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.

3/10

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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.

Raja Monkey, Hall Green

I’ll keep this post nice and short, just like Paul, my dining companion on this evening. Just last week, Michelin starred chef and fellow Moseleyite, Brad Carter, was interviewed by the Good Food Guide about his favourite places to eat in Birmingham, whereupon he stated that Raja Monkey was his ‘best place for dinner’. I’m going to stop there and call it quits. Brad has the palate of a fine artist, making mine look like etch-a-sketch in comparison. I’ll be honest, given the choice of Brad’s recommendation or reading my badly put together, slightly angry, and marginally tainted opinion, you should 100% switch off this crap, Google the piece I’m talking about and take his word about going. Do as he says. The End. It was a pleasure knowing you.

Still there? WHY?! Can you not take instruction? You are worse than my hamster. Should you want my opinion, I am going to echo that of Mr Moseley Michelin Man. Raja Monkey is a brilliant little place in a spot worth travelling to, occupying a little crevice in the Indian dining scene quite unlike anywhere else. They do curries and dosa, and all encompassing thali. It’s the spirit of roadside India, those cheap dinner stop-off joints filled with locals and stale, humid air. Here we are in Hall Green, opposite Waitrose, sat in deep leather booths whilst others wait for spaces to come available in a packed dining room. I’d much rather be here, if only for the air conditioning.

I was in love from the first mouthful. It was the lime pickle which got me, blood red and aggressive. It has acidity at the front, lingering heat at the back. It takes considerable effort and skill to make pickle this good, not buy it in a jar like ever other Indian restaurant in the city. The mango chutney, too, with a back note of clove and onion seed, was impressive. I use this to spoon into a dosa filled with potato, mustard seed and curry leaf. The savoury pancake is delicate, the filling generous. I really like the punchy tomato chutney, less so the coconut one. It is as good a dosa as I have eaten anywhere, India included. Opposite me Paul is destroying a mixed fish starter. I don’t try it so we’ll have to take his past career as Birmingham Mail’s food critic as word that it is good. If you’ve read his previous work I’ll leave that decision up to you.

I do get to try his Chicken Bhuna and when I say ‘try’ I really mean finish off the third that he has left and work the last of the sauce out of the crevices with a roti. The curry is drier in style than I expect, fragrant with garam masala, and rich with the base of onions took well past the point of colouring. It is special but nothing compared to my thali. Thali, for those who have fell upon this blog by mistake and still order chicken tikka masala, is a complete meal on a tray. The components within the little pots is changeable, but this has paratha for bread, rice, an onion and tomato salad that zings with light pickling liquor, a dhal, vegetable dish, and curry. My curry is a chicken korma, a dish that Brits have destroyed by labelling it as the not spicy option in the post-pub curry houses. This is how it should be; a gravy base not destroyed by coconut, comforting and perfumed by cardamom. The meat has taken on the curry flavour, a hard boiled egg adding further richness. I like it, but it is the vegetable dish that amazes me. Whoever can take red kidney beans and elevate them to a rich, smoky dish is a magician. I bet they have beanstalks in their back garden. I’d gladly sell my cow to get my hands on them.

We skip dessert because there is no room at the inn for any more. Paul picks up the bill and we finish off our beers and idle gossip. My dining companion is clearly a huge fan, but let’s be real about it, he has skin in the game. Me, I owe it nothing other than more frequent visits to eat all of the menu. And I will. Raja Monkey is but three miles from our home, conveniently over the road from where we like to shop. It’s too good to ignore, a true taste of the no-frills dining in India. It shakes its thang better than any of its kind in Birmingham. That bloke from Carters is right, but then I did tell you that right at the beginning.

9/10

I did not see the bill on this occasion.

