Harborne

Sabai Sabai, Harborne

“I might not make it for dinner tonight” – a text from my friend reads – “I’m in A&E after falling through a false ceiling”. And there underneath the text was a picture of the hole he had fallen through for evidence, all fourteen or so stone of him, and a second, more gruesome one, of an open gash. I won’t share it, because it’ll ruin your appetite and frankly that’s my job, but it looked nasty; like one of those fake plastic cuts you pick up at Halloween when you want to make a bit of an effort but not quite go the whole hog. Or Katie Hopkins as she prefers to be called.

As it was he does turn up, getting to the restaurant mere seconds after we arrive, followed by his less accidental wife some minutes afterwards. “I’m starving” he tells us whilst lifting his forearm to show the stitched-up skin covered by dressing. We have prawn crackers and I get sweet chilli sauce down my shirt, then more prawn crackers, then the first of three bottles of red. He orders too much food for us all; chargrilled giant prawns the length of your hand in a zingy, spicy sauce. Then a meat platter with shredded duck rolls, crispy chicken wings, spare ribs, and the kind of lamb chops I’ve been missing all lockdown. Smokey and tender and caught on the edges, served with a sweet and garlicky pineapple salsa.

Top tip for the next time you find yourself in a Thai restaurant; ask for a dipping pot of Thai soy sauce with a squeeze of lime, loads of birds eye chillis and some diced shallot. It makes everything come alive. Also top tip; don’t draw attention to yourself by pouring all of it over your food like I did with the duck laab. Laab is one of my favourite things in the world; the hot and sour salad of torn meat and the funk of toasted rice powder, now with the added fire that would make breakfast the following morning very interesting. A papaya salad was textbook in delivery, with its back note of the ocean lurking whilst the lime sits upfront.

Mains, we had too many of them. There was a massaman, sweet and sour from the tamarind, and a weeping tiger dish which showed that the chef can accurately cook a bit of rib eye to medium rare. The more familiar red curry paste made an appearance on the less familiar stir fry dish of pad pik geng and would have stolen the show had it not been for the Sabai Sabai hot platter with beef. Again the meat was good, but the spicy, umami rich sauce with whisky and holy basil had us fighting for the last of it. Sides of broccoli and pak Choi were ambitious and totally unwarranted, whereas bowls of sticky rice are essential to mop up the best bits.

The bill, with three bottles of wine from the higher end of the list and several rounds of martinis is more than you should spend on a Tuesday night, but a sensible person should allow £30-40 per head. If we got carried away it’s because the food was genuinely superb. Maybe it’s the lack of going out this year, or the quantity of booze, but this was I think the strongest meal I’ve had at any Sabai Sabai in the ten years I’ve been going. We stepped outside the usual curries, away from the pad Thai, and into the parts of the menu we don’t usually look to. And it paid off. The food at Sabai Sabai has literally gone through the ceiling.

Just because I never took an A2B doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Harborne Kitchen, Bar Menu

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Buonissimo, Harborne

With all the new openings, burger bars, street kitchens, and trendy Asian joints, it is easy to forget about those neighbourhood restaurants that have seemingly kept areas full on food forever. I’m guilty of this more than most: my diary is an endless list of tasting menus, of baos and ramen, masala chaat, and burrata, all in the name of telling you what is good and what is Deolali. I had almost forgotten that Buonissimo existed, despite the fact that I lived in Harborne for six years, with a proportion of those a twenty second walk away from this quaint spot just off the high street. Before this blog I used to eat there relatively frequently; I’ve spent Valentines evenings there, I’d gone for the cheaper evening meals, and memorably on one evening watched a drunk man topple backwards down the stairs whilst I grazed on a whole baked garlic and sipped on a just warm glass of Appassimento. He lived. I think.

It hasn’t changed much in the two or so years since I last visited. It’s still warm and homely; almost affectionate in service. The heavy wooden tables and chairs more comfortable than they look, with only plants disturbing the blue and white colour scheme. The menu is still concise and changes with the seasons, whilst they still proudly list their suppliers on the reverse. And what a list of suppliers. Meat from my favourite butcher, Roger Brown, bread from Peel and Stone. We work through the bread whilst taking in our options; it is all very good, more so with the peppery olive oil and almost sweet balsamic vinegar.

We take two pasta dishes for starters. Orecchiette has mortadella sausage, peas, and pistachio for company, with the little indentations of the pasta catching the silky tomato sauce enriched with lots of cream. It is elegant and seriously tasty. A ravioli of ‘nduja and pecorino takes the opposite approach, boasting lots of chilli and garlic in amongst the olive oil dressing. This is rustic and big-hitting. Both are winners for which we will return for larger sized portions.

