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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

Tin Lung Heen, Hong King

Hong Kong is a city punctuated with sky scrapers. From the ground they pierce the horizon like needle points, each a place of work or home for people who don’t mind not having a garden. The highest of these concrete high points is the ICC tower, ninth tallest building in the world, to be found via a maze of ground level building sites that will one day be the new financial district. The top floors of the building belong to the very swish Ritz-Charlton hotel, itself home to this afternoons lunch at the two Michelin star Tin Lung Heen, which must be the highest starred restaurant on the planet. It’s trivial, of course, and the height should hardly matter, but there can be few places on the planet where the view is quite as spectacular.

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The restaurant is a pretty one; ornate and comfortable, elegant and demure. Tables are dressed in thick white linen, spaced well apart over the thick cream carpet. There are flourishes of red that cut through the glossy black walls, whilst the back wall is reserved for Chinese wines and sakes for those whose budget is non-existent. Indeed, this is a place to splurge; we had to search the wine list for a bottle under £75.00 and held our breath when the bill showed mineral water to be £11.50 per bottle. Those dining here come for Catonese food with the most precious of ingredients – they do not come expecting a bargain.

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We start with two dim sum: Excellent cuts of Iberico pork shoulder, barbequed to a dusty pink and glazed  with honey, are stunning – the meat dissolving on the tongue without any effort.  The other was a steamed dumpling with dried scallop, fish maw (dried bladder, if you really want to know), and shrimp.  It was the taste of the sea if the sea had curled up and died, all wrapped up in a soggy polythene casing.  This won’t be the first time that I say this, and I am sure this was exactly how it was supposed to be prepared, but it wasn’t for me.  The flavour was too stagnant, the texture too alien.  It was lost on me, and I’m quite happy for everyone to know that.

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My face said it all on the next course.  A murky soup with lumps of boiled pork shin so grey they could have passed for British summertime, with winter melon of no distinct taste and more of the dried scallop.  There was dried longon, a bit like lycee, which added the faintest of acidity.  It was not nice and none of us got close to finishing it.  Our waiter, the brilliant and affable Leo, tried his best by offering an alternative soup, but by now we just wanted to move on it from it all.

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We moved on to accurately cooked scallops, with souffled pastry pieces and a finely chopped salsa of green onion and ginger.  On the other side of the plate was Chinese kale, which tasted a lot like tenderstem broccoli, and pine nuts.  The precision of all the elements was two star cooking; the veg precisely prepared and cooked, the scallops with a gently caramelised crust.  It was just dull.  Nothing slapped you around the chops or gave you a hug. The morsels of duck that followed were so tender that canines nor molars were required to work, sat in a deeply flavoured black bean sauce to which we piled in rice full of interest with bits of goose, abalone and shrimps.  Lovely, yes, though hardly two star worthy.

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We finish on a dessert that would divide the table.  A set milk cream (panna cotta, if you so like), with a gelatinous peach compote and a fat slice of black truffle.  Whilst my dining companions hated the way that the truffle bullied its way through the dessert, perfuming the milk and overpowering the peach, I actually quite liked it and ended up with three lots to eat.  The honeyed bit of pastry on the side was a nice sweet note to end on, the over set grapefruit jelly less so.

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I’d read a bit about the dubious nature of Michelin in Hong Kong prior to my trip and this meal confirmed pretty much all I read as true.  Maybe I’m wrong, but nothing struck me as truly two star cooking.  Yes, its precise and yes they use luxury ingriedients, but many of those ingredients added nothing to the meal other than an increased cost.  Maybe it’s me and my uncultured western palate.  We indulged a little in the wine list and left with a hefty bill that quickly soared into the hundreds.  For that we had the loftiest of views in a lofty city and a distinctly average meal that left me feeling a little cold all over.

5/10