Pasta

Sugo Pasta Kitchen, Manchester

We were a little tipsy by the time we reached Sugo Pasta Kitchen. I know this because my bank statement tells me so. That one drink we intended to have in Wolf At The Door turned into five apiece, and we sauntered down to the road to Ancoats via a plant shop for a hanging plant we don’t need and a record shop for vinyl to be played on a record player we don’t yet own. This isn’t a bad thing; morning drinking is great fun at the best of times. It happens to be even better when you’re in the best bar in the Northern Quarter, requesting off-menu equal pours of strawberry daiquiri and pina colada to make a Miami Vice – the world’s second greatest drink. Ordering the first – the Negroni, of course – is the first thing I do when I get to Sugo.

So forgive me if the details of this lunch are glazed, or if I approach this with an air of reminiscence that adds a saccharine taste over my usual bitterness. Sugo had been on our radar for an age, and it pretty much ticked the boxes in the flesh. We get sat on a communal table with a young couple and their baby, a scenerio that we are far happier about than they are. We could have ordered starters, but when you call yourself a pasta kitchen it’s important to test the fundamentals out. We order three pasta dishes between two, an order which was at least one and a half bowls of pasta too many.

The food is comforting and rustic and basically everything that you want from a bowl of pasta. There is orrechiettie with a loose ragu of beef, pork, and ‘nduja that nestles in the pasta indentations, and it’s longer sibling, strascinati, with sausage that pops with anise, porcini, and thyme. Two huge bowls of pasta that work because the flavours coming off them are as big as the bowl they rest in. The only time it slips is their take on the classic pomodoro. The tomato and basil sauce gets watered down by the cream heavy burratta. It’s nice, but the choice if cheese is misplaced: often burrata is a welcome upgrade to mozzarella. Not here.

Service is swift and we’re in and out within 45 minutes £70 lighter than when we arrived. I appreciate that from your perspective it would have been nice to have read what the starters are like, or how boozy the tiramasu is, but frankly we came here to eat pasta and that we did. It’s no great secret that Birmingham is short of great pasta options; Laghi’s and Legna aside there is nowhere else that I could reccomend. Sugo seems a perfect fit to a burgeoning Brum restaurant scene. I would love to see them here.

8/10

Laghi’s Deli, 2019

At 5.45pm on a cold Wednesday evening, Laghi’s Deli is rammed. There are people in the bar area discussing work over large glass domes filled with red wine, whilst the restaurant area is packed with those elbows deep in plates of pasta. It’s great to see: some two years after I first stepped foot into here it appears that Laghi’s has reached it’s full potential, one where it has correctly cemented itself as the true authentic Italian in Birmingham. Sure there are others that rely on the same identikit menu with the same tricks and over reliance on a giant pepper grinder, but for real Italian food, for it’s silky pasta, it’s heart, it’s familiarity, you come to Laghi’s.

I’ve been coming fairly solidly since I first wrote about it. The food has got stronger and stronger, with the kitchen cooking more regional dishes from Bologna over what we are told that British will enjoy. This is not the place for spaghetti with your bolognese, nor cream with your carbonara, though if you are the kind of person who expects the above perhaps you’re reading the wrong Birmingham restaurant blog.

On a visit we take full advantage of a recent delivery of truffles from Tuscany. We have little crostinis topped with scrambled egg and black truffle, and taglioni with a lightly smoked cheese sauce and white truffles; a dish that seems very popular in the room, perhaps due to it’s perfume, or the extremely fair price of £30 to try the most prized of ingredients. There are sticks of fried pasta dough to dip into an arrabbiata sauce the right side of fiery, and deep fried bits of cardoon and artichoke, the quality of which are really quite something. I’m told that Luca personally picks the veg via skype from a buyer in Milan’s vegetable market. The mass consumerism of Bella Italia this is not.

The real stand-out moments here are with the pasta. A dish with porcini and coarse sausage meat is dressed in a sauce that contains a touch of cream that bites with lots of black pepper. The rolled pasta has integrity amongst such great company, being the texture it needs to bring every together en masse. Even better is the white crab meat wrapped in a ravioli of jet black squid ink, with onion jam, and a scamorza sauce that threatened to over but actually just gently lifted everything. This is a killer dish; the work of a chef not afraid to play the bold and delicate together, showing a skilled touch at balancing flavours. It might just be my favourite dish on the menu.

I returned again last week for a Sicilian wine dinner, where the kitchen showed they are far more than capable of turning their hand to an entirely different style of cooking. The food was mostly reminiscent of what we ate a couple of months back, with lightly fried panelle, oily fleshed sardines with plump sultanas and pine nuts, and ricotta frittas that leak soft cheese with every mouthful. When it is good – like the perkily dressed octupus salad, or the mussels gratin – it is very, very good indeed. We finish on cannoli better than any we personally ate in Sicily, including those from the reveered Pasticceria Maria Grammitico in Erice. The wine too was superb. But then it was handpicked from the Tenuta estate so it would be.

Now the disclosure bit. I’ve gotten to know Luca since he opened the restaurant and consider him a friend. We’ve been for lunch together and shared a glass of wine on numerous occasions. I say this because I have no need to hide it; we’re friends because because we share a mutual passion and when I eat at his restaurant my card always leaves my wallet. And the reason why I eat at Laghi’s as much as anywhere else in the city is not because he owns it, but because it is the first place I think of when I think of the rustic and bold cooking of Northern Italy.

Take an A2B and treat yo’self

Some Things I Ate in Sicily

I wasn’t going to write anything about Sicily. Why should I? It’s my holiday and I went to escape you lot, not pack you into my suitcase and have you steal our fun when it’s us that dropped the mortgage deposit on a holiday, not you. But I’m home alone with a cold and I’m bored and Question Time doesn’t start for an hour so here you go, here are the best bits of what we ate with no mention of the rubbish bits because I don’t want to share my side of the bed with a horses head:

Street food in Palermo.

Friggitoria Chiluzzo

They don’t have a Digbeth Dining Club in Palermo which was disappointing, but they have a street food history going back hundreds of years which is nearly as good. The pick by a country mile is Friggitoria Chiluzzo, a little spot by the harbour full of locals. It’s the panelle sandwich they all come for – chickpea flour fritter and potato croquette sandwiched between two slices of bread. Carb cubed, morish and suprisingly not too dry. Add some caponata, a portion of fried aubergine, two large beers and you have a bill for five euros. No wonder it’s always rammed.

Ke Palle

We ate a lot of arancini and this is the best of the streetfood vendors for your fix of deep fried rice balls. Without going into full geek mode, the thing that made it the best was the texture of the rice which still retained a little bite and avoided clagginess. The more traditional fillings were very good, but it was two that veered a little off-course that stole it: first a filling of chicken curry and another with nutella that had a brioche-like casing. Really superb.

Drinks in Palermo. Specifically Negroni.

Two to mention here a few seconds walk away from each other: Bar Garibaldi describes itself rather wonderfully as a ‘working class cocktail bar’ which is perhaps the most endearing thing I’ve heard since the ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ scene in Elf. We drank all night here and left with a joint bill of about £30. Loved it. Better drinks were had at Botteghi Colletti for significantly more money. A speakeasy 1940’s vibe except everyone has piled out on to the street, thus defeating the point. Great negroni. Killer soundtrack.

Special shoutout to Bar Bocum which I initially hated but ended-up loving thanks to complimentary arancini filled with prawns that were the best we ate across the island. Cocktails were around £14 a pop which makes them the most expensive by a distance, but we stayed for several which tells you all you need to know.

Cefalu. Booze, grub, and the greatest lasagne in the world.

I knew I’d love Cefalu because I’d seen it approx. nine million times on Cinema Paradiso. Nine million might be an exaggration. Maybe six million. Whether sat in the square by the Duomo, or looking down it from the top of La Rocca, it’s a pretty place where the city ends and the sea starts with little gap. Drinks were a mixed bag, though perhaps our favourite place was St George; an English ‘pub’ that is nothing like an English pub, ran by two young Italians who happen to speak perfect English. Cheap, well made drinks including a killer negroni sblagiato.