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Pho, Grand Central, Birmingham

For a country that gets as hot as Vietnam does, Pho really is a curious national dish for them to have. It is, when you strip it back, a stock soup and noodles. Yes you can add chillies to give it fire, finish it with the sour crash of lime juice, or freshen it up with numerous herbs, but what lies at the heart is a dish as consoling as Jewish chicken soup with matzo, and as comforting as Heinz cream of tomato soup with crusty bread. Eating Pho in Vietnam is visceral, a cheap affair that usually involves tiny plastic chairs at roadside. The humidity and air pollution pushes the sweat out though the pores of the skin, the hydration replacement a cheap bottle of Saigon beer. You want nourishing; need it even. The environment demands it.

It is only when you take it out of natural habitat that you see it in all its glory. Pho is the Lego of stock soups; you can build it as you please. In Vietnam I added everything, whereas now I tailor it to the seasons. Always herbs and beansprouts, more lime and fish sauce the hotter it gets, more chilli sauce and oil to clear the cold from my bones. As a dish it is more versatile than Gareth Barry; it’s just a question of playing it in the right position from game-to-game. I think I’ve nailed it.

My point of call is always its namesake. There are other places, but they tend to deploy the Asian route of cooking the protein until the point it becomes a bushtucker trial, as opposed to dinner. Here the only thing that is anglicised is the meat, which is decent in quality and spared of boiling point. Today my airways call for a regional variation from the Imperial city of Hue. It has chicken stock that tastes of chicken (a rarity of late), with delicately cooked chicken, and noodles that have bounce and bite. The dish is stained red with large quantities of chilli oil that sends it scuttling northwards into the Sichuan region of China. It is a bloody good dinner. As good as stock and noodles and meat gets in this city, a statement that will upset those who believe that chains can never be as good as independents. Rubbish. Good and bad exist in both sectors of the restaurant industry, and Pho is firmly in the former category.

Now prior to this we had greaseless spring rolls that with pork and veg, and gobstopper sized deep fried balls of pork and lemongrass that are just about gummy enough to remind me of Hoi An. How I miss you, Hoi An. And then, whilst I am elbow deep in the pho, my lovely girlfriend is smashing through fried noodles with chicken and prawns. It tastes authentic. I could almost be in Vietnam if it wasn’t for the train announcements happening on the level below. And the cold wind howling through the door. Very nearly Vietnam.

Before I get to dessert, a word on my alcoholic tendencies. Being a day of the week, I get stuck into the booze. The pick is the martini/Vietnamese coffee hybrid cocktail that has me all weak in the knees, though its lovely to have Saigon beer and Beer Lao so readily available. Dessert is banana fritters with honey and ginger ice cream. The batter is sturdy so that the fruit inside has a chance to cook through, the ice cream rich and sweet. It is a great way to finish a meal.

Now my adoration to the country of origin means I eat Pho more than the next man, and I come here a lot. I come because the service is sharp and the food consistent. It allows me to dip in and out of my favourite country in the world. It’s not perfect, but then neither is Vietnam. Pho as a chain get it; they take the memories of Vietnam and put them in one spot; the noodle soups and the wok dishes, the Vietnamese coffee thickened with condensed milk, those crisp beers that work so well under the sun. I’m a fan. They have a product that very clearly works.

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House of The Rising Sun, Shrewsbury

The name of a restaurant has been the ruin of many a poor boy. You want it memorable and easily searched, but not bad taste or plain stupid. Soho’s Flavour Bastard may possibly be a great restaurant but it hasn’t made life easy for itself. Sexy Fish in the same city is just plain ridiculous (fish can’t be sexy. Apart from Michael Fish, the irresistible stud muffin). A Welsh friend told me about a Chinese restaurant in his village which was called Chinky Garden that thankfully changed names when it changed owners. At least the above names are memorable. Some are just instantly forgettable, others impossible to search. Shrewsbury’s House of The Rising Sun is the latter. Just try Googling it yourself – all that comes up is one of the most iconic songs of all time. A week on from eating there it’s just dawned on me that the name is a reference to the Japanese influence on the menu, but even so. Only an absolute Animal would have the balls to do it.

