This blog will now act as a reference for the meals that we eat out and will cover the cheap through to the higher end. I will keep it honest at all times. I sincerely hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy eating it.
The set-up for the BST festival is a shambles. Weaving our way past the pissed groups of girls here to sing away their heartbreak to Florence and her Machine, over the blanket-marked territories of young families far too in-field for nappy changes, we find ourselves at Hyde Park border control some 100m away from the stage. From here we can see the barren gap of high-vis jackets keeping us, the fans, from the front pit containing, err, not many people at all. That pit, we would find out, is made-up of those who were first through the doors, those who paid a chunk more for the privilege, and those whose careers amount to posting pictures on Instagram as ‘collabs’. I don’t like those who are in it for the ‘gram: the free-loading, waste of perfectly good oxygen, self-entitled jizz stains who think that posting an over structured picture twice a day surmounts to a career. It doesn’t. We reach these barriers as the last of Lykke Li’s ‘I Follow Rivers’ chimes out, as a swarm of flailing arms knock the life out of my six quid pint of beer. If only security hadn’t been so quick to spot the Hubble telescope I tried to sneak in I may have been able to get a view of her. We’re here for The National, a band we follow around far too often. They are as glorious as ever; deft and slow burning, with melodies that creep up on the subconscious over hundreds of listens. We find that we are stood in a community of like-minded people who sway and gently sing the lyrics to each song. It’s a moment that not even BST’s pathetic segregation can ruin; The National are as astonishingly good as ever.
We combined this with a restaurant whose tables I have sat at the same amount of times I have seen The National. I have been coming to Gauthier for many years, the first almost ten years ago to the day when my mate Barry and I were in the capital to watch Kings of Leon at a pre-barrier BST. That day our train was late and we never had time to change, meaning that I was in torn jeans and Barry was wearing a vest with a cardigan and dusty pink tapered trousers that sat around the rim of his buttocks and showed his boxers off. The dining room was a staid affair; there were many business meetings going on that all bore witness to Barry Joseph’s stout arse grazing over their shoulders as he walked to and from the loo. If I remember correctly, the two of us got stuck into a lot of burgundy and I barely remember leaving the restaurant, nevermind the gig. My further visits have all been under the guise of happy relationships. They worked, temporarily at least like a bookies pen, helped out by the most romantic of dining rooms, headed up by a front of house team who could polish the most tired of couples into something gleaming for a couple of hours. When we received a voucher for lunch after purchasing a case of rosé from their inhouse wine business, it became clear that it would be the ideal place to eat before the gig. And what a good decision it was: Gauthier was as astonishingly good as ever.
Somethings have changed since the last visit. My view across the table is now different, though more importantly chef patron, Alexis Gauthier, has gone vegan. It’s a move that can be felt even when not eating from the vegan menu given that the nibbles, amuses, pre-desserts, and canapes are all animal and dairy free. We start with a jar of ‘faux gras’ to share between two with a piece of bread each to spread upon. The pâté is a dense mix of mushrooms, walnuts, beetroot, garlic and onions; rich, earthy, and dare I say it, meaty. We have the recipe to make at home. This is followed by capanota with bread crumbs. The stewed vegetables, consisting mostly of aubergine and peppers, are quite high on vinegar which is pleasing and stops the mouthfuls from being too rich this early on. The breadcrumbs are inspired. It is a very good start. I over order on bread, taking a raisin roll, tomato roll, and cube of basil foccacia. Whilst I don’t care for the tomato bread, or the butter it is served with, I would go back for more of the other two.
Claire has bavette for her starter, the core of the beef the colour of the Merlot paired with it. The meat is on a slab of brioche, with tapenade and pesto; a kind of open steak sandwich that draws purrs from across the table. I go for the summer truffle risotto because I’ve had it before and there was never any chance that I was ordering anything else. Truffles in Europe generally don’t taste of much this time of year (Australian is an entirely different beast), though these are of good quality; perfumed and not too woody in texture. The risotto is superb, light from more mascarpone than parmesan, the grains loose and with even texture. The meat jus around the peripherals adds another layer of flavour. It’s pretty special.
Both mains contain real ‘wow’ moments. A lamb dish has loin cooked to the ideal medium, slow braised shoulder, carrots, and broccoli. We get a little giddy over the heavily reduced sauce which is meaty without overpowering, and tear up over the black garlic gnocchi. This is the reason black garlic is made; to sit within fluffy pillows of flour and potato and load up the umami in tiny steps, not one big crash. Opposite me is cod poached in olive oil and thyme, lightly cooked until the flakes start to part ways on their own accord. There are morels and something called ‘salty fingers’ which is what I used to give to dates in the cinema during my teenage years. The star this time is the fish veloute; lightly licked with acidity and bursting with the taste of the ocean, it holds everything in place, linking the protein, the earthy notes and the salty verdant.
A pre dessert of lemon granita with peaches is contained within a meringue-like structure made from chickpea water, which I decided I would hate before I ate it and then really enjoyed. It made me think that I could come back here and try the vegan tasting menu, until I considered that would mean no truffle risotto or no Louis XV dessert. The latter of those was the choice for both of us to finish lunch, given that I insisted on it. The Louis XV is one of the great desserts, born in Ducasse’s 3* Monaco dining room. It is a posh kit kat with layers of mousse, feuillantine, and dacquoise, which are culinary terms and not Arsenal’s front three next season. It eats like a dream, indulgent and complex. The table next to use are celebrating: “the problem with that dessert is that there is never enough” they tell us between ordering more champagne. They are not wrong.
What I don’t like are the vegan petit fours, because a cake without dairy is just a stodgy clump of sadness. None of this matters though; this was a very impressive lunch in a restaurant I continue to hold in high regard. The bill for the above with two glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine, two ports, and a couple of dish supplements is just over £150 – a steal given the quality. Gauthier is one of London’s top kitchens. I hope to still be coming back in a further ten years time.
Google tells me that Northumberland was once the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, which sounds like something out of Game of Thrones, only with a far better ending. Once the drive into the furthermost north of England is complete it is easy to see why: the coastline is rugged and handsome, as wide as it is long, dotted with castles perched high upon the banks of land that lay above the dunes. Like Game of Thrones these castles were once a defence point to stop the Wildlings from passing beyond a great wall, and just like the ending I’d quite like to live among those Wildlings having seen the mess that is the battle to be leader of our realm.
Back in reality, I fell hard for this part of the world. The beaches had the brutal quality that I love about North Cornwall only without the crowds, and there is an attachment to nature here unlike anywhere else in the country. I defy anyone to not be enchanted by the beauty of Barter Books in Alnwick, or the total charm of The Origami Cafe around the corner. I’ll be checking for a pulse if anyones fails to fall in love with the walk from Craster to Dunstanburgh castle, or looks to the majestic Bamburgh castle with anything other than doe eyes. Northumberland gave me a once in lifetime view of puffin season over on the Farne Isles, and then the best fish I’ve eaten later that day in Seahouses. It does it all with a shrug of the shoulders. There is no ego here, no bravado. Despite the postcard perfect locations that roll one after another, the residents of these towns seem happy to help everyone. Even the bloke from Birmingham who asks far too many questions.
Central to this little visit was an afternoon in Berwick-upon-Tweed, with dinner booked at Audela. It was the menu that swung it for us; one that sang of local produce at every point, utilising the North Sea and the meat from beyond the borders. The room is tasteful, though very warm, with deep chairs and heavy wooden tables. It is clear that they have aspirations, even if those are aligned to a style of cooking that Michelin has edged away from over recent years. We start with an amuse for our bouche of mushroom soup, a dish rooted in 80’s dinner parties. The soup has good clarity, the ideal consistency, and seasoning is punchy in a good way. It’s a very good cup of soup. The bread on the inside is a fraction dense, though this makes it the ideal vessel for chasing out the last of the liquid.
Twice cooked cheese and leek souffle continues with the dishes not seen on Masterchef since the Lloyd Grossman years. It’s the weak point of the meal; too hot, too heavy, with not enough cheese flavour. Another starter has delicately dressed crab meat with an accurately cooked scallop, pea mousse, fresh peas, and mint. The handling of the seafood is impeccable, though it would be improved by removing the pea mousse which overloads the softer textures.
The best bit of a monkfish main sits on the base of the plate. Both sauces – one a slightly saccharine bisque, the other lightly scented with lemongrass – play off one another to tease the natural sweetness out of the fish. The fish has been finished in plenty of butter so that a golden crust forms on top and the muscle inside remains translucent. Pink fir potatoes taste like they have also absorbed a lot of the butter, which is never a bad thing, whilst the tussle of veg in the middle are presumably here to fool you into thinking that this dish is healthy. Do not be fooled by the green stuff in the middle.
Top billing goes to a chicken breast with haggis that packs the biggest of punches, served with a caramelised cauliflower puree, carrots, and silky mashed potato. It sums up what the kitchen do best; maximising a few basic ingredients with salt and pepper. The sauce is a deep glossy reduction that speaks loudly of roasted carcasses and joins the dots. It’s a proper bit of cookery.
Desserts look glorious on paper though there is no room for them and we find ourselves apologising to the charming front of house for not ordering them. The bill, with three glasses of wine, hits just over £70, which is clear value when you consider the skill shown in the plates. Audela isn’t pushing the envelope of pioneering food, instead choosing to focus on familiar flavours done well, to a room filled with customers who know what to expect. They do that mostly sucessfully. Should we find ourselves this close to the border again, I’d gladly return.
