Birmingham

Rebel Chicken, Jewellery Quarter

Let’s talk spit roasts. No, not the ones of a decade ago you saucy minxes, but those that I have now I am a lardy greying thirty-something year old. I am talking a juicy impaled bird, moist, with burnished skin and succulent flavour. And if your mind took you anywhere then other than chicken, then shame on you. I am here only to arouse you with food talk. You disgust me.

Rebel Chicken is the place that started life as Fowl Play, a rather catchy name until someone up north caught wind of foul play and forced them to change it. It is a slogan that still adorns the black outside wall in gloss against the matt bricks. Back inside and the upstairs restaurant has walls almost as distressed as I feel queuing for the singular toilet with my legs crossed. The room is pale blue and whites, light pouring through the large industrial windows befitting the buildings of these parts of town. It’s cosy and nice. Back outside and they have one of the city’s largest beer gardens. This is where we sit, with the sun blazing down on our faces with a cold beer and a smirk.

Now let’s get to the chicken, which if you stick to the rotisserie is really very good. Brined, steamed, stuck in a marinade overnight, and then impaled with a great big skewer up its arse and turned over cherry wood until the skin is crispy. It is a serious bit of chicken, not dry at all, the white meat almost as good as the brown. And that’s the thing with chicken; once you’ve gone brown, you’ll never go back around. Or something like that. The point is that it has flavour, loads of it. The technique is there and it pays off; it is a mile away from the usual rotisserie birds we are used to. And stump for the sauces whilst you’re at it, tightwad. The gravy is all thickened cooking juices, whilst the aioli packs a serious garlic punch.

Six months ago I would have been waxing lyrical about the wings, though now they suffer from serious competition. We try a platter of them in various sauces, which all get eaten somewhat less enthusiastically than the rotisserie bird. This isn’t a slight on them; they have a good amount of meat and taste as they should. It’s just the skin isn’t as crisp as I’d like and the wings could be better butchered. With a little detail they could be up there. And then there is the sides. Skip the chips that taste like they have come from a bag, order the sweet, blistered corn on the cob instead. And absolutely have the coleslaw sharpened with apple juice that goes perfectly well with the main event.

Eating here happens to have the plus point of being very affordable. A meal for two with a whole chicken, sweetcorn, two dips, and a couple of drinks will just about hit £30 between you. And I mention that precise order because it is the best way to enjoy Rebel Chicken. I can’t vouch for the buttermilk chicken burger, the wrap, or even the veggie burger, but I can tell you that if you stick to my advice you’ll leave full and happy. I applaud Rebel Chicken for sticking to one meat only, if they can bring the rest of the menu up to the same standard as the rotisserie they’ll have a mighty fine restaurant. But for now that spit roasted bird itself is reason to go.

7/10

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Baked in Brick, Digbeth

My dining history at Baked in Brick is a lengthy one that goes back some way. In Feb 2016, when his street food had not long started I made a point of saying you should keep a firm eye on him, noting ‘the man, the mini, and the food are going places’. Then, a year later at another pop-up after winning Best Street Food, I make the bold statement that ‘Lee’s cooking is right up there with the best’, finishing the piece with ‘the man I said was going places has truly arrived. And only an idiot would miss it’. I have featured him thrice more properly on my blog, a piece on Digbeth Dining Club, another on Sear & Smoke, and most recently at the Independent Birmingham Festival, watching the mini take more awards and the food evolve. Apologies for rehashing my old work like a desperate ‘ICYMI’ tweet, but I always knew it would be good because I know my shit when it comes to food. I’ve been there from the start, I haven’t rocked up at the trophy bus parade like a phoney Leicester City fan because he won a few things and became fashionable to like.

And here he is, less than four years from the first gigs at Digbeth Dining Club, in a permanent home in the Custard Factory. The dining room is instantly recognisable to anyone who has eaten the street food. The bar frontage to the left is the same wood that houses the tent counter, the steel girding above the same as the van that drove to Berlin to take the title. The far wall has clever nods to the backstory in vibrant artwork, with the red Mini Cooper peering out towards the diner. There had to be a mini. To the side is an enclosed terrace where we had our second meal here. The sun loves this space almost as much as I do.

Before I get on to the pizza that dominated our two visits, let’s be very clear; a pizzeria this is not. Yes, it has an oven intended for such things, but there is much more to the cooking than that. On our first visit we start with a tomato salad dotted with tapenade and croutons, on to which a textbook tomato essence is poured. It is all beautifully fresh, with just a hint of verdant basil to lift it all. Our second visit has us ordering a huge bulb of burrata with the same components minus the tomato essence; the burrata is creamy enough. It is so good that I forget to take a picture. What an awful blogger I am. No wonder they all hate me.

But those pizzas. Christ on a bike, they are so very good. I’m sticking my neck out now and saying these are Brum’s best on account of the basic principles; quality toppings, that leopard print scorched base and a pliable crust. Most conventional has folds of Serrano ham and shavings of Lincolnshire Poacher. Another has pork and fennel meatballs and a yellow pepper ketchup whose metallic notes sits perfectly between the sweet and the acidic. Most supreme is the white pizza, a daring blend of smoked chicken and boulangere potato on béchamel sauce. It’s carb on carb, a pool party in Carbella. It also tastes like a chicken and dauphinois potato sandwich. Absolute filth. We love it.

No visit to Baked in Brick could miss out the beef shin calzone, seemingly feed on steroids for how much it is grown on to the plate here. Once the crust has been cut into the tangle of beef and wild mushroom ragu has the deep flavour of wine from a lengthy marinade and a long peppery finish. A stilton dip on the side has a little cayenne pepper and lemon juice but is ultimately there to add more umami to a plate of food already drenched in it. I simply cant think of a better way to spend £11 right now. Try it and you’ll understand why it has won every award known to man including the Noble Peace Prize, the Pulitzer and The Golden Boot.

I am yet to get round to ordering dessert, mostly because I leave on both occasions with a box of crusts to chow on at home, though the present choice is a crème brulee or a brownie. A meal here will cost between £15-25 depending on how greedy you happen to be, which is astonishing value given the quality. And now the score, for which I have thought hard about. I think it sits somewhere between a nine and ten, but I’m going full marks for this reason; Baked In Brick is integral to the development of this city’s food scene, further proof that some of the finest eateries in Birmingham have stemmed from trading on the streets. And it is only going to get better when the chicken tikka roll rolls on to the menu alongside the slow cooked lamb. I have long been a fan of the food, though it is obvious he belongs within bricks and mortar. The Custard Factory, Digbeth and Birmingham have all just gained an absolute gem of a restaurant.

10/10 

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Carters, Moseley

Considering I live 250m away from Carters it is more than a little pathetic that I’ve managed to get here only twice. I have no excuse; I pass the bijou restaurant on St Mary’s Row on my walk to and from work every day, at least twice a week glancing over at the yellow lettering on black frontage and telling myself that I really must return. Now here I am, driven by the need for a midweek treat and a girlfriend who has a total obsession with their staff food Instagram stories. The interior has been tweaked to a darker shade than I recall, though the layout is much the same. It has drama yet a warmth to it. The hole in the far wall means that you can look in to the chefs at work, or they can look in to you eating their work. I am never quite sure which way round it is.

We have a steady three hour dinner which is so good I have decided to put the stuff I should be writing about aside and bring you this. It is one of the very best meals I have eaten in this fine city, one full of nuance and rooted so far in it’s environment you would need a team of gardeners to pull chef Brad Carter out of its soil. Without ever resorting to screaming through the tussles of his beard, Carter has become a champion of the best produce in the central region, only looking further afield when required, such as for caviar from Exmoor, or those heady truffles from Manjimup, Western Australia.

Four nibbles get us quickly underway, the first a parfait of chicken livers with various grains and raisins that I could have eaten a far bigger bowl of, followed by a delicate tart of broad beans and Winchester cheese lifted by a little mint. There are slivers of goose ham cured in house, and kohlrabi compressed in pine oil and topped with a salad of herbs which tastes slightly reminiscent of cucumber. The latter does a great job at prepping the palate though I understand how some, including Claire, could be underwhelmed. We have bread made from flour milled a mile away at Sarehole Mill with a pig fat butter containing a dice of crackling. If that butter doesn’t get the blood flowing to the organs, nothing will. With this the chef kindly brings a little Exmoor caviar over which I never expected, and probably neither should you. Still, caviar on bread and butter is something I’ll never tire of or turn down.

Cured mackerel kicks us off properly, the thin slices layered with gooseberry, bobbing in a bowl of dashi cut with mustard oil that has us slurping the last directly from it. A dish conceived in Japan, delivered in Moseley. That eastern influence runs throughout the meal, from the simplistic presentation, to the constant use of umami, and occasional flashes of deeper knowledge, like in the fermented rice on the last dessert. After this course it is straight back to the local environment; a slice of tomato compressed in elderberry vinegar, clothed in backfat and more elderberry, with basil leaves and seeds. It is one of the evening’s strongest courses, one that turns with every mouthful. There are sweet notes, acidic notes, fatty notes, and most surprisingly, anise from the basil seeds. For something that looks simplistic, there is a lot going on under the surface. I have a lot in common with this dish. Conversely, there is a humbleness to the next course, which means I have absolutely nothing in common with it. A fillet of ray with a sauce made from potato and dots of sea truffle, a type of seaweed that shares similar qualities to the tuber. Three cheap ingredients transformed into a plate that has far more luxurious qualities.

Now when I think of the evolution of Carters cooking it is summed up by the lamb course. A loin cutlet (I think) taken off the bone, cooked and then finished on a barbeque. As good as that is (and it is very, very good) the real points of interest are to be found in the garnish. Umami rich black garlic, peas that have been podded and dressed in the faintest of vinegar, sea lettuce both powdered and gently wilted, a healthy dusting of black truffle and a dressing of lamb fat mixed with aged soy. The complexities on the plate are everywhere, gently positioned into place and allowed to mingle with one another. The result is a dish as perfectly balanced as anything I have eaten this year. I save a slice of burnt fat for last because I know this will be the best bit. It is. What follows this is the best cheese I have ever eaten. A soft cheese called Maida Vale, washed in sour beer and served with malt loaf. It is grown up and addictive, sweet and rich, the beer a genius way of introducing balance.

Desserts are bold because they follow the same ethos as the rest of the meal, meaning that they are marginally sweeter, though not by much. More traditional of the two is the grilled strawberry, a beast the size of Claire’s Beetlejuice sized bonce. It has intrinsic sweetness, cut through by the clever use of unripened green strawberry and a soured cream. The last dessert is an ice cream of fig leaf, with local raspberries and fermented rice that adds a sophisticated sour note. Even the petit four – a silky chocolate ganache with rapeseed oil and sea salt – refuses to get the sugar levels going. I admire this; it is clear that Carter is now functioning with a singular belief.

Looking back on my 2015 review I used the words ‘uncluttered’ and ‘concise’ to describe the style of cooking. Although that ethos is still very much in play, the reality is that now Carters is an entirely different beast; it has matured into a restaurant entirely comfortable in its own skin, a place that looks to the best in local produce and pays respect to them on the plate. Claire considers it to be the best meal she has eaten in Birmingham, so much so that she pays the bill in full as a treat without me seeing it, though with two bottles of wine over the two and a bit hours it would work out to be about £130 a head. The best bit? All of this is on my doorstep. Moseley is lucky to have Carters, and I for one plan on coming here as often as possible.

Tap and Tandoor, Solihull

Very occasionally I sit somewhere and know the success is fully deserved. That they have a clear idea of what the area demands, and that those who are demanding it will leave happy. Often it is the most basic of ideas, as is the case here at Tap and Tandoor. It is as simple as location and provenance; the former will see them come in droves, the latter see them returning time over. If Solihull needed this as an area, the market it sits within needed the innovation more. The idea that the grill and curry food could be done using entirely free range meat for the same price as the competition is a genuine game changer for a sector not known for conscientious meat purchasing. And the quality of that meat shines throughout the meal. That is why Tap and Tandoor is one of the most important openings of 2018.

I thought it would be good; I know its sister venue Zindiya intimately. The menu has the infrequent nod towards that Moseley restaurant whilst managing to be an entirely different beast. Here you will find curry, breads, and mixed grills alongside the Indian street food dishes of Zindiya. It is a menu designed to be grazed over a longer period, washed down with any one of the beers that line the back wall. We order and settle in to a table under the painted mural on the back wall. It is heaving. The inhabitants of Solihull clearly have more taste that I credited them for.

From a succinct list of home style curry we have the butter chicken of all butter chickens. So good that all other versions must now feature ‘I cant believe its not butter chicken’ on the packaging. Its unashamedly rich, clogging the arteries with happiness. The poultry is firm, well cooked, and tastes of chicken; a rarity in these places. It is a stunner. We mop this up with a chilli and cheese naan that is supple and light. Exactly how it should be but rarely are.

And then there is the mixed grill. And my, what a mixed grill it is. It is the best of its kind in the city because the quality of the produce is allowed to shine. We have a regular sized one that is too much for two people, but will not stop me ordering the large next time. The chicken tikka is made to the same recipe as the sister restaurant. If anything the morsels here are larger, so whisper it, but this may be even better than the place that does the best I have eaten. There are meaty chicken wings smoky from the grill that do less for me, king prawns that linger with chilli notes for a while afterwards, and heavily spiced sheekh kebab cut to an uneven number that has us arguing over the last piece. Best of all are the lamb chops, charred so that the marinade has crusted up and left a pink centre. Once again the quality of the meat shines through; lamb chops simply don’t taste this good in places like this.

The only slip-up I can find are the beer battered onion bhajis that are a touch greasy and need a little work, but that is it. Even the one dish lifted from the Zindiya menu is an improvement; paneer tikka in an indo-Chinese style sauce. It is no longer caked in sauce, instead it happily shares its space with cooked onions and peppers, splayed out across a plate with the sweet and fiery sauce merely joining the dots. I want to stay and eat the chocolate samosa but I am defeated.

Far too much food, a beer, and a soft drink comes in at just over £40, an obscene bargain. And it is this that impresses me the most. With the premium location and free range meat costs it would have been easy to ramp up the prices, yet they have resisted this, choosing to sit at a price point below their direct competition. It’s all rather brilliant, helped by a team of staff who clearly know their stuff. If I lived closer I’d be here twice a week without fail. The people of Solihull are a lucky, lucky bunch.

9/10

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Maribel, Birmingham

My personal experience of Richard Turner is a mixed bag. Years back I passed him en route to the bathroom of his tiny restaurant in Harborne when he was coming out of the kitchen. “Fantastic pork, Chef” I tell him. He just looks back. No words. Just a blank stare that he must have borrowed from every character Danny Dyer has ever played. Then more recently I see him at a restaurant opening where he is lovely and jovial and kind to me until some idiot tells him I write a food blog. Then nothing. Back to the stare which cuts holes in the back of the head. Others will tell you similar stories, though I can empathise with him; I am dreadful at pretending to be nice. I am bloody lovely to both the people I like, but the rest? Why bother. And although it is unfair to judge a man on the two occasions we meet, it is where the similarities between him and I finish. Ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that Turner is one of the finest cooks to come out of this city; a chef’s chef who prefers to be behind the pass than the television screen. He is a man who understands flavour. I wish someone would say something that nice about me instead of just insulting my grammar on Twitter.

His new home is Maribel, a lavish restaurant in Brindley Place which will surely benefit from it’s space directly underneath a load of bankers. The room is tasteful and considered, with well appointed tables and thick carpet. Many of the team have followed Turner in the transition from Harborne to the city centre, meaning that a month in from opening the service and food already feels like it is operating at the level of his previous restaurant when it held a star. A flurry of nibbles arrive within minutes of us sitting down. There is a deep fried croquette of smoked eel and apple on a horseradish puree, followed by a gougere of aged gruyere. The choux is delicate, the cheese crème rich. It’s as good an example I’ve had; right up there with Ramsay’s three star flagship at Royal Hospital Road. We get an elegant spoon of diced scallop with cucumber and a grating of fresh wasabi, and a final nibble of soft boiled quail’s egg, Berkswell cheese, anchovy, and chicken skin on lettuce that brilliantly riffs on chicken Caesar salad. It achieves something rarely found within classical cooking; originality. It also tastes incredible; rich, salty, and decadent.

The further nine courses veer from very good to outstanding, showcasing a respect for the finest of ingredients in allowing them to take to the plate with as little interference as possible. We have firm heritage tomatoes with goats curd and marjoram doggy-paddling in a labour intensive tomato essence, followed by the slenderest of mackerel fillets that has it’s inherent oiliness cut through by fresh gooseberry and cubes of buttermilk jelly. There is an ease to the cooking here, the simple understanding that two or three elements on a plate can make more sense than one loaded with unnecessary showy technique. A bowl of Jersey Royals and caviar reinforced that for me, the pureed potato loaded with butter and offset by the salinity of the luxurious sturgeon eggs. It is a dream dish, one that sucks you into the table and makes you forget the environment you are in.

It’s not all delicate flavours; occasionally he metaphorically whacks you in the gob, though as a blogger I never rule out the literal, either. A cube of barbequed lamb (from the shoulder, I think) is about as unrefined as this dinner gets, in the best way possible. The flavour of the ovine is pure with just a hint of smokiness. Sharing the plate are slithers of garlic, peas both fresh and pureed, and the most textbook of hollandaise sauces I have ever tried. To extract so much from so few components is nothing short of outstanding. Dover sole sees two fillets glued together with some sort of crustacean paste, and then pan fried until the flesh just begins to tan. It is crowned with teeny shrimps that ramp up the taste of the ocean, and a little puree of parsley that pulls it back towards the shore. A sauce split with parsley oil is stellar stuff, but then all of the sauces are. These take time, skill and a lot of patience.

When I think back to the meal it is three dishes that stand out: the potato and caviar, a dessert I’ll get on to soon, and the guinea fowl that was next up. It had everything I look for in a plate of food; interest, technique and flavour. The breast is delicate with crisp skin, the leg stuffed with a mousseline of langoustine. Morels for earthiness, the vegetal freshness of asparagus, and another killer sauce. I would kill for this dish and then demand it once more on Death Row. I find myself checking that no diners or staff are watching before chasing the last dots of sauce around the plate with my fingertips. A kind of cheese course is next that suffers from following the guinea fowl. It has Lincolnshire poacher mousse at the base, topped with a parsley oil, lardons, and spring onions. On to the dish is spooned pastry that has been cooked, quickly frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed up. On its own the pastry has developed a raw note, though the intentions become clear when combined with the rest; its quiche Loraine and very nice it is, too. My mate who I’m having dinner with thinks it is too rich but then he eats fish in a bag at Mooch Bar, so you can trust me on this one.

Desserts are frankly brilliant. A rice pudding leaves us both speechless; decadent with vanilla it has the very costly Mara de Bois strawberries cooked down to a jam-like puree at the bottom. The meringues and frozen strawberries on top are delicate yet offer just enough texture. I know upon reading this my Dad will insist on me taking him for this and Dad, you’re welcome, I’ll do it without the usual passive aggression. It is followed by the bastard relative of the baba, the savarin, sliced apart and soaked in sherry. We load this with the puree of golden raisins and a healthy dose of cream. It is the Spanish rum baba. Your mind is pure filth, Turner. Filth.

Petit fours are a very interesting cornet of raspberry, rose, and beetroot that ate far more cohesively than it sounds. We leave stuffed and giddy, given up two hours of the evening to a tasting menu that comes in at ninety-quid a head and the wine pairing, that includes some special wines from the Coravin system, adding a bit more on top of top. It’s not cheap, but nor should it be, just look at the ingredients used above. A night at Maribels is one of luxury, of the finest food cooked by a man who knows what he is doing. It is clearly at one star level, something the tyre company will pick up on soon enough. As we’re finishing up on the wine Turner pops out the kitchen to ask how everything was. He is interested in feedback, affable, and dare I say it, happy. Maribel may just be what was needed to reignite the fires of this super talented chef.

10/10

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Jailbird, Birmingham

It’s going to be impossible to talk about Jailbird without mentioning it’s previous incarnation, so let’s get that giant lobster out of the room. Nosh and Quaff is dead. All three floors of it, from the top bar to the toilets nicked from the set of Saw in the basement. I was sad when I initially found out about it; I quite enjoyed it’s frivolities and it’s name summed up my ideal Friday night. In its place is Jailbird, a New York style concept that makes much better use of the vast space. Ground floor is now a  glorious looking cocktail bar, upstairs an homage to the Mid Town steak houses. The menu is bigger; more approachable with greater options. The emphasis is on large cuts of animal with prices to match.

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It seems a given that it is going to work. It’s a much more appropriate fit to the suits of Colmore Row and there is no need to get messy or wear a bib here. The service is super slick and the food already to a high standard, with my only issue that of portion size; something that I will come back to later. A disclosure at this point; I had an emergency at the dental practice a couple of hours before meaning the food I order is not what I had been eyeing up. It’s okay, I’m taking it as reason to return.

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My starter of scallops, bacon and sweetcorn is huge; a pile of coarse sweetcorn puree cut with a little lemon juice and plenty of chilli. The scallops are well timed to a lovely medium without being fleshy, though there is not enough of the salty bacon to reign in the sweetness. It is a dish that shines through its simplicity, the kind that makes me happy. I get to try some of the softshell crab, another generous portion. The crustacean is lightly battered with just enough heat from the cayenne, whilst the salad underneath makes the best of this seasons asparagus.

I wanted steak for dinner, and I am forced to watch my dining companion eat a large flat iron that cuts to a perfect medium rare. It is a serious bit of steak, that much I can tell you. I have black risotto with black garlic. It’s black on black, The Cure of culinary dishes. A dish the colour of my soul. The rice still retains bite, the black garlic adding an umami crash of fig-like sweetness once popped out of their coats. It’s rather good.

No one takes desserts because they are all taking food home. Portions are that big, and I expect in time that the steak sizes will shorten with the price. Sure it’s pricey in parts – mains range between £13.50 and £59.00 – but there is value to be found if you take the flat iron chicken from the bottom of that price range. How do I score it? In all honesty with a little difficulty; as I mention before I ate differently to how I intended, but lets be clear, everything I did eat was very nice. There is a lot to admire about Jailbird, from the gorgeous bar downstairs, good cocktails, a very affordable lunch menu and some very competent cooking. I enjoyed it and look forward to returning soon.

8/10

I was invited to dine at Jailbird

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Opheem, Birmingham

Such was the brilliance of Opheem that we found ourselves arguing about the best bits for hours after our meal. Was it the deboned, rolled and stuffed trotter on the pork main course? Or the subtle use of jaggery to add a treacle flavour on the lamb dish? Maybe it was the acidity of the raw mango with the softshell crab? I always think that it says a lot about a place if you remember the garnish as much as the protein, and here we are, two blokes sat in a boozer discussing the finer merits of what my mate Jim thinks it is the best meal he’s eaten in Birmingham and me adamant is the finest Indian food I’ve ever had. We go over the small elements over and over, where on the plate every ingredient matters. It is a meal of outstanding taste, that much we can both agree on.

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This will come as less of a shock when you learn that Opheem is the new restaurant of Aktar Islam, long servant to the city from his time at Lasan where he won The F Word’s best local restaurant, and TV chef from Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen. Aktar has gone it alone now, with a large dining room and bar where a notorious nightclub once stood. The space has an industrial feel with lots of brushed concrete effects, whilst tables are spaced far enough apart to upset an accountant. A glass partition separates the dining room from the open kitchen. Aktar is present at the pass, tasting and casting his eye over every dish. There is fire in those eyes.

I’ve been eating his food for years now, and this feels like him cooking without fear or constraint. The flavours are familiar, though there is a lighter touch to the spice in general, and more purpose in the complex techniques. Of the three snacks that launch our dinner the clearest example of this is the use of sphererification, the gel membrane releasing a spicy tamarind water when popped whole in the mouth. It is pani puri reimagined via molecular gastronomy that has more in common with Indian Accent and Gaggan than the Ladypool Rd. And then there is a tempura oyster with spiced batter and puree that tastes cleanly of tomato chutney. Only a onion bhaji style fritter is instantly recognisable and even then it’s greaseless and a world away from the norm.

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There are nods to his previous accolades on the menu and from this we take the soft shell crab dish that pays homage to his winning fish course on Great British Menu. The batter on the crustacean is delicate, the crab itself tender. A silky puree of raw mango has all the acidity and sweetness it needs, whilst the fermented rice batter bowl it comes in at first feels superfluous until you realise it adds a nuttiness and additional texture that enhances the dish. Everything has a purpose.

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Chicken comes smothered in a moss green mass of herbs, the marinade breaking down the protein in the meat so that it is implausibly tender. A simple salad of heritage tomatoes is all it requires, along with a little more of the same diced fruit and a yogurt dressing. It is fresh and clean in taste, with a predominant flavour of herb over spice. There is an intermittent course of sweet potato and cumin bread with a lamb brain pate; a nod to him smearing his mothers cooking on to crusty white bread as a youngster. The delicate jewels of offal still pronounced in amongst the robust spices. His mother clearly taught him well.

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Mains show the concept of Opheem in full force; one that takes the traditions of India and recreates them. Traditionally a spicy mutton curry, Laal Maans is reimagined with slices of pink lamb loin and crisp beignets of tongue joining pearls of smokey aubergine and barley. The gravy style sauce pulls it back towards its roots though there is obvious alchemy involved with the liberal use of chilli and silky bone marrow. Pork is given a similar treatment with pink cuts of loin, a pastilla of smoked ham hock, and the rolled trotter that I am still dreaming of. There is so much to get excited about on the plate, like the carrots cooked with star anise and another killer sauce, but the genius element is the puree of vindaloo that is ferociously hot with chilli and soured with vinegar, just how you’d find it in the beach shacks of Goa. It is this that is the highlight of the meal. It takes everything it touches and throws it into the clouds.

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Dessert is a fragrant rice pudding panacotta served with various preparations of rhubarb, which include more molecular dots of jammy fruit and a sorbet of astonishing depth of flavour. Indian desserts are often the weak link, yet here he is proving that a little classic European cooking technique can go a long way at rectifying that. It is a smart move and one that guarantees I go home happy. It is is well balanced and pretty impeccable in delivery; Oh boy, does this man do flavour.

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And that concludes a truly superb meal. One that isn’t just a coup for the city of Birmingham, but is important to Indian cooking in this country. I’ve seen what the best in this cuisine has to offer and in my eyes Opheem already stands up to them, even surpassing them in places. Aktar Islam has been long touted as a standout talent, yet Opheem feels bolder than ever before; the product of a man cooking without shackle and allowing that creative stream to run riot. It is fresh yet relatable, distinctive cooking from a man clearly in tune with his craft. We are lucky to have Opheem in this city, but we must share far and wide. Food as good as this deserves celebrating.

10/10

https://opheem.com

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Boca Grande at The Plough, Harborne

So I was sat in a pub recently not far from where I live, when someone I vaguely know from 6am house parties said to me ‘you need to stop dressing like you’re in The Plough, you live in Moseley now’. I look down at what I’m wearing; slip on loafers, no socks, Prince of Wales check grey shorts, a button-down Oxford shirt with sweater over the top. He’s right: I couldn’t be anymore Harborne unless I had two cars to drive, a labradoodle, and a relative in the Conservative party. Like Tuberculosis i guess living there is one of those things you never fully shake off. I had three glorious years living in Harborne, of which approximately two of those were spent in The Plough. Mondays for pizza, Tuesday burgers, the weekends were Connect 4 either in the extension or out in the garden. Do not take me on at Connect 4, I will destroy your constitution and break your soul. And I’ll enjoy every second of it.

On this occasion I’ve taken the long stroll back to Harborne for dinner with Rob of Foodie Boys. Us boys have to stick together in this game. The females dominate in this city, eating the males alive, akin to the Black Widow. Just like those spiders most have a nasty bite and hairy backs. We’re here for the tacos which form the Boca Grande takeover this summer. I have a lot of time for tacos, they’re like the bastard siblings of the burrito before they got fat on carbs and started dressing modestly.

Those tacos are very good, an improvement on the same product they served only on Wednesdays last year. The shell is soft, the fillings piled high. Chicken is as hot as the menu warns, with a ginger slaw that lingers long after the Almost Death sauce has killed my taste buds and done a runner. The delicate flavour of cod is not lost amongst its garnish of jalapeño, lime and ginger, whilst the prawn taco has a inherent sweetness allowed to shine with spring onion and a little chilli.

In my eyes the pick of the bunch is the pork, slow cooked to the point that it retains just enough bite to remind you its meat that we’re eating. Its smoky and rich, needing the acidity of the apple to cut through it. I like it even more with Pip’s hot sauce, but then that sentence can be applied to anything. A beef and bean chilli made from brisket works because of a chimichurri full of bright acidity. From the sides the guacamole is fresh with acidity and heat, but it is the sweetcorn that takes full honours with garlic, lime and butter. I go back for more until the bottom of the pot is visible. It goes with the chicken particularly well.

Service is the standard level of The Plough brilliance; I cant think of another pub anywhere which does it better. They never miss a beat: drinks arrive quickly followed by tacos, empty plates are removed, more tacos come, repeat process. It seems so simple, yet so many get it wrong. Boca Grande is just another example of The Plough’s brilliance, one that taps into a trend that fits perfectly with the Summer, further cementing their position as Birmingham’s best pub.

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Rum in Brum, Prince of Wales, Moseley

If you’re a groupie for fat food bastards, or the paid assassin from a coven of food bloggers, I’ll help you out with finding me. Come rain or shine, midday or later from midweek onwards, you’ll find me in The Prince of Wales in Moseley. I’ll either be sat at the bar with the regulars, or out the back, under that massive marquee within spitting distance of the tiki bar. Not that I would ever spit, no that’s disgusting. I tend to just throw shrapnel at the bar staff to get their attention. But I like it there. It’s my local, a great place without pretence where almost anything goes. If you haven’t been to The Prince they have a great bar upfront, and a wine and cheese shack, bottle bar, and rum tiki shack out the back. They do silly things like World Earth Day when I can’t get meat in my burrito, and great things like Woofstock (a dog friendly day festival on May 28th), and Rum in Brum on June 9th and 10th.

This is a quick post on the latter of those because a) I love the Prince and b) those Saturday day tickets aren’t going to pay for themselves. We went last year and it was easily in my top twenty-seven Saturday day time drinking sessions of the year. There were hundreds, maybe even millions, of rums to sample, and drinking tokens to purchase the ones you liked best. There was killer street food to purchase with your food tokens and a rum cocktail menu from the tiki bar. The sun blazed down and I may have shed a tear when the steelpan band played UB40’s ‘Kingston Town’. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a man dancing on the table wearing just a Bundaberg costume. He was absolutely not behaving in any way that was not promoting sensible drinking.

It’s back this year, bigger than ever they say. Which, if my maths is correct, means that there will be a billion or so rums to sample. They have jerk streetfood, and burrito streetfood and something called Vegan, which I believe to be a disease that slowly kills any personality you may have. The sun will 100% be possibly shining. I’m guessing that the steelpan band will back and willing to take a punt on them not churning out the greatest hits of Radiohead. I’m reliably informed by General Dictator Larry that if you have an Independent Birmingham card you get a whole £5 extra in drinks tokens for your ticket purchasing buck. There will be every type of rum, each to sample as much as your greedy chops can handle. And it will be glorious. Loads of merry people all having a great time together. You should go. I’ll be there too, but please don’t let that put you off.

Get tickets for this year’s Rum in Brum here

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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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