Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

Midway through our meal, somewhere between wine bottle two and three, Claire leaned towards me and slurred “Sighh, if I wur to ever work aza shhef, it would be ‘ere”. I think. She could have said anything. Luckily for the food industry her cooking is nowhere near good enough; the people of Harborne are safe for now. Unless tax evasion is your thing, in which case she’s coming for you hard. But I do get her point. There is an ease to service here, the front of house are smiling, they let you see the kitchen and, shock, horror, they are enjoying themselves. Chefs happy, who would have ever thought it? Owner Jamie Desogus even closed a very busy Sunday service so that his team had a better work/life balance. Hell, if I were a chef I would want to work here too.

But I’m not, I am just a rotund gobshite with a healthy appetite. And this, our third visit in ten months was easily the best to date. There has always been a confidence to the cooking here, and now it stands broad-chested on the plate for all to see. Those salmon skin crisps are still there to be seasoned with rosemary vinegar, though they are now joined by cubes of livery ox tongue and crackers topped with a cheese mousse and grape. A slice of bread still follows, with a new friend in maltloaf for company. Nibbles can often feel like an afterthought; not here. They are considered and, more importantly, an insight into the food over the next few hours.

It starts with a bang. Two opening courses as good as I can recall eating in sequence so early on in a meal. Chicken liver parfait arrives under the canopy of crispy skin, with dots of blood orange gel, white chocolate, and hazelnut. The chocolate is far more daring in word than reality; it provides another fatty layer to the dish and lets the other stuff stick around longer. It works. It is so big on flavour you wonder if anything else could surpass it. The celeriac does. Salt baked cubes on a broth so heavily reduced it’s almost treacle. A flurry of blue cheese mousse hides little pieces of pickled quince and I ask for a supplement of Perigord truffle because in my head it makes perfect sense. Praise Be to that massive head of mine. It’s a beautiful plate of food that is immaculately balanced; savoury, followed by earthiness and umami, sweet, and then washed away by light acidity. Shit, I’ve just morphed into Greg Wallace. Pass me the gun.

The course that follows is a riff on the flavours of Thai green curry, with a fat fillet of cod immersed in an aerated cloud of lemon grass, galangal, and probably several other nuanced flavours my primitive palate fails to detect. A grating of kaffir lime zest brings that lovely aroma and puffed rice is there just on the off-chance you were actually expecting a cod curry in a smart restaurant in Harborne. It nods brilliantly towards The East whilst still retaining its spot as the fish course in a tasting menu.

The beef main does very little for me on paper, mostly because its beef. The reality is the opposite; we get a brave bit of cooking that works because it is flush with acidity and then whack! a solid bit of cow. I’ve turned into Greg Wallace again. Sorry. The star is undoubtedly the slowly cooked Wagyu brisket which breaks down at the slightest nudge of a fork. For me, it doesn’t need the Longhorn fillet, because those lean, expensive cuts tend to get shown up for how little flavour they have when stuck next to a more fatty and unctuous bit of animal. The rest is a demonstration on how to get the best out of beef; crispy shallots and pickled onions, a grilled king oyster and dainty pickled mushrooms, the silkiest of mash potatoes, and a puddle of chive oil that adds zip to it all. We take the cheese course because it is Brillat-Savarin, Perigord truffle and grape. If that particular menage a trois doesn’t get you horny, you really need to see a doctor.

On my first write-up here I got a little excited by the desserts by pastry chef, Michael Topping, and I am going to stand by what I said then. The man is a talent, he gets balance and flavour, and the importance of dessert not being pancreatic exploding sweet. First up is rhubarb ice cream with nitrogen frozen rhubarb cut with stem ginger. Following this is chocolatey mousse and popcorn with a sorbet of maybe yogurt, maybe banana, that I remember to be rich and salty and damm right delicious. Apologies about the hazy detail, I was pissed by this point. With these we drank some lovely Tokaji. I know this because it’s on the bill and Claire has purchased some since.

