independent birmingham

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.

Baked in Brick, Digbeth

My dining history at Baked in Brick is a lengthy one that goes back some way. In Feb 2016, when his street food had not long started I made a point of saying you should keep a firm eye on him, noting ‘the man, the mini, and the food are going places’. Then, a year later at another pop-up after winning Best Street Food, I make the bold statement that ‘Lee’s cooking is right up there with the best’, finishing the piece with ‘the man I said was going places has truly arrived. And only an idiot would miss it’. I have featured him thrice more properly on my blog, a piece on Digbeth Dining Club, another on Sear & Smoke, and most recently at the Independent Birmingham Festival, watching the mini take more awards and the food evolve. Apologies for rehashing my old work like a desperate ‘ICYMI’ tweet, but I always knew it would be good because I know my shit when it comes to food. I’ve been there from the start, I haven’t rocked up at the trophy bus parade like a phoney Leicester City fan because he won a few things and became fashionable to like.

And here he is, less than four years from the first gigs at Digbeth Dining Club, in a permanent home in the Custard Factory. The dining room is instantly recognisable to anyone who has eaten the street food. The bar frontage to the left is the same wood that houses the tent counter, the steel girding above the same as the van that drove to Berlin to take the title. The far wall has clever nods to the backstory in vibrant artwork, with the red Mini Cooper peering out towards the diner. There had to be a mini. To the side is an enclosed terrace where we had our second meal here. The sun loves this space almost as much as I do.

Before I get on to the pizza that dominated our two visits, let’s be very clear; a pizzeria this is not. Yes, it has an oven intended for such things, but there is much more to the cooking than that. On our first visit we start with a tomato salad dotted with tapenade and croutons, on to which a textbook tomato essence is poured. It is all beautifully fresh, with just a hint of verdant basil to lift it all. Our second visit has us ordering a huge bulb of burrata with the same components minus the tomato essence; the burrata is creamy enough. It is so good that I forget to take a picture. What an awful blogger I am. No wonder they all hate me.

But those pizzas. Christ on a bike, they are so very good. I’m sticking my neck out now and saying these are Brum’s best on account of the basic principles; quality toppings, that leopard print scorched base and a pliable crust. Most conventional has folds of Serrano ham and shavings of Lincolnshire Poacher. Another has pork and fennel meatballs and a yellow pepper ketchup whose metallic notes sits perfectly between the sweet and the acidic. Most supreme is the white pizza, a daring blend of smoked chicken and boulangere potato on béchamel sauce. It’s carb on carb, a pool party in Carbella. It also tastes like a chicken and dauphinois potato sandwich. Absolute filth. We love it.

No visit to Baked in Brick could miss out the beef shin calzone, seemingly feed on steroids for how much it is grown on to the plate here. Once the crust has been cut into the tangle of beef and wild mushroom ragu has the deep flavour of wine from a lengthy marinade and a long peppery finish. A stilton dip on the side has a little cayenne pepper and lemon juice but is ultimately there to add more umami to a plate of food already drenched in it. I simply cant think of a better way to spend £11 right now. Try it and you’ll understand why it has won every award known to man including the Noble Peace Prize, the Pulitzer and The Golden Boot.

I am yet to get round to ordering dessert, mostly because I leave on both occasions with a box of crusts to chow on at home, though the present choice is a crème brulee or a brownie. A meal here will cost between £15-25 depending on how greedy you happen to be, which is astonishing value given the quality. And now the score, for which I have thought hard about. I think it sits somewhere between a nine and ten, but I’m going full marks for this reason; Baked In Brick is integral to the development of this city’s food scene, further proof that some of the finest eateries in Birmingham have stemmed from trading on the streets. And it is only going to get better when the chicken tikka roll rolls on to the menu alongside the slow cooked lamb. I have long been a fan of the food, though it is obvious he belongs within bricks and mortar. The Custard Factory, Digbeth and Birmingham have all just gained an absolute gem of a restaurant.

10/10 

Transport provided byA2B Radio Cars

Independent Birmingham Festival, Digbeth

I had intended to start this brief piece on a self-deprecating note for our city. One that gently chugs along with the piss-taking from the rest of the country, about a city centre that’s perceived to be a concrete fortress and a dodgy accent that actually belongs ten miles north west of us. But I’m done with that. I’m done with anything that sets Birmingham at a detriment to anywhere else on the globe. We are growing every day. With game-changing pieces of modern architecture now sitting in juxtaposition with pieces of history. With a diverse melting pot of culture, smells, and sounds. With some of the best food to be found in the country with the most handsome, charming, and multi-award winning food blogger writing about them. Only an idiot who has not been here in over a decade, or worse, the commonly spotted Jealous Mancunian, would tell you otherwise. Birmingham is brilliant in almost every single way. It’s my home, so yes I have bias, but it really is.

Shouting about Birmingham a little more than the next man is Joe Schuppler of Independent Birmingham. Hi Joe. He runs a little business doing huge things for our indie scene. Now, with the help of some seasoned pros, he is championing the very businesses his card supports with Independent Birmingham Festival, this the third within a year and the second at Digbeth’s The Bond. We end up going both days, the latter to eat off the hangover caused by the former. I’m looking at you, Loki wine, for this with your mighty fine Malbec.

There are stalls that sell nice stuff from which I buy a badge that I later lose and a donut that I quickly use to fill a gap in my belly. There are cocktails from the brilliant Rob Wood and craft beers from Tilt. There are countless others all showcasing the tiny elements that together make Birmingham what it is. But I’m here to eat and you are probably here to read about that. So straight to the chase, at Low’n’Slow where the best food of the weekend was had. Pork belly from Blytheburgh farm, cooked over a makeshift fire on the ground. The meat is glorious; smokey, with enough bite and fattiness to serve as a reminder that this once was a living animal. There are blistered potatoes cooked in pork fat with the unmistakable back note of bone marrow, and a salsa slightly bitter from burning it’s components over coals. This is proper grown up barbecue, with real skill. It’s a ready made restaurant dish served from some smoking embers on concrete.

One of many restaurants with a stand here is El Borracho de Oro, a place I’ve stated my love for on many previous occasions. Today we have those golden croquetas filled with quality ham and a toastie that has manchego and sobrasda oozing out of every edge. Those toasties are a special at their present 1000 Trades residency – go try them. Fat Snags are relatively new to the street food world, impeccably sourcing Lashfords sausages and sandwiching them between buns. We try one with a smartly judged salsa of roquito and jalapeños, smothered in one of those silky American cheese sauces that refuses to go quietly into the mouth. I’m super impressed. I’ll be back for more soon.

Baked in Brick is here, a few streets away from its soon-to-be-opening restaurant. We try a ramen debuting for the first time, that is already better than any of the ramen at the specialist ramen shop. The ox tail and miso stock is upstaged by smokey spider steak slices, a tangle of ox tail meat and silky noodles. Best of all is a salty and rich soy egg, golden yolk just transitioning from liquid to a more solid state. A lot of work has gone into this and it will only get better.

Sunday sees suitable hangover food. A pizza from Peel and Stone has excellent ‘nduja and fennel salami for toppings on a base that was slightly too doughy to be perfect. We finish up with a burger from Original Patty Men, the beef just blushing pink, patty crowned with three types of cheese, jalapeño relish and barbecue sauce. Those boys know how to pull a burger together. It sorts me out a treat.

Claire buys jewellery, I buy enough wine to swim in, confirming that when it comes to frittering cash away, we’re a good team to have around. It was a great weekend, superbly organised, with a wonderfully curated live music program. More importantly it showcases the incredible independent scene that goes some way making this city so amazing. Believe in Brum.

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

The next Independent Birmingham Festival has been announced for July. Book your tickets here; https://www.designmynight.com/birmingham/whats-on/food-drink/independent-birmingham-festival-at-aston-hall

The Wilderness, Birmingham

I don’t believe in fate, but if I did, I’d use The Wilderness as evidence as to why. The restaurant is a forced move; previously Nomad, a concise space where nature and provenance were key, short-lived when the lawyers from New York’s NoMad started stamping their feet. Nomad is now long gone, existing only as a tattoo on Chef Patron Alex Claridge’s arm. I won’t dwell on bygone times, but I enjoyed its clear linear and identity. Fortunately the new offering takes it to a higher level. It’s evocative. It’s bat-shit crazy. It’s pretty much perfect.

