Birmingham

Rajdoot, Birmingham

We live in a society that isn’t kind to restaurants.  One that eats them up and spits them out.  One that is so fickle it could be a contestant on Love Island.  A staggering 90% of restaurants in this country fail within the first twelve months. Why? I don’t bloody know, I’m not a restauranteur; I’m an over opinionated twerp with a keyboard. But the ones that I have seen demise with my own eyes have been poorly judged concepts (lobsters), rotten locations (sea food restaurants above Café bloody Rouge) and just bad luck (Comida, you were brilliant and you’ll be back). It almost puts me off my dream of a little Italian restaurant of my own. Almost. The restaurant business is not a lottery, it’s a cleverly thought out line of ticked boxes and processes, as my good friend Barry Sherwin has pointed out to me on many an occasion. And he knows a thing or two about opening these places. So there.

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Once past that opening year it’s no guarantee that it’s an easy ride. Profitability and longevity are the two things that the industry craves, and to achieve this takes hard work and constant reflection. The machine chugs along, driven by trends and an ever changing customer focus. React or die, it’s as simple as that. Take a chameleon approach and you might see two, maybe five, even ten or twenty years if you’re really lucky. But fifty? There can’t be too many successful businesses that even dream of reaching half a century. Rajdoot have, which is a crazy number given that I would have been but a twinkle in the eye of the raging hormonal body of my fifteen year old pubescent father when they first opened in 1967. I struggle to comprehend pieces of furniture that are fifty years old, never mind places to dine at. How they have achieved this is too much for this pea brain to take in.

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Maybe a good starting place for an explanation would be the service. It’s old school slick, customer orientated and polished to a high sheen. We are seated in a plush waiting area and watered, given menus and then taken to a sultry dining room way bigger than it first appears, which is a talent they share with me.  Our corner table is adorned with thick white linen, preloaded with crisp poppadum’s and a spritely chopped onion salad.  A singular candle sits on one corner, more a romantic gesture than a lighting requirement.  At first I assumed they were going all out because they knew I was coming, though it would later transpire they had no clue at all about me.  I like that.  They go to this effort for everyone.  Which probably goes someway to explaining the buzzy dining room on a midweek night.

What also explains the mostly full room is the food, which, on our meal here puts it in the upper echelons of its type in the city.  Its wonderfully traditional, rich and decadent.  We share a platter to start that is probably too much food to successfully proportion our meal.  Like we care.  We each devour the mini fillet of chicken shaslik we have each been portioned to, and make light work of crisp samosa with the most fragrant of potato and pea filling.  We cloak batons of shish kebab with onion kulcha which, with the ingenious addition of mint yogurt, turns it into the most delicious lamb sandwich you could wish for.  Only the tandoori chicken lets the team down for being on the dry side.  It still gets eaten.

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We go for two of the chefs recommendations for main.  He clearly knows what he is talking about.  On paper the Murgh Kebab Masala looks like a tarted-up description of a chicken tikka masala.  Thankfully, it is nothing of the sort.  The kebab is a tightly packed mixture of minced chicken and herbs that have been skewered and blasted through the tandoor until the outside is charred and the centre is just cooked through.  The sauce is nutty and complex, heavy on the spices that trouble the nasal passages, not the other ones.  I just wish there was a little more of it.  I want to glaze the supple garlic naan with sauces this good, and whizz it the individual grains of pilau rice.  The other main was a lamb chilli bhuna that doesn’t disappoint.  It’s heady and spicy, littered with chilli and chunks of pepper.  The tender lamb is a testament to the virtues of patience.  We wipe the bowl clean with the last shreds of the naan.

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They make both gulab jamun and kulfi in-house here, so we request a smaller portion of each to try both.  Indian desserts are often a massive disappoint, but these were lovely.  The gulab jamun was not over soaked in syrup, the kulfi delicate and sprinkled with crushed pistachios.  They work surprisingly well in the company of each other.  If you can find room for dessert, I suggest you harass them into doing the same for you.

