Pie

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.

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Before the inevitable accusations of me attacking a Birmingham institution start, let’s clear one thing up: I have a lot of love for The Old Joint Stock as a pub. It is the original of the Colmore Row options, the pub that backs on to the also brilliant The Wellington, long a part of Birmingham’s boozing scene before the polished concrete and bare bricks arrived. The grade II listed building is beautiful; the gold frills around the glass domed room sit high above a tiered space with the square bar central on the entry level. Designed originally as a library, it ended up being utilised as a bank before its final transition to a watering hole for the area’s solicitors, accountants, and bankers. It is a pub that defies trends. Upstairs is the hundred-odd seater studio theatre where smaller productions get a chance to shine. That theatre is the reason why we are in the building, and the production itself is excellent. There are many things to admire about The Old Joint Stock. The food is not one of those.

The menu is mostly a list of beige items, both as a colour reference and metaphor. Beige pies, batters, carbohydrates, buns and breads. We try four dishes that are servicable and instantly forgettable. The best of these is the chicken madras pie, which is a perfectly acceptable curried chicken pie with no heat whatsoever. It is madras for the generation who have been going to the same curry house for the last three decades. It has no adventure, no understanding of spice. It is, however, a well made pie and one that gets finished. The chips it comes with are miserable flaccid things. The greying overcooked veg even worse. Claire has some chicken and salad thing. The chicken is well cooked and the veg have retained some of their intregrity. I’d love to tell you more about her dish, but honestly neither of us can remember.

Desserts are classic pub chain teritory. The apple crumble is the pick of the two; a little overcooked but sweet and crumbly and tasting of apple. Lets not mention the custard that has started to coagulate on the hot plate. The other dessert is treacle tart in notion. It is a sweet blast of nothingness, the most boring thing I’ve had to endure since The Reverant. I can’t be arsed to say anything else on it other than the raspberries were nice.

Service is polite, if achingly slow and the bill isn’t much. It’s worth pointing out that we’re perhaps not the target audience given that we are the youngest on the surrounding tables by several decades. The food is simplistic, the pies adequate, the rest of the menu dreary. Go drink in the bar of The Old Joint Stock because its lovely, and support the future stars of the stage in their wonderful theatre. But get dinner elsewhere. There are so many better options to be had.

5/10

Have a gin or twelve, then let A2B get you home

Lord of The Pies, Macclesfield

Given that our run over the previous week took us up and down the country, eight meals in as many days in some of the most established and revered restaurants, if someone would have told me that one of the best things I would eat would have come from an unassuming spot in Macclesfield town centre, I would have laughed in their face. Hard. Yet here we are, sat in Lord of The Pies looking at empty plates and discussing how much space we have in the freezer. Answer; lots. We stock up. More on this later.

There is something very special about a pie when done correctly. Golden pastry encasing a steaming hot filling; not a pastry lid on a stew like some would have you believe. Lord of The Pies isn’t just a great name, it’s a great pie shop, serving undoubtably some of the best pies I have ever eaten. A beef and ale pie has long braised meat in a sauce so lacquered you could paint your walls with it. Or your nails if you want to look extra pretty for me. It’s ordered with a mash potato with black pudding that makes the colour as filthy as it tastes. Gosh, this is heaven. Likewise a chicken balti pie that has plenty of meat and even more attitude, clearly made by someone who gets spice more than my local curry house. Fat wedges accompany this time. It just makes more sense. They have crunchy edges, and a centre that offers no bite. Price wise all of this is around 20% cheaper that Pieminister and 400% better. I’m no accountant, but even that is math I can get on board with.

And so we’re back to those empty plates, Claire looking at her untouched Forest Gin, me my local beer. We’ve barely said a word to each other for twenty minutes. She eventually exhales, nailing it with the simple description that these are everything that you imagine a pie could be, but never are. She’s right, but then she’s always bloody right. We get to the counter and chat to the charming server, asking for reccomendations and then ordering them to take home. Some two days later and I’ve eaten two so far; a pork and black pudding one, another of wild boar and apple: Claire is fully aware she needs to get more before she is welcome back in Brum. I’m not prepared to wait until Christmas when I’m next in Macclesfield at the in-laws, Lord of The Pies is now my life. I’m in this for the long haul.

8/10

Pieminister, Birmingham

My history with Pieminister goes back some way.  I used to buy them so frequently from Waitrose that a former colleague of mine, a lady by the name of Penny Stubbs, wrote to them and got me a signed cookbook for my birthday.  I was the original groupie, a V.I.Pie whose purchase was always one Chicken of Aragon for me, and always a Heidi for the former vegetarian former partner (*shakes fist in jubilation/anger*).  The girls in Harborne Waitrose used to poke fun at my inflexibility.  I once ate six of their pies in four days at Isle of Wight festival.  Cut me back in those days and I bled pie.  I like pie.  More particularly, I like Pieminister.

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So this is a difficult one for me, because by all accounts my relationship with Pieminister should have led to it being the greatest opening in Birmingham since my mothers legs parted and I popped out back in ’82.  The reality is that it left me yearning for my own pie, with my own accessories, in my own home.

We cut straight to the chase and dive in with the main event.  My dining companion likes her Moo pie, which is generous in beef filling.  She does not like the mash which is oddly floury and bland, or the beef and port gravy that is bitter and gloopy.

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I try one I have not eaten from the supermarket.  A green Thai chicken curry pie that is oddly muted in flavour.  It needs more punch of seasoning, more kick of chilli, an elbow to the head of vibrancy.  It basically needs a Thai boxing lesson.  I take fries at a supplement with chilli seasoning that are the best thing on the plate.  A jug of chicken gravy should never have been there (it was supposed to come with tzatziki which eventually arrived when I asked), and I wish it hadn’t.  It was acrid and destroyed anything it came in contact with.  Jalapeños are ordered as an addition that I don’t require in hindsight.

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We skip dessert and finish off the cocktails that are good value if you catch them at the 2-4-1 period like we did.  I leave a little jaded.  Like the moment I have dreamt of for the last six years ends with this.  The fact is I still love a Pieminister – they are easily the best pie in any supermarket.  I will just stick to eating them at home with my overly buttery mash and thick caramelised onion gravy.  I have safety there, where I know that the salt pot is easily within reach and I have two firm hands on my potato ricer.  That’s where the good stuff happens.  But for now the dream is over.  Only a shut supermarket and a craving would see me go back.

5/10

Pieminister sent me a voucher to cover a proportion of the bill

And now the plug. I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards. If you are reading this before the 4th June please give me a vote here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

Mad O’Rourke’s Pie Factory, Tipton

As I write this post a Vietnamese lady is trying to get into my bed. Don’t worry, my girlfriend is aware of this. In fact, she is watching. The lady in question has been trying all afternoon, and who can blame her; my bed on the sleeper train is deemed luxurious by local standards. We are supposed to be sharing the berth with two other ladies, who appear to have told everyone about the English couple armed with playing cards, rum and Ritz crackers. At one point there were nine in here watching us play Rummy, all eating a bark of some kind and gobbing the residue into a bag. Now there are six. I am covered in spittle and would like to eventually get some sleep in a bed on my own. I am trying desperately to take my mind to a happy place.

My mind takes me to Tipton, to Mad O’Rourkes Pie Factory, where I was a few days before we upped and left for the other side of the world. It’s a pub full of cliches; saw dust on the floor, a cardboard cut of Desperate Dan with the face missing for the idiots who cannot resist the photo opportunity. I was one of those idiots. It was impossible not to be. Even now, with the spittle and the glaring stares, I am smiling reminiscing about it.

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Back home, pie is something we take seriously in our household. Charlie, my long suffering partner, makes a mean one. She will cook the protein in the slow cooker until it falls apart at a gentle poke, add it to the blind-baked pastry and give it some more gentle love. Mad O’Rourkes take it further, to the extent that they claim to be “World Famous” for them. Although a little far-fetched, they probably should be. Steak and Stilton sets the tone, the meat cooked long and low until the point that the need for molars becomes redundant. The thick sauce smacks of bovine which more than stands up to the pungent cheese. The puff pastry topping is so good it has to be shop-brought. For once, I don’t care.

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More of the same appears with a chicken and mushroom pie, the cream sauce spiked with garlic and paprika heat. Again the meat is so tender I don’t know how it could be possibly be from the lean breast of the bird like they advertise. The pie, as with all of the others, has a side of battered chips which would get my vote for replacing Prozac on the NHS.

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The next two take the rules of pie and feeds them to the penguins at nearby Dudley Zoo. A chicken tikka pie is topped with a naan. Yes, you read that right. It’s like being back at my local Indian, only with chicken that tastes like chicken and with battered chips. Oh, those battered chips. A faggot pie has funk and the faint tang of offal, like all good faggots should. At the base is mushy peas the colour of Kermit the Frog. Mashed potato and more of that beef gravy fill in the rest. No pastry. It’s complete as it is. There are puddings, which include a chocolate cake and sticky toffee pudding. We enjoy them, because they are good and deserve to be eaten, though we never needed them.

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They do a Desperate Dan pie which comes in at a whopping 4lbs of steak and kidney, topped with puff pastry horns, which caused instant envy when it arrived on a neighbouring table. I could pretend that this is reason to return, but it would be lies: You don’t need to justify anything when its this good. I look at across at the bunks to my left and feel sorry for them, for they will probably never get to taste what is now running through my head. More spittle lands on my arm as one of the ladies is sick into the plastic bag. I’ve made my mind up; its Mad O’Rourkes for me again as soon as we touch down.

10/10

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