Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham


Expectations are higher than usual before our lunch at Le Champignon Sauvage, because having eaten here before, I’ve set them there. When I sit down and think about the food I’ve been fortunate enough to eat, few places stand out as much as the first time I dined here.  It was dinner full of twists and slight of hand, of punchy flavours that evolve in the mouth.  It was technically perfect, confident and brave. I’m anxious when we book again because I want it to sparkle like it did before, and because I’ve backed myself enough to tell Claire the food is up there with the very best I’ve had. She’s a fussy one, that girl.


Fortunately, it’s everything I remember and more. The cooking of David Everiit-Matthias still continues to push boundaries with the subtlest of gestures. Canapés on arrival see an exquisite walnut and blue cheese cookie, with the lunches only misstep; a creamed cods roe on a spongey squid ink cracker that leaves us hankering for water.  From there it’s back to the ethereal bacon and shallot bread that we smear thick with salted butter and instantly request seconds of.  I remember the little ceramic pots that the amouse’s come in fondly, this one with a courgette and lovage set cream at the base, dots of parmesan cream and a crumb of black olive and flax seed.  What on paper reads like a random list of ingredients is coaxed into dish that evolves from an almost curried vegetal start into one that finishes with a long savoury depth.  It’s a brilliant pre-starter that pulls you in and refuses to let go.




I always feel guilty when I order soup in a restaurant, especially so in one bestowed with two Michelin stars. It’s always the most beige of options, the decision to make when the ability to make decisions alludes you. The cauliflower and cumin soup may have been beige in colour but the flavour is there in abundance – a blast of earthiness and warning spice.  Texture comes in the way of a crunchy Bombay spice mixture that takes it up a notch by adding interest and definition. We dredge the last of it from the base of the bowl with more of that bacon bread.


We dip into the a la carte menu for pigeon. The breast is very rare, with a pastilla of spiced leg meat and pistachio.  It needs the sweet acidity of the cherry to cut through it all and it’s here in puree’s and gels and most cleverly, as a glazed dome in a pate de fruit style that had the appearance of a cherry, stalk and all. It’s a brilliant bit of cooking; light and packed with flavour whilst always offering contrast.  This alone is better than anything we ate at the three star Ducasse two months back.

There was also so much to admire about a rabbit main.  The leg is beautifully moist, stuffed with offal and roasted, as was a teeny boudin sausage that had the faint tang of working organs.  We love the thick baton of slow roasted carrot and dots of the same pureed vegetable which I swear had been enlivened with a squeeze of orange juice.  Top billing goes to the croquette of confit shoulder that manages to make the usually delicate flavour of the meat more forceful.  The entire dish is complex in technique yet gloriously simple in taste.

The last time I was here I waxed lyrically over a pork dish that I then described as one of the finest I have ever eaten. I still stand by that. This is another stellar piece of porkery, a slender rectangle of belly, pressed and roasted to perfection with a glass-like piece of crackling lining one side.  What makes this dish so special is the juxtaposition between the sweet and the acidic: The latter is everywhere, from the lightest of pickles used on baby onions and walnuts, to salad onions and gossamer thin slices of pear.  The former is a deep brown sauce of cooking liquor reduction that has been thickened to an almost treacle like quality. It is beautiful. The man is a genius.

Claire fancied two of the desserts so I am told to order an apple cheesecake even when there is a cheese trolley with my name written all over it.  The cheesecake is good, maybe a little too subtle for my liking, but it works so well with a vivid blackcurrant sorbet that tastes purely of the dark fruit.  Solid pastry work is at hand with a pistachio and raspberry tart with pistachio ice-cream. Sandwiched between the shortest of pastry is a pistachio frangipane and the smoothest of raspberry jams.  It’s a Bakewell tart for grownups. Adventure can be found elsewhere on the plate with candied pistachios and glazed raspberries.  Like the cheesecake it’s just two ingredients, each perfectly aligned with one another.  We finish with petit fours which veer from a divisive chocolate flavoured with star anise to a mini rum baba that neither of us want to share.



With lunch an absolute bargain at £34 for three courses and wines starting at £22, we could have done this for under a ton had we not had a bottle of fizz and something indulgent from Paulliac.  But hey, who cares, it’s places like this that are worth saving for. Afterwards we saunter around the corner to John Gordon for another glass of red and get the train before it starts to get a little blurry. On said train we discuss the lunch; she loved it. Of course she would, it’s brilliant. Two years on from my last visit this little hobby of mine has taken me to some very serious restaurants, yet this little place in Cheltenham firmly remains one of my absolute favourites.  Le Champignon Sauvage is vital. You must give it a go.