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I’d not eaten at the Rajdoot before this.  I guess that I’d been scared that a business open for that length must be old fashioned and reliant on the aging regulars for custom.  I couldn’t be any more wrong.  It’s done fifty years because they serve precise and comforting Indian food with the sort of service that shames many a Michelin starred restaurant.  It is rightly a stalwart of its kind in the city.  I already cannot wait to go back for more.

8/10

I was invited to dine at Rajdoot by Delicious PR

Rajdoot Tandoori Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pieminister, Birmingham

My history with Pieminister goes back some way.  I used to buy them so frequently from Waitrose that a former colleague of mine, a lady by the name of Penny Stubbs, wrote to them and got me a signed cookbook for my birthday.  I was the original groupie, a V.I.Pie whose purchase was always one Chicken of Aragon for me, and always a Heidi for the former vegetarian former partner (*shakes fist in jubilation/anger*).  The girls in Harborne Waitrose used to poke fun at my inflexibility.  I once ate six of their pies in four days at Isle of Wight festival.  Cut me back in those days and I bled pie.  I like pie.  More particularly, I like Pieminister.

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So this is a difficult one for me, because by all accounts my relationship with Pieminister should have led to it being the greatest opening in Birmingham since my mothers legs parted and I popped out back in ’82.  The reality is that it left me yearning for my own pie, with my own accessories, in my own home.

We cut straight to the chase and dive in with the main event.  My dining companion likes her Moo pie, which is generous in beef filling.  She does not like the mash which is oddly floury and bland, or the beef and port gravy that is bitter and gloopy.

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I try one I have not eaten from the supermarket.  A green Thai chicken curry pie that is oddly muted in flavour.  It needs more punch of seasoning, more kick of chilli, an elbow to the head of vibrancy.  It basically needs a Thai boxing lesson.  I take fries at a supplement with chilli seasoning that are the best thing on the plate.  A jug of chicken gravy should never have been there (it was supposed to come with tzatziki which eventually arrived when I asked), and I wish it hadn’t.  It was acrid and destroyed anything it came in contact with.  Jalapeños are ordered as an addition that I don’t require in hindsight.

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We skip dessert and finish off the cocktails that are good value if you catch them at the 2-4-1 period like we did.  I leave a little jaded.  Like the moment I have dreamt of for the last six years ends with this.  The fact is I still love a Pieminister – they are easily the best pie in any supermarket.  I will just stick to eating them at home with my overly buttery mash and thick caramelised onion gravy.  I have safety there, where I know that the salt pot is easily within reach and I have two firm hands on my potato ricer.  That’s where the good stuff happens.  But for now the dream is over.  Only a shut supermarket and a craving would see me go back.

5/10

Pieminister sent me a voucher to cover a proportion of the bill

And now the plug. I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards. If you are reading this before the 4th June please give me a vote here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

It was on a whim that my new girlfriend and I decided to have lunch at Harborne Kitchen. We’ve both had it rough of recent, both slightly hungover and tired, in need of a stomach lining fill and a top-up of alcohol levels. We initially looked to the greasier end of the spectrum in the city centre, before deciding that The Plough in Harborne would be a good option to while away the day after lunch. So, Harborne Kitchen it was. It would turn out to be one of the better decisions that the indecisive shit has made this year. The girl done good.  It’s stuff like this that got her the gig.

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We arrive on very wet Saturday afternoon, when the restaurant space is peppered by the dark grey sky looming through the skylight. It is a lovely dining room, arguably one of the cities more charismatic, all royal blue and white, the centre dominated by the open kitchen and stooled seating around the beech wood counter. A flurry of nibbles start us off. Cod skin arrives looking like a gilded pork puff, the salty whack of the sea ramped up by a spritz of rosemary vinegar.  These are excellent, as are the cauliflower cheese pastries they share a space with.  Lightly pickled carrots with a little of the liquor and buttermilk feel like work in progress, a little too refined and clever for its own good.  We end the procession with a gorgonzola donut that erupts through the brioche casing in the mouth.  It’s bites like this that make me go out for dinner.  It was as corrupt as a Tory MP, only far more appealing.

The first course might just have been my favourite.  Just cooked jersey royals, soured, no, sorry, cultured cream, with a wild garlic veloute poured tableside.  The veloute is bold and intense, as good as any I can recall eating.  Also lurking in the bowl is caviar that gives pops of salinity and toasted rice for bite.  We race for the last piece of sourdough to wipe the bowl clean.  It’s good enough to make me want to punctuate this sentence with swear words.  Absolutely nailed on one star cooking.

The duck liver dish that follows is all about the texture.  The combination of duck and cherry is one that harks back to Escoffier, the fruit having enough tartness to cut through the rich liver.  Sandwiching the parfait are two shards; one like a ginger melba toast, the other some wafer thin chicken skin.  It’s complex and intriguing.  Every mouthful is unique.

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I ask for a replacement to a salmon dish and get a salad of heritage tomatoes, a baked bean fondue, basil, and a tomato essence poured tableside.  It’s light and fresh, a beguiling mix of temperatures.

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Our main was a mammoth of a dish.  Lamb, as rolled shoulder, neck fillet, and tongue, with (wait for it), lovage, potato puree, radish, black olive puree, curd, spiced aubergine, and lamb jus.  There was a lot going on, with some parts better than others.  The rolled shoulder was glorious, as was the livery profile of the tongue.  Both were more than enough to stand up to the big flavours of the tapenade-like olive puree and aubergine.  The neck fillet was a little lost, as was the lovage.  We finished it because it was delicious, but both agreed it would have had more clarity with a couple of items stripped away.

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Desserts were frankly brilliant – there is obvious talent in the pastry department.  A yogurt ice cream is the perfect foil for orange segments frozen with liquid nitrogen in front of us.  There is a sharp curd that sits underneath that ties it all together.  It is exceptional.  Even better is the final dessert of honey parfait with milk ice cream, honeycomb, dehydrated milk shards, and honey.  It is good enough to induce tears of joy – balanced with ballerina-like poise.  It has character, texture, and flavour.  Another nailed on one star course.

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The price for the above lunch?  Thirty five English pounds.  Yes, you have read that correct.  I was on the beer (don’t judge), the other half on the G&T and we fail to hit £90 between us.  And they don’t charge a service charge, despite a slick operation that will have a certain guide going weak at the knees.  Evening visits and wine will ramp up the bill, but even so, this place is worth it.  It’s clever cooking, with a focus on big flavours and complexity.  Book up and go before word reaches the rest of the city in the same way it did with Carters.  It stops raining as we finish eating and light pours through the skylight and on to our table.  It feels like a sign.  Harborne Kitchen is a very special place that can bring sunshine to the darkest of days.

9/10

And now the plug; I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards, where Harborne Kitchen is also nominated in the Best Fine Dining.  Please give us both a vote here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

 

Hotel du Vin, Birmingham

I first stayed in Birmingham’s Hotel du Vin on the day of my 21st, a decade and a bit ago, when an ex-girlfriend treated me ahead of what has gone down as one of the cities wankiest ever birthday parties. If memory serves me correct, I wore a white suit and vest, the only colour emanating from me being a deep orange fake tan that Trump would have been envious of. I got drunk, wasted the rooms intentions and woke up to the sound of her boffing into a bin in the morning. She was a class act, was Mel. Fast forward six months and she is driving out of Bristol’s Hotel du Vin alone, whilst I am in the bath unaware of the messages she has found on my phone. This would turn out to be a reoccurring theme in my adult life. I’ll never learn.

So, I guess that when I think about it I have always had a good relationship with the group. I’ve stayed in their hotels, I’ve drank their whisky, I’ve eaten their food. I’ve actually always been a fan of the grub here, it’s classic Gaelic stuff that goes so well with wine and big comfy beds. I’ve eaten wobbly terrines with pockets of jellified fat in between soft meat, coq-au-vin’s with the richest of wine sauces, and marbled steaks crusted by heat on the outside and blue in the centre. This is all from a panelled dining room rich with art, that feels like the home of somebody far wealthier than I will ever be. It is a very romantic place to eat dinner.

Tonight I am here in the company of other blaggers bloggers, including my new girlfriend, who will inevitably also go through my phone one day and depart quickly into the sunset. All of us are here to try the new Summer menu and to drink lots of wine. It was not a difficult invite to accept. The new menu sticks to what they do best, with a few surprises here and there. A charcuterie board is hard to get excited over, though the meat is of obvious quality and balanced well with the astringency of the lightly pickled veg. Much better is a scallop ceviche, generous in portion with three of the shellfish sliced thinly and returned back to their shells. I happen to love raw scallops like this, dressed in a little lime juice to break down the proteins, salt and sugar, with pops of sweet pomegranate seeds and the occasional tingle of chilli. It’s light and refined. I shoot the juices direct from the shell because it demands so.

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I order porchetta because I am a man of taste. It transpires to be an inspired choice, a fat roundel of roast pig with a quenelle of apple sauce and a stick of crackling that my dental plan would not approve of.  The best bit is the sticky glaze of reduced onions and stock around the edge that adds funk and definition.  It is rustic in the best possible sense; a dish built around bold seasoning and big flavours. At £16 it is a bargain.

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A lamb main was far more refined, which, at £27, it bloody should be.  The French trimmed rack cooked to an accurate medium, with a salad of feta, charred baby gem, green beans and peas.  There is punchy seasoning and everything is cooked well, but how keen you think the price is I will leave to your discretion.

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Desserts saw theatre produced to a level that very few can accomplish in the city.  Crepe Suzette is a staple of The Ritz with good reason, it has interaction and flames and is damn right bloody delicious.  Here it is almost identical; pancakes, orange juice and zest, butter, and brandy flambéed as you watch tableside.  Just order it and thank me afterwards.  It makes the apple tart look ordinary.  Spoiler alert:  It is not.  The pastry is delicate, the apples treated with respect and just cooked through.  It is classic French patisserie work crafted in a hotel kitchen in Birmingham.

With this dinner we have lots of wine, which, this summer, is a celebration of Pinot, a grape I happen to have a lot of love for.  Unsurprisingly, it is an extremely will curated list.  Somewhat more surprisingly, it happens to be very affordable. Experience tells me that a meal here is going to creep over three figures, and if you want my opinion, I would tell you that is money well spent.  Hotel du Vin isn’t going to rewrite the culinary recipe book, but it is going to feed you honest French inspired food for a fair price.  And that happens to be perfectly fine with me.

I was invited to the launch of the summer menu at Hotel du Vin by Delicious PR

Bistro Du Vin - Hotel Du Vin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gaucho, Birmingham

Gaucho arrives in Birmingham on a tsunami of hype, being the first to open from the group for seven years and choosing little old Brum for the honour.   I’m going to stick my neck out and speak for the city; we’re delighted about this. Good steak in Birmingham is a rarity, and even then it’s a decent walk from the centre to get a fix. The principles of a steakhouse are not difficult – source cow, age cow, cook cow, rest cow, eat cow – yet the realities are often a disappointment. I’ve stopped eating steak out because of it.  It defies the very reason I eat out, which is to have an experience better than I can create at home.  I know an excellent butcher and I cook it better than the majority of places.

So let me thank Gaucho one more time for delivering the best piece of cow I have eaten in this city, in the sexiest dining room I have eaten in quite some time. It is a sultry space of plush purple seating and low lighting.  There are abstract trees in the centre of the room and leaf murals lining the walls.  It’s a place to impress, whether that be the partner, the affair, or the colleague.

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I am here on a night to showcase the beef, and boy, what beef it is.  Argentine prime cattle, wet aged for longevity.  After some nibbles of raw bits and some slow cooked bits, we sit down and tuck into a scotch egg with coarsely chopped cow replacing the pig.  It’s bold and funky, almost reminiscent  of tartare when the yolk is released.  A chipotle ketchup swings us back over to South America.  It is the ultimate pub snack, twenty times more masculine than any pork scratching.  I like it a lot.

Our main event is a fillet cooked to a perfect rare.  It is, as I reference above, the best piece of beef I have eaten in this city.  It’s not a cut I would usually order – I far prefer a bit of chew and more flavour – but it’s one I will go back to again.  Buttery in texture, full of flavour and aggressively seasoned.  It is wonderful.  A decadent truffle compote has the underlying earthiness of mushroom, with a carrot and parsnip dauphinoise that I will try and fail to recreate at home. If this is on the menu order it.  If it’s not stamp your feet and insist that they make it for you.

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There was dessert, but if I’m honest I’d make too many trips to the Malbec tasting room and by now all I wanted to do was go and meet a girl.  I was extremely tipsy and don’t recall that much about it other than the panna cotta was well set and I cleaned the bowl, which means it must have been good.

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The sticking point for some will be the price – it’s not cheap.  Order three courses, including the fillet and a couple of glasses of wine from the bottom of the list, and you’re looking at a spend of £70 a head.  For that price you expect fireworks, and, if steak is your thing, you can expect it here.  It is obvious the level of effort that has gone into making the newest Gaucho a success, and it has paid off with aplomb.  Gaucho has the making of a Birmingham classic, and I for one cannot wait to keep on going back.

I was invited to the launch event at Gaucho

And now the plug; I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards. Please be kind and vote for me here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

Ryder Grill, The Belfry, Sutton Coldfield

I was going to start this piece waxing on about The Belfry’s history, building up the grandeur of the golf course before gradually moving on to food. But what is the point? We all know about the course and its history, and I genuinely believe that there is a more pressing issue which I want to straight dive into. What I want to talk about is captive audiences. If you’re at The Belfry it’s likely that you are either a member, or you are there in some form of corporate capacity, and in both instances money, whether that be yours or the businesses, is not going to be an issue. I’ve been to places like this up and down the country, I know that too often the temptation is there to trouser the money of those whose money it is not. They are always remote in location. It nearly always features expensive mediocre food and an overpriced wine list. They take the money because they can. So it impresses me greatly when these places do show ambition and a desire to feed those as they should. And more so when it’s a price point that doesn’t alienate those paying from their own pockets.

So let’s start this piece properly. The Belfry have launched a tasting menu that veers from good to very good, and they are charging the ludicrously cheap amount of £40 for 6 courses for it. £65 if you take the matching wine flight. I can sleep comfortably telling you that pound-for-pound it’s the best value tasting menu I have tried on these shores. We start with pig cheek croquettes, dense and meaty, with a burnt apple puree. It’s a combination I’ve eaten three times in the last two months and whilst they don’t pack the same pronounced flavour as the version at Simpsons, they are very moreish. Bread follows with chicken fat butter, before we arrive at the first proper course. Asparagus is served cold, with duck yolk hollandaise, burnt onion powder, brioche crumb and a little lemon dressing. It works, like properly works. Technically sound, balanced and complex, that still shows off the asparagus as the star of the show.

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The liver parfait may not win any awards for the presentation, but the offal flavour is strong.  The accompaniments of savoury granola and sweet pineapple are unconventional but work in unison.  I stray off menu and get stone bass because I don’t like big and pink things with fins.  The fish is well timed with crisp skin, nestling on a courgette puree that has been seasoned strongly.  Only a beurre blanc detracts from the green elements of broad beans, purslane, and more courgette.  It’s a fresh dish, breezy with the whiff of coastal air.

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Lamb would be the weakest course of the evening, the only one not technically competent and a little overthought.  The ribbon of fat on the rack had been correctly rendered down, the meat cooked to an accurate medium.  The charred baby gem lettuce was lovely, as was an artichoke hummus, and punchy crumbling’s of feta.  But the rack needed more resting, the caramel was bitter, and it really doesn’t need the pressed shoulder.  If it sounds overcritical, you’re probably correct, but when you eat a meal that is comfortably two AA rosette standard and this is the one dish that sits at its present level of one rosette, it is worth pointing out.

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Desserts would transpire to be a highlight.  A little brulee’d flan was a playful ode to strawberries and cream that disappeared before those around me had finished taking photos.  It is up there with the better desserts I have eaten thus far this year.  We finish with a passion fruit tart under a spiral of torched meringue.  It’s bloody lovely, even more so when taken with a mango puree and bitter chocolate.  They should lose the coconut sorbet or ramp its flavour up.

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The wines were well matched and plentiful, served by a team not afraid to show personality.  It all made for a rather lovely evening in a pretty dining overlooking the course.  Based on this meal it would be impossible not to recommend The Belfry as somewhere to go for dinner – a sentence I genuinely never thought I would write in my life.  It’s worth forty pounds of anyone’s money for ambitious cooking way too affordable for its location and price point.

I was invited to try the tasting menu

Tom’s Kitchen, The Mailbox, Birmingham

I’ve been spoiled with good food recently.  I can feel it across my waistband and as a nagging ache on the left hand side of my chest. I’m not complaining, I live a good life with many trappings, but I did I know I was going to have eaten so well over the last two weeks? No, probably not. Simpson’s was always a given, and I knew enough of Matt’s cooking to know that I was going to enjoy Cheal’s. But did I really expect Tom’s Kitchen to deliver a great meal? Honestly, not on my nelly. I went to the launch party, I met Aiken’s (my fiancé has a crush on him. Strange taste in men, that girl), I ate the nibbles. They were good, nothing more. And then the company themselves downplay what they do, describing the restaurant as a brasserie serving British favourites and comfort food classics. Thanks, but I can rustle that up at home to a decent standard.

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So here we are, in a tucked away corner in The Mailbox, finding out that Tom Aikens excels in, of all things, modesty.  The kitchen here is producing some very high quality cooking, they’re just not shouting it out from the rooftops.   Whoever has designed the room needs a promotion.  It’s a chic space of oversized yellow chesterfields, with splashes of dark green, all under the base colour of soft sand.  Tables are well spaced, service is buzzy and friendly.

A parfait of liver would be the first proper thing to eat. It’s smooth and distinct, the richness ramped up by the addition of foie gras to the chicken offal.  We smear it inch thick on to toasted brioche, apply both cornichons and chutney and away we go.  The parfait is as textbook as it gets.

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And then things go up another level.  Venison loin is rare, with red wine poached pear, beetroot gratin and a puree of the same root.  It’s a cloud of purple with only a dome of braised leg croquette stopping Whoopi Goldberg from winning Best Supporting Actress for it.  What impresses most is the precision of it all – every element has been cooked and seasoned to perfection.  It punches way above brasserie level and more into the kitchen of somewhere like Turners, incidentally where the Head Chef previously worked.

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A similar story was had with a special of Guinea fowl supreme, on the most addictive of barley risotto spun with confit duck and hazelnuts.  Its deceptively simple looking, though had massive flavour throughout.  If they had this dish on the menu in one form or another, I would be back fortnightly to eat it.

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Alas, the pudding we shared was good, though not of the same ridiculously high standard of the two mains.  Iles flottantes, floating islands, or Mrs Bettons Snow Eggs as they appear here – call them what you may – are the ultimate use of an egg; poached meringues for the whites, custard for the yolks.  Good enough to eat as just that with toasted almonds, though here with a blackberry jam that dominates and honeycomb, in the only technical slip, that has the tang of alkaline from raw bicarbonate of soda.  It’s still tasty stuff, and we finish all of it, but it feels a bit of let down given the savoury courses.

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This being The Mailbox it comes at a price. Starters are typically £7-10, the Guinea fowl was £18.00 and that venison at £26.00. Desserts rarely fail to hit a tenner. Is it worth it? Yes, I’d pay that for either of those mains any day. Quality like this comes at a price, and I’d argue that a total bill of under £90 for the above, including two large glasses of wine represents good value. Tom Aikens can cook, anyone who knows his pedigree can tell you that, but this is a team working to his specification in his absence and they are doing his name justice. Brasserie? Debatable. Seriously good addition to the cities restaurant scene? Undoubtable.

8/10

A proportion of my bill was comped by the restaurant

Tom’s Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Simpsons, Birmingham

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I’ll get the truth out from the start; Simpson’s is a special place for me. It was the first Michelin starred restaurant I took my girlfriend to, the place where we had our first year anniversary, where I celebrated my 30th birthday, and where I’ll be eating on my birthday this year. It’s a distinct kind of place, opulent without ever being flashy, polished without the stuffiness. It used to be much more rigid before the refit, whereas  now it has a Scandinavian vibe, with plenty of natural light bathing the bare wooden elements of tree, tables, and floor. It’s clean and casual, yet still romantic enough for a date night to ask your long suffering girlfriend of seven years for her hand in marriage. The last part is merely a suggestion.

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With the refit came a new Head Chef and a fresh approach. Nathan Eades joins Executive Chef, Luke Tipping, in the kitchen creating food that is identifiable with the old Simpsons, yet lighter and more modern in style. I have eaten here more frequently than any other starred restaurant and can gladly report that the food is better than ever. Not only have they moved straight to the top of Birmingham, they are now competing with the big boys across the country.

The opening act sets the scene for the evening. A tapioca cracker given the Just For Men treatment with squid ink is the ideal foil for the creamiest of taramasalata dip, whilst a delicate cracker made from chickpea flour is topped with truffled mayo and flowers almost too pretty to eat.  Almost.  We save the pigs head until last for good reason. The unctuous meat is encased in tiny shards of pork crackling – try telling me you don’t want that now.   It is as fulfilling as two mouthfuls of food can get. Bread comes as a flaky tapenade roll and a sourdough that is almost as good as that from the Hedone bakery. For those familiar with the latter they know this to be the highest of compliments. The crust has bite, the crumb slightly elastic with large pockets of air. It is dreamy when smeared an inch thick with the salty whipped butter.

We are yet to reach the dishes ordered from the A La Carte menu and had already eaten some seriously good food. A starter of veal tartare exceeds this by being one of the best raw meat dishes I have ever eaten, the entire plate basked in light acidity from balls of apple and slices of kohlrabi.

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A carrot broth jewelled with herb oil is poured tableside onto a slow cooked duck egg with meaty hen of the wood mushrooms, and tangles of crispy pork for bite and saltiness.  Nasturtium add a gentle pepperiness not unlike watercress.  It’s a joy, and a visual joy at that.  Salmon is cured so that the texture firmed up, with sweet raw obsiblue prawns seasoned with a little lemon juice, caviar, cucumber, and a buttermilk dressing.  The dish requires little in the way of cooking and an expert hand in balancing the sweet and the acidity.  It nails it, producing a bowl full of complexity that celebrates the best in produce.

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Beef comes as a rare cannon of rump and a wedge of brisket so softly cooked it concedes at the merest suggestion of pressure.  Add to this a fat spear of white asparagus, petals of charred shallot, mushrooms, potato puree seasoned with crisp bone marrow, and what you have is a plate that produces new combinations with every forkful.  It is rooted in classicism, which is fine by me when it is done as well as this.

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I’ll cut to the chase with the other main course; it is the best lamb dish I have ever eaten.  The meat is a perfect medium, so tender it could have been cut with a palette knife.  Garlic is represented both as subtle wild leaves and a pungent fermented emulsion, with a sheeps curd that seasons and elevates.  The sauce is a thing of beauty which we used the last of the bread to mop up, then our fingers to chase the last dots when that runs out.

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Pre dessert is a clever little ice cream made from buttermilk with lemon gel that evokes a healthy breakfast with its crunchy oats topping, whilst successfully transitioning from savoury through to sweet.  One of the sweet courses is batons of poached rhubarb with a sorbet of the same fruit, shards of muscovado sugar, and a burnt cream that works in a similar style to a crème brulee, albeit in a much more cheffy, modern fashion.

IMG_8814 The other dessert.  My God, the other dessert.  A caramelised rectangle of filo pastry is the canopy for a serious amount of work that riffs on the flavour profile of coffee.  There is white chocolate, aerated, and again as a mousse, chocolate sponge, Nesspresso granite, and an ice cream made from spiced speculoo biscuit.  It is dark and funky.  Creamy and indulgent.  It delivers on every level.   It is one of the very best desserts I have eaten.

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Perfect.  It’s not a word I use too often, but Simpsons delivered a perfect evening.  The bill, creeping in at just over a hundred quid a head including a lovely Hungarian red and a couple of ports, felt very fair for food that was clearly to me at two star level.  It was intriguing, elegant cooking with real personality.  It’s surely just a matter of time before Michelin acknowledges this and elevates it to the level it belongs.  Simpsons is up there with the very best in the country, and we, the good folk of Birmingham, should embrace our finest restaurant at every opportunity.

She said Yes.

10/10

Simpsons Restaurants Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Los Banditos, Boldmere

I feel bad about this one. Really, really bad. In an ideal world this piece would start when the charming manager greeted us at the door and told us they were full, but would find us a table within twenty minutes, and finish fifteen minutes later when the equally charming waiter led us to our spot by the kitchen door and talked us through the menu. Straight away I could see why it is full despite being open only a few months. The interior is nicely kitted out Day of the Dead style, with murals on the wall of cartoon skulls, bright in colour. The large booths are inviting, the space well managed. And the front of house, they care about doing what they are doing, and they are doing it really well.

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So apologies to the well-kept man in the grey jumper if this was your place, but the food was nowhere near the same standard as the service. Mexican food in Birmingham continues to be poorly represented. Let me make it clear, it wasn’t all that bad. The quesadillas are passable, with the chilli con carne better than the chicken, though both need more cheese as a binding agent between tortilla and protein which come apart in the fingers. The potato bravos too are pretty good. Yes, the cubes of spud have been cooked too long, but the tomato sauce is laden with fiery chilli heat.

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A burrito is really nothing of the sort, consisting of just chicken, rice, and cheese. It is characterless, not hot like I asked for and with none of the black beans advertised. It has the foundations of a decent dish but no roof. It needs bite and texture, fresh acidity, and additional elements to stop the monotony. They should go visit a Tortilla for inspiration.

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The worst is yet to come. Pulled pork, as flabby and pale as a Brit abroad, piled heavily onto decent nacho’s made from fat triangular tortilla wedges. It is frankly inedible, a dry tasteless mass of grey pig, with ribbons of un-rendered fat that clog the throat like dental putty. The thin salsa is clearly a cheap variety which annoys me greatly considering that the hot sauces on the table are the rather excellent ones from Pip’s Sauces.

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It is cheap, with nearly every item that we have around a fiver, though they do main dishes that sit around the early teens which I am in no rush to try. They forget to add our drinks, we send the bill back and they return it with a genuine Thanks. Incidentally, a dear friend of mine who lives not too far happened to go the following evening. He had the same brilliant service, no burrito or pulled pork, and thought it to be an okay experience. So maybe we caught them on an off day. I’m crying out for good Mexican food to make it’s way to Birmingham. Los Banditos is not the answer, good service or otherwise.

4/10

 

Little Borracho at 1000 Trades

A quick post on the latest wonder to reach 1000 Trades. Little Borracho is an offshoot of El Borracho de Oro, the much loved Spanish restaurant near Five Ways. Now the term offshoot may be a tad unfair given that the owner, Emma, is working the galley kitchen herself, giving a clear insight to how she intends the dishes to be.

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Put simply, the food is brilliant. Emma can really cook, I told her this, and I say that in the least condescending way possible. I am used to seeing her work the dining room with that personable charm she possesses, but it so happens that her ability in the kitchen is as good, if not better. Slices of aubergine are fried to a crisp without a hint of grease, finished with honey that clings the sesame seeds and chilli to its surface. It’s vibrant Barcelona in the industrially Jewellery Quarter. Chicken skewers have accurately cooked morsels of breast meat with petals of onion and pepper that still retain a little bite. The last dish is a new one to me, Calandracas, being a beer battered croquette of ham and cheese, with a little chorizo in the middle.  Those three little bad boys of oozy fun are my new favourite snack in town.

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And behold, my lateness / laziness brings good tidings!  Hot off the press is the news that Emma has extended her stay at 1000 Trades until the end of May, leaving absolutely no doubt that you should drag that arse of yours down to try it.  1000 Trades is a great place doing great things and with Little Borracho in the kitchen, there is no better area than the Jewellery Quarter to go for a nosh.

Little Borracho is the 1000 Trades residence until the end of May