I have this idea for a streetfood business called ‘Simon Le Bon Bon’. Now I know that you are sat reading this thinking “what a great name for a streetfood business”, and yes, you’re correct, it really is. It works on so many levels; it has my first name, it has the name of a Brummie celebrity, and it tells you what type of food the business does. The term ‘bon bon’ may have originated from the sweet candies consummed by the French after dinner to mask the smell of garlic and BO, though it now has a broader home in the culinary food. If it’s round it gets called a bon bon, and thats what my (sorry Claire, our) business will do. Swedish style meatballs, Moroccan meatballs, arancini with mushrooms like they eat in the North of Italy, and others with offal like they eat in the very South. We might feature croquettes of slow cooked meat, rolled with the heel of the hand to big roundels, breadcrumbed and then fried. You get the idea. The tagline will be ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’, though I must point out that no wolves will be eaten because that behaviour is frowned upon. The queues will be around the block, possibly due to a copyright infringement that will see lots of disappointed Duran Duran fans, but this is but a small detail: Simon Le Bon Bon has legs. Round, deep-fried legs. Scottish legs, if you like.
Alas, don’t get too excited. Simon Le Bon Bon will be joining ‘Mr Strippy’ – my portable lapdancing vehicle where ‘Perfect Gentlemen’ signals the arrival and you order a 69 instead of a 99 – and the Swiss Army prosthetic hand as ideas that will never see the light of day, though would make excellent episodes of Dragons Den. If you can’t be the best at it there really is no point – it’s why I blog and don’t ski – I’ve no interest in being second best at anything. And we can’t win the great bon bon war of 2019. I tried the arancini at Legna and knew my dream was over. A portion of three golden squashball sized bites that yield just a little bite, giving way to a mixture of rice, ‘nduja, and tallegio, each in perfect harmony with one another. It has a little spice, savoury notes, and cheesey richness. It is as good as arancini gets, one-hundred-percent better than anything I could acheive with these fat fingers. Simon Le Bon Bon is now Simon Le Non Non.
This was one of the four starters at Legna, before the four pasta dishes, the skipping of the main courses and two desserts. A bottle of white, three glasses of red, two negroni, and a cocktail complete the order between the two of us, so if the details get hazy towards the end, you now know why. We came in search of pasta dishes, because they were always the strong point here and I’m pleased that they’ve stretched that particular part of the menu, though it was the starters that really grabbed our attention. Those perfect arancini sit in between scallops and bruschetta. The former are three queenies, accurately cooked almostly entirely on the presentation side, with a molita style crumb, and a lemon gel that lifts everything. A similar approach is taken with the bruschetta; the garlic is heavy, it has has plenty of basil and supremely high quality cherry tomatoes. The clever bits are the dehydated tomato petals that add almost floral notes to it. It’s summer in four mouthfuls, helped by us sitting in the glass part of the restaurant, doors pulled back to make the most of the canalside location. The biggest oyster I have ever seen completes Act 1, traditionally dressed, and in no rush to go anywhere. It takes a knife to get it down in two parts.
Those pasta dishes confirm Legna is performing better than ever. Taglioni with crab is spun through a sweet bisque that tastes of roasted shell and cream, whilst cacio e pepe is really aglio e olo. This doesn’t matter too much – we still destroyed it – but it had none of the emulsified cheese sauce made from the cooking water that defines cacio e pepe. It is the filled pasta that really impress; one with ‘nduja, tallegio, and truffle, the other cured pork and sage. Both have a perfect texture to the pasta, heavily seasoned fillings, and are dressed in some seriously addictive olive oil. There are twelve dishes listed in this section of the menu; I suggest you make it your target this summer to try them all.
We have dessert. I say we; I get no choice in the two that Claire wants to eat half of. She chooses tiramisu and lemon tart, two that we’ve had before but are assured have changed. That they have. The tiramisu is more stable than ever, which I prefer but Claire doesn’t. The biggest change is to the lemon tart. The acidity from the Amalfi lemons are still there in spades, but now we have Italian meringue for a little sweetness, and the most buttery of bases. What was already a very good dessert has morphed into the full package.
With this we drink wine from Sicily because we’re going in a few weeks time, before moving to the bar to continue drinking. From what I can tell they seem to have ditched the tasting menus, and the pizza, both of which are fine with me. In the new menu they are capitalising on what they do best; the pastas in particular, opening up a menu full of choice and desire. It’s the best meal here that we have had by some distance, helped by some of the most charming front of house in the city. In writing this I’ve just remembered I had a whisky before I stumbled out of the doors. And that we booked a holiday. It was that kind of night. I really must go to Legna more often.
Got an A2B there sober. Got an A2B back home drunk.