The bill with a lot to eat and as much to drink hits just north of two ton. You could have three courses and a nice bottle of wine for well under half, which was our intention before we got there. I love Harborne Kitchen, not only because it makes my girlfriend happy, but because it’s genuinely a fantastic neighbourhood restaurant that is simply trying to be the very best it can be. And it seems we’re not alone; aside from it being full on the night it has also been shown interest by a certain tyre guide and rightly so. Without wishing to put pressure on a place not looking for accolades, everything we ate was consistently at one star level. Big things are going at Harborne Kitchen and it couldn’t happen to a nicer place.

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Elystan Street, Chelsea

I think the first time I was really proud of this blog was when Elystan Street put my first write-up on their website. I struggle with this, I’m horribly competitive and I rarely enjoy my own work, but I am a food fan boy at heart and Phil Howard is right up there with my heroes. Outside of Brum I don’t think there is a chef I’ve eaten more of, from the luxurious splendour of The Square, to Elystan Street, his somewhat more laidback offering. He is one of those chefs that makes an a la carte decision impossible; you want to eat every dish listed and probably would if that didn’t require a remortgage.

We come on a Sunday lunch when the dining room is filled with Chelsea types. It makes for interesting eavesdropping; the table next to us has a son explaining his property plans to his mother. A small pied-a-terre in the city and a larger home on the coast will suffice for him. It’s another world here and this place caters purely for those; there is not much value anywhere on the wine list and very little for under £40 a bottle. Bread is the only introduction to the food and very good it is too, though it’s overshadowed by some truly outstanding butter.

Howard always seems to have a pasta dish present; I recall a hand-rolled macaroni at the previous establishment, whereas today is strozzapretti. Anything shaped like my first initial is fine with me. It’s the carrier for a loose ragu of finely chopped white park beef and a dusting of parmesan. It’s success is in its clarity; the beef is the star and here it is allowed to shine. The rest form the background setting; the pasta a vehicle, the parmesan the umami injection to the engine.

A fat fillet of cod is all butter basted flesh and pearlescent core, with parmesan gnocchi and buttered chanterelles. It’s fat heavy, yet fresh and light with clever acidity. Whoever said cheese and fish don’t go together has clearly never eaten here. Roast pork is just that; thin slices of pig just blushing pink, with cabbage and wedges of apple long massaged with heat. It’s not the prettiest plate of food I’ve eaten, though the flavour is there, in particular the cabbage spiked with lardons. On the side are roast potatoes, crumbly edged though maybe not as soft on the inside as I’d ideally like.

Desserts are no going to threaten the pastry section at Ducasse anytime soon, but then I expect that is entirely their intention. More homely, less fuss. We have a faultless sticky toffee pudding with earl grey ice cream and rice pudding with rhubarb. They are the Ronseal of puddings, which is fine by my girlfriend, who happens to love both of these more than she could ever love me. The ice creams in particular are textbook examples.

The above food, a couple of pre-drinks and a bottle of wine hits just shy of a ton apiece, an amount that sees our three courses arrive in around 40 minutes. Now maybe the clocks move faster in Chelsea, but for almost £200 I happen to see that as rushed. It left a bitter taste in the mouth, a sensation that was further exasperated by relentless perfect Negronis afterwards in the perfect Bar Termini. Maybe they cater for a different type of customer here, but for me the ideal Sunday lunch is a lazy affair slowly reeled out. I don’t want my dessert to arrive six minutes after they’ve cleared away the main plates. Phil Howard remains one of my culinary heroes, though I’ll gladly play those memories out in my head at my own pace, rather than the speedy service at Elystan Street.

Bonehead, Birmingham

Who would thought that a bit of fried chicken could cause such bother? KFC running out of chicken caused total pandemonium. Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham. I wonder to myself could life ever be sane again? Of course it could, its just chicken for fucksake, and not very good chicken at that. Still people properly lost their shit. Social media went into meltdown and 999 calls were made to report the closures, which is just ridiculous. Everyone knows if you are going to waste police time you do it when the carrot on the snowman is nicked.

Bonehead also do fried chicken, except they get their chicken from a nice little farm in the Cotswolds and not a secret underground laboratory where 12ft mutant chickens are crafted with 8 wings. And whilst no one sane is going to phone emergency services about them, they do some very good things for a little chicken shop just three days old on the date of our visit. It is deliberately low-key and dark on the inside. Walls are painted black and coated with flyers. Downstairs is the dive bar, upstairs is a basic dining room with basic seating and a hole in the wall to the kitchen. This is the beard and beanie of chicken joints, a little too hipster for its own good. I like it.

