Harborne

Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

It was on a whim that my new girlfriend and I decided to have lunch at Harborne Kitchen. We’ve both had it rough of recent, both slightly hungover and tired, in need of a stomach lining fill and a top-up of alcohol levels. We initially looked to the greasier end of the spectrum in the city centre, before deciding that The Plough in Harborne would be a good option to while away the day after lunch. So, Harborne Kitchen it was. It would turn out to be one of the better decisions that the indecisive shit has made this year. The girl done good.  It’s stuff like this that got her the gig.

IMG_9221

We arrive on very wet Saturday afternoon, when the restaurant space is peppered by the dark grey sky looming through the skylight. It is a lovely dining room, arguably one of the cities more charismatic, all royal blue and white, the centre dominated by the open kitchen and stooled seating around the beech wood counter. A flurry of nibbles start us off. Cod skin arrives looking like a gilded pork puff, the salty whack of the sea ramped up by a spritz of rosemary vinegar.  These are excellent, as are the cauliflower cheese pastries they share a space with.  Lightly pickled carrots with a little of the liquor and buttermilk feel like work in progress, a little too refined and clever for its own good.  We end the procession with a gorgonzola donut that erupts through the brioche casing in the mouth.  It’s bites like this that make me go out for dinner.  It was as corrupt as a Tory MP, only far more appealing.

The first course might just have been my favourite.  Just cooked jersey royals, soured, no, sorry, cultured cream, with a wild garlic veloute poured tableside.  The veloute is bold and intense, as good as any I can recall eating.  Also lurking in the bowl is caviar that gives pops of salinity and toasted rice for bite.  We race for the last piece of sourdough to wipe the bowl clean.  It’s good enough to make me want to punctuate this sentence with swear words.  Absolutely nailed on one star cooking.

The duck liver dish that follows is all about the texture.  The combination of duck and cherry is one that harks back to Escoffier, the fruit having enough tartness to cut through the rich liver.  Sandwiching the parfait are two shards; one like a ginger melba toast, the other some wafer thin chicken skin.  It’s complex and intriguing.  Every mouthful is unique.

IMG_9212

I ask for a replacement to a salmon dish and get a salad of heritage tomatoes, a baked bean fondue, basil, and a tomato essence poured tableside.  It’s light and fresh, a beguiling mix of temperatures.

IMG_9213

Our main was a mammoth of a dish.  Lamb, as rolled shoulder, neck fillet, and tongue, with (wait for it), lovage, potato puree, radish, black olive puree, curd, spiced aubergine, and lamb jus.  There was a lot going on, with some parts better than others.  The rolled shoulder was glorious, as was the livery profile of the tongue.  Both were more than enough to stand up to the big flavours of the tapenade-like olive puree and aubergine.  The neck fillet was a little lost, as was the lovage.  We finished it because it was delicious, but both agreed it would have had more clarity with a couple of items stripped away.

IMG_9216

Desserts were frankly brilliant – there is obvious talent in the pastry department.  A yogurt ice cream is the perfect foil for orange segments frozen with liquid nitrogen in front of us.  There is a sharp curd that sits underneath that ties it all together.  It is exceptional.  Even better is the final dessert of honey parfait with milk ice cream, honeycomb, dehydrated milk shards, and honey.  It is good enough to induce tears of joy – balanced with ballerina-like poise.  It has character, texture, and flavour.  Another nailed on one star course.

IMG_9218

IMG_9219

The price for the above lunch?  Thirty five English pounds.  Yes, you have read that correct.  I was on the beer (don’t judge), the other half on the G&T and we fail to hit £90 between us.  And they don’t charge a service charge, despite a slick operation that will have a certain guide going weak at the knees.  Evening visits and wine will ramp up the bill, but even so, this place is worth it.  It’s clever cooking, with a focus on big flavours and complexity.  Book up and go before word reaches the rest of the city in the same way it did with Carters.  It stops raining as we finish eating and light pours through the skylight and on to our table.  It feels like a sign.  Harborne Kitchen is a very special place that can bring sunshine to the darkest of days.

9/10

And now the plug; I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards, where Harborne Kitchen is also nominated in the Best Fine Dining.  Please give us both a vote here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

 

Sabai Sabai via Deliveroo

Given the shortage of good Thai restaurants in Birmingham, Sabai Sabai is the kind of place that I should be going to more often. Except I can’t. Because I may have upset someone affiliated with the restaurant by being a self-entitled arse on Facebook, and now I may be too embarrassed / pig headed to show my face in the little restaurant down the road from where I live. Will I ever learn? Of course not, being an arrogant arse is ingrained in my DNA.  But my stupidity is Deliveroo’s gain. When I am feeling flush it is my takeaway of choice. And sometimes its rescued me, like on last valentine’s day when it saved me paying for an overpriced set menu and allowed us to fake romance from the comfort of our own home.

