Harborne Kitchen

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

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by Nosh and Breks

Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

Midway through our meal, somewhere between wine bottle two and three, Claire leaned towards me and slurred “Sighh, if I wur to ever work aza shhef, it would be ‘ere”. I think. She could have said anything. Luckily for the food industry her cooking is nowhere near good enough; the people of Harborne are safe for now. Unless tax evasion is your thing, in which case she’s coming for you hard. But I do get her point. There is an ease to service here, the front of house are smiling, they let you see the kitchen and, shock, horror, they are enjoying themselves. Chefs happy, who would have ever thought it? Owner Jamie Desogus even closed a very busy Sunday service so that his team had a better work/life balance. Hell, if I were a chef I would want to work here too.

But I’m not, I am just a rotund gobshite with a healthy appetite. And this, our third visit in ten months was easily the best to date. There has always been a confidence to the cooking here, and now it stands broad-chested on the plate for all to see. Those salmon skin crisps are still there to be seasoned with rosemary vinegar, though they are now joined by cubes of livery ox tongue and crackers topped with a cheese mousse and grape. A slice of bread still follows, with a new friend in maltloaf for company. Nibbles can often feel like an afterthought; not here. They are considered and, more importantly, an insight into the food over the next few hours.

It starts with a bang. Two opening courses as good as I can recall eating in sequence so early on in a meal. Chicken liver parfait arrives under the canopy of crispy skin, with dots of blood orange gel, white chocolate, and hazelnut. The chocolate is far more daring in word than reality; it provides another fatty layer to the dish and lets the other stuff stick around longer. It works. It is so big on flavour you wonder if anything else could surpass it. The celeriac does. Salt baked cubes on a broth so heavily reduced it’s almost treacle. A flurry of blue cheese mousse hides little pieces of pickled quince and I ask for a supplement of Perigord truffle because in my head it makes perfect sense. Praise Be to that massive head of mine. It’s a beautiful plate of food that is immaculately balanced; savoury, followed by earthiness and umami, sweet, and then washed away by light acidity. Shit, I’ve just morphed into Greg Wallace. Pass me the gun.

The course that follows is a riff on the flavours of Thai green curry, with a fat fillet of cod immersed in an aerated cloud of lemon grass, galangal, and probably several other nuanced flavours my primitive palate fails to detect. A grating of kaffir lime zest brings that lovely aroma and puffed rice is there just on the off-chance you were actually expecting a cod curry in a smart restaurant in Harborne. It nods brilliantly towards The East whilst still retaining its spot as the fish course in a tasting menu.

The beef main does very little for me on paper, mostly because its beef. The reality is the opposite; we get a brave bit of cooking that works because it is flush with acidity and then whack! a solid bit of cow. I’ve turned into Greg Wallace again. Sorry. The star is undoubtedly the slowly cooked Wagyu brisket which breaks down at the slightest nudge of a fork. For me, it doesn’t need the Longhorn fillet, because those lean, expensive cuts tend to get shown up for how little flavour they have when stuck next to a more fatty and unctuous bit of animal. The rest is a demonstration on how to get the best out of beef; crispy shallots and pickled onions, a grilled king oyster and dainty pickled mushrooms, the silkiest of mash potatoes, and a puddle of chive oil that adds zip to it all. We take the cheese course because it is Brillat-Savarin, Perigord truffle and grape. If that particular menage a trois doesn’t get you horny, you really need to see a doctor.

On my first write-up here I got a little excited by the desserts by pastry chef, Michael Topping, and I am going to stand by what I said then. The man is a talent, he gets balance and flavour, and the importance of dessert not being pancreatic exploding sweet. First up is rhubarb ice cream with nitrogen frozen rhubarb cut with stem ginger. Following this is chocolatey mousse and popcorn with a sorbet of maybe yogurt, maybe banana, that I remember to be rich and salty and damm right delicious. Apologies about the hazy detail, I was pissed by this point. With these we drank some lovely Tokaji. I know this because it’s on the bill and Claire has purchased some since.

