Italian

Legna, Birmingham

I’ve long been of the mindset that Italian food doesn’t translate well into fine dining. That by tidying the edges and reducing the portion side you are taking away the essence of the culture that has family at it’s core. There is nothing dainty about Italians; they welcome with huge hugs and kisses that cover both sides of the face, not gentile handshakes or softly gestured bows. They seldom speak in soft tones, both literally and metaphorically, with their loud voice always joined by gesticulations that reinforce every syllable. This is not the language of refinement: pasta does not need a softness of hand to gently manouvere it into place; it needs a bowl-shaped bed to lie in and a blanket of sauce to keep it warm. A pizza is essentially a sandwich that is not afraid to show it’s true emotions, the risotto a rice dish that never wants to leave home. They are embraces from a Catholic mother. This is the heart of Italian food.

It is also a cuisine that is difficult to perfect – just look what we do to it in homes across this country. Pasta should never be boiled to it’s cooking instructions; it should be taken out of the water two minutes early and teased through a little of the sauce in a pan so that the residual heat finishes it off, with the finished product requiring the same pressure between the teeth as a nipple during a bit of rough and tumble. Ingredients should be as fresh as possible; herbs that release oils between the fingers, and mozzarella that sobs a little when squeezed, not set to the consistency of a cooked cows bollock. The fact that we think it acceptable to construct dishes of this cuisine directly from jars tells you just how much the average person respects Italian food. Perhaps the older generation still hasn’t forgiven them for ze war.

So I was a tiny bit sceptical when I heard the plans for Legna, which is to be a more refined take on Italian food from a non-Italian chef. Si prego. But then it is from Aktar Islam, a man who has done wonders for Indian food next door at Opheem. In truth, I’ve got to know Aktar fairly well to the point that if Legna wasn’t very good I probably wouldn’t write about it. The four hundred words or so it has taken to get to this point can be taken that is worthy of writing about. In parts it is spectacular.

The opening play is gone in a blur of flavour. A little spherified mozarella with basil that needs tweaking, a parmesan cake with black garlic that is a pure umami bomb, the most delicate of grissini and foccacia with oil, vinegar, and a butter that tastes like pesto. We have a bowl of torn burrata, basil pesto, and slices of tomato, onto which a tomato consomme is poured. The burrata and tomato have been flown over that day and it shows; the flavours are clean and allowed to speak for themselves. We devour it.

I’m guessing that the recipe for the pappardelle that comes next has a higher concentration of egg yolk than normal, given the richness of the pasta sheets that retain the perfect level of bite. It serves as a bed for a meat-rich ragu of beef and wild boar that has nuggets of cheek and shin throughout. It is boldly seasoned, enriched with bone marrow and lightened with tomato concasse and a little vinegar. More importantly it encompasses everything that is great about Legna: a homage to the true flavours of Italy whilst using modern technique. A veal dish is given the impossible job of following this. The meat is gentle in flavour in comparison though we love the garnish of charred onion and capanota where the vegetables have almagamated and have just a little sharpness. The use of acidity is very carefully deployed throughout the meal.

We lean into the sweet courses with a ball of tempered chocolate containing a little espresso martini, and finish on a rectangle of lemon tart that has the thinnest of pastry bases and a filling which balances the sweet and sharp with real skill. A lemon sorbet on the side gives it a real cleanness in flavour. It is one of the best desserts I have eaten this year.

And then there is the small matter of the dining room which is right now Birmingham’s most beautiful. From the amber hues of the sleek bar comes exceptional Negronis to be enjoyed at heavy wooden tables under ornate lights. The wine is an all Italian list from which the superb front of house are happy to offer expert pairing advice on those available by the glass. It all makes for a very impressive restaurant; a place that plays homage to core values of Italian cuisine whilst maintaining its own sense of style. I’ve gone to its sister venue, Opheem, more than any other this year, though now it has serious competition for my sterling. Aktar has done it once again; Legna is an absolute joy.

9/10

We dined during a soft launch period and received a discount on the bill.

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Pictures by Claire

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.

Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston

Once a week my Dad goes to see a covers band at his local pub. I’ve never been with him; I have no interest in seeing Fred Zeppelin, however good their version of Kashmir is supposed to be. I just don’t get the point. I want the real thing or I don’t want it at all. I don’t want to watch the simian stroll of a parka wearing Gallagher wannabe when there are two presently touring and doing a good enough job of murdering their own music. And I can’t be sure if Blobbie Williams is a tribute act or a tabloid attributed nickname. For all of the fake swagger and choreographed movements, they are nothing but homages to the real thing. Anyone can pout their lips, wear a sparkly jacket, and put on a mockney accent, but it’s nowhere close to seeing Jagger arch that back of his and thrust out the pelvis in the flesh. Any woman, man, or horse can put on a blonde wig. conical bra, and gash-flashing leotard but it doesn’t make you Madonna. In my younger years I wore cardigans and could play you the opening bars to ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, yet I never said I was Kurt Cobain. Or Lead Belly if you closed your eyes. Impersonators simply don’t have the magic of the real thing; they are imposters in dress-up.

I felt the same way about Italian food in Birmingham. We have Italian restaurants but none ever felt real to me; they are homogenized tributes to what we think is Italian food – a tour of an imagined Italy with dishes reconstructed for those delicate Anglicised palates of ours. Our ‘nduja has been stripped of the searing heat and offal that bangs down doors, to be replaced with a more polite neighbour that goes to bed at 9pm, whilst our carbonara has cream added because we are fed the lies that eggs have be completely cooked. This isn’t an issue; there is clearly a market for this, but I want the real Italy.

In a way Laghi’s Deli is more a project of love than business. Luca, the owner, comes from a family of restauranteurs back in Bologna and wanted to bring a Northern Italian slice of pizza back to Birmingham. And it is a resounding success, easily delivering the most authentic take on that cuisine I have eaten outside of it, backed up by a wine list that punches with hard-hitting reds and zesty whites. From the three starters we take it is the quality of the ingredients that shines through, nowhere more so than on a Caprese salad. As a dish it is a simple sum of its parts, yet here it speaks loudly of a real Italy; one that gestiticulates with every word. Everything is imported, from the young mozzerella to the olive oil that adds a peppery summeriness to a grey September evening. It may not have the best of carbon footprints, but frankly who cares when it tastes this good.

Our other two starters are big hitting. A parmesan cake with pancetta is an oozy umami bomb which cleverly shifts textures between a molten centre and crisp ham that guards its walls. It is a beautiful example of how when done correctly, this style of food doesnt need a handful of salt to get going; the seasoning is already embedded in the ingredients. A scallop the size of a baby’s fist is gratinated under breadcrumbs, served simply in its own cooking juices alongside a lightly dressed salad. At £7 for the special it feels too cheap, though they taint the perfectly cooked shellfish by leaving the less-than-perfectly cooked roe on.

For mains we take pasta, the hallmark of any Italian restaurant worth its dusting of parmesan. Yes they do pizza, but I can get great examples elsewhere. There is nowhere – I repeat, nowhere – that does good pasta anywhere in this brilliant city. Laghi’s is made fresh (rumour has it by Momma Laghi) and is properly lovely. We have egg and flour transformed into silky ribbons of tagliatelle with a loose ragu of beef that draws silence across the table, and parcels of ravioli that deliver verdant flavours of spinach and ricotta in a puddle of melted butter scented with sage. Oh, how I’ve waited for this moment. Even when the pasta isn’t made fresh it still trumps its competitors. The penne for the carbonara may be from a packet, but it is cooked to a careful bite that won’t have you screaming out the safe word. This is a real carbonara; one with salty guancialle ham and a sauce of warmed yolks that is mercifully cream free. It has been made by someone who understands the principles of the dish.

Desserts are a chocolate molten cake and an affogato. Both have good stuff going on, in particular the raspberry and gin sorbet with the cake, though I happen to have the sold out donuts on my mind for next time. A quick word on the service: I had heard murmurs about the service being occasionally poor, and, truthfully, this had put us off going. I can only comment on the evening we eat when it was faultless; dishes come out of the kitchen correctly and well-spaced, numerous orders for glasses of wine are swiftly taken and delivered. With mains hovering a little over a tenner, the bill for this would usually sit around £30-40 per head, which is super value, though we indulge in far too many dishes and drinks. Regardless, it was a great meal in presently the stand-out Italian offering, only missing out on the top marks because the menu feels a bit safe (being September I would have loved to have seen rabbit or wild mushrooms for that true Bologna experience), but this is just a small detail to a neighbourhood restaurant I can see us constantly returning to. Finally Birmingham has an authentic Italian that I can recommend. And without wishing to sound like an Etta James tribute act. At Last.

9/10

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Rojano’s in The Square, Padstow

I can’t remember the name of our waiter, but I would like to publically extend an apology to him. I am sorry for the jokes straight out of the seventies, and my personal state which went from nicely pissed to pathetically wasted. I had no idea that Bin Two was such a lovely place to sit in the sun, or that one drink would turn into two G&T’s and five glasses of wine before dinner, so I when I continually pestered you for the arancini as dessert and petit fours, it was the grape juice talking. Even if I could have easily eaten twenty more of them.

Now, if you hadn’t guessed by now, this short piece is 100% seen whilst wearing my beer googles. But I can confidently tell you with way more certainty than how we got home, that this place would have been bloody lovely even if I were sober and it was raining outside and the pretty lady sitting opposite me was trying to talk Kardashians with me. It starts with those arancini filled with a peppery Bolognese, with a truffle and madeira dip that adds a earthy quality without detracting from the richness. And a special of gypsy eggs, which is really just baked eggs with tomato and chorizo, and three fat spears of local asparagus to dunk with. Unlike any gypsies I’ve met these are clean in taste and polite. Just like gypsies, I would gladly marry it if it were related. But those arancini. They were the best thing we ate all weekend, which included a trip to the other Paul Ainsworth restaurant in town that happens to be bestowed with a star.

Being Italian in notion, we order a pizza and pasta for mains. I’m mocked for my choice of pizza by the equally wasted partner, who points out that I may as well be in Pizza Express. Piss off Claire and get back to your wine. The Diavola has a thin sourdough base that doesn’t do much for me, though what this lacks in character is made up by a tomato base with bags of attitude. The salami on top is of obvious quality and the roquito, jalapeños, and chilli peppers add varying degrees of heat and fruitiness. Liberal blobs of proper mozzarella are just plain naughty. The crusts get taken through the last of the dip which came with the arancini. Oh those arancini.

The other main is the kind of bastardisation that would usually have me sweating for mucking about with the classics, but here, well I like it. We have essentially what is carbonara with pork meatballs. The pasta is fresh and, don’t tell anyone, better in texture than the tagliatelle the night before at No.6. The egg yolk still warming through on the pasta adds a lusciousness, whilst the back note of madeira is unexpected but welcome. The meatballs have little interference other than the taste of pig. It’s a very good bowl of pasta. Fat bronzed chips were totally unnecessary but quickly gobbled down after a dredging through a mustardy mayonnaise.

Dessert has one ice cream based option called a Whoopsie Splunker, presumably a description of what will happen to me if I eat that much dairy. We pass, finish up on the wine and pay a bill of £80 for the two of us. The following day whilst stuck in traffic on the A30 we discuss the meal, concluding that it is was more than just the wine that made it so jolly. When done this well, good Italian food can awaken the soul; it’s nourishing and dare I say it, sexy. Not that any of that was happening in our little cottage, we were too busy sleeping off the booze and the food, dreaming of Bolognese filled arancini.

8/10

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Fumo, Selfridges, Birmingham

The fit-out for Fumo at Selfridges is said to be one million sterling. A crazy amount of money for any restaurant, but a particularly obscene sum given (and yes, the clue is in the name) that it is within the confines of a shop. When I initially heard the plans, I thought the owner had lost his marbles. And now that I’ve sat inside the fourth floor restaurant, it is clear that someone else has found them and sold them back to him at a massive profit. It is a mass of polished calacatta, the kind that I sell for a day job and wonder who is buying it at the sort of money it commands. Answer: Here. It smells of money. Of high heels with coloured soles, of oversized handbags with padlocks, and of perfume made from the tears of Romany gypsies. I may have made the last bit up. Even the tables are thick marble, ours a large disc in the centre of the room big enough for six big gents and six bigger egos.

In the ninety or so minutes that we take to have lunch the queue outside would grow substantially. It is clearly working. The format is small plates, intended for those who can share. I can’t. The cuisine is Italian in the friendliest of senses – all prime cuts and smiles and things on toasted bread. There is no offal to be found here. I do wish I could find working organs in an Italian restaurant in Birmingham. Even if I do have to walk through Juicy Couture to get to them.

I get over myself with a bulb of burrata that has been marinated from the inside-out with black truffle, in the same way I like to marinate myself inside-out with red wine. Its more odour than flavour, just like the girl outside the doors waving cardboard strips of Channel no.5, though it works well with folds of Parma ham with glistening fat. I have pillowy gnocchi in a Grana Padana sauce, served in a basket made from the same cheese. I’ve had it before at other restaurants in the same group. It’s kitsch, but it is also tasting better than it ever has before. The basket has textural purpose as opposed to purely presentation.

Pork belly is substantial value for £9, roasted until the fat and meat knits together and the skin crisps up. On the side is an out of place wedge of charred cabbage from a chef who has been watching too much Masterchef, and a puddle of gravy that has a hit of balsamic and happiness. Next time I’ll know what to expect and order this alongside the mash potato with truffle. There is a polite ragu with clusters of beef mince that clings on to lengthy strips of pasta like a failed relationship. The last dish to arrive (this is small plates – they come when they are ready) are delicately fried prawns. The heads come away from the torso with the lightest of tugs and we savour both; dunking the body meat into a mayo sharpened with lemon and sucking in those lovely head juices. Not advertised are the courgette fries which come with it. These are superb, equally light and moreish.

They don’t have the dessert I want which we take as a signal to finish up and head off. Dinner with wine works out to be £40 per head, which seems very fair given the opulent surroundings and quality of food. I honestly wasn’t expecting much at Fumo, it’s in a shop and the menu seemed a little identikit, but I’m happy to stand corrected when I’m wrong. They cook with skill and there wasn’t a dud dish to be found. I’ll gladly brave the shopping crowds to eat here again. I liked it, Fumo. I liked it a lot.

8/10

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Fumo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pastaio, London

Not so long ago I was asked for the best Italian restaurant in Birmingham. “There isn’t one”, I said. “Pick another cuisine or go to London”. Whilst harsh, I stand by what I said. Our best Italian restaurants are universally average and I would argue that the food coming out of my kitchen is a damm sight better than the majority of theirs. Give me notice and I’ll braise down some ox cheeks and use the liquor to transform them into a ragu of rich meat. Expect this with homemade tagliatelle and a dusting of aged parmasen. Good Italian cooking isn’t difficult – I can do it, for Christs sake – we’ve just anglicised it to the point of pure laziness.

I have places that I go to for fresh pasta, places that I’m not going to publicise because the queues are large enough already. And then I see a tweet from Nigella Lawson of a potato ravioli with gravy, an oozing egg yolk and white truffle. Take me there and invite Lawson to bring the party whilst you’re at it. As soon we get off the train it’s straight over to Pastaio where a fifteen minute wait has us seated in the week old restaurant.


We try four dishes which is enough to make me want to come back, but possibly not in a mad rush anytime soon. The biggest dissapointment is first; a toastie of sorts with mozzarella, honey, and n’duja. I note the n’duja last because this is barely present – the tiniest of blobs that sits off centre. I’d imagine in it’s full glory this is a dish to savour, just not today.


Pasta is why we are here and that is obviously where their heart lies. With no ravioli and gravy party we plump for wild mushroom tagliatelle. The pasta is silky smooth, the mushrooms delicately cooked with garlic. It’s a joy. Diminutive shells of malloredus pocket a ragu of sausage meat. It’s a grower of a dish, one that I end up clearing despite not enjoying the chewy croutons that work the jaw.


The day belongs to cacio and pepe and bucatini – a 2017 pasta dish if there ever were one. The thick pasta coated in a sauce of parmesan, butter and toasted peppercorns. It’s decadent and brilliantly judged, the ultimate in comfort food.


With dinner booked for two hours later, we opt against dessert, despite developing envy from the neighbouring tables tiramisu. Cheese toastie aside, we had an enjoyable lunch at Pastaio, even if it’s not the earth shattering moment of pasta perfection we longed for. It’s destined to be a success, with long queues in Soho a certainty once word gets around. Me, I’ll be patiently waiting for the potato ravioli and gravy before I consider joining the back of it.

7/10 

San Carlo, Grana Padano lunch 

When I were in my late teens some friends of mine had a t-shirt made that read ‘there’s only one Simon Carlo’, a wonderful present that fed my ego successfully until we found out that Birmingham had two us, with the other being my cousin. I didn’t want the t-shirt after that, especially when he turned out to be far nicer than I ever will be. Still, there can’t be that many of us Carlos traipsing around the city, stealing women and breaking hearts, and besides, I bloody love being a Carlo; it’s part of what defines me, the surname that has become my nickname, that has become the only bit that people ever remember about me. I’m even willing to share my surname with a certain Italian restaurant, just as long as they keep it classy in return.


My visits to San Carlo have not been nearly frequent enough. It was one of the first places I ever took a girl on a date to, me thinking that the waiters would find my ‘Mr S Carlo’ debit card as funny as I. They don’t – they only care for flexing giant phallic pepper mills whilst staring intently into my date’s eyes. I’ve been a handful of times since, and today I’m here to try a selection of autumnal specials all showcasing Grano Padano cheese. This works for me, there is the promise of truffles and plenty of wine. And cheese. Don’t get me started on my love of cheese.


Of the three dishes we try the first is my favourite by some distance. Two large gnocco that I incorrectly call gnuddi on Twitter afterwards. I can feel my Father’s forefathers’ spit hit the ground in disgust at my naivety. They are light and coated in cornflour for a contrasting crisp exterior. It’s the sauce that makes it; a rich cheesey puddle with the umami backnote of Worcestershire sauce. Plenty of black truffle might be more extravagental fragrance than flavour, but it’s one that I’m happy with. It’s perfumes the dish with an unmistakable autumnal scent.



Mushroom risotto arrives in a wheel of cheese for full theatrics. What is plated is a good risotto with plenty of mushrooms, a pinch of salt away from being perfect. The base has the depth that I assume comes from a dried porcini starting point with good quality stock absorbed into the arborio rice. The choice of rose wine as a pairing is a brave one, but works due to the acidity levels. A tuile made from the Grana Padano is formed into a basket, and inside has gnocchi in a pokey Gorgonzola sauce. It’s nice but lacks the same effect of the first two dishes.


We finish up with coffee and more wine, talking to the nice cheese man about nice cheeses from Northern Italy and trying to convince him to join us afterwards at the pub. I could go on and on about the different types but I seriously doubt anyone ever reads this looking for informative news. Instead let me tell you that the three dishes I tried are specials until the end of November and are bloody lovely. So lovely in fact that I now want to give my namesake a proper lookover once again. There is a simplicity to the best Italian food that San Carlo gets, how certain ingredients work together with the minimum of fuss. How dishes should be seasoned and then finished. It is another reason why I am proud to be a Carlo.

I was invited to the press event.

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

San Carlo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gusto, Birmingham

I’d like to think that places like Gusto are a sign of just how far Birmingham has progressed over recent years.  I don’t think it would have fitted in five years ago when the city was still finding it’s culinary feet, or even two years back when areas such as Edgbaston and Moseley were making massive indentations into antediluvian stereotype.  Now, less than six months after its opening, it feels like a staple of Colmore Row – rewarded by a full dining room whose attitude towards dining out is more open.  It sits underneath the Grand Hotel, right in the heart of the financial district.  Inside you’ll find one of the prettier dining rooms in the city, one that nods towards the 1920’s without ever compromising the simplicity of modern interior design.  Glance around and you’ll see slithers of stained glass and splashes of marble, with circular wooden tables that suit tables of four far better than just us two.  It evokes the dining rooms of New York’s Nolita district, a style that matches a menu full of the bastardisation cuisine that is American-Italian.

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Now, you may, or may not, be aware that Gusto is a chain.  Whether that bothers you or not depends on how much time you like to spend shouting at birds in the street.  Me, I couldn’t care less, it obviously works or else they wouldn’t have sloped down from the north to Birmingham.  The first thing I ate happened to be very good indeed.  Torn shreds of braised pork, with gnocchi and cherry bell pepper, all dressed in light rocket pesto.  The gnocchi is light and lends itself well to the rest of the plate.  There is heat from the peppers and plenty of robust seasoning.  It quickly disappears.

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Duck comes medium-rare as requested, on a warm salad of pulses and roasted winter veg.  It’s succeeds in being lighter than it looks, simultaneously fresh and earthy, though we welcome additional carbs in the form of fries dusted with parmesan and truffle. Lamb Cacciatore is a traditional Italian Easter dish of slow cooked ovine, here presented as a gutsy stew rich with tomato and red wine.  Like everything else we try, it’s considered and well cooked, the working muscles of the lamb cooked until they offer no resistance to fork nor teeth, with a dollop of pesto to cut through some of the richness.  Portions are on the American side of large and we find no room for dessert, despite a mischievous sounding Nutella calzone.  I’ll be back for that, don’t you worry.  The bill, with a nice bottle of Barbera, comes to a very fair £63.00 for the two of us.

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I go back a few days later whilst waiting for a phone screen to be fixed in the Apple store.  There I have a pizza with cured meat and chillies that sits amongst some of the better pizza to be had in the city centre.  The base is thin and crisp, the toppings generous and of a high quality.  It makes for an ideal dinner for one with another glass of red wine too cheap for its quality.

Pasta, pizza and so forth; without ever mentioning the word Italian, Gusto have served up some of the better examples to have in Birmingham.  Yes, I know it’s not authentic; it’s immigrant food galvanized on the East coast of America, but it happens to be a damn sight better than the generic paint-by-numbers tosh we have come to accept as a given by more established Italian restaurants.  It is a welcome addition to the city; stylish, affordable and with a clear identity.  If only every group had the same high standards as Gusto, I would welcome them all with open arms.

8/10 

 

 

Fifteen Cornwall, Watergate Bay

I have a real soft spot for North Cornwall.  It’s rugged and handsome.  Where the south of the county is a refined collection of postcard perfect towns and villages which require sunshine, the north is a thing of beauty all year round.  I prefer it in winter, all windswept and daring, when the sea is vivacious and the sun occasionally beats through the clouds and transcends the vast beaches from a dull yellow to golden.  It’s less busy.  I can walk on the beach without crowds.  I can get a table at the places I want to eat at more easily.  Both of these things are important to me.

One of the places I have been keen to eat at is Fifteen Cornwall, a social enterprise from Jamie Olivier.  It’s easy to bash Olivier, others do frequently and I have in the past, yet the fact remains that his cooking has inspired a generation of home cooks, myself included once again.  I own several of his cookbooks; his onion gravy recipe is now mine.  And the restaurant serves to help those less advantage.  If it sounds like I am trying to justify eating at one of his restaurants, it’s because I did.  The reality is that we could have had lunch at Paul Ainsworth’s No. 6 restaurant for less, yet here we are, putting our empty stomachs in the hands of apprentices.

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Those apprentices and this program are doing great.  At it’s best Fifteen Cornwall stands up with some of the finer Italian cooking found anywhere on this Isle.  Antipasto lives and dies and the quality of the produce and obvious care has been taken in this department.  High quality ‘Nduja thickly spread on toast is all fire and spice, arancini is an earthy mixture of al dente rice and spongey mushroom.  We go a little bit crazy over the soft Cotechino sausage with salsa verde, less so over the metallic strips of charred pepper which end up an accessory to the other dishes.  A bread basket has good sourdough and an outstanding focaccia which tastes like aerated olive oil.

Cream laden burrata is the centre point for scoops of roasted squash that are just about holding their shape.  There is a comfort about the plate, underpinned by warming leafs of crispy sage.  It’s simplistic, maybe overly so, but then the best things in life are.

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Buccatini are fat ramen-noodle-like tangles of pasta, coated in a fiery tomato sauce.  The sauce was deep and rich, with plenty of chilli heat and something more sinister lurking behind (vodka, I think?! I’ve been wrong before).  Densely packed beef meatballs complete the generous portion, though these are too heavy to finish.  Compared to this a dish of pork belly is refined, the skin finely scored to fine strips of taught crackling.  The meat is unctuous and tender, the braised lentils underneath just cooked.  My scepticism towards a vivid green anchovy and herb dressing is short lived; it is clean, vibrant, and salty – the perfect foil for the fatty cut of pig.

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Desserts give us less to get excited over.  A pear cake has lost the essence of the fruit in amongst the heady spices, and ricotta donuts are a little stodgy in texture.  Both have redeeming features;  the cake’s toffee sauce and the donuts chocolate dipping pot are decadent to the point of being plain naughty.  The high point is a brick of tiramisu, doused in amaretto and restrained in sweetness.  It is a grown up dessert, elegant and well balanced.

Unfortunately, if the kitchen came out with there guns blazing, front of house must have ran out of bullets.  Service was poor, bordering on abysmal at times.  We were abandoned by one server, another eventually taking over and completely forgetting to bring the wine which I specifically ordered for the pork.  I can forgive most things but please, I beg you, do not come between me and fermented grapes.  Other than that, it was bloody lovely.  Like, seriously bloody lovely.  Proper Italian, cooked with care and attention.  We need one in Birmingham, where the Italian food is generic crap and I struggle to find a carbonara that doesn’t have cream in it.  Plus we have plenty of less advantaged youngsters who would kill (not literally.  Bad choice of word.) for this type of training.  Come to Birmingham and I promise to eat there once a month.  I’ll even forgive the forgotten glass of wine. C’mon, Jamie, I can’t say fairer than that.

8/10

Fifteen Cornwall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato