wine

Grace + James / The Juke, Kings Heath

I fucking love wine. Like really love the stuff. I do crushed grapes as well as the next man, unless that man knows more about the crushing of grapes than I do, which would be bad luck on my part. At present I am part of two wine clubs. I spend too much on wine and drink far too much. I hope the crash victim who is looking after my next liver likes crushed grapes less than I do. I’m hardly an expert on the stuff, though – if I am being honest now – have won stuff at blind tastings before. And let me tell you, the blind don’t taste that different. They just smell a bit mustier. I enjoy the process of learning whilst getting drunk; of new and old world styles; of grape varieties. Wine is a complex thing that turns most of us into far simpler humans.

I’ll admit to knowing nothing about natural wine. Nada. Zilch. Zero. I know that it’s supposed to be better for the enviroment and for our body, and I also know that the lack of sulphites is supposed to give a lighter hangover. The latter was a bit of information passed on to me by the somme-liar at Carters and proved to be total nonsense after the individual consumption of over two bottles. On the palate it is wild and funky like Rick James, occasionally being so fruit led it can taste like cider or perry. But these are just my observations from the last sixteen months when a dimunitive blonde turned up at my flat with several carloads of possesions and a five litre box of organic white from Wine Freedom. More recently we’ve had the opening of Grace + James up the road from us in Kings Heath. It is a genuine game-changer; one of our absolute favourite openings of the year. Part deli, part natural wine bar, they have succeeded in opening my eyes to natural wine. And it’s gorgeous inside, the neutral shop front giving way to a room of blush pink and tasteful additions. They do cheese, bloody good cheese at that, drafted in from the best in Europe. It is the only place in Birmingham I have seen a Saint Marcelin, which is a must-order should you find yourself in a similar position.

I still know nothing about natural wine, but I’m trying. We’ll sit and work through the bottles on the shelf, we’ll take advice from Henry and Sophie (who are presumably keeping Grace and James hostage), and we’ll make an evening of it listening to great music. Life is easy when it is this good. Grace + James is really rather marvellous.

I also fucking love beer. Like really love the stuff. I do hops as good as the next man, unless the next man is dressed as a rabbit in which case… oh, I give up. I also love music and the nostalgia attached to the dive bars of Americana when the brief pause between tracks was caused by one vinyl spinning back to its home and the next being flipped into place. It is this reason why I love The Juke, which convienently happens to be opposite Grace + James.

The Juke is a small but perfectly formed bar, ideal for those winter days and nights when the sight of outside would cause anxiety. They have a concise bar stocked with interesting spirits and craft beer takeovers on constant cycle. They have kitchen pop-ups and a small team for whom nothing is ever too much. What distinguishes here from all other places of similar ilk is the original 50’s Jukebox that sits to one side of the bar. It’s what the bar is named after. The options cover all decades and styles and is free, though this does leave it open for continous repetitive plays of Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ on a recent visit. I think you can learn a lot from other peoples taste in music: fans of Beirut come paired with works of JD Sallinger, whilst the Oasis fans can usually be found outside pissing up the front door. Me, I fill my time listening to Bon Iver and The National. Feel free to revert to whatever stereotype you want about that.

These two don’t share much in common other than an address and a passion to do the best they can. In that respect they have nailed it. Together they are part of a huge reason why York Rd is one of the best in Birmingham. It’s almost enough to make us want to move from Moseley to Kings Heath. Almost.

Transport by A2B Radio Cars

Porta, Chester

Chester strikes me as a place not difficult to find good food. Walking inside the city walls I was struck by the amount of independent bars and restaurants, each of them seemingly thriving in this rather lovely city. Had I not been so obsessive about planning every meal one month in advance, I think we would have been fine finding our own feeds by carelessly meandering about, casually looking in windows at menu’s. But I am that obsessive and the idea of careless meandering is almost as much of nightmare to me as lunch with Piers Morgan. I dig out the Michelin guide, consult the family as to what they want, and decide that we are having tapas for our Saturday evening dinner at Porta, even if Porta don’t know it yet, because this is 2017 and they don’t take reservations.

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We arrive at the reasonable time at half six and the place is heaving.   It’s a split-level restaurant; galley kitchen and waiting area through the doorway, eating levels both above and below. Our projected waiting time of thirty minutes ends up being half of that, and we are swiftly moved to a congested area on the bottom level where lighting levels are more suited to owls than humans. We order widely across the menu and watch the frantic service from the back of the room, as dishes are weaved between tables and to our barrel table by eager staff.

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The first dishes to arrive are staples of any tapas restaurant.  Tomato bread is exactly how it should be; toasted and lightly flavoured with garlic – the tomato on top a mush of natural sweetness.  It tastes even better with drapes of Iberico ham, full of depth and intensity, which dissolves slowly on the tongue.  A tortilla is one of the better examples I have had in this country – the egg mixture properly seasoned, the texture only just set and the potatoes properly cooked through.  We are divided on the pickled chillies with some of the group saying that they taste only of vinegar.  They are wrong.  The chillies have lost some of the heat during the pickling process and have picked up an acerbic quality.  I quickly finish the jar.

There were a couple of dishes that never worked as well, so I’ll mention these in the middle as part of the proverbial ‘shit sandwich’ that RBS managerial training taught me so well.  Prawns.  Fat ones that looked far juicier than in reality, marginal overcooked and bathing in a garlic butter fragrant with parsley.  They are nice but unmemorable.  Equally pleasant are croquettes that have nailed the texture but are lacking in pig flavour.  Another plate has young broccoli with a romesco sauce that bullies the veg off the plate with a whack of garlic and pimento.  As much as I love the red pepper condiment, the dish is out of sync with its components.

But then it all goes brilliantly again.  Ox cheek has been long braised, with the slices finished on the plancha so that the Malliard reaction reinforces the bovine flavour throughout the spoonable meat.  Picos de Europa is liberally topped with honey, sultanas, and caramelized walnuts, all of which gentle caress the pungent notes of the blue cheese.  Dish of the night is the shoulder cut from an Iberico pig, served medium with a little salsa verde that cuts through it all with herby acidic notes.  A confession; we shared much of the food, though I anticipated eating this alone on the grounds that pink pork would not be everyone’s taste.  I was wrong.  The plate disappears before I get to the third slice.

There is more.  Of course there is; I am a glutton and the food is too good to turn down.  We have more thinly sliced charcuterie with glistening fat, and potato bravos which would turn out to be a better home for the sauce that came with the broccoli.  Lentils with chorizo would be a fitting way to finish.  The dish was earthy and intense.  We practically lick the bowl clean.

The price for all of the above and a fair amount of booze comes in at under £125.00 – I don’t need to tell you how much of a bargain that is.  Porta is a fantastic place which highlights the best of Spanish cooking.  The very best dishes live on their simplicity; they have nowhere to hide and nor should they – this is vibrant food with soul.  I would urge you to book a table and try it for yourself.  Except you can’t book a table – this is 2017, after all.

There is a wine bar that backs on to Porta which also merits a mention.  Covino may be a month or so old, but the owner Chris exudes the sort of confidence in grape knowledge that makes you feel like your intelligence has improved just by being in his presence.  It was recommended by one of the team at Sticky Walnut and was so good we went Friday, left with some wine for back at the house, and went again after our meal at Porta.  Go grab one of those twelve seats and thank me afterwards.  The place is a wine lovers dream.

8/10

Cheval Blanc, Moseley

Cheval Blanc is now three months old and has already become something of a cult classic in Moseley, bringing back the wine bar without the yuppy association of the 80’s and with a new dynamic; more vibrant and current in its approach.  There is no pretence here, instead the team focus on delivering high quality wine and cocktails, with food that complements the drink, not the other way round.  Its a lovely place to whittle away the hours and I often do.  I write this on a Wednesday morning, my head still tinged from both Saturday and Sunday afternoons sat at the bar drinking too well for my doctors liking.  It is safe to say that I am a fan.

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But I am here now to mostly talk about the food, not my alcoholic tendencies.  I was invited for the launch of the Autumn menu a week back and its clear that the food has moved up a notch in the short time they have been operating.  Dishes are more complex, flavour profiles more pronounced.  The head chef here is Cyd, a man so Gaelic I expect he cycles to work on a bike with a baguette in a basket up front, and more than ever this feels like his menu.  Each dish we try has a confidence of a man who understands his native cuisine but isn’t afraid to take it elsewhere when required.  The crisp balls of arancini which start are accurately seasoned so that the rice inside punches heavily with earthy mushroom flavour.  A salad of crab is freshened by lime and grapefruit segments which could have lost the seafood flavour in lesser hands.  Here it is balanced and well matched to a Australian Reisling that zings and dazzles.

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A glass of Cab Franc from Australia’s Jamsheed is almost too quaffable, all light and refined with a back note of oak that works wonders with slices of venison carpaccio daintily dressed with blackberries and hazelnuts.  A quail dish feels more substantial; pan-fried breast and confit leg with glass-like crisp skin.  Fresh quince and poached grapes are seasonal and sensible choices for the needed acidity, whilst a celeriac rosti takes it in to more complete eating.  In a menu of small dishes designed to be eaten in numbers, this feels like a small dish that could fill a hole by itself.  Try it with the Rhone they suggest, high in tannin and savoury enough to pin down the fruit in the dish.

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We hold fire on the last course and pause for a cocktail featuring chocolate infused bourbon, an idea that should be stolen and made compulsory for Christmas Day breakfast.  The dessert is a mousse of chocolate and green chartreuse, a herby liquor that was new to me and vastly enjoyed, probably because of the 55% alcohol content.  Its a classy way to finish, possibly a little to kitsch for my liking, but then most things are.

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Yes, I do live 150 metres away from here, and yes, this evening was free.  In an age when disclosure is paramount and every free meal that a ‘blogger’ (and how I hate that label) receives is scrutinised, it is questionable how much one can believe this write-up over, say, the one which is going to cost me two-hundred-and-fifty-quid this coming weekend.  And for every complimentary meal I receive I always ask myself if I would come back or not and pay out of my own wallet.  The answer to that with Cheval Blanc is I do come back, twice since this event last week and probably again this weekend.  I spent my bloody birthday here, for Christ’s sake.  I come back because I simply cant think of a nicer place to enjoy quality wine and casually pick away at well made plates of food.  The team of Abi and Rory know their stuff and they have created somewhere special that never fails to deliver.  I am fortunate to live in Moseley and have so many great places to drink and eat on my doorstep, but none of those places get me excited quite like Cheval Blanc.

 I was invited to the above autumn menu tasting.