Galleria is where you should be heading in Cefalu for a nice meal in pretty surroundings. We had a very nice meal there including a carpaccio of slow cooked suckling pig, with peach, honey, and almonds. Or you could save a lot of money by eating the lasagne for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Capricio Sicilano. A mixture of pork, veal, and beef, with three cheeses and a little heat. It is my life goal to recreate this dish.

Tenuta Regaleali

Quite simply heaven and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. A vineyard in the middle of nowhere, high up in the mountanous region of Siciliy. Despite the fact that they have seven rooms we were the only people there because they limit the number of people on the premises for couples to give them the maximum experience. Lunch is a lengthy tasting with some exceptional wines, then down to the pool with it’s outdoor bed and fully stocked fridge, up to the highest point of the vineyard for sunset and then dinner in the table laid in the courtyard. Roberto, our host for the stay, was exceptional in every way. The wines are fantastic and plentiful; the food (especially the homemade ricotta) as good as anywhere on the island. The pricetag of over £500 a night may seem a lot, though once the setting, food, and drink are factored in, a stay here seems a relative bargain.

Castelbuono. Of mountains and mistaken identites.

Ristorante Palazzioccio has been in the Michelin guide for ten years. It’s nice in a homely sort of way, even if they did try to pass off a vividly green pesto with fusilli as the white veal ragu with taglioni that I ordered. Still, the portions are huge and they’re happy to decant 120 euro bottles of wine into plastic bottles if you’re running late for a gig.

Better, in our humble opinion, was Zerokilometre, a catchily named restaurant who claim to source every ingredient from within 1000 metres, though doesn’t explain where they found the squid that ended up whole on a lunchtime plate. We ate here three times in as many days because it was consistent, the porcetta was very good and the pasta better than most.

Social media plays a funny part in holidays, as everyone is living their best life and putting on the gloss for every element of the holiday to make it look like its faultless. The reality is that nowhere is really that good – we had duff meals in San Sebastian with two months research. Looking back over the hundreds of pictures we took I can see that the food in Erice wasn’t great, and in Ustica it would appear that we chose badly; maybe the dishes, maybe the places themselves. If you find yourself reading this because you too are going to Sicily please drop me an email: you can have my notes and my thoughts on the good and the bad. It’s a beautiful part of the world that is still recovering from the reputation of a certain crime syndicate.

need a taxi to the hotel? A2B have got you

Legna, July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legna, Birmingham

I’ve long been of the mindset that Italian food doesn’t translate well into fine dining. That by tidying the edges and reducing the portion side you are taking away the essence of the culture that has family at it’s core. There is nothing dainty about Italians; they welcome with huge hugs and kisses that cover both sides of the face, not gentile handshakes or softly gestured bows. They seldom speak in soft tones, both literally and metaphorically, with their loud voice always joined by gesticulations that reinforce every syllable. This is not the language of refinement: pasta does not need a softness of hand to gently manouvere it into place; it needs a bowl-shaped bed to lie in and a blanket of sauce to keep it warm. A pizza is essentially a sandwich that is not afraid to show it’s true emotions, the risotto a rice dish that never wants to leave home. They are embraces from a Catholic mother. This is the heart of Italian food.

It is also a cuisine that is difficult to perfect – just look what we do to it in homes across this country. Pasta should never be boiled to it’s cooking instructions; it should be taken out of the water two minutes early and teased through a little of the sauce in a pan so that the residual heat finishes it off, with the finished product requiring the same pressure between the teeth as a nipple during a bit of rough and tumble. Ingredients should be as fresh as possible; herbs that release oils between the fingers, and mozzarella that sobs a little when squeezed, not set to the consistency of a cooked cows bollock. The fact that we think it acceptable to construct dishes of this cuisine directly from jars tells you just how much the average person respects Italian food. Perhaps the older generation still hasn’t forgiven them for ze war.

