Michelin

Ynyshir, August 2018

The morning after our dinner at Ynyshir we are back in the restaurant eating breakfast. Perched on the pass bench we can see the kitchen hard at work whist Marvin Gaye hums quietly in the background. The smell of bacon lingers in the air. The team are in a great mood, poking gentle fun at one another whilst poaching eggs and frying off the lamb patties, happy to engage in conversation despite the late finish and early start. It was during these exchanges that we discussed ambitions, with one chef saying that after Ynyshir he would only want to work at Nathan Outlaw; to learn fish in the same manner Gareth Ward had taught them meat. This statement only sunk in during the long drive back to Birmingham. In the same way Nathan Outlaw is the place to go for seafood, Ynyshir has become a meat mecca without ever labelling themselves as such. The treatment of animal – from the salt rooms through to the cooking – is like nowhere else. And the team here know that, describing the present feel in the kitchen as similar to ‘the Harveys days’ when a young Marco Pierre White ripped the arse out of cooking in this country, leaving a legacy of shit chain restaurants and ultra talented chefs such as Gordon Ramsey, Phil Howard, and Stephen Terry.

It appears that the association with Harveys may not be far off the mark. As of this morning, Ynyshir have leapt into the top 5 list of the Good Food Guide with Gareth Ward named Chef of The Year. It’s phenomal work for a kitchen that refuses to stand still. A couple of weeks back we saw this firsthand, perched high upon the chef’s pass seats for this, our fourth meal there in a year. I won’t run through all twenty-odd courses again, instead I’ll focus on the new dishes, or those that have improved. And a few favourites: it would be a shame to leave those out. What I will say from the top is that this was the best meal yet, a nigh on perfect riot of flavour that consistently hit the two star standard and occasionally the level above that. Ynyshir is worthy of a special trip. Everything about the place, from the rooms, to the mountain views, the firepit outside, the drinks programme, and especially the restaurant, has a certain magic about it.

After the ‘Not French Onion Soup’, the crispy duck leg with seasame oil, and the bread course starter procession, we get the first of the new dishes on tonights menu. Mackerel cooked under the heat lamps, in a puddle of fermented raspberry juice with the same fruit frozen, and a little freshly grated wasabi (you’ll get none of the dyed green shit here). I have a little issue in general with oily fish, though I really like the clever interplay between the acidic, the sweet, and heat. What follows this is the best thing I’ve eaten this year: crab katsu has picked white meat coated in a katsu sauce that is instanstly recognisable, yet so much better than the Wagamamas version you are now thinking of. All it needs is a soy dressing enriched by the shell, and a little puffed rice for texture. Perfection.

One of Gareth’s main skills is the construction of dishes that have instant conection with food memory. In a similar way that Heston links meals to book narratives or childhood, many here are instant riffs on takeaway dishes, or fast food. We get Char Sui pork which are cuts of slowly cooked pig belly that melt in the mouth, sat in a puddle of the cooking broth. There is duck kissed with hoisin sauce and blanketed in a slice of compressed cucumber. Both in theory could be ordered with a hangover and ate in front of the telly. Neither would taste as perfectly rounded as this. The Wagyu beef burger course is the ultimate Big Mac. You cant help but smile whilst eating.

The whipped foie course has been upgraded to a fermented bilberry juice that cuts through the richness even better than its predecessors, whilst a new dish of tomatoes with lardo is fresh and unuasually restrained for the kitchen. After this is a flurry of our favourite courses; Wagyu short rib with mushrooms, that swoonworthy garlic prawn, the deconstructed Caesar salad, the lamb rib that I tell everyone about, and the lamb with kombucha that is a Sunday roast with mint sauce. Claire has the cheese course because her eyes rule her body: I request a short break.

Sweet courses start with a sharp fermented raspberry slushie, followed by a fermented raspberry jam on toasted sourdough. Jam on toast. They should offer that at breakfast, too. The knockout custard from last time returns with fermented blueberries, the dessert courses slowly edging sweeter whilst still staying true to the ethos. We have the strawberry dessert that riffs on summer cup, the tiramisu (still the best dessert I think I’ve eaten), and finish on the Wagyu fat fudge. Four hours done to the vinyl soundtrack of Stone Roses, INXS, and Kings of Leon. I loved every second of it.

Dinner is a boozy one and there are a couple of courses I struggle to remember in lieu of the cocktails and three bottles of wine consumed. This is a birthday treat so I’m not seeing the bill on this occasion, though you should allow a couple of hundred each for dinner and wine, more if you stay over in the beautiful appointed rooms. Stay in the rooms, treat yourself. The fact is that Ynyshir has made me a worse food blogger over the last year; I should be out using this money to eat in far more varied places. But we don’t want to. Everytime the idea comes around to take a weekend treat, it is here that we discuss first and ultimately last. There is nowhere else like it. They are on to something special; I know it, as does Gareth and all of his team. The accolades 2018 have delivered thus far are just the start; this is a restaurant destined to go all of the way to the top.

good pictures by Nosh & Breks, rest by me

Opheem; August 2018

My Dad was born in Aston and he is very keen for you to know that. I think he mentioned it about about a dozen times during a two hour lunch at Opheem recently. He says it to part justify and part bemuse himself at being in such a lavish dining room; his blue floral shirt showing a hint of silver chest hair to match his grey suit jacket, the ornate lights that sit central to the dining room reflecting off his tanned bold bonce. For a sixty-six year old widowed pensioner he’s owning it on his first outing to a restaurant that very much sits in the fine dining catergory. He generally doesn’t do this kind of thing; old Dave Carlo’s experience of Michelin stops and starts with a yearly M.O.T on his car. He is an obstinate creature of habit. Same pub every Friday. Same shop with those increasingly loud shirts. Same curry house with the same dishes everytime. Change doesn’t come easy at this age. But this year I’m committed to showing him the better side of things; he deserves it. Dad is both my biggest fan and biggest critic, he is the first to pick up the phone and tell me when I’ve not treated someone with the respect they deserve; the first to congratulate me when I’ve done well (unless it involves beating him). In the increasing parody that is my life he is my biggest constant and I bloody adore him for it. No matter how many I times I fall it is Dad that picks me up, dusts me off, and pushes me back to reality.