I don’t know why I do this to myself. What idiot thinks they can do a top 50 restaurant list and not come under fire from every angry chef who expects to be higher placed? That’s right, this idiot. It’s a list I’m willing to stand by – a carefully constructed list of what I believe to be the best places. I’ve eaten at all listed, so no place for Nocturnal Animals as I’m still to go, and the likes of Opus and Zen haven’t been visited in recent enough years to qualify. Go easy on me, please.
Let’s be real about Blue Piano, they have one great dish and a menu full of dishes that are merely good in comparasion. That one dish – a savoury carrot cake – is worth the trip alone. It’s a stonker which can’t be appreciated until it’s tried. Follow it up with a tour around South East Asian classic dishes from a living room in Edgbaston, or just order more carrot cake. I know what my choice would be.
A good neighbourhood restaurant seemingly still trading off dishes made famous by the previous Head Chef. Beautifully redecorated and with a servicable cocktail menu, it is a nice place to enjoy more conventional Indian food.
A proper neighbourhood restaurant just off Harborne High Street. The owner knows the name of everyone who has dined here, and greets them in such a manner that suggests he may be their secret father. They do some stuff better than others, but on the whole it’s a wholesome tribute to the marginally anglicised Italian food that the majority of this country believe is ‘authentic’.
Slightly schizophrenic tapas restuarant in the very spot my mother and father met, so extra bonus points for that. The menu is a voyage that never sits still: jerk mingles with raw dishes and then zips back over to the Canary Isles for roasted quail with mojo sauce. I’ve come to realise that this isn’t the most refined of food, but none of this matters; it’s always the joyous atmosphere that makes the trip to Rico worthwhile.
On paper somewhere that serves unlimited amounts of carved meat isn’t really my bag, but I’ve been four times since they opened and Fazenda is good. It’s very good. The meat is generally of high standard, accurately cooked and then carved. And that salad bar, fresh and well maintained. Disclosure; most of the four times have been driven by the want of the Malbec which is exclusive to them and is an absolute peach.
They have a rug on the ceiling. They have free lard to spread on bread. They have lots and lots and lots of Polish vodka. Yes, you may be the only person not wearing white Levis and a Helly Hanson puffer jacket, but don’t let that put you off. This is wholesome Polish food at it’s best.
It’s not cheap, but it is a very good Indian restaurant in an expensive part of town. On the rare occasions we’re feeling flush we’ll drive over to Harborne from Moseley to pick up a takeaway from here, which is as much a compliment as you need. The fish dishes in particular are excellent.
For all the talk of ‘real’ Thai food, which is often delivered by middle class white boys who once backpacked through the Northern regions, it’s nice to have somewhere that does the food of the Southern islands well, cooked by Thai chefs, and served by a team who understand hospitality. I have a lot of time for Sabai Sabai, especially so the Moseley site which is cosy and ultra-consistent.
A very popular question I get asked is “are you still a member of a gym?”. Another is “what is the best balti in Birmingham?”. The answer to both is “SHABBABS” which makes considerable more sense with the latter than the former. Best enjoyed in large groups around 11pm with a table-sized naan and several baltis. Cans of lukewarm Carling from the off licence around the corner are optional.
Yes, the prawn bhuna is £21. Yes, that is a lot of money for a curry. Yes, it is worth it. There is more exciting Indian food to be had in Birmingham, but for those looking for a plush curry with good meat and excellent breads, this is my pick in the city.
Wonderfully cheap cafe in a corner of town best experienced through the visors of a suit of armour. Everything is under a fiver; pretty much everything will be new to those unfamilar with Indonesian cuisine. Whilst instant noodles with beef and cheese will never be my thing, I’ll never tire of the fried prawn dumplings. Excellent coffee, too.
A few years ago Purecraft was probably my favourite place to go in Birmingham. Although the city has caught up, it’s still very good; turning out unfussy food and beers to the more discerning of clientele. The connection to Simpsons is strong; the produce is excellent and the technique strong. My Dad likes it in there, an achievement because he can complain about everything.
38. Sky By The Water
Sticking a signature restaurant on the top level of Resorts World was always going to tricky, but they’ve nailed it. The menu is a list of things that work together, prepared with the kind of classic French technique we don’t see enough of. Maybe the jewel in the crown is the pastry section, headed-up by ‘Bake-Off, The Professionals’ Darryl Collins. If you leave without trying his salted caramel chocolates you’ve failed.
Want the best falafel, fuul, and fattoush in the city? You need to come here. I’m a fan, mostly because I can feed two people for under a tenner. The meat dishes arent quite at the level of the veggie stuff, but this is a classy place for Syrian food.
36. Ken Ho
I won’t pretend to be an expert on Chinese food, so we’ll keep this one super short: super good dim sum. Probably my favourite in China Town, but then again I know nothing.
If charred bits of cow are your thing, then no.35 on this list should be your number one. The best steak house in Birmingham by a distance, the meat is well sourced and equally well cooked. It’s a shame that I don’t get overly excited by steak, or else I’d be here a lot more frequently.
The cold hard truth about this city is that good Chinese food could not be found outside of Chinatown. Chung Ying Central changed that; bringing the quality food they were famous for to the business district. The standards are still the same, except this is in far nicer surroundings, with a nice bar stocked with quality drinks. I know it would be far cooler for me to put in some backstreet restaurant where no English is spoken, but I like the deep booths and the fact that the staff smile and treat me like I’m wanted. It’s a bloody good restaurant.
Have The Plough ever turned out a bad dish? I’m not sure they have. The reason why it’s busy every single day is because they never miss a beat. They have tacos and pizzas and beers and cubanos; the kind of food you want to eat alongside Birmingham’s most expensive pint. The people of Harborne have it lucky, The Plough is pretty much the perfect pub.
The question of brunch is a big one in Birmingham. The answer is easy; Early Bird is the best by a distance. They do sweet better than they do savoury, and they happen to do savoury very well indeed. Superb cakes, a healthy ethos on keeping wastage to a minimum and some solid cooking (ginger marinated bacon sarnies anyone?). I always order too much because everything is so good.
I’ve never had a bad meal in Pint Shop. I’ve never had an average meal here either. I’m particulary partial to the kebabs, but then the burgers are also very good. And the scotch eggs whilst I think about it. And the sausage rolls. You get the gist. The potential choices here are huge; it’s making them which is the hard part.
My girlfriend misses living around the corner from these. Maybe that’s her way of telling me she wants to get back with her ex. Crap. Really superb pizzas topped with carefully sourced ingredients. I’d love this place to be within walking distance. Maybe I’ll get with her ex.
A genuine game changer; take the standard desi fare and make it with quality meat. The results are stunning; some of the best chicken tikka you’ll eat and seekh kebabs that taste strongly of lamb. The butter chicken will knock five years off your life so order two and save the kids a decade of visiting you in a home.
If I haven’t been murdered by a chef and this list reappears next year, I expect Legna will be much higher. At the moment its a little inconsistent, but when it is good it is mindblowingly so. My call would be to stick the pasta which is made fresh everyday and treated to Aktar Islam’s refined take on Italian food. This isn’t traditional Italian, but an homage from a chef who loves cooking this style of food. Beautiful dining room to boot, too.
The best fried chicken in Birmingham award isn’t a difficult one to attain, but it is one that Bonehead has ran away with. Free range birds, brittle batters, served from a concise menu in a dive bar setting. It’s real good fun.
Not the first desi pub in Birmingham, but the first to make tracks into the city centre. Some people will say they prefer it when it was a little grubby and the prices were cheaper, but those people are idiots. The mixed grills are the reason why people come here in hordes, though the curries aren’t shabby either.
Birmingham’s best Turkish food is served in a chip shop style location next to a Wetherspoons. Wasn’t expecting that was you? Me neither. Stick to the skewers of grilled meat and you’ll have a great time here, they are all excellent. Yes, you might be sat next to an angry taxi driver, or a drunk from next door, but this all adds to the fun. It’s a gem.
I cried for weeks when they closed Cheval Blanc. I had nothing to worry about; Little Blackwood is everything you want from a neighbourhood restaurant, getting better and better with every new menu release every month. How chef Ben Taylor manages to produce food of this standard from a kitchen the size of my bathroom is beyond me. One to keep an eye on and could well be Birminghams first Bib Gourmand.
After cleaning up every award possible in the streetfood world, the transition to oning a restaurant has been seamless. The staple might be very good pizzas, but don’t overlook other dishes; in particular the chicken tikka flatbreads, or the best Sunday roast in Birmingham.
Charming Spanish restaurant that oozes class. What makes it special is an understanding of seasonality, taking the best of this country’s produce and turning it into plates that still feel true to its cuisine. Grab a few friends and pre order the whole suckling pig – it is superb.
If the goal of Oyster Club was to prove that Birmingham could finally have a properly class fish restaurant, they’ve suceeded. Utilising the fish suppliers from their sister restaurant, Adams, the produce is king here; treated simply and cooked with total precision. It’s pricey, but worth it. The fish and chips is about as good as life gets.
I want Chick’n’Sours to open up in Birmingham. There, I’ve said it. I know I should be using this opening paragraph to set tone and meter, but fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ll do how I please. I want them to open up in Birmingham really badly. I want the people who think that we have good fried chicken to eat their fried chicken and go ‘woah, hold on there, sister’, and shake their wrists until the fingers on their flaccid hands crack off one another, and dab, and floss, and raise eyebrows like they’ve just witnessed a man taking a shit in a public park. All of these are valid reactions to good fried chicken.
I know they do good fried chicken because I have really good taste buds, and my girlfriend who usually does, but is ill on this particular day, says things like “I can’t taste a thing and they still are really good. I can’t imagine how good they taste to you”, to which I dab and floss and raise my eyebrows in the same way that I did when I witnessed a man taking a shit in a public park on the way to work one day. True story. He didn’t even wipe. We wipe frequently with the baby wipes and the kitchen roll provided, though any of the sauces committed to anything other than the mouth would be a waste. Our lunch starts with pickled watermelon rinds, sweet and perfumed, with only a little vinegar astringency, moving on to nachos with bacon and I think seasoned with chicken skin, that are really quite frantic. It’s difficult to decscribe how the palate reacts to this and a loose cheese sauce, kimchi, with the occasional searingly hot chilli hidden for shits and giggles. Literally both shits and giggles with this amount of chilli and dairy. At times it’s all very fugitive, but also crack levels of addictive. I’ll take this combination over something more cohesive and dull any day of the week.
Chicken tenders are obscene strips of breast meat coated in what looks like poultry armour, a kind of riff on KFC only without the mutant chickens who live in sheds that nobody is allowed in, and those chickens are 20ft high and they don’t know why they are so big, and they look down at all the little chickens and think they are in an aeroplane because they are so small. Do KFC deny this? I think the silence speaks volumes. Anyway, back to this little underground gem in Covent Garden where these tenders are pretty much perfect when dredged through a perky blue cheese dip loaded with umami. Two side dishes appear; the first cucumbers in a sauce I cant really get to terms with, the second pickled watermelons dressed in a complex sauce that has vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce in amongst the mix. These are the second best things you can do with a watermelon; the first being sweet pickling the rinds, of which we are now on our second batch.
And then there are the wings that have me reaching for the tissues once again. Yes, chicken wings do turn me on this much, and no, I really don’t care that we are in public. Two flavours; hot and kung po, both with sauces as thick and reduced as the Tory leadership contest, which dress the fat wings and sit in every crevice like a lycra top a size too small. It’s not just great fried chicken; this is great cooking which plays on the five taste sensations throughout. Seriously skillful and a stupid amount of fun at the same time. It’s the real deal.
The above menu for two clocks in at £16 a head. Yes, you have read that correctly. It has to be one of London’s true bargains. Now I’m bound to secrecy on this, but I have it on good authority that Mr Chick’n’Sours himself is in Brum at the end of July for one night at one of our best (maybe the best) restaurants. I’m guessing it will be a lot more than £16 a head, but I’ll be there, and so should you. And if the main man himself is reading this right now, please do come say hello. I’ll be happy to show you around and maybe point out a site or two where I am positive they’ll be queuing out the doors to eat your food. One night is not going to be enough.
Can’t wait for them to come to Birmingham ? Let’s all split an A2B and go to London
I can list as many reasons as I like for starting this blog, but there was only ever one: to gain the respect of chefs. I’ve long had an obsession with the industry, the skill of the knifework, the craft in being able to construct dishes, almagamating flavours into one cohesive dish that balances acidity and sweet, as well as understanding viscosity and texture. Part of me wishes I could have been a chef – I’m a good amateur – and it could have been so different. When I was fifteen I was due to do two weeks work experience at the UCB, only to fall off a bike the afternoon prior and tear up my hand in such a manner that they sent me straight home without passing reception. Maybe this blog is a continuation of the fifteen year old Simon, minus the acne and the obsession with my English teacher, Miss Pope. I’ve said for a while that as soon as I felt like I’ve gained the respect of the industry I’ll call time on this and find a new hobby. If I haven’t got there yet, I am certainly very close to that position. The end is nigh.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine within the industry let me see the other side of the counter. Yes, some idiot really did entrust me with serving customers for his business. I didn’t cook – he’s not that stupid – but I did put bits of meat on breads and fold and roll and ask if they needed sauces and chips. I had a great time working 18 hours over a two day period, drinking more gin than I probably should have and wearing inappropiate footwear. It’s tough work, let me tell you that. I left with tremendous admiration for anyone who could do this full time, promising myself that I would remember how hard it is everytime I was about to say something not nice about someone else’s cooking.
This brings me to Katsu Kitchen, a new restaurant in Moseley that I desperately want to be really nice about but can’t. As great an idea it is to specialise in breaded cutlets of meat, it has to be better than this for me to say otherwise. And that has to start with the raw produce. What they presently have is a small list of things priced mostly under a tenner. Those things are delivered with mostly a good level of skill, but the end product is lack lustre because the proteins they start with are of such poor quality.
