French

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

Cheval Blanc, Spring Menu Launch

Anyone that knows me, whether that be personally or via my potty-mouthed Twitter account, will know that I spend a lot of time in Cheval Blanc. I live 192 steps away and have the added bonus of not having to cross a road (something which if you also know me has proved problematic in the past). There are other options in Moseley – lots of them, in fact – but for me Cheval Blanc is the best bar in Birmingham. It is the wine bar of your dreams. Knowledgeable, affordable, with a casual air to it. A space where people go to imbibe in a relaxed environment. It is knobhead free. Apart from the occasions when I’m perched at the bar, when there is a singular knobhead with an ego problem.  Do not approach him.  He will break your heart.

And they do food. Very good food as it turns out.  Food that keeps on getting better and better. Cyd the chef may look he could be a bad guy in Ratatouille, but he has adapted his style to fit the small kitchen out back, turning out dishes that are rooted in classic French training. Over the last 9 months the cooking has become more at ease, more an expression of Cyd’s style. It is food driven by the seasons that punches with distinct flavours.

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The spring menu was launched two weeks back. It is easily their best work yet. The first course of Earl Grey cured salmon with remoulade and grain mustard dressing that danced with acidity.  There were subtle notes of tea in the fish and brightness from the addition of apple in the remoulade.  We get a South African Sauvignon Blanc called Two Dogs, A Peacock and a Horse with this.  I laugh at the name because I am an imbecile.  Wine this good is not to be laughed at.

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Smoked mutton leg is everything you hoped it would be.  The thin slices of cold meat are rich and slightly gamey, the rustic salad of rocket dressed sharp with shallots and Jerez vinegar.  It is the perfect food for its surroundings, more so if you take it with the suggested complex Amontillado sherry.  I’ve waxed on about Abigail’s ability to match food to wine before, but if any pairing shows off those badges she’s earned, it’s this.

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If Cyd really was the bad guy in Ratatouille, he’s learned how to make a mean one.  The veg that the red mullet is on has been roasted to a sweet pulp, with just a hint of vinegar acidity.  It’s a classic combination that works with the well timed fish. But its the crab Arancini that steals the show.  Packed full of crab meat and robustly seasoned, this could sit on the menu on it’s own.  The wine pairing this time was a classy unoaked Chardonnay that more than held its own.

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By now night was settling in and I was enjoying the evenings company a little too much.  So much so that my memory of this particular wine eludes me.  What doesn’t allude me is the depth of the morel and cognac sauce that coats the chicken leg.  Divine stuff, straight up my alleyway.  This was my favourite course and one that I will be returning to eat regularly.

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We finish the night with a rhubarb and blossom tart.  It’s everything you need after all this food; light and refreshing, the pastry short and baked through.  A German Riesling full of sweetness and acidity is remarkable and worth hunting out by itself.

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And with that I saunter stumble my way back up the 192 steps and fall into a happy place.  A happy place where the staff know the names of its locals.   Where wine is expertly sourced, great cocktails are to be had, and food is way too affordable to be that good.  Cheval Blanc is that place.  And the good news for everyone is that it keeps on getting better and better.

Right, plug time.  I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards and Abigail is up for Best Sommelier.  Please give us both a vote here  http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

Le Gavroche, London

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I first ate at Le Gavroche almost three years to the day from this meal. It was at a time when this blog was a distant dream and we ate for pleasure only.  Oh, how I miss those days.  It still stands as my favourite ever meal; perhaps not the best food, but certainly the best overall experience.  There was, and still is, something uniquely special about walking underneath the famous signage, through the heavy doors, down the stairs and into that dimly lit basement dining room.  There is ceremony with every nudge of a chair and pouring of wine, and touch of class at every detail with custom made table sculptures, plates, and silverware.  We ate chicken with parmesan risotto, drank our body weight in wine and overindulged Michael Roux Jnr himself in person at our excessive praise of the soufflé suissesse – a long standing stalwart of the menu here so light it threatened to drift back up those stairs and off into the clouds.  I consider myself lucky enough to have eaten at Birmingham’s five Michelin starred restaurants on many occasions but our pursuit outside of my home town has never led us back to the same place.  Now, with Phil Howard departing from The Square there was only ever one option for a celebratory return meal:  Three months back we decide to hammer the phone lines at 9am and secure a table at Le Gavroche.

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It was, if I am entirely honest, not as memorable as our first visit.  Perhaps it was the table; this time in a busy area near the stairs as opposed to the dark green booth we had once nestled in to in the far corner.  Maybe it is much of the romanticism is lost once you have witnessed it in person already.  That is not to say it is still not one of the countries top tables; almost everything we ate punched with French classicism and Gaelic charm, personified by an almost entirely French waiting team, each oozing with the confidence only a top kitchen can install.  Nibbles of smoked duck and another of cheese and chive greet as us as we are sat, followed quickly by an amuse of deep fried burrata ravioli, all of which quickly disappear before a basket of bread is presented with a choice of butter.  Knowing what is next, we save the bread for the aforementioned Soufflé Suissesse, flavoured with cheese and cooked on double cream, which is every bit as naughty as it sounds.  The dish is filth in the best possible sense, imagined by a brain with zero regard for health care and the upmost respect for indulgence.  This version was as good as I remember and still makes my top three dishes of all time.

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A fat cut of veal shoulder follows, braised gently so that the knife is redundant.  The cooking of the meat is exact, even if the ragout of beans is light on seasoning and the accompanying  green beans the extreme side of al dente.  Our charming waiter asks if everything is okay to which I tell him that the portion is too big, only covering half of the truth as this singular dish individually ruins my otherwise perfect memory of the restaurant.  A chariot of cheese quickly restores memories, each one impeccably sourced and kept, with the comte and stinking bishop notably good.

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Dessert number one is a nougatine parfait almost as smooth as the service here, with melon in varying forms, which is nice but hardly memorably.  Better was the birthday cake for two; a chocolate mousse with a rich ganache exterior, not dissimilar to the famous Louis XV dessert at the Alain Ducasse restaurant in Monaco of the same name.  Its rich and velvety, and it has my name written on the plate.  Honestly, could it get any better.  There are petit fours including candied kumquats and truffles which are as good as you would expect.

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Being my birthday we gorge on the pink sparkling stuff, the white stuff, the red stuff, and the fortified red stuff, leaving a bill that I did not see (Thank You, Charlie), but was fairly considerable by any stretch.  Not that this matters of course as nobody goes to the effort of trying to get a reservation here, eventually donning the compulsory shirt and jacket, and comes here expecting it to be cheap.  What you pay for is an institution steeped in gastronomic history, where food sits around the two star level it is presently scored at, with service arguably a level above that.  Le Gavroche is an experience unlike anywhere else in London, which everyone should save up for and try once in their life.  Maybe not the perfection I recalled first time around, but still very very good indeed.  Go on, spoil yourself.

9/10

Le Gavroche Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato