kings heath

Grace + James / The Juke, Kings Heath

I fucking love wine. Like really love the stuff. I do crushed grapes as well as the next man, unless that man knows more about the crushing of grapes than I do, which would be bad luck on my part. At present I am part of two wine clubs. I spend too much on wine and drink far too much. I hope the crash victim who is looking after my next liver likes crushed grapes less than I do. I’m hardly an expert on the stuff, though – if I am being honest now – have won stuff at blind tastings before. And let me tell you, the blind don’t taste that different. They just smell a bit mustier. I enjoy the process of learning whilst getting drunk; of new and old world styles; of grape varieties. Wine is a complex thing that turns most of us into far simpler humans.

I’ll admit to knowing nothing about natural wine. Nada. Zilch. Zero. I know that it’s supposed to be better for the enviroment and for our body, and I also know that the lack of sulphites is supposed to give a lighter hangover. The latter was a bit of information passed on to me by the somme-liar at Carters and proved to be total nonsense after the individual consumption of over two bottles. On the palate it is wild and funky like Rick James, occasionally being so fruit led it can taste like cider or perry. But these are just my observations from the last sixteen months when a dimunitive blonde turned up at my flat with several carloads of possesions and a five litre box of organic white from Wine Freedom. More recently we’ve had the opening of Grace + James up the road from us in Kings Heath. It is a genuine game-changer; one of our absolute favourite openings of the year. Part deli, part natural wine bar, they have succeeded in opening my eyes to natural wine. And it’s gorgeous inside, the neutral shop front giving way to a room of blush pink and tasteful additions. They do cheese, bloody good cheese at that, drafted in from the best in Europe. It is the only place in Birmingham I have seen a Saint Marcelin, which is a must-order should you find yourself in a similar position.

I still know nothing about natural wine, but I’m trying. We’ll sit and work through the bottles on the shelf, we’ll take advice from Henry and Sophie (who are presumably keeping Grace and James hostage), and we’ll make an evening of it listening to great music. Life is easy when it is this good. Grace + James is really rather marvellous.

I also fucking love beer. Like really love the stuff. I do hops as good as the next man, unless the next man is dressed as a rabbit in which case… oh, I give up. I also love music and the nostalgia attached to the dive bars of Americana when the brief pause between tracks was caused by one vinyl spinning back to its home and the next being flipped into place. It is this reason why I love The Juke, which convienently happens to be opposite Grace + James.

The Juke is a small but perfectly formed bar, ideal for those winter days and nights when the sight of outside would cause anxiety. They have a concise bar stocked with interesting spirits and craft beer takeovers on constant cycle. They have kitchen pop-ups and a small team for whom nothing is ever too much. What distinguishes here from all other places of similar ilk is the original 50’s Jukebox that sits to one side of the bar. It’s what the bar is named after. The options cover all decades and styles and is free, though this does leave it open for continous repetitive plays of Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ on a recent visit. I think you can learn a lot from other peoples taste in music: fans of Beirut come paired with works of JD Sallinger, whilst the Oasis fans can usually be found outside pissing up the front door. Me, I fill my time listening to Bon Iver and The National. Feel free to revert to whatever stereotype you want about that.

These two don’t share much in common other than an address and a passion to do the best they can. In that respect they have nailed it. Together they are part of a huge reason why York Rd is one of the best in Birmingham. It’s almost enough to make us want to move from Moseley to Kings Heath. Almost.

Transport by A2B Radio Cars

Byzantium, Kings Heath

I have a friend called Phil. He’s a good bloke. Imagine Kevin Bacon drunkenly doing The Robot in Footloose and that’s him. He’s knowledgeable on football, beer and who killed Lucy Beale. Y’know, all the important things that men respect other men for. He’s laid back to the point that you could use him as a ruler. Phil doesn’t care much for arguing the small things in life, he’s a listener, not a talker. You’re not likely to hear Phil sing the praises of many things. Its just not his style. Except Byzantium. He bloody loves Byzantium, especially the pork belly. I have become accustomed to those who know I do this blog telling me where to eat. All of them I ignore, except Phil, for him giving a recommendation to anything is akin to receiving prayer instructions from the Pope. So Byzantium it was.

I choose not to tell Phil I’m going. I figure he could reel off all the best dishes and I am unsure he would survive the excitement of it all. I know I will eat the pork belly, for if not I fear that our friendship will be on the line, but the rest I will leave to learn from my own mistakes. I flick through a menu whose shear size puts fear in my heart. One page for the menu, another for the specials. There are more specials written in white on the mirror. Lots of options generally result in inconsistent standards. The charismatic American lady dressed in black talks us through it and puts me at ease. Her personality owns the room and all of its ten or so tables, its bleached walls and North African low lighting.

We start with flat bread more supple than a yoga teacher.  Its size takes over the table, forcing the wine glasses to the edge of the table, though it quickly disappears.  We have it with hummus that smacks of lemon and tahini.  Its the second best hummus in Birmingham.  It just so happens that the best can be found a mile down the road at Damascana.

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A chicken and apricot tagine arrives, its size more appropriate to a main course rather than the tapas dish it claims to be.  The chicken is moist though the apricot flavour is muted, with a sauce that works its way on to the couscous below.  The best tagines have oomph; this one is too polite to sit in their company.  A dish appears with potato where we work our way to the home-made sausage of lamb breast underneath.  The meat is pink with the spicy topping making us sit up and take notice.  Its accomplished cooking with big flavours balanced carefully.

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Pork belly up next.  I am expecting it to alter my world in the same way getting off with a girl did when I was thirteen.  It disappoints.  The meat has been shown too much heat too quickly and has firmed up.  The crackling borders on burnt.  It is generous in size and flavour but it is not enough.  Skewers with halloumi and veg are far better, the onion nicely caramelised and offering good contrast to the salty cheese.  I like the tzatziki it comes with more with the lamb dish.

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A magazine article written by some one who lives locally recently listed Byzantium as one of the cities best.  On this visit I would say that is far-fetched.  Its broad stroke across the world of tapas and mezze means they have lots of flavours to play with, with some handled better than others.  My good friend Phil thinks Byzantium is great, whereas I thought it should be classified under “good”.  Maybe I caught them on a bad day.  Yes, maybe that its it.  Believe Phil and try it for yourself, I mean, what do I know?

7/10

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