We order a chicken katsu, a tonkatsu (the breaded pork from where this movement originated) donburi, and a side of chicken dippers served with a mug of katsu sauce. Despite being fried the chicken has a spongyness to the texture and doesn’t really taste of much, whilst the katsu sauce has a deep flavour with slight burnt notes on the finish. For your £9.90 you get this, rice, an egg which I don’t eat because its from a caged bird, and some lovely pickles. For a fiver less you can have five pieces of the chicken and the mug of sauce that is more of the same. The pork on the donburi is not good: stringy, fatty, and grey. Like Sam Alladyce. I try one piece and decide that rice is the way to go. The rest of the dish is a curryless katsu, though credit to the service who get us more of the brown sauce which is loaded with umami. The front of house are great throughout.
The above and an orange juice clock in at just over £25.00, an affordable amount but one that I won’t be running back to anytime soon. Throughout the meal we were trying to find positives, yet the biggest we could come to is that it is walking distance from our home. For me, there is no comparison to be had with the rice bowl at Tiger Bites Pig which is less money than this, and those looking for katsu will have a better time at Yakinori or even Wagamama. These are the hard facts. You want the best food, start with the best possible ingredients. It’s that simple. The kitchen are working with cheap meats and unforgivable eggs at present, and it’s showing in the finished product. There might be a decent restaurant in here with time if these things change. Maybe.
You don’t need to walk to a restaurant, not when A2B can take you there
The first year of trading for a business is the hardest. It is the Litmus test for the projections and spreadsheets, the qualifiers for how well you really do understand the users. For restaurants it is the process of getting the diners to hear about you, getting them through the door, and then keeping them coming back. It is the gradual process of the right levels of stock and staff, tweaking the dishes and the prices, the right opening hours, deals, suppliers, and drinks, accumulating (hopefully) the media column inches and the queues out of the door. It is a hard, unforgiving industry. Many fail, sometimes deservedly so, sometimes because of bad luck or location. I had my concerns for Rebel Chicken; the food was always good enough to return and they had one of the best beer gardens in the city, but would just rotisserie chicken be enough to convince people to walk down a side street in the Jewellery Quarter? They’ve adapted, adding far more to the menu, and transforming that big open plan garden into something that East London would be proud of. This is now a year-round area, complete with sliding roof and foliage. It is unique to anywhere else in the city and deserves credit for that alone.
We come on a Saturday when the sun is beating down and decide to make a day of it. They have a brunch menu that appears to be very popular, supplied under the banner of Ocho – their sister tapas venue next door that I have a lot of love for. It makes sense: they already have morcilla and merguez, they put pulses in tomato sauces and stuff on bread; they already have the basis for a breakfast. The breakfast board for one served as a nice size for two, swiftly removed from the wooden boards they arrive on and on to plates, like any sensible man would. It’s a bloody good breakfast, a perfectly poached egg with bright yolk, toast, beans in the same tomato sauce that normally gets served with the meatballs, mushroom, and three bits of minced animal in natural casing. That’s sausages to you, stupid. Of those three I get happy memories from the densely spiced merguez, and give kudos to the morcilla, which everyone knows to be a far superior black pudding. The most recognisable of them is a pork sausage. A British breakfast banger. It tastes of pork, mace, and a little black pepper. It’s a very nice sausage on a very nice breakfast. At nine quid it’s an absolute steal.
Late morning quickly spilled to afternoon and I’ll use this point to declare my drink of the summer. They do a drink here called Damm Lemon, a light, lemon flavoured beer found on the backstreets of Barcelona by the Geordie manager of this establishment. More refreshing than a cold shower, less alchoholic than a Glaswegians breath; it’s the kind of drink you could, and should, lean on to get you through a summer’s day without looking like a twat. And this is coming from someone who specialises in looking like a twat.
Back to the food. We make the most of the day by seeing how far the food has progressed in a year at Rebel Chicken. Back then it was rotisserie chicken and not much else – now it is only true to its name if the chicken’s way of rebelling is to identify as a cow. There is chicken everyway you can think of — roasted, fried, coated, pulled — but there is also a big section of beef burgers, and stuff like halloumi and falafel just incase the rebel chicken wants to disappoint his father by becoming a vegetarian. We try two burgers, one more conventional, the other a bastardisation of all the bits I want to try in a bun. The food has improved, absolutely no doubt about that. The Yard Bird burger has a chunk of poultry in a buttermilk batter which is brittle and well made. The other burger has (wait for it) beef patty, pulled chicken, halloumi, jalepenos, and caramelised red onion. I wasn’t sure I’d like the beef but it’s good stuff; carefully cooked to a consumer friendly light pink, with good quality meat and a nice fat ratio. The pulled chicken comes from the tasty part of the bird, possibly dressed in too much BBQ sauce, though that’s me being difficult for the sake of it. The rest of it works. Don’t ask me how it tastes as a whole because I have no idea. I’m no animal, despite what you’ll read elsewhere. They have chips, which have improved since the last visit. We don’t finish them, mostly become some idiot made a burger with everything on it.
