legna

Legna, July 2019

I have this idea for a streetfood business called ‘Simon Le Bon Bon’. Now I know that you are sat reading this thinking “what a great name for a streetfood business”, and yes, you’re correct, it really is. It works on so many levels; it has my first name, it has the name of a Brummie celebrity, and it tells you what type of food the business does. The term ‘bon bon’ may have originated from the sweet candies consummed by the French after dinner to mask the smell of garlic and BO, though it now has a broader home in the culinary food. If it’s round it gets called a bon bon, and thats what my (sorry Claire, our) business will do. Swedish style meatballs, Moroccan meatballs, arancini with mushrooms like they eat in the North of Italy, and others with offal like they eat in the very South. We might feature croquettes of slow cooked meat, rolled with the heel of the hand to big roundels, breadcrumbed and then fried. You get the idea. The tagline will be ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’, though I must point out that no wolves will be eaten because that behaviour is frowned upon. The queues will be around the block, possibly due to a copyright infringement that will see lots of disappointed Duran Duran fans, but this is but a small detail: Simon Le Bon Bon has legs. Round, deep-fried legs. Scottish legs, if you like.

Alas, don’t get too excited. Simon Le Bon Bon will be joining ‘Mr Strippy’ – my portable lapdancing vehicle where ‘Perfect Gentlemen’ signals the arrival and you order a 69 instead of a 99 – and the Swiss Army prosthetic hand as ideas that will never see the light of day, though would make excellent episodes of Dragons Den. If you can’t be the best at it there really is no point – it’s why I blog and don’t ski – I’ve no interest in being second best at anything. And we can’t win the great bon bon war of 2019. I tried the arancini at Legna and knew my dream was over. A portion of three golden squashball sized bites that yield just a little bite, giving way to a mixture of rice, ‘nduja, and tallegio, each in perfect harmony with one another. It has a little spice, savoury notes, and cheesey richness. It is as good as arancini gets, one-hundred-percent better than anything I could acheive with these fat fingers. Simon Le Bon Bon is now Simon Le Non Non.

This was one of the four starters at Legna, before the four pasta dishes, the skipping of the main courses and two desserts. A bottle of white, three glasses of red, two negroni, and a cocktail complete the order between the two of us, so if the details get hazy towards the end, you now know why. We came in search of pasta dishes, because they were always the strong point here and I’m pleased that they’ve stretched that particular part of the menu, though it was the starters that really grabbed our attention. Those perfect arancini sit in between scallops and bruschetta. The former are three queenies, accurately cooked almostly entirely on the presentation side, with a molita style crumb, and a lemon gel that lifts everything. A similar approach is taken with the bruschetta; the garlic is heavy, it has has plenty of basil and supremely high quality cherry tomatoes. The clever bits are the dehydated tomato petals that add almost floral notes to it. It’s summer in four mouthfuls, helped by us sitting in the glass part of the restaurant, doors pulled back to make the most of the canalside location. The biggest oyster I have ever seen completes Act 1, traditionally dressed, and in no rush to go anywhere. It takes a knife to get it down in two parts.

Those pasta dishes confirm Legna is performing better than ever. Taglioni with crab is spun through a sweet bisque that tastes of roasted shell and cream, whilst cacio e pepe is really aglio e olo. This doesn’t matter too much – we still destroyed it – but it had none of the emulsified cheese sauce made from the cooking water that defines cacio e pepe. It is the filled pasta that really impress; one with ‘nduja, tallegio, and truffle, the other cured  pork and sage. Both have a perfect texture to the pasta, heavily seasoned fillings, and are dressed in some seriously addictive olive oil. There are twelve dishes listed in this section of the menu; I suggest you make it your target this summer to try them all.

We have dessert. I say we; I get no choice in the two that Claire wants to eat half of. She chooses tiramisu and lemon tart, two that we’ve had before but are assured have changed. That they have. The tiramisu is more stable than ever, which I prefer but Claire doesn’t. The biggest change is to the lemon tart. The acidity from the Amalfi lemons are still there in spades, but now we have Italian meringue for a little sweetness, and the most buttery of bases. What was already a very good dessert has morphed into the full package.

With this we drink wine from Sicily because we’re going in a few weeks time, before moving to the bar to continue drinking. From what I can tell they seem to have ditched the tasting menus, and the pizza, both of which are fine with me. In the new menu they are capitalising on what they do best; the pastas in particular, opening up a menu full of choice and desire. It’s the best meal here that we have had by some distance, helped by some of the most charming front of house in the city. In writing this I’ve just remembered I had a whisky before I stumbled out of the doors. And that we booked a holiday. It was that kind of night. I really must go to Legna more often.

Got an A2B there sober. Got an A2B back home drunk.

Legna, Birmingham, Spring 2019

I went to a pasta masterclass recently. We were downstairs in a tightly packed space, drinking prosecco and rolling out the dough in what was mostly a very enjoyable evening. We made tagliatelle, tortellini, and gnocchi, handing over our work to be served back to us at the tables upstairs. The end product wasn’t great: the pasta was uneven in thickness, cut to strips too wide or not wide enough. The gnocchi were mostly dense balls of boiled flour. Not even the sauces that had been bubbling away all evening could save them. We took to fishing for pieces of Claire’s perfectly shaped tortellini, whilst leaving the rest of the pasta and filling up on ragu and wine. I have Italian blood; its ferocious temper, over-confidence, and insatiable appetite coursing through my veins. I am also a very competent chef for someone who has never done it professionally, yet I was as much to blame as the majority of the room. My pasta just wasn’t good enough. Getting Italian food correct is really difficult.

I have tremendous respect for anyone who does understand it. To anyone who gets the principles of simplicity which dictate Italian cuisine I will doth my cap, curtsey, bow, shake hands, rub noses, wag dicks, kiss both cheeks, or hug. I don’t care whether you’re Italian or not, what your background is, your mother’s maiden name, religion, sexuality, what you identify as, or your views on Brexit. Actually I do want to know how you voted on Brexit; you may have a lot of explaining to do.

Aktar Islam gets Italian food, but why wouldn’t he? So what if his name isn’t Carlo Del Puttanesca, or that he doesn’t wear a crucifix around his neck and have sexual fantasies about his mother. So what if he was born in Aston and not Anconna. You think this man can only cook food of the sub continent? You’re a fucking idiot, but please go watch his Queen of Puddings on Great British Menu before responding in the comments section. It amounts to nothing more than racist assumptions of someone based on a name, accent, or country of descent. A conversation I had this morning with the Polish bus driver, incidentally the same man who scaffolded my house. This is a joke. I would never get the bus.

So, anyway, Legna. New menu time for a restaurant three or four months old that I happen to have a lot of love for. I’ve been a few times now; not everything is perfect yet, though it goes from strength-to-strength in my eyes, turning out the kind of smart Italian food that this kind and smart part-Italian bastard likes to eat. It’s a generous restaurant; you’ll have nibbles to kick-off, and there’ll be breads served with a basil butter (boom! boom!) and oils and balsamic vinegar of real quality. If you’re anything like me you’ll order four courses and start with either the flatbread with blobs of hard cheese emulsion, truffle and confit garlic or the prawns. The latter are flashed through the pizza oven so that the shells blacken. Rip off the head, drink juice, take body meat and apply to toasted bread with that garlicky tomato sauce. Simple.

From pasta I would always take the ragu with parpadelle, which you can read about my thoughts on here. I order it because it’s one of my favourite dishes in the city; that meeting point of tradition and modern technique, where everything aligns and you end up in a heap on the floor crying because life will never be this good again. Or maybe that is just me. Having tried the ravioli with potato and egg yolk, I still think I’ll be sticking to the ragu. Given that my only reference point for this dish was at Royal Hospital Road when Clare Smyth cooked there, perhaps I am being too judgemental. All the components were there but the acidity was a fraction too high, knocking the rich elements out of sync. The ragu returns in the calzone, which is the ideal home for it, with stringy mozzarella and piquant roquito peppers. The blistered dough conceals a hefty portion for not a lot of money. I take half home for lunch the following day. The pick of the new dishes is the roasted chicken with asparagus risotto. The chicken is cooked so accurately I refuse to accept that it hasn’t come out of a sous-vide, whilst the risotto has been cooked to a precise bite. The star though is the jus de roti that sits around the peripheral of the bowl. This is a classic touch not seen often enough; with the dark cooking juices adding a nice contrast to the fresh risotto sharpened with a little lemon. I’ll be eating this a lot over the summer.