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The association with nature is still there. Living moss pads the walls of the tiny 22 cover restaurant, whilst a tree seemingly rises from the floor to the ceiling on one side of the room. In direct juxtaposition, the floors are concrete, tables a glossy black. It is comfortable in it’s own skin.  We take the Saturday lunch food and drinks flight and are asked if we would prefer to swap the duck for venison – of course we do.  Snacks (2017’s amouse bouche) are a celeriac remoulade on a linseed cracker and a delicate tuile with crab meat and scorched corn.  The former cleansed the palate, the latter punching it straight in the gob with a whack of the sea held in to check by the corn which had the sugars heightened by flaming the edges.  There is dense sourdough with a butter seemingly lightened with crème fraiche.  The two make for a good pair.

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I think what set this lunch out so far apart from anything I’ve eaten in the last year is the complexity of Claridge’s  cooking.  We are going through a period of minimalism in cooking; two or three elements on a plate as way of showcasing an ingredient is in vogue .  The cooking here could not be further from that.  With every mouthful something new evolves, another flavour announces itself.  A slab of trout is first, which I forget to take a picture of before dismantling it.  The skin is crisp, the fish correctly medium.  It is elsewhere that the fun is at – little pops of dyed herring roe for the whiff of the salty sea, a tassel of fried moss to pull it back on to land; the two flavours that echo the dashi stock which is poured tableside before we tuck in.  A loin of Iberico pork is blushing pink, advertised with artichokes as discs, puree, and crisps, pickled mushrooms, and buds of wild garlic.  The stuff not on the menu are the clever additions; hazelnut’s, which reinforce the nutty characteristics of the animals diet, a luxurious port sauce, and a fish sauce dressing that sends the dish spiralling out East.  I told you the cooking was complex.  It’s a conversation killer.  A sit down, shut up, collection of things on a plate that stop you dead in your tracks.

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We move on to the best venison dish I have ever eaten.  The same precision cooking of protein as before, with a squash puree, broccoli and a venison jus took to the deepest of places with the addition of stout.  A word on the drinks pairing for this – the old fashioned heightened with sake was the perfect counterbalance for the venison.

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The first of the desserts was rhubarb sorbet, with poached strips, gels and puree’s.  The only sweetness on the plate coming from Italian meringues flavoured with a little vanilla.  It’s a bold plate of food that shows considerable skill in showcasing an ingredient at the height of its power.  We finish on a course as detailed as any served prior.  Chocolate and cherries.  Oh, and that familiar dessert addition of cep mushrooms – how can I forget that?  Silly me.  It’s a dish I can comfortably say I wasn’t looking forward to on account of not really being a fan of chocolate desserts, and less of a fan of mushrooms in my sweets.  But what do I know?  Absolutely nothing, apparently.  The cep powder never bothers with the front row, choosing to sit at the back and call the shots.  It gives the chocolate more length, it stops the cherries from being too sweet.  Throw in a chestnut puree that occasionally makes everything go a bit Mont Blanc, a splash of salted caramel which works a little too well with mushrooms, and what you have is a dessert that could have come from the mighty David Everitt-Matthias.  And I mean that with the upmost of respect:  When it comes to chefs I can think of none finer than the man who works the stoves at Le Champignon Sauvage.  We finish with chocolate skulls, sprayed gold and filled with salted caramel, which I assume is a nod to the present menu entitled ‘Things Fall Apart’.

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I liked it.  You may have gathered that by now.  The Wilderness put on a show over two hours of some of the best food I have eaten in a very long time.  This is top-end cooking, delivered with theatre and exacting execution, undoubtedly worthy of a Michelin star come October.  I haven’t given a ten since September 2015, but The Wilderness leaves me with no choice. A restaurant this exciting deserves nothing less than top marks.

10/10

The lunch tasting menu with drinks pairing should have been £70 per person, though I used the Independent Birmingham card offer to reduce this to £50.  For more details on them please see http://www.independent-birmingham.co.uk