So I was a tiny bit sceptical when I heard the plans for Legna, which is to be a more refined take on Italian food from a non-Italian chef. Si prego. But then it is from Aktar Islam, a man who has done wonders for Indian food next door at Opheem. In truth, I’ve got to know Aktar fairly well to the point that if Legna wasn’t very good I probably wouldn’t write about it. The four hundred words or so it has taken to get to this point can be taken that is worthy of writing about. In parts it is spectacular.

The opening play is gone in a blur of flavour. A little spherified mozarella with basil that needs tweaking, a parmesan cake with black garlic that is a pure umami bomb, the most delicate of grissini and foccacia with oil, vinegar, and a butter that tastes like pesto. We have a bowl of torn burrata, basil pesto, and slices of tomato, onto which a tomato consomme is poured. The burrata and tomato have been flown over that day and it shows; the flavours are clean and allowed to speak for themselves. We devour it.

I’m guessing that the recipe for the pappardelle that comes next has a higher concentration of egg yolk than normal, given the richness of the pasta sheets that retain the perfect level of bite. It serves as a bed for a meat-rich ragu of beef and wild boar that has nuggets of cheek and shin throughout. It is boldly seasoned, enriched with bone marrow and lightened with tomato concasse and a little vinegar. More importantly it encompasses everything that is great about Legna: a homage to the true flavours of Italy whilst using modern technique. A veal dish is given the impossible job of following this. The meat is gentle in flavour in comparison though we love the garnish of charred onion and capanota where the vegetables have almagamated and have just a little sharpness. The use of acidity is very carefully deployed throughout the meal.

We lean into the sweet courses with a ball of tempered chocolate containing a little espresso martini, and finish on a rectangle of lemon tart that has the thinnest of pastry bases and a filling which balances the sweet and sharp with real skill. A lemon sorbet on the side gives it a real cleanness in flavour. It is one of the best desserts I have eaten this year.

And then there is the small matter of the dining room which is right now Birmingham’s most beautiful. From the amber hues of the sleek bar comes exceptional Negronis to be enjoyed at heavy wooden tables under ornate lights. The wine is an all Italian list from which the superb front of house are happy to offer expert pairing advice on those available by the glass. It all makes for a very impressive restaurant; a place that plays homage to core values of Italian cuisine whilst maintaining its own sense of style. I’ve gone to its sister venue, Opheem, more than any other this year, though now it has serious competition for my sterling. Aktar has done it once again; Legna is an absolute joy.

9/10

We dined during a soft launch period and received a discount on the bill.

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Pictures by Claire

Buonissimo, Harborne

With all the new openings, burger bars, street kitchens, and trendy Asian joints, it is easy to forget about those neighbourhood restaurants that have seemingly kept areas full on food forever. I’m guilty of this more than most: my diary is an endless list of tasting menus, of baos and ramen, masala chaat, and burrata, all in the name of telling you what is good and what is Deolali. I had almost forgotten that Buonissimo existed, despite the fact that I lived in Harborne for six years, with a proportion of those a twenty second walk away from this quaint spot just off the high street. Before this blog I used to eat there relatively frequently; I’ve spent Valentines evenings there, I’d gone for the cheaper evening meals, and memorably on one evening watched a drunk man topple backwards down the stairs whilst I grazed on a whole baked garlic and sipped on a just warm glass of Appassimento. He lived. I think.

It hasn’t changed much in the two or so years since I last visited. It’s still warm and homely; almost affectionate in service. The heavy wooden tables and chairs more comfortable than they look, with only plants disturbing the blue and white colour scheme. The menu is still concise and changes with the seasons, whilst they still proudly list their suppliers on the reverse. And what a list of suppliers. Meat from my favourite butcher, Roger Brown, bread from Peel and Stone. We work through the bread whilst taking in our options; it is all very good, more so with the peppery olive oil and almost sweet balsamic vinegar.