There will be a pre-dessert, which, if you’re lucky will be the banana ice cream and chocolate mousse we had. To finish I’ll help you out; order the tiramisu. Maybe twice. Boozy, rich, and indulgement. It remains untouched because thats the way it should be. Indulge in the entirely Italian wine list that won’t break the bank before finishing off with a negroni at the bar. Enjoy yourself. It’s what restaurants like this are designed for.

On a Friday night when I was dining alone at the bar I witnessed an elderly couple verbally castrate Aktar, threatening the dreaded One Star TripAdvisor review for serving his ragu with pappardelle and not spaghetti. Do not be these gammon, especially if this is your level of knowledge of other culture’s food. After the rage settled, I thought long and hard about this: this is what restaurants have to contend with now, the fear of someone publically attacking them for them for their own lack of knowledge or inconvenience. We’ve become a nation of critics and that makes this wannabe critic not want to critique anywhere. I’m serious: It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. In the meantime Birmingham continues to churn out brilliant restaurants, with nobody pushing to improve a little corner of this city quite like Aktar Islam. To those with the closed minds and preconceptions he happens to own the best Indian restaurant in the country. To the rest of you, he also has Legna serving up playful Italian cooking in the most beautiful of dining rooms just a few steps away.

A2B got us from A to B

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.

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by Claire

Birmingham’s Top 5 Cocktails

I went and saw my doctor the other day. He asked me how much I’ve been drinking, to which I glanced away nervously into the sterile corner of the room and shook internally, incurring further damage to the organs which I am worried about. I reluctantly told him the truth. He wanted more detail on the type of booze; I said the expensive stuff, mostly blended into expertly crafted drinks. My doctor leans forward, the smell of stale coffee filling the decreasing void between his face and mine. “Sounds fucking fantastic” he says, “You must utilise your multi-award winning blog to write about these, because I need to try them pronto. But heed this warning, young Simon: do not get caught-up in the in the grandeur of awards; even Adolf Hitler won Time Magazine Man of The Year in 1938”. What a wise doctor he is, even if he is the last remaining man alive to use the word ‘pronto’.

So here is a list of the best Birmingham drinks, which, after multiple trips to some place called Londium, really do stand-up to anything in the country. We’re so blessed with what we have here in Brum, which is a small group of hugely talented people bringing the best out of one another. No Pornstar Martinis have been harmed in the making of this list. Give them a go and tell them Ol’ Meaty from the Interweb sent you. You’ll get nothing, but I might get a free drink out of it somewhere down the line.

5) FKD, £7, Nocturnal Animals

The name might be a giveaway, but this is a witty take on teenage boys’ favourite fingering juice. It’s neon blue in colour, bloody lovely in flavour, and rather brilliantly poured on draft straight out of the tap. Nocturnal Animals is too new for me to remotely consider myself an expert on their drinks program, but this is already a highlight for a venue not afraid to take the piss out of fickle aspects of modern life.

4) Negroni, £10, Legna

Ordering a Negroni is like watching Babestation drunk; rarely satisfying. Everywhere in Birmingham has them, very few do them well. For me the best is at Legna where the gin has been steeped in parmesan to give the drink added length and umami. It is up there with the negroni at Bar Termini, which, if drinks is your thang, is the ultimate in Negroni-based compliments.

3) Champion Cobbler, £12, 40 St Pauls

All hail the greatest gin bar in the universe. I’m not making that up, they really are. Right now I’d say get down there for the salted caramel gin hot chocolate, but otherwise take the Gin Cobbler; a fruity little number that comes in a trophy. Because you, Dear Reader, are a deserving champion.

4987AA7C-7C8F-454A-810E-3023724C7CF02) Hit The Rum Jack, £12, The Edgbaston

Simply my favourite place in the city. Indulgent, luxurious, with perfect service, it is everything the bar of a luxury boutique hotel should be. Settle in for the night and work towards this drink; a short, boozy, and complex rum based drink that works on nutty flavours. The truth is you’ll be hard pushed here to find a drink that you didn’t like.

1) Amber Nectar, £10, 18/81

Honestly, the reason I knocked this list up. I was a bit taken aback when I recently tried it; it’s not just one of the best drinks I’ve had in Birmingham, but one of the best drinks I can remember ever having. For what is essentially a double measure of a single malt whisky, they have managed to add a dashes of maple, pecan, and tonka bean to draw out the flavour profile of the whisky. A world class drink that converted Claire to the joys of the fire water.

8057EA13-A94D-43AB-9322-778B3EA07CB2Don’t drink and drive, kids. Take an A2B Radio Car like I do.