Rum in Brum, Prince of Wales, Moseley

If you’re a groupie for fat food bastards, or the paid assassin from a coven of food bloggers, I’ll help you out with finding me. Come rain or shine, midday or later from midweek onwards, you’ll find me in The Prince of Wales in Moseley. I’ll either be sat at the bar with the regulars, or out the back, under that massive marquee within spitting distance of the tiki bar. Not that I would ever spit, no that’s disgusting. I tend to just throw shrapnel at the bar staff to get their attention. But I like it there. It’s my local, a great place without pretence where almost anything goes. If you haven’t been to The Prince they have a great bar upfront, and a wine and cheese shack, bottle bar, and rum tiki shack out the back. They do silly things like World Earth Day when I can’t get meat in my burrito, and great things like Woofstock (a dog friendly day festival on May 28th), and Rum in Brum on June 9th and 10th.

This is a quick post on the latter of those because a) I love the Prince and b) those Saturday day tickets aren’t going to pay for themselves. We went last year and it was easily in my top twenty-seven Saturday day time drinking sessions of the year. There were hundreds, maybe even millions, of rums to sample, and drinking tokens to purchase the ones you liked best. There was killer street food to purchase with your food tokens and a rum cocktail menu from the tiki bar. The sun blazed down and I may have shed a tear when the steelpan band played UB40’s ‘Kingston Town’. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a man dancing on the table wearing just a Bundaberg costume. He was absolutely not behaving in any way that was not promoting sensible drinking.

It’s back this year, bigger than ever they say. Which, if my maths is correct, means that there will be a billion or so rums to sample. They have jerk streetfood, and burrito streetfood and something called Vegan, which I believe to be a disease that slowly kills any personality you may have. The sun will 100% be possibly shining. I’m guessing that the steelpan band will back and willing to take a punt on them not churning out the greatest hits of Radiohead. I’m reliably informed by General Dictator Larry that if you have an Independent Birmingham card you get a whole £5 extra in drinks tokens for your ticket purchasing buck. There will be every type of rum, each to sample as much as your greedy chops can handle. And it will be glorious. Loads of merry people all having a great time together. You should go. I’ll be there too, but please don’t let that put you off.

Get tickets for this year’s Rum in Brum here

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Azurmendi, Bilbao

We first spotted Azurmendi perched high upon a hill as our taxi roared down the motorway. It briefly disappears as we swing left to disembark the quicker roads and then rapidly grows in size again as we go around the roundabout up a very steep hill and up to the top, where the gigantic glass building stands proudly at the top. We enter the leafy reception and are immediately given a glass each of the txakoli they grow on their own vineyards at the rear, followed by a picnic basket that contains the first four courses. It would be thirty-five minutes and ten small courses from here before we sit down in the restaurant. Azurmendi don’t do things the normal way.

That picnic basket is Chapter 1, the first of four chapters that takes four hours from start to finish. Inside is a seafood broth, a dainty brioche burger with anchovy and smoked eel, and a cider parfait with chorizo crumb. What amazes me is the intensity of the flavours; everything is ramped up to the maximum it can be, the burger having the flavour of barbequed fish despite any direct heat being applied to any of the filling. My favourite is a false peanut, with uncompromisingly rich filling of foie gras and peanut, before being finished with mushroom powder. It is very clever.

From here we are taken into the kitchen for the next instalment. A chicken consommé greets us, the strong, clean chicken flavour lifted with a little sherry. Whilst we are drinking this an egg yolk has a little removed by syringe and then replaced with a hot truffle reduction that cooks the yolk from the inside out. A truffled egg yolk. Absolute filth. I am demanding this on every breakfast from now. The third chapter takes us into the greenhouse for four more nibbles, a glass of fermented apple juice, which we know of course to be cider, then the most remarkable cornet of tomato, red pepper and garlic that nods at the strident flavours of Spain. We get alchemy in a curd that transitions from water to a yogurt-like state in front of our very eyes. The fireworks are reserved for the final nibble; a caiprinha cocktail which explodes in the mouth from the thinnest of chocolate spheres. The cachaça spirit has been replaced with local txakoli which seems to lengthen the sugar and lime notes. Talk to Claire about our meal here and this is the first thing she will mention. Had there been more attached to the miniature tree she would have picked them up and made a run for the door. It’s the Macclesfield girl in her.

After these ten pretty astounding nibbles we get led to our table. The dining room is huge, the tables well distanced from one another. The art is to the left of us; the glass wall that looks out on to the Basque countryside, serving as a constant remainder of the environment and restaurant’s attachment to it. Indeed, for all of the modernist tricks that the kitchen applies here, the overwhelming feel was that of one of community; the use of local wine, of Basque traditions such as the chicken consommé, of local ciders, and a wider appreciation of the national flavours like in that cornet. There would be many, many more references throughout the remainder of the meal.

Four more nibbles arrive together before they move on to the tasting menu. The lightest of foie gras served within a followed-out lime, topped with a syrup of the citrus that works as a brilliant foil for the rich liver. There is a beignet of spider crab, and mushrooms coated in praline that attract the mushroom and liquorice powder they lay on. Finally we get txakoli infused with sea herbs that takes on a fresh dimension. We order a bottle of txakoli. It turns out that I like txakoli.

Still with me? Good. We’ll get started properly now. The first course is the only one I didn’t love, but only because I don’t like the texture of poached oysters. The mollusc is a beast, the biggest I’ve seen, with a vibrant herb oil, herb emulsion, a little apple, and a tempura of oyster topped with oyster leaf lurking in the back. This feels wasted on me and I should have swapped out like Claire did. Loved the tempura oyster though, which is meaty and still bursting with the taste of the sea.

Following this is sea urchin in various forms. Within the ceramic shell is cooked and raw sea urchin, tasting like the most pungent of brown crab meat, topped with a foam of you guessed it, sea urchin. On the side is a tilted glass of Bloody Mar, their take on a Bloody Mary, with more sea urchin, tabasco, Worcester sauce, and tomato juice. It shouldn’t work, yet it does, the urchin flavour working perfectly in harmony with the spice which sticks around for the various layers within the pot. If sea urchin isn’t your thing this will not be for you, but I liked it, it has an elegance about it and flavours that aren’t afraid of standing up for themselves.

A little veloute of asparagus is next, the flavours clean and defined with a dice of asparagus at the base. Even better is the ‘pil-pil’ of vine asparagus it is served with, which we are told to eat with our hands. The tangle of vegetable has been cooked with garlic and ancho chilli so that the heat grabs from the second it enters the mouth. Together with the veloute this course is nothing short of exceptional. The lobster which follows is beautiful, the tail meat centre to the bowl with just a glossy sauce American and pickled onions for company. It is topped tableside with a coffee butter that adds a subtle depth and richness to a dish that riffs lightly on acidity. The lobster is the best I have ever eaten, but does that really surprise you? By now I’m sold, hook, line, and sinker.

Beans and assorted meats are a playful take on the homely cooking within the Basque region. The beans have been produced using spherification, the gel membranes each releasing a different flavour note when popped in the mouth. Also in the bowl is a rich sauce, thickened, I think, with a little pigs blood. A cube of slowly braised pork sits behind it. I have no idea what the kitchen intended with this, though in my eyes it was the taste of Morcilla when all was combined. Rich and elegant, with meat and a little spice. This was an incredible course that used modern techniques to its full advantage.

We get the Red Mullet in three servings. The first a fritter of the fish innards which was a little too pokey in taste for even me. The second the most perfect piece of slightly smoked melt-in-the-mouth sashimi with charred edges and opaque centre. The last is a fillet, pan fried to a crisp skin on a circular of rich herb emulsion and stewed wheat. On top of the fish is a little potato soufflé filled with another puree of parsley. It is perfection in simplicity.

Our final soiree in the savoury section leaves me gobsmacked. I’ve done the three star Michelin thing before, I know how they like to flash their expensive cuts of meat, so to serve me a faggot as a main takes bigger balls than those I’m looking at on the plate. The faggots are made from the sweetbread of the pig, and are rich and delicate, glazed in a sauce so heavily reduced I could almost see my face in its sheen. With this are liquid balls of Idiazabel (a local sheeps milk cheese) that explode in the mouth, and cubes of salt baked turnip. It is one of the most remarkable dishes I have ever eaten, the cheese a brilliant partner to the sweetbread faggot. For once words fail me in giving this the culinary blowjob it deserves.

Three desserts to go. First up is avocado and mango, a dish that I most feared when looking at the menu. It is a delight; arguably the best of the trio. The success lies in the use of lime acidity and ancho chilli to sharpen the plate. Avocado puree is warming and spicy, with mango parfait and meringues. There is a lime cream and granita, and white chocolate leaf-shaped shards. It eats so well. Following this is red berries as various purees, the most decadent of sorbets, as well as fresh and frozen. A white chocolate sorbet and shards coated in basil join it along with a crème of something I cant recall. On the side is a bit of fun; a raspberry ice cream, aerated and frozen that disappears in the mouth leaving nothing but the taste of fruit. Drink was getting the better of me by this point so apologies for the hazy detail, but the overriding memory is of the unbelievable flavour of the fruit. With this we drink the most astonishing dessert wine I have ever tried; an iced cider which we dare not ask the price of such is its quality, and later appears on the bill for five euro a glass. Take that, extortionate UK wine prices. I know they said its not available on the consumer market, but if anyone is reading this that can source me the Malus Mama please hit me up. I could do without the air fares to have another glass.

The last dessert was possibly the one time the kitchen witchcraft didn’t pay off to its full potential. A forest scene has a chocolate leaf and twig protruding from black olive soil, with a sweetened ice cream of the sheep milk cheese from earlier and chocolate truffles. The flavours work great but the proportions are slightly out; there is too much of the soil which becomes claggy in the mouth without the moisture from the ice cream that soon runs out. We take coffee with the petit fours, which fold from a box that reveals eight gems including jellies, macaroons, and chocolates. We have these boxed up to take home, which make a wonderful breakfast the following morning. The red wine chocolate even helped ease my hangover.

This, of course, does not come cheap. The tasting menu comes in at 230 Euro each, and I’ll spare you the total bill that includes two good bottles of wine, and glasses of dessert wine to boot. Though to put it in perspective our total bill is well under half of a friend who ate in a Parisian three star around the same time, so I personally consider it value. It’s inevitable with longer tastings that there are going to be dishes you are less keen on, yet it was clear that the technique on show throughout was of the highest order. The four hours we enjoyed at Azurmendi are the absolute pinnacle of my culinary journey thus far, a carefully crafted experience that pulls in and out of their environment. My handful of other three star experiences were blown completely out of the water. If, like me, you enjoy the theatre of eating, modern techniques, and the most perfect of meals, Azurmendi may also be your idea of the best restaurant in the world.

10/10

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The Ivy, Birmingham

I, like many others, have an Ivy story. I went about fifteen years ago, coerced into one of those too-late-for-lunch-too-early-for-dinner slots that they stick non important folk in. If I recall correctly one of the blokes from Steps was there, chin raised, desperate to be noticed. I had Bang Bang chicken to start, shepherds pie to follow, a decent bottle of white because I wasn’t red ready back then. It was nice, maybe not worth the £150 bill which at that point was my most expensive meal to date. Oh, how times have changed with my restaurant expenditure. The flagship Ivy remains a West End institution, pulling in the crowds with the lure of celebrity and the most accessible of menus.

Common sense dictated that this is a formula that should be rolled out, which, after 24 other sites across the country finally sees them bringing their brasserie format to Birmingham. The dining room is a beauty; stained glass lines the facade with deep booth seating in a multitude of tasteful shades. Artwork arcs back to Picasso’s more progressive work in the 20’s, an era that fits the overall theme of Art Deco. It’s clearly working; on the mid-week evening we dine they are turning tables away.

Our meal warrants that success; it works because it’s accessible, fairly priced and has an eye for detail that belays its reputation as a chain. A salad of crispy duck has Asian accents throughout. Everything has purpose, from toasted cashews for texture to cubes of melon for relief. All of it is smartly dressed with just enough acidity and heat. It feels like a bargain at £7.95. Likewise new season asparagus with a mozzarella so rich it could pass as burrata, broad beans, and a verdant pesto. The ingredients are treated with respect. That goes a long way in my world.

A whole sea bass is accurately timed, though the delicate fish is given a bit of a bashing by the big hitting flavours of fennel, olives and capers. The poor thing never stood a chance; you can tell by the shocked look in his eyes. And then there’s more duck, this time in an aromatic Thai style curry that could pass muster in many of the cities oriental restaurants. There’s flavours of galangal, lemongrass and the lurking back note of chilli. The fifteen quid this costs includes rice; a price that seems very fair to me.

As tempted as I am to bow to the Instagram crowd and order the melting chocolate bomb for theatre, we opt against dessert. Naysayers will say it’s not the proper Ivy and they’ll be right, but I don’t believe there is a sustainable market for one which would be double the price of this. They’ll also no doubt say it’s another chain, which is absolute nonsense. The arrival of this Ivy has further enhanced the reputation of the city, filling a gap for consistent brasserie style food at a price point that isn’t going to break the bank. I’m glad that The Ivy group has made the step into Birmingham and I can see myself sat by those stained glass windows with a main course and glass of wine for many an evening to come.

8/10

I was invited to review The Ivy

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Wild Beer, Bristol

Now before I get on to the food at Wild Beer, I take full responsibility for the dismal lunch we had. Given the array of talent at Wapping Wharf you could put a blindfold on and find a cracking meal within one of the navy blue cargo containers, even on a Monday when the big hitters are mostly closed. Yet we were driven by the rarest of British finds: Sunshine. That’s right, we picked our lunch choice based on available chairs in the sunshine over where might actually be edible. The bill of £90 for a round of four drinks and food that I paid is entirely my fault. But my face does now have a lovely bronzed glow, so swings and roundabouts and all that.

The wait on the food this fateful Monday afternoon is one hour, a time they were extremely keen to emphasize in between messing the drinks order up. We keep the order simple; fish tacos, chicken tacos, calamari, a couple of sides. Everything is deep fried and as greasy as a door-to-door salesman. Everything is beige, both in colour and as a metaphor for the food.

After two failed deliveries to our table for food that others had ordered we get tacos. The better of two has a firm white fish (Pollock, I think) set to an Ike Turner level of batter, resting on shop brought tortilla and a smattering of undressed sweetcorn and beans. It’s pathetic but at least at it’s not the chicken, southern fried, a description that suits its appearance given that it looks like its been left at the bottom of the fryer for an age. The outside is burnt, the meat dry, but hey, we get more of those sweetcorn and beans! We joke that the kitchen has given up and just wants to be outside in the sun before concluding this is more than likely true. Chips are good, the hot sauce better. They are the saviours on this afternoon.

The sides fair worse. We have frickles of such girth the heat gets nowhere near the centre, with not enough of the liquor coming through. It’s just battered gherkin, which sounds like a component in the next evolution of a Scottish burger. They are very unpleasant. Fried cheese curds succeed in having a coating to cheese ratio highly in the favour of the former, with a ketchup style dip too competent ever to have come out the kitchen. The squid is so bouncy my adolescent girlfriend wants to play on it. I console myself with £3.50 measures of brilliant Cotswold gin. No one asks how the food is as the plates are removed.

Our fleeting visit is not a total disaster. On the way back to the car park we stop by Pizzarova to pick up a cheap pizza. Even cold, after three hours on the back seat of the car on the way home, it is a mile away from the shit we had for lunch. Nice elastic crust, good sourdough flavour, and good toppings. My friend who we visit tells me that the beers at Wild Beer are ace. My suggestion is simple; go for beers, bypass the kitchen and go elsewhere in Wapping Wharf for your dinner. Anywhere but here.

Wild Beer 2/10

Pizzarova 7/10

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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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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

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Simpsons, April 2018

Given the chance to treat a friend to their first Michelin starred meal, the choice of venue was an easy one. Simpsons has it all; a beautiful restaurant in lovely grounds, food that pushes on without the need to challenge, and importantly, as we are paying, a very affordable lunch offer at the weekends of three courses for £45.00. I couldn’t be more happy with our choice, they were on top form yet again, cooking cohesive flavours with flair and hints at wit that to me is closer to 2* than its present one in the Michelin guide. I make no excuses for my love of Simpsons. I have come on dozens of occasions over the last decade and long may that continue. It is my personal favourite in Birmingham. I’ll keep this brief as I not so long ago wrote about Simpsons here.

After the usual snacks and bread offering we move to a bowl with cubes of beef cheek, pickled onions, little pickled mushrooms, crowned with a flurry of deep fried mushrooms. Into this is poured a mushroom broth, thick and rich like a Tory backbencher, balanced out by the light acidity from the pickled veg. A disc of cured salmon follows, dotted with kolrabi puree and little balls of the same veg. We get another sauce poured tableside, this one a split buttermilk milk that has a lovely tang at the finish.

The main of chicken ate so well. The meat cooked just as I was taught at their cooking school, the perfect example of how to treat poultry. Cheers, Nathan. I think what makes the dish is the undercurrent of black garlic that adds a brooding quality to the plate. Combine that with salsify, cabbage, and a jus that just holds on to the fingertip and you have a dish that is singing with Springtime flavours. I reserve the best bit until the end; a nugget of thigh meat with the skin that cracks under the fork. A pre dessert of lemon curd and oats comes hidden under a drift of sorrel granite. It’s fresh if maybe not my favourite pre dessert I’ve eaten here – can we have the vodka jelly back please, chef?

Desserts today are tremendous spelt with a capital T if that wouldn’t already add to this posts grammatical error count. Fermented blackberries lay underneath skyr yogurt that somehow tastes of cream cheese. It eats, with the help of an almond crumb and a little squeeze of grapefruit, just like a cheesecake. Pretty astonishing. Likewise a carrot cake, sweet and cinnamon spicy, with a decadent praline and pecan ice cream. I want to say they’ve hidden the acidity this time around in the carrot gel which tasted faintly of orange to me, but I’m probably talking out of my arse. We finish on a textbook soufflé of rhubarb with a crumble topping into which a custard ice cream is nestled. The soufflé is one of the lightest I can recall eating, almost cloud-like in texture. It eats like a dream.

The bill for three with two bottles of wine and a glass of the sweeter stuff hits £80 per head, though it goes without saying that you could spend a lot less with a more modest drink spend. The lunch menu is a bargain, available on the weekend when the other starred restaurants offer only long tasting options. Afterwards we saunter a hundred steps or so to The Edgbaston, perch at the bar and drink some of the finest cocktails to be found anywhere. Two of Birmingham’s finest and almost the perfect afternoon. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

We arrive early at Bar Nestor, two hours early at 11am, and yet we’re not the first in mass (this being Spain there is no such thing as a queue). That particular honour belongs to the silver haired German lady with whom we communicate via Google translate, and a newlywed Canadian couple for who such technology is not required. We are all here for one reason only; to secure one of the fabled sixteen slices of tortilla that Nestor cooks at 1pm, and then again at 6pm. We are soon joined by an elderly Spanish man, then, around 11.30am, the shutters rise to waist height and we follow the others in scooping underneath and into the bar. It looks, unsurprisingly, just like the photos I’ve seen; mahogany and small, with a bar running down the right side. To the left is a singular table and a couple of stools, whilst every panelled wall has sports memorabilia personally signed to this tiny spot in the old town. Nestor himself is late fifties, his black hair now worn only around the perimeters of his head, and the capillaries on his nose those of a man who enjoys a glass of wine or five. He has warm eyes and a mouth that speaks only the necessities. He looks straight to me, asking how many of the tortilla I want and my name. I request two, an order that will become so common he eventually knows my name without asking. He tells us to be back at 1pm sharp. We do as we are told.

The cutting of that tortilla is something that I will remember almost as long as the taste of it. Sixteen uneven blocks, served with a solitary piece of baguette, and then passed to those who gave there morning to its making. It is still warm, dribbling egg yolk out via its sides on to the plate. In my experience very few dishes in life live up to the hype. This does. Maybe its the terroir, or the anticipation, but this is one of the very best things I have ever eaten, a shock even to me given that this is essentially made up of just eggs, potato, and onion. It is luscious and decadent, comforting and humble. We would be back many times for this, lunch and at dinner. On the last evening, when I ask Nestor what the secret is, he smiles and puts his hand over his heart. Others have said that it is the gently caramelised onion which sets it apart. I like to think there is more truth in the explanation of the old man.

They do other stuff here too. Well, three dishes precisely. Padron peppers are blistered and salty, whilst tomatoes are dressed simply in peppery olive oil, a good amount of salt, and the tiniest lick of vinegar. The latter is another dish that we would return to on other occasions, elbows resting on the bar with a glass of txakoli. They are stunning; firmly fleshed with tinges of green across the flesh, the simple accompaniment there only to enhance their flavour and then be mopped up with more of that baguette.

And then there is the steak from an eleven year old dairy cow. They don’t have many of these but ask and they will parade two raw sharing sized pieces for you to choose from. They take about an hour to arrive, my guess being a rough split of cooking and resting time, with the team making room for you at the bar to eat this. It comes smothered in salt, with ribbons of fat the colour of butter. The meat is rare, with the chew of a working beast that results in the deepest of bovine flavours. This is not for those who order a fillet on account of little jaw work, though it is essential steak eating for anyone with a remote interest in beef. The final jewels lay flat against the bone, the strips of these requiring a steady hand and sharp knife to prise away. It will ruin every steak you eat after this but it is worth it.

A similar piece of dairy cattle in a London restaurant will cost around £90, which, once service is included, will buy you two full meals at Bar Nestor. The steak above was 32 euros, the tortilla 2 euros each and the local wine less than that for a glass. It’s easy to see why Bar Nestor has garnered the mythical reputation that it has; whilst the rest of San Sebastian are exploring the culinary boundaries of pinxtos, they stick to the simple things here: the pick of the best local ingredients cooked simply with love. And whilst I am not saying that Bar Nestor is reason enough to book that flight to Bilbao and board the coach to San Sebastian, it absolutely should be a priority once you get here. You should start 11am sharp by getting in place for that tortilla.

9/10

I’m nominated for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards and would be grateful if you could spare a minute to vote for me.

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Itihaas, Birmingham

Without wishing to generalise or resort to stereotype, Indians do service better than any other country. Maybe it’s cultural, or even driven by its colonial history where their position in society meant they served as a secondary nature, but the very basic level is elevated when in, or provided by, those from the sub-continent. My girlfriend saw this first-hand in India when staying at the majestic Taj hotel in Mumbai last November. Here a five star hotel is built around amenities; valet parking, afternoon tea, and then somewhere to work it off afterwards. At the Taj they would fold and recoil phone chargers, and turn down bed sheets whilst they were out for dinner. She was even able to send the concierge out for some cheap brandy I requested that she couldn’t be arsed to look for herself. You try going into The Connaught and asking them to fetch you some cheap brandy; they’ll have you downstairs in the bar drinking the very expensive stuff as a compromise.

Some of the very best service I think I’ve ever received in this mighty fine town was last week at Itihaas. It was hammering down outside when we pass into the entrance, the team quick to remove coats and offer towels to dry us off. And then we’re seated in chairs so deep they could be Leonard Cohen lyrics and offered champagne whilst poppadum arrive, whilst the team buzz around a dining room far too busy to be an Indian restaurant on a Monday evening. And then dishes arrive at a good pace and wine is topped up immaculately. Pitched well above casual and more towards those bestowed with accolades, they succeeded in that personal level of service that makes a diner feel special. Even when they’ve been soaked to the bone coming to eat here after an awful day in the office.

But what about the food, I don’t here you asking? It’s bloody good, probably the best of it’s too-expensive-for-a-casual-Balti-but-nice-enough-to-bring-the-parents category that it sits within. Soft shell crab pakora is the best soft shell dish I have eaten, with a crunchy spiced batter that avoids grease and never loses the flavour of the crustacean. Lamb tikka is remarkable; the quality of the fillet meat and the length of the marinade resulting in chunks of so tender they require no chewing. Both of these are outstanding but for me its the scallops that take the starters. Accurately seared to an opaque centre, the light curried dressing has bags of acidity and garlic, with whole bullet chillies for those who like a challenge. I do. Three starters of the highest order. We speak only in approving nods and doe eyes.

This being a night organised by the PR company behind the restaurant we are being fed plentifully and without choice, so the next two courses would not have been ordered by me usually on account of zero meat. Soy tikka masala is a clear riff on the nations favourite dish, the soy protein a substitute favoured by those who make their diet the first conversational piece. I love the spicy gravy but the texture of soy is one that I cannot get on board with, despite its obvious benefits. And you don’t need to because they have the Makhani Paneer, which I am calling one of the cities great vegetarian dishes. The homemade paneer is deliberately cooked without colour, allowing the creamy curry to star front of stage. It’s rich and buttery with a backnote of tang that stops it becoming too much until you soak it up with a truffle oil and poppy seed naan. This absolute genius addition of truffle oil works brilliantly when in the restrained environment of a naan, less so when applied liberally throughout the rice already laden of wild mushrooms. Too much luxury can be a bad thing occasionally. Just take the paneer curry with the truffle oil naan and order a plain pilau rice. Thank me after you’ve wiped the dish clean.

We also get a lamb shank, braised until the bone comes away from the protein with a singular tug, in a gravy style sauce that has the soul of cooking juices. Running low, I request a little more bread to protect my fingers as I tug away at the last of the meat, to which they produce a roomali roti. My favourite! It’s as if they’ve read my mind. Or this blog. The bread is perfect, almost transparent thin layers that collapse upon themselves like the English cricket team’s lower order, but this is all about the lamb which is delicate in texture and robust in flavour.

Dessert comes in the way of two courses; up first is a pistachio rasmali, a dish I tend to care little for, even with the metallic tang of saffron livening up the milk that moats around the sponge. I have a lot more time for the deep fried samosa filled with molten chocolate and coconut. Naughty, naughty, very naughty. The pastry is thin, the centre liquid. It goes very well with the almond kulfi drenched in bourbon. I don’t normally like kulfi. Maybe booze was the answer all along.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think for a second that the specially planned menu with generous amounts of wine and a brandy nightcap isn’t a conscious effort from the restaurant to show off, but frankly, it worked. And my eye was firmly on the table of city workers behind us who received the same level of brilliant service despite being heavily under the influence. Everyone gets the same brilliant service, its just that most have a bill to settle at the end. And that bill is worth it; from beginning to end it’s total class, with smart Indian cooking using some very good ingredients. As a city Birmingham does Indian food better than all others. Itihaas is right at the top of that pile.

8/10

I was invited to dine here on a complimentary basis

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The Square Peg, Birmingham

In hindsight, asking Twitter to choose my dinner via a poll was a teeny bit stupid. For a while it looked they may do the good deed and send me to Folium, but no, right at the end there was a surge for The Square Peg, a Wetherspoons of local legend for all of the wrong reasons. I hadn’t been in here for maybe twelve years and if anything it’s succeeded in getting worse. The one time I leave my chair in the stale smelling room is to visit the gents. There I find no lock on the cubicle, the loo roll on the floor in a puddle of piss and an empty coke bag, not that I have any idea what one of those looks like. I decide to not to dump in this dump and hold it in. Back out in the pub and it’s thriving, arguably as busy as anywhere in the city. There are young people enjoying cheap booze, old people enjoying cheap booze and families eating, though whether you eat here for enjoyment or necessity is debatable.

With Eau de Blàgger running through my veins, I conjure a plan to eat as much as possible for free whilst allowing the Twitter Twats to have a little more fun. The Wetherspoon app is one of those things that was built to be abused. Intended as a waiter service to order food and beverages without leaving the table, it has become misused by those who can send menu oddities, like a bowl of peas, to tables without ever being near the pub. I tell Twitter that I am in the pub, give them my table number and challenge them to send whatever food and drink they wanted.

I get those peas, the first to arrive along with a shot of Apple Sourz, swiftly followed by a pint of piss in a Carling glass. The peas are tragic, lifeless and devoid of any taste or texture. These are followed by halloumi, a dish I order from the app because I assume 75 more portions of peas are to appear. Shock alert: it’s actually edible. Really salty halloumi charred on both sides with a sweet chilli dip. I’d quite gladly eat it again, though next time I’d request that the dead salad be given a proper burial instead of being left on the side of my plate to rot.

Also edible was the chips in curry sauce, so thank you to whoever sent that. Fat bits of potato in a slightly Chinesey sauce that is better than my local Chinese. Yes, it may be a little heavy and greasy but so is the woman on the table behind me. We can let that slip, we’re in a ‘spoons, remember. One thing I never want to see again is the child’s portion of chilli con carne that arrives with an Archers and coke. I know who sent this and as much as I want to say it’s better than Low’n’Slows (you absolute bastard), I can’t. This is all blunt tomato notes and bitterness. Two forkfuls and I’m done. A non-alcoholic beer arrives. I laugh at first and then wish the prick who sent me this an ingrown toe nail.

By now the incredibly charming bloke who is serving me is in on the act and Wetherspoons Birmingham are following me on Twitter. Another shot arrives. Very good. And then some very nice strawberry ice lollies with a congealed semen dip that the menu lists as yogurt. I know congealed semen when I taste it, how do you think I pay for all of these fancy meals? The ice lollies are followed by a fried egg. Which genius knew that I always eat a fried egg after a dessert? My girlfriend the evil fuck. The egg is fine, free range I think, and totally devoid of seasoning.

Another pint of piss in a Carling glass turns up with burgers following soon afterwards. The beef one first with a gin and tonic (thanks Holly). It’s okay, dense and under-seasoned; I’ve certainly eaten worse at establishments with far bigger reputations. I draw the line at the buttermilk chicken which is nothing of the sort. The reformed meat is cotton wool in texture, the outer coating a sweetened saw dust. I tell the chap who serves all of these to stop any future orders. I’m done, the mutant chicken thing has finished me off.

By now I’m quite pissed and starting to enjoy the slightly threatening atmosphere. It’s loud and people are genuinely enjoying themselves. The Square Peg might be a little bit dirty but it is also very cheap and accessible; nobody, apart from this grumpy bastard, comes here with any preconceptions, they come because the drinks are affordable, the beers well kept, and the food basic and filling. Would I personally come here by choice? No. But I would if I had to and I could probably eat here too, though I’d keep it strictly vegetarian. Wetherspoons like this are a national institution and I am totally fine with them continuing to serve those who visit them. The Square Peg ain’t that bad at all, it just ain’t that good either.

4/10

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