one star

The Coach, Marlow

I started the week convinced I had COVID, which is regrettable in every way apart from the symptom of lack of taste and smell, which I was intrigued to experience so that I can know what it’s like to be other food bloggers. It turns out I don’t, which is a result given that it was my birthday weekend and tracking would have been a nightmare. Last week we did the Rishi thing, then the pre-birthday drinks in the cocktail bar, then the other cocktail bar, then the hotel cocktail bar because everywhere else is closed. Then the birthday trip away, then back for the birthday dinner with my mate, before the inevitable trip to a couple of pubs. Sunday went back to the pub, and the cocktail bar, and then the different pub. Then Monday night it’s like, okay, this doesn’t feel right at all. If anything it’s made me realise that I should slow down at the moment. Less groups of people over less locations and time from now on for me.

The trip away started with lunch at The Coach. Marlow is a pretty place with pretty ex-London faces spending pretty sums of money on pretty much anything. There are houses that sit on the banks of the Thames with boats just for the hell of it, and butchers which promote their wines of the week for the paltry amount of £40 a bottle. It is a mix of old Buckinghamshire money and new London money with the common denominator of money. Tom Kerridge has a two star pub here which I’ve been to before, and a one star pub which I’m about to write about. To call either the Hand & Flowers or The Coach a pub is a statement I’m not going to back-up with substance here.

It’s a nice spot. Cosy and well appointed, the palate of Victorian green and white so de rigueur, to join the small plates menu that is a very easy way of scaling up a bill quickly. Knowing that we have dinner in a few hours time we keep the order small, and it proves to be a wise choice.

I can’t pretend to love everything we eat. A venison chilli is a wholesome bit of cooking, but is a bit gritty and over seasoned, whilst the caramelised onion and Ogleshield cheese scotch egg is technically sound but the Parmesan veloute it sits in is underwhelming stuff. If it sounds like I’m giving it a hard time, I’m not, but this is a pub with one Michelin star that is presently ranked no.5 on the Top 50 Gastropub list.

When it’s good, it is so very good. The strongest dish of the day is chicken from the rotisserie. Brined and cooked until it’s borderline done, it comes swathed in opaque sheets of lardo and crisps of Jerusalem artichokes. Hidden underneath the lardo is a scattering of seeds and finely chopped herbs, whilst at the base of the dish are a dice of the Jerusalem artichoke bound in, I think, a purée of the same veg. It’s cohesive and rich, the poultry an ideal companion to the earthy, buttery tones of the veg. A chicken Kiev relies on the same meat and one veg (not me, stupid) tactic, using courgette this time as the foil. A courgette purée spun with basil is the highlight of a very nice plate of food.

A word on the chips. I’ve said for years that I consider the chips at Hand and Flowers to be the best chips I’ve ever eaten. These are better; chunkier, with a different cut that benefits the triple-cooked process and gives more potato. You might sniff when I tell you they are £7.50 for a portion including bearnaise sauce, but we’re paying and you’re not. And I’d pay it a lot more frequently if I was local.

Dishes are mostly over a tenner and all under £20, and whilst we escape with a bill under a ton, slightly bigger appetites should allow a bit more including wine. Overall I enjoyed it; the standard is similar to that of Kerridge’s other pub, and the menu is appealing. The best dishes are very good indeed. And those chips. You have to try those chips.

The Crown at Burchetts Green, Berkshire

I’d like to think that a place like The Crown could only exist under its own circumstance. How the unconventional approach of having chef patron Simon Bonwick completely alone in the kitchen allows him to play out the Escoffier tribute without another chef whispering otherwise in his ear. How the front of house, made up of a third of his nine children, are able to talk through the tiny wine list, haggle on the extra bottles on the blackboard, and explain the eccentricities on the menu like a ‘rather nice sauce’, or that day’s ‘nice’ dish. Right down to one of the team jokingly telling us that their Dad would not be happy to see a prawn topple from a main course, it’s an experience which defies convention in its usual sense.

The overall effect is a timeless restaurant that focuses on the roots of fine dining as opposed to the ever changing colours of the leaves on its many branches. The endless towers of cookbooks which litter the bar area have each served a purpose to take the restaurant to the heights of a Michelin star, via a special recommendation from the same guide the previous year. Not bad for a space of just six tables and one chef.

A little canapé arrives alongside the champagne we start with; a delicate thimble of pastry holding a purée of chickpea, lemon, and smoked almond, then a cup of chilled squash soup with clusters of seeds and a hint of spice. Bread is a hot pillowy affair, a little dense, served with slivers of butter pinned together with spikes of lavender and rosemary. A trick we’ll be stealing for dinner parties in our home.

For starters we take a huge cylinder of dressed white crab meat, thatched with batons of apple and a solitary tomato petal. There is a dressing of something sweet and acidic, and a few spiced cashews for good measure. The result is up there with the very best crab dishes I have ever eaten, a tribute to the beauty of the more subtle white flesh. A terrine of pork belly studded with lentils is lovely yet not on the same level. Acidity to cut through the fatty pig is everywhere; a blob of something mustardy, a teeny quenelle of chutney, or the bite of the pickles. They all work.

A beef main is ‘cooked on a string’ and, I’ll be honest, I’m still none the wiser as to what that involves. My guess from the texture of the fillet, is that it is both poached and steamed, resulting in an excellent piece of meat that is very rare but not the slightest bit bloody. With this is spud squared; a fondant and the most buttery of mash with a little confit garlic, some spinach, and mushrooms cooked in plenty of butter. But what makes it is the sauce, reduced so heavily you could varnish a fence with it, and so glossy it could serve as a mirror. Full of bovine notes and with something piquant lurking in the background, it reminds me of the sauce I had with beef at The Ritz, only better.

If I’m launching into hyperbole it’s because we were both having the best time. There is something magical about being somewhere so at ease with itself. The other main of halibut owes much of its majesty to the Breton prawns it shares the plate with, being some of the freshest and tastiest I can recall eating. Like the beef it has the mash and the spinach, though this has a verdant pesto and a little tomato concasse to bolster the summer flavours it speaks of on the menu. A really outstanding dish.

Saint Marcellin cheese gives me happy memories of Mere Richard in Lyon, so when it’s on the menu as cheesecake, I’m ordering it. In truth it’s the one dish I’m not mad on. The cheese flavour comes through nicely, but it’s a little dense and the base is a little chalky. Lovely raspberries though. But frankly who cares when they have steamed syrup sponge as good as this. A light, pillowly bosom, sweet and unforgiving to the hips. A proper dessert. I get a macaron with a candle in because it’s my birthday. It’s a good macaron and a great birthday.

Starters and desserts sit mostly in the teens, whilst the mains above are £40 and £44 respectively. The total bill of over two hundred for two including wine isn’t cheap, but it is worth it. We simple loved The Crown. It defies trends and fashions to serve the food which they are comfortable with, in an environment which they have curated to suite them. With the exception of a few other favourites of ours, it stands out for having a true identity. I can see many other visits happening in the future.

Staycations at Hampton Manor

If the intention of this press trip was to get bookings for the staycation then they succeeded before we left. At midnight after a fair amount to drink, a whole lot of fun, and a severe beating at pool, we succumbed to the inevitable and asked if we could book a stay for September. I’m already excited about it.

Hampton Manor has that effect on us. It almost certainly will on you, too. The way the drive meanders through the estate and the manor comes into sight on the right-hand side, before it fully reveals its majesty direct and to the left. How the scale of the house becomes immediately apparent when you step into the reception hall, with ceilings that could house a beanstalk and the most immaculate of interior design. It helps of course when the very small party are being watered on Nyetimber magnums.

We are given a tour of the new Nyetimber summer house, a beautiful space where the staycation starts with the afternoon tea on arrival. Then a walk through the extensive gardens where much of the produce is grown, through to the smokehouse, another new area which is where we are having dinner tonight, and is the dinner location for the first of the two nights in the package. The old stable building is transformed, with a large communal table and wine on tap, its shell still its beating heart with bare brick walls and stone flooring. We have two starters from the Michelin starred Peels restaurant, both vegetable led with fish used mostly for accent: first tomatoes with sourdough crumb and turbot roe, then a roast potato with xo butter and garden herbs. The potato is good enough to make lockdown worthwhile; absorbing the curry and crustacean notes of the butter with sharply dressed salad of fennel, dill, and chervil adding layers of intrigue.

Whilst eating these our mains cook in the fire in front of us. Rolled pork belly, barbecue lentils, broccoli, and apple sauce. Looked great, ate better. Washed down with a lot of natural wine from a team who are clearly passionate about grapes crushed in a particular way. Dessert was toasted almond cake, raspberries, and ice cream with an almost indistinguishable note of lavender. Simple and delicious. A description that’s also my Tinder profile.

So what’s the craic with the staycation? Two nights, £360 per person. Your money gets you afternoon tea on arrival, dinner in the smokehouse, a bed, breakfast in the morning, craft/wellbeing/food workshops, wine tasting, five or more courses over dinner in the 1* Peels restaurant, the same bed, breakfast in the morning, and a wave goodbye. They operate an honesty bar in the day, and if like us you have no idea when to stop, the midnight hours can be filled in the new pool room, in the bar listening to vinyl, or sat at the whisky bar. It’s not a small amount of money, nor should it be; this is luxury. We’ve debated booking it since they announced it a month or so ago, but after last night decided that we should go and make a weekend of it with friends. I’d spend that amount getting abroad for a couple of nights, we deserve the break.

This was a press event and as such was complimentary. The subsequent booking will be paid in full.

Ynyshir, February 2020

I hate Valentines Day. Hate the forced romance and the uplift in prices, the public displays of affection, the hand holding, and then the kisses that resemble two fish gulping at air. I hate being told when I should do nice things for a person that I try to do nice things for all the time. I hate the snobbery around it, how it becomes socially unacceptable to eat Pizza Hut on a night when you might normally eat Pizza Hut, but it is okay to eat four courses in a restaurant you would usually only order one in. I hate the marriage proposals. I really hate the marriage proposals. And the price of flowers, and the heart-shaped food that should never be heart-shaped, doused in a sickly amount of saccharine and sold to randy teenagers or adults who really should know better. I hate the cards; either signed or anonymously stalked, with poorly constructed poems and lewd puns about melons, choppers, and jugs. I hate that dining rooms are full of people who are only there because society tells them they need to be. I hate that I did this for seven years because the girl I was with expected it as the norm, and I love that the last two years have been spent on the sofa, watching shit TV and eating homecooked food because she too understands that it’s just another night. And it is just another night.

We spent Valentines Day in our favourite place in the world. It was an accident: honestly. We knew we wanted to return to Ynyshir some time ago, and a look at the diaries left only a few weekends, of which we ended-up knocking the day off and going on the 14th. If you are going to spend that day anywhere, I suggest you do it here, in the middle of bloody nowhere where no additional concession has been made, starting with a duck broth and martini in the bar listening to Boxer on the vinyl record player. Then I suggest you head to the pre-specified room one, washed in petrol blue paint, where the feature windows make it feel like you’re sleeping in the world’s most picturesque cave. We drank Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs and headed back to the bar to drink more cocktails.

The resulting meal is, I think, the best I have ever eaten, anywhere in the world, over the last fifteen years that I’ve taken food seriously. Michelin’s present assessment of one stars is ludricous. Ynyshir are cooking with the world’s best ingridients to a standard that very few are hitting globally. We saw lots of tweaks from our last visit; the Not French Onion Soup is now so unlike it’s starting point it’s dropped the title completely and now just goes by it’s initials. We now start with a chawanmushi base — a silky savoury Japanese custard — dotted with pickled shallots and teeny croutons, and then an onion broth that splits the custard. It’s a more elegant, richer, creamier start that serves its purpose of prepping the mouth for the forthcoming onslaught of flavour. Then crispy duck glazed in hoi sin sauce, and that chicken katsu skewer which I could gladly eat ten of, but only ever receive as a singular no matter how many times I write that sentence on this blog.

Course four brings the first of the new dishes to me. A skewer of otoro tuna belly, sourced from what I understand to be the same Spanish supplier as The Araki, just warmed through so that the fatty cut starts to loosen. This was wonderfully rich, coated in a terayaki sauce that never gets in the way of the fish. Following this is the chilli crab, a dish I called 2018’s best and if anything has got better. The crab is in larger pieces, the sauce with more chilli kick, and now comes with a steamed sweet bun to mop up the bits which evade the fork. Sensational. Mackerel aged in the salt chamber with furikake seasoning, then the two-part cod; the first a slice of black cod, followed by a broth of the bones with shitake mushrooms. Scallop with elderberry vinegar and aged beef fat has gotten bigger; stronger; more defined. A crumb of what I think is dehydrated roe now shifting the centre point of the dish from cow to crustacean. Five consectutive world class fish courses. They might want to change the board near the kitchen which says, amongst other things. ‘Meat Obessessed’.

Next up is the duck liver and smoked eel dish I love, followed by more duck, and the char sui pork belly that has me gobbling down the slices of meat and slurping the liquor like I’ve never seen food before. That pork gives me a boner and I’ve not said that since watching ‘Babe: Pig in The City’. Then the lamb rib which seems less acidic, but maybe that’s because I’m drinking better wine. We get the best version of the cawl dish yet with strands of lamb neck bobbing in a broth that again has me slurping from the bowl.

Now is fireworks. Not genuine fireworks because they shouldn’t be fired indoors, but the proverbial ones that make you stare in amazement and occasionally use obscene language. Because if one thing has changed it is that this restaurant is now sourcing the absolute best in ingredients. The Welsh wagyu once used here was great, but it wasn’t the best, because that happens to A5 Hida from Japan. So that’s what they serve here now; the same beef dishes ramped up to twelve because eleven isn’t loud enough. We get the burger that has a more buttery burst of flavour now, then two courses later the shortrib dish that has a depth of flavour I never knew could come from a cow. Sandwiched in between this is a new dish which could well go on to become Gareth’s signature: a tartare of the sirloin and tuna otoro, a grating of fresh wasabi root, and a generous amount of Imperial caviar. It’s the Ynyshir surf and turf, where the belly works like bone marrow amongst the beef and the rest smashes you in the face with salinity and heat. It’s perfect. Not just a three star moment, but one that stands up alongside any dish I can recall eating.

It was always going to be hard living up to the beef courses, and so the cheese one fell a little bit flat in comparasion. Keen’s cheddar is spun with macaroni that comes out of the machine seconds before and is cooked in the molten cheese, before being topped with pickled truffle that has taken on a dampness and a flavour reminscent of Branston pickle. It’s not my favourite thing of the night. That is rectified by a slushy of rhubarb that takes me long for the sun, and then the white chocolate with fermented black bean that has crazy salted caramel tones throughout. We hit a home run with the nigh on perfect finish of sticky toffee pudding, rhubarb with that insanely indulgent custard, and tiramisu, which I’ll say once again is a three star dessert all day long. Wagyu fudge and dinky rhubarb tarts are served in the bar. I think. I was drinking negroni by now so anything is possible.

A night like this doesn’t come cheap. Dinner is £180 a head in the main room, more where we sat, and there is a hefty (but entirely justified) supplement for the A5 beef. I’ll spare you the total bill but suffice to say that when you include the room, the several bottles we had over dinner, and the cocktails, you could go abroad for a holiday. I mention this because when you book in you should be fully aware of how much it will cost and equally how much it is worth it. The present position of one star in the Michelin guide is ridiculous; more realistic is the Good Food Guide’s assessment of Ynyshir being the third best in the UK. I grab a rum with Gareth in the bar afterwards when he tells me that the plan for the restaurant is to create the best restaurant in the world. Looks to me like he’s heading in the right direction.

Would A2B take me to mid-Wales? I’ll ask them next time

Opheem, January 2020

This was my eighth visit to Opheem since it opened. I am fully aware that there are other restaurants in Birmingham, but Opheem has a brilliant ability to post new dishes online which make me want to book a table to eat them, which I do, very happily. This time it was three dishes all from the new menu; a skewer of chicken tikka, a monochrome monkfish dish, and a goat biryani. I was supposed to go to Opheem with an incredibly nice man called Nick but that was overturned by my evil girlfriend after seeing the image of the chicken skewer. Nick, I’m sorry. We both know you would have made superior company.

Turns out that chicken skewer is worth the trip alone. Served as an amuse, the first bite in the restaurant after the little bits hand delivered by the chef to the bar area, it is Aktar’s homage to butter chicken. Chicken leg deboned, brined, compressed, marinated, and then cooked over fire, served with a chopstick up its proverbial arse and a coating of something buttery and nutty, crisp skin, and puffed rice. It is what you imagine chicken tikka tastes like but never does; a perfect blend of warming spices and juicy poultry. Unimprovable.

Now the boring bit. I’m going to say what I’ve said several times before and tell you that Opheem has improved yet again. The new menu has taken the kitchen to new heights. More processes (I’m told that chicken takes four days) though ultimately less components. Dishes have cut down on the ingredients and focused on ramping up the flavour. Old dishes revisited and improved. The lamb fat bun still has the lamb patè, though now that patè is inside the bun, whilst that bun can (and should) be dunked into a little bowl of spicy lamb broth. What’s left of that broth should be cupped and drank immediately. The first course of the tasting menu sticks with ovine, a mutton ‘porridge’ which is similar to daal in texture only with long braised strands of meat and a deep hit of flavour. Crispy onions and a little bhaji offer a contrast of flavour for an assured and confident start to the meal.

We have the tandoori carrot that you can read about here, followed by a langoustine, caviar, and cauliflower custard dish that I’ve been fortunate enough to try a couple of times during its development. It feels complete now; concise and higher in acidity, it works brilliantly with the tartare of langoustine wrapped up in the celeriac ‘taco’ which cradles a wooden holder to one side. Then the highlight of the meal; a take on monkfish dopiaza, a term literally translating as ‘double onion’. Dark and brooding, the fish has been cooked over charcoal and has just enough smokiness, whilst the onion is present as a sweet compote, spiced roscoff broth, charred shallots, and (I think) crispy spring onion tops. It’s a hell of a dish which could easily sit on a two star menu and not be out of place. It also defines Aktar Islam as a chef: the ability to look at dishes from his heritage and transform them into something refined and modern.

The last of the savoury courses was also the most recognisable: a goat dum biriyani, inspired by the dishes served by his Mother to his younger self, with the pastry lid cut open at the table, as all dum biriyani should. This comes one between two, to be portioned on to the plates containing a goat chop, raita and salad. It is a showstopper, familiar, with an execution of undeniable skill. The biriyani stars; the rice with just a little bite, mingled in with bits of braised goat that whack with spice until licked with the raita. Proper cooking. From the look of social media it appears to be going down a storm. Quite right too.

The first dessert celebrates forced rhubarb, and is, in all honesty, the weak point of the meal given it eats a little one dimensional compared to the vibrancy of everything else. We then move on to a dark chocolate delice with orange gel, and a sweet potato dauphine. It’s a Jaffa Cake we tell them. No it’s not they say. Yes it is: the dark chocolate, the orange, and the dauphine that has a cake-like texture thanks to the choux mixed in with the carb. We’ll agree to disagree here. It’s delicious anyway. There are petit fours because now that they have a star there should be.

The award of the Michelin Star means that prices have risen slightly, but the eight courses at £75 represents one of the best value tasting menus in the region. With this we took the wine pairing that included rose champagne and a very classy Pinot Noir that I am going to be purchasing for home. Service is superb and if they are bored of seeing my face then they haven’t let on just yet. It was as good as rainy Thursdays get. Opheem are unstoppable at present, full of creative flair and desire. Little wonder I’ve neglected most of Birmingham’s restaurants to keep on returning here. Nick, next time, I promise it will be with you.

I travel to and from the best, with the best

Pictures pilfered with permission from the restaurant due to lighting being very low

Carters of Moseley, Winter 2019

This was supposed to be a recap of both the meals we had booked in at Carters over the festive period, but no, Claire had to pick up a spluttering, bubonic, germfest that had us cancelling all plans and turned me into a tea waiter for two weeks. There are many reasons to hate the know-it-all, boyfriend stealing, Kardashian obsessed, clever clogs tax nazi that is Claire, but few more valid than her ruining me eating good food. As it was, I managed to guilt shame her into getting a curry in as a replacement meal, so swings and roundabouts and all that.

The mathematicians amongst you may have worked out that ‘both’ minus one bout of illness equals one meal. You are going to read about that meal because it was four hundred quid and I want to preserve what already hasn’t been sacrificed to the porcelain gods a long time ago.

It was another amazing meal; I think maybe the best yet. It appears to the eye of this bloated epicurean (yes, I did just refer to myself in the wankiest way possible) that the reins are off and that now we are eating what Brad and the team here want to cook and, more importantly, what they want to eat. Take the partridge that comes at half time; poached in master stock, the bird is butchered, it’s elements cooked seperately, and then reassembled to its original form, albeit axed in two for sharing purposes. The breast meat isn’t going to offend anyone, though some might object to the claws left intact on the braised legs (I don’t), and those people will take equal offence to the skewer of innards which happen to be the best bit. The biggest talking point is up top. The unctous neck meat that leads up the birds skull, beak intact, brain ready to be sucked out. I’m told that this made an appearance last year, but only to the tables they thought would be receptive to it. Now everyone gets it. That’s where Carters is at presently; a brilliant point of realisation of what they do best is what is going out of the kitchen. We ate every bit with Claire not only cleaning the bones but sucking out the last of my share of the brain. It’s yet another reason to hate her.

The rest of the meal was another tour de force of what is right now the best kitchen in Birmingham. The nibbles and bread are pretty identical to this meal, whilst the brilliant scallop brex-o description can save me eighty words by reading it here. We eat barely warmed through razor clams in pepper dulse sauce that is pepe e cacio reimagined by a wizard, followed by sturgeon in a velvety sauce bobbing with caviar. The sturgeon is a new one to me given that I’m only used to eating the eggs of it’s unborn children. I struggle with it as its texture is too reminiscent of trout (the true evil of this planet) though make up for it by mopping up the sauce whilst Claire finishes off mine. She eats mother and daughter. Another reason to hate her.

The menu tells me that we had the partridge at this point, so it’s onto the eight year old Holstein with fermented hen of the wood mushrooms and ‘beer mustard’ which, if I remember correctly from the Calum Franklin event is pickled mustard seeds fermented in beer. I think. They are incredible anyway. The cow meat has a maturity to it that only comes from dairy cattle, layered with funk and umami from it’s accompaniments. It’s a proper plate of food. Then Baron Bigod stuffed with truffle because life is too short to eat it any other way.

I should point out at this point that Alex and Holly had curated a truly fantastic (and very generous) wine flight for Claire’s birthday and I’m less half cut, more impaled on my own spike. It’s all a bit blurry from here on in, which is probably our fault for polishing off a bottle of something fizzy before the food started. There is a mousse of cornish honey with a prettily decorated shard of something sweet and crispy containing the very bits that the bee feeds off. Lucky bee: my diet is made up of bitterness and partridge brain. The last picture I took was of a chocolate and cobnut tart which I remember being delicious. I think there was something after that, though it could just be more port. I think it was more port. We pay the bill and saunter to Couch for more drinks and a rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, capping off a perfect night. The style of cooking at Carters is in a new phase which may not be for everyone. It is most certainly for us. I can’t get enough of it.

Wanna know what else I can’t get enough of? That sweet, sweet A2B.

The Ritz, London

So, it turns out The Ritz is really nice – who would have thought that? They’ve really nailed the five star luxury hotel. From the greetings at the door, to the cloakrooms, to the Rivoli bar with the cocktails that start at £22 and soar through the hundreds, to the gent’s toilets with the expensive toiletries, shaving kits, and warmed thick hand towels. Not a detail has been overlooked in the experience. It succeeds in the sense of occasion: from the generations of ladies celebrating the youngest’s imminent trip to university; to the couple posing for pictures on the staircase prior to their afternoon tea; to us waiting patiently for the dining room doors to swing open at 12.30pm sharp, everyone is dressed-up to the nines and ready to splurge. It is a place of overstated taste, gold-licked, regal and utterly charming in the most British of ways.

