digbeth dining club

Sear and Smoke, Birmingham

Meat. If that one word isn’t to your liking, then you may want to shut down this window and go back to your hummus and crudites. For the rest of you, prepare for sympathy sweats and burger envy, for lumps of protein and token pieces of carbohydrates. The latest addition to this cities fast expanding food scene is an ode to fire and beast, to feeding using only the finest animals in the most skilled of hands.

Being a collaboration from Original Patty Men and Digbeth Dining Club it was never going to be ambiguous in name. They settle for Sear and Smoke, which makes sense given that pretty much covers off the cooking processes involved. It’s home is Crane, a beautiful old factory too close to St Andrews to be desirable. The huge ceilings, bare brick and steel framework feels like its already integral to the city and I feel slightly at loss to have seen this for the first time in my mid thirties.

I head straight to Flying Cows because a burger for breakfast makes perfect sense. There I take The High Flyer because that’s the award winner and award winners should only ever eat award winners if you want to go Full Pillock. I do. The aged beef is pink throughout, with the sweetest of bacon and Swiss cheese that has the same gummy feel as it’s American counterpart, only with the added bonus of actually tasting of cheese. Whisper it, but Flying Cows remind me of Bleecker Burger at their finest. It’s the burger I would choose from anywhere right now if given the choice. I wash it down with a cocktail from the Birmingham Whisky Club. And lovely it is, too. Far better than the whisky I usually wash my breakfast down with.

There are a dozen or so food traders here on the day, the cream of the local talent and some from further afield. From a little place called London we have Wingman, a chicken wing specialist who came to my attention when they won best of the best at this year’s British Street Food finals. I have the winning dish (see previous Full Pillock comment) that has the sweet, sour and hot profiles of Thai cooking all over their chicken and all down my jacket. Properly lovely stuff and easily the best chicken wing I have ever eaten. Taking second place at those awards was Baked in Brick, today cooking a 45 day aged rump cap as a special alongside some of the more usual suspects. The beef is gloriously tender, with a chestnut mushroom sauce enriched with bone marrow that transformed some very ordinary fries underneath into something far more magical.

I’m outside for a talk by a man who knows a lot about street food and more whisky. The air is stained by smoke and the smell of rendered fat. Low’n’Slow are to blame. Throngs of people have gathered round to watch him smoke pork belly over a make shift pit on the floor before being finished over a barbecue by the very farmer who supplies the pigs. The meat is stunning; aged pork with thick ribbons of fat that only a fool would discard. It’s a proper plate of food, with potatoes cooked with bone marrow and a fiery burnt salsa and sharp ‘slaw. He is bringing the theatre of Meatopia to a warehouse in the backstreets of Birmingham. This is the future of Sear and Smoke.

Original Patty Men are here with a friend – Dom Clarke of Canneat, a little place in Stirchley that I have much love for. I try the special which has their usual patty with ox cheek, gruyere, and ‘French soup’ onions. It’s one of the days more technically minded dishes, aimed squarely at a mouthful of umami. The ox cheek has been braised in reduced Guiness, the onions cooked down to a meaty gelatinous mess. It’s seriously good, I just wish I’d left more room for it.

I wanted to try more, though without my usual partner in crime I was defeated. Three hours after the start and the place was starting to heave, my attempts over, dictated by a bulging waistline and the arrival of a coven of my ex’s friends. I depart for a well earned snooze, awaking to a social media frenzy at the event as the night draws in and the bands begin to play. It seems that I was not alone in my love for it. It was a bona fide success, proof that Birmingham can play with the big boys. It was a faultless stepping stone to a more ambitious event next year. The countdown to the next Sear and Smoke has already begun.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. For more information please see http://www.a2bradiocars.com

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Digbeth Dining Club, Birmingham 

I remember the first time I went to Digbeth Dining Club. It was a dreary day, cold and overcast, when summer promised much and delivered very little. We sat on the few benches outside, shivering and exposed to the elements, supping on beer and wondering what the hype was about. I remember very little about the food, other than a Cambodian pork dish from Canoodle that was ordered at the counter and hand delivered to our bench by the chap who made it. That was great; vibrant, clean, and a reason in itself to return on a more cheery evening. If someone would have told me on that evening that Digbeth Dining Club would go on to shape the casual restaurant scene in Birmingham over the next five years I would have spat my pint out of that massive gob of mine.

And yet, it has. Without DDC (herewith known as) we would have no The Meat Shack, no Original Patty Men, and no Indian Streatery to visit. Imagine that. No, actually don’t, it will give you nightmares. And we wouldn’t as a city be able to lay claim to the Britain’s ‘best of the best’, it’s best burger, and now, more recently, Europe’s best. I’ve gone a lot recently because now feels as good a time as ever to tell you about a few of my favourite traders. In the effort of a full disclaimer, I should point out that I personally know both of the founders. James has got me a beer in the past and Jack hasn’t. Neither will give me a DDC Gold Card and both would never dream of giving me, El Blaggo, anything for free. Take this at face value all you want, but all of the dishes have come out of my own pocket.

Hot off the European victory, Baked in Brick seems a good place to start. In the last fourteen months Mr Brick has pretty much cleaned up; British Street Food Awards Best Main Dish 2016, with Best of the Best the same year. This year he came second overall in the same awards, getting him to Berlin where he won the big one. I’ve written about Baked in Brick at length before, but it’s safe to say that his food is about as good as street food gets, whether that be his chicken tikka wrap or beef shin calzone. If you happen to be there when the red mini is, eat the food – it will not disappoint.

