Low’n’slow

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

Sear and Smoke, Birmingham

Meat. If that one word isn’t to your liking, then you may want to shut down this window and go back to your hummus and crudites. For the rest of you, prepare for sympathy sweats and burger envy, for lumps of protein and token pieces of carbohydrates. The latest addition to this cities fast expanding food scene is an ode to fire and beast, to feeding using only the finest animals in the most skilled of hands.

Being a collaboration from Original Patty Men and Digbeth Dining Club it was never going to be ambiguous in name. They settle for Sear and Smoke, which makes sense given that pretty much covers off the cooking processes involved. It’s home is Crane, a beautiful old factory too close to St Andrews to be desirable. The huge ceilings, bare brick and steel framework feels like its already integral to the city and I feel slightly at loss to have seen this for the first time in my mid thirties.

I head straight to Flying Cows because a burger for breakfast makes perfect sense. There I take The High Flyer because that’s the award winner and award winners should only ever eat award winners if you want to go Full Pillock. I do. The aged beef is pink throughout, with the sweetest of bacon and Swiss cheese that has the same gummy feel as it’s American counterpart, only with the added bonus of actually tasting of cheese. Whisper it, but Flying Cows remind me of Bleecker Burger at their finest. It’s the burger I would choose from anywhere right now if given the choice. I wash it down with a cocktail from the Birmingham Whisky Club. And lovely it is, too. Far better than the whisky I usually wash my breakfast down with.

There are a dozen or so food traders here on the day, the cream of the local talent and some from further afield. From a little place called London we have Wingman, a chicken wing specialist who came to my attention when they won best of the best at this year’s British Street Food finals. I have the winning dish (see previous Full Pillock comment) that has the sweet, sour and hot profiles of Thai cooking all over their chicken and all down my jacket. Properly lovely stuff and easily the best chicken wing I have ever eaten. Taking second place at those awards was Baked in Brick, today cooking a 45 day aged rump cap as a special alongside some of the more usual suspects. The beef is gloriously tender, with a chestnut mushroom sauce enriched with bone marrow that transformed some very ordinary fries underneath into something far more magical.

I’m outside for a talk by a man who knows a lot about street food and more whisky. The air is stained by smoke and the smell of rendered fat. Low’n’Slow are to blame. Throngs of people have gathered round to watch him smoke pork belly over a make shift pit on the floor before being finished over a barbecue by the very farmer who supplies the pigs. The meat is stunning; aged pork with thick ribbons of fat that only a fool would discard. It’s a proper plate of food, with potatoes cooked with bone marrow and a fiery burnt salsa and sharp ‘slaw. He is bringing the theatre of Meatopia to a warehouse in the backstreets of Birmingham. This is the future of Sear and Smoke.

Original Patty Men are here with a friend – Dom Clarke of Canneat, a little place in Stirchley that I have much love for. I try the special which has their usual patty with ox cheek, gruyere, and ‘French soup’ onions. It’s one of the days more technically minded dishes, aimed squarely at a mouthful of umami. The ox cheek has been braised in reduced Guiness, the onions cooked down to a meaty gelatinous mess. It’s seriously good, I just wish I’d left more room for it.

I wanted to try more, though without my usual partner in crime I was defeated. Three hours after the start and the place was starting to heave, my attempts over, dictated by a bulging waistline and the arrival of a coven of my ex’s friends. I depart for a well earned snooze, awaking to a social media frenzy at the event as the night draws in and the bands begin to play. It seems that I was not alone in my love for it. It was a bona fide success, proof that Birmingham can play with the big boys. It was a faultless stepping stone to a more ambitious event next year. The countdown to the next Sear and Smoke has already begun.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. For more information please see http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Digbeth Dining Club, Birmingham 

I remember the first time I went to Digbeth Dining Club. It was a dreary day, cold and overcast, when summer promised much and delivered very little. We sat on the few benches outside, shivering and exposed to the elements, supping on beer and wondering what the hype was about. I remember very little about the food, other than a Cambodian pork dish from Canoodle that was ordered at the counter and hand delivered to our bench by the chap who made it. That was great; vibrant, clean, and a reason in itself to return on a more cheery evening. If someone would have told me on that evening that Digbeth Dining Club would go on to shape the casual restaurant scene in Birmingham over the next five years I would have spat my pint out of that massive gob of mine.

And yet, it has. Without DDC (herewith known as) we would have no The Meat Shack, no Original Patty Men, and no Indian Streatery to visit. Imagine that. No, actually don’t, it will give you nightmares. And we wouldn’t as a city be able to lay claim to the Britain’s ‘best of the best’, it’s best burger, and now, more recently, Europe’s best. I’ve gone a lot recently because now feels as good a time as ever to tell you about a few of my favourite traders. In the effort of a full disclaimer, I should point out that I personally know both of the founders. James has got me a beer in the past and Jack hasn’t. Neither will give me a DDC Gold Card and both would never dream of giving me, El Blaggo, anything for free. Take this at face value all you want, but all of the dishes have come out of my own pocket.

Hot off the European victory, Baked in Brick seems a good place to start. In the last fourteen months Mr Brick has pretty much cleaned up; British Street Food Awards Best Main Dish 2016, with Best of the Best the same year. This year he came second overall in the same awards, getting him to Berlin where he won the big one. I’ve written about Baked in Brick at length before, but it’s safe to say that his food is about as good as street food gets, whether that be his chicken tikka wrap or beef shin calzone. If you happen to be there when the red mini is, eat the food – it will not disappoint.

This year’s other victor is Flying Cows, winner of Best Burger at the UK street food finals. The burger here is a virtue to farming; the Dexter beef coming direct from his father’s farm. It’s loosely packed and ferociously seared so that the aged cow is the star, whichever burger is ordered. In a city that has made demigods out of burger traders who started off at DDC, Flying Cows is destined to be the next patty shaped success story.

I have mad love for Bourneville Waffle Company in a way that could invoke a restraining order. The warm waffles could be topped with brownie pieces, or addictive bits of fudge made with biscuit paste. It all works. Newer to me is Street Chef, who makes chips out of halloumi. I am fan of anyone that can combine chips and cheese without resorting to poutine. What really makes him stand out is the mushroom ketchup it is served with that brims with heat and attitude. I would like a bottle, please.

The folk of Birmingham would lynch me if I never mentioned Low’n’Slow, so here we are. Andy is a true maestro of flames and frankly shits all over any of the city’s permanent fixtures that serve smoked meat. His chilli brisket burger is a good place to start, which has layer-upon-layer of flavour sandwiched between buns. More recently I had a plate of pork off him that I took to Twitter to say was world class. World. Class. Working muscles end up as tangles of sweet meat and more expensive cuts fired to an accurate medium rare. Low’n’Slow is revered across the city for a singular reason; the man can really cook.

Buddha Belly has a former Masterchef contestant at the helm, firing off the kind of authentic food that gives Siamais nightmares about them opening a restaurant of their own. Have the yellow curry with chicken. Eat the yellow curry with chicken. Order another and Thank me afterwards. And Canoodle is still going strong, all those years after that pork dish stole my attention. We recently had Korean fried chicken and, more impressively, their signature beef rendang that melted to a sweet nothing.


There are others, some I’ve tried and some I haven’t yet. You see I went to the last DDC with the intention of having a Libertine Burger and ended up with tacos from Low’n’Slow. This happens all the time. I’m not so much a creature of habit, but a creature that hates disappointment. If I know it’s good I’ll return time again. I’ll get to Libertine eventually.

The point is that DDC feels more important than ever. They are attracting the very best week on week, providing the foundations for these vendors to expand or look to permanent fixtures of their own. It’s inevitable that the next crop of success stories will come from some of the above, and all deserve it. To the DDC class of 2017 keep up the good work. I salute everyone of you.