It’s nearly always the same order; sweetcorn cakes, almost bhaji-like in texture and devoid of grease, to start, along with their crackers which are thick and crisp. We always order the Pad Thai noodles, silky and moreish, with perfectly judged acidity from the lime. We scatter it generously with both peanuts and chilli flakes and entwine the chicken with the noodles.  It captures the very essence of Thai food.

I’d written about the holy basil stir fry before, so I’ll spare you the finer details again.  It’s my favourite thing on the menu here – spicy enough to hold interested, with enough veg to nourish.  It gets even better with the addition of egg fried rice that soaks up the salty sauce and ensures the plate enters the kitchen clean.

IMG_8554

We both agreed that this was up their with the best we’d ever had from Sabai Sabai – proof that food can travel and still be as good.  The only thing stopping us from having it every week is the cost; both mains are about a tenner, starters around a fiver, rice £3.55,  and crackers a hefty £2.25.  Add that up and it doesn’t come cheap.  My opinion?  Treat it as a meal out – order it and crack open a decent wine.  Make a night of it. It’s worth it.

Deliveroo kindly provided the credit for this meal.  Sabai Sabai can be found in Moseley, Harborne, and Stratford-Upon-Avon.  For free credit on your first order please see use the code roo.it/simonc3898

Umami Indian Kitchen, Harborne

I used to live in Harborne.  Lovely place, polite and well mannered, with the whiff of affluence in the air.  It’s middle-class and proud; gents wear polo shirts with upturned collars all year round, occasionally pulling over a John Smedley knitwear when the wind outside Waitrose turns chilly.  Ladies sport designer handbags, often with designer pups perched inside.  Its a great place to live – home to the best pub in Birmingham, The Plough, and with far greater eating options than Moseley, its slightly rougher sibling which I now call home.  I miss it there.  What I don’t miss is the Indian food.  I love a curry and honestly, Harborne does the food of the subcontinent as well as it does parking.  We lived across the road from one that tried to kill me twice, with others not fairing much better.  So with the recent revelation that Harborne now has a restaurant that does Indian cooking as well, no one was more shocked than I.

First, let me address the name.  Umami is a term Japanese in nature, the so-called fifth taste sensation of savoury that they claim to have discovered in recent times.  The reality is that savoury has been a recognised flavour profile for hundreds of years, Escoffier noting a couple of hundred years back that it if it is brown it will taste good.  I digress, but still, naming an Indian restaurant after a Japanese term for a flavour not prominently found in the food of the sub-continent is curious at best.

img_7697

And then the food happens.  Three fat scallops, seared to medium rare, in a thick puddle of a tomato gravy flavoured with black peppercorns. It was reminiscent of a dish I had in Goa, though this has more depth and clarity to the sauce without losing the essence of the shellfish.  At £7 its hard to see where the restaurants profit margins are, but we care little as we chase the last of the sauce around the plate.  Shekh Kebabs and Somasa are on more familiar territory, though each are a delight.  The lamb kebabs are fragrant with cinnamon which needs the salad for respite, and the somosa transcended by a warm chutney underneath full of garlic and chilli heat.

img_7699

img_7698

Mains are split in to more traditional curries and the chefs signature dishes, seemingly more expensive for bearing his expertise.  We try two curries, both with chicken of obvious quality.  We could smell the chettinad with it’s unmistakable aroma of coriander seeds as it made its way through the narrow dining room to our table, the multifaceted sauce rich with curry leaf and fiery heat.  Much calmer was their take on tikka masala, equally big on flavour with the smooth gravy, tempered and thickened by yogurt.  The chunks of chicken meat as tender as you could wish for.

img_7700

img_7701

A  monkfish main from the chef’s signature dishes may seem steep at £18.00 but it wins the night hands down.  The fish is dusted in a rich spice blend and cooked just through so it avoids any chewiness.  The medallions sit on a sauce of chilli and garlic that demands you sit up and pay attention.  Like me, its refined in appearance and extremely naughty in nature.  Two seabass fillets are nestled on a spiced mushroom ragu, dotted with peas and bound with a tomato chutney full of warming freshness.  If they have one dish that truly captures the savoury of umami, this is it.  We share supple naan breads and rice that has been cooked so that each grain is distinct.  Not a scrap is left as they clear up our table.

