Cheval Blanc

Little Blackwood, Moseley

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

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/

Cheval Blanc, Moseley

Cheval Blanc is now three months old and has already become something of a cult classic in Moseley, bringing back the wine bar without the yuppy association of the 80’s and with a new dynamic; more vibrant and current in its approach.  There is no pretence here, instead the team focus on delivering high quality wine and cocktails, with food that complements the drink, not the other way round.  Its a lovely place to whittle away the hours and I often do.  I write this on a Wednesday morning, my head still tinged from both Saturday and Sunday afternoons sat at the bar drinking too well for my doctors liking.  It is safe to say that I am a fan.

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But I am here now to mostly talk about the food, not my alcoholic tendencies.  I was invited for the launch of the Autumn menu a week back and its clear that the food has moved up a notch in the short time they have been operating.  Dishes are more complex, flavour profiles more pronounced.  The head chef here is Cyd, a man so Gaelic I expect he cycles to work on a bike with a baguette in a basket up front, and more than ever this feels like his menu.  Each dish we try has a confidence of a man who understands his native cuisine but isn’t afraid to take it elsewhere when required.  The crisp balls of arancini which start are accurately seasoned so that the rice inside punches heavily with earthy mushroom flavour.  A salad of crab is freshened by lime and grapefruit segments which could have lost the seafood flavour in lesser hands.  Here it is balanced and well matched to a Australian Reisling that zings and dazzles.

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A glass of Cab Franc from Australia’s Jamsheed is almost too quaffable, all light and refined with a back note of oak that works wonders with slices of venison carpaccio daintily dressed with blackberries and hazelnuts.  A quail dish feels more substantial; pan-fried breast and confit leg with glass-like crisp skin.  Fresh quince and poached grapes are seasonal and sensible choices for the needed acidity, whilst a celeriac rosti takes it in to more complete eating.  In a menu of small dishes designed to be eaten in numbers, this feels like a small dish that could fill a hole by itself.  Try it with the Rhone they suggest, high in tannin and savoury enough to pin down the fruit in the dish.

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We hold fire on the last course and pause for a cocktail featuring chocolate infused bourbon, an idea that should be stolen and made compulsory for Christmas Day breakfast.  The dessert is a mousse of chocolate and green chartreuse, a herby liquor that was new to me and vastly enjoyed, probably because of the 55% alcohol content.  Its a classy way to finish, possibly a little to kitsch for my liking, but then most things are.

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Yes, I do live 150 metres away from here, and yes, this evening was free.  In an age when disclosure is paramount and every free meal that a ‘blogger’ (and how I hate that label) receives is scrutinised, it is questionable how much one can believe this write-up over, say, the one which is going to cost me two-hundred-and-fifty-quid this coming weekend.  And for every complimentary meal I receive I always ask myself if I would come back or not and pay out of my own wallet.  The answer to that with Cheval Blanc is I do come back, twice since this event last week and probably again this weekend.  I spent my bloody birthday here, for Christ’s sake.  I come back because I simply cant think of a nicer place to enjoy quality wine and casually pick away at well made plates of food.  The team of Abi and Rory know their stuff and they have created somewhere special that never fails to deliver.  I am fortunate to live in Moseley and have so many great places to drink and eat on my doorstep, but none of those places get me excited quite like Cheval Blanc.

 I was invited to the above autumn menu tasting.

 

 

Cheval Blanc, Moseley

In my distorted world, wine joins chess and the guitar in a small list of things I will never truly master.  It’s not through lack of trying; I preserver with them all despite being gifted with fat fingers, a bloated liver, and distinct lack of intelligence.  With the wine I am a member of a club, I read on the subject and I go to wine tastings.  I can tell the difference between red crushed grapes and white crushed grapes (the colour), and I can often tell you a bit about the make-up if its printed clearly enough on the label. But that’s where it ends.  Like chess and the guitar, there is always someone better; a master of their arts, willing to show-off a little with the panache of a flick of the hair or slight of hand.  And I can only stand back and admire it all when that happens.

This tenuously leads me one hundred and fifty words in to Cheval Blanc, a wine bar that has my total admiration despite being less than two weeks old.  For here is a place that takes wine seriously, with a impeccable list formed from around the world after a substantial holiday in France.  Located next to its sister pub The Dark Horse, Cheval Blanc (French for White Horse; see what they’ve done?  Clever clogs.) feels a different entity.  The seating has upholstery thick enough to nestle in for the night, with thick wooden tables and exposed brick walls.  The centre piece of the room is an inset spiral cellar, accentuated by lamp shades which dangle down at head height above it.

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We try lots of wines with each one having the sort of character you would expect from a list hand picked by those who appreciate the craft.  There is a house champagne full of sparkle and sweetness that would shame many a fine restaurant and a rose that begs to be enjoyed on a warm evening out on the terrace they share with The Dark Horse.  A rather marvellous white from BLANKbottle comes with a great story and no grape information.  Its a corker, all balanced marzipan and pear.  We all love a classic style Beaujolais whilst a big red from South Africa is as elegent as it is punchy with blackberry and cherry.  We go home and look the wine up.  Good wine has this effect on me in the same way good food does.

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And they do food.  Of course they do, this is a restaurant blog after all.  Small plates, mostly cold, designed to sit amongst the wine, are good enough to warrant a visit of its own.  An accurately poached lobster tail sharpened by lemon acidity, a liver parfait of real depth and cured bits of venison are enjoyed almost as quickly as they are washed down.  It’s all good stuff, I just wish I remembered to take photo’s.  I will next time.  Promise.

Bottles range from twenty quid up to a Cheval Blanc at £800.00, with glasses of wine and plates of food starting at a fiver and rising upwards.  It all seems extremely fair given the experience and love which has gone in to the end product.  It’s a place that I can see myself spending a lot of time and money in, admiring the real experts go to work and having a bloody great time doing so.