Rebel Chicken, Jewellery Quarter

Let’s talk spit roasts. No, not the ones of a decade ago you saucy minxes, but those that I have now I am a lardy greying thirty-something year old. I am talking a juicy impaled bird, moist, with burnished skin and succulent flavour. And if your mind took you anywhere then other than chicken, then shame on you. I am here only to arouse you with food talk. You disgust me.

Rebel Chicken is the place that started life as Fowl Play, a rather catchy name until someone up north caught wind of foul play and forced them to change it. It is a slogan that still adorns the black outside wall in gloss against the matt bricks. Back inside and the upstairs restaurant has walls almost as distressed as I feel queuing for the singular toilet with my legs crossed. The room is pale blue and whites, light pouring through the large industrial windows befitting the buildings of these parts of town. It’s cosy and nice. Back outside and they have one of the city’s largest beer gardens. This is where we sit, with the sun blazing down on our faces with a cold beer and a smirk.

Now let’s get to the chicken, which if you stick to the rotisserie is really very good. Brined, steamed, stuck in a marinade overnight, and then impaled with a great big skewer up its arse and turned over cherry wood until the skin is crispy. It is a serious bit of chicken, not dry at all, the white meat almost as good as the brown. And that’s the thing with chicken; once you’ve gone brown, you’ll never go back around. Or something like that. The point is that it has flavour, loads of it. The technique is there and it pays off; it is a mile away from the usual rotisserie birds we are used to. And stump for the sauces whilst you’re at it, tightwad. The gravy is all thickened cooking juices, whilst the aioli packs a serious garlic punch.

Six months ago I would have been waxing lyrical about the wings, though now they suffer from serious competition. We try a platter of them in various sauces, which all get eaten somewhat less enthusiastically than the rotisserie bird. This isn’t a slight on them; they have a good amount of meat and taste as they should. It’s just the skin isn’t as crisp as I’d like and the wings could be better butchered. With a little detail they could be up there. And then there is the sides. Skip the chips that taste like they have come from a bag, order the sweet, blistered corn on the cob instead. And absolutely have the coleslaw sharpened with apple juice that goes perfectly well with the main event.

Eating here happens to have the plus point of being very affordable. A meal for two with a whole chicken, sweetcorn, two dips, and a couple of drinks will just about hit £30 between you. And I mention that precise order because it is the best way to enjoy Rebel Chicken. I can’t vouch for the buttermilk chicken burger, the wrap, or even the veggie burger, but I can tell you that if you stick to my advice you’ll leave full and happy. I applaud Rebel Chicken for sticking to one meat only, if they can bring the rest of the menu up to the same standard as the rotisserie they’ll have a mighty fine restaurant. But for now that spit roasted bird itself is reason to go.

7/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Baked in Brick, Digbeth

My dining history at Baked in Brick is a lengthy one that goes back some way. In Feb 2016, when his street food had not long started I made a point of saying you should keep a firm eye on him, noting ‘the man, the mini, and the food are going places’. Then, a year later at another pop-up after winning Best Street Food, I make the bold statement that ‘Lee’s cooking is right up there with the best’, finishing the piece with ‘the man I said was going places has truly arrived. And only an idiot would miss it’. I have featured him thrice more properly on my blog, a piece on Digbeth Dining Club, another on Sear & Smoke, and most recently at the Independent Birmingham Festival, watching the mini take more awards and the food evolve. Apologies for rehashing my old work like a desperate ‘ICYMI’ tweet, but I always knew it would be good because I know my shit when it comes to food. I’ve been there from the start, I haven’t rocked up at the trophy bus parade like a phoney Leicester City fan because he won a few things and became fashionable to like.

And here he is, less than four years from the first gigs at Digbeth Dining Club, in a permanent home in the Custard Factory. The dining room is instantly recognisable to anyone who has eaten the street food. The bar frontage to the left is the same wood that houses the tent counter, the steel girding above the same as the van that drove to Berlin to take the title. The far wall has clever nods to the backstory in vibrant artwork, with the red Mini Cooper peering out towards the diner. There had to be a mini. To the side is an enclosed terrace where we had our second meal here. The sun loves this space almost as much as I do.

