Fine Dining

Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

Midway through our meal, somewhere between wine bottle two and three, Claire leaned towards me and slurred “Sighh, if I wur to ever work aza shhef, it would be ‘ere”. I think. She could have said anything. Luckily for the food industry her cooking is nowhere near good enough; the people of Harborne are safe for now. Unless tax evasion is your thing, in which case she’s coming for you hard. But I do get her point. There is an ease to service here, the front of house are smiling, they let you see the kitchen and, shock, horror, they are enjoying themselves. Chefs happy, who would have ever thought it? Owner Jamie Desogus even closed a very busy Sunday service so that his team had a better work/life balance. Hell, if I were a chef I would want to work here too.

But I’m not, I am just a rotund gobshite with a healthy appetite. And this, our third visit in ten months was easily the best to date. There has always been a confidence to the cooking here, and now it stands broad-chested on the plate for all to see. Those salmon skin crisps are still there to be seasoned with rosemary vinegar, though they are now joined by cubes of livery ox tongue and crackers topped with a cheese mousse and grape. A slice of bread still follows, with a new friend in maltloaf for company. Nibbles can often feel like an afterthought; not here. They are considered and, more importantly, an insight into the food over the next few hours.

It starts with a bang. Two opening courses as good as I can recall eating in sequence so early on in a meal. Chicken liver parfait arrives under the canopy of crispy skin, with dots of blood orange gel, white chocolate, and hazelnut. The chocolate is far more daring in word than reality; it provides another fatty layer to the dish and lets the other stuff stick around longer. It works. It is so big on flavour you wonder if anything else could surpass it. The celeriac does. Salt baked cubes on a broth so heavily reduced it’s almost treacle. A flurry of blue cheese mousse hides little pieces of pickled quince and I ask for a supplement of Perigord truffle because in my head it makes perfect sense. Praise Be to that massive head of mine. It’s a beautiful plate of food that is immaculately balanced; savoury, followed by earthiness and umami, sweet, and then washed away by light acidity. Shit, I’ve just morphed into Greg Wallace. Pass me the gun.

The course that follows is a riff on the flavours of Thai green curry, with a fat fillet of cod immersed in an aerated cloud of lemon grass, galangal, and probably several other nuanced flavours my primitive palate fails to detect. A grating of kaffir lime zest brings that lovely aroma and puffed rice is there just on the off-chance you were actually expecting a cod curry in a smart restaurant in Harborne. It nods brilliantly towards The East whilst still retaining its spot as the fish course in a tasting menu.

The beef main does very little for me on paper, mostly because its beef. The reality is the opposite; we get a brave bit of cooking that works because it is flush with acidity and then whack! a solid bit of cow. I’ve turned into Greg Wallace again. Sorry. The star is undoubtedly the slowly cooked Wagyu brisket which breaks down at the slightest nudge of a fork. For me, it doesn’t need the Longhorn fillet, because those lean, expensive cuts tend to get shown up for how little flavour they have when stuck next to a more fatty and unctuous bit of animal. The rest is a demonstration on how to get the best out of beef; crispy shallots and pickled onions, a grilled king oyster and dainty pickled mushrooms, the silkiest of mash potatoes, and a puddle of chive oil that adds zip to it all. We take the cheese course because it is Brillat-Savarin, Perigord truffle and grape. If that particular menage a trois doesn’t get you horny, you really need to see a doctor.

On my first write-up here I got a little excited by the desserts by pastry chef, Michael Topping, and I am going to stand by what I said then. The man is a talent, he gets balance and flavour, and the importance of dessert not being pancreatic exploding sweet. First up is rhubarb ice cream with nitrogen frozen rhubarb cut with stem ginger. Following this is chocolatey mousse and popcorn with a sorbet of maybe yogurt, maybe banana, that I remember to be rich and salty and damm right delicious. Apologies about the hazy detail, I was pissed by this point. With these we drank some lovely Tokaji. I know this because it’s on the bill and Claire has purchased some since.

The bill with a lot to eat and as much to drink hits just north of two ton. You could have three courses and a nice bottle of wine for well under half, which was our intention before we got there. I love Harborne Kitchen, not only because it makes my girlfriend happy, but because it’s genuinely a fantastic neighbourhood restaurant that is simply trying to be the very best it can be. And it seems we’re not alone; aside from it being full on the night it has also been shown interest by a certain tyre guide and rightly so. Without wishing to put pressure on a place not looking for accolades, everything we ate was consistently at one star level. Big things are going at Harborne Kitchen and it couldn’t happen to a nicer place.