Inside the room is dimly lit and smart, as much a venue for the evening as the wet and cold lunch we dine on. The menu is vast, mostly nodding towards Asia with the occasional fleck of Mediterranea. Given that the dinner we were en route to was twenty or so courses, we keep it relatively light and order from the small plates section. And chips. Wherever I am I in the world a lunchtime must include chips. Bread is the first thing to arrive, fat wedges with a tray of olive oil and two vinegars; balsamic and white wine. There is a small roundel of butter from a producer that I know is used in at least two Michelin starred restaurants. It is this attention to detail that counts.

That Asian influence is there with aubergine in tempura batter. The batter is dainty and greaseless, from the hands of a man who has travelled and obsesses of recreating tempura authentically. The lavender on the honey on the side is nice touch, the floral sweetness working well to lift the eggplant. Duck gyoza has gossamer thin crimped dumpling holding sweet duck meat. It’s textbook in delivery. These two bits are the highlight of our lunch.

Chorizo and cheese croquettes are crisp and generous for being full of the listed ingredients, though I happen to think a little mashed potato goes a long way to distributing the flavour with these things. The most complicated of the dishes ordered happened to be the only one that we didn’t finish. Scallops, pork belly, morcilla, and cherry. The main components are great, the scallop accurately cooked and the pig belly fantastic, it’s just the morcilla is gritty and loaded with salt and is not particularly pleasant when combined with the cherry gel. It’s okay because we have chips. Bloody lovely fat chips with bloody lovelier aoli so light I guess its been aerated. You can never go wrong with chips at lunch.

The bill works out at twenty quid a head with just water to drink, which seems a fair price. I enjoyed the House of The Rising Sun, the food leans towards the East and delivers with good technique. It’s made me want to go back and dig further in to the menu. Somewhere with such a large offering is never going to hit every mark, but the best dishes are very nice indeed.

7/10

The White Post, Rimpton

The detour to The White Post on the way from Devon was supposed to add an additional 45 minutes each side to our journey. Unfortunately for us, Google Maps is particularly shit at accounting for Biblical floods on narrow Somerset county lanes, in the same way that Noah was particularly shit at accounting for all the animals under the same circumstance (where’s the mention of Koalas on the ark, Noah? Or the Kangaroos whilst we’re at it). What started as a bit of rain ended up with us descended into a river between hedges, with water up the bonnet of the car and Claire screaming white noise about repair costs and flooded engines and very possibly shoes. I wasn’t listening. And then after we’ve eaten the rain turned to fog and the ground got all skiddy and a crash near Bristol rerouted us over the Downs where I honestly thought we may slip off the side and die. I portion part of this blame on God and part on Claire, who had far greater trouble finding the fog lights than she does my wallet. It took us five hours to get home, which totalled seven hours of driving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The White Post do the best Sunday roast I’ve ever eaten.

Now before I break down why it is the best, please know that I really don’t enjoy Sunday Roasts. I find them nothing more than stoic patriotism; all overcooked carbohydrates and blistered brown meat. It’s Nytol on a plate and I swear they must have been invented by disgruntled wives who would rather watch the husband snore on the sofa than surrender him back to the arms of the pub. And it’s not like I have never had good ones before. My Dad does things with pancake batter and beef fat that produce volcanic spews of Yorkshire pudding. A fine lady called Fran showed me the correct way to roast a chicken and my future mother-in-law makes the best roast potatoes I have ever eaten. Correction. Second best. Apologies, Lindsey.

Now back to The White Post, a pub so at ease in its skin, the only thing it is unsure of is the county it belongs to. It sits right on the border of Somerset and Dorset, on the top of the hill with views of green and pleasant lands. When it is not pissing it down this part of the world really is beautiful. The pub itself is fully functioning; there is a bar with stools and a patio with benches if you only want a pint. The menu has one eye on feeding and then other firmly on impressing; there is salt chamber beef and sugar pit pork. Cous cous is Israeli, presumably because they also know a thing or two about questionable borders.

