And there is the food.

A humble pizza seems a good place to start. It is the acid test of ingredient quality; there is no hiding behind technical wizardry. It is a sum of its parts. A pizza with salami, pancetta and chorizo lives or dies on the quality of the charcuterie. Fortunately for the chef here, he knows where to shop for cured meats. The mixture of tastes and textures from the different parts of the animal backed up by some quality mozzarella and fresh chilli to give comfort and bite. The base is crisp and slightly charred with just enough chew. It is the best pizza I have had outside of the original Franco Manca in Brixton. If various bits of preserved pig isn’t your thing, another pizza, this time with halloumi, courgettes and broccoli proved they understand the needs of vegetarians equally well.

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The menu here has an emphasis on comfort. The cooking processes are kept simple and allow the quality of the ingredients to do the talking. A stew has chicken and more of the top-class chorizo listed as its primary ingredients, though in reality owes its depth to the tomato sauce, layered with garlic, black olives, paprika and peppers. I wipe the bowl clean with the hunk of sourdough served alongside it. A burger comes topped with more minced meat – this time a ragu – that provides a textural difference, as well as the recognisable flavour of a punchy chilli con carne. Its also bloody good fun to eat. Dirty food in elegant Harborne. I just wish I’d remembered to take a picture of it.

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Dessert could easily have been cheese cake, or an eton mess, though I plumped for a sizeable wedge of white chocolate tart. The pastry short and crumbly, with any potential sickliness from the cocoa butter offset by an embedded raspberry coulis and a scoop of accompanying passion fruit sorbet. It was indulgent, clever and thoroughly satisfying.

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They recently rid the bar here of the majority of conventional spirit brands to offer smaller craft distilleries the opportunity to hog the limelight. This sums up the ethos of The Plough perfectly; every tiny detail is analysed to provide a better customer experience. If every neighbourhood had a local like The Plough the world would be a better place. I honestly cant remember ever enjoying a trip to a public house as much. Best in Birmingham? Absolutely. In the country? Quite possibly.

10/10

The Plough on Urbanspoon

The Kings Head, Bearwood

Occasionally I have to weigh up the morals and after-effects of my opinions. Should I be honest about the experiences I have had if it could affect those who genuinely don’t deserve it? I have never used my feeble opinion to be deliberately rude, though I have always taken the stance that there is a lot of places to blow £10-15 on a main course without having to eat out badly. Paying customers have automatically earned the right to know when somewhere is not good enough.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I tell you that based on a recent trip, The Kings Head in Bearwood is not good enough. A heavy heart because the area has long been in the shadow of Harborne and deserves a great local. A heavy heart because every member of the bar and restaurant staff was friendly, well drilled, and doesn’t deserve my criticism. A heavy heart because it felt like the place was stuck in a rut that it desperately wants to get out of.

Sadly, none of this excuses mediocre food, which was served in abundance on a recent Sunday afternoon. The turkey roast was a reminder of a poorly executed Christmas dinner. The meat, generous in portion though cooked to an unappetising dry texture, came with equally overcooked root veg. The Yorkshire pudding, impressive in stature, was like eating stale cotton wool and gave the impression it had been cooked some time ago and set aside. The gravy tasted remarkably like Bisto granules, which is a compliment of sorts, given that nothing else on the plate was recognisable in flavour. I would love to go into detail about the roast beef dinner, but there is no point as it was the same overcooked dross, albeit with a different overcooked protein.

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More animal abuse was present in the chicken burger. Yes, you guessed it, overcooked again. The ciabatta bun was far from fresh and the tikka seasoning on the meat had a claggy, shop brought paste feel. At least the chips were good.

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Desserts mercifully saved face. Both the cheesecake and Bakewell tart were capably made, with the tarts pastry particularly delicate. Each were a considerable step up from anything previously served in taste and the way it looked on the plate.

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Before meeting up with friends for this lunch, I sat alone at the bar with a pint of ale and a bowl of nuts chatting to a very helpful bar maid about the beers on tap. It was during this time that I had the chance to fully take in this big old pub at the end of the high street. There were others here enjoying a quiet Sunday pint in a pleasant location and, if nothing more, The Kings Head serves its patrons very well in this sense. These people also deserve to have somewhere to eat well and this is where the pub falls drastically short. Maybe one day, hey.

4/10

The Orange Tree, Chadwick End

Sometimes I feel obliged to try the worst sounding item on a menu.  It’s an instinctive impulse to satisfy my curiosity that happened recently at The Orange Tree, a smart pub in the affluent village of Chadwick End.  A tandori chicken burger with advocado, raita, and mango chutney, rounded off with a bucket of fries.  What? Why?!  My first thought was that perhaps this was the closest the villagers would get to a kebab shop offering and that the evenings bell for last round would see a rush of boat shoes to the bar, all drooling at the thought of satisfying their grease quota for the night.  My second thought was wow, this sounds atrocious, I must try it.