I’d built up an idea in my head of what it would be like from the TV show and the countless blogs I read. Some of it rung true; the majesty of the dining room and the dove-tailed waiters gliding around the room whilst the pianist tapped out the safest of Ed Sheeran melodies. Others less so, resulting in a very nice lunch that cost well north of three-hundred-notes but felt like it could have been better value on another day, or maybe for another punter. Take the canapes; the gougeres I’d read so much about are nowhere to be seen, and whilst the ragstone cheese on the parmesan biscuit and the sorrel emulsion on the spoon are very classy, I was kind of looking forward to the coronation chicken cylinders, or even the beef tartare nibbles that seem to blow certain people away. If there is truth in the “we are pushing for the second star” spell then it is a curious statement. They seem to have taken away the more elaborate start and replaced it with a reduced Saturday lunch service for us weekend tourists. I feel a little short-changed and this is before we get to the winelist that starts at £50 a bottle and offers zero value at any point. We opt for a young Latiffe that drinks well enough despite its infancy.

And for this start I’m conflicted because it is clear they are operating mostly at a two star level. The first course of langoustine has beasts of crustacean, all curled up and cooked for possibly a second or ten longer they need to be. What makes this dish is the nage; a sauce of shellfish stock, white wine, herbs, and lots and lots of butter. It is a about as good as sauces get, the ideal foil for the sweet langoustine and anise of fennel nestled underneath. The other starter is veal sweetbread, ariving tableside still smoking in the box of smouldering hay. The sweetbread is probably the best I’ve ever eaten: soft, unctous, and yielding with a light backnote of smoke, paired with an onion jam, shallot and another of those deeply flavoured sauces.

For main we take the beef wellington, a snip at £90 for two. It’s listed with celeriac (very much there) and Perigord truffle (only in the sauce), though also come with some seasonal veg, wild mushrooms, and a side of pastry ends which must be the most Northern side dish to ever appear in Mayfair. It’s very good and overly generous in portion. The pastry is super buttery, the cook on the meat is spot on and the foie gras that runs through the centre a welcome bit of fattiness. I get nowhere close to finishing it.

In keeping with the theme of me pissing and whinging about expectation, I’d sold the idea of the gateau St. Honore to Claire on a picture I’d found on the internet from, you guessed it, The Ritz. On that image layers of pastry, apple, and creme diplomat are topped with elaborate garnishes of sugar, nuts, and delicate chocolate work. The one we got served looked like the technical challenge attempts from Bake Off in comparison; two layers of the puff pastry, each half-piped with cream and the other with apple filled choux buns, almost inedible due to the thick caramel covers that threaten to do more damage than the bill we’re about to be served. In truth it wasn’t a great course; one dimensional and flawed technically. It’s also the small matter of £36. Good job the petit fours were stellar.

It’s The Ritz – we don’t come here expecting it to be cheap – but the final bill of £350 for two felt steep for the experience we personally had. In my eyes it was disjointed; unashamedly stoic French in design, they omitted the little touches traditionally associated with Escoffier’s haute cuisine (the amuse bouche, the pre dessert) for a streamlined service that still takes the same dent out of the wallet. The food is lovely, absolutely no doubt about that, but I wouldn’t rush back. Maybe I built it up too much in my head, but for all the good stuff going on in this grand dining room, you can’t help but think that some people are getting it just a little bit better.

7/10

Calum Franklin vs Brad Carter, Carters of Moseley

Brad Carter has a cookbook coming out in a couple of weeks. I say cookbook loosely; the recipes are of the staff meals they cook in between shifts, intermittently placed between pages of Brad’s friends, his inspirations, and his producers. I’ve had a quick look and it really is unlike any cookbook I’ve seen before; it’s going to look great on my coffee table. The pages that matter to me are around halfway through, jet black and with ‘Birmingham’ emblazed across the widest points. It is everything you need to know about Brad in a one-word synopsis.

Part of that love for Birmingham extends to the occasional Sunday evening collaborations with friends of his. There have been recent voyages into Chinese and Thai cuisine which I cant tell you about because I never went, and this one with Calum Franklin which I was given no choice about. Mr Franklin of Holborn Dining Room is well known for his pastry skills, a food type that is effectively heroin to my Northern girlfriend. I’m not saying that she was determined to go, but I was sent a calender event for when booking opened, and we had two alarms, three phones and a laptop ready. She may have lost her shit a bit when it wouldnt let us on to the booking screen, and she was elated when we secured a table. Want Claire anywhere? Promise her things that remind her of home like pie, rain, and the decline of the coal industry. Gin also works, but gravy works better.

What follows is three hours of food that I’m still trying to walk off two weeks later and Claire would describe as the most enjoyable night she’s had in a Birmingham restaurant. The first course is listed as a tart, but is really a vol-au-vent of puff pastry filled with the components of lobster thermidore. The luxurious touches come in the form of a breaded claw, rising proudly from the pastry, and a little Exmoor caviar for salinity. It is cheesy, yet with a whack of the ocean. If seventies dinner parties tasted this good I’d gladly wear flares and grow my pubes to travel back in time.

The showpiece was up next, paraded by Brad throughout the dining room like he was in a beauty pageant for bearded men in shorts. A patè en croute bearing the words ‘Carters vs HDR’ the along the length, which when sliced contained a centrepiece of the acid house smiley face – a tattoo that Carter has on the inside of his bicep. To me, this was the strongest course; the filling of rabbit, pork, and pistachio distinct, lightened by the turmeric coloured chicken mousseline that makes up the face. The pastry is rich, though not as rich as the decadent rabbit jelly that has been fed into it all day. On the side are fermented mushrooms cooked in butter, and mustard seeds sweetened with local honey. The acidity is gentle, leaving the pastry as the king. It is the complete dish. Last year we tried a world championship winning patè en croute at Daniel et Denise in Lyon: this was better.

And without wishing to sound like a press release, the fun didnt stop there. A scotch egg was executed perfectly, the filling of white pudding and pork highly seasoned, the bright yolk oozy and luscious. What we really love is the buttermilk and wild garlic sauce that is sharp and has the astrigency of white garlic thanks to last years pickled garlic buds. A pithivier of mutton finishes off the savoury courses, with the suprise of a top-half of layered spuds on entry. It is, as the table next to us point out, essentially a cottage pie encased in puff pastry, and if the sound of that doesn’t turn you please take those eyes of yours elsewhere because we don’t want you here. The asparagus spears cooked in lamb fat are just plain naughty, too. Shout out to my girlfriend who shows the dining room just how Northern she is by filling one half of the pastry shell with gravy. Her mother would be so proud.

Dessert is a Paris Brest – 2019’s most on trend pastry – filled with raspberry creme pattiserie lightly scented with rose. It would have been easy to kill this with floral notes, but they hold on to the essence of those lovely raspberries and choux pastry. I have no idea how I fit it in, but I do. It’s been a long night.

The menu ticks in at £75 a head and we add a considerable amount more tucking into far much pink wine and then red wine and then more pink wine and a little more red wine. It’s not a cheap Sunday evening, nor should it be. Birmingham needs nights like this; chefs of Calum Franklins ability showing us something entirely unique – we’re booking in to Holborn Dining Room to try more of his work as a result, so it’s worked from that perspective. It was a fantastic night, one that makes me smile thinking about it even now. Brad Carter lives and breathes this city. We should all be very thankful for that.

A2B love Birmingham almost as much as Brad and ferried my fat arse around as ever.

Ynyshir, April 2019

Unknowingly we book into Ynyshir the day before they all break for holiday. The restaurant is in a relaxed mood; Jake Buggs ‘Lightning Bolt’ is playing on the record player as we check-in, with all the staff in non-uniform. Some have taken this as an excuse to wear comfy clothing, others excessively loud shirts. Really loud shirts that should never see the light of day. They buzz through the corridor by the kitchen pass, taking out the empty plates from a packed dining room. As we tuck into a welcoming bowl of thick onion with sourdough in the bar area, it is great to see it this busy: eighteen months ago when we first visited there were us and six others present for a lunch service. Five visits later and they are struggling to get us a table, incredible to think for a booking that includes the legendary food blogger who is Claire Tucker and her pathetic boyfriend. I’m happy this way; they deserve it. Hard work pays off, this much is clear.

I won’t hide my love for Ynyshir, nor should I try. My good friend Rory now works here, and over time I have got to know owners Gareth and Amelia as well as several of the team who now recognise my bloated head in their tiny dining room. If there is bias present it is only on my part; I knew no one back in August 2017 when we first went and launched into hyperbole, and I recieve no concession on the £150 tasting menu. Simply put, we are here yet again because it is where we choose to spend our money, which we do a little overzealously every. single. time. Make of that how you wish.

It seems that since our last visit a lot of effort has been made to improve the smallest of details. The soys, mirin, and vinegars have all been upgraded to the best they possibly can be, resulting in more elegant acidity, whilst they have a big tank now that cooks crabs and lobster from fresh during service. The overall experience has been upgraded, a statement I wasn’t expecting to make. The ‘Not French Onion Soup’ is more refined, the duck with sesame more crispy so that the reference to the Chinese takeaway is more obvious. That duck blew my mind this time around. The slice of bread seemed smaller, which is fine because it means the layers of wagyu fat and mirin butter get thicker. Only an idiot would fill up on bread here, anyway.

Four new dishes follow, each of them highlighting just how fast the kitchen has developed. The first is katsu chicken; a relatively simple dish of brined poultry cooked over the japanese barbecue built by one of the chefs. The meat is then rolled through panko breadcrumbs cooked in butter and finished with the katsu ketchup which previously used to coat the crab. It is unbelievable; a smash in the face of flavour that bears only the faintest of resemblances to the now most ubiquitous of British dishes. Take that, Brexit. The crab is now a take on the Singapore dish, chilli crab, with a generous amount of meat bound in sauce packed with garlic, ginger, chilli, and soy. I made the bold statement in saying that the crab katsu was the best dish I ate in 2018: both of these are upgrades on the main components. The mackerel is now aged in the salt chamber to take out much of the oiliness, served in a bowl with a dark and heady sauce, and a little grated fresh wasabi, before we move on to cod in two servings. The first is a take on black cod, which is surprisingly gentle in flavour to allow the cod tell its own story. When this is downed they pour some of the cooking liquor into the same bowl with slices of raw shitake mushroom. I loved this; it has purpose and is an original way of getting the flavour of cod out there. Remember what I said about not filling up on bread? You’ll need another slice here to make sure not a drop is left.

We have the duck with hoisin again, the cawl which I still can’t get on board with, the lamb rib that I can always get on board with, and then the pork char sui, which is fatty and lucious and has me slurping unattractively from the bowl like the man I once sat next to on a flight in Vietnam. I hated him. I love this though and it’s over far too quickly for my liking. It’s a star dish in a lengthy menu littered with them. There is the aged foie gras with birch syrup and smoked eel that I devour in a single mouthful, and then a new dish of scallop roasted on one side only with aged beef fat and pickled elderflower. It’s got bollocks as a plate of food, a contrast of textures and big flavours that somehow holds on to the flavour of the scallop. I was concerned about this not working. It turns out I had nothing to worry about.

A slab of 215 day aged wagyu is presented to us, telling us that this is to be served as a burger and then tartare. But first the garlic prawn arrives; the meat is delicate, the roasted prawn shell sauce noticably better thanks to the higher grade soy used. The wagyu returns as that burger, a thousand times better than the thousand times I tried rip-off versions in the last year and a half. Then the tartare, which is just sit-yourself-down-and-take-stock-of-everything brilliant. A complex mix of barely warm beef, fermented grains, some kind of soy dressing, and egg yolk dressing. It’s mega, reminsecent of the first time I tried the vennison tartare at L’enclume, and up there with the very best raw dishes I’ve ever been served. More wagyu follows as a shortrib with mushroom but by now I am stuffed. I should probably point out to any vegetarians at this point that this may not be the restaurant for you.

By now the music has whizzed through The Prodigy and is onto ‘Doggystyle’. We take the cheese course of Tunworth on a sourdough crumpet with a maple/white truffle lick of magic. Every bit as glorious as it sounds. The yuzu slushie that follows is a clever way of resetting the palate before the dining room halts to mark the first dessert with a plume of nettle scented dry ice, pouring off the tables and on to our feet. The course itself has been defeated by the two cocktails and three bottles of wine we’d consumed up to this point, and if I’m correct I was more concerned with rapping the first verse to Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang than eating the buttermilk pannacotta before me. So as far as the courses in this paragraph go, we’ve had one, two, three, and to the four, as we sign off with the white chocolate and black bean mouthful which is salted caramel when you close your eyes. Perfection is perfected, and with that I promise no more bad Snoop Dog references.

From a young G’s perspective the last three courses are a whistle stop tour of three classic desserts, reimagened in rural Wales. We blitz through a new version of the sticky toffee pudding (now with a flourless date cake replacing the compressed fruit), the rhubarb and custard, and the tiramisu. Each are utterly brilliant in their own way. The last nibble is a piece of fudge made from wagyu fat. We retire to the bar and The National’s classic album ‘Boxer’ is played. And people wonder why this is one of my favourite places in the world.

Purnell’s in pictures. Birmingham.

If any of the Purnell’s team are reading this, please take this as a public apology. Know that I normally behave far better and I’m not proud of my state in your restaurant. For clarification, we were celebrating Claire’s birthday a little too heavily; Opheem, Arch 13, Nocturnal Animals and Hotel du Vin until the very early hours the night prior. Back in Little Blackwood at 10am for breakfast and a birthday bottle of Nyetimber, The Edgbaston for a quick four glasses of Moët (and a couple of drams of Japanese whisky), Pint Shop, and then Purnell’s for lunch where we were kindly greeted with more of the fizzy stuff. You do the math. It was a lot of booze before we sat down for lunch.

As a result I’ve contemplated not putting this on the blog. I’ve been hazy on detail before, but that usually happens during the meal; I have never turned up for dinner drunk – I happen to think it’s fantastically poor form. I’ve decided to utilise Claire; her pictures and her memory (she skipped many of the morning’s drinks), and just write about the bits I’m certain on. What is clear is that Purnell’s delivered another brilliant lunch; one that is witty and theatrical, that still has real technique and flavour at its core. We have many brilliant Michelin starred restaurants in this fine city, yet none wear all that is brilliant about the city quite like this fine restaurant.

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The highlights were the coal potatoes with chorizo dip that echoed the river pebbles at Mugaritz, the cheese and pineapple that remains one of my favourite dishes in Birmingham, the cod with satay, and a couple of really excellent desserts; a chocolate and mint number that worked on a multi-sensory level, and that brilliantly iconic 10/10/10 egg custard. Service was exemplary from start to finish, the chosen wines from Sonal for each course perfectly judged. It was all very, very good. I just wish I was a little less ashamed of it.

So Thank You to Sonal for looking after us so well, to Glynn and to Luke for popping out the kitchen and saying hello. Claire had an incredible birthday and the two hours at Purnell’s were a huge part of that. If you’ll have me, we’ll come back and I’ll stay sober this time. Purnell’s deserves far more than the above pictures and a few words.

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