And so to the menu, which is made of chicken that you can have cooked anyway you like just as long as its fried. They do the important things right; good quality chicken, brined, with the wings jointed for even cooking. We end up with three trays of those wings, and should you find yourself less greedy than us and in need of choice, take the buffalo option. These are a showstopper, hot and sour from cayenne pepper and vinegar, that are as difficult to remove from the breath as from a shirt. I know, I’ve tried to do both. The blunt notes needing the blue cheese to soothe the finish. And we like the hothead wings which are more aromatic than spicy, though the original ones are floury and not particularly nice. Two outta three ain’t bad. Just ask Meatloaf.

And then there’s the burgers. We try both because those trousers aren’t quite tight enough after 24 wings. They eat a lot better than they photograph. There is crunch in the batter that protects the chicken thigh from the harsh heat. There is molten cheese and the tang of pickle lurking in the background. It’s very well balanced but asked to choose you should take the hot one which gently smoulders. And whatever you do add the potato waffles loaded with sauce and slaw. That slaw might just be the best thing about the entire meal. It’s crisp and clean with a slight Asian feel to it. Those waffles and some buffalo wings with a cold pint of craft lager might just be my go-to dinner for a while.

Prior to its opening I’d publicly played Bonehead down because the hype was making my little head explode. And if you are the type of person that orgasms over a picture of a dish you’ve never eaten then please go find a hobby. But is the hype justified? Kind of. It’s not Fuku, the best fried chicken I have ever eaten, not by a distance. But it is good. Cleverly conceived tasty food at a fair price. Birmingham needs places like this. Independents raising the standards is only a positive thing. If you haven’t been to Bonehead yet, you finger lickin’ should.


In the effort of full disclosure the kitchen sent out additional wings which were not ordered and did not appear on the bill.

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Gymkhana, London

The last day of our London blowout saw the bluster of snow quickly gather around our ankles as The Beast rolled onto our shores from the east. We find solace in Mayfair, firstly with the perfect martini in The Connaught, thereafter in the plush leather booths of Gymkhana. The dark panelled upstairs of the restaurant feels like a plush gentleman’s club, with low lighting that that doesn’t bode well for cameras and therefore ideal for one of the most famous men on the planet to enjoy lunch. No, its not me. Mid-lunch I send a picture to my best friend with said superstar accidentally in the background, stating the inevitable of who it is. “Are you eating curry at 2.30pm?” is his response. Yes Nathan, I am. I am in Mayfair, there are no rules here.

Not just any curry though. Curry bestowed with a star by a tyre company and uniformly loved by the denizens of the capital. The service here is slick and discreet, polished more frequently than the table we sit at. Greeting us are three types of popadom; lentil, potato, and tapioca, with three types of chutney. A sweet mango one, another of mint and coriander with a verdant kick, and a feisty dried shrimp one that starts spicy and finishes with the crash of the ocean.

A large plate of potato and chickpea chaat marks the first course. It’s generous as a dish for two to share, though we make a good go at working through the beguiling mix of textures; the snap of wafer, the crunch of sev and little fried bits of potato that have soaked up the tamarind chutney that have kissed everything. Another sharer plate follows of tandoori cauliflower, the florets wearing a cap of thick yogurt. Two very good plates of food that showcase how Indians manage to extract more flavour from vegetables than any other cuisine.

The curry course is less main and more banquet. We don’t even get close to finishing it. There is decadent butter chicken masala that adds weight just by looking at it, and a more a dry spinach and paneer curry that pops with flavour with every mouthful. There is a smoky dal maharani that we mop up with the lightest of naans, and we take a supple roti to spicy potatoes coated in a thick gravy that has us instantly googling the recipe. It is called Dum Aloo Banarasi if you’re interested. And rice. Cant forget the rice. It’s mammoth in portion and obscenely good. Some of the best curry I can recall eating anywhere, and I have eaten a lot of curry as my ghee filled arteries will testify.

Desserts are a bit lost on me in comparison on account of teeth generally not being required to eat them with. Rasmalai is a very good rendition of gloppy cheese balls in milky custard, shown a little bit of wit with the addition of popping candy. Also being eaten by my other half was kheer, a rice pudding, with slices of Seville orange that bring a bright acidity. She loves them both, but then that’s understandable given that she was chowing down on baby food just a few years ago. I can appreciate them, which is an upgrade on my usual stance.

All of this is more remarkable given that eating here can be affordable. The above is all from a £35 four course set menu, to which we add a very good value pinot noir, and some superb cocktails that are worthy of the splurge. It seems remarkably fair given the Mayfair address. I’m late to this particular club as Gymkhana has been sweeping up the awards for several years now, but do I care? Do I heck. I am an instant fan, one that looks forward to future visits. They can give me Indian food this good anytime they like. Yes Nathan, even at 2.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.


Cheal’s of Henley, Henley in Arden

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to Cheal’s is that over 5 days of eating in Birmingham, Henley, and London, taking in several Michelin stars, the food we ate in the black beam and white plaster was easily the weekend’s best. It is beyond me how certain guides continue to overlook what is sharp, accurate and above all tasty food. Moving swiftly on, lets have a quick run through of our recent lunch.

They do things the classical way here. Your chairs will be deep and comfortable, there will be crisp white linen over the table. There will be little gifts from the kitchen in the way of canapes and bouches that have been amoused. The former was little cheesey dumplings with a blob of Worcestershire sauce gel, the latter a warm espuma of parsnip, with curry oil and yeast flakes. Two familiar flavours, cheese on toast and curried parsnip, re-worked as dainty bites that pack massive flavour. We get bread via a sourdough and a roll so good it sends my girlfriend into shock.

Looking back, the pork cheek starter was probably my least favourite course. Nothing wrong with it – its very pleasant – it just hasn’t left the same thumbprint on my psyche as the rest of the courses. The cheek is meltingly soft, with a sage and hazelnut pesto to lift it and earthy cauliflower to pin it back down. Claire has lentil and celeriac risotto full of purpose and bite, with mushrooms and a crispy duck egg yolk that lets loose at the sight of a knife. Its super rich, old school cooking, impossible not to get woozy over.

Skate is scored so that the browned top is staggered like ladder rungs, the gaps filled with the opaque centre of the fish. Joining it is pickled carrots and a purée of the same veg, with fat Israeli couscous licked with lemon juice. A tangle of onion bhaji with the faint whiff of cumin gives additional texture, a yogurt dressing all the moisture it needs. It is unbelievably good, the type of dish that stops you clean in your tracks, reducing table talk to lusty looks.

Slices of pink duck arc around the perimeter of the plate, the leg meat formed into deep fried bonbons. Batons of pickled rhubarb and conical fermented kohlrabi cut through the rich meat. The best bit is a little pot of barley, meaty and rich from a slow braise in chicken stock. We race to chase the last scraps off the plate. The other main is rare venison, the loin hiding a loose ragu of haggis, with a pie of the less dear bits of deer. That pie! All golden and flaky with the same tang of organs that echoes in the haggis. It’s grown-up food for people with no fear of gout. The only respite is butternut squash, sprouts and torn sourdough that soaks up the glossy sauce spiked with Madeira.

Dessert is the perfect soufflé, proudly standing from the rim. The flavour of gingerbread is strong throughout, a bergamot sorbet a clever match. Combined the fragrant citrus fruit lifts the spice up a notch. It’s as good a soufflé I can recall eating. There are petit fours including a passion fruit macaron which sends us nicely on our way.

The wine list is well curated and has a lot to offer at under £40 a bottle, and we take off two menus (£33 and £55 respectively) leaving us with a bill of under £200 with a fair amount of wine, though you could eat as cheap as £50 per head if you were more prudent with the booze and menu choice. Whichever way you take it this is an absolute steal. Beautiful food in a lovely setting half an hour away from Birmingham on the train. If classical technique with modern flourishes is your thing, you really should be seeking it out. I’d eat here every week if I could.

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Honest Burgers, Hammersmith

Having rushed out of London to Birmingham and back at 5am for a 14 hour round trip to see the woman who struck me down with a car four years ago, we were somewhat short of last minute dinner options near our hotel. As lovely as Hammersmith is, it is woefully short of somewhere to eat on a Monday; L’Amorosa is closed, as is the Indian our hotel tried to send us to. We settle for Honest Burger, a small chain of bits of beef between buns beloved of belligerent Londoners. And before those Londoners get shouty for calling them belligerent, yes you bloody are. I’ve travelled on the tube at peak times, I have the footprints on my back to prove it.

They have a nice queuing system that allows us to wait in the pub around the corner until a table becomes available. When one does we are sat upstairs underneath the shadow of the blackboard that is the menu for those with the vision of a mole. We order cocktails in tin cups and bottles of local beer. We get two beef burgers and some bits to ensure we leave full. The beef is served pink they say to which we say fine. Its a solid start for somewhere that charges a little over £40 for burgers and drinks for two.

And then, well, meh. The burgers are boring to the point that they serve to remind me why I quit eating them for a while. The patty is pink but it is also bland, the bun hardly holding its shape. If this was In and Out the emphasis would be on the final word. It’s Five Why’s. Shake Whack. The jalapeño relish and hot sauce one is only distinguishable from the garlic mayo one by levels of attitude. Both have bacon; one crisp, the other not. I get a ribbon of raw fat wedged between my teeth.

The rest is a mixed bag. We get the Paris Hilton of onion rings; they look alright until we get into the doughy interior. The chips, often the bane of the burger shop, are properly good and dusted with rosemary salt. The best bit is the curry sauce that tastes better than my local Indian takeaway. It’s just when the best bit makes up one fortieth of the bill you know there is an intrinsic problem.

Service was ponderous, the bill painful. I could think of half a dozen burger places I would rather eat at for less. And tragically this isn’t the first time this has happened to me in the capital; Bleecker aside I’ve tried little to get me excited. I’ll never have a burger again here. Honest.


Lucky Duck, Jewellery Quarter

It didn’t take much. Just a image of an pretty blue and white bowl containing some soup and some noodles and a couple of slices of pink duck breast. Pants were pissed in excitement. Cries of RAMEN! like a beaten Rocky Balboa were heard around the city by people whose only reference point is the Bullring branch of Wagamama. Lucky Duck was coming, bringing bowls and buns. We got very excited. And then the opening weekend happened, chock-a-block with people genuinely excited by the prospect of bao and ramen hitting our city with gusto. The initial feedback wasn’t great; it’s not right the forthright people said. It’s awful said the expert who has never had the bollocks to put his money where his insidious mouth is. Concerned looks were everywhere. Lucky Duck has gone from flight to fallen in the space of three weeks.

I went for that duck last night. I sat in the well-lit room on the wooden chairs in the window seat. I used the ornate chopsticks to work the noodles out of the soup and into my massive gob. I quite enjoyed it, the breast meat a virginal pink, the soup with good flavour, a perfect soft boiled egg, and accurate seasoning. The best bits were the jewels of brown meat hidden at the base like sunken treasure. It could be better though, some optional seasoning like bottles of soy and chilli oil, maybe a flurry of herbs, or some Nori flotsam. Little bits of make-up to turn it from bit-part to Oscar winner.

Make-up isn’t going to save those buns, they need a complete re-haul of design. We try one of each, and the positives are in the cooking of the main ingredient. Pork belly braised until the fat turns ivory jelly and cod with brittle batter – just like the duck it is obvious the man knows how to handle protein. But the bao is too dense and the fillings not good enough. The pork belly comes with nothing but a smear of apple sauce, the cod just mayo and a few sorry slices of cucumber. It needs more; crushed peanuts, a mooli salad, some chilli sauce, a squeeze of lime, or herbs. Just about anything to give it character. The eureka moment comes when we order one more and ask them to do the pork belly with the accompaniments of the aubergine. The addition of peanut and chilli gives it life. It deserves this more than apple sauce.

Dessert is roast pineapple, pecans and coconut cream that could have been my breakfast, though it serves a purpose of providing a fresh way to finish up. The bill for all this is £33, a small enough sum to try them again soon. And I will; despite this meal being too average to recommend to anyone, I believe that they could eventually be on to something here. Everything is fixable, nothing terminal. The issue is that the hysteria the concept has caused means that they have an entire city expecting them to run whilst they are still taking baby steps, and that needs to change. The improvements need to come quick if they are going to fulfil the potential. A rethink of those bun fillings seem an obvious place to start.


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Bistro du Vin, February 2018

The customer is always right, right?! Nonsense. The customer is rarely right. We moan about wine being cold, and wine being too warm. Order cuts of good animal to be cooked until cremation and then say it’s too tough. I’ve personally witnessed someone send back a chicken dish because they were unaware that a supreme had a bone protruding from it and heaven forbid that a once living creature was built upon a skeleton. And don’t even start me on complaints about bread being cold. It’s tough. As front of house you can lose your temper and have it end up on TripAdvisor, or you can nod politely and take the disdain back to the kitchen. The customer may not always be right, but we want to feel like we are. And that is a key component to good service.

The recent spate of restaurant closures in Birmingham has had me thinking a lot about service. There have been horror stories from some of those now gone including screws in lamb and non-existent service. Either these places gave up early in anticipation of closure, or they lost sight of the customer. This industry embodies a ride or die philosophy – mess up once and its unlikely you’ll see us again. Bistro du Vin have taken heed of the customer. They found that from previous menus the more traditional French dishes were being ordered over ceviche and other worldly preparations. They’ve listened and now the new menu is a trip around the classics of France. There are snails and steak tartare. Veal and bouillabaisse. It’s French and proud, all baguettes in bicycle baskets and haw-he-haw-he-haw. There is hardly a sniff of other cultures; just how the upturned nostrils of the Frenchies like it to be.

This cuisine is difficult to pull off, it leans heavily on quality ingredients and sturdy technique. They have nailed it, delivering a meal with more consistency than you are realistically likely to experience in the faux tourist traps of Paris. Snails arrive in the casket of their shell, the parsley and garlic butter used to the stuff the crevice still bubbling away in the ceramic pot. As with so much of French food, part of the theatre is the eating; the breaking of the yolk garnish on the tartare, a mariniere that stains the fingers. Here it is working the meat out of the shell with the corner of a fork. The effort is worth it. I could romanticise cooking like this all day long.

Mushrooms on toast are just that, though the fungi is carefully cooked and the Madeira cream sauce well judged. French onion soup, all brooding beef stock and tangled allium, is topped with a thick slice of gruyere that seals in the aroma until it is released into the soup. The portion is a meal in itself which I don’t even come close to finishing. I’ll be back to give it another go when there is less food and wine to contend with.

And what man can resist a perfect cassoulet? Not I. Huge chunks of salted pork and garlicy Toulouse sausage, with a confit duck leg sitting central for good measure. In lesser hands the long stewing can turn the white beans to mush; not here, when each still retains bite and purpose. It is one of those dishes that requires patience to let the components court one another, and here they are, more familiar than the gene pool in Norwich. It is superb.

Now the nature of today’s lunch means that some serious wines come out to play. Perhaps the most unique of these being a Rasteau Rouge 1998, a red dessert wine that has port on the nose and a lovely sweet finish. It’s not the ideal match to my ile fonttante but frankly who cares? I’m enjoying myself too much. The meringue is poached to a fluffy cloud and dusted with finely chopped pink praline, the custard it sits on full of rich vanilla. I love this dessert and this was as good as a Michelin starred version I had in Paris. We finish with cheese from the trolley, immaculate in condition. And more port. There is always room for more port.

So they’ve listened to the customer and delivered what they have been asked of. A menu unlike anywhere else in the city; one of Gaelic romanticism and dishes built on the very foundation of getting the very best from the produce. Its a crowd pleaser – a menu that will not tire anytime soon. It tastes exactly how you imagine the food of France to taste, full of bluster and garlic notes and sturdiness. From top to bottom its brilliant. Merci, Bistro du Vin.

I was invited to a preview lunch of the new menu

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Chaiiwala, Sparkhill

I lost a good friend last week. He’s not dead, not physically at least. We just metaphorically waved goodbye to one another for good as I ran to a taxi unannounced and he looked on with a bemused look on his face. I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew it was done; we were sat in the pub post local derby, beers, and food. I should have been elated given the result, instead I had the harsh realisation that a fifteen year friendship had grown mould and additional ears. There is no escaping that he is tied to past bindings, that good ship Past Relationship which set sail a year back from which I am free and he is confined to the middle passages awaiting a lifetime of ruling in pastures new. I’ll miss him, I think. He’s a good bloke that is not allowed to be happy for me. I’m happy for him to be free from that, it makes both of our lives easier.

Heaven knows I’m miserable now. Not because of him, but because I have just been subjected to a heinous culinary crime. I am sat on the Ladypool Rd, once an equilateral side of the Balti triangle and now home to the countries quota of dessert bars. A light bulb above my head has gone on – dozens of them that make up the interior – and my mind wonders to why anyone would eat this that wasn’t a necessity to stay alive.

On paper a butter chicken looks value at £2 until the pencil dick is unwrapped and lifted flopping from the paper. The first mouthful is bearable, the rest a mush of protein that could frankly be anything. Masala chips are fries drenched in some cloying sweet and sour sauce that leaves them clinging to one another like avalanche victims on a mountainside. I’d rather be on the mountain than here eating this. They’ve taken something with texture and turned it into children’s food. They’ve ruined the humble chip. I’m raging.

Dainty Samosas manage to look like raw pastry despite being cooked. They are as colourless as Casper and with less substance. Flavour-wise they are the best thing I eat, resembling at least the vegetarian snack. The same cannot be said about little cubes of paneer, barely touched with heat and dressed in a sauce that refuses to play nicely. It is bitter and acrid, a brutal assault on the taste buds. It is hands down the worst way I ever spent three pound, and I once purchased The Mail on Sunday. Yes, eating here is cheap, but that’s a worthless quality if the food is inedible.

And now the positives. The chai itself was deliciously fragrant and the front of house is brilliant – those serving are being done an injustice by what is coming out of the kitchen. But that is it. I have no problem telling you that it is awful, because realistically we are not the target market. On the evening I dine the place fills up with young Asian ladies eating and gossiping with friends. The food is the least important detail in their social scenario, which is the only time that it becomes acceptable to be here. If food is your thing then take your pick of any of the remaining restaurants in the area, anywhere is better than here.


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Ynyshir, 1st Visit of 2018

I feel like I am going to get used to the drive to Ynyshir. The nondescript hard concrete of the motorways and a-roads until Shrewsbury, with Welshpool marking that we have entered a different country. From there its rolling green hills and sheep and not much else. Roads meander in direct correlation with the streams that tumble alongside them. Homes are sparse and thinly spread apart out here – the scenery is ample friendship. It’s beautiful. I love how much the seasons have altered the landscape in the five months since we last visited. Winter has rooted itself firmly in rural Wales; the trees have exposed their souls to the elements, grass sodden and under the permanent shadow of cloud. Even in the company of a woman, the last two of the three and a bit hour journey is peaceful and revitalising.

We roll through stone posts that mark the entrance and wind around to the large white building. There have been some tweaks made. The white linen has been replaced by oversized wooden tables . The bowls and plates more dramatic, as are the hand carved spoons that greet the first course. It is a deliberate ploy to be more in tune with the surrounding environment. And it’s working. My best meal of 2017 just delivered an even better one in 2018.

I won’t go over every dish again – there is all of that on my previous post. Dinner here takes up to four hours and involves a large quantity of small dishes. The not French onion soup is still the first thing you eat and is still perfect. This is followed by a wedge of duck leg, cooked slowly, blasted through hot oil, dressed in sesame oil and topped with spring onions. It’s like the best crispy duck from your local Chinese. We have the bread course again. The sour dough seems to have improved – the pockets of air beneath the dark crust less restrained, the flavour deeper.

Mackerel is warmed through on the pass lights so that the texture has altered but the fish still retains the bright qualities of its raw state. With this is a rhubarb ketchup, slices of fermented rhubarb, and grated lardo. It is a dish that leans on acidity. It is bright and brilliantly conceived. A crab dish with sweet corn was a highlight of our last visit, this time the seasons dictate that we have turnip with the crustacean instead. It improves the dish, the earthiness working with the sweet meat and soy dressing that has the flavour of roasted shells. It is a nailed on three star dish. We have the wagyu beef burger course that takes the profile of a Big Mac and putting them in a dice sized piece of beef you hold between finger and thumb, and then the short rib from the same beast with shiitake mushroom and seaweed. I’ve eaten both dishes three times within six months. They still amaze me.

When I’m asked about Ynyshir I always say the same thing; nobody in England does flavour like Gareth Ward. Every dish is built around the maximum impact, that smashes you in the mouth with a closed fist. Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, with grated smoked eel, a spelt cracker, and cubes of apple that cuts clean through the richness. It has pinpoint balance. We have the grilled prawn with umami rich soy bisque again. The langoustine, fat and sweet, is the best I’ve eaten, anywhere. The seasons have been kind.

We surge on to more protein. Duck breast with salted plum excites me a lot less than deer with crisped fat and pickled black beans. There is nothing technically wrong with the former, the breast meat just fights a little too hard to keep up with its company. The latter has more bravado, more swagger. It threatens to be too big until you grow a pair and man, or woman, up. Pork belly with a sauce using last year’s cherries is equally massive. I have no idea how long and slowly it takes to cook pork belly this well but my guess is that it’s long enough for a man, or woman, to grow a beard.

A salt baked swede, alit and sinister looking, marks the cawl course. I don’t like it. The bits of lamb heart at the base are lovely, but the rest of the stew is a bit nonplus. A dish based around swede – that watery root veg – is always going to be an uphill struggle with me. And then it’s the same two Welsh lamb courses that marked our first lunch here. The lamb spare rib is still in my top three dishes ever, the lamb neck with kombucha still the best lamb with mint sauce you’ll ever eat.

Two courses bridge the savoury to the sweet. The first is less conventional; onions, cooked for a couple of days in beer and wagyu fat, in a bowl with thickened cooking juices and torn sour dough. They call it bread and gravy, though to me it echoes French onion soup. It’s dark and heady and absolutely delicious. Beauvale cheese with pear takes two ingredients in peak condition and let’s them run with one another.

There are four desserts. The first is Manjari chocolate, cremeux-like in texture without (I think) the cream. A shard made from shiitake mushroom might not seem an obvious ally but the chocolate makes the fungi taste like coffee. It’s super clever. This is followed by a dense reduction of parsnips where the sugars have released and caramelised the veg. On to this goes a puddle of maple syrup, rye, and nitrogen set verjus. The combination is a revelation, sweet, nutty, slightly acidic, not like anything I’ve ever tried before.

S.T.P might sound like something I caught in 2004 Tenerife but the smart amongst you may know it to be sticky toffee pudding. This has the sponge replaced with dates that have been dehydrated and glued together, onto which is placed the strongest vanilla ice cream I have ever tried and that all important toffee sauce. I have no idea what they have done to the sauce to make it taste so good, but it is a skill to rework a dish purely around the memory of the best bit of an iconic. They use the same tactic with rhubarb and custard, the fruit mostly an acidic foil to the reimagining of custard that tastes just like the Birds custard that I grew up on. Its rich and oozy and probably the result of a trillion egg yolks. I could eat this every night of my life and be happy. We finish with that tiramisu course which I firmly believe is the best sweet course I have eaten. It simply cannot be improved.

With this the record player in the corner changes from Kings of Leon to Bob Marley, and we head off to bed to sleep off another outstanding meal. An experience like this doesn’t come cheap; dinner with a couple of bottles of wine, cocktails, and a bed for the night clocks close to six hundred, but it is just that: An experience. Fat Duck withstanding, I know of no place that evokes such emotion through the gentle suggestion of food memory. Coming to Ynyshir requires commitment; the travel and the expense. It pays this back with course after course after course of brilliance. I’ll reiterate what I said the last time I wrote about here: Ynyshir is right now the most exciting restaurant in the UK. And we are in it for the long haul, watching it every step along the way.