We take two pasta dishes for starters. Orecchiette has mortadella sausage, peas, and pistachio for company, with the little indentations of the pasta catching the silky tomato sauce enriched with lots of cream. It is elegant and seriously tasty. A ravioli of ‘nduja and pecorino takes the opposite approach, boasting lots of chilli and garlic in amongst the olive oil dressing. This is rustic and big-hitting. Both are winners for which we will return for larger sized portions.

Mains stay on that rustic route. This is Italian home cooking, a kind of meat and two veg (which would make a fantastic name for a foodblog) approach that fills the plate to all edges and dares you to try and finish. There is nothing pretty about either dish, but the flavour is there. I have a duck leg that has been confited and then blasted over heat so that the skin breaks into crisp shards, with a sticky and rich sauce dotted with prunes. Opposite me is chicken breast wearing a winter jacket of courgette and melted cheese. The quality of the meat is obvious, as is the skill in handling the protein. The cavalo nero is nice, as are the garlic potatoes served with the duck, though we’ll gloss over the wedges with the chicken that suspiciously look and taste like they have come from a bag.

By now we’re full. Super full. We have no room for dessert but the menu leads us into first agreeing to share one, before ordering two. It’s the right move. A crepe containing stewed apple and mascapone is good, though is overshadowed by an excellent take on bread and butter pudding using panetone that should come accessorised with a pillow and duvet. We wash it down with a chocolate hazelnut liquor and leave very happy.

Stay away from the fillet steak here and nothing will break the bank. Starters are all under ten, mains around £15, and wine that starts late teens. Exactly how a neighbourhood restaurant should be. There is nothing finessed about Bounissmo, it channels a completely different type of restaurant built around the principals of family cooking. By the time we’ve drank up on the wine we feel almost sad about leaving. The world needs more places like this; we won’t be leaving it so long next time.

8/10

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Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston

Once a week my Dad goes to see a covers band at his local pub. I’ve never been with him; I have no interest in seeing Fred Zeppelin, however good their version of Kashmir is supposed to be. I just don’t get the point. I want the real thing or I don’t want it at all. I don’t want to watch the simian stroll of a parka wearing Gallagher wannabe when there are two presently touring and doing a good enough job of murdering their own music. And I can’t be sure if Blobbie Williams is a tribute act or a tabloid attributed nickname. For all of the fake swagger and choreographed movements, they are nothing but homages to the real thing. Anyone can pout their lips, wear a sparkly jacket, and put on a mockney accent, but it’s nowhere close to seeing Jagger arch that back of his and thrust out the pelvis in the flesh. Any woman, man, or horse can put on a blonde wig. conical bra, and gash-flashing leotard but it doesn’t make you Madonna. In my younger years I wore cardigans and could play you the opening bars to ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, yet I never said I was Kurt Cobain. Or Lead Belly if you closed your eyes. Impersonators simply don’t have the magic of the real thing; they are imposters in dress-up.

I felt the same way about Italian food in Birmingham. We have Italian restaurants but none ever felt real to me; they are homogenized tributes to what we think is Italian food – a tour of an imagined Italy with dishes reconstructed for those delicate Anglicised palates of ours. Our ‘nduja has been stripped of the searing heat and offal that bangs down doors, to be replaced with a more polite neighbour that goes to bed at 9pm, whilst our carbonara has cream added because we are fed the lies that eggs have be completely cooked. This isn’t an issue; there is clearly a market for this, but I want the real Italy.

In a way Laghi’s Deli is more a project of love than business. Luca, the owner, comes from a family of restauranteurs back in Bologna and wanted to bring a Northern Italian slice of pizza back to Birmingham. And it is a resounding success, easily delivering the most authentic take on that cuisine I have eaten outside of it, backed up by a wine list that punches with hard-hitting reds and zesty whites. From the three starters we take it is the quality of the ingredients that shines through, nowhere more so than on a Caprese salad. As a dish it is a simple sum of its parts, yet here it speaks loudly of a real Italy; one that gestiticulates with every word. Everything is imported, from the young mozzerella to the olive oil that adds a peppery summeriness to a grey September evening. It may not have the best of carbon footprints, but frankly who cares when it tastes this good.

Our other two starters are big hitting. A parmesan cake with pancetta is an oozy umami bomb which cleverly shifts textures between a molten centre and crisp ham that guards its walls. It is a beautiful example of how when done correctly, this style of food doesnt need a handful of salt to get going; the seasoning is already embedded in the ingredients. A scallop the size of a baby’s fist is gratinated under breadcrumbs, served simply in its own cooking juices alongside a lightly dressed salad. At £7 for the special it feels too cheap, though they taint the perfectly cooked shellfish by leaving the less-than-perfectly cooked roe on.

For mains we take pasta, the hallmark of any Italian restaurant worth its dusting of parmesan. Yes they do pizza, but I can get great examples elsewhere. There is nowhere – I repeat, nowhere – that does good pasta anywhere in this brilliant city. Laghi’s is made fresh (rumour has it by Momma Laghi) and is properly lovely. We have egg and flour transformed into silky ribbons of tagliatelle with a loose ragu of beef that draws silence across the table, and parcels of ravioli that deliver verdant flavours of spinach and ricotta in a puddle of melted butter scented with sage. Oh, how I’ve waited for this moment. Even when the pasta isn’t made fresh it still trumps its competitors. The penne for the carbonara may be from a packet, but it is cooked to a careful bite that won’t have you screaming out the safe word. This is a real carbonara; one with salty guancialle ham and a sauce of warmed yolks that is mercifully cream free. It has been made by someone who understands the principles of the dish.

Desserts are a chocolate molten cake and an affogato. Both have good stuff going on, in particular the raspberry and gin sorbet with the cake, though I happen to have the sold out donuts on my mind for next time. A quick word on the service: I had heard murmurs about the service being occasionally poor, and, truthfully, this had put us off going. I can only comment on the evening we eat when it was faultless; dishes come out of the kitchen correctly and well-spaced, numerous orders for glasses of wine are swiftly taken and delivered. With mains hovering a little over a tenner, the bill for this would usually sit around £30-40 per head, which is super value, though we indulge in far too many dishes and drinks. Regardless, it was a great meal in presently the stand-out Italian offering, only missing out on the top marks because the menu feels a bit safe (being September I would have loved to have seen rabbit or wild mushrooms for that true Bologna experience), but this is just a small detail to a neighbourhood restaurant I can see us constantly returning to. Finally Birmingham has an authentic Italian that I can recommend. And without wishing to sound like an Etta James tribute act. At Last.

9/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Rojano’s in The Square, Padstow

I can’t remember the name of our waiter, but I would like to publically extend an apology to him. I am sorry for the jokes straight out of the seventies, and my personal state which went from nicely pissed to pathetically wasted. I had no idea that Bin Two was such a lovely place to sit in the sun, or that one drink would turn into two G&T’s and five glasses of wine before dinner, so I when I continually pestered you for the arancini as dessert and petit fours, it was the grape juice talking. Even if I could have easily eaten twenty more of them.

Now, if you hadn’t guessed by now, this short piece is 100% seen whilst wearing my beer googles. But I can confidently tell you with way more certainty than how we got home, that this place would have been bloody lovely even if I were sober and it was raining outside and the pretty lady sitting opposite me was trying to talk Kardashians with me. It starts with those arancini filled with a peppery Bolognese, with a truffle and madeira dip that adds a earthy quality without detracting from the richness. And a special of gypsy eggs, which is really just baked eggs with tomato and chorizo, and three fat spears of local asparagus to dunk with. Unlike any gypsies I’ve met these are clean in taste and polite. Just like gypsies, I would gladly marry it if it were related. But those arancini. They were the best thing we ate all weekend, which included a trip to the other Paul Ainsworth restaurant in town that happens to be bestowed with a star.

Being Italian in notion, we order a pizza and pasta for mains. I’m mocked for my choice of pizza by the equally wasted partner, who points out that I may as well be in Pizza Express. Piss off Claire and get back to your wine. The Diavola has a thin sourdough base that doesn’t do much for me, though what this lacks in character is made up by a tomato base with bags of attitude. The salami on top is of obvious quality and the roquito, jalapeños, and chilli peppers add varying degrees of heat and fruitiness. Liberal blobs of proper mozzarella are just plain naughty. The crusts get taken through the last of the dip which came with the arancini. Oh those arancini.

The other main is the kind of bastardisation that would usually have me sweating for mucking about with the classics, but here, well I like it. We have essentially what is carbonara with pork meatballs. The pasta is fresh and, don’t tell anyone, better in texture than the tagliatelle the night before at No.6. The egg yolk still warming through on the pasta adds a lusciousness, whilst the back note of madeira is unexpected but welcome. The meatballs have little interference other than the taste of pig. It’s a very good bowl of pasta. Fat bronzed chips were totally unnecessary but quickly gobbled down after a dredging through a mustardy mayonnaise.

Dessert has one ice cream based option called a Whoopsie Splunker, presumably a description of what will happen to me if I eat that much dairy. We pass, finish up on the wine and pay a bill of £80 for the two of us. The following day whilst stuck in traffic on the A30 we discuss the meal, concluding that it is was more than just the wine that made it so jolly. When done this well, good Italian food can awaken the soul; it’s nourishing and dare I say it, sexy. Not that any of that was happening in our little cottage, we were too busy sleeping off the booze and the food, dreaming of Bolognese filled arancini.

8/10

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Pastaio, London

Not so long ago I was asked for the best Italian restaurant in Birmingham. “There isn’t one”, I said. “Pick another cuisine or go to London”. Whilst harsh, I stand by what I said. Our best Italian restaurants are universally average and I would argue that the food coming out of my kitchen is a damm sight better than the majority of theirs. Give me notice and I’ll braise down some ox cheeks and use the liquor to transform them into a ragu of rich meat. Expect this with homemade tagliatelle and a dusting of aged parmasen. Good Italian cooking isn’t difficult – I can do it, for Christs sake – we’ve just anglicised it to the point of pure laziness.

I have places that I go to for fresh pasta, places that I’m not going to publicise because the queues are large enough already. And then I see a tweet from Nigella Lawson of a potato ravioli with gravy, an oozing egg yolk and white truffle. Take me there and invite Lawson to bring the party whilst you’re at it. As soon we get off the train it’s straight over to Pastaio where a fifteen minute wait has us seated in the week old restaurant.


We try four dishes which is enough to make me want to come back, but possibly not in a mad rush anytime soon. The biggest dissapointment is first; a toastie of sorts with mozzarella, honey, and n’duja. I note the n’duja last because this is barely present – the tiniest of blobs that sits off centre. I’d imagine in it’s full glory this is a dish to savour, just not today.


Pasta is why we are here and that is obviously where their heart lies. With no ravioli and gravy party we plump for wild mushroom tagliatelle. The pasta is silky smooth, the mushrooms delicately cooked with garlic. It’s a joy. Diminutive shells of malloredus pocket a ragu of sausage meat. It’s a grower of a dish, one that I end up clearing despite not enjoying the chewy croutons that work the jaw.


The day belongs to cacio and pepe and bucatini – a 2017 pasta dish if there ever were one. The thick pasta coated in a sauce of parmesan, butter and toasted peppercorns. It’s decadent and brilliantly judged, the ultimate in comfort food.


With dinner booked for two hours later, we opt against dessert, despite developing envy from the neighbouring tables tiramisu. Cheese toastie aside, we had an enjoyable lunch at Pastaio, even if it’s not the earth shattering moment of pasta perfection we longed for. It’s destined to be a success, with long queues in Soho a certainty once word gets around. Me, I’ll be patiently waiting for the potato ravioli and gravy before I consider joining the back of it.

7/10