Try it I did and low and behold, it was tasty stuff.  Quite why it worked, I’m not so sure, though there was an element of gourmet kebab shop to it.  The chicken moist and with good flavour of both bird and spice, the bun soft and the raita a natural accompaniment to the heat from the whole chilli that lurked unannounced underneath the breast.  The mango chutney was mercifully served on the side, as its cloying sweetness really had no place on the plate.  That aside, this was a quirky, fun, main course.

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And so to the rest of The Orange Tree, which is part of a small chain in equally well-to-do areas.  Its light and cosy, with the names of game species hanging from the white washed walls, as if to reinforce the rural spot it sits in.  There is a fine wine list, a good selection of ales and some truly horrific lagers on tap.  The staff are unobtrusive, if a little stretched at times.

I plumped for a starter of pulled pork chilli with nachos, sweet corn sour cream and guacamole.  The meat was tender and spicy, yet swamped by the flavour of the chilli to the point that it was unrecognisable as pork.  Not that I am bemoaning this, it was flavoursome, the nachos were grease free and the portion was huge.  Many a man could get lost in this over an afternoon and several pints.  Another starter was wisely shared between three as the portion was again massive.  It was a mezze, Moroccan in style and with too many elements to list before I fall to sleep at the keyboard.  It was all declared delicious, in particular the salsa dotted with pomegranate seeds and watermelon.  A salad with beetroot, feta, and carrot was all earth and salt.  The accompanying flat breads left the plate useless to the dish washer.

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I knew the pasta dish would defeat it us before it reached the table.  It was a generous portion that could have been visible from space.  Within the mound of bucatini was fennel sausage, pine nuts, and goats cheese, with a good amount of red pepper pesto to provide moisture.  It was as satisfying and comforting as a hug from your mother.  It was also way too much food, as was the roast beef with traditional trimmings.  The meat perfectly pink and from a good beast, hiding some very good roasties.  There was a thick gravy and carrots thankfully boiled past al dente.  There were also some green veg served separately.  There had to be.  Because there is no way that huge pile of food would be enough to fill one person alone.

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Somehow room was found for desserts.  A brown sugar meringue that was chewy in all the right spots was paired with rose water cream and pistachios.  It was impressive in the way that we wanted to try and recreate it at home, though knew that we could never quite manage.  It was this course that also saw the only duff dish of the day.  A coupe, or sundae, call it what you will, should be a sum of its parts:  Good quality ice cream, some crunch, a good quality sauce or syrup, all so that every spoonful feels different.  Here it was coffee ice cream with a dusting of amoretti crumbs, bashed beyond the point of any textural recognition.

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Once I was rolled out of the dining area and into the car, I stopped for recollection during the journey home.  I really enjoyed The Orange Tree.  The food is well sourced and equally well cooked.  It’s at a fair price point for seriously big plates of food.  The portions here may get the back up of those who hate waste, but those should go to enjoy a main course and leave feeling wonderfully replete.  It’s a great place in a great location.  The locals have it lucky.

8/10

Orange Tree on Urbanspoon

The New Inn, Harborne

I probably should have gone home after the starter. It wasn’t that the pork belly wasn’t sufficiently rendered down. Or that the honey and sweet chilli glaze was cloyingly saccharine. It was the hairs. I counted seven of them on a three inch square slab of meat, reminiscent of a cheap pork scratching. It showed a worrying lack of attention to detail to a quality piece of meat that deserved better.

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 And therein lies the issue. The New Inn singlehandedly destroyed the notion that if you start with quality ingredients and treat them well, you’ll end up with a quality dish. Every single piece of protein was well sourced, though it was slaughtered by a lack of care that ran astonishingly throughout the food and into the service. There was a main of chicken that was allegedly stuffed olives and sun dried tomatoes, though we managed to find little evidence of either due to the massive clove of garlic that dominated the cavity. And don’t even get me started on the tagliatelle that it was served on. Underseasoned and undercooked about sums it up.

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 As if this car crash of a meal wasn’t enough to make you want to bang your head repeatedly against their solid wooden tables, the shambolic service certainly will. There were long pauses between courses and equally long time gaps between serving main courses to our table. Thirty minutes between the first burger and the last dish reaching us; twenty minutes between a side dish of cauliflower cheese and the main course it was supposed to accompany. Fine if you find yourself in Frankie & Benny’s on a busy Saturday afternoon, completely unacceptable in a relatively quiet gastro pub in Harborne paying up to twenty quid on a main course.

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 It wasn’t all doom and gloom. A cajun chicken burger finally reached the table in good nick, as did an accurately cooked rib eye, but by then it was all too late. As appetising as the desert menu looked we were all defeated, unable to risk further disappointment to a meal that promised much and delivered little. For a pub that goes to a considerable length to serve only the best meat, The New Inn has some way to go before the final product reaches the anywhere near the same standard.

5/10

New Inns on Urbanspoon