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Elystan Street, Chelsea

I think the first time I was really proud of this blog was when Elystan Street put my first write-up on their website. I struggle with this, I’m horribly competitive and I rarely enjoy my own work, but I am a food fan boy at heart and Phil Howard is right up there with my heroes. Outside of Brum I don’t think there is a chef I’ve eaten more of, from the luxurious splendour of The Square, to Elystan Street, his somewhat more laidback offering. He is one of those chefs that makes an a la carte decision impossible; you want to eat every dish listed and probably would if that didn’t require a remortgage.

We come on a Sunday lunch when the dining room is filled with Chelsea types. It makes for interesting eavesdropping; the table next to us has a son explaining his property plans to his mother. A small pied-a-terre in the city and a larger home on the coast will suffice for him. It’s another world here and this place caters purely for those; there is not much value anywhere on the wine list and very little for under £40 a bottle. Bread is the only introduction to the food and very good it is too, though it’s overshadowed by some truly outstanding butter.

Howard always seems to have a pasta dish present; I recall a hand-rolled macaroni at the previous establishment, whereas today is strozzapretti. Anything shaped like my first initial is fine with me. It’s the carrier for a loose ragu of finely chopped white park beef and a dusting of parmesan. It’s success is in its clarity; the beef is the star and here it is allowed to shine. The rest form the background setting; the pasta a vehicle, the parmesan the umami injection to the engine.

A fat fillet of cod is all butter basted flesh and pearlescent core, with parmesan gnocchi and buttered chanterelles. It’s fat heavy, yet fresh and light with clever acidity. Whoever said cheese and fish don’t go together has clearly never eaten here. Roast pork is just that; thin slices of pig just blushing pink, with cabbage and wedges of apple long massaged with heat. It’s not the prettiest plate of food I’ve eaten, though the flavour is there, in particular the cabbage spiked with lardons. On the side are roast potatoes, crumbly edged though maybe not as soft on the inside as I’d ideally like.

Desserts are no going to threaten the pastry section at Ducasse anytime soon, but then I expect that is entirely their intention. More homely, less fuss. We have a faultless sticky toffee pudding with earl grey ice cream and rice pudding with rhubarb. They are the Ronseal of puddings, which is fine by my girlfriend, who happens to love both of these more than she could ever love me. The ice creams in particular are textbook examples.

The above food, a couple of pre-drinks and a bottle of wine hits just shy of a ton apiece, an amount that sees our three courses arrive in around 40 minutes. Now maybe the clocks move faster in Chelsea, but for almost £200 I happen to see that as rushed. It left a bitter taste in the mouth, a sensation that was further exasperated by relentless perfect Negronis afterwards in the perfect Bar Termini. Maybe they cater for a different type of customer here, but for me the ideal Sunday lunch is a lazy affair slowly reeled out. I don’t want my dessert to arrive six minutes after they’ve cleared away the main plates. Phil Howard remains one of my culinary heroes, though I’ll gladly play those memories out in my head at my own pace, rather than the speedy service at Elystan Street.

Gymkhana, London

The last day of our London blowout saw the bluster of snow quickly gather around our ankles as The Beast rolled onto our shores from the east. We find solace in Mayfair, firstly with the perfect martini in The Connaught, thereafter in the plush leather booths of Gymkhana. The dark panelled upstairs of the restaurant feels like a plush gentleman’s club, with low lighting that that doesn’t bode well for cameras and therefore ideal for one of the most famous men on the planet to enjoy lunch. No, its not me. Mid-lunch I send a picture to my best friend with said superstar accidentally in the background, stating the inevitable of who it is. “Are you eating curry at 2.30pm?” is his response. Yes Nathan, I am. I am in Mayfair, there are no rules here.

Not just any curry though. Curry bestowed with a star by a tyre company and uniformly loved by the denizens of the capital. The service here is slick and discreet, polished more frequently than the table we sit at. Greeting us are three types of popadom; lentil, potato, and tapioca, with three types of chutney. A sweet mango one, another of mint and coriander with a verdant kick, and a feisty dried shrimp one that starts spicy and finishes with the crash of the ocean.

A large plate of potato and chickpea chaat marks the first course. It’s generous as a dish for two to share, though we make a good go at working through the beguiling mix of textures; the snap of wafer, the crunch of sev and little fried bits of potato that have soaked up the tamarind chutney that have kissed everything. Another sharer plate follows of tandoori cauliflower, the florets wearing a cap of thick yogurt. Two very good plates of food that showcase how Indians manage to extract more flavour from vegetables than any other cuisine.

The curry course is less main and more banquet. We don’t even get close to finishing it. There is decadent butter chicken masala that adds weight just by looking at it, and a more a dry spinach and paneer curry that pops with flavour with every mouthful. There is a smoky dal maharani that we mop up with the lightest of naans, and we take a supple roti to spicy potatoes coated in a thick gravy that has us instantly googling the recipe. It is called Dum Aloo Banarasi if you’re interested. And rice. Cant forget the rice. It’s mammoth in portion and obscenely good. Some of the best curry I can recall eating anywhere, and I have eaten a lot of curry as my ghee filled arteries will testify.

Desserts are a bit lost on me in comparison on account of teeth generally not being required to eat them with. Rasmalai is a very good rendition of gloppy cheese balls in milky custard, shown a little bit of wit with the addition of popping candy. Also being eaten by my other half was kheer, a rice pudding, with slices of Seville orange that bring a bright acidity. She loves them both, but then that’s understandable given that she was chowing down on baby food just a few years ago. I can appreciate them, which is an upgrade on my usual stance.

All of this is more remarkable given that eating here can be affordable. The above is all from a £35 four course set menu, to which we add a very good value pinot noir, and some superb cocktails that are worthy of the splurge. It seems remarkably fair given the Mayfair address. I’m late to this particular club as Gymkhana has been sweeping up the awards for several years now, but do I care? Do I heck. I am an instant fan, one that looks forward to future visits. They can give me Indian food this good anytime they like. Yes Nathan, even at 2.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.


Cheal’s of Henley, Henley in Arden

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to Cheal’s is that over 5 days of eating in Birmingham, Henley, and London, taking in several Michelin stars, the food we ate in the black beam and white plaster was easily the weekend’s best. It is beyond me how certain guides continue to overlook what is sharp, accurate and above all tasty food. Moving swiftly on, lets have a quick run through of our recent lunch.

They do things the classical way here. Your chairs will be deep and comfortable, there will be crisp white linen over the table. There will be little gifts from the kitchen in the way of canapes and bouches that have been amoused. The former was little cheesey dumplings with a blob of Worcestershire sauce gel, the latter a warm espuma of parsnip, with curry oil and yeast flakes. Two familiar flavours, cheese on toast and curried parsnip, re-worked as dainty bites that pack massive flavour. We get bread via a sourdough and a roll so good it sends my girlfriend into shock.

Looking back, the pork cheek starter was probably my least favourite course. Nothing wrong with it – its very pleasant – it just hasn’t left the same thumbprint on my psyche as the rest of the courses. The cheek is meltingly soft, with a sage and hazelnut pesto to lift it and earthy cauliflower to pin it back down. Claire has lentil and celeriac risotto full of purpose and bite, with mushrooms and a crispy duck egg yolk that lets loose at the sight of a knife. Its super rich, old school cooking, impossible not to get woozy over.

Skate is scored so that the browned top is staggered like ladder rungs, the gaps filled with the opaque centre of the fish. Joining it is pickled carrots and a purée of the same veg, with fat Israeli couscous licked with lemon juice. A tangle of onion bhaji with the faint whiff of cumin gives additional texture, a yogurt dressing all the moisture it needs. It is unbelievably good, the type of dish that stops you clean in your tracks, reducing table talk to lusty looks.

Slices of pink duck arc around the perimeter of the plate, the leg meat formed into deep fried bonbons. Batons of pickled rhubarb and conical fermented kohlrabi cut through the rich meat. The best bit is a little pot of barley, meaty and rich from a slow braise in chicken stock. We race to chase the last scraps off the plate. The other main is rare venison, the loin hiding a loose ragu of haggis, with a pie of the less dear bits of deer. That pie! All golden and flaky with the same tang of organs that echoes in the haggis. It’s grown-up food for people with no fear of gout. The only respite is butternut squash, sprouts and torn sourdough that soaks up the glossy sauce spiked with Madeira.

