Fine Dining

Azurmendi, Bilbao

We first spotted Azurmendi perched high upon a hill as our taxi roared down the motorway. It briefly disappears as we swing left to disembark the quicker roads and then rapidly grows in size again as we go around the roundabout up a very steep hill and up to the top, where the gigantic glass building stands proudly at the top. We enter the leafy reception and are immediately given a glass each of the txakoli they grow on their own vineyards at the rear, followed by a picnic basket that contains the first four courses. It would be thirty-five minutes and ten small courses from here before we sit down in the restaurant. Azurmendi don’t do things the normal way.

That picnic basket is Chapter 1, the first of four chapters that takes four hours from start to finish. Inside is a seafood broth, a dainty brioche burger with anchovy and smoked eel, and a cider parfait with chorizo crumb. What amazes me is the intensity of the flavours; everything is ramped up to the maximum it can be, the burger having the flavour of barbequed fish despite any direct heat being applied to any of the filling. My favourite is a false peanut, with uncompromisingly rich filling of foie gras and peanut, before being finished with mushroom powder. It is very clever.

From here we are taken into the kitchen for the next instalment. A chicken consommé greets us, the strong, clean chicken flavour lifted with a little sherry. Whilst we are drinking this an egg yolk has a little removed by syringe and then replaced with a hot truffle reduction that cooks the yolk from the inside out. A truffled egg yolk. Absolute filth. I am demanding this on every breakfast from now. The third chapter takes us into the greenhouse for four more nibbles, a glass of fermented apple juice, which we know of course to be cider, then the most remarkable cornet of tomato, red pepper and garlic that nods at the strident flavours of Spain. We get alchemy in a curd that transitions from water to a yogurt-like state in front of our very eyes. The fireworks are reserved for the final nibble; a caiprinha cocktail which explodes in the mouth from the thinnest of chocolate spheres. The cachaça spirit has been replaced with local txakoli which seems to lengthen the sugar and lime notes. Talk to Claire about our meal here and this is the first thing she will mention. Had there been more attached to the miniature tree she would have picked them up and made a run for the door. It’s the Macclesfield girl in her.

After these ten pretty astounding nibbles we get led to our table. The dining room is huge, the tables well distanced from one another. The art is to the left of us; the glass wall that looks out on to the Basque countryside, serving as a constant remainder of the environment and restaurant’s attachment to it. Indeed, for all of the modernist tricks that the kitchen applies here, the overwhelming feel was that of one of community; the use of local wine, of Basque traditions such as the chicken consommé, of local ciders, and a wider appreciation of the national flavours like in that cornet. There would be many, many more references throughout the remainder of the meal.

Four more nibbles arrive together before they move on to the tasting menu. The lightest of foie gras served within a followed-out lime, topped with a syrup of the citrus that works as a brilliant foil for the rich liver. There is a beignet of spider crab, and mushrooms coated in praline that attract the mushroom and liquorice powder they lay on. Finally we get txakoli infused with sea herbs that takes on a fresh dimension. We order a bottle of txakoli. It turns out that I like txakoli.

Still with me? Good. We’ll get started properly now. The first course is the only one I didn’t love, but only because I don’t like the texture of poached oysters. The mollusc is a beast, the biggest I’ve seen, with a vibrant herb oil, herb emulsion, a little apple, and a tempura of oyster topped with oyster leaf lurking in the back. This feels wasted on me and I should have swapped out like Claire did. Loved the tempura oyster though, which is meaty and still bursting with the taste of the sea.

Following this is sea urchin in various forms. Within the ceramic shell is cooked and raw sea urchin, tasting like the most pungent of brown crab meat, topped with a foam of you guessed it, sea urchin. On the side is a tilted glass of Bloody Mar, their take on a Bloody Mary, with more sea urchin, tabasco, Worcester sauce, and tomato juice. It shouldn’t work, yet it does, the urchin flavour working perfectly in harmony with the spice which sticks around for the various layers within the pot. If sea urchin isn’t your thing this will not be for you, but I liked it, it has an elegance about it and flavours that aren’t afraid of standing up for themselves.

A little veloute of asparagus is next, the flavours clean and defined with a dice of asparagus at the base. Even better is the ‘pil-pil’ of vine asparagus it is served with, which we are told to eat with our hands. The tangle of vegetable has been cooked with garlic and ancho chilli so that the heat grabs from the second it enters the mouth. Together with the veloute this course is nothing short of exceptional. The lobster which follows is beautiful, the tail meat centre to the bowl with just a glossy sauce American and pickled onions for company. It is topped tableside with a coffee butter that adds a subtle depth and richness to a dish that riffs lightly on acidity. The lobster is the best I have ever eaten, but does that really surprise you? By now I’m sold, hook, line, and sinker.

Beans and assorted meats are a playful take on the homely cooking within the Basque region. The beans have been produced using spherification, the gel membranes each releasing a different flavour note when popped in the mouth. Also in the bowl is a rich sauce, thickened, I think, with a little pigs blood. A cube of slowly braised pork sits behind it. I have no idea what the kitchen intended with this, though in my eyes it was the taste of Morcilla when all was combined. Rich and elegant, with meat and a little spice. This was an incredible course that used modern techniques to its full advantage.