The bill with a lot to eat and as much to drink hits just north of two ton. You could have three courses and a nice bottle of wine for well under half, which was our intention before we got there. I love Harborne Kitchen, not only because it makes my girlfriend happy, but because it’s genuinely a fantastic neighbourhood restaurant that is simply trying to be the very best it can be. And it seems we’re not alone; aside from it being full on the night it has also been shown interest by a certain tyre guide and rightly so. Without wishing to put pressure on a place not looking for accolades, everything we ate was consistently at one star level. Big things are going at Harborne Kitchen and it couldn’t happen to a nicer place.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here http://www.a2bradiocars..com

Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

It was on a whim that my new girlfriend and I decided to have lunch at Harborne Kitchen. We’ve both had it rough of recent, both slightly hungover and tired, in need of a stomach lining fill and a top-up of alcohol levels. We initially looked to the greasier end of the spectrum in the city centre, before deciding that The Plough in Harborne would be a good option to while away the day after lunch. So, Harborne Kitchen it was. It would turn out to be one of the better decisions that the indecisive shit has made this year. The girl done good.  It’s stuff like this that got her the gig.

IMG_9221

We arrive on very wet Saturday afternoon, when the restaurant space is peppered by the dark grey sky looming through the skylight. It is a lovely dining room, arguably one of the cities more charismatic, all royal blue and white, the centre dominated by the open kitchen and stooled seating around the beech wood counter. A flurry of nibbles start us off. Cod skin arrives looking like a gilded pork puff, the salty whack of the sea ramped up by a spritz of rosemary vinegar.  These are excellent, as are the cauliflower cheese pastries they share a space with.  Lightly pickled carrots with a little of the liquor and buttermilk feel like work in progress, a little too refined and clever for its own good.  We end the procession with a gorgonzola donut that erupts through the brioche casing in the mouth.  It’s bites like this that make me go out for dinner.  It was as corrupt as a Tory MP, only far more appealing.

The first course might just have been my favourite.  Just cooked jersey royals, soured, no, sorry, cultured cream, with a wild garlic veloute poured tableside.  The veloute is bold and intense, as good as any I can recall eating.  Also lurking in the bowl is caviar that gives pops of salinity and toasted rice for bite.  We race for the last piece of sourdough to wipe the bowl clean.  It’s good enough to make me want to punctuate this sentence with swear words.  Absolutely nailed on one star cooking.

The duck liver dish that follows is all about the texture.  The combination of duck and cherry is one that harks back to Escoffier, the fruit having enough tartness to cut through the rich liver.  Sandwiching the parfait are two shards; one like a ginger melba toast, the other some wafer thin chicken skin.  It’s complex and intriguing.  Every mouthful is unique.

IMG_9212

I ask for a replacement to a salmon dish and get a salad of heritage tomatoes, a baked bean fondue, basil, and a tomato essence poured tableside.  It’s light and fresh, a beguiling mix of temperatures.

IMG_9213

Our main was a mammoth of a dish.  Lamb, as rolled shoulder, neck fillet, and tongue, with (wait for it), lovage, potato puree, radish, black olive puree, curd, spiced aubergine, and lamb jus.  There was a lot going on, with some parts better than others.  The rolled shoulder was glorious, as was the livery profile of the tongue.  Both were more than enough to stand up to the big flavours of the tapenade-like olive puree and aubergine.  The neck fillet was a little lost, as was the lovage.  We finished it because it was delicious, but both agreed it would have had more clarity with a couple of items stripped away.

IMG_9216

Desserts were frankly brilliant – there is obvious talent in the pastry department.  A yogurt ice cream is the perfect foil for orange segments frozen with liquid nitrogen in front of us.  There is a sharp curd that sits underneath that ties it all together.  It is exceptional.  Even better is the final dessert of honey parfait with milk ice cream, honeycomb, dehydrated milk shards, and honey.  It is good enough to induce tears of joy – balanced with ballerina-like poise.  It has character, texture, and flavour.  Another nailed on one star course.

IMG_9218

IMG_9219

The price for the above lunch?  Thirty five English pounds.  Yes, you have read that correct.  I was on the beer (don’t judge), the other half on the G&T and we fail to hit £90 between us.  And they don’t charge a service charge, despite a slick operation that will have a certain guide going weak at the knees.  Evening visits and wine will ramp up the bill, but even so, this place is worth it.  It’s clever cooking, with a focus on big flavours and complexity.  Book up and go before word reaches the rest of the city in the same way it did with Carters.  It stops raining as we finish eating and light pours through the skylight and on to our table.  It feels like a sign.  Harborne Kitchen is a very special place that can bring sunshine to the darkest of days.

9/10

And now the plug; I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards, where Harborne Kitchen is also nominated in the Best Fine Dining.  Please give us both a vote here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/