Mains stay on that rustic route. This is Italian home cooking, a kind of meat and two veg (which would make a fantastic name for a foodblog) approach that fills the plate to all edges and dares you to try and finish. There is nothing pretty about either dish, but the flavour is there. I have a duck leg that has been confited and then blasted over heat so that the skin breaks into crisp shards, with a sticky and rich sauce dotted with prunes. Opposite me is chicken breast wearing a winter jacket of courgette and melted cheese. The quality of the meat is obvious, as is the skill in handling the protein. The cavalo nero is nice, as are the garlic potatoes served with the duck, though we’ll gloss over the wedges with the chicken that suspiciously look and taste like they have come from a bag.

By now we’re full. Super full. We have no room for dessert but the menu leads us into first agreeing to share one, before ordering two. It’s the right move. A crepe containing stewed apple and mascapone is good, though is overshadowed by an excellent take on bread and butter pudding using panetone that should come accessorised with a pillow and duvet. We wash it down with a chocolate hazelnut liquor and leave very happy.

Stay away from the fillet steak here and nothing will break the bank. Starters are all under ten, mains around £15, and wine that starts late teens. Exactly how a neighbourhood restaurant should be. There is nothing finessed about Bounissmo, it channels a completely different type of restaurant built around the principals of family cooking. By the time we’ve drank up on the wine we feel almost sad about leaving. The world needs more places like this; we won’t be leaving it so long next time.

8/10

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Top Ten Dishes of 2018

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

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

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

Read the full review here.

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

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

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

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

Read the full review here.

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

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

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

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

Read the full review here.

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

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

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

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

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

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

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

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

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

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

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

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

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

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

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

Harborne Kitchen, October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harborne Kitchen

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Pictures by Nosh and Breks

Boca Grande at The Plough, Harborne

So I was sat in a pub recently not far from where I live, when someone I vaguely know from 6am house parties said to me ‘you need to stop dressing like you’re in The Plough, you live in Moseley now’. I look down at what I’m wearing; slip on loafers, no socks, Prince of Wales check grey shorts, a button-down Oxford shirt with sweater over the top. He’s right: I couldn’t be anymore Harborne unless I had two cars to drive, a labradoodle, and a relative in the Conservative party. Like Tuberculosis i guess living there is one of those things you never fully shake off. I had three glorious years living in Harborne, of which approximately two of those were spent in The Plough. Mondays for pizza, Tuesday burgers, the weekends were Connect 4 either in the extension or out in the garden. Do not take me on at Connect 4, I will destroy your constitution and break your soul. And I’ll enjoy every second of it.

On this occasion I’ve taken the long stroll back to Harborne for dinner with Rob of Foodie Boys. Us boys have to stick together in this game. The females dominate in this city, eating the males alive, akin to the Black Widow. Just like those spiders most have a nasty bite and hairy backs. We’re here for the tacos which form the Boca Grande takeover this summer. I have a lot of time for tacos, they’re like the bastard siblings of the burrito before they got fat on carbs and started dressing modestly.

Those tacos are very good, an improvement on the same product they served only on Wednesdays last year. The shell is soft, the fillings piled high. Chicken is as hot as the menu warns, with a ginger slaw that lingers long after the Almost Death sauce has killed my taste buds and done a runner. The delicate flavour of cod is not lost amongst its garnish of jalapeño, lime and ginger, whilst the prawn taco has a inherent sweetness allowed to shine with spring onion and a little chilli.

In my eyes the pick of the bunch is the pork, slow cooked to the point that it retains just enough bite to remind you its meat that we’re eating. Its smoky and rich, needing the acidity of the apple to cut through it. I like it even more with Pip’s hot sauce, but then that sentence can be applied to anything. A beef and bean chilli made from brisket works because of a chimichurri full of bright acidity. From the sides the guacamole is fresh with acidity and heat, but it is the sweetcorn that takes full honours with garlic, lime and butter. I go back for more until the bottom of the pot is visible. It goes with the chicken particularly well.

Service is the standard level of The Plough brilliance; I cant think of another pub anywhere which does it better. They never miss a beat: drinks arrive quickly followed by tacos, empty plates are removed, more tacos come, repeat process. It seems so simple, yet so many get it wrong. Boca Grande is just another example of The Plough’s brilliance, one that taps into a trend that fits perfectly with the Summer, further cementing their position as Birmingham’s best pub.

Want to see my ego get even bigger? Vote for me here in category 17.

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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.

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Scott’s of Harborne, Harborne

On the lunch we visit Scott’s of Harborne the paint has barely given up its odour. It’s new, just five weeks old, with the glazed white tiles that mark the table tops and walls still gleaming and wooden frames unblemished. They built this place themselves, they would later tell us, and you can tell they are rightly proud. It looks great. I’ll even forgive the jaunty toilet seat that non-consensually bends you to an acute angle like a prison shower victim. It doesn’t let you cogitate, which is good thing when you only have one loo.

And they’re trying hard to succeed. Maybe too hard. Being usually a champion of generous portions I will go against my own words and say that they either need to reduce portion sizes or increase the prices. At present I fail to see where the profit margins are. Take the lamb kofta’s with hummus, grilled courgette, and sourdough flatbreads – its £4, less if you order multiples like we did. The lamb had been spiked with pine nuts, the hummus perfectly serviceable. It is a very clean tasting plate of food and a cheap lunch in itself, which is fine if you’re the frugal shopper. I personally think it’s too kind.

The best bits happen to be the most simple. Wedges of chorizo in lacquered red wine sauce, and square chips of potato with aioli and a tomato sauce. That tomato sauce would reappear throughout the brunch and needs more swagger, though is a good starting point for now. In some cases, such as the meatballs, the lack of punch allows the quality of the beef to shine. These three, squash ball in size, are another £4. It’s a very nice bit of food.

The only real let down is the baked eggs. That tomato sauce has sweet corn this time for company but it is not enough to stop it from veering into boredom. We save it by taking focaccia from the ever-excellent Peel and Stone bakery, dipping it in a little of the treacly balsamic vinegar and piling the egg and tomato on. Suddenly it has character. We finish up with a goats cheese and sundried tomato tart. The pastry crumbles in all the right places, the filling is plentiful. We take the rest home to enjoy later on.

Thirty quid buys more food than we need, when half of that could fed the both of us. It’s a lovely place with lovely staff and I desperately want them to be a local success, something that the full dining room is clearly in agreement with. But please make the most of these busy periods by putting cash in the till. Make the people of Harborne pay for something this nice. They can afford it.

7/10

The Plough, Harborne

It was three years ago, when this blog was in its infancy, I first wrote about The Plough. This was before the awards and the accolades, when the number of my twitter followers was lower than my sexual partners. It was the first place I ever gave a perfect ten to, but nobody read the blog, so frankly who cares. As the blog has grown I’ve continued to go The Plough and I’ve felt a tinge of guilt that one of the best places in Birmingham amassed a total of 600 views, whilst now a write-up of a shite brunch and subsequent fallout with a tv licence pilfering ‘comedian’ gets many multiples of that within 24 hours of posting.

So now I’m going to abuse my readership by jumping back on that Plough to churn up the ground once more. It’s still the best pub in Birmingham. The city continues to grow in its brilliance, with many excellent pubs coming since, and this little spot in Harborne continues to adapt and knock spots off them. I could bang on about the drinks, including a cocktail program curated by Rob Wood, a stellar whisky collection, and the damm right naughty wine list, but you’re here for the food. And quite rightly so.

A recent dinner proved they are much more than just pizza and burgers. Garlic bread sits in the small plates section, arriving dotted with mozzarella and ‘nduja, each cancelling the others more verdant qualities in all the right ways. It has now overtaken pork scratchings as my favourite partner to a pint. A tangle of pulled beef brisket with sweet potato is the dish I go to to find comfort. I break the yolk of the fried egg and load on to thickly sliced toasted bread. The meat is tender without being mush, and I suspect there is spice involved – maybe Worcestershire sauce – in the cooking of the hash. It’s rich, and it requires the apple chutney to cut through it all, but it’s also bloody lovely.

A fairly recent addition has been the Cubanos – toasted sandwiches to you and I. We have the chicken, smokey with paprika, with bacon and Swiss cheese. Much like the rest of the menu here, its unfussy in concept and massive in portion. It shares a plate with fries that we can’t get excited over, and a perky salad that we do thanks to the clever additions of black bean, feta, and avocado along with the usual suspects. Have this (or the pork, it’s equally good) and ask for all salad and no fries. This was not my suggestion if they say no.

I simply can’t go 38 months and not rave about the above pizza with ‘nduja and mascarpone. This has been on for about a year and is the dish we always order – the perfect balance of heat and cooling. The above picture is not from the recent dinner, but two weeks prior. Don’t @ me, whatever that means.

Looking back at what I wrote back then, it’s clear The Plough have mastered consistency – they still have staff that react to the smallest of gestures and yet know when to leave you alone. They still keep beer in impeccable condition and still only use the finest of ingredients. In short,they are still the best pub in Birmingham. Nowhere else comes close.

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The Plough Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato