Solihull

Asha’s, Solihul

The night we book in to eat at Asha’s is unknowingly the festival of Eid. Inside the restaurant is heaving and celebrations are in full swing. It is everything that makes Birmingham so special: there are families here, but there are also friends and colleagues; communal tables hosted by those who do not need to be here, but choose to in support of those who have passed through the hours of sunlight without food or water for 28 days. It is wonderful to see those who have entered Ramadan for Islam are joined by non-muslims in the breaking of the fast; food is being shared, traditions respected. Everyone is joyous. In a period of history where the parties of the right are trying so hard to segregate and divide, Birmingham (and in particular on this evening’s dinner, Solihull) stands united in solidarity. It is a message more powerful than any written on the side of a bus, or placard wielding rally. In this city We Are One.

I’ll be honest, it is not how I envisaged the start of this piece to go. I expected it would be based around how much I’ve enjoyed Asha’s in Birmingham for almost a decade, and how my initial reactions to them opening another branch in a bland shopping centre in Solihull not known for good food was one of surprise. Both of these facts are true and probably don’t require dwelling on. Instead we’ll talk about the new site, tucked away at the back-end, sandwiched between the chains at the top of the escalator. It doesn’t seem the obvious place to pay £21 for a prawn bhuna, but then Solihull happens to be a place desperately short of options for good food considering how affulent this end of the city is. And it’s a beauty of restaurant; low slung ornate lighting penetrates the twilight, with booths cleverly concealed down one side and an endless bar running the length of the other. Tables and chairs are every colour you can think of, just as long as the only colour you can think of is black. It’s the most romantic setting to come to Touchwood since the back row of the Cineworld opposite.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the food is that it is entirely reminiscent of the central Birmingham location, which, having never written about, I will now have to breakdown. It’s premium curry house fare; the wheel hasn’t been reinvented, but it has been given new tyres and shiny spokes. Sometimes it’s subtle, like the tray of chutneys that accompany the poppodums. You probably won’t notice the difference with the green sauce that is now synonymous with the giant crisps, but the mango chutney is refined and has balanced acidity, whilst a papaya chutney is a classy affair with sultanas and nigella seeds that you’ll not see too often. It’s when they wield out the big guns that you know you are somewhere which wants to be taken seriously. We’ll overlook the etch-a-sketch dribble of sauces on the tandoori platter we started with and instead look at the quality of the produce: curls of king prawns, blistered and juicy, two pieces of chicken tikka, another two chicken malai; each huge poultry piece marinated until the proteins soften and the yogurt catches on the edges for that slight smokiness. The cooking of the meat so accurate that I swear a sous-vide machine must of been used, even if the flavour tells me otherwise. And then there are the seekh kebabs, as good as any I’ve had. Soft meat that threatens to fall apart on the lightest of pressure, loads of lamb flavour despite the obvious presence of ginger, chilli, garlic, and cumin. We finish this and know that the curries that are to follow are going to be good.

And they are. They really are. It’s obvious that each sauce is made only for that one mention on the menu, over the base sauces that plague cheaper establishments. The prawn bhuna is an exercise in this; the tomato rich sauce tastes strongly of the sea. Like the girls I used to take to the cinema here, it is thick and luscious, with a good amount of ginger thrown in to the mix. Twenty one pounds for this is punchy, but then it happens to be a very lovely curry. A chicken tikka masala has a generous amount of poultry, as one would expect for £15, in a more generic sauce thickened with lots of double cream. In all honesty it lacks the whack of flavour that the bhuna has, but it is still a very strong rendition of the most British of curries. Both get saffron rice piled in, mixed about and scooped on to naan bread fragrant with lots of garlic.

Portions are very generous, leaving no room for dessert and the remnants of the curries in a brown bag for lunch the following day. I really enjoyed this new Asha’s; the food was consistent, the quality of the produce high, and the staff really superb. In reality Indian food in this city has never been more prevalent: we have the balti houses, the street food places, those like Opheem pushing the boundaries for progressive Indian, and places like here who do the more familiar dishes in luxurious surroundings to high standards. I have no problem in saying that in my mind Asha’s is the best place in the city to splash a small chunk of cash on those more conventional curries. Everything about it screams class.

8/10

A2B are based in Solihull. Let them take you for a tour of their manor.

Tap and Tandoor, Solihull

Very occasionally I sit somewhere and know the success is fully deserved. That they have a clear idea of what the area demands, and that those who are demanding it will leave happy. Often it is the most basic of ideas, as is the case here at Tap and Tandoor. It is as simple as location and provenance; the former will see them come in droves, the latter see them returning time over. If Solihull needed this as an area, the market it sits within needed the innovation more. The idea that the grill and curry food could be done using entirely free range meat for the same price as the competition is a genuine game changer for a sector not known for conscientious meat purchasing. And the quality of that meat shines throughout the meal. That is why Tap and Tandoor is one of the most important openings of 2018.

I thought it would be good; I know its sister venue Zindiya intimately. The menu has the infrequent nod towards that Moseley restaurant whilst managing to be an entirely different beast. Here you will find curry, breads, and mixed grills alongside the Indian street food dishes of Zindiya. It is a menu designed to be grazed over a longer period, washed down with any one of the beers that line the back wall. We order and settle in to a table under the painted mural on the back wall. It is heaving. The inhabitants of Solihull clearly have more taste that I credited them for.

From a succinct list of home style curry we have the butter chicken of all butter chickens. So good that all other versions must now feature ‘I cant believe its not butter chicken’ on the packaging. Its unashamedly rich, clogging the arteries with happiness. The poultry is firm, well cooked, and tastes of chicken; a rarity in these places. It is a stunner. We mop this up with a chilli and cheese naan that is supple and light. Exactly how it should be but rarely are.

And then there is the mixed grill. And my, what a mixed grill it is. It is the best of its kind in the city because the quality of the produce is allowed to shine. We have a regular sized one that is too much for two people, but will not stop me ordering the large next time. The chicken tikka is made to the same recipe as the sister restaurant. If anything the morsels here are larger, so whisper it, but this may be even better than the place that does the best I have eaten. There are meaty chicken wings smoky from the grill that do less for me, king prawns that linger with chilli notes for a while afterwards, and heavily spiced sheekh kebab cut to an uneven number that has us arguing over the last piece. Best of all are the lamb chops, charred so that the marinade has crusted up and left a pink centre. Once again the quality of the meat shines through; lamb chops simply don’t taste this good in places like this.

The only slip-up I can find are the beer battered onion bhajis that are a touch greasy and need a little work, but that is it. Even the one dish lifted from the Zindiya menu is an improvement; paneer tikka in an indo-Chinese style sauce. It is no longer caked in sauce, instead it happily shares its space with cooked onions and peppers, splayed out across a plate with the sweet and fiery sauce merely joining the dots. I want to stay and eat the chocolate samosa but I am defeated.

Far too much food, a beer, and a soft drink comes in at just over £40, an obscene bargain. And it is this that impresses me the most. With the premium location and free range meat costs it would have been easy to ramp up the prices, yet they have resisted this, choosing to sit at a price point below their direct competition. It’s all rather brilliant, helped by a team of staff who clearly know their stuff. If I lived closer I’d be here twice a week without fail. The people of Solihull are a lucky, lucky bunch.

9/10

Transport provided by another of Solihull’s finest, A2B Radio Cars

Ruchie, Shirley

In a change from the norm, lets begin this post with a quick geography lesson. The length of India, from the Himalayan mountains to the beaches of Kanyakumari, sits around 3500km. Pretty big, right? To put that into perspective it is approximately the same distance from Birmingham to Istanbul. Draw a straight line between the two to drive it and you’ll enter Belgium, graze France, pass through the south of Germany and into Austria, hit Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, have a hefty time in Bulgaria and finally reach Turkey. From a culinary perspective there’ll be moules frites, quenelle de brochet, sauerkraut, schnitzels, goulash, and tarator, the latter presumably all down the white Levis and Kenwood jackets of those oh so trendy Bulgarians. Now you can make a half decent sausage and mash, right? In which case I can only assume your tarator has perfect acidity, and your quenelles are as light as your wallet now is. I assume all of this because this is the exact approach we take to Indian food in this country. We assume that every chef grew up perfecting the Balti and Tikki Masala, which is casual racism given that the Tikki Masala was invented on these shores as a way of appeasing the spice loathing palette of the average Brit, and the Balti originated from Pakistan. India is rich in regional variety from the vegetable dominated diets of the Gujarati, to the more identifiable dishes taken from the snack culture in Punjab. So if you are the type to go to your local Indian and order a Balti know that I am judging you. And I am blaming you for Brexit.

My borderline obsession with this meant that my ears pricked up when I heard that regional Indian cooking had found its way to Shirley. Ruchie promises to stick to the south of India, namely the regions of Kerala and Chettinad that lean on less heavy styles of curry, of fish and dosa. It is a region that I know a bit about because my other half has spent time there. From the opening gambit I know they take it seriously: deep fried banana chips join the usual poppadoms, with a spritely lemon chutney in amongst the more conventional dips and pickles. For starters we take two types of dosa; one with paneer, the other with potato. Both are excellent with vibrant spicing and a healthy kick of heat, the batter that encases them light and delicate. They even succeed in making me like sambar, the light vegetable curry that here tastes of something. We also try Kathrikka, a new dish for the both of us. The aubergines are deep fried in a batter and served with a tomato chutney. It could almost be a tapas dish in Spain had it not been for the cumin that runs through the batter. Maybe the position so close to the Portuguese influenced cooking of Sri Lanka has more of an effect that I credited it.

For mains we look to both sides of the southern peninsular. A Meen Kuzhambu gets ordered for direct reference point. Claire thinks it is better than the one she had on a boat in Kerala. The kingfish is beautifully cooked, the tamarind sauce sweet and sour without ever overpowering the fish. And then there is the Chettinad chicken curry, a gravy base more silkier than the usual robust identikit sauces. The overriding flavour is black pepper, though there are plenty of chilli and aniseed notes lurking behind. Without either of us visiting Chettinad before it feels authentic; unfamiliar and cooked with love. I like it here.  Pulao rice is good, a paratha better. The layers distinct, the rich butter flavour distributed expertly throughout.

Given that we take some of the curry home for later, we skip dessert, though Claire is vowing to return for Semiya Payasam, a lesser known Indian dessert that happens to be her favourite and yours for £3.50. Ruchie is a bold move and one that I hope is embraced by the local community, though whether or not Shirley is ready for an Indian restaurant that doesn’t serve Baltis remains to be seen. I think it will be fine; the service is excellent, the bill very good value and we try a couple of very nice cocktails. For me it moves straight into my top five Indian restaurants in the city and somewhere I can see myself returning to frequently. There is so much to learn about the regional cooking of India and Ruchie is the ideal first chapter to start with.

8/10 

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Peels Restaurant at Hampton Manor, Hampton-In-Arden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

The good guys at A2B Radio Cars got me here and back to Moseley.

I’m up for an award, and so are a few of the staff at Hampton Manor. Vote for us, please. I’m category 17.