img_7703

seabass Look, its not perfect.  They like cress as a decoration a little too much and there are as many managers as there are waiters, with more of the latter possibly rectifying the wait between dishes on the same courses.  Drinks take a while to arrive and when they do the cocktails require work, veering between overly sweet and too boozy.  But if I want cocktails I’ll go to a cocktail bar and the food, Oh My, the food is so Good.  A bill, amended to remove a glass of champagne that arrived late, hits just over forty pound a head with a couple of drinks each.  A cheaper meal could be had on much of Harborne High St, indeed at most of the cities Indian restaurants, but this is food of ambition and quality.  I have done the spectrum of Indian food in Birmingham, from the cheap to the costliest, but if you ask me which one is best I’d be hard pushed to suggest anywhere other than Umami.

9/10

 

 

 

The Plough, Harborne

Every neighbourhood dreams of having a great local pub. A boozer within staggering distance home that is friendly, with good beers and food that hasn’t been blitzed beyond recognition in a microwave. Sadly, only a tiny percentage are this lucky. Pubs in general are a dying breed. Some close because the culture for a pint or six after work is diminishing, others because they fail to react to a market that is forever changing. Birmingham is a city blessed with enthusiastic young souls trying to buck this trend. There has been a boom of pubs changing hands and reinventing themselves as places that offer a cut-above in both beers and grub. Some have failed miserably, others range from mediocre to very good. One is outstanding.

004 013

Being the difficult bastard that I am, I realise that I am sticking my neck on the line by calling The Plough outstanding, but believe me, it really is. They have done what others neglect and grasped the basic needs of the customer. The beer and wine selection is current and well kept. The service both friendly and unobtrusive. They make you feel valued, which is an achievement in its own right, given the piss-poor service too often encountered from across a bar. And there is the food.

A humble pizza seems a good place to start. It is the acid test of ingredient quality; there is no hiding behind technical wizardry. It is a sum of its parts. A pizza with salami, pancetta and chorizo lives or dies on the quality of the charcuterie. Fortunately for the chef here, he knows where to shop for cured meats. The mixture of tastes and textures from the different parts of the animal backed up by some quality mozzarella and fresh chilli to give comfort and bite. The base is crisp and slightly charred with just enough chew. It is the best pizza I have had outside of the original Franco Manca in Brixton. If various bits of preserved pig isn’t your thing, another pizza, this time with halloumi, courgettes and broccoli proved they understand the needs of vegetarians equally well.

022 021

The menu here has an emphasis on comfort. The cooking processes are kept simple and allow the quality of the ingredients to do the talking. A stew has chicken and more of the top-class chorizo listed as its primary ingredients, though in reality owes its depth to the tomato sauce, layered with garlic, black olives, paprika and peppers. I wipe the bowl clean with the hunk of sourdough served alongside it. A burger comes topped with more minced meat – this time a ragu – that provides a textural difference, as well as the recognisable flavour of a punchy chilli con carne. Its also bloody good fun to eat. Dirty food in elegant Harborne. I just wish I’d remembered to take a picture of it.

011

Dessert could easily have been cheese cake, or an eton mess, though I plumped for a sizeable wedge of white chocolate tart. The pastry short and crumbly, with any potential sickliness from the cocoa butter offset by an embedded raspberry coulis and a scoop of accompanying passion fruit sorbet. It was indulgent, clever and thoroughly satisfying.

012

They recently rid the bar here of the majority of conventional spirit brands to offer smaller craft distilleries the opportunity to hog the limelight. This sums up the ethos of The Plough perfectly; every tiny detail is analysed to provide a better customer experience. If every neighbourhood had a local like The Plough the world would be a better place. I honestly cant remember ever enjoying a trip to a public house as much. Best in Birmingham? Absolutely. In the country? Quite possibly.

10/10

The Plough on Urbanspoon

Turners Restaurant, Harborne

Of the four starred restaurants in Birmingham, it was Turners that kept on alluding me, despite the fact that I walk past it weekly on the way from my home to my local boozer.   I really don’t know why.  Perhaps its location always pitted it directly against Simpsons, who’s Georgian grandeur a mile away always won against the bijou building a couple of doors away from Iceland.  After all, nobody wants to be that close to a potential encounter with Kerry Katona or Stacey Solomon.