Before I get on to the pizza that dominated our two visits, let’s be very clear; a pizzeria this is not. Yes, it has an oven intended for such things, but there is much more to the cooking than that. On our first visit we start with a tomato salad dotted with tapenade and croutons, on to which a textbook tomato essence is poured. It is all beautifully fresh, with just a hint of verdant basil to lift it all. Our second visit has us ordering a huge bulb of burrata with the same components minus the tomato essence; the burrata is creamy enough. It is so good that I forget to take a picture. What an awful blogger I am. No wonder they all hate me.

But those pizzas. Christ on a bike, they are so very good. I’m sticking my neck out now and saying these are Brum’s best on account of the basic principles; quality toppings, that leopard print scorched base and a pliable crust. Most conventional has folds of Serrano ham and shavings of Lincolnshire Poacher. Another has pork and fennel meatballs and a yellow pepper ketchup whose metallic notes sits perfectly between the sweet and the acidic. Most supreme is the white pizza, a daring blend of smoked chicken and boulangere potato on béchamel sauce. It’s carb on carb, a pool party in Carbella. It also tastes like a chicken and dauphinois potato sandwich. Absolute filth. We love it.

No visit to Baked in Brick could miss out the beef shin calzone, seemingly feed on steroids for how much it is grown on to the plate here. Once the crust has been cut into the tangle of beef and wild mushroom ragu has the deep flavour of wine from a lengthy marinade and a long peppery finish. A stilton dip on the side has a little cayenne pepper and lemon juice but is ultimately there to add more umami to a plate of food already drenched in it. I simply cant think of a better way to spend £11 right now. Try it and you’ll understand why it has won every award known to man including the Noble Peace Prize, the Pulitzer and The Golden Boot.

I am yet to get round to ordering dessert, mostly because I leave on both occasions with a box of crusts to chow on at home, though the present choice is a crème brulee or a brownie. A meal here will cost between £15-25 depending on how greedy you happen to be, which is astonishing value given the quality. And now the score, for which I have thought hard about. I think it sits somewhere between a nine and ten, but I’m going full marks for this reason; Baked In Brick is integral to the development of this city’s food scene, further proof that some of the finest eateries in Birmingham have stemmed from trading on the streets. And it is only going to get better when the chicken tikka roll rolls on to the menu alongside the slow cooked lamb. I have long been a fan of the food, though it is obvious he belongs within bricks and mortar. The Custard Factory, Digbeth and Birmingham have all just gained an absolute gem of a restaurant.

10/10 

Transport provided byA2B Radio Cars

Brasserie de l’Est, Lyon

Lyon, ‘the gut’ of France, is a city built on food. Almost every street is lined with boulangeries and bouchons; the air rife with the pungent stink of andouille sausage, of yeast, and the sweet perfume of praline. The culture of gastronomy lies embedded in every shelf lined with foie de canard, or gooey St Marcelin cheese. The Lyonnais understand food because they live it. It all makes for remarkable viewing. No one embodied the ethics of this city more than Paul Bocuse, the sadly departed leader of Nouvelle cuisine whose footprint can be seen everywhere. His three star restaurant sits on the outskirts of the city, whilst in the centre you’ll find his face painted onto a wall near Les Halles Bocusse, as well as a handful of restaurants, brasseries, and comptoirs bearing his name. He built this city. He built this city on Coq and bread rolls.

We have dinner at one of those brasseries on Bastille Day, a move that was forced when the terrace at Christian Têtedoie cancelled our reservation at the last second when the clouds rumbled louder than my gut. We head to de l’Est, conveniently near our accommodation in a now defunct Metro station. The initial signs are great; the place is buzzing with an open kitchen showcasing the brigade at work with their tall hats skimming the ceiling. We order a bottle of Morgon 2013 for a very fair 49 euro from a front of house team running between tables. If there is one thing I love about Lyon more than any other it is the price of wine from it’s surrounding areas.

It would be unfair of me to criticise any element of the meal without pointing out the positives, which are the ingredients, for which obvious care has been taken in the sourcing of. Both of the starters have parts that shine; the dark and sweet jamon on the pasta, and the parmesan and lettuce on the Caesar salad, but they are ultimately dull renditions. The pasta on the former is slightly overdone and lacking any texture, the chicken on the latter bland in comparison to the brilliant poultry we ate otherwise. When both of these are a fraction under 15 Euros these become unacceptable errors.

With dishes sold out quicker than a Tory government NHS, I end up with a vegetable tart for main. It feels like an afterthought, and knowing the French attitude to dietary needs it probably is. The proportions are out; too much of the too thick courgette, not enough of the rest. The delicate flavours of vegetables strangled by a massive pesto. The other main is the pluma cut of Iberico pork. The meat is medium rare and a little under-rested, but the big problem lies with the risotto which is underdone. That pork dish is 30 Euros, a price I mention because there is not much to love. We have two desserts; an assault on chocolate which is too much to finish and a rum baba that we do. The baba is very good, though not as delicate as one we had two nights prior for half the price.

The bill comes in at over 150 Euros, a price that is a third more than our favourite meal in Lyon and probably double what it was worth. As an aside, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse is less than a kilometre away and where we found ourselves each morning. Here you will find the very best of the local produce; perfect cheese from Mère Richard, the best in bread, handmade chocolates and macaroons, wines of the Côtes du Rhone and Beaujolais, and tricolour of Bresse chicken. It is a culinary heaven. It is here that the true legacy of Monsieur Bocuse lives, not in a very average brasserie trading off his name.

5/10

Pictures by Nosh and Breks

A Beginners Guide to Pintxos in San Sebastian

San Sebastian stole my heart. Not illegally and without my knowledge because that would leave me dead, but in a ‘how have I never been here before’ kinda way. It was the perfect fit for two people whose love of food means that clothes no longer fit perfectly. It has sun, beaches, and expensive shops. It has multiple multi-Michelin starred restaurants. Most importantly it has some of the finest produce anywhere in the world, with the most remarkable food and drink culture. The old town is rife with pintxos bars, where the local wine is two euros a glass and the counters are loaded with small plates costing a euro or two more. You meander from bar to bar, order a glass of wine and try a plate or one, or two, or seven. Pay at the end for what you ate and drank. Repeat. Every afternoon and again in the evening. It is intoxicating. I went prepared with a list of the dishes I had researched over several months and hardly scratched the surface. Here is what we found so you don’t have to do the same.

Borda Berri

The signature dish is orzo pasta risotto with a local sheep’s milk cheese. It is mac and cheese for the elegant, the only respite coming from a little parsley oil. Unbelievable stuff. We ate it five times in three days and would have bought a vat back if customs wasn’t funny about that kind of thing. Enough said. Also tried the famous veal cheek which was super rich and gelatinous, and a chocolate-Cointreau mousse which was super rich. Basically they do big rich flavours in abundance. A must go.

Bar Nestor 

Steak. Tortilla. Tomatoes. Padron Peppers. That’s the menu. I wrote about it here because it was so good I almost cried.

Bar Sport

Super busy to the point that we wanted to see what the fuss was about. Answer: not a lot. Only the croquettes seem worthy of the words and they were very average compared to others. One to avoid.

La Vina

There is something quite moving about walking in to somewhere and seeing every diner eating the same dish. You get that at La Vina, where every table we saw was tucking into glasses of txakoli that had been poured from great heights, and a slice of basque cheesecake. That cheesecake has bounce and caramelised edges. It has a gentle funk to the filling. It is superb.

Bar Zeruko

Modern tapas which appeals to the Instagram generation. I tried the bonfire which involves cooking a piece of cod over some encased burning twigs, with an onion crostini and vial of asparagus puree on the side. A bit meh in turns of flavour but good fun for the five or so euro it costs. On the flip of that there was a fantastic courgette flower stuffed with cream cheese and honey.

Gandarias

Huge selection of pintxos which is reheated to order. Chorizo on toast with fried quails egg, and a kind of sausage roll with chorizo and puff pastry. As tasty as they were it is blindingly obvious that puff pastry does not like being microwaved. Still, worth a look and ridiculously cheap.

La Cuchara de San Telmo

Situated by the church this place is full from the second it opens its doors. We tried a veal ravioli which was more rooted in Asia than Italy, with the kind of sticky jus that has you begging for bread to mop up. Even better than this was the suckling pig; skin crisp, meat underneath simply perfect, with a quince puree that has enough acidity to cut through the fatty meat. Everything is cooked to order ensuring standards are kept consistently high.

A Fuego Negro

Bright neon lights and loud music. The menu is quirky, with playful references to more recognisable western dishes. We liked it here, usually super late after several too many glasses of txakoli, though it is arguably more style than substance. Most famous is the Kobe beef slider, the party served daringly rare. It was alright. Lamb doner kebab was better, whilst a fish curry had big shouty flavours. Our favourite was the vermouth sorbet with green olive and orange. Vermouth? You can’t handle vermouth. We did.

Ganbara

Ham. The best ham we’ve ever eaten. The stuff that disappears in the mouth and leaves a deep piggyness for an age. So good that we demanded to know their supplier, purchased a load to bring home, got pissed and gave it a certain Michelin starred chef as a bribe to stay in the pub. Aren’t I right about the ham, Gareth? We had it first on flakey croissant, as strident croquettes, and then on soft brioche-like rolls. Those rolls are simply stunning. We ate these more than any other dish, often grabbing two in passing for a stroll to the next bar. They also do some super other pintxos, in particular juicy prawns in the lightest of batter. A touch more expensive than the other pintxos bars but absolutely worth it.

Majority of the pictures supplied by the super talented and beautiful Claire

Carters, Moseley

Considering I live 250m away from Carters it is more than a little pathetic that I’ve managed to get here only twice. I have no excuse; I pass the bijou restaurant on St Mary’s Row on my walk to and from work every day, at least twice a week glancing over at the yellow lettering on black frontage and telling myself that I really must return. Now here I am, driven by the need for a midweek treat and a girlfriend who has a total obsession with their staff food Instagram stories. The interior has been tweaked to a darker shade than I recall, though the layout is much the same. It has drama yet a warmth to it. The hole in the far wall means that you can look in to the chefs at work, or they can look in to you eating their work. I am never quite sure which way round it is.

We have a steady three hour dinner which is so good I have decided to put the stuff I should be writing about aside and bring you this. It is one of the very best meals I have eaten in this fine city, one full of nuance and rooted so far in it’s environment you would need a team of gardeners to pull chef Brad Carter out of its soil. Without ever resorting to screaming through the tussles of his beard, Carter has become a champion of the best produce in the central region, only looking further afield when required, such as for caviar from Exmoor, or those heady truffles from Manjimup, Western Australia.

Four nibbles get us quickly underway, the first a parfait of chicken livers with various grains and raisins that I could have eaten a far bigger bowl of, followed by a delicate tart of broad beans and Winchester cheese lifted by a little mint. There are slivers of goose ham cured in house, and kohlrabi compressed in pine oil and topped with a salad of herbs which tastes slightly reminiscent of cucumber. The latter does a great job at prepping the palate though I understand how some, including Claire, could be underwhelmed. We have bread made from flour milled a mile away at Sarehole Mill with a pig fat butter containing a dice of crackling. If that butter doesn’t get the blood flowing to the organs, nothing will. With this the chef kindly brings a little Exmoor caviar over which I never expected, and probably neither should you. Still, caviar on bread and butter is something I’ll never tire of or turn down.

Cured mackerel kicks us off properly, the thin slices layered with gooseberry, bobbing in a bowl of dashi cut with mustard oil that has us slurping the last directly from it. A dish conceived in Japan, delivered in Moseley. That eastern influence runs throughout the meal, from the simplistic presentation, to the constant use of umami, and occasional flashes of deeper knowledge, like in the fermented rice on the last dessert. After this course it is straight back to the local environment; a slice of tomato compressed in elderberry vinegar, clothed in backfat and more elderberry, with basil leaves and seeds. It is one of the evening’s strongest courses, one that turns with every mouthful. There are sweet notes, acidic notes, fatty notes, and most surprisingly, anise from the basil seeds. For something that looks simplistic, there is a lot going on under the surface. I have a lot in common with this dish. Conversely, there is a humbleness to the next course, which means I have absolutely nothing in common with it. A fillet of ray with a sauce made from potato and dots of sea truffle, a type of seaweed that shares similar qualities to the tuber. Three cheap ingredients transformed into a plate that has far more luxurious qualities.

Now when I think of the evolution of Carters cooking it is summed up by the lamb course. A loin cutlet (I think) taken off the bone, cooked and then finished on a barbeque. As good as that is (and it is very, very good) the real points of interest are to be found in the garnish. Umami rich black garlic, peas that have been podded and dressed in the faintest of vinegar, sea lettuce both powdered and gently wilted, a healthy dusting of black truffle and a dressing of lamb fat mixed with aged soy. The complexities on the plate are everywhere, gently positioned into place and allowed to mingle with one another. The result is a dish as perfectly balanced as anything I have eaten this year. I save a slice of burnt fat for last because I know this will be the best bit. It is. What follows this is the best cheese I have ever eaten. A soft cheese called Maida Vale, washed in sour beer and served with malt loaf. It is grown up and addictive, sweet and rich, the beer a genius way of introducing balance.

Desserts are bold because they follow the same ethos as the rest of the meal, meaning that they are marginally sweeter, though not by much. More traditional of the two is the grilled strawberry, a beast the size of Claire’s Beetlejuice sized bonce. It has intrinsic sweetness, cut through by the clever use of unripened green strawberry and a soured cream. The last dessert is an ice cream of fig leaf, with local raspberries and fermented rice that adds a sophisticated sour note. Even the petit four – a silky chocolate ganache with rapeseed oil and sea salt – refuses to get the sugar levels going. I admire this; it is clear that Carter is now functioning with a singular belief.

Looking back on my 2015 review I used the words ‘uncluttered’ and ‘concise’ to describe the style of cooking. Although that ethos is still very much in play, the reality is that now Carters is an entirely different beast; it has matured into a restaurant entirely comfortable in its own skin, a place that looks to the best in local produce and pays respect to them on the plate. Claire considers it to be the best meal she has eaten in Birmingham, so much so that she pays the bill in full as a treat without me seeing it, though with two bottles of wine over the two and a bit hours it would work out to be about £130 a head. The best bit? All of this is on my doorstep. Moseley is lucky to have Carters, and I for one plan on coming here as often as possible.

Tap and Tandoor, Solihull

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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

Bunsen, Dublin

The menu at Bunsen is a simple one; burger, either with or without cheese, one or two patties. Three types of fries, two of those potato, the other the big orange thing that should be banned. That is it. No silly toppings of crisps or waffles soaked in gypsy tears. No dehydrated acorn bark or rehydrated racoon faeces. Just a straight up burger with no frills or gimmicks. I like this, it shows a confidence in the produce, where if done right highlights the quality of the beef. But it has to be good. There is nowhere to hide with this, the salad has to be fresh, the lettuce still crunch between the teeth. Most importantly the beef has to be knockout good.

The burger at Bunsen – a cheeseburger on this occasion – is very good indeed. An eight, maybe even nine out of ten on it’s own. The patty makes it, charred on the outside, pink in the centre. It is more beefy than the 1981 Ashes victory. The rest of it just works; a bun that doesn’t dissolve to nothing, salad, mustard, ketchup, cheese, and pickles to cut through it all. Claire says it reminds her of something called a Big Mac, a reference that it is lost on me. It reminds me of Bleecker, which if you are au fait with my burger habits is a bloody big compliment.

Alas, it is not all perfect. I don’t like the chips one bit; the fat ones or the skinny ones. My guess is that as we are first in through the door the oil is not sufficiently hot, hence why neither are crisp and both are a little bit greasy. Is it an excuse? No, I don’t think so, and nor is it good enough given how good the burger was. With this I drink the own brand lager, five euros a bottle, making it a bargain in Dublin terms.

I applaud Bunsen for taking the straight forward approach. We live in a society that sees variety as a necessity when it is actually the opposite. They have pretty much perfected the burger offering here by doing it over and over again. And it’s paying off; Sunday afternoon less than an hour after opening and it’s full. If I ever found myself in distance of their three branches I’d return, just this time the order would be two cheeseburgers and no sides. Stick to the good stuff and you’ll be fine.

7/10

Why I Am Not Accepting Any More Free Meals

I’ve pissed a few people off of late. I say few, really I mean fucking loads. Bloggers, blaggers, washed-up has-been journalists, more bloggers, PR people, social influencers (whoever the fuck they are), more bloggers, an award ambassador (whatever the fuck that is), and bloggers. Some have been vocal about it, others chosen to shun me. One even went to the trouble of setting up a fake twitter profile – @farlow_clayton – to attack me publicly. And all because I said that I was no longer going to accept free meals for my restaurant blog.

The blog is four years old now. I started it purely out of love for food, genuinely expecting no one to read it. I remember the first time I got a hundred views in a day; I was elated. Now the same amount of hits is a bad number to wake up to. I don’t tend to make a big thing out of it, but I have won awards for it. It has grown beyond belief. But the morality of it has also changed; it took me eleven months to accept my first freebie. The preceding time afterwards has seen me take a lot. Too many, if I am honest. I started with the best intentions and learnt very quickly how to play the game – do it right and PR relationships can be very fruitful. I’ve had complimentary hotel stays and special tasting menus made especially for my visit. I have been showered in champagne and sent home with wine purchased specifically for me after the owner had read I drank it in a previous post. As a result many of the reviews I have posted have probably not been a true reflection of the restaurant. Looking back I can clearly see on a few occasions that I have been too generous with my opinion. Occasionally I have chosen to miss off dishes that may not have been very good; embellish others that were average. I tell you this because I want to tell you the truth. And I am not alone in this; it happens with just about every blogger I have ever met. More recently the traffic I have has allowed me to be more picky, yet I still feel obliged to attend certain restaurants for certain PR companies. I will go because if I don’t, others will and I want to stay top of the pile. I go because the PR company has an active role in an awards I want to win at. I go because the line has been crossed between work and friendship with some people.

I have nothing against those who chose to take free meals, but let’s be very clear, there is only one argument for it, which is “fuck off, I like eating free food”. It has nothing to do with wealth or disposable income. It is not a reward for the time it takes to write a blog post. Those who take a free meal are doing so because it is free and they want to eat at that particular restaurant, where upon they are willingly entering into the marketing cog of the restaurant. It is tainted, there is absolutely no doubt about that and to say that freebies have the same meaning as a paid meal is a big fat lie. I have taken enough freebies to see how the system works and I have also taken enough abuse to understand how it is perceived by the reader. Like it or not, accepting an invite means that you are in some way in debt to whoever has invited you. You are eating their food and drinking their wine because they chose to put you there. I have only once not written about a place I was invited to and that was because they gave me food poisoning. On every other occasion I have done what has been asked. I have made my opinion very clear on this of late and have seen some ridiculous arguments: One told me that their blog was not like that and proved on inspection to have eleven free meals out of twelve. Another made the point that the restaurants she recommends were all paid for, a statement that casts obvious doubts over the freebies she had recently raved about. I don’t have a singular problem with this, I’ve played the same game. But I want out of that culture. I’ve pressed the reset button.

The notion of giving up the invites has been there for a while. I have started to hate myself for not telling the entire truth the entire time, annoyed that this blog has lost sight of the very reason I started it. Now I have made the change and having recently finished my last PR invite post, the sense of relief is huge. The blog can go back to its very roots; I can say whatever I like without fear of upsetting someone. I’m confident that it will reignite my passion for the blog, though if it doesn’t I’ll gladly pull the plug on it. I’m sorry that the truth may have been blurred in the past, but that will completely change as of now. The meals on this blog will be paid for 100% out of my own pocket, with the views honest and undiluted. It is the only way I am happy for it to continue.

A Taste of The Cube, Birmingham

I don’t think you’ve ever really lived until you’re sat in a buffet restaurant watching a man sing a stripped back, samba style version of Hotline Bling, whilst a skewer of garlic breads is whipped on to a nearby table. It was like a dream sequence from a David Lynch movie, one where the heads of the other bloggers at the table morph into demons whilst the soft sounds of Drake gently hum in the background. The restaurant in question is Rodizio Rico, the starting point of our evening of an organised tasting of The Cube. No, not the TV program with Philip Schofield, silly. The beautiful geometric glass building that constantly steals the limelight from The Mailbox.

I have a couple of Negronis in Rodizio Rico and consider why I haven’t been for years. My conclusion is that the venue is fun and I am not. Still the drinks are decent and the singer is genuinely making my year. Upon finishing these we move to Shogun Teppan-Yaki, a restaurant I am very familiar with. I used to come here when I was young and undamaged, back in the days when the food mattered less to me. They put a right show on; balancing eggs on the hot plate, shouting foreign words loudly, and feeding us. We have platters of sushi, vegetable tempura, and then an entire ocean with a bit of cow cooked on the hot plate in front of us. Sitting on the stool brings back happy memories and now, just writing this, I wonder why I don’t detach myself more frequently from this blog. Some bits of the fish are a tiny bit overcooked and the beef could have been rested for a minute longer, but frankly who cares? If you want a gastronomic experience you’ve walked through the wrong door, but places like Shogun Teppan-Yaki exist to give their customers a different kind of evening. I’ll probably regret typing this sentence for the rest of my life, but it is okay to go out and not eat great food all the time. Just as long as you are in the company of a wacky Japanese fella making you flick eggs in the air with a paddle and catching them one-handed.

Stuffed with fish and prosecco we head to Haig Club for the final bit of the night. Cocktail masterclass in the shadow of David Beckham and his whiskey brand. Honesty bit upfront; I don’t like Haig Club whiskey. I purchased two bottles when it first came out and gave them both to my Dad for him to drink with coke. We make three cocktails, two are very good. I get to show my stirring skills, which are fabled in these lands. I leave drunk, the sign of it being one of the seven nights of the week.

And that concludes the last PR invite I am going to accept. And knowing that is the case I can be as honest as I like here without fear of alienating anyone. I don’t go The Cube very often despite it being one of my favourite buildings in the city. I don’t go because I tell myself that the places it houses aren’t to my taste. The truth is I’m missing out. It is a building that serves a purpose, with restaurants that are not aimed at taking themselves too seriously. Places like Rodizio and Shogun are ideal spots for dates or work nights out; casual and fun with food decent enough to not offend anyone, and looking at the prices now, very fairly priced too. Come the next time someone asks me for a suggestion for a group night out I’ll be throwing these names into the mix. They are purpose built for it.

I was invited to this event.

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Ruchie, Shirley

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

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

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

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

8/10 

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