Colmore Row

Nosh & Quaff, Birmingham

Way before I started eating and writing about the nicer places around Birmingham, I used to read about them and not eat at them. I would buy the Birmingham (then Evening) Mail on a Friday only, moving just past halfway to Paul Fulford’s weekly piece. There you would have found a small picture of his small and shiny head in the upper left and two hundred words or so of Paul’s concise writing below. His occasionally acerbic, always honest writing style was an early favourite of mine, more so on the occasions he slipped in a subtle knob innuendo. He’s my neighbour now, which I still find bizarre, and occasionally I get to spend time over dinner with him, taking in his stories and counting the wrinkles on his face.  A couple of nights back I met him at 7pm sharp at Nosh & Quaff where in the deep red leather booths you would have found the unlikely combination of a Birmingham food legend and Paul Fulford, the ex restaurant critic for the Birmingham Mail.

There is a valid reason for us being here.  Back when I first wrote about Nosh & Quaff the menu was even shorter than Paul; lobster, burgers, some ribs.  I liked it, others less so, finding the options too limiting and the pricing aggressive.  Two years and a little introspection later, we have a full page of options and a considerable decrease in the pricing.  I think it needs it.  Downstairs is still a beautiful space of marble and deep red leather with ceilings high enough to fit my ego without the need to crouch, it just now has the kind of pricing and options to fill it more frequently.  There is a large industrial room  of bare brick and wood upstairs that they should turn into the city centre location of Fiesta Del Asado, a stablemate of the same group.


The hotdog is one of those items that has fallen in price.  Impeccably sourced from the Big Apple Hotdog company it is now half the price of the fifteen quid it used to be, with only fries losing their tray gig.  It showcases what N&Q is all about; quality produce, generous portions, and an underlying guilt that you probably will need to run your dinner off the following morning. It is worth the run. The dog snaps, the bun is sturdy enough to hold everything else in place. Order this and ask for a bib to come with it.  


From the newer items are rib tips that really transpire to be precise cubes of unctuous pork, slowly cooked and glazed in a funky BBQ sauce.  This is a lot of pig for £4.50.  Chick Norris may be a dreadful name for a burger but is a hefty bit of dinner.  Two hulks of free range thigh meat in one of those thick American buttermilk batters with bacon and processed cheese. Heat lurks in the background with enough tang in the ‘slaw to cut through the richness of it all. As far as the composition of a burger goes this has it all.



American portions mean only real Americans will have room for desserts.  For the rest of us it’s a small dent in the wallet and a lie down.  I still really like Nosh & Quaff, they’re not pushing boundaries but they are taking a familiar cuisine and applying quality ingredients with precise cooking.  It’s managed to improve what it previously was, now with a menu with enough scope to warrant repeat visits.  And all in the company of a man who definitely makes the list of my top 172 food writers.  Life really doesn’t get much better. 

Mr Fulford picked up the bill, I got the Uber home.  I guess that makes us quits.    

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Electro Brunch at Gaucho, Birmingham

It’s 11am on a chilly Saturday morning and I’m drinking a Bloody Mary in the chic dining room at Gaucho.  This is my kind of brunch, a booze propelled two hour blast of unlimited food and drink from booths that are more comfortable than my bed.  There is a DJ playing the kind of music I expect would make an Ibiza chill out compilation album whilst the floor buzzes with staff.  One comes to our table and asks what we want to order. I say it’s time to swap the drink to an Aperol Spritz. He meant food. Still it’s 11.05am and I have my priorities in order.


Over the two hours we eat and drink as if this were a challenge, pausing only to take in the occasional gasp of air. Steak and eggs seem the obvious place to start in a steakhouse.  The meat is of high quality, briefly shown heat to still retain a pinkness inside, with a fried egg because this is still breakfast, after all.  It’s simple and delicious. Likewise a eggs Benedict that has the traditional ham replaced with salt beef.  It’s bordering on genius in concept, not a million miles away from steak with bearnaise sauce.  We would go later back for seconds and then thirds.



The humble sausage sandwich is given the upgrade with chorizo and chimichurri  between charred ciabatta that we resist the temptation to smear inch thick with brown sauce. Beans on toast is pimped with chunks of chorizo in an almost indentical vein to what I do at home, only with a lot less butter. Fried provoleta cheese is rich and guey with onions that have been cooked down to a jam-like consistency. One of our group have this and suddenly we all ordering it in envy. It’s that kind of dish.




Fuelled by more spritz’s we gravitate towards a sweeter finish to the meal.  French toast comes with an addictive peanut butter dulce de luche that is all nutty caramel and sweetness.  We insist that it makes a return on pancakes with banana and maple syrup, half joking that we’d like to purchase a jar of the stuff. It’s no joke. I really want a jar.



All of this comes at the price of £45 per head.  To put it into perspective it is the most expensive brunch in Birmingham, but arguably the best value.  To the best of mine and Googles knowledge, all of the others offer one dish with the unlimited drinks.  This is as much a dining experience as a drinking one, decadent and comfortable, as much as you can fit in.  They really know what they are doing here.  As far as two hours go, it’s pretty much the ideal start to a weekend, leaving us with the choice of more booze or an afternoon snooze.  We choose the former.  Of course we do.  Way too much fun was had to have it any other way.

I was a guest of Gaucho at the brunch and did not pay

 

Gaucho, Birmingham

Gaucho arrives in Birmingham on a tsunami of hype, being the first to open from the group for seven years and choosing little old Brum for the honour.   I’m going to stick my neck out and speak for the city; we’re delighted about this. Good steak in Birmingham is a rarity, and even then it’s a decent walk from the centre to get a fix. The principles of a steakhouse are not difficult – source cow, age cow, cook cow, rest cow, eat cow – yet the realities are often a disappointment. I’ve stopped eating steak out because of it.  It defies the very reason I eat out, which is to have an experience better than I can create at home.  I know an excellent butcher and I cook it better than the majority of places.

So let me thank Gaucho one more time for delivering the best piece of cow I have eaten in this city, in the sexiest dining room I have eaten in quite some time. It is a sultry space of plush purple seating and low lighting.  There are abstract trees in the centre of the room and leaf murals lining the walls.  It’s a place to impress, whether that be the partner, the affair, or the colleague.

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I am here on a night to showcase the beef, and boy, what beef it is.  Argentine prime cattle, wet aged for longevity.  After some nibbles of raw bits and some slow cooked bits, we sit down and tuck into a scotch egg with coarsely chopped cow replacing the pig.  It’s bold and funky, almost reminiscent  of tartare when the yolk is released.  A chipotle ketchup swings us back over to South America.  It is the ultimate pub snack, twenty times more masculine than any pork scratching.  I like it a lot.

Our main event is a fillet cooked to a perfect rare.  It is, as I reference above, the best piece of beef I have eaten in this city.  It’s not a cut I would usually order – I far prefer a bit of chew and more flavour – but it’s one I will go back to again.  Buttery in texture, full of flavour and aggressively seasoned.  It is wonderful.  A decadent truffle compote has the underlying earthiness of mushroom, with a carrot and parsnip dauphinoise that I will try and fail to recreate at home. If this is on the menu order it.  If it’s not stamp your feet and insist that they make it for you.

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There was dessert, but if I’m honest I’d make too many trips to the Malbec tasting room and by now all I wanted to do was go and meet a girl.  I was extremely tipsy and don’t recall that much about it other than the panna cotta was well set and I cleaned the bowl, which means it must have been good.

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The sticking point for some will be the price – it’s not cheap.  Order three courses, including the fillet and a couple of glasses of wine from the bottom of the list, and you’re looking at a spend of £70 a head.  For that price you expect fireworks, and, if steak is your thing, you can expect it here.  It is obvious the level of effort that has gone into making the newest Gaucho a success, and it has paid off with aplomb.  Gaucho has the making of a Birmingham classic, and I for one cannot wait to keep on going back.

I was invited to the launch event at Gaucho

And now the plug; I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards. Please be kind and vote for me here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

Gusto, Birmingham

I’d like to think that places like Gusto are a sign of just how far Birmingham has progressed over recent years.  I don’t think it would have fitted in five years ago when the city was still finding it’s culinary feet, or even two years back when areas such as Edgbaston and Moseley were making massive indentations into antediluvian stereotype.  Now, less than six months after its opening, it feels like a staple of Colmore Row – rewarded by a full dining room whose attitude towards dining out is more open.  It sits underneath the Grand Hotel, right in the heart of the financial district.  Inside you’ll find one of the prettier dining rooms in the city, one that nods towards the 1920’s without ever compromising the simplicity of modern interior design.  Glance around and you’ll see slithers of stained glass and splashes of marble, with circular wooden tables that suit tables of four far better than just us two.  It evokes the dining rooms of New York’s Nolita district, a style that matches a menu full of the bastardisation cuisine that is American-Italian.

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Now, you may, or may not, be aware that Gusto is a chain.  Whether that bothers you or not depends on how much time you like to spend shouting at birds in the street.  Me, I couldn’t care less, it obviously works or else they wouldn’t have sloped down from the north to Birmingham.  The first thing I ate happened to be very good indeed.  Torn shreds of braised pork, with gnocchi and cherry bell pepper, all dressed in light rocket pesto.  The gnocchi is light and lends itself well to the rest of the plate.  There is heat from the peppers and plenty of robust seasoning.  It quickly disappears.

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Duck comes medium-rare as requested, on a warm salad of pulses and roasted winter veg.  It’s succeeds in being lighter than it looks, simultaneously fresh and earthy, though we welcome additional carbs in the form of fries dusted with parmesan and truffle. Lamb Cacciatore is a traditional Italian Easter dish of slow cooked ovine, here presented as a gutsy stew rich with tomato and red wine.  Like everything else we try, it’s considered and well cooked, the working muscles of the lamb cooked until they offer no resistance to fork nor teeth, with a dollop of pesto to cut through some of the richness.  Portions are on the American side of large and we find no room for dessert, despite a mischievous sounding Nutella calzone.  I’ll be back for that, don’t you worry.  The bill, with a nice bottle of Barbera, comes to a very fair £63.00 for the two of us.

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I go back a few days later whilst waiting for a phone screen to be fixed in the Apple store.  There I have a pizza with cured meat and chillies that sits amongst some of the better pizza to be had in the city centre.  The base is thin and crisp, the toppings generous and of a high quality.  It makes for an ideal dinner for one with another glass of red wine too cheap for its quality.

Pasta, pizza and so forth; without ever mentioning the word Italian, Gusto have served up some of the better examples to have in Birmingham.  Yes, I know it’s not authentic; it’s immigrant food galvanized on the East coast of America, but it happens to be a damn sight better than the generic paint-by-numbers tosh we have come to accept as a given by more established Italian restaurants.  It is a welcome addition to the city; stylish, affordable and with a clear identity.  If only every group had the same high standards as Gusto, I would welcome them all with open arms.

8/10 

 

 

Chung Ying Central, Birmingham

I’d like to think that my belly is the base of my knowledge. That with every shunned gym visit for a meal with friends that I am learning, little-by-little, more about the cuisine on the plate. Over time I have become well versed in the layering of spices of Indian curries and the balance of sugar, salt, spice, and acidity at the heart of Thai cooking. One country whose food I know very little about is China, partially due to the local Cantonese being relegated to our default takeaway, so when well-travelled friends of ours said they fancy some Dim Sum for dinner I took it as an opportunity to differentiate between Har Gow and Chiu Chow.

Of all the places to go for Dim Sum, Chung Ying Central seemed the obvious choice. From the third branch of the long established Chung Ying group they claim to serve the best Dim Sum in the city. Never mind pigeon-holing into it just the city or small dumplings, I would go so far as saying it is some of the best Chinese food I have ever eaten, though how seriously you wish to take that depends on how much you trust a man whose hangover meal is curry sauce and chips in a tray. All of the dishes we ordered sang of authenticity; a bold move in a country that has basterdised the food of every nation to suit our own primitive palette.  Every Dim Sum dish was a success, from the Chiu Chow’s translucent skin with a lean minced pork perked by rice wine and ginger, to the beef packed with ginger and spring onion.  These steamed pieces have a texture that may not to be everyone’s liking.  Its their loss.

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They do street food equally well; Char Sui buns are little pillows of rice flour buns, hiding long braised pieces of unctuous pork belly that call out for regular revisits.  Crisp spring rolls filled with curried chicken is reminiscent of the roadside snacks we purchased for pennies on a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh.  Here, at £4.00 for a substantial portion, they are not much more and are far superior.

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Yuk Shung with coarsely minced lamb is full of umami notes and aromatics.  The meat has bite in all the right places and is quickly piled high on to crisp sheets of lettuce which soon disappears from the table. A wonton soup had a stock deep with shellfish bones, soured with vinegar and tempered with soy.  The prawn and pork dumplings with good flavour and substance whilst never making the dish too heavy.

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A couple of mains are ordered because we are greedy and also to satisfy my partners curiosity of whether or not Chung Yings chicken in blackbean sauce lives up to the dish she orders weekly as a takeaway.  It does.  The chicken is of higher quality, the sauce more complex.  She scrapes the plate clean.  Had we not been with friends she probably would have licked it clean.  Crispy chicken with salt and chilli is perhaps too restrained; it would be nice to see this with the brakes taken off.  Dishes like this should leave a mark on the soul, whereas this was a gentle hug of heat.

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With a bill that works out at approximately thirty quid each, including beers and a cocktail or two thrown in for good measure, Chung Ying is exceptionally good value.  It transports the true essence of Cantonese cooking from China Town into the heart of the city centre, never flinching from its roots for fear of alienating its cliental.  Our dining companions had not long returned from Hong Kong where they were fortunate enough to eat the very best Dim Sum the city could offer.  Their opinion of Chung Ying Central?  “We’ll be back”.  That tells you everything you need to know.

8/10
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