Within the confides of the tiny, dimly lit space, is the cooking of Richard Turner, who’s seemingly modern approach to cuisine is direct juxtaposition to the staunch French approach to service.   I asked for the wine list which took twenty minutes to arrive.  The first nibbles came some fifteen minutes after that.  They were okay.  There was some toast with truffle, a parmesan donut and a deep fried beet top with cep powder.  All capably eaten given how hungry we were at this point.

nibbles

There was a starter of salad of radish and cauliflower with kohlrabi juice that took me back to the wonders of L’enclume a year back, the flavours clean and accurate, with nice salty notes from grated parmesan.  This came swiftly after a lesson in texture from an amouse of stinking bishop, potato and parsley, seemingly straight out of the kitchen of Sat Bains, even if the cheesy mousse didn’t sit too well with the parsley extraction for my liking.

kohlrabi

amouse

 

amouse2

Watching truffle being sliced tableside is a joy that will never grow tired for me.  Here lashings of it covered a salt baked celeriac, again served tableside, with some morels and asparagus.  Sadly, it was all ceremony and little flavour, as the truffles lacked depth of character that you would expect.  The celeriac proved any root vegetable tastes better when encrusted in salt and baked.

truffle

There was a loin of pork betrayed of any real heat, atop of a piece of belly, with some lovely tender stem broccoli, silky mash potato and cubes of roasted apple.  All very textbook and I’m sure the chef intended it to be like this, but the texture of meat that has been sous-vide only feels wrong to me – especially so with pork.  That said, the plate came nicely together in an inoffensive way, much in the same way brown curtains are matched to magnolia painted walls.

Pork

Dessert was a vanilla parfait, with pistachio ice-cream and various bits of rhubarb.  Rhubarb and custard, if you like.   It was a stunning piece of cooking, both skilful and witty.  Classical with a modern touch.  It was also the first time throughout the two hours that I felt excited by something I ate.  Like watching Basic Instinct to find the interview scene had been moved to the end.

rubarb

I can tell you with certainty that Turners is my least favourite of the Michelin starred restaurants in Birmingham.  I can also say fairly confidently that its possibly my least favourite of any restaurant I have eaten in to be graced with a star, or stars.  Food is subjective.  Everyone has an opinion.  The restaurant was full when I was there and that proves that people will pay good money to eat food which is technically flawless.  Everything I ate was served as intended by the chef.  It just didn’t excite me.  Michelin By Numbers.  I genuinely had no idea of the chefs cooking style, if he has one at all – sometimes like Turner himself was referencing the restaurants he had dined in.  I’m glad I went to Turners to satisfy my curiosity.  It means I can now keep on walking past it.

6/10

Turners on Urbanspoon

The New Inn, Harborne

I probably should have gone home after the starter. It wasn’t that the pork belly wasn’t sufficiently rendered down. Or that the honey and sweet chilli glaze was cloyingly saccharine. It was the hairs. I counted seven of them on a three inch square slab of meat, reminiscent of a cheap pork scratching. It showed a worrying lack of attention to detail to a quality piece of meat that deserved better.

 belly

 And therein lies the issue. The New Inn singlehandedly destroyed the notion that if you start with quality ingredients and treat them well, you’ll end up with a quality dish. Every single piece of protein was well sourced, though it was slaughtered by a lack of care that ran astonishingly throughout the food and into the service. There was a main of chicken that was allegedly stuffed olives and sun dried tomatoes, though we managed to find little evidence of either due to the massive clove of garlic that dominated the cavity. And don’t even get me started on the tagliatelle that it was served on. Underseasoned and undercooked about sums it up.

 chicken

garlic

 As if this car crash of a meal wasn’t enough to make you want to bang your head repeatedly against their solid wooden tables, the shambolic service certainly will. There were long pauses between courses and equally long time gaps between serving main courses to our table. Thirty minutes between the first burger and the last dish reaching us; twenty minutes between a side dish of cauliflower cheese and the main course it was supposed to accompany. Fine if you find yourself in Frankie & Benny’s on a busy Saturday afternoon, completely unacceptable in a relatively quiet gastro pub in Harborne paying up to twenty quid on a main course.

burger

 It wasn’t all doom and gloom. A cajun chicken burger finally reached the table in good nick, as did an accurately cooked rib eye, but by then it was all too late. As appetising as the desert menu looked we were all defeated, unable to risk further disappointment to a meal that promised much and delivered little. For a pub that goes to a considerable length to serve only the best meat, The New Inn has some way to go before the final product reaches the anywhere near the same standard.

5/10

New Inns on Urbanspoon