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

Chez Mal, Birmingham

A few weeks back I had my birthday lunch cooked for me by a certain Andy Stubbs of Low’n’Slow, during his August pop-up at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath. For those uninitiated, Mr Stubbs is something of a local hero, expertly smoking cuts of meat over various chips, each appropriate to the animal and its accompaniments, and delivered with a palate of pin-point precision.  Our Sunday lunch consisted of two choices; brisket of wagyu or suckling pig, each of them perfect with roast potatoes that first crunched and then cushioned, and gravy that had the intensity of a several day reduction of animal juices.  It was, all twenty or so of us agreed, the pinnacle of Sunday roasts. Andy is hopefully opening a restaurant next year, when, fingers crossed, these roasts will return.

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So that’s how Sundays should be done.  For the flip of that look no further than Chez Mal, the brasserie adjoined to the Malmaison hotel in the Mailbox.  The concept is appealing; twenty pounds for a buffet style starter, a main, and then a dessert.  Where it fails is in the execution, from the cooking right through to the non-existent service.  Our lunch took over two hours to deliver – the last hour of that being some of the most painful I have ever had in a restaurant.

It started decent enough.  The buffet style offering is well delivered and mostly well executed.  Cheese is kept in good condition with chutney and quince jelly.  Cured meats are of a high standard, the pick being slivers of serrano ham, the colour of a bruise and with fat that dissolves on the tongue.  Pork terrine was good, roast ham better and ham hock terrine even better than that.  Salads of roasted peppers and tomato were better delivered than sloppy couscous, but not as good as lentils packed with flavour and still retaining a little bite.  A chef was on board to offer advice, which we needed for dressings that looked uniform in appearance, and was more helpful than anyone else we encountered.

But then the gradual decline.  Sunday roasts were acceptable, the choices being either chicken from Normandy or thick cuts of beef from the ribs, both cooked correctly and gently.  A Yorkshire pudding tasted like it had been on the pass for some time, whilst gravy was deeply flavoured, if a little thin.  We liked the bowl of roast potatoes, less so the other bowl of veg which veered from good baby carrots to undercooked parsnips.

The other mains would not fare so well.  A linguine dish was erratic, the pasta a fraction overcooked, the tomatoes and peas nice enough but missing the advertised chilli heat.  A burger would be the worst choice.  Thick ground meat of no real quality, tightly packed and then cooked to a dry death that required the steak knife I was given.  It was a disservice to the life of a cow.  No animal needs to go like this; topped with a fatty piece of bacon, and smudged with a burger sauce that tasted of a crude bastardisation of ketchup, mayonnaise and vinegar.  It deserved to be quickly washed away, which it would have been, had we not been waiting for someone to collect our drinks order.

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We should have ordered the cheese board for dessert, if only because the starters proved that they capable at shopping.  Instead we get a chocolate pot to pour onto bog standard ice cream and marshmallows, or, worse, the amaretto set cream which had started to split, with an acrid compote of peaches underneath.  At least a sticky toffee saved face, being sweet without overly cloying.

They save their greatest moment for the finish.  We were with family who were celebrating a recent engagement and had prior requested some cake with ‘Congratulations’ written on the plate.  Said cake arrives but with ‘Happy Birthday’ written instead, which, despite us making clear is not the occasion we are here for,  is left on the table without so much as an apology.  The bill is paid and we head elsewhere for cocktails, bemused that such a good start could become such a farce.  The salad bar for starters makes it almost worth going, the roasts themselves are okay.  The rest is unbelievably bad, topped off by the kind of service that left the most gentle of ladies frothing at the mouth.  It could have been so good, but ‘happy birthday’ Chez Mal, you’ve made a right hash of it.

4/10

Chez Mal Bar - Malmaison Birmingham Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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