The first edible thing to arrive at table sets the expectations sky high. A skein of carrot slithers, fried to a golden bhaji crust, and sat in a puddle of soured cream. To this was poured a carrot soup as orange as Donald Trump and almost as thick. The soup succeeded in tasting only of the vegetable, the bhaji spice gently lifting it. Opposite me was liver parfait, textbook in execution and light in texture, studded with cubes of pear, gingerbread, and grains. There is a fat slice of brioche to smear it on and an unripe tomato chutney to stop it all getting a bit sweet. Both starters remind me of the first time I ate at The Hand & Flowers, when I realised that is possible to cook wholesome food with finesse. They do that with aplomb here.

And now the roast. They do not mess around when it comes to the roast. You order it and they bring everything on a board. Between the two of us we get slices of chicken breast and a leg each, the most perfect pork loin with shards of crackling, and lamb leg, pink and properly rested. There are potatoes cooked in beef fat with enough brittle edges to pummel with, parsnips and carrots roasted until the natural sugars caramelise and I start to weep, and giant Yorkshire puddings that are as good as any I’ve eaten outside my Dad’s. Apple and Horseradish sauces. A massive jug of gravy that tastes of animal. On the side is braised red cabbage and another bowl with cauliflower and broccoli cheese that could probably do with leaving the broccoli out on. It is everything that a Sunday roast should be but never is. It is a triumph to sourcing and to seasoning, to the virtues of an oven over a sous vide machine. We pile everything on to our plates and wonder how we will finish it. We do. It is remarkable.

Dessert divides us. I like the notes of anise and cinnamon in the spiced brulee, but Claire finds it a bit full-on. Its left to me to smash through the torched sugar and tip in the raisin ice cream. A cookie feels a little superfluous and unwarranted, though it does offer another welcome texture. I finish it. Of course I do, its delicious, but I wonder if the same rooted love is there for pastry as it across the savoury courses.


The bill, with a couple of boozy drinks for the passenger and a soft drink for the driver, is an absurdly low sixty quid. I felt almost embarrassed to pay it until they told us that they do a 10 course taster menu with overnight stay in the rooms above for two people for only an additional ton on top of that. Maybe its just this part of the world that wants to wants to be generous at lunch time, but it’s a welcome change from home where the best roast costs the same amount for half the size and a meal of similar quality would be double. It’s wonderful here, the passion is clear to see from the team, the love for food transcending on to the plate. The future is very bright for The White Post and I can’t wait to return when the drive there and home becomes a little less eventful.

9/10

The Horseshoe, Hall Green

The plate on which I portioned my half of the starter now resembles a Jackson Pollock painting; a drunken blend of vivid mint yogurt and a crimson chilli sauce that has the background funk of molasses and tamarind. The platter, once sizzling, is now a luke warm graveyard of bones. We have left nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch. The waitress, a young and affable lady in her early twenties, asks how it was, to which I respond with a simple and concise ‘excellent’. She is pleased, like she had cooked it herself, and goes on to tell us how the new menu for the refit centred around creating this mixed grill to be as good as it can be. She goes into details about the different marinades they trialled for the three types of tikka, and how the lamb chops cooking time was constantly tweaked. It is a level of attention that I was not expecting, yet alone to hear of in such detail from the staff. Frankly, I am impressed. Welcome to The Horseshoe version 2.0.

It is still The Horseshoe, I just added to the version 2.0 bit on the end to make it sound like a Hollywood movie. They’ve sharpened up the lines of the old interior. They’ve tweaked the menu to give it a more Desi pub feel. And they still offer a European menu which is sent back as soon as it is offered on account of the kitchen team looking more Mumbai than Milan. I blame the local community for this who clearly cannot accept that a pub which used to do pub food badly can now exist in the same bricks and mortar under a different cuisine. Would you ever go into a Fish and Chip shop and ask for Nasi Goreng? Exactly. If you come here and complain about the state of your carbonara, you’re an idiot and you only have yourself to blame.

That mixed grill starts and pretty much finishes us off. It’s gargantuan in size and only a starter to the optimistic or American amongst us. Three types of chicken tikka; one a conventional marinade, another sharp with the acidity of pickle, and one fiery with green chilli. Two types of mince kebab; one lamb, the other chicken. Both with personality, the latter packed with the hot stuff. Lamb chops that have the funk of a James Brown record only without the domestic violence. Chicken drumsticks. I think I’m done. No, sorry, I forgot the quarter of tandoori chicken, all communist in colour and scorched on the fringes. It’s all good; some, such as the chicken tikka, minced chicken kebab and tandoori chicken, are knock out brilliant. It is, right now as a collection, the best mixed grill in Birmingham. And I say that with the confidence of a man who has eaten many of recent in those considered as the premium.

We take a couple of curries and a dhal, because we are greedy and promiscuous with our choices. The tarka dhal gets ordered again, as does the methi chicken whose fenugreek flavour slowly reveals like a burlesque dancer. The punchy achari gosht is a little more one dimensional – we get heat and tomato and not much else with the tender cubes of lamb. From a bread basket is a good naan and roti, with a stellar paratha that’s all buttery wafer.

What we don’t finish they are happy to box up, and the following day we load the last of the lamb curry onto the leftover roti, with some yogurt which they correctly guess we would need. And there in a leftover box is all you need to know about The Horseshoe – they have their finger on the pulse and a firm eye on giving the customer what they want. And if you go looking for a mixed grill you really can’t do much better in Birmingham. Just go hungry.

8/10

The meal was complimentary and arranged by Delicious PR

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Leo’s Modern Greek Food Night, Pure Bar, Birmingham

If you’ve been watching Masterchef the Professionals you’ll probably recognise Leo Kattou of Simpsons restaurant. The softly spoken and impeccably mannered Greek-Cypriot from Coventry has a distinctive look that would be described as a Bear in some circles. A man bun, big beard and bigger smile about sums up that large, rotund head of his. Now before I proceed and the observant of my Twitter feed protest, I will disclose that I know Leo; I have feed him my beef ragu at 4am and he has beaten me at pool, so I was personally super chuffed to watch him reach the Semi-finals of Masterchef. He’s one of the good guys of the local scene and deserves all the success it brings.

Part of that increased public exposure is tonight’s sell-out pop-up for which we’ve shelled out £55 each for in advance for five courses with matching beers. The first course is familiar to anyone who has dined at Simpsons. Tapioca crackers dyed with squid ink and a splodge of the creamiest of Taramasalata to dredge through. Bread and butter is served at the same time. The crust is taut, the crumb loose. It’s a simple, yet effective start to the meal.

This wouldn’t be a homage to Greek food without halloumi. We have a Jenga stack of them fried to a Midas crisp, with a crown of olive tapenade, smoked aubergine purée and the nights only mis-step, a fat slice of tomato that tastes of very little. The rest is a composed collection of stuff that transports us from a rainy evening in Birmingham to far sunnier climes.

The fish course is a nod to his parents owning a chippy in Coventry of their own. It’s simple enough; panfried cod with tartar sauce and ‘chips’. The chips are really puffed potato pieces seasoned with salt and vinegar powder, the tartar closer to a bearnaise with chopped caper and fresh peas running through it. You could argue whether or not the peas needed to be there, which we did and I lost, but it’s a clever bit of cooking. Obvious enough to be a direct reference point, yet light enough to sit within a five course meal.

I know all is going to be well with the lamb kleftico main the second I slide the bone clean out of the shank. Ooh, Matron. The meat breaks down at the nudge of a fork, it’s inherent fatty qualities tempered by some smartly dressed bulgar wheat and kale. An anchovy emulsion seasons it all and is textbook in delivery. It’s hard to believe that this has come from the same man who messed up a lovage emulsion so badly on national telly. But he did, and it makes great viewing on iPlayer if you need a laugh.

Dessert is, to quote a food critic often found on Masterchef, a bunch of creamy things with some crispy things on top. But what creamy and crispy things they are. Layers of aerated honey and yogurt hide a sticky reduction of cherry juice, whilst shards of crisp filo stick out like Leo on a police line-up. This man understands that if the menu says cherry then we want physical cherries and they are here, boozily macerated in Kirsch and obscured under those creamy bits. A word now on the beer pairings from the manager Matt. Properly clever and well considered, these varied from using the less-than-obvious citrus back notes of an unfiltered lager, to the cherry beer that went with this course. Truly excellent work from top to bottom.

Now back to Leo. A few things were very obvious from the dinner. Firstly, his tenure at Simpsons has grounded him within their principles – respect for ingredients was obvious, in most cases simplicity was key. Somewhat more importantly for Leo it showed his true potential; a chef capable of taking the classic technique associated with the French and apply it to a more rustic Greek cuisine. He has shown a wit and playfulness, delivering plate after plate of well conceived and precisely cooked plates of food. He’s young and hungry. His role of senior sous at Simpsons is the perfect job for him at present, but every one of the packed-out dining room earmarked Leo Kattou as a star of the future.

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Kanteen, Digbeth

The area in and around The Custard Factory is one that seems to drift in and out of cultural importance in Birmingham. My Dad remembers when it really was a Custard Factory, worked in by his friends, when they would meet in The Old Crown for a pint and whatever lads in the 60’s did back then. My first introduction was thirty years afterwards, during the dingy hip hop nights at The Medicine Bar, and then again some years afterwards at the ill-fated Alfie Birds. Now, it feels rejuvenated and ready to take on the city again. Old Crown withstanding, Digbeth Dining Club started it, Ghetto Golf, Clink, and others have followed. Once again the area has a purpose. The Custard Factory is thriving.

It is at this point I pull back the curtains and reveal Kanteen in all it’s glory. And, believe me, it is glorious. It has purpose and a desire to feed the community at prices that work out to be no more than a Pret sandwich. The glass fronted space has depth on the inside. It is cosy and smart: almost homely. They do stuff on bread and stuff with eggs in the morning, then later on turn to hot stuff in boxes and cold stuff in boxes. There is a quiet emphasis on feeding all forms of diets and keeping it healthy. Please erase that last sentence from your mind. The food here has flavour in abundance and that is all that matters.

I come with Hubbie-to-be Greg, who arrives in a ravenous mood having recently only been surviving on Slimming World meals, whatever they may be. We order widely; two from the eggs section and three from the bread, which I can now confirm is three too many dishes for two people. I’ll get the disappointing dish out of the way first: A mass of kale on toast with torn bits of burrata and gremolata. Tearing apart the burrata into small pieces has lost the cheeses integrity – the oozy cream quality that is buried like treasure in the centre has disappeared on to the chopping board and the toast below. It’s nice, and the gremolata is impeccably made, but they should cut costs and move towards a mozzarella.

But everything else is bloody brilliant. Black pudding from Clonakilty has more earthy depths because of chopped hazlenuts, then quickly pulled back up by slices apple. Its an inspired bit of topping for wedge of sourdough toast. It has light and shade. It eats like a dream. Likewise the chorizo, red pepper and goats curd on toast. There is a reason this combination is everywhere; it works. This has poise and balance, with high quality chunks of chorizo. And it’s under a fiver. I told you it was great value.

Both of the dishes ordered from the egg section have them poached so that the whites have just set and the yolk becomes self-saucing. On one the egg sits on folds of Serrano ham with broken potatoes and tomato. Lemon aioli gives it an almost Benedicts edge. The other has merguez, the spiced lamb sausage native to Northern Africa, braised in a cassoulet style tomato sauce, with that gremolata returning to stop it all getting a bit rich. I can’t pick between the two, so have one for breakfast and the other for lunch. It’s brunch. You’re allowed to.

Replete, we take a peanut butter brownie home that Greg assures me was delicious, though could well still be hidden with his PS3 and porn stash in his forbidden items drawer. Walking back we discuss the merits of Kanteen for which there are many. What may read on paper as a collection of healthy things piled onto one another is in reality a finely tuned wholesome feed that just happens to also be good for you. Kanteen is something different to the current offering and something very good indeed.

8/10

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