Bistro

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

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Sticky Walnut, Chester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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

Benoit, Paris

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

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

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

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

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

 8/10

Purnell’s Bistro

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

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