We get the Red Mullet in three servings. The first a fritter of the fish innards which was a little too pokey in taste for even me. The second the most perfect piece of slightly smoked melt-in-the-mouth sashimi with charred edges and opaque centre. The last is a fillet, pan fried to a crisp skin on a circular of rich herb emulsion and stewed wheat. On top of the fish is a little potato soufflé filled with another puree of parsley. It is perfection in simplicity.

Our final soiree in the savoury section leaves me gobsmacked. I’ve done the three star Michelin thing before, I know how they like to flash their expensive cuts of meat, so to serve me a faggot as a main takes bigger balls than those I’m looking at on the plate. The faggots are made from the sweetbread of the pig, and are rich and delicate, glazed in a sauce so heavily reduced I could almost see my face in its sheen. With this are liquid balls of Idiazabel (a local sheeps milk cheese) that explode in the mouth, and cubes of salt baked turnip. It is one of the most remarkable dishes I have ever eaten, the cheese a brilliant partner to the sweetbread faggot. For once words fail me in giving this the culinary blowjob it deserves.

Three desserts to go. First up is avocado and mango, a dish that I most feared when looking at the menu. It is a delight; arguably the best of the trio. The success lies in the use of lime acidity and ancho chilli to sharpen the plate. Avocado puree is warming and spicy, with mango parfait and meringues. There is a lime cream and granita, and white chocolate leaf-shaped shards. It eats so well. Following this is red berries as various purees, the most decadent of sorbets, as well as fresh and frozen. A white chocolate sorbet and shards coated in basil join it along with a crème of something I cant recall. On the side is a bit of fun; a raspberry ice cream, aerated and frozen that disappears in the mouth leaving nothing but the taste of fruit. Drink was getting the better of me by this point so apologies for the hazy detail, but the overriding memory is of the unbelievable flavour of the fruit. With this we drink the most astonishing dessert wine I have ever tried; an iced cider which we dare not ask the price of such is its quality, and later appears on the bill for five euro a glass. Take that, extortionate UK wine prices. I know they said its not available on the consumer market, but if anyone is reading this that can source me the Malus Mama please hit me up. I could do without the air fares to have another glass.

The last dessert was possibly the one time the kitchen witchcraft didn’t pay off to its full potential. A forest scene has a chocolate leaf and twig protruding from black olive soil, with a sweetened ice cream of the sheep milk cheese from earlier and chocolate truffles. The flavours work great but the proportions are slightly out; there is too much of the soil which becomes claggy in the mouth without the moisture from the ice cream that soon runs out. We take coffee with the petit fours, which fold from a box that reveals eight gems including jellies, macaroons, and chocolates. We have these boxed up to take home, which make a wonderful breakfast the following morning. The red wine chocolate even helped ease my hangover.

This, of course, does not come cheap. The tasting menu comes in at 230 Euro each, and I’ll spare you the total bill that includes two good bottles of wine, and glasses of dessert wine to boot. Though to put it in perspective our total bill is well under half of a friend who ate in a Parisian three star around the same time, so I personally consider it value. It’s inevitable with longer tastings that there are going to be dishes you are less keen on, yet it was clear that the technique on show throughout was of the highest order. The four hours we enjoyed at Azurmendi are the absolute pinnacle of my culinary journey thus far, a carefully crafted experience that pulls in and out of their environment. My handful of other three star experiences were blown completely out of the water. If, like me, you enjoy the theatre of eating, modern techniques, and the most perfect of meals, Azurmendi may also be your idea of the best restaurant in the world.

10/10

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Peels Restaurant at Hampton Manor, Hampton-In-Arden

As Birmingham’s premier food tosser I feel somewhat ashamed that it has taken me this long to get out to Hampton-In-Arden, considering they’ve held a star for two years now and with everyone I know telling me just how good it is. But Hampton-In-Arden is forty minutes away, and I sometimes forget that the greatest taxi company in the world do nice things for me. Most pathetically, the pictures I see never really inspire me into booking. Hold those cackles in; I am fully aware that me judging anyone on their photo skills is as hypocritical as me commenting on monogamy, but the pictures always look a little bit gloomy, and when you can fully see what is on the plate it looks classically French over contemporary. And I’m sorry for such a blunt comment, but if I’m making a one-hour-twenty round trip then I want some excitement in my life.

Well, I was wrong. Massively so. Firstly the building is jaw droppingly beautiful; an imposing country house with grand features. We take drinks in the lounge area overlooking the vast gardens with canapés following quickly afterwards. There is white crab meat dressed in a slightly spiced sauce, and a cube of duck meat dressed lightly in sesame oil on a blood orange gel which I cant decide is a nod towards duck a l’orange, or the duck from the local Chinese takeaway. Either way its delicious. It is the cheesey, trufflefully, custard thing on delicate crackers that sends us a bit potty. It’s after eating this that I curse myself repeatedly for not getting here sooner.

I am in love with the dining room from the very second we are led in to start the proper eating. It is the perfect juxtaposition between the past and the present. The fireplace, massive windows and ceiling height confirm we are in an old home, though these have been offset by more modern, luxurious touches and a beautiful centrepiece table made from a singular cut of tree that sits two tables of four. With wine ordered we receive our amouse; a jacket potato veloute topped with puffed potato pieces seasoned with salt and vinegar, and a drizzle of thyme oil. The depth of flavour is staggering, boldly seasoned, yet true to the unmistakable flavour that occurs when you leave a spud in the oven whilst nipping out for two pints at the local. Claire has a brilliant reference point for the taste that I have to promise I wont nick. It in no way references cheap crisps. Keep an eye out for when she eventually gets around to writing this meal up sometime in 2019.

Asparagus, burrata, and chicken are three ingredients that when listed together will make things happen within my pants. It is a combination that makes perfect sense; the cream-laden cheese which beds the spears not that different to a poached egg, or hollandaise. The chicken is represented as a blitzed crispy skin and seasons the dish whilst adding a meaty note. The clever bit is the fermented asparagus juice which adds the acidity required to cut through the dish. What follows is as good, if not better. Cubes of pork belly and shoulder are joined at the bottom of the bowl by pickled shallots, onion mouse, and croutons. On to this is a heavily reduced onion broth, deep in allium flavour with the back note of cumin. It has texture and purpose, the meat tender and not lost within the big flavours. We chase the last bits of the sauce with the house bread, pour in more of that broth and repeat. These two dishes were without doubt the highlight of the meal for me.

Mains never quite reached the dizzying heights of the first two courses, though lets be clear, they were both delicious. Lamb rump is a consistent pink, the meat tender, layer of fat rendered down. It looks simple; peas, lovage, malt vinegar, though there is complexity throughout. The lovage is bound in yogurt that brings a light touch, and the malt vinegar in tiny jellied cubes that adds zip and acidity when discovered. Opposite me is buttery wagyu beef, with pungent black garlic and the unmistakeable flavour of St George’s mushroom. I think it is lacking in texture, and I probably wouldn’t pay the £20 supplement again to take it from Longhorn to wagyu, but not a speck is left on the plate.

Pre-dessert is whipped buttermilk with passion fruit and a caramel from the same fruit that eats far better than it photographs, which is why I’m sparing you my horrific pictures. And then dessert, clearly from a very talented pastry section. Honey cake with fennel in various forms eats very well. It has spice and controlled sweetness. It is my kind of dessert. Claire has chocolate, sherry and vanilla. She loves it and I don’t get a sniff, so I can’t comment on it at all. Petit fours, a riff on cookies and cream, are excellent, coffee strong. Life is good here.

Our bill is heavily subsidised because we snagged a deal in Birmingham’s best weekly email, though we still hit over a ton a head with the wagyu supplement and far too much to drink on a school night. I just wished we’d stayed over. Our meal at Peels could hardly be considered a shock considering the Michelin star and four rosettes, but expecting it to be this good? It’s an instant favourite. They do flavour and precision, with the best dishes causing genuine table silence. I’m reliably told it takes less than twenty minutes on the train from Birmingham New Street to get here. And get here you should. Everything about Hampton Manor is special, none more than the food at Peels.

9/10

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Simpsons, April 2018

Given the chance to treat a friend to their first Michelin starred meal, the choice of venue was an easy one. Simpsons has it all; a beautiful restaurant in lovely grounds, food that pushes on without the need to challenge, and importantly, as we are paying, a very affordable lunch offer at the weekends of three courses for £45.00. I couldn’t be more happy with our choice, they were on top form yet again, cooking cohesive flavours with flair and hints at wit that to me is closer to 2* than its present one in the Michelin guide. I make no excuses for my love of Simpsons. I have come on dozens of occasions over the last decade and long may that continue. It is my personal favourite in Birmingham. I’ll keep this brief as I not so long ago wrote about Simpsons here.

After the usual snacks and bread offering we move to a bowl with cubes of beef cheek, pickled onions, little pickled mushrooms, crowned with a flurry of deep fried mushrooms. Into this is poured a mushroom broth, thick and rich like a Tory backbencher, balanced out by the light acidity from the pickled veg. A disc of cured salmon follows, dotted with kolrabi puree and little balls of the same veg. We get another sauce poured tableside, this one a split buttermilk milk that has a lovely tang at the finish.

The main of chicken ate so well. The meat cooked just as I was taught at their cooking school, the perfect example of how to treat poultry. Cheers, Nathan. I think what makes the dish is the undercurrent of black garlic that adds a brooding quality to the plate. Combine that with salsify, cabbage, and a jus that just holds on to the fingertip and you have a dish that is singing with Springtime flavours. I reserve the best bit until the end; a nugget of thigh meat with the skin that cracks under the fork. A pre dessert of lemon curd and oats comes hidden under a drift of sorrel granite. It’s fresh if maybe not my favourite pre dessert I’ve eaten here – can we have the vodka jelly back please, chef?

Desserts today are tremendous spelt with a capital T if that wouldn’t already add to this posts grammatical error count. Fermented blackberries lay underneath skyr yogurt that somehow tastes of cream cheese. It eats, with the help of an almond crumb and a little squeeze of grapefruit, just like a cheesecake. Pretty astonishing. Likewise a carrot cake, sweet and cinnamon spicy, with a decadent praline and pecan ice cream. I want to say they’ve hidden the acidity this time around in the carrot gel which tasted faintly of orange to me, but I’m probably talking out of my arse. We finish on a textbook soufflé of rhubarb with a crumble topping into which a custard ice cream is nestled. The soufflé is one of the lightest I can recall eating, almost cloud-like in texture. It eats like a dream.

The bill for three with two bottles of wine and a glass of the sweeter stuff hits £80 per head, though it goes without saying that you could spend a lot less with a more modest drink spend. The lunch menu is a bargain, available on the weekend when the other starred restaurants offer only long tasting options. Afterwards we saunter a hundred steps or so to The Edgbaston, perch at the bar and drink some of the finest cocktails to be found anywhere. Two of Birmingham’s finest and almost the perfect afternoon. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

Midway through our meal, somewhere between wine bottle two and three, Claire leaned towards me and slurred “Sighh, if I wur to ever work aza shhef, it would be ‘ere”. I think. She could have said anything. Luckily for the food industry her cooking is nowhere near good enough; the people of Harborne are safe for now. Unless tax evasion is your thing, in which case she’s coming for you hard. But I do get her point. There is an ease to service here, the front of house are smiling, they let you see the kitchen and, shock, horror, they are enjoying themselves. Chefs happy, who would have ever thought it? Owner Jamie Desogus even closed a very busy Sunday service so that his team had a better work/life balance. Hell, if I were a chef I would want to work here too.

But I’m not, I am just a rotund gobshite with a healthy appetite. And this, our third visit in ten months was easily the best to date. There has always been a confidence to the cooking here, and now it stands broad-chested on the plate for all to see. Those salmon skin crisps are still there to be seasoned with rosemary vinegar, though they are now joined by cubes of livery ox tongue and crackers topped with a cheese mousse and grape. A slice of bread still follows, with a new friend in maltloaf for company. Nibbles can often feel like an afterthought; not here. They are considered and, more importantly, an insight into the food over the next few hours.

It starts with a bang. Two opening courses as good as I can recall eating in sequence so early on in a meal. Chicken liver parfait arrives under the canopy of crispy skin, with dots of blood orange gel, white chocolate, and hazelnut. The chocolate is far more daring in word than reality; it provides another fatty layer to the dish and lets the other stuff stick around longer. It works. It is so big on flavour you wonder if anything else could surpass it. The celeriac does. Salt baked cubes on a broth so heavily reduced it’s almost treacle. A flurry of blue cheese mousse hides little pieces of pickled quince and I ask for a supplement of Perigord truffle because in my head it makes perfect sense. Praise Be to that massive head of mine. It’s a beautiful plate of food that is immaculately balanced; savoury, followed by earthiness and umami, sweet, and then washed away by light acidity. Shit, I’ve just morphed into Greg Wallace. Pass me the gun.

The course that follows is a riff on the flavours of Thai green curry, with a fat fillet of cod immersed in an aerated cloud of lemon grass, galangal, and probably several other nuanced flavours my primitive palate fails to detect. A grating of kaffir lime zest brings that lovely aroma and puffed rice is there just on the off-chance you were actually expecting a cod curry in a smart restaurant in Harborne. It nods brilliantly towards The East whilst still retaining its spot as the fish course in a tasting menu.

The beef main does very little for me on paper, mostly because its beef. The reality is the opposite; we get a brave bit of cooking that works because it is flush with acidity and then whack! a solid bit of cow. I’ve turned into Greg Wallace again. Sorry. The star is undoubtedly the slowly cooked Wagyu brisket which breaks down at the slightest nudge of a fork. For me, it doesn’t need the Longhorn fillet, because those lean, expensive cuts tend to get shown up for how little flavour they have when stuck next to a more fatty and unctuous bit of animal. The rest is a demonstration on how to get the best out of beef; crispy shallots and pickled onions, a grilled king oyster and dainty pickled mushrooms, the silkiest of mash potatoes, and a puddle of chive oil that adds zip to it all. We take the cheese course because it is Brillat-Savarin, Perigord truffle and grape. If that particular menage a trois doesn’t get you horny, you really need to see a doctor.

On my first write-up here I got a little excited by the desserts by pastry chef, Michael Topping, and I am going to stand by what I said then. The man is a talent, he gets balance and flavour, and the importance of dessert not being pancreatic exploding sweet. First up is rhubarb ice cream with nitrogen frozen rhubarb cut with stem ginger. Following this is chocolatey mousse and popcorn with a sorbet of maybe yogurt, maybe banana, that I remember to be rich and salty and damm right delicious. Apologies about the hazy detail, I was pissed by this point. With these we drank some lovely Tokaji. I know this because it’s on the bill and Claire has purchased some since.

The bill with a lot to eat and as much to drink hits just north of two ton. You could have three courses and a nice bottle of wine for well under half, which was our intention before we got there. I love Harborne Kitchen, not only because it makes my girlfriend happy, but because it’s genuinely a fantastic neighbourhood restaurant that is simply trying to be the very best it can be. And it seems we’re not alone; aside from it being full on the night it has also been shown interest by a certain tyre guide and rightly so. Without wishing to put pressure on a place not looking for accolades, everything we ate was consistently at one star level. Big things are going at Harborne Kitchen and it couldn’t happen to a nicer place.

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Elystan Street, Chelsea

I think the first time I was really proud of this blog was when Elystan Street put my first write-up on their website. I struggle with this, I’m horribly competitive and I rarely enjoy my own work, but I am a food fan boy at heart and Phil Howard is right up there with my heroes. Outside of Brum I don’t think there is a chef I’ve eaten more of, from the luxurious splendour of The Square, to Elystan Street, his somewhat more laidback offering. He is one of those chefs that makes an a la carte decision impossible; you want to eat every dish listed and probably would if that didn’t require a remortgage.

We come on a Sunday lunch when the dining room is filled with Chelsea types. It makes for interesting eavesdropping; the table next to us has a son explaining his property plans to his mother. A small pied-a-terre in the city and a larger home on the coast will suffice for him. It’s another world here and this place caters purely for those; there is not much value anywhere on the wine list and very little for under £40 a bottle. Bread is the only introduction to the food and very good it is too, though it’s overshadowed by some truly outstanding butter.

Howard always seems to have a pasta dish present; I recall a hand-rolled macaroni at the previous establishment, whereas today is strozzapretti. Anything shaped like my first initial is fine with me. It’s the carrier for a loose ragu of finely chopped white park beef and a dusting of parmesan. It’s success is in its clarity; the beef is the star and here it is allowed to shine. The rest form the background setting; the pasta a vehicle, the parmesan the umami injection to the engine.

A fat fillet of cod is all butter basted flesh and pearlescent core, with parmesan gnocchi and buttered chanterelles. It’s fat heavy, yet fresh and light with clever acidity. Whoever said cheese and fish don’t go together has clearly never eaten here. Roast pork is just that; thin slices of pig just blushing pink, with cabbage and wedges of apple long massaged with heat. It’s not the prettiest plate of food I’ve eaten, though the flavour is there, in particular the cabbage spiked with lardons. On the side are roast potatoes, crumbly edged though maybe not as soft on the inside as I’d ideally like.

Desserts are no going to threaten the pastry section at Ducasse anytime soon, but then I expect that is entirely their intention. More homely, less fuss. We have a faultless sticky toffee pudding with earl grey ice cream and rice pudding with rhubarb. They are the Ronseal of puddings, which is fine by my girlfriend, who happens to love both of these more than she could ever love me. The ice creams in particular are textbook examples.

The above food, a couple of pre-drinks and a bottle of wine hits just shy of a ton apiece, an amount that sees our three courses arrive in around 40 minutes. Now maybe the clocks move faster in Chelsea, but for almost £200 I happen to see that as rushed. It left a bitter taste in the mouth, a sensation that was further exasperated by relentless perfect Negronis afterwards in the perfect Bar Termini. Maybe they cater for a different type of customer here, but for me the ideal Sunday lunch is a lazy affair slowly reeled out. I don’t want my dessert to arrive six minutes after they’ve cleared away the main plates. Phil Howard remains one of my culinary heroes, though I’ll gladly play those memories out in my head at my own pace, rather than the speedy service at Elystan Street.

Gymkhana, London

The last day of our London blowout saw the bluster of snow quickly gather around our ankles as The Beast rolled onto our shores from the east. We find solace in Mayfair, firstly with the perfect martini in The Connaught, thereafter in the plush leather booths of Gymkhana. The dark panelled upstairs of the restaurant feels like a plush gentleman’s club, with low lighting that that doesn’t bode well for cameras and therefore ideal for one of the most famous men on the planet to enjoy lunch. No, its not me. Mid-lunch I send a picture to my best friend with said superstar accidentally in the background, stating the inevitable of who it is. “Are you eating curry at 2.30pm?” is his response. Yes Nathan, I am. I am in Mayfair, there are no rules here.

Not just any curry though. Curry bestowed with a star by a tyre company and uniformly loved by the denizens of the capital. The service here is slick and discreet, polished more frequently than the table we sit at. Greeting us are three types of popadom; lentil, potato, and tapioca, with three types of chutney. A sweet mango one, another of mint and coriander with a verdant kick, and a feisty dried shrimp one that starts spicy and finishes with the crash of the ocean.

A large plate of potato and chickpea chaat marks the first course. It’s generous as a dish for two to share, though we make a good go at working through the beguiling mix of textures; the snap of wafer, the crunch of sev and little fried bits of potato that have soaked up the tamarind chutney that have kissed everything. Another sharer plate follows of tandoori cauliflower, the florets wearing a cap of thick yogurt. Two very good plates of food that showcase how Indians manage to extract more flavour from vegetables than any other cuisine.

The curry course is less main and more banquet. We don’t even get close to finishing it. There is decadent butter chicken masala that adds weight just by looking at it, and a more a dry spinach and paneer curry that pops with flavour with every mouthful. There is a smoky dal maharani that we mop up with the lightest of naans, and we take a supple roti to spicy potatoes coated in a thick gravy that has us instantly googling the recipe. It is called Dum Aloo Banarasi if you’re interested. And rice. Cant forget the rice. It’s mammoth in portion and obscenely good. Some of the best curry I can recall eating anywhere, and I have eaten a lot of curry as my ghee filled arteries will testify.

Desserts are a bit lost on me in comparison on account of teeth generally not being required to eat them with. Rasmalai is a very good rendition of gloppy cheese balls in milky custard, shown a little bit of wit with the addition of popping candy. Also being eaten by my other half was kheer, a rice pudding, with slices of Seville orange that bring a bright acidity. She loves them both, but then that’s understandable given that she was chowing down on baby food just a few years ago. I can appreciate them, which is an upgrade on my usual stance.

All of this is more remarkable given that eating here can be affordable. The above is all from a £35 four course set menu, to which we add a very good value pinot noir, and some superb cocktails that are worthy of the splurge. It seems remarkably fair given the Mayfair address. I’m late to this particular club as Gymkhana has been sweeping up the awards for several years now, but do I care? Do I heck. I am an instant fan, one that looks forward to future visits. They can give me Indian food this good anytime they like. Yes Nathan, even at 2.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.