Opheem was in my mind the perfect fit for him: Aktar’s cooking has always for me been about family and generosity. Be it the portion sizes, the unstuffy service, or the nod to his own mother’s cooking, his food is egoless; designed with the diner’s pleasure in mind and never his own. I loved Opheem first time around – it is in my eyes the best opening of the year – and I was keen to say how the kitchen is progressing. Plus we have the added bonus of a new lunch menu which is absurd value at £22 for three courses. If Dad hates it then at least it is not going to be an expensive mistake. He doesn’t, of course. He bloody loves every second of it.

First the difficult bit. Try telling a pensioner whose Indian cuisine point of reference is Moghul in Acocks Green that a sperefied ball of tamarind and chilli water is going to be nice and watch his face. He eventually goes with it and is rewarded by the explosion of flavour that lingers long after the liquid dissipates. It’s properly clever stuff. He loves the pani puri that is layer upon layer of texture and spice, and even tries squid ink cracker with smoked cods roe and garlic. He quickly realises that the gulf between here and what he is used to is a huge one. The sweet potato bread appears with the lamb patè. I wait until he swipes the last of it the bowl before telling him those creamy jewels are brain.

I have mutton kebabs which are pucks of ovine and spice so smooth it is almost patè once you’ve broken through the delicately fried coating. The accompaniments of chopped tomato salad and yogurt mixed with mint are wry nods to the humble curry house. Dad had a dish derived from one of my very favourite things I’ve eaten this year. The ham hock samosa, once an element on the pork vindaloo main, is here the star. It has the same carrots roasted in anise, the carrot puree and the vindaloo puree. It is a beautiful piece of cooking that leaves Dad still talking about it one week after eating it when we meet again for beer and pool. Great food does that; it stays forever in the mind, outliving the eating and slowly morphing into a different beast that becomes a reference point that similar dishes will forever be judged by. I’m lucky to be there when my poppa is having that very moment.

Following an intermediary course of tamarind sorbet with sev and cucumber, we both have chicken for main. Thigh meat in a marinade pungent with herb, in a tomato and fenugreek sauce reminiscent of a certain chicken tikka masala. The chicken on both plates goes in record time, and I unashamedly ask for a jug of that sauce to put the rice and naan bread to use. Stained fingers and beard, the old man calls me classless. I hate to break it to him but I’m not the one wearing a brown belt with black shoes. Dessert is a pretty spiced custard with rhubarb ice cream and a fine dice of the barely sweetened fruit. It’s the only time Dad isn’t blown away. I eat both gladly.

There is an unfair association with lunch menus that the cheaper price means less effort. Whilst that is too often the case, it couldn’t be further from the truth at Opheem. Twenty two pound buys you nibbles, bread, four courses with sundries, and a view of one of Birminghams most talented chefs working tirelessly in his shiny new kitchen. The biggest compliment is given by my dining companion, who comfortably states that if my mother were alive she would want to eat here every night. Proof that Opheem isn’t just for those well versed in these type of surroundings, but for everyone. Even the old cantankerous bastard born in Aston.

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The Greenhouse, Dublin

To say I was impressed by the food scene in Dublin is an understatement of epic proportions. In four days we had really good burritos, a lovely bistro meal, proper beef burgers, and two excellent breakfasts (no, not the White Moose café). There is a thriving independent scene of people passionate about feeding customers well. I loved it a lot more than the beer prices, which for a country with an alleged drink problem are bordering on scandalous. Still Dublin has a lot more going for it than three whisky museums and a street filled with stag parties. I loved it, and when I’ve saved for another twenty years to afford it, I’ll be back.

One of the reasons I loved it was The Greenhouse, a smart restaurant on the corner of St Stephens Green. It comes with a big reputation, with many in the know describing it as Ireland’s best kitchen. The interior is smart and compact, with tables a little closer than ideal. It allows us to get acquainted with the couple either side of us; both convivial and possessive of that Irish charm; both celebrating a special occasion. We order a bottle of txakoli from a list that offers little value and take to the nibble that is placed before us. The ball of deep fried pigs head has dense meat lifted by a little apple. Nice enough, though hardly setting the world alight. The sourdough bread that follows is pretty much perfect, with a crumb that snaps and a light texture onto which we smear butter an inch thick. It is a bread we would request more of as the meal progressed to ensure every trace leaves the plate.

The first course is a dish of exceptional balance. On the base of a bowl is a foie gras royale, silky and rich, covered in a green apple jelly. Layered on to the jelly are dots of apple puree, walnut, smoked eel, a powdered foie, and finally a green apple sorbet. There is a lot going on, though everything is complementary to the foie gras that remains the star throughout. For main we both take the suckling pig, loin served sideways with glass-like skin to one edge. The accompaniments are pure Spring; fresh peas, asparagus as spears and a puree, morels, and discs of crisp potato. An aerated vin juane provides the necessary acidity, whilst a glossy reduction of the pig’s meat juices is classic at its finest. This is stellar work, reminiscent of Phil Howard when he cooked at The Square. My kind of cooking.

Dessert is a passion fruit soufflé standing proudly from the ramekin, where we carve a little hole out and pour in a ginger and white chocolate sauce, before crowing it with a passion fruit ice cream. It is dreamy, the prominent flavour of the fruit livened by the slightly spicy sauce, the difference in heat a lovely contrast. Petit fours consist of a citrus and jasmine tea tart topped with finger lime, and a choux bun filled with chocolate cream. Both are excellent.

The above is from a set lunch, which is excellent value at 42 Euros for three courses, to which we add a good amount on top with drinks. To me this is excellent value for a meal that quickly hit top gear and stayed there. I enjoyed the style of cooking here; the strong technique, the restraint, and the occasional modern flourish. It’s a restaurant that very much puts flavour first. Michelin presently bestows The Greenhouse with one star, it seems only a matter of time before a second follows.

9/10

Carters, Moseley

Considering I live 250m away from Carters it is more than a little pathetic that I’ve managed to get here only twice. I have no excuse; I pass the bijou restaurant on St Mary’s Row on my walk to and from work every day, at least twice a week glancing over at the yellow lettering on black frontage and telling myself that I really must return. Now here I am, driven by the need for a midweek treat and a girlfriend who has a total obsession with their staff food Instagram stories. The interior has been tweaked to a darker shade than I recall, though the layout is much the same. It has drama yet a warmth to it. The hole in the far wall means that you can look in to the chefs at work, or they can look in to you eating their work. I am never quite sure which way round it is.

We have a steady three hour dinner which is so good I have decided to put the stuff I should be writing about aside and bring you this. It is one of the very best meals I have eaten in this fine city, one full of nuance and rooted so far in it’s environment you would need a team of gardeners to pull chef Brad Carter out of its soil. Without ever resorting to screaming through the tussles of his beard, Carter has become a champion of the best produce in the central region, only looking further afield when required, such as for caviar from Exmoor, or those heady truffles from Manjimup, Western Australia.

Four nibbles get us quickly underway, the first a parfait of chicken livers with various grains and raisins that I could have eaten a far bigger bowl of, followed by a delicate tart of broad beans and Winchester cheese lifted by a little mint. There are slivers of goose ham cured in house, and kohlrabi compressed in pine oil and topped with a salad of herbs which tastes slightly reminiscent of cucumber. The latter does a great job at prepping the palate though I understand how some, including Claire, could be underwhelmed. We have bread made from flour milled a mile away at Sarehole Mill with a pig fat butter containing a dice of crackling. If that butter doesn’t get the blood flowing to the organs, nothing will. With this the chef kindly brings a little Exmoor caviar over which I never expected, and probably neither should you. Still, caviar on bread and butter is something I’ll never tire of or turn down.

Cured mackerel kicks us off properly, the thin slices layered with gooseberry, bobbing in a bowl of dashi cut with mustard oil that has us slurping the last directly from it. A dish conceived in Japan, delivered in Moseley. That eastern influence runs throughout the meal, from the simplistic presentation, to the constant use of umami, and occasional flashes of deeper knowledge, like in the fermented rice on the last dessert. After this course it is straight back to the local environment; a slice of tomato compressed in elderberry vinegar, clothed in backfat and more elderberry, with basil leaves and seeds. It is one of the evening’s strongest courses, one that turns with every mouthful. There are sweet notes, acidic notes, fatty notes, and most surprisingly, anise from the basil seeds. For something that looks simplistic, there is a lot going on under the surface. I have a lot in common with this dish. Conversely, there is a humbleness to the next course, which means I have absolutely nothing in common with it. A fillet of ray with a sauce made from potato and dots of sea truffle, a type of seaweed that shares similar qualities to the tuber. Three cheap ingredients transformed into a plate that has far more luxurious qualities.

Now when I think of the evolution of Carters cooking it is summed up by the lamb course. A loin cutlet (I think) taken off the bone, cooked and then finished on a barbeque. As good as that is (and it is very, very good) the real points of interest are to be found in the garnish. Umami rich black garlic, peas that have been podded and dressed in the faintest of vinegar, sea lettuce both powdered and gently wilted, a healthy dusting of black truffle and a dressing of lamb fat mixed with aged soy. The complexities on the plate are everywhere, gently positioned into place and allowed to mingle with one another. The result is a dish as perfectly balanced as anything I have eaten this year. I save a slice of burnt fat for last because I know this will be the best bit. It is. What follows this is the best cheese I have ever eaten. A soft cheese called Maida Vale, washed in sour beer and served with malt loaf. It is grown up and addictive, sweet and rich, the beer a genius way of introducing balance.

Desserts are bold because they follow the same ethos as the rest of the meal, meaning that they are marginally sweeter, though not by much. More traditional of the two is the grilled strawberry, a beast the size of Claire’s Beetlejuice sized bonce. It has intrinsic sweetness, cut through by the clever use of unripened green strawberry and a soured cream. The last dessert is an ice cream of fig leaf, with local raspberries and fermented rice that adds a sophisticated sour note. Even the petit four – a silky chocolate ganache with rapeseed oil and sea salt – refuses to get the sugar levels going. I admire this; it is clear that Carter is now functioning with a singular belief.

Looking back on my 2015 review I used the words ‘uncluttered’ and ‘concise’ to describe the style of cooking. Although that ethos is still very much in play, the reality is that now Carters is an entirely different beast; it has matured into a restaurant entirely comfortable in its own skin, a place that looks to the best in local produce and pays respect to them on the plate. Claire considers it to be the best meal she has eaten in Birmingham, so much so that she pays the bill in full as a treat without me seeing it, though with two bottles of wine over the two and a bit hours it would work out to be about £130 a head. The best bit? All of this is on my doorstep. Moseley is lucky to have Carters, and I for one plan on coming here as often as possible.

Maribel, Birmingham

My personal experience of Richard Turner is a mixed bag. Years back I passed him en route to the bathroom of his tiny restaurant in Harborne when he was coming out of the kitchen. “Fantastic pork, Chef” I tell him. He just looks back. No words. Just a blank stare that he must have borrowed from every character Danny Dyer has ever played. Then more recently I see him at a restaurant opening where he is lovely and jovial and kind to me until some idiot tells him I write a food blog. Then nothing. Back to the stare which cuts holes in the back of the head. Others will tell you similar stories, though I can empathise with him; I am dreadful at pretending to be nice. I am bloody lovely to both the people I like, but the rest? Why bother. And although it is unfair to judge a man on the two occasions we meet, it is where the similarities between him and I finish. Ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that Turner is one of the finest cooks to come out of this city; a chef’s chef who prefers to be behind the pass than the television screen. He is a man who understands flavour. I wish someone would say something that nice about me instead of just insulting my grammar on Twitter.

His new home is Maribel, a lavish restaurant in Brindley Place which will surely benefit from it’s space directly underneath a load of bankers. The room is tasteful and considered, with well appointed tables and thick carpet. Many of the team have followed Turner in the transition from Harborne to the city centre, meaning that a month in from opening the service and food already feels like it is operating at the level of his previous restaurant when it held a star. A flurry of nibbles arrive within minutes of us sitting down. There is a deep fried croquette of smoked eel and apple on a horseradish puree, followed by a gougere of aged gruyere. The choux is delicate, the cheese crème rich. It’s as good an example I’ve had; right up there with Ramsay’s three star flagship at Royal Hospital Road. We get an elegant spoon of diced scallop with cucumber and a grating of fresh wasabi, and a final nibble of soft boiled quail’s egg, Berkswell cheese, anchovy, and chicken skin on lettuce that brilliantly riffs on chicken Caesar salad. It achieves something rarely found within classical cooking; originality. It also tastes incredible; rich, salty, and decadent.

The further nine courses veer from very good to outstanding, showcasing a respect for the finest of ingredients in allowing them to take to the plate with as little interference as possible. We have firm heritage tomatoes with goats curd and marjoram doggy-paddling in a labour intensive tomato essence, followed by the slenderest of mackerel fillets that has it’s inherent oiliness cut through by fresh gooseberry and cubes of buttermilk jelly. There is an ease to the cooking here, the simple understanding that two or three elements on a plate can make more sense than one loaded with unnecessary showy technique. A bowl of Jersey Royals and caviar reinforced that for me, the pureed potato loaded with butter and offset by the salinity of the luxurious sturgeon eggs. It is a dream dish, one that sucks you into the table and makes you forget the environment you are in.

It’s not all delicate flavours; occasionally he metaphorically whacks you in the gob, though as a blogger I never rule out the literal, either. A cube of barbequed lamb (from the shoulder, I think) is about as unrefined as this dinner gets, in the best way possible. The flavour of the ovine is pure with just a hint of smokiness. Sharing the plate are slithers of garlic, peas both fresh and pureed, and the most textbook of hollandaise sauces I have ever tried. To extract so much from so few components is nothing short of outstanding. Dover sole sees two fillets glued together with some sort of crustacean paste, and then pan fried until the flesh just begins to tan. It is crowned with teeny shrimps that ramp up the taste of the ocean, and a little puree of parsley that pulls it back towards the shore. A sauce split with parsley oil is stellar stuff, but then all of the sauces are. These take time, skill and a lot of patience.

When I think back to the meal it is three dishes that stand out: the potato and caviar, a dessert I’ll get on to soon, and the guinea fowl that was next up. It had everything I look for in a plate of food; interest, technique and flavour. The breast is delicate with crisp skin, the leg stuffed with a mousseline of langoustine. Morels for earthiness, the vegetal freshness of asparagus, and another killer sauce. I would kill for this dish and then demand it once more on Death Row. I find myself checking that no diners or staff are watching before chasing the last dots of sauce around the plate with my fingertips. A kind of cheese course is next that suffers from following the guinea fowl. It has Lincolnshire poacher mousse at the base, topped with a parsley oil, lardons, and spring onions. On to the dish is spooned pastry that has been cooked, quickly frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed up. On its own the pastry has developed a raw note, though the intentions become clear when combined with the rest; its quiche Loraine and very nice it is, too. My mate who I’m having dinner with thinks it is too rich but then he eats fish in a bag at Mooch Bar, so you can trust me on this one.

Desserts are frankly brilliant. A rice pudding leaves us both speechless; decadent with vanilla it has the very costly Mara de Bois strawberries cooked down to a jam-like puree at the bottom. The meringues and frozen strawberries on top are delicate yet offer just enough texture. I know upon reading this my Dad will insist on me taking him for this and Dad, you’re welcome, I’ll do it without the usual passive aggression. It is followed by the bastard relative of the baba, the savarin, sliced apart and soaked in sherry. We load this with the puree of golden raisins and a healthy dose of cream. It is the Spanish rum baba. Your mind is pure filth, Turner. Filth.

Petit fours are a very interesting cornet of raspberry, rose, and beetroot that ate far more cohesively than it sounds. We leave stuffed and giddy, given up two hours of the evening to a tasting menu that comes in at ninety-quid a head and the wine pairing, that includes some special wines from the Coravin system, adding a bit more on top of top. It’s not cheap, but nor should it be, just look at the ingredients used above. A night at Maribels is one of luxury, of the finest food cooked by a man who knows what he is doing. It is clearly at one star level, something the tyre company will pick up on soon enough. As we’re finishing up on the wine Turner pops out the kitchen to ask how everything was. He is interested in feedback, affable, and dare I say it, happy. Maribel may just be what was needed to reignite the fires of this super talented chef.

10/10

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Paul Ainsworth at No.6, Padstow

Had our booking at Paul Ainsworth been three-to-four weeks earlier, I am almost certain that my thoughts would have been different. The diary had been unkind to it, sticking it on the end of a six week spell of gluttony that saw a trip to a food mecca sandwiched either side by multiple starred restaurants and some others pushing for similar accolades. Aside from a bulging waistline, this brings another problem, one that comes from short-term saturation of too much of the good stuff. We had a stable memory for ingredient quality, for seasoning and technique, and for service. I could still taste some of the best dishes we had. Coming out to play last they were always on an uphill battle, though that is not an excuse for them never getting out of second gear.

I don’t have much negative to say about our meal here, though I’ll struggle to hit superlatives over the next few hundred words. The building is nice, in particular the very smart CiCi’s bar upstairs, and the staff are eager to please. On arrival we get a nibble of deep fried Porthilly oyster with a smoked cod roes dip that is fairly unremarkable, followed by nice bread with two types of butter; one a sunflower yellow, the other caramelised. The former is okay, the latter unique and slightly unpleasant.

I’d been looking forward to the starter for a long time. A ragout of Jacobs ladder with tagliatelle sounds right up my alley, the kind of reinterpretation of homely cooking that gets me a little giddy in these kind of places. The ragu meat is lovely though it is too light; the late application of tomato concasse and a splash of vinegar has taken it too far away from its roots. The pasta is marginally too thick, though has nice flavour. It has little in the way of identity and is very light on seasoning. I’m disappointed.

Smoked haddock quiche Lorraine is another starter that sounded better on paper than the reality. The portion of haddock is generous and nicely smoked, the pastry case underneath rich with lardons, onions and an oozy egg yolk. The dollop of salty caviar gives it a nice luxury seasoning, with the whole thing covered in a foam that tastes of little, if anything at all. I thought foams had died by now. Claire sums it up with a subtle shrug of her dainty shoulders. “It’s alright”, she says, “we’ve just eaten so much better recently”.

The frustrations continue into the mains. There is some good stuff bought down a level or two by the company it keeps. A new take on Tournedos Rossini has chicken replacing beef as the protein. The poultry has been rolled with a duxelle stuffing and is unforgivably dry given that Michelin has bestowed this building with a star. Around this lay ceps, the rock star of the mushroom world, though these are lacking in the intensity of flavour that the very best have. The best bit is the brioche and liver parfait which crowns the chicken, the parfait in particular packing a real punch. The side bowl of peas, lettuce and bacon, again light on seasoning, does little for the dish. The other main was mutton in a rich suet pie, with a moat of red garlic ketchup. This eats far better than the other main; bold in taste, meaty, and with a nice acidity from the ketchup. On the side this time is fricassee of sweetbread, consisting of mostly cucumber and one solitary thumbnail sized piece of sweetbread. We order a side of asparagus that arrives on the bill later that evening priced at £10 for five spears and praise ourselves on not ordering the two portions they suggested. The table of four next to us are going to have a shock when their bill arrives and they have a £40 bill for twenty spears.

Dessert sees them up their game. A cheese course of sorts has a fat wedge of Barkham Blue served alongside a little jug of cider and a slice of tarte tatin. It is a combination that makes perfect sense, the salt and sweetness in harmony. It’s lovely, held together by some top quality ingredient and a killer tarte tatin that has apples just holding their shape and lots of caramel. The bread and butter pudding seems a perfect way to finish the evening. The cubes of bread in a custard-like sauce dotted with rum soaked raisins, covered in a chocolate ginger snap. On the this goes cream, with a puddle of sherry for good measure. It’s bloody brilliant; that spark we’ve been waiting for all evening. It has character in abundance, is fun, and most of all is an improvement on the original.

Service was considered, if a little keen on the upsell at times, and there was an issue with a glass full of sediment that I personally felt could have been handled better. We pay a bill of £180 for the above, a bottle of Beaujolais, two cocktails, and a glass of dessert wine. Not a life changing amount of money for dinner, but one that I expect not to be littered with small errors. Paul Ainsworth comes across on television as a cheerful and passionate chef, and everyone I know in the industry says he is one of the good guys. As much as I wanted to enjoy No.6 it left me a little disappointed. There is a playfulness to the concepts of each plate that simply doesn’t translate into the eating, which coupled with some erratic seasoning issues left me feeling cold.

6/10

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Azurmendi, Bilbao

We first spotted Azurmendi perched high upon a hill as our taxi roared down the motorway. It briefly disappears as we swing left to disembark the quicker roads and then rapidly grows in size again as we go around the roundabout up a very steep hill and up to the top, where the gigantic glass building stands proudly at the top. We enter the leafy reception and are immediately given a glass each of the txakoli they grow on their own vineyards at the rear, followed by a picnic basket that contains the first four courses. It would be thirty-five minutes and ten small courses from here before we sit down in the restaurant. Azurmendi don’t do things the normal way.

That picnic basket is Chapter 1, the first of four chapters that takes four hours from start to finish. Inside is a seafood broth, a dainty brioche burger with anchovy and smoked eel, and a cider parfait with chorizo crumb. What amazes me is the intensity of the flavours; everything is ramped up to the maximum it can be, the burger having the flavour of barbequed fish despite any direct heat being applied to any of the filling. My favourite is a false peanut, with uncompromisingly rich filling of foie gras and peanut, before being finished with mushroom powder. It is very clever.

From here we are taken into the kitchen for the next instalment. A chicken consommé greets us, the strong, clean chicken flavour lifted with a little sherry. Whilst we are drinking this an egg yolk has a little removed by syringe and then replaced with a hot truffle reduction that cooks the yolk from the inside out. A truffled egg yolk. Absolute filth. I am demanding this on every breakfast from now. The third chapter takes us into the greenhouse for four more nibbles, a glass of fermented apple juice, which we know of course to be cider, then the most remarkable cornet of tomato, red pepper and garlic that nods at the strident flavours of Spain. We get alchemy in a curd that transitions from water to a yogurt-like state in front of our very eyes. The fireworks are reserved for the final nibble; a caiprinha cocktail which explodes in the mouth from the thinnest of chocolate spheres. The cachaça spirit has been replaced with local txakoli which seems to lengthen the sugar and lime notes. Talk to Claire about our meal here and this is the first thing she will mention. Had there been more attached to the miniature tree she would have picked them up and made a run for the door. It’s the Macclesfield girl in her.

After these ten pretty astounding nibbles we get led to our table. The dining room is huge, the tables well distanced from one another. The art is to the left of us; the glass wall that looks out on to the Basque countryside, serving as a constant remainder of the environment and restaurant’s attachment to it. Indeed, for all of the modernist tricks that the kitchen applies here, the overwhelming feel was that of one of community; the use of local wine, of Basque traditions such as the chicken consommé, of local ciders, and a wider appreciation of the national flavours like in that cornet. There would be many, many more references throughout the remainder of the meal.

Four more nibbles arrive together before they move on to the tasting menu. The lightest of foie gras served within a followed-out lime, topped with a syrup of the citrus that works as a brilliant foil for the rich liver. There is a beignet of spider crab, and mushrooms coated in praline that attract the mushroom and liquorice powder they lay on. Finally we get txakoli infused with sea herbs that takes on a fresh dimension. We order a bottle of txakoli. It turns out that I like txakoli.

Still with me? Good. We’ll get started properly now. The first course is the only one I didn’t love, but only because I don’t like the texture of poached oysters. The mollusc is a beast, the biggest I’ve seen, with a vibrant herb oil, herb emulsion, a little apple, and a tempura of oyster topped with oyster leaf lurking in the back. This feels wasted on me and I should have swapped out like Claire did. Loved the tempura oyster though, which is meaty and still bursting with the taste of the sea.

Following this is sea urchin in various forms. Within the ceramic shell is cooked and raw sea urchin, tasting like the most pungent of brown crab meat, topped with a foam of you guessed it, sea urchin. On the side is a tilted glass of Bloody Mar, their take on a Bloody Mary, with more sea urchin, tabasco, Worcester sauce, and tomato juice. It shouldn’t work, yet it does, the urchin flavour working perfectly in harmony with the spice which sticks around for the various layers within the pot. If sea urchin isn’t your thing this will not be for you, but I liked it, it has an elegance about it and flavours that aren’t afraid of standing up for themselves.

A little veloute of asparagus is next, the flavours clean and defined with a dice of asparagus at the base. Even better is the ‘pil-pil’ of vine asparagus it is served with, which we are told to eat with our hands. The tangle of vegetable has been cooked with garlic and ancho chilli so that the heat grabs from the second it enters the mouth. Together with the veloute this course is nothing short of exceptional. The lobster which follows is beautiful, the tail meat centre to the bowl with just a glossy sauce American and pickled onions for company. It is topped tableside with a coffee butter that adds a subtle depth and richness to a dish that riffs lightly on acidity. The lobster is the best I have ever eaten, but does that really surprise you? By now I’m sold, hook, line, and sinker.

Beans and assorted meats are a playful take on the homely cooking within the Basque region. The beans have been produced using spherification, the gel membranes each releasing a different flavour note when popped in the mouth. Also in the bowl is a rich sauce, thickened, I think, with a little pigs blood. A cube of slowly braised pork sits behind it. I have no idea what the kitchen intended with this, though in my eyes it was the taste of Morcilla when all was combined. Rich and elegant, with meat and a little spice. This was an incredible course that used modern techniques to its full advantage.

We get the Red Mullet in three servings. The first a fritter of the fish innards which was a little too pokey in taste for even me. The second the most perfect piece of slightly smoked melt-in-the-mouth sashimi with charred edges and opaque centre. The last is a fillet, pan fried to a crisp skin on a circular of rich herb emulsion and stewed wheat. On top of the fish is a little potato soufflé filled with another puree of parsley. It is perfection in simplicity.

Our final soiree in the savoury section leaves me gobsmacked. I’ve done the three star Michelin thing before, I know how they like to flash their expensive cuts of meat, so to serve me a faggot as a main takes bigger balls than those I’m looking at on the plate. The faggots are made from the sweetbread of the pig, and are rich and delicate, glazed in a sauce so heavily reduced I could almost see my face in its sheen. With this are liquid balls of Idiazabel (a local sheeps milk cheese) that explode in the mouth, and cubes of salt baked turnip. It is one of the most remarkable dishes I have ever eaten, the cheese a brilliant partner to the sweetbread faggot. For once words fail me in giving this the culinary blowjob it deserves.

Three desserts to go. First up is avocado and mango, a dish that I most feared when looking at the menu. It is a delight; arguably the best of the trio. The success lies in the use of lime acidity and ancho chilli to sharpen the plate. Avocado puree is warming and spicy, with mango parfait and meringues. There is a lime cream and granita, and white chocolate leaf-shaped shards. It eats so well. Following this is red berries as various purees, the most decadent of sorbets, as well as fresh and frozen. A white chocolate sorbet and shards coated in basil join it along with a crème of something I cant recall. On the side is a bit of fun; a raspberry ice cream, aerated and frozen that disappears in the mouth leaving nothing but the taste of fruit. Drink was getting the better of me by this point so apologies for the hazy detail, but the overriding memory is of the unbelievable flavour of the fruit. With this we drink the most astonishing dessert wine I have ever tried; an iced cider which we dare not ask the price of such is its quality, and later appears on the bill for five euro a glass. Take that, extortionate UK wine prices. I know they said its not available on the consumer market, but if anyone is reading this that can source me the Malus Mama please hit me up. I could do without the air fares to have another glass.

The last dessert was possibly the one time the kitchen witchcraft didn’t pay off to its full potential. A forest scene has a chocolate leaf and twig protruding from black olive soil, with a sweetened ice cream of the sheep milk cheese from earlier and chocolate truffles. The flavours work great but the proportions are slightly out; there is too much of the soil which becomes claggy in the mouth without the moisture from the ice cream that soon runs out. We take coffee with the petit fours, which fold from a box that reveals eight gems including jellies, macaroons, and chocolates. We have these boxed up to take home, which make a wonderful breakfast the following morning. The red wine chocolate even helped ease my hangover.

This, of course, does not come cheap. The tasting menu comes in at 230 Euro each, and I’ll spare you the total bill that includes two good bottles of wine, and glasses of dessert wine to boot. Though to put it in perspective our total bill is well under half of a friend who ate in a Parisian three star around the same time, so I personally consider it value. It’s inevitable with longer tastings that there are going to be dishes you are less keen on, yet it was clear that the technique on show throughout was of the highest order. The four hours we enjoyed at Azurmendi are the absolute pinnacle of my culinary journey thus far, a carefully crafted experience that pulls in and out of their environment. My handful of other three star experiences were blown completely out of the water. If, like me, you enjoy the theatre of eating, modern techniques, and the most perfect of meals, Azurmendi may also be your idea of the best restaurant in the world.

10/10

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Peels Restaurant at Hampton Manor, Hampton-In-Arden

As Birmingham’s premier food tosser I feel somewhat ashamed that it has taken me this long to get out to Hampton-In-Arden, considering they’ve held a star for two years now and with everyone I know telling me just how good it is. But Hampton-In-Arden is forty minutes away, and I sometimes forget that the greatest taxi company in the world do nice things for me. Most pathetically, the pictures I see never really inspire me into booking. Hold those cackles in; I am fully aware that me judging anyone on their photo skills is as hypocritical as me commenting on monogamy, but the pictures always look a little bit gloomy, and when you can fully see what is on the plate it looks classically French over contemporary. And I’m sorry for such a blunt comment, but if I’m making a one-hour-twenty round trip then I want some excitement in my life.

Well, I was wrong. Massively so. Firstly the building is jaw droppingly beautiful; an imposing country house with grand features. We take drinks in the lounge area overlooking the vast gardens with canapés following quickly afterwards. There is white crab meat dressed in a slightly spiced sauce, and a cube of duck meat dressed lightly in sesame oil on a blood orange gel which I cant decide is a nod towards duck a l’orange, or the duck from the local Chinese takeaway. Either way its delicious. It is the cheesey, trufflefully, custard thing on delicate crackers that sends us a bit potty. It’s after eating this that I curse myself repeatedly for not getting here sooner.

I am in love with the dining room from the very second we are led in to start the proper eating. It is the perfect juxtaposition between the past and the present. The fireplace, massive windows and ceiling height confirm we are in an old home, though these have been offset by more modern, luxurious touches and a beautiful centrepiece table made from a singular cut of tree that sits two tables of four. With wine ordered we receive our amouse; a jacket potato veloute topped with puffed potato pieces seasoned with salt and vinegar, and a drizzle of thyme oil. The depth of flavour is staggering, boldly seasoned, yet true to the unmistakable flavour that occurs when you leave a spud in the oven whilst nipping out for two pints at the local. Claire has a brilliant reference point for the taste that I have to promise I wont nick. It in no way references cheap crisps. Keep an eye out for when she eventually gets around to writing this meal up sometime in 2019.

Asparagus, burrata, and chicken are three ingredients that when listed together will make things happen within my pants. It is a combination that makes perfect sense; the cream-laden cheese which beds the spears not that different to a poached egg, or hollandaise. The chicken is represented as a blitzed crispy skin and seasons the dish whilst adding a meaty note. The clever bit is the fermented asparagus juice which adds the acidity required to cut through the dish. What follows is as good, if not better. Cubes of pork belly and shoulder are joined at the bottom of the bowl by pickled shallots, onion mouse, and croutons. On to this is a heavily reduced onion broth, deep in allium flavour with the back note of cumin. It has texture and purpose, the meat tender and not lost within the big flavours. We chase the last bits of the sauce with the house bread, pour in more of that broth and repeat. These two dishes were without doubt the highlight of the meal for me.

Mains never quite reached the dizzying heights of the first two courses, though lets be clear, they were both delicious. Lamb rump is a consistent pink, the meat tender, layer of fat rendered down. It looks simple; peas, lovage, malt vinegar, though there is complexity throughout. The lovage is bound in yogurt that brings a light touch, and the malt vinegar in tiny jellied cubes that adds zip and acidity when discovered. Opposite me is buttery wagyu beef, with pungent black garlic and the unmistakeable flavour of St George’s mushroom. I think it is lacking in texture, and I probably wouldn’t pay the £20 supplement again to take it from Longhorn to wagyu, but not a speck is left on the plate.

Pre-dessert is whipped buttermilk with passion fruit and a caramel from the same fruit that eats far better than it photographs, which is why I’m sparing you my horrific pictures. And then dessert, clearly from a very talented pastry section. Honey cake with fennel in various forms eats very well. It has spice and controlled sweetness. It is my kind of dessert. Claire has chocolate, sherry and vanilla. She loves it and I don’t get a sniff, so I can’t comment on it at all. Petit fours, a riff on cookies and cream, are excellent, coffee strong. Life is good here.

Our bill is heavily subsidised because we snagged a deal in Birmingham’s best weekly email, though we still hit over a ton a head with the wagyu supplement and far too much to drink on a school night. I just wished we’d stayed over. Our meal at Peels could hardly be considered a shock considering the Michelin star and four rosettes, but expecting it to be this good? It’s an instant favourite. They do flavour and precision, with the best dishes causing genuine table silence. I’m reliably told it takes less than twenty minutes on the train from Birmingham New Street to get here. And get here you should. Everything about Hampton Manor is special, none more than the food at Peels.

9/10

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Simpsons, April 2018

Given the chance to treat a friend to their first Michelin starred meal, the choice of venue was an easy one. Simpsons has it all; a beautiful restaurant in lovely grounds, food that pushes on without the need to challenge, and importantly, as we are paying, a very affordable lunch offer at the weekends of three courses for £45.00. I couldn’t be more happy with our choice, they were on top form yet again, cooking cohesive flavours with flair and hints at wit that to me is closer to 2* than its present one in the Michelin guide. I make no excuses for my love of Simpsons. I have come on dozens of occasions over the last decade and long may that continue. It is my personal favourite in Birmingham. I’ll keep this brief as I not so long ago wrote about Simpsons here.

After the usual snacks and bread offering we move to a bowl with cubes of beef cheek, pickled onions, little pickled mushrooms, crowned with a flurry of deep fried mushrooms. Into this is poured a mushroom broth, thick and rich like a Tory backbencher, balanced out by the light acidity from the pickled veg. A disc of cured salmon follows, dotted with kolrabi puree and little balls of the same veg. We get another sauce poured tableside, this one a split buttermilk milk that has a lovely tang at the finish.

The main of chicken ate so well. The meat cooked just as I was taught at their cooking school, the perfect example of how to treat poultry. Cheers, Nathan. I think what makes the dish is the undercurrent of black garlic that adds a brooding quality to the plate. Combine that with salsify, cabbage, and a jus that just holds on to the fingertip and you have a dish that is singing with Springtime flavours. I reserve the best bit until the end; a nugget of thigh meat with the skin that cracks under the fork. A pre dessert of lemon curd and oats comes hidden under a drift of sorrel granite. It’s fresh if maybe not my favourite pre dessert I’ve eaten here – can we have the vodka jelly back please, chef?

Desserts today are tremendous spelt with a capital T if that wouldn’t already add to this posts grammatical error count. Fermented blackberries lay underneath skyr yogurt that somehow tastes of cream cheese. It eats, with the help of an almond crumb and a little squeeze of grapefruit, just like a cheesecake. Pretty astonishing. Likewise a carrot cake, sweet and cinnamon spicy, with a decadent praline and pecan ice cream. I want to say they’ve hidden the acidity this time around in the carrot gel which tasted faintly of orange to me, but I’m probably talking out of my arse. We finish on a textbook soufflé of rhubarb with a crumble topping into which a custard ice cream is nestled. The soufflé is one of the lightest I can recall eating, almost cloud-like in texture. It eats like a dream.

The bill for three with two bottles of wine and a glass of the sweeter stuff hits £80 per head, though it goes without saying that you could spend a lot less with a more modest drink spend. The lunch menu is a bargain, available on the weekend when the other starred restaurants offer only long tasting options. Afterwards we saunter a hundred steps or so to The Edgbaston, perch at the bar and drink some of the finest cocktails to be found anywhere. Two of Birmingham’s finest and almost the perfect afternoon. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Gymkhana, London

The last day of our London blowout saw the bluster of snow quickly gather around our ankles as The Beast rolled onto our shores from the east. We find solace in Mayfair, firstly with the perfect martini in The Connaught, thereafter in the plush leather booths of Gymkhana. The dark panelled upstairs of the restaurant feels like a plush gentleman’s club, with low lighting that that doesn’t bode well for cameras and therefore ideal for one of the most famous men on the planet to enjoy lunch. No, its not me. Mid-lunch I send a picture to my best friend with said superstar accidentally in the background, stating the inevitable of who it is. “Are you eating curry at 2.30pm?” is his response. Yes Nathan, I am. I am in Mayfair, there are no rules here.

Not just any curry though. Curry bestowed with a star by a tyre company and uniformly loved by the denizens of the capital. The service here is slick and discreet, polished more frequently than the table we sit at. Greeting us are three types of popadom; lentil, potato, and tapioca, with three types of chutney. A sweet mango one, another of mint and coriander with a verdant kick, and a feisty dried shrimp one that starts spicy and finishes with the crash of the ocean.

A large plate of potato and chickpea chaat marks the first course. It’s generous as a dish for two to share, though we make a good go at working through the beguiling mix of textures; the snap of wafer, the crunch of sev and little fried bits of potato that have soaked up the tamarind chutney that have kissed everything. Another sharer plate follows of tandoori cauliflower, the florets wearing a cap of thick yogurt. Two very good plates of food that showcase how Indians manage to extract more flavour from vegetables than any other cuisine.

The curry course is less main and more banquet. We don’t even get close to finishing it. There is decadent butter chicken masala that adds weight just by looking at it, and a more a dry spinach and paneer curry that pops with flavour with every mouthful. There is a smoky dal maharani that we mop up with the lightest of naans, and we take a supple roti to spicy potatoes coated in a thick gravy that has us instantly googling the recipe. It is called Dum Aloo Banarasi if you’re interested. And rice. Cant forget the rice. It’s mammoth in portion and obscenely good. Some of the best curry I can recall eating anywhere, and I have eaten a lot of curry as my ghee filled arteries will testify.

Desserts are a bit lost on me in comparison on account of teeth generally not being required to eat them with. Rasmalai is a very good rendition of gloppy cheese balls in milky custard, shown a little bit of wit with the addition of popping candy. Also being eaten by my other half was kheer, a rice pudding, with slices of Seville orange that bring a bright acidity. She loves them both, but then that’s understandable given that she was chowing down on baby food just a few years ago. I can appreciate them, which is an upgrade on my usual stance.

All of this is more remarkable given that eating here can be affordable. The above is all from a £35 four course set menu, to which we add a very good value pinot noir, and some superb cocktails that are worthy of the splurge. It seems remarkably fair given the Mayfair address. I’m late to this particular club as Gymkhana has been sweeping up the awards for several years now, but do I care? Do I heck. I am an instant fan, one that looks forward to future visits. They can give me Indian food this good anytime they like. Yes Nathan, even at 2.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.

8/10