Bistro

The Ivy, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

I was invited to review The Ivy

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Little Blackwood, Moseley

I am familiar with the dining room of Little Blackwood. It is a space I know well, like my work desk and the contents of my drinks globe. For much of the past 18 months I have spent time and money within its walls, under its previous guise as Cheval Blanc. I hold no shame in my love for its previous incarnation; I drank so frequently at it’s bar I had a stool with my name on, and I mourned its loss in a piece for a regional newspaper when it announced its closure. It gave me some of the very best months of my life. But I’m not one for legacies. The past is just that, a memory, one that slowly dwindles away like the contents of my wine glass. Little Blackwood is now here, tweaking the interior with new lights and mismatched furniture. The sense of deja vu may still be present in the wall murals and turquoise booths, but a new spirit is alive and present.

Now stepping away from my fatty liver and putting my food cap firmly on, I think that what sets chef Ben Taylor apart is a firm sense of identity, one that frequently veers to the East, doing so with purpose and confidence. And whilst the cooking occasionally takes a small misstep, it quickly corrects itself with a stride in the right direction. There is very little about the food here that is delicate; the dishes thud with spice applied through modern technique. We would eat three solid courses each but only after an amuse that fails in its intention of setting out his style. A prawn kissed with the lightest of heat on spiced lentils, with a piece of popcorn dusted in curry powder. The daal was good, the prawn of decent quality with the intestinal tract still in place, which is crap. The popcorn is misjudged – have you ever pined for prawn popcorn? Me neither. They are two textures that should never go together.

And then it all gets good. A mushroom and lemongrass broth is poured tableside into a bowl containing pickled onions, a smoked onion puree, and mushroom wontons. The broth is heady and deep in flavour with the suggestion of mirin lurking in the background. The wontons have the texture of a man who has folded a million of these before. A similar success was had with crab macaroni cheese, rich and molten, with the best bit a croquette of the more pungent brown meat. The balance of crustacean and dairy is a tricky one to get right. He nails it here.

A chicken ballottine main shows strong technique across the plate. The rolled breast meat stuffed with a delicate mousseline that is accurately seasoned and poached. A California roll on the side is not only a playful way of getting carbohydrate on to the plate, it also allows the chef to bring a little wasabi into the mix. It is this, along with a ginger gel and a jus flavoured with sake, that makes the plate sing, even if the pak choi has been show a little too much cooking time. On the flip we have a hefty short rib of beef that relies on classic French technique and no Eastern flavours. The meat is cooked until the bone slides cleanly away from the protein, with a Jerusalem artichoke puree and thick baton of carrot halved lengthways. The very best thing on the plate, indeed that we try all night, is the potato Anna, which is what happens to sliced spuds when you trust them in the company of butter for a long time. These have taken on the best bits of the cow, too, perhaps for being a shelf to the short rib whilst cooking. I don’t bloody know. What I do know is I dream of the day when I can sit on a stool and order a bowl of these potatoes, a good bottle of wine and some of the baos for dessert. Those bao, I’ll get to them now.

Dessert is, you may have guessed, bao, those oriental milk buns usually steamed, though here deep fried to a donut-like consistency. We take three because that particular ratio saves me two quid on the usual £4 price tag, and because I am a greedy bastard. All are very good; the banana and salted caramel, the peanut butter and jelly, and the blackberry and apple. Lovely concise bits of dessert, unlike anything else in the city, and perfect for a one man kitchen operation like here. No doubt others will try to copy it and good for them. I’ll read about it on Twitter whilst sat at the bar here with a bowl of potato Anna, three bao, and a bottle of Nyetimber. I may or may not be on my own. A man has needs and this particular man has a girlfriend not very good at sharing.

Service is kind and well meant, if a little raw. A broth is quite difficult to eat with just a knife and fork. But I liked it here, quite a lot actually. It seems an instant fit to the area, a casual bistro where a meal for two could be had for around £40 a head with wine. At that price point they can expect to see a lot of my business. Cheval Blanc is dead, long live Little Blackwood.

8/10

Bistro du Vin, February 2018

The customer is always right, right?! Nonsense. The customer is rarely right. We moan about wine being cold, and wine being too warm. Order cuts of good animal to be cooked until cremation and then say it’s too tough. I’ve personally witnessed someone send back a chicken dish because they were unaware that a supreme had a bone protruding from it and heaven forbid that a once living creature was built upon a skeleton. And don’t even start me on complaints about bread being cold. It’s tough. As front of house you can lose your temper and have it end up on TripAdvisor, or you can nod politely and take the disdain back to the kitchen. The customer may not always be right, but we want to feel like we are. And that is a key component to good service.

The recent spate of restaurant closures in Birmingham has had me thinking a lot about service. There have been horror stories from some of those now gone including screws in lamb and non-existent service. Either these places gave up early in anticipation of closure, or they lost sight of the customer. This industry embodies a ride or die philosophy – mess up once and its unlikely you’ll see us again. Bistro du Vin have taken heed of the customer. They found that from previous menus the more traditional French dishes were being ordered over ceviche and other worldly preparations. They’ve listened and now the new menu is a trip around the classics of France. There are snails and steak tartare. Veal and bouillabaisse. It’s French and proud, all baguettes in bicycle baskets and haw-he-haw-he-haw. There is hardly a sniff of other cultures; just how the upturned nostrils of the Frenchies like it to be.

This cuisine is difficult to pull off, it leans heavily on quality ingredients and sturdy technique. They have nailed it, delivering a meal with more consistency than you are realistically likely to experience in the faux tourist traps of Paris. Snails arrive in the casket of their shell, the parsley and garlic butter used to the stuff the crevice still bubbling away in the ceramic pot. As with so much of French food, part of the theatre is the eating; the breaking of the yolk garnish on the tartare, a mariniere that stains the fingers. Here it is working the meat out of the shell with the corner of a fork. The effort is worth it. I could romanticise cooking like this all day long.

Mushrooms on toast are just that, though the fungi is carefully cooked and the Madeira cream sauce well judged. French onion soup, all brooding beef stock and tangled allium, is topped with a thick slice of gruyere that seals in the aroma until it is released into the soup. The portion is a meal in itself which I don’t even come close to finishing. I’ll be back to give it another go when there is less food and wine to contend with.

And what man can resist a perfect cassoulet? Not I. Huge chunks of salted pork and garlicy Toulouse sausage, with a confit duck leg sitting central for good measure. In lesser hands the long stewing can turn the white beans to mush; not here, when each still retains bite and purpose. It is one of those dishes that requires patience to let the components court one another, and here they are, more familiar than the gene pool in Norwich. It is superb.

Now the nature of today’s lunch means that some serious wines come out to play. Perhaps the most unique of these being a Rasteau Rouge 1998, a red dessert wine that has port on the nose and a lovely sweet finish. It’s not the ideal match to my ile fonttante but frankly who cares? I’m enjoying myself too much. The meringue is poached to a fluffy cloud and dusted with finely chopped pink praline, the custard it sits on full of rich vanilla. I love this dessert and this was as good as a Michelin starred version I had in Paris. We finish with cheese from the trolley, immaculate in condition. And more port. There is always room for more port.

So they’ve listened to the customer and delivered what they have been asked of. A menu unlike anywhere else in the city; one of Gaelic romanticism and dishes built on the very foundation of getting the very best from the produce. Its a crowd pleaser – a menu that will not tire anytime soon. It tastes exactly how you imagine the food of France to taste, full of bluster and garlic notes and sturdiness. From top to bottom its brilliant. Merci, Bistro du Vin.

I was invited to a preview lunch of the new menu

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here; http://www.a2bradiocars.com

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

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

Sticky Walnut, Chester

I’m not sure what I expected of Sticky Walnut, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what we got.  I don’t want to it to sound like I wasn’t happy; on the contrary; the small team here delivered an almost flawless meal from start to finish.  It’s just that the place’s reputation conjures something more exuberant and flashier than the reality of a small bistro in a suburb of Chester.  The décor is basic; bare tables and chairs, a blackboard, and a bookshelf adorned with some serious cookbooks.  Staff wear jeans and aprons, looking and acting like they enjoy being there.  It’s all a bit of a revelation to how dining can be with the stuffiness completely removed.  As much as I enjoy donning a suit and tie to have dinner at Le Gavroche, I’m enjoying being here on the basis that they don’t care who I am provided I am not being a twat.

Maybe the root of the adulation is the menu that reads like a prose.  It is skilled at speaking to the customer in a language we understand, with a basic desire to feed, and to feed with a collection of ingredients that sound like they should be together. After deciding that one of everything is not an option, we order bread and olives and cocktails and wine, before taking some more time to peruse.  The focaccia is gorgeous stuff; light and packed with the flavour of olive oil.

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We get started properly and instantly I am in love.  Mozzarella is blasted with direct heat and nestled on lightest of romesco sauces packing the biggest of flavours.  Across the top is a charred calcot, a slightly milder spring onion, that adds a warmth and sweetness.  It is impeccably balanced.  A chicken liver pate is all technique, the offal seemingly sieved and sieved and then sieved again until it’s smoother than the tones of Barry White.  Pickled rhubarb the perfect foil to cut through the richness.

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img_8378In all of the time I have been eyeing up here the Jacobs ladder has never left the menu, so it makes sense that we should now try it.  The beef short rib has been long braised until it is just holding it’s shape, sat on polenta so creamy it could have been mistaken for Joel Robouchon’s pomme puree.  Honestly, I’m not mad on the anti-presentation that see’s the meat mostly covered by shallot petals braised in red wine and crispy bits of fried kale, but that is about as much as I say as negative comment.  It’s seasoned to an inch of its life.  It’s cohesive.  It’s absolutely fucking brilliant.

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Do I need to tell you that another main of merguez cassoulet was of equal standard?  Probably not, but I will anyway.  It’s a dish that owes the flavour to time and patience, with the ham hock and lamb sausage unified by a robust tomato sauce.  There are wedges of carrot and butter beans to remind that the fun is elsewhere on the plate.  A puddle of vivid green parsley oil is the clever addition.  It’s a splash of light amongst the dark and heady flavours it rests beneath.  Fat chips with parmesan and truffle oil are prime examples of the best use for a potato.

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We do desserts because we know what is good for us.  Rhubarb reappears poached and as a compote, with shards of green tea meringue, blobs of lemon curd, and a yogurt sorbet, all for additional freshness.  It’s light and harmonious, a refreshing way to end a meal.  On the other end of the scale is a sticky toffee pudding, lighter than it looks but no less naughty.  We finish with a pre-ordered birthday cake, a bargain at £25.00 given that it could comfortably feed ten.  We take the thinnest slices possible and box the rest.  The cake is mostly chocolate mousse, garnished with a little honey comb and some honeycomb ice cream.  The remainder would serve us well for the rest of the weekend.

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As if anymore reason was needed to go, the wine list is almost entirely under £40 per bottle and prices dip down at lunch to a totally irrational £16 for two courses.  We overdo it on everything over two hours and struggle to hit forty quid each, including that birthday cake. It’s fantastic to see the group expanding – an additional two already, with a fourth lined up for Liverpool.  The truth is they deserve to be everywhere.  Accessible and affordable; ingredient led cooking with precision.  Sticky Walnut is as good as a bistro gets.

9/10

Sticky Walnut Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Benoit, Paris

Let’s start with an admission; from the moment my dessert turned up, when the waiter plonked two bottles of Armagnac on to the table and told me to help myself, Benoit was on to a winner. Quickly I sank in to a haze of French Brandy where everything made sense. The wood panelled and mirrored walls became less cold. The waiters, with their matching shirts and aprons, found a sudden charm as they buzzed in-between the tightly packed tables. Alain Ducasse must have been sloshed when he purchased the most famous bistro in Paris. And who can blame him, it’s a great place for getting sloshed.

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Apparently, little has changed at Benoit since it opened in 1912. They still serve the same classic bistro food to the well-heeled of Paris, though recent years has seen the addition of a Michelin star and the world’s most celebrated chef as owner. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition of styles typified by the starter of vichyssoise. Here the silky cold potato and leek soup is poured tableside into a bowl with finely julienned vegetables and croutons nestled at the bottom. It’s refreshing and elegant. Boldly seasoned to the point where some would say its salty. I say it’s delicious. There was more vegetable wizardry with cookpot – a signature dish of Ducasse – with accurately cooked ribbons of spring greens, olives and quails eggs producing a light yet substantial vegetarian main.

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Cookpot

Duck, in my opinion, is a meat that is best served blushing pink like lamb, whereas here the length of breast was crimson red, with each knife entry yielding a little blood into the perfectly made bigarade sauce. It was rare in the way that I like my beef and the dish suffered for it. The accompanying gnocchi were a work of art; little pillows of airy mashed potato that almost made up for the undercooked protein.

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And the aforementioned dessert? It was a savarin, the baba’s heavier sibling, with lashings of vanilla heavy chantilly and doused in the brandy. I asked which of the two Armagnac’s I should go for, the waiter said both. So both it was. It was a glorious thing that appealed to both my sweet tooth and alcoholic tendencies. My blood sugar levels raised, my liver winced and the rest of my body called out for more. There were some tarts as the other option. I recall them being fine, though hardly memorable.

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All of this made for an interesting lunch, which I guess is the point to Benoit – they genuinely want you to eat, drink, and be merry. It’s an absorbing and indulgent experience that never takes itself too seriously. Both the service and portions are generous, which they should be, as neither the food nor wine comes cheap. Though as we sauntered off into the Parisian sunlight with a light head and heavy stomach, there was no doubt it was worth the money and inevitable headache the following morning.

 8/10

Purnell’s Bistro

The previous incarnation of Purnells Bistro lingers long in my memory. The restaurant was The Asquith, the first spin-off from Birmingham’s most known chef, Glynn Purnell, and his eponymous restaurant. I had a pork belly that ranks as the best I have ever had; a ruler shaped piece of pig with crisp skin, quince and creamed cabbage. The mere thought of it still causes my saliva to gush like a cheap toilet. I raved and told everyone to go, to which nobody did. The problem seemed to be in the name; few knew the man behind the restaurant was same man cooking on Great British Menu and the punters stayed away. Purnell spotted this, rebranded, and the whole thing has become a roaring success. Job done.

Except it’s not. For a restaurant to carry the weight of a starred chefs name it has to deliver on flavour and at times this bistro was less like Benoit and more Cafe Rouge, which is a shame as it was very nearly very good. A main of chicken with Caesar salad would not have been so dry had the dish arrived with the listed celeriac puree, whereas a hunk of moist confit duck with verde lentils would have been great value at £6.35, had the dish come with sufficient lentils and a properly crisp skin.

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 It was another pork belly dish that showcased the lack of attention to detail. It was aromatic, succulent and fatty, as all good Asian pig dishes should be, though it was swamped with a noodle salad which was properly seasoned with soy and woven with tragically overcooked Chinese greens. On the side was a dense brown triangle of soggy skin, which I can only assume was intended to be crispy and edible. It was neither and should never have left the kitchen. The distinction between the pork dishes served here and at The Asquith could not have been more different.

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 Desserts faired a little better. A rhubarb and custard Alaska was playful and towed the right balance between sweet and sour, whilst “Glynns tiramisu” was nothing of the sort but at the heart of it had a bitter chocolate ice cream that was high in flavour, though a little granular.

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 Despite this, it’s not hard to see why Purnell’s Bistro is a popular destination. The service was well intended and the wine list was affordable with a nice selection available by carafe. It offers an affordable insight into the food behind arguably the cities most famous chef. Unfortunately, the continuous stream of mistakes felt like it’s a place trading on its owners name, rather than the merit of actually being good. With a little TLC this could be the cracking bistro that Birmingham deserves.

6/10

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