This year’s other victor is Flying Cows, winner of Best Burger at the UK street food finals. The burger here is a virtue to farming; the Dexter beef coming direct from his father’s farm. It’s loosely packed and ferociously seared so that the aged cow is the star, whichever burger is ordered. In a city that has made demigods out of burger traders who started off at DDC, Flying Cows is destined to be the next patty shaped success story.

I have mad love for Bourneville Waffle Company in a way that could invoke a restraining order. The warm waffles could be topped with brownie pieces, or addictive bits of fudge made with biscuit paste. It all works. Newer to me is Street Chef, who makes chips out of halloumi. I am fan of anyone that can combine chips and cheese without resorting to poutine. What really makes him stand out is the mushroom ketchup it is served with that brims with heat and attitude. I would like a bottle, please.

The folk of Birmingham would lynch me if I never mentioned Low’n’Slow, so here we are. Andy is a true maestro of flames and frankly shits all over any of the city’s permanent fixtures that serve smoked meat. His chilli brisket burger is a good place to start, which has layer-upon-layer of flavour sandwiched between buns. More recently I had a plate of pork off him that I took to Twitter to say was world class. World. Class. Working muscles end up as tangles of sweet meat and more expensive cuts fired to an accurate medium rare. Low’n’Slow is revered across the city for a singular reason; the man can really cook.

Buddha Belly has a former Masterchef contestant at the helm, firing off the kind of authentic food that gives Siamais nightmares about them opening a restaurant of their own. Have the yellow curry with chicken. Eat the yellow curry with chicken. Order another and Thank me afterwards. And Canoodle is still going strong, all those years after that pork dish stole my attention. We recently had Korean fried chicken and, more impressively, their signature beef rendang that melted to a sweet nothing.


There are others, some I’ve tried and some I haven’t yet. You see I went to the last DDC with the intention of having a Libertine Burger and ended up with tacos from Low’n’Slow. This happens all the time. I’m not so much a creature of habit, but a creature that hates disappointment. If I know it’s good I’ll return time again. I’ll get to Libertine eventually.

The point is that DDC feels more important than ever. They are attracting the very best week on week, providing the foundations for these vendors to expand or look to permanent fixtures of their own. It’s inevitable that the next crop of success stories will come from some of the above, and all deserve it. To the DDC class of 2017 keep up the good work. I salute everyone of you.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here; http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Meat Shack, Birmingham

 

I have a lot to thank Meat Shack for.  They ended ‘The Carlo Great Burger Drought’, that ripped through the country between 2006 and 2013 when I decided that burgers were shite.  Looking back I was probably right, in Birmingham anyhow, when our casual dining scenes was as stale as the sesame seed bun that compresses the cows arsehole and eyelid together at McDonald’s.  We had very little to shout about other than a couple of Michelin starred places that the majority could not afford.  And then Digbeth Dining Club happened.  I remember eating the food of passionate traders who were producing far superior dishes to those in their own bricks and mortar, at a fraction of the price.  The Meatshack was one of those places, the first burger I had eaten for, I think, seven years.  I was coerced by a mate and never looked back – it was everything that I wanted a burger to be.  I remember talking about it sometime after to an equally epicurean pal, how those burgers, along with many other wonderful dishes at DDC, would eventually shape our future restaurants in Birmingham.  I was right.  I am always fucking right.

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The transition of street food to restaurant doesn’t happen overnight.  Products are to be tweaked.  Locations found.  Funds raised.  In the case of Meat Shack it’s taken five years to go from the little black and white tent to the bright and illustrated space upstairs in the new Thorp 17 building in China Town.  It’s caused local hysteria with those who love their food.  Expectations are high and for the most part they have nailed it.

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The slogan here is ‘dripping filthy goodness’, a phrase that they have presumably stolen from a swingers club, but actually relates to the process of cooking the beef patty so that it retains the juices.  It is exactly as I remember them being, if not as pink in the centre as they once were.  We try two different burgers, both of which are excellent.  Hell Shack is a brute, a relentless assault that has the Rib Man’s ‘Holy Fuck’ hot sauce at it’s core and a green chilli relish playing back-up when a back-up probably isn’t required.  Still, if you order anything with a hot sauce called ‘Holy Fuck’ you expect serious heat, and serious heat is what you get.  I fucking love it, and I can swear all I want here, because if they can say fuck on a menu, I can use it all I fucking want in my post.  Sorry, Mom.  If heaven existed I know you’d be pretty appalled with me right now.

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You can look again now because the next paragraph contains zero curse words.  The Dutch Piggy is at it’s purest form a bacon cheeseburger.  It has two cheeses; a classic American cheese that owes its existence to the invention of plastic as much as it does to milk (this is not an insult – American cheese is the best for burgers) and another, Edam, I think, that has melted in a far more conventional sense.  Together with the bacon it works to accentuate the beef flavour rather than wipe it off the face of the earth like the hot sauce does.  They are two burgers for very different customers.  Both are very good indeed.

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There are no fried pickles on today, leaving us with onion rings and fries topped with a spicy mayo.  The latter is the weak link here, unremarkable in texture with not enough of the mayo, which itself could do with more attitude.  The onion rings are the best I’ve tried, though at £3.50 for six they should be.  The batter cracks and then disappears in the mouth.  It makes me wish that the Frickles were on to try.

We’ve waited five years for this to become a reality.  Is it worth it?  Undoubtedly yes.  We eat within the first few hours of the first day they are open to the public and already the team have mastered the service and the cooking.  It’s slick and personable, maybe more than you ever expect a burger restaurant to ever to.  I never doubted their ability to make the jump, but I am seriously impressed with the professionalism and accuracy of it all.  Meat Shack is destined to be another Birmingham success story, and hopefully one that will inspire some of the other traders to do the same.

8/10