Dessert is the perfect soufflé, proudly standing from the rim. The flavour of gingerbread is strong throughout, a bergamot sorbet a clever match. Combined the fragrant citrus fruit lifts the spice up a notch. It’s as good a soufflé I can recall eating. There are petit fours including a passion fruit macaron which sends us nicely on our way.

The wine list is well curated and has a lot to offer at under £40 a bottle, and we take off two menus (£33 and £55 respectively) leaving us with a bill of under £200 with a fair amount of wine, though you could eat as cheap as £50 per head if you were more prudent with the booze and menu choice. Whichever way you take it this is an absolute steal. Beautiful food in a lovely setting half an hour away from Birmingham on the train. If classical technique with modern flourishes is your thing, you really should be seeking it out. I’d eat here every week if I could.

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Ynyshir, 1st Visit of 2018

I feel like I am going to get used to the drive to Ynyshir. The nondescript hard concrete of the motorways and a-roads until Shrewsbury, with Welshpool marking that we have entered a different country. From there its rolling green hills and sheep and not much else. Roads meander in direct correlation with the streams that tumble alongside them. Homes are sparse and thinly spread apart out here – the scenery is ample friendship. It’s beautiful. I love how much the seasons have altered the landscape in the five months since we last visited. Winter has rooted itself firmly in rural Wales; the trees have exposed their souls to the elements, grass sodden and under the permanent shadow of cloud. Even in the company of a woman, the last two of the three and a bit hour journey is peaceful and revitalising.

We roll through stone posts that mark the entrance and wind around to the large white building. There have been some tweaks made. The white linen has been replaced by oversized wooden tables . The bowls and plates more dramatic, as are the hand carved spoons that greet the first course. It is a deliberate ploy to be more in tune with the surrounding environment. And it’s working. My best meal of 2017 just delivered an even better one in 2018.

I won’t go over every dish again – there is all of that on my previous post. Dinner here takes up to four hours and involves a large quantity of small dishes. The not French onion soup is still the first thing you eat and is still perfect. This is followed by a wedge of duck leg, cooked slowly, blasted through hot oil, dressed in sesame oil and topped with spring onions. It’s like the best crispy duck from your local Chinese. We have the bread course again. The sour dough seems to have improved – the pockets of air beneath the dark crust less restrained, the flavour deeper.

Mackerel is warmed through on the pass lights so that the texture has altered but the fish still retains the bright qualities of its raw state. With this is a rhubarb ketchup, slices of fermented rhubarb, and grated lardo. It is a dish that leans on acidity. It is bright and brilliantly conceived. A crab dish with sweet corn was a highlight of our last visit, this time the seasons dictate that we have turnip with the crustacean instead. It improves the dish, the earthiness working with the sweet meat and soy dressing that has the flavour of roasted shells. It is a nailed on three star dish. We have the wagyu beef burger course that takes the profile of a Big Mac and putting them in a dice sized piece of beef you hold between finger and thumb, and then the short rib from the same beast with shiitake mushroom and seaweed. I’ve eaten both dishes three times within six months. They still amaze me.

When I’m asked about Ynyshir I always say the same thing; nobody in England does flavour like Gareth Ward. Every dish is built around the maximum impact, that smashes you in the mouth with a closed fist. Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, with grated smoked eel, a spelt cracker, and cubes of apple that cuts clean through the richness. It has pinpoint balance. We have the grilled prawn with umami rich soy bisque again. The langoustine, fat and sweet, is the best I’ve eaten, anywhere. The seasons have been kind.

We surge on to more protein. Duck breast with salted plum excites me a lot less than deer with crisped fat and pickled black beans. There is nothing technically wrong with the former, the breast meat just fights a little too hard to keep up with its company. The latter has more bravado, more swagger. It threatens to be too big until you grow a pair and man, or woman, up. Pork belly with a sauce using last year’s cherries is equally massive. I have no idea how long and slowly it takes to cook pork belly this well but my guess is that it’s long enough for a man, or woman, to grow a beard.

A salt baked swede, alit and sinister looking, marks the cawl course. I don’t like it. The bits of lamb heart at the base are lovely, but the rest of the stew is a bit nonplus. A dish based around swede – that watery root veg – is always going to be an uphill struggle with me. And then it’s the same two Welsh lamb courses that marked our first lunch here. The lamb spare rib is still in my top three dishes ever, the lamb neck with kombucha still the best lamb with mint sauce you’ll ever eat.

Two courses bridge the savoury to the sweet. The first is less conventional; onions, cooked for a couple of days in beer and wagyu fat, in a bowl with thickened cooking juices and torn sour dough. They call it bread and gravy, though to me it echoes French onion soup. It’s dark and heady and absolutely delicious. Beauvale cheese with pear takes two ingredients in peak condition and let’s them run with one another.

There are four desserts. The first is Manjari chocolate, cremeux-like in texture without (I think) the cream. A shard made from shiitake mushroom might not seem an obvious ally but the chocolate makes the fungi taste like coffee. It’s super clever. This is followed by a dense reduction of parsnips where the sugars have released and caramelised the veg. On to this goes a puddle of maple syrup, rye, and nitrogen set verjus. The combination is a revelation, sweet, nutty, slightly acidic, not like anything I’ve ever tried before.

S.T.P might sound like something I caught in 2004 Tenerife but the smart amongst you may know it to be sticky toffee pudding. This has the sponge replaced with dates that have been dehydrated and glued together, onto which is placed the strongest vanilla ice cream I have ever tried and that all important toffee sauce. I have no idea what they have done to the sauce to make it taste so good, but it is a skill to rework a dish purely around the memory of the best bit of an iconic. They use the same tactic with rhubarb and custard, the fruit mostly an acidic foil to the reimagining of custard that tastes just like the Birds custard that I grew up on. Its rich and oozy and probably the result of a trillion egg yolks. I could eat this every night of my life and be happy. We finish with that tiramisu course which I firmly believe is the best sweet course I have eaten. It simply cannot be improved.

With this the record player in the corner changes from Kings of Leon to Bob Marley, and we head off to bed to sleep off another outstanding meal. An experience like this doesn’t come cheap; dinner with a couple of bottles of wine, cocktails, and a bed for the night clocks close to six hundred, but it is just that: An experience. Fat Duck withstanding, I know of no place that evokes such emotion through the gentle suggestion of food memory. Coming to Ynyshir requires commitment; the travel and the expense. It pays this back with course after course after course of brilliance. I’ll reiterate what I said the last time I wrote about here: Ynyshir is right now the most exciting restaurant in the UK. And we are in it for the long haul, watching it every step along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Salt, Stratford-Upon-Avon

The last time we stayed in Stratford the head chef of the restaurant we dined at told us to eat at Salt. We come home and a blogger friend of mine (I do have them, they’re not all horrid) tells me I should go to this great place she went to called Salt. The Good Food Guide comes out and the newcomer of the year is a little place in Stratford called Salt. We get the hint and book Salt. Ages ago actually, so much so that shaggy headed giant Jay Rayner tells the world just how great Salt is two weeks before we go. We expect it be great. Of course we do. Everyone else thinks it is. Even the blogger, and heaven forbid she even paid to go.

And guess what? It is great. Maybe the best £130 that I’ve parted with for two hours of fun since that stag party in Prague. Paul Foster has created a space with bags of character, where the only attitude can be found on the plate. It’s a star from the off, with smoked almonds that leave an imprint on the soul and impeccably sourced green olives that greet us on the table. Warm bread rolls first appear to be a little underdone though transpire to be a denser crumb with a nutty backnote. These are lovely; even better when smeared thick with butter so yellow it radiates warmth. For those who want it, there is a salt pot on the table. Of course there is.

The first of the lunch tasting menu is a belter. Pink fir potatoes wearing a coat of lardo, and a dusting of roasted yeast that echoes the taste of a jacket potato. It’s neatly layered in flavour, carefully controlled and ego free. The same applies to fillets of hake, flesh golden and just holding shape, sharing the plate with caramelised cauliflower puree and lightly dressed fennel. It is food that begs to be eaten as much as admired. We do both.

A bowl of carrots would be my favourite thing that I ate. Protruding out is a baton of bright orange veg slow cooked in chicken fat that I would be tempted to put a ring on, had I not wasted enough on diamonds already this year. There is a broth of sorts at the base cut through with a faint kick of vinegar, pickled carrots, a rye tuile, and blitzed crispy chicken skin for seasoning, because using only salt all the time must be boring for them. The result is a beautiful interplay of sweet and acidity, that is homely and comforting at the same time. It’s one of my dishes of the year, and I’ve been lucky to eat some seriously good food in 2017.

A pheasant breast would be the first time that it was obvious a sous-vide machine was in action, the meat cooked perfectly but lacking the depth that a slow roast provides. A purée of black garlic adds a fermented funk that needs the pickled shallots to cut through, whilst roasted yeast adds a deep savouriness. There is light and shade everywhere with only the cavolo nero and breast sitting central. It may not hit the heights of some of the previous courses but it’s still seriously impressive.

Desserts were on paper more challenging, though less so in reality. a brown bread ice cream was gummy in texture to the point that it clings to spoon and mouth, with a brown bread tuile, and sorrel granita hiding poached blueberries. I enjoy it much more than I thought I would, the sorrel and blueberry flavour seemingly lengthened by the ice cream coating the roof of the mouth. A similar story was had with a dark chocolate ganache, pumpkin cream, with chocolate tuille and shard of caramelised white chocolate for texture. Together it is a cohesive blend of soft and hard bits, working in unison with much more clarity than expected. The last mouthfuls are some of the best; choux buns with raspberry and Douglas fir oil. It is old school pastry work with flavours firmly rooted in the present.

The lunch tasting menu above totals £45 per head, which must make it one of the best value lunches in the country given the quality and volume of food. Despite its relative infancy, Paul Foster and the team have created a restaurant where seasonal ingredients are cooked with real technique. The accolades that follow will be just a matter of time. Every single recommendation for Salt has been justified.


The Oak Room at Ettington Park

The long driveway into Ettington Park could be straight out of a movie. The road slowly bends around as the trees begin to disperse and the mansion looms majestically at the back. The side profile, being the first full look, is impressive enough, though the gothic turrets and dramatic arched windows really come into their own from face-on. It’s a handsome building within beautiful grounds, the ideal romantic getaway. Oh, and it’s allegedly the country’s most haunted hotel. Given how the weekend would pan out, a ghost would be the only thing going bump in the night in our room.

The proportions here are of those built a long time ago with little care for budget. Staircases unwind into large receptions, drinks are enjoyed in drawing rooms larger than some homes. Our room is functional without being flash, spacious without the excess the rest of the building has. It has the benefit of a view across the sprawling grounds that succeeds in making me want to leave it and explore. The bed is deep and provides a good night sleep before breakfast the following morning.

The restaurant here is The Oak Room, a beautifully appointed space of dark woods and low light. It is exceptionally romantic, an ideal space for two people to relax and enjoy the two AA rosette food. Except I am here alone. My girlfriend is in bed, laid low with the finest that the Indian water sanitation system could send her back with, just 24 hours from landing. It’s not an ideal situation, though a bottle of good red from a top-heavy wine list proves to be an adequate companion. My mood does not improve with the amouse bouche, a goats cheese mousse with crouton and cherry. The first mouthful is great; the crouton is buttery and light, the sharp sweetness of the cherry an ideal counterfoil, but once they go it is just three more spoonful’s of goats cheese on its own. It needs a rethink in how it is plated.

A pork cheek starter is sat on a dice of celery and apple that gives a subtle nod toward Waldorf. There is a smear of cauliflower purée and a charred floret from the same brassica. It eats well, but once again we have issues with proportion; not enough of that tender cheek to go with all that veg.

And then fireworks happen. Monkfish loin rolled in spices, with picked carrots and cauliflower, and a bowl of dhaal full of smokiness and gentle heat. Yes, the dish is very obviously inspired by Purnell’s winning fish course on GBM, but frankly who cares when it is this good. I’ve eaten both and this probably pips it on the basis that the flavour is more pronounced. I love the additional tangle of fried onion that they call bhaji and I am calling paradise, and the yogurt dressing which tempers the heat when liberally applied. It’s a super bit of cooking.

The same applies for dessert, a beautifully worked homage to the apple. At the base is a silky smooth set cream, blanketed in a sharp jelly and balls of macerated fruit. On the side are two perfectly made cinnamon donuts. It’s apple pie without the scalded mouth. The flavour is fantastic, each layer pronounced and overall cleansing rather than too sweet.

The meal may have improved with every course but the service was polished to a high gleam throughout. They have a smart operation here that is seamless in delivery; wine is effortlessly topped up, dishes nudged in and out of place from acute angles. It works as a restaurant on its own, not just as a facility for a hotel. I want to return when we can enjoy for what it is, not when I am sat bullseye in the room, with a room full of couples wondering who the weirdo on his own taking pictures of his food is. But that’s fine with me. I return to the room, where I find the TV on and madam fast asleep. Ettington Park is a beautiful place to spend a night or three, she too will understand this one day soon.


Our stay at Ettington Park Hotel was complimentary, and they subsidised a proportion of the dinner bill. The stay was arranged by Shakespeare’s England.

Adams, Birmingham

Given that Claire whisked me away to Ynyshir for my birthday, it was always going to be a struggle to get close to her efforts for her birthday. My idea was a simple one; to saturate her with saturates, to become the quintessential feeder and ply her with good food over a sustained period of time. We end up doing eight meals in eight days, lots of daytime boozing and as many late afternoon naps. Central to this was a meal in the multi award winning Adams, which also has the added bonus of being the only decent restaurant in the city in which I have not been on a date to with a girl. I’ve been several times before with mates, on those long boozy lunches that end with hazy memories and self loathing.

The interior is smart here, with a polished team operating on a level way above the one star currently bestowed by Michelin. The noise levels are low and it is more intimate than I recall, but perhaps that is a more a reflection of the company I’m in keeping of tonight. We quickly receive a number of amouse bouches; artichoke crisps with earthy purees of the same vegetable and black truffle, and squid ink macaroon with creamed cod’s roe filling. This is followed in rapid succession by tuna sashimi with ponzo jelly and a tartare of steak with charcoal mayo. The last of these is the star, the meat of real quality and the charcoal mayo giving the flavour of roast beef without heat touching it. It’s not my first encounter of the use of charcoal in a similar ilk, but it’s right up there with L’Enclume for precision delivery.

This is a kitchen that means business, that much is clear from the off. Bread comes as two types of sourdough with whipped lard and the richest of butters. First course is a successful pile of lightly dressed crab meat shrouded by pickled kohlrabi, with dots of a puree of apple and another of soy mayonnaise. It is precise in the balance, a light yet punchy dish to properly start the show with.

And then comes the only technical error of the meal. A veal sweetbread with finely sliced raw mushroom blanketing a mushroom ketchup, and a cup of shitake broth on the side. The umami rich mushrooms are the perfect foil for the creamy sweetbread had mine not been undercooked and gummy in texture. It is worth pointing out that Claire’s sweetbread, smaller in size and with a requested black pudding dish from the a la carte, was perfect, and I watched in envy as she demolished it with pleasure. We move on to a thick fillet of monkfish, the fish meaty and pearlescent, with crayfish and bisque. The bisque was astonishing; bold and with a good acidity level from vinegar and lemongrass. Ginger provides a sophisticated background heat that lingers.

We share an optional course of lobster with peanut satay. I say share – the cold chunks of crustacean disappear so quickly I only get one piece. The bit I try is superbly cooked without a hint of chewiness, the satay an unusual match that seemingly bolsters the meatiness of the lobster through the use of umami. Indeed, much of the food here relies on an almost Japanese use of vinegar and umami to give clarity and depth to dishes. This is again apparent with a pigeon dish that has another unique pairing of Colton Bassett and brambles. Who knew that pungent blue cheese went so well with the gaminess of pigeon? Not me, that’s for sure. Yet they sit side-by-side with one another, separated only the tart flavour of the berry. It’s really very clever.

The following course is without doubt my favourite of the night. Scallop, seared heavily and opaque in the centre, with a various onion preparations and a tempura of eel. It’s up there with the best dishes I’ve eaten this year, true to the scallop and perfect in balance between the sweet and acidic elements. We love the lightness of the tempura almost as much as the purée of white onion that showers everything in acidity. It overshadows the duck that comes afterwards. The rectangle of breast meat is perfectly tender, the heart of the bird an accurate blushing pink. We finish it, of course we do, using the last of the bread to mop up the last of the light jus, all whilst talking about the dish that came before.

If I remember one thing about our first dessert it’s how quickly it was eaten. The tart plum only marginally tempered by the sweeter elements as a transitional course into the final sweeter moments. The pistachio sponge (microwaved, El Bulli style?) threatened to disappear into thin air whilst the brown butter added a wonderful nuttiness to the plate. This is a grown up dessert, which is great, because I think I am one, though I’m not sure that Claire’s age qualifies her to be one yet. The last course is listed as ‘raspberry, lemon curd, clotted cream, sherbet’. I could probably stop this right here and leave you with that. It’s brilliant, a riot of the sharp and the sweet and the playful, the star being the raspberry sorbet that had astonishing depth of flavour. It’s everything a dessert should be.

This being a birthday treat I’m not going to say how much it cost, other than pointing out that with a good bottle of champagne and a nice bottle of red it would be a mortgage payment to some. Sweetbread issue aside, if was for me a clear indication that Adams is up there with the absolute finest in the city, with inventive cooking that nudges the boundaries without trampling all over them. Some of the dishes, like the crab, the tartare amouse, and the scallop were truly outstanding and as the seasons change it will be a place that we will come back to soon. And for Claire, she loved every second, grinning for days on end and sharing pictures of the meal with anyone who feigned interest for more than a second. That is all the reaction I need to tell you that Adams is worth every penny. It’s a special restaurant worthy of any special occasion.


Adam's Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Lasan, St Pauls Square, Birmingham

It is impossible to mention the new Lasan without referring to the old. It is a restaurant that I am very familiar with, one widely regarded as the best of it’s kind in this city, thanks in part to it’s association with TV food mahatma, Aktar Islam. Aktar has now parted with the group and the restaurant has had a well needed spruce. Gone are the hard wooden lines and non-existent lighting, in comes a softer, more approachable look of pastels and patterns. It’s almost colonial in feel, like they play fine jazz to those awaiting food on the curved bar that sits adjacent to the dining room. And they do play jazz. I’m a massive fan of the refit.

Without wishing to play down the offering, you get the feel that the chase of a Michelin star has gone, replaced with a desire to feed with more traditional methods whilst still keeping to the refined style that has made it so popular. This is reflected with an ease to the service; staff are happy to chat, some dishes are rustic in their presentation. It’s less stuffy and more congenial – a place to return to time over rather than just special occasions. Accolades are excellent, but it’s paying customers that pay the bills.

It starts as it always has, with umami bombs of pani puri, filled to the brim with a pungent tamarind water and as good as they ever get. These come with greaseless poppadoms and dips to range from a familiar made from mango to a pineapple one that’s new to me. We try samosas made with the lightest of filo pastry, the filling of minced venison more than capable of standing up to the spicing.

Another starter of chicken is a solid piece of  workmanship. From the kebab made with coarsely ground mince, to the paté patty with the background funk of offal, and precisely trimmed drumstick, it sings with deft spices and well judged heat. Soft shell crab has the lightest of chilli batter that packs the biggest of flavour, with a crab cake packed with brown meat that reinforces the crustacean flavour. It’s hard to pick fault with any of the starters. Looking back, I can think of no fault at all. 

The biriyani that follows has cubes of goat at the base, braised so that they collapse under the interagation of the fork, with a dry curry that packs real power and crowned with a flurry of rice, crisp shallots, and herbs. I wish that the dish arrived wearing a pastry cap so that the aromas are released tableside, but this is a small detail given the quality of it all. We scoop on to excellent garlic naan, and, even better, roomali roti that is so thin it could be parchment paper. It’s great to see this bread, the most tricky to make, being properly showcased.

A steel tray comes bearing a shank of lamb, coated in marinade and slowly cooked. It’s an accurate bit of cooking; the meat coming away from the bone with ease. Pickled onions have enough astringency to cut through the chilli heat, with pots of raita and dhal for light and shade. That dhal returns in a larger pot – it has to, it’s glorious. As good as any dhal I’ve eaten anywhere. The lentils slow cooked and as smokey as a jazz club. 

Dessert course defeats us, and I sense a dissapointment from the waitress that we are really missing out on something. It’s okay, we’ll be back. Soon. This was my most consistent meal here to date, wholesome and confident in it’s new identity on the plate and in it’s space. I have no doubt at all that Lasan is currently the best Indian we have in Birmingham. 


I was invited to dine at Lasan

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