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Nosh & Quaff, Birmingham

Way before I started eating and writing about the nicer places around Birmingham, I used to read about them and not eat at them. I would buy the Birmingham (then Evening) Mail on a Friday only, moving just past halfway to Paul Fulford’s weekly piece. There you would have found a small picture of his small and shiny head in the upper left and two hundred words or so of Paul’s concise writing below. His occasionally acerbic, always honest writing style was an early favourite of mine, more so on the occasions he slipped in a subtle knob innuendo. He’s my neighbour now, which I still find bizarre, and occasionally I get to spend time over dinner with him, taking in his stories and counting the wrinkles on his face.  A couple of nights back I met him at 7pm sharp at Nosh & Quaff where in the deep red leather booths you would have found the unlikely combination of a Birmingham food legend and Paul Fulford, the ex restaurant critic for the Birmingham Mail.

There is a valid reason for us being here.  Back when I first wrote about Nosh & Quaff the menu was even shorter than Paul; lobster, burgers, some ribs.  I liked it, others less so, finding the options too limiting and the pricing aggressive.  Two years and a little introspection later, we have a full page of options and a considerable decrease in the pricing.  I think it needs it.  Downstairs is still a beautiful space of marble and deep red leather with ceilings high enough to fit my ego without the need to crouch, it just now has the kind of pricing and options to fill it more frequently.  There is a large industrial room  of bare brick and wood upstairs that they should turn into the city centre location of Fiesta Del Asado, a stablemate of the same group.


The hotdog is one of those items that has fallen in price.  Impeccably sourced from the Big Apple Hotdog company it is now half the price of the fifteen quid it used to be, with only fries losing their tray gig.  It showcases what N&Q is all about; quality produce, generous portions, and an underlying guilt that you probably will need to run your dinner off the following morning. It is worth the run. The dog snaps, the bun is sturdy enough to hold everything else in place. Order this and ask for a bib to come with it.  


From the newer items are rib tips that really transpire to be precise cubes of unctuous pork, slowly cooked and glazed in a funky BBQ sauce.  This is a lot of pig for £4.50.  Chick Norris may be a dreadful name for a burger but is a hefty bit of dinner.  Two hulks of free range thigh meat in one of those thick American buttermilk batters with bacon and processed cheese. Heat lurks in the background with enough tang in the ‘slaw to cut through the richness of it all. As far as the composition of a burger goes this has it all.



American portions mean only real Americans will have room for desserts.  For the rest of us it’s a small dent in the wallet and a lie down.  I still really like Nosh & Quaff, they’re not pushing boundaries but they are taking a familiar cuisine and applying quality ingredients with precise cooking.  It’s managed to improve what it previously was, now with a menu with enough scope to warrant repeat visits.  And all in the company of a man who definitely makes the list of my top 172 food writers.  Life really doesn’t get much better. 

Mr Fulford picked up the bill, I got the Uber home.  I guess that makes us quits.    

Electro Brunch at Gaucho, Birmingham

It’s 11am on a chilly Saturday morning and I’m drinking a Bloody Mary in the chic dining room at Gaucho.  This is my kind of brunch, a booze propelled two hour blast of unlimited food and drink from booths that are more comfortable than my bed.  There is a DJ playing the kind of music I expect would make an Ibiza chill out compilation album whilst the floor buzzes with staff.  One comes to our table and asks what we want to order. I say it’s time to swap the drink to an Aperol Spritz. He meant food. Still it’s 11.05am and I have my priorities in order.


Over the two hours we eat and drink as if this were a challenge, pausing only to take in the occasional gasp of air. Steak and eggs seem the obvious place to start in a steakhouse.  The meat is of high quality, briefly shown heat to still retain a pinkness inside, with a fried egg because this is still breakfast, after all.  It’s simple and delicious. Likewise a eggs Benedict that has the traditional ham replaced with salt beef.  It’s bordering on genius in concept, not a million miles away from steak with bearnaise sauce.  We would go later back for seconds and then thirds.



The humble sausage sandwich is given the upgrade with chorizo and chimichurri  between charred ciabatta that we resist the temptation to smear inch thick with brown sauce. Beans on toast is pimped with chunks of chorizo in an almost indentical vein to what I do at home, only with a lot less butter. Fried provoleta cheese is rich and guey with onions that have been cooked down to a jam-like consistency. One of our group have this and suddenly we all ordering it in envy. It’s that kind of dish.




Fuelled by more spritz’s we gravitate towards a sweeter finish to the meal.  French toast comes with an addictive peanut butter dulce de luche that is all nutty caramel and sweetness.  We insist that it makes a return on pancakes with banana and maple syrup, half joking that we’d like to purchase a jar of the stuff. It’s no joke. I really want a jar.



All of this comes at the price of £45 per head.  To put it into perspective it is the most expensive brunch in Birmingham, but arguably the best value.  To the best of mine and Googles knowledge, all of the others offer one dish with the unlimited drinks.  This is as much a dining experience as a drinking one, decadent and comfortable, as much as you can fit in.  They really know what they are doing here.  As far as two hours go, it’s pretty much the ideal start to a weekend, leaving us with the choice of more booze or an afternoon snooze.  We choose the former.  Of course we do.  Way too much fun was had to have it any other way.

I was a guest of Gaucho at the brunch and did not pay

 

Indian Streatery, Birmingham

I hadn’t been in the building that now homes The Indian Streatery since Adam’s first launched in Birmingham. I remember that building well. Back before Michelin bestowed them with a star and they had their shiny home on Waterloo Street, it was here that Adam Stokes initially set-up; a small rectangular room on Bennetts Hill with a black and white screen acting as the gap between dining room and galley kitchen. I like that the building is now in the hands of this family, the transition feels appropriate. When Adam’s came the city was still getting used to fine dining, whereas we have now become accustomed to our many Michelin stars. Five or so years on we look to a new breed in the city, one that looks for it’s own home after owning and honing street food.  Indian Streatery makes more sense as a name when you understand that they used to be a regular at Digbeth Dining Club as Indian Rasoi.  When others have made the jump in far quieter spots with far cheaper rent, these lot have jumped into a central Brum location that used to house a Michelin star.  And that takes balls.  Massive balls.


The dining room is well lit and has attention to detail at every glance.  The wooden street cart that forms the bar area at the back of the room will take the plaudits, but for me the ceiling mural of India is what takes the eye.  Plush seating in gold makes up the soft furnishings, dark wood fills the rest of the space.  Credit must go to whoever managed to make somewhere so small seem so inviting.



The ambition of the location and makeover is matched by the menu.  They are going all out here; a section purely for chaat, another of more traditional dishes from the Punjab, and a section of less than conventional dishes such as Indian Hot Dog and Pakora Fried Chicken (they missed a trick there not calling it PFC).  Dishes arrive as and when they are ready because this is 2017 and we have been taught to do as we are told.  Bhartha is the first to arrive, ordered on the basis that it is new to me.  It is a dish that could easily be middle eastern in design, a base of smoked aubergine weaved with garlic, ginger and tomatoes, that we lap up in seconds.


We try two types of chaat when perhaps just the one would of been fine.  Of the two it is the samosa chaat that stands out, the torn bits of samosa are perky in spice and have enough to stand out from the chaat chickpea curry.  A chicken chaat is interesting for the chicken that has a nice savoury funk from a tamarind coating.  A word on the chaat itself and I know I’m in danger of slipping into twat territory here:  I’ve eaten a lot of chaat recently – I’m the king of chaat.  Michael Parkinson with additional drunks and weirdos on my sofa.  This chaat is slightly different to the others you’ll find dotted around the city; the chickpeas are cooked less and have more texture than usual, the curry itself is more perfumed and not as aggressive in heat.  It is topped with less of that crunchy sev.  This is a more sophisticated chaat that speaks in quieter tones rather than shouting.



My India obsessed other half insists on palak paneer, a glorious blend of spinach and paneer with strands of ginger and garlic that is too refined to ever consider came from a street food begining.  Likewise a methi chicken deep with fenugreek flavour that we take basmati rice to in order to work the last of the sauce out of the silver bowl.  They both show a gentle touch of taking robust flavours and making them harmonious.


I really like Indian Streetery, more so for the less than conventional dishes on the menu.  I often bemoan the identikit menus that haunt the city, so credit must be due for putting stuff out there that you cant get elsewhere, and doing at a price too fair for the location.  All of the above, with rice and a couple of soft drinks, fails to touch £40 between the two us.  It’s this price point that will allow us to return frequently and try more of that menu.  Which we will.  Indian Streatery is not perfect but it is ambitious, characteristics I can relate to all too well.  It looks like that little room on Bennetts Hill will continue to shape the dining scene in this mighty fine city.  

8/10

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Indian Brewery, Birmingham

My opinions on the rise of Indian grill pubs and restaurants are well known; I think they are brilliant.  They breathe life into tired buildings, with often excellent food at almost always affordable prices.  But we now are starting to reach a point of saturation.  They are everywhere.  I can walk to three within thirty minutes of my home, other areas have far more.  And they are always the places I get recommended, meaning they are nearly always the places I ignore.  I hate being told where to eat in the same way I hate being told when to shower and what politician not to pelt with eggs.


Except some people I do listen to.  If Jay Rayner weekly piece says go, I go, same with a few fatty friends and a less than fatty girlfriend.  Those few are all united with taste.  So when the girlfriend messages me from Indian Brewery saying that I have to come and order the fat naan, I listen, even if I thought that a fat naan was only available on the menu of brothels frequented by Wayne Rooney.  I mean, they brew their own beer and they serve it with grill food.  What could possibly go wrong?  Quite a lot, actually.

From a small menu we order a mixed grill, masala fries, an additional garlic naan and one of those fat things.  It’s an almost colossal failure from the off.  The mixed grill is competitively priced at £15 and big enough to feed two, had we not left most of it on the tray.  Green chicken tikka has a nice piquant marinade but is let down by the same dry meat that haunts the more standard dyed red version.  Better are chicken niblets that have the tang of barbecue sauce that penetrate the darker meat.  I am passed sheekh kebab and told that I won’t like it.  She’s right.  The mince is tepid in colour and has gristle lurking amongst it.  It’s a bonafide disaster.  There are two types of chicken wing; one that has nicely charred edges that have caramelised the spices, and another that has a pink batter the colour of a seven year old girl’s bedroom.  Do not approach the latter.  The batter is flaccid, the overall texture cloying and demanding of water to ease it down the esophagus.  Lamb chops are dry but at least the marinade has life and we like the cod bites, even if they are straight out of my local chippy.  We leave one chop, a pink wing, a sheekh kebab, and a niblet.  No one questions this as they take the food away.  


That fat naan is a lifeline, albeit one agressively priced at £7.50.  The naan is good, the meat chopped smaller and seemingly more tender than that from the grill.  The sev topping, a sweet pink mango sauce (why? Oh why?), another of tamarind  and one of mint all combine to add interest.  I’m told it’s not as good as it normally is, a phrase I’ve heard before when she lights up a cigarette in bed.  Chips, probably frozen variety, are okay when dusted with masala. The garlic naan is my favourite bit of the meal, though I don’t tend to choose dinner based on the quality of the bread.


It’s all a bit depressing and frankly a massive let down given what I’d previously heard.  Maybe they are better than today.  Maybe a Monday lunch is the worst time to eat here.  It’s just not my problem to fix.  I pay the money for food and I expect a certain level of quality.  On this experience I could point you a couple of dozen places that do this kind of food far better than here.  

5/10 

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Ynyshir, Elgwys Fachs, Wales

My girlfriend is a fellow food blogger, a statement which, if you know my general disdain for the term, is something that will require therapy on my behalf to overcome. It’s not her fault; she’s one of the good guys whose interest extends further than the pique-assiette culture of never paying for a dinner. Plus, it has it’s upsides. She acts as a sub editor for my piss-poor grammar and provides the funnier observations over dinner that I steal for my writing.  And, loving food in the same way that I do, she takes me to Ynyshir for my birthday. Whadda woman.  I still can’t believe that my greatest love sprang from my greatest enemy. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, only far shitter to watch.


And so, let’s move onto Ynyshir, a beautiful white walled residence in the middle of bloody nowhere, or, as the locals would prefer me to say, in Elgwys Fach, at the southern tip of Snowdonia National Park, near Machynlleth.  I have this theory in remote restaurants in that the journey makes a part of the experience.  Anyone can hop on a train to London, but to commit to here, or The Three Chimney’s, or L’Enclume takes a certain amount of commitment.  And boy, are we committed to food, as the next nine thousand (I’m guessing) words will show.  Those with a short attention span may want to look away now.  Those with a culinary porn problem may want to cover their modesty:  This is going to get Filthy.



The dining room pans out towards the rolling green hills of the Dyfi valley at one end and straight into the open kitchen at the other.  It is as much as a blank canvas as interior designers will allow it to be, with warm purples occasionally interspersing wooden floors and thick white linen table clothes. It is all about the food here with the first course making us sit bolt upright – a position that we would remain in for the two hour lunch and then some afterwards.  ‘Not French Onion Soup’ would transpire to be a bowl in which kombu stock was poured onto onion puree, tofu, onion oil, and pickled shallots.  It’s a whack to the face of umami, followed by a kick to the balls of acidity.  It’s big and brave, with the first sign of Japanese influences such as the dried kelp stock and miso in the onion puree.  It is perfect.  And this was just the first course.


What follows is a further ten courses that would set the marker for what I consider to be the UK’s most exciting restaurant.  A sourdough bread features a crust blacker than my soul, served with a Wagyu fat spread that overshadows an excellent miso butter.  Mackerel follows, barely cooked and draped in a pineapple jelly. Charcoal oil adds a depth, beansprouts and puffed rice texture.  As with so much of the food that follows, every flavour is amplified to eleven.



A cube of Wagyu short rib, cooked until it is only just holding it’s shape, is served with shitake mushroom, puffed rice and seaweed. The umami rich accompaniments are present to bolster the flavour of the beef, the seasoning as bold as it possibly can be. Following on from this was Mayan gold potato lightly dressed in pheasants egg, with shallots and truffle butter sauce.  We are back on the now familiar territory of umami and acidity, with the potato dice coated in a little yeast paste and the slight tang of vinegar in the sauce.  It’s a brilliant blend of two of the five basic tastes which give the dishes light and shade.  Claire says it is one of the best dishes she has ever eaten.  She’s right, but better is to come.



Lunches main protein came in the way of two courses of lamb.  The first is a rib glazed with soy and shizo that disappears as quickly as it arrives, the meat undressing from the bone at the slightest of suggestion.  The barbeque neck which follows is the first time that we would notice a familiar theme which would run through *spoiler alert* dinner the same night, in that dishes have a familiarity on the palate far removed from the world of fine dining.  The neck fillet is topped with a kombucha (a fermented Japanese herb tea) gel which echoes the best lamb with mint sauce you will ever eat.  It’s astonishing in delivery and concept, moreish to the point that it will eventually end up with it’s own addicts group.  In a day where the high points kept on rising, this was for the me the real eureka moment.



Not foreseeing the later bout of gluttony, we take the optional cheese course.  It’s cauliflower cheese, just like grandma used to make it.  Of course it’s not, I’m shitting you.  Cauliflower is compressed with -8 vinegar and topped with Beauvale that oozes and fills with a richness.  It is cauliflower cheese, right down to the breadcrumb topping, just not as you know it.  ‘Lager and lime’ really is just that, a cleansing course of yogurt panacota prepared tableside with continental lager and lime.  It takes me back to my teenage years when I used to drink my pints with a splash of cordial.




Our first dessert arrives, a blueberry dish that for me drops down to one Michelin standard – an achievement given that the restaurant presently has one star.  It’s good – the fermented berries bright in flavour, the buttermilk adding a subtle layer of fat.  We finish with a take on tiramisu.  It is glorious.  Various dots of coffee and vanilla, a shard of something crisp and see-through, with mascarpone granita and grated bitter chocolate.  It’s balanced and refined, a real statement that the sweeter courses can be to the same impossibly high standard of everything else.  We walk through the open kitchen for liquid nitrogen poached meringue filled with fennel purée, seemingly inspired by the aniseed sweets you get at the end of a curry.   I like that idea.  Anything inspired by curry houses is fine with me.  




Now that should be it.  I should surmise about a perfect meal worthy of a special journey and we should all move on with our lives.  Except I can’t, because as I alluded to earlier, that girlfriend of mine couldn’t turn down the chance to extend my birthday lunch into twenty or so more courses at dinner.  I argue that I’m not worthy of that expenditure for all of about twenty seconds before concluding that I probably am. I’m sorry but you’ve come this far to no avail, but stick with me, I promise it’s worth it.

Dinner starts with the dish that is most definitely not a French onion soup, moving on to what is most definitely a glazed slice of duck leg topped with sesame.  Another mackerel dish follows, this time with a sweet and sour ketchup made from bramble, with wood sorrel and grated lardo.  The cured pork backfat is the inspired part, coating the mouth and improving the flavour.  And we’re back on that word again.  This place is all about flavour.  Everything else is secondary to the question “does it taste the best that it absolutely can?'”.  And I like that idea.  I like it a lot.  



The following two courses are two of my favourites.  Crab and sweet corn is remiscent of chowder, light and clean in profile until you hit the dark funk of a crab soy.  Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, glazed with birch sap syrup, and topped with spelt and a grating of smoked eel.  It’s smoked bacon.  Honestly.  The fat content, the back note of sweetness, the meatiness and the smoke.  I want this with a thick slice of bread and a cup of coffee.  But I can’t, so bottle number three of wine will make do. 



Duck with pickled black beans and black garlic is, of course, duck with black bean sauce.  Likewise tomato, lardo and basil is a BLT.  You get the picture; inspiration from the everyday took to a level up there with the very best.  You have to taste it to believe it.  



I can’t pinpoint the inspiration behind the barbecued langoustine but I can tell you it was damm right delicious.  It’s grilled to a meaty texture with wild garlic and a glorious dressing of roasted shells and soy sauce.  The pollock that came afterwards is, in my opinion, the weakest of the evening.  I  see what they are aiming at with the miso glaze on the fish and the dashi stock to slurp afterwards, it’s just disjointed and lacking the brutal hit of flavour of everything else we ate.  A deconstructed Caesar salad pulls it back.  The lettuce emulsion is vibrant, the Parmesan whey and anchovy crumb full of umami.  It needs the grated cured egg yolk to pull it all together, which it does brilliantly. 





Wagyu returns for three courses.  The first makes me shout “it’s a burger!” a little too loud with the addition of pickled gerkins and a genius addition of bread mayo.  This happens before a piece of sirloin that has been aged for 192 days – I’ve had engagements that have lasted less time.  The meat is unlike any I’ve ever tasted, a bastardisation of beef and blue cheese.  Served only with a grating of fresh wasabi, this is as close as I am likely to get to the prime steak houses of Tokyo.  Wagyu fudge concludes the trio.  You read that right, it’s fudge made with wagyu fat.  A genuine game changer.  Thorntons should nick the idea.



And this, Dear Reader, is where the post concludes, despite there being many courses left.  It was at this point that the days beers, the champagne, the cocktails, and the four bottles of red wine took hold.  It all became a little fuzzy and if I can’t remember it properly, I simply can’t write about it. I remember the lager and lime again, a brilliant strawberry dish that tasted like Summer Cup, and raspberries on toast.  Indeed, looking through my notes now, the dishes maintain the same form; most at the two star standard, with more at three star than one.  It seems a given to me that this restauarant is gaining a star this year and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it joins the top four in the coming years.  It is exhilarating; a riot of taste and precision, all hand delivered by a team of chefs who clearly love working here.  It is the best meal I’ve eaten, trumping all of the two and three star places I’ve been fortunate to dine at. And for once I wasn’t the one picking up the bill.  Gareth Ward and his team at Ynyshir have created a restaurant which rivals the very best in the country.

10/10

Gateway to India, Birmingham


I remember the days when I used to come to Regency Wharf for drinks at Living Room and Zinc.  When the anticipation of the area was high and the proximity to Brindley Place offered a new oasis of class to an end of Birmingham desperately needing it.  It was a short lived love affair.  Unfortunatley, the bustle of Broad Street is the dominant gene here, with those units now home to the tacky bluster of Rub’s Smokehouse and, even worse, Jimmy Spices buffet.  No one dares come Broad Street for class.  They come on the promise of bad booze, bad music, and, dependent on how successful the evening has been, a shag, a brawl, or a chicken Balti to finish.  The Holy Trinity is all three of those in the same night.


So please forgive my disdain for all that’s on this kebab stained hell hole on earth, because there is some good stuff happening if you scratch deep enough.  I’d mentally tarnished Gateway to India before I’d arrived as just another curry house fulfilling the needs of drunks.  The reality is that it could end up shovelling out an endless stream of Balti dishes to pissed-up idiots at 11pm to make a living, if we don’t make the most of what they do well.  And the bits they do well are as good an example as any I’ve tried.  My preconceptions were miles off and I have no problem admitting that.


We ate most of the street food dishes and almost all were excellent.  Samosa chaat have a heat that builds gradually from the curry outside the samosa, with the potato and pea filling aromatic with masala and cumin.  Pani puri are properly delicate, the choice of two spiced waters unique (he says) to this city.  Have the tamarind one.  Bhel puri is light with plenty of spiced sev on top of what can only be described as Bombay mix.  It’s a dish of textures first, flavours second.




It’s hard to eat aloo tikki chaat and not compare it to the majestic version at Zindiya.  This not quite as good, though still holds up on its own thanks to a thick green mint sauce that makes the potato patty and chickpea curry bounce off one another.  If we’re staying with that same comparasion against that place in the Moseley, the dosa here wipes the floor with it.  It’s as good an example as I’ve eaten – India included.  The thin pancake-like casing is the size of my forearm, a carrier for a rich potato filling that pops with mustard seed and cumin.  It’s served with a tomato chutney, coconut chutney and a thin vegetable curry.  It is outstanding and will cost you just a fiver.  If you work close by and choose a generic sandwich shop over this for lunch, you and I will never be friends.



The chickpea curry makes a return with Chloe Bature, a deceptively simple dish that requires tearing up a whoopi cushion of  fried bread and filling with carbydates.  It is my kind of dish.  Likewise a Pav Bhaji that that is a buttered bun to be dunked into a thick vegetable curry that has a healthy kick of chilli.  I used to get called weird for a dinner of buttered white bread and a madras curry sauce, now it turns it that it’s ‘a thing’.  Who’s weird now.



Let’s pause for one second.  Stop the writing here and you have a solid 8, maybe 9 out of ten.  It is that good. These dishes are what they do best, and glance your eyes back and you’ll notice no meat.  Vegetarian food is rarely seen as sexy, especially so close to the bravado of Broad St, yet this is knockout flavours delivered for a pittance: The most expensive of the above dishes is £6.50, the majority sit at a fiver.  Come here and eat from the street food menu; I will bet my house that you wont regret it.

But plough on we must, there is food to eat. A Viceroy mixed grill is generous in size for fifteen pound and would comfortably feed three.  We like the fat cubes of chicken tikka that are pale from hung yogurt, not red from dye, less so the chicken wings and sheekh kebab that could both be ramped up a notch on the flavour level.  Best are the lamb chops that have been packed with marinade and left until the meat begs to be cooked.  These are as tender as you get, a prime example of how best to treat this cut of lamb.


Full to the point of bursting, curries arrive.  A lamb saag is all metallic notes of spinach and not much else, even if the meat is cooked to point that knives become redundant.  Chicken Jalfrezi lacks heat but makes up for it with some deft spicing.  Best is the dhal that is smokey and rich with butter that I take home and finish off the following day.



There is a final swansong in a lobster, meat removed and mixed with garlic, tamarind, and clarified butter, before going back into the crustacean.  The meat is delicate, the tamarind match a new one for me that works in a sweet and sour sauce kind of way.  At £22.00 it’s not cheap but shows better value to me than the twelve pound curry offerings.


So, what we have is a meal where the street dishes were excellent and everything afterwards merely good in comparasion.  Which, in a self righteous kind of way takes me back to the start of the post.  This restaurant does something as good as anywhere in the city, and that is vegetarian street food dishes.  That dosa, that samosa chaat, that bhel phoori, they need people to eat them.  Failure to do so will result in the pissed brigade taking over and this place just turning into yet another generic curry house in order to stay alive.  It’s better than that.  Regency Wharf once again has a restaurant worthy of our attention, I can only hope that diners reward this with a visit.

7/10  

I dined in the company of Delicious PR and did not see a bill for the meal 

Gemmayzeh Nights at Lewis’s, Moseley

I send loads of people to Lewis’s.  In an era of my life where I am still genuinely shocked that people request my opinion, the question of the city’s best breakfast is always met with the corner spot on Saint Mary’s Row.  It’s not because I can practically see what they have chosen from my flat window (though this is a perk), it is because it is the best breakfast.  No fanciful plating, just the finest of ingredients cooked carefully and treated with respect.  And the people who I send seem to agree.  I know this because they are often arse-deep in one of the chairs whilst I am waiting in line for a table.

Now, no more breakfast talk.  I’ve covered it before if you can be bothered to search for it, and my view hasn’t changed.  We’re here for Gemmayzeh Nights, the Lebanese evenings held every Thursday and Friday.  I have to say when I first heard about this I thought it was a curious move given that Lewis’s faces Damascena, with the latter doing the food of the Middle East very well seven days a week.  Still my girlfriend wanted to try it and I have learnt to do as I am told.


We order a very nice bottle of red from an all Lebanese list and order from a menu split into smaller plates and shawarma boards.  Food arrives as and when it’s ready, the first dish being a grilled halloumi dusted with spice and chopped mint that lifts the bland cheese.  Skewers of chicken have zatar, that woody and zingy aromatic, to thank for lifting them well above the norm.  The quality of the meat is superb – it is this ability to source produce that separates them from all else.  


A trio of the more coventional dips arrives with flat bread.  I think that the labneh, strained yogurt to the unwise, has the whiff of Philidelphia cream cheese about it, a notion I am told is ridiculous.  It does.  We both agree that the hummus has a great texture to it – not overly blended to a wallpaper paste as often is the case – and a rich flavour with plenty of tahini and lemon juice.  And we also agree that the baba ganoush could do with more garlic heat against the smokey aubergine.  All three bowls are quickly shammied clean with the flat breads.  We finish up the small plates with fine slices of asparagus, freekah and labneh.  The entire plate is dressed in a bright acidity that lifts all it touches.  It’s a simple thing executed well.  




Given the quality before, the shawarma is frankly a disappointment.  Forget that the crispy potatoes are good, the pickles perfectly made, or the salad well dressed, this dish lives and dies on how good the meat is, making this Death by Lamb.  The meat has little in the way of taste, and has dried out a little due to overcooking.  At £12.50 this is the most expensive dish on the menu and the one I’d probably recommend least.  

This being Moseley village, expect to pay for the experience.  Our bill of £70 includes a £30 bottle of wine, leaving a figure for the food that pushes the top limits of what it’s worth.  It’s a nice night and I admire what they are doing, but if I’m being really honest I’ll be saving the return visits for lazy weekend breakfasts.  

7/10

Gemmazyeh Nights at Lewis’s are every Thursday and Friday 

Saba, via Deliveroo

Saba has been on my radar for some time, though probably not for the reason you might assume.  You see I have a younger brother who’s nickname is the same as of the restaurant.  Please don’t ask me why, I really have no idea, but it is how everyone knows him.  My family, his friends, the local police – we all call him Saba.  Every time I look at the slightly tattered building in Balsall Heath it makes me think of him looking at strangers and saying “do you have a problem, mate?”, or the time the helicopters hovered over the house looking for him.  Brilliant lad is my little Bro.  I love him dearly.  

But the reason I haven’t visited, wait for it, ShitAdvisor’s 13th top ranked Birmingham restaurant, is a simple one.  No booze on the premises.  This is a problem for me.  I can barely eat breakfast without a glug of wine, so it’s never going to happen at dinner.  I’m sure they offer a tantalising selection of non-alcoholic drinks, but when it comes to tails I’m all cock and no mock.  I order via Deliveroo, crack open the vino, and put on the least amount of clothing possible to scare the rider without him pressing charges.

The reality is that the restaurant is nothing like my brother.  It punches with little strength and is far too polite.  The starter promises wheat sauce, walnut and garlic, but if it’s there it’s swamped by aubergine and tomato.  Likewise a Karahi that is all tender chicken and tomato paste.  Where is the spice? More importantly where is the portion?  It takes up a quarter of the tray and is smaller than the starter.  We’re sixteen quids worth of food down and I’m still starving.  



Here’s the stuff they do well; naans and chilli sauce.  The former is supple and light, the latter fruity and backlit with heat.  Two thirds of the kebabs also impress, one of lamb, another of chicken, both tender and wholesome.  The sheekh kebab is dry and lacking any flavour at all.  These three kebabs will cost you £14 and you will find them under the specials section, an exaggeration at best. 


For those not able to read between the lines, this is not an endorsement of Saba the restaurant.  Delivered to the front door and lubricated with alcohol it is tolerable, but that is about it.  It’s overpriced and surprisingly short on flavour.  If I want some Saba action in future I’ll be picking up the phone to my brother to go for a pint.  

Deliveroo supplied the credit for this.  By all means give Saba a go, but if I were you I’d be in The Wellington ordering a Tortilla burrito via them instead. 

Caneat Cafe, Stirchley


On the day we go for brunch at Caneat Café the ever-changing menu has an item listed as ‘green eggs and ham’. It sounds like something my Mother would have turned out for dinner by accident, along with ‘southern fried chicken and black chips’ and ‘beige sausages with beige mash’.  It is, of course, a nod to Dr. Suess and his beginners books, but then you knew that already.  What you don’t know is that this may be the best brunch dish I have ever eaten, certainly since this blog started.  Two softly boiled and halved eggs lounge on thick sheets of ham and sourdough.  It’s the green bit that makes it, a phrase I haven’t used since describing a boil I once had.  It’s zingy and bright and full of herby notes of coriander and parsley.  It has a depth that goes way beyond a little place in a tired row of shops in Stirchley.  It manages to take ham and eggs on toast and rocket them skywards after a quick detour via every taste bud.  If you go, which you absolutely should, and this is on the menu then you absolutely should order it.  It’s not on the menu, then my life is automatically better than yours.  But then we knew that already.

And so to the rest of this short post on Caneat Cafe, a pale wooded, plant heavy, square room on a high street that is fast becoming the place for independent’s on this side of the city.  We take the stroll from Moseley and arrive late morning to a full house, ordering the green eggs and two other dishes.  Of those three the banana bread is the most conventional, smeared with peanut butter, and topped with both sliced banana, blueberries and pumpkin seeds.  There is a drizzle of something sweet and lemony.  It is a well put together bit of breakfast.

Look deeper and there is a nutty professor at work.  Roast peaches on brioche are hardly ground breaking, but the miso caramel that lurks underneath is.  It has a deep umami flavour that makes it a salted caramel for adults.  There is yogurt and more of that lemony stuff.  The result is a deeply satisfying plate of sweet things.

They do sweet things and quiches that we turn down, despite some glowing references on both.  And it’s cheap, with these three dishes and two drinks failing to hit £25 for the two of us.  What I love about this place is the focus is on the eating, not about pretty plates that look far better than they taste.  All three dishes had flavour in abundance; quirky little turns that enhanced the taste of the main event.  The chef is a man of obvious talent; dare I say maybe too much talent for the location it is in.  Stirchley needs places like this if it is going to fulfil its potential.  I hope the people of it reward it by filling it on a daily basis.  Caneat?  I will eat.  And frequently, too.

8/10