8/10

Cheal’s of Henley, Henley in Arden

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to Cheal’s is that over 5 days of eating in Birmingham, Henley, and London, taking in several Michelin stars, the food we ate in the black beam and white plaster was easily the weekend’s best. It is beyond me how certain guides continue to overlook what is sharp, accurate and above all tasty food. Moving swiftly on, lets have a quick run through of our recent lunch.

They do things the classical way here. Your chairs will be deep and comfortable, there will be crisp white linen over the table. There will be little gifts from the kitchen in the way of canapes and bouches that have been amoused. The former was little cheesey dumplings with a blob of Worcestershire sauce gel, the latter a warm espuma of parsnip, with curry oil and yeast flakes. Two familiar flavours, cheese on toast and curried parsnip, re-worked as dainty bites that pack massive flavour. We get bread via a sourdough and a roll so good it sends my girlfriend into shock.

Looking back, the pork cheek starter was probably my least favourite course. Nothing wrong with it – its very pleasant – it just hasn’t left the same thumbprint on my psyche as the rest of the courses. The cheek is meltingly soft, with a sage and hazelnut pesto to lift it and earthy cauliflower to pin it back down. Claire has lentil and celeriac risotto full of purpose and bite, with mushrooms and a crispy duck egg yolk that lets loose at the sight of a knife. Its super rich, old school cooking, impossible not to get woozy over.

Skate is scored so that the browned top is staggered like ladder rungs, the gaps filled with the opaque centre of the fish. Joining it is pickled carrots and a purée of the same veg, with fat Israeli couscous licked with lemon juice. A tangle of onion bhaji with the faint whiff of cumin gives additional texture, a yogurt dressing all the moisture it needs. It is unbelievably good, the type of dish that stops you clean in your tracks, reducing table talk to lusty looks.

Slices of pink duck arc around the perimeter of the plate, the leg meat formed into deep fried bonbons. Batons of pickled rhubarb and conical fermented kohlrabi cut through the rich meat. The best bit is a little pot of barley, meaty and rich from a slow braise in chicken stock. We race to chase the last scraps off the plate. The other main is rare venison, the loin hiding a loose ragu of haggis, with a pie of the less dear bits of deer. That pie! All golden and flaky with the same tang of organs that echoes in the haggis. It’s grown-up food for people with no fear of gout. The only respite is butternut squash, sprouts and torn sourdough that soaks up the glossy sauce spiked with Madeira.

Dessert is the perfect soufflé, proudly standing from the rim. The flavour of gingerbread is strong throughout, a bergamot sorbet a clever match. Combined the fragrant citrus fruit lifts the spice up a notch. It’s as good a soufflé I can recall eating. There are petit fours including a passion fruit macaron which sends us nicely on our way.

The wine list is well curated and has a lot to offer at under £40 a bottle, and we take off two menus (£33 and £55 respectively) leaving us with a bill of under £200 with a fair amount of wine, though you could eat as cheap as £50 per head if you were more prudent with the booze and menu choice. Whichever way you take it this is an absolute steal. Beautiful food in a lovely setting half an hour away from Birmingham on the train. If classical technique with modern flourishes is your thing, you really should be seeking it out. I’d eat here every week if I could.

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

Ynyshir, 1st Visit of 2018

I feel like I am going to get used to the drive to Ynyshir. The nondescript hard concrete of the motorways and a-roads until Shrewsbury, with Welshpool marking that we have entered a different country. From there its rolling green hills and sheep and not much else. Roads meander in direct correlation with the streams that tumble alongside them. Homes are sparse and thinly spread apart out here – the scenery is ample friendship. It’s beautiful. I love how much the seasons have altered the landscape in the five months since we last visited. Winter has rooted itself firmly in rural Wales; the trees have exposed their souls to the elements, grass sodden and under the permanent shadow of cloud. Even in the company of a woman, the last two of the three and a bit hour journey is peaceful and revitalising.

We roll through stone posts that mark the entrance and wind around to the large white building. There have been some tweaks made. The white linen has been replaced by oversized wooden tables . The bowls and plates more dramatic, as are the hand carved spoons that greet the first course. It is a deliberate ploy to be more in tune with the surrounding environment. And it’s working. My best meal of 2017 just delivered an even better one in 2018.

I won’t go over every dish again – there is all of that on my previous post. Dinner here takes up to four hours and involves a large quantity of small dishes. The not French onion soup is still the first thing you eat and is still perfect. This is followed by a wedge of duck leg, cooked slowly, blasted through hot oil, dressed in sesame oil and topped with spring onions. It’s like the best crispy duck from your local Chinese. We have the bread course again. The sour dough seems to have improved – the pockets of air beneath the dark crust less restrained, the flavour deeper.

Mackerel is warmed through on the pass lights so that the texture has altered but the fish still retains the bright qualities of its raw state. With this is a rhubarb ketchup, slices of fermented rhubarb, and grated lardo. It is a dish that leans on acidity. It is bright and brilliantly conceived. A crab dish with sweet corn was a highlight of our last visit, this time the seasons dictate that we have turnip with the crustacean instead. It improves the dish, the earthiness working with the sweet meat and soy dressing that has the flavour of roasted shells. It is a nailed on three star dish. We have the wagyu beef burger course that takes the profile of a Big Mac and putting them in a dice sized piece of beef you hold between finger and thumb, and then the short rib from the same beast with shiitake mushroom and seaweed. I’ve eaten both dishes three times within six months. They still amaze me.

When I’m asked about Ynyshir I always say the same thing; nobody in England does flavour like Gareth Ward. Every dish is built around the maximum impact, that smashes you in the mouth with a closed fist. Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, with grated smoked eel, a spelt cracker, and cubes of apple that cuts clean through the richness. It has pinpoint balance. We have the grilled prawn with umami rich soy bisque again. The langoustine, fat and sweet, is the best I’ve eaten, anywhere. The seasons have been kind.

We surge on to more protein. Duck breast with salted plum excites me a lot less than deer with crisped fat and pickled black beans. There is nothing technically wrong with the former, the breast meat just fights a little too hard to keep up with its company. The latter has more bravado, more swagger. It threatens to be too big until you grow a pair and man, or woman, up. Pork belly with a sauce using last year’s cherries is equally massive. I have no idea how long and slowly it takes to cook pork belly this well but my guess is that it’s long enough for a man, or woman, to grow a beard.

A salt baked swede, alit and sinister looking, marks the cawl course. I don’t like it. The bits of lamb heart at the base are lovely, but the rest of the stew is a bit nonplus. A dish based around swede – that watery root veg – is always going to be an uphill struggle with me. And then it’s the same two Welsh lamb courses that marked our first lunch here. The lamb spare rib is still in my top three dishes ever, the lamb neck with kombucha still the best lamb with mint sauce you’ll ever eat.

Two courses bridge the savoury to the sweet. The first is less conventional; onions, cooked for a couple of days in beer and wagyu fat, in a bowl with thickened cooking juices and torn sour dough. They call it bread and gravy, though to me it echoes French onion soup. It’s dark and heady and absolutely delicious. Beauvale cheese with pear takes two ingredients in peak condition and let’s them run with one another.

There are four desserts. The first is Manjari chocolate, cremeux-like in texture without (I think) the cream. A shard made from shiitake mushroom might not seem an obvious ally but the chocolate makes the fungi taste like coffee. It’s super clever. This is followed by a dense reduction of parsnips where the sugars have released and caramelised the veg. On to this goes a puddle of maple syrup, rye, and nitrogen set verjus. The combination is a revelation, sweet, nutty, slightly acidic, not like anything I’ve ever tried before.

S.T.P might sound like something I caught in 2004 Tenerife but the smart amongst you may know it to be sticky toffee pudding. This has the sponge replaced with dates that have been dehydrated and glued together, onto which is placed the strongest vanilla ice cream I have ever tried and that all important toffee sauce. I have no idea what they have done to the sauce to make it taste so good, but it is a skill to rework a dish purely around the memory of the best bit of an iconic. They use the same tactic with rhubarb and custard, the fruit mostly an acidic foil to the reimagining of custard that tastes just like the Birds custard that I grew up on. Its rich and oozy and probably the result of a trillion egg yolks. I could eat this every night of my life and be happy. We finish with that tiramisu course which I firmly believe is the best sweet course I have eaten. It simply cannot be improved.

With this the record player in the corner changes from Kings of Leon to Bob Marley, and we head off to bed to sleep off another outstanding meal. An experience like this doesn’t come cheap; dinner with a couple of bottles of wine, cocktails, and a bed for the night clocks close to six hundred, but it is just that: An experience. Fat Duck withstanding, I know of no place that evokes such emotion through the gentle suggestion of food memory. Coming to Ynyshir requires commitment; the travel and the expense. It pays this back with course after course after course of brilliance. I’ll reiterate what I said the last time I wrote about here: Ynyshir is right now the most exciting restaurant in the UK. And we are in it for the long haul, watching it every step along the way.

Leo’s Modern Greek Food Night, Pure Bar, Birmingham

If you’ve been watching Masterchef the Professionals you’ll probably recognise Leo Kattou of Simpsons restaurant. The softly spoken and impeccably mannered Greek-Cypriot from Coventry has a distinctive look that would be described as a Bear in some circles. A man bun, big beard and bigger smile about sums up that large, rotund head of his. Now before I proceed and the observant of my Twitter feed protest, I will disclose that I know Leo; I have feed him my beef ragu at 4am and he has beaten me at pool, so I was personally super chuffed to watch him reach the Semi-finals of Masterchef. He’s one of the good guys of the local scene and deserves all the success it brings.

Part of that increased public exposure is tonight’s sell-out pop-up for which we’ve shelled out £55 each for in advance for five courses with matching beers. The first course is familiar to anyone who has dined at Simpsons. Tapioca crackers dyed with squid ink and a splodge of the creamiest of Taramasalata to dredge through. Bread and butter is served at the same time. The crust is taut, the crumb loose. It’s a simple, yet effective start to the meal.

This wouldn’t be a homage to Greek food without halloumi. We have a Jenga stack of them fried to a Midas crisp, with a crown of olive tapenade, smoked aubergine purée and the nights only mis-step, a fat slice of tomato that tastes of very little. The rest is a composed collection of stuff that transports us from a rainy evening in Birmingham to far sunnier climes.

The fish course is a nod to his parents owning a chippy in Coventry of their own. It’s simple enough; panfried cod with tartar sauce and ‘chips’. The chips are really puffed potato pieces seasoned with salt and vinegar powder, the tartar closer to a bearnaise with chopped caper and fresh peas running through it. You could argue whether or not the peas needed to be there, which we did and I lost, but it’s a clever bit of cooking. Obvious enough to be a direct reference point, yet light enough to sit within a five course meal.

I know all is going to be well with the lamb kleftico main the second I slide the bone clean out of the shank. Ooh, Matron. The meat breaks down at the nudge of a fork, it’s inherent fatty qualities tempered by some smartly dressed bulgar wheat and kale. An anchovy emulsion seasons it all and is textbook in delivery. It’s hard to believe that this has come from the same man who messed up a lovage emulsion so badly on national telly. But he did, and it makes great viewing on iPlayer if you need a laugh.

Dessert is, to quote a food critic often found on Masterchef, a bunch of creamy things with some crispy things on top. But what creamy and crispy things they are. Layers of aerated honey and yogurt hide a sticky reduction of cherry juice, whilst shards of crisp filo stick out like Leo on a police line-up. This man understands that if the menu says cherry then we want physical cherries and they are here, boozily macerated in Kirsch and obscured under those creamy bits. A word now on the beer pairings from the manager Matt. Properly clever and well considered, these varied from using the less-than-obvious citrus back notes of an unfiltered lager, to the cherry beer that went with this course. Truly excellent work from top to bottom.

Now back to Leo. A few things were very obvious from the dinner. Firstly, his tenure at Simpsons has grounded him within their principles – respect for ingredients was obvious, in most cases simplicity was key. Somewhat more importantly for Leo it showed his true potential; a chef capable of taking the classic technique associated with the French and apply it to a more rustic Greek cuisine. He has shown a wit and playfulness, delivering plate after plate of well conceived and precisely cooked plates of food. He’s young and hungry. His role of senior sous at Simpsons is the perfect job for him at present, but every one of the packed-out dining room earmarked Leo Kattou as a star of the future.

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

Salt, Stratford-Upon-Avon

The last time we stayed in Stratford the head chef of the restaurant we dined at told us to eat at Salt. We come home and a blogger friend of mine (I do have them, they’re not all horrid) tells me I should go to this great place she went to called Salt. The Good Food Guide comes out and the newcomer of the year is a little place in Stratford called Salt. We get the hint and book Salt. Ages ago actually, so much so that shaggy headed giant Jay Rayner tells the world just how great Salt is two weeks before we go. We expect it be great. Of course we do. Everyone else thinks it is. Even the blogger, and heaven forbid she even paid to go.

And guess what? It is great. Maybe the best £130 that I’ve parted with for two hours of fun since that stag party in Prague. Paul Foster has created a space with bags of character, where the only attitude can be found on the plate. It’s a star from the off, with smoked almonds that leave an imprint on the soul and impeccably sourced green olives that greet us on the table. Warm bread rolls first appear to be a little underdone though transpire to be a denser crumb with a nutty backnote. These are lovely; even better when smeared thick with butter so yellow it radiates warmth. For those who want it, there is a salt pot on the table. Of course there is.

The first of the lunch tasting menu is a belter. Pink fir potatoes wearing a coat of lardo, and a dusting of roasted yeast that echoes the taste of a jacket potato. It’s neatly layered in flavour, carefully controlled and ego free. The same applies to fillets of hake, flesh golden and just holding shape, sharing the plate with caramelised cauliflower puree and lightly dressed fennel. It is food that begs to be eaten as much as admired. We do both.

A bowl of carrots would be my favourite thing that I ate. Protruding out is a baton of bright orange veg slow cooked in chicken fat that I would be tempted to put a ring on, had I not wasted enough on diamonds already this year. There is a broth of sorts at the base cut through with a faint kick of vinegar, pickled carrots, a rye tuile, and blitzed crispy chicken skin for seasoning, because using only salt all the time must be boring for them. The result is a beautiful interplay of sweet and acidity, that is homely and comforting at the same time. It’s one of my dishes of the year, and I’ve been lucky to eat some seriously good food in 2017.

A pheasant breast would be the first time that it was obvious a sous-vide machine was in action, the meat cooked perfectly but lacking the depth that a slow roast provides. A purée of black garlic adds a fermented funk that needs the pickled shallots to cut through, whilst roasted yeast adds a deep savouriness. There is light and shade everywhere with only the cavolo nero and breast sitting central. It may not hit the heights of some of the previous courses but it’s still seriously impressive.

Desserts were on paper more challenging, though less so in reality. a brown bread ice cream was gummy in texture to the point that it clings to spoon and mouth, with a brown bread tuile, and sorrel granita hiding poached blueberries. I enjoy it much more than I thought I would, the sorrel and blueberry flavour seemingly lengthened by the ice cream coating the roof of the mouth. A similar story was had with a dark chocolate ganache, pumpkin cream, with chocolate tuille and shard of caramelised white chocolate for texture. Together it is a cohesive blend of soft and hard bits, working in unison with much more clarity than expected. The last mouthfuls are some of the best; choux buns with raspberry and Douglas fir oil. It is old school pastry work with flavours firmly rooted in the present.

The lunch tasting menu above totals £45 per head, which must make it one of the best value lunches in the country given the quality and volume of food. Despite its relative infancy, Paul Foster and the team have created a restaurant where seasonal ingredients are cooked with real technique. The accolades that follow will be just a matter of time. Every single recommendation for Salt has been justified.

9/10