I guess what I am trying to say is it has improved since the last time I was here, fairly substantially in parts. The wider menu has allowed them more freedom to be expressive and it shows; the dishes have a certain swagger to them that matches the decor. Rebel Chicken have not only survived that first year, but have come out in a far better position than when they started it.
In lieu of another pizza place garnering significant exposure by handing out a week’s worth of free pizza to every blogger, Instagrammer, and grammar poor journalist, I’d almost forgot that Poli was opening last weekend. I am reminded by my girlfriend who is keen to try it out on account of her love for the sister venue, Grace + James. Expectations are set to high: Grace + James is an annoyingly perfect neighbourhood wine bar, where every bottle, decoration, and cheese is tailored into the most considered of rooms. It is a place where we spend a lot of time and money, a place where every visit is a lesson on natural wines. They’ve become very good at knowing what wine I will and won’t like, which is equal parts scary and impressive for a business that has only been open a year.
Poli is two doors down, unmissable given the teal painted frontage and pink logo. Inside it is a wash of baby pinks and soft blues, the walls bearing 80’s style prints, neon signs, and some terracotta plant pots that start a twenty minute conversation of admiration. It’s beautiful. The negroni I start with is the only thing I don’t like, as we plough into the menu: pickled grapes, a couple of small plates, two pizzas. Pickled grapes are the future, I know, I’ve tasted them.
Let’s start with the filth. Potatoes roasted in lamb fat with a little mint. Sunday roast without the overcooked meat. All blistered skins and deep ovine flavour. I’m sad that it’s taken 36 years on the planet to eat these. Three dense meat balls with the backnotes of fennel, on a ragu of tomatoes thick with chunks of onion, homemade ricotta, and chive oil. It’s a big old portion for not much money. We fight over the rights to the last one, and then fight again to work the last of the ricotta out of the sides of the plate with the crusts of the pizza.
That pizza is good, in Birmingham’s top three at present and quite possibly the best in a very competitive market. It won’t be to everyone’s taste; the centre of both of ours are loose and soupy, the kind of pizza that would find the plate with ease should it be tilted. The rest is textbook. The crust is blistered, the dough pleasingly sour, with the same tomato sauce returning from the meatballs. One with guanciale, pecorino, and egg riffs on the flavours of carborna, whilst the other with chorizo, ‘nduja, and honey is a sweet meaty treat. The quality of the ingredients stands out with every bite. We plunge the crusts into an aioli coloured with squid ink that I don’t care for, and a fermented chilli sauce that I demand is bottled and sold. It’s complex and hot, which also happens to be my Tinder bio.
We don’t have dessert, though fear not, we are not alone and our company do. In a move never seen before on this singular-minded rampage of ego which is my food blog, I am now about to hand over the reigns to drink maestro, Jacob Clarke, who will talk you through his his strawberry, marshmallow, and jam shortbread sandwich from Happy Endings.
I’m getting a lot of strawberry, but also marshmallow and jam, too.
Wise words, Jacob. Wise words.
The bill hits £120 between four with a lot of booze, and we retire to the sanctuary of Grace and James to drink more wine. In all honestly, I was a little deflated when I heard the plans for yet another pizza place, and then it clicked: I’ve been eating Sophie and Henrys food for years, way before the cheese boards at Grace + James when they made their own chorizo and put them on tacos with the street food business they brought to Birmingham. In Poli they have created much more than a pizzeria; it has great craft beers and wines and a killer play list of indie classics. It has great food at a fair price and with impeccable taste. It is, without question, my favourite opening of the year so far.
The first Franco Manca I had was also my first great pizza experience. Let me take you back. It was the Summer of 2010, way before any idea of this blog occurred, when I was lean and with a full head of hair. I was in London with my mate Barry to see Kings of Leon, a band who were once good, despite what their last three albums will argue. We had lunch at Gauthier, beers in Camden, the gig, and then back to Camden. In the morning we hopped on to the blue line for what seemed like an eternity, stopping at Brixton for pizza at the original Franco Manca. I’d done my research; I got the joke about Frank being missing; I knew the queue would be big and the menu short. We went and it was incredible. In my head it is one of the best meals I’ve eaten – nonsense of course, but still a testament to how thrilling some cooked dough and a few ingredients can be. Franco Manca is the primary reason we have Neopolitan style pizza in the UK: they gave this style to the masses with thirty-six sites in London, and another eleven further afield, including a new shiny Birmingham site.
Now cutting to the crux (or should that be crust?), do they still provide a great pizza experience? No. And I don’t think they have for years in all honesty. I recall a really average pizza at Broadway market three years back, and likewise at Kings Cross a year or so after that. Maybe they were never as good as I think they were, or maybe the competition that they created have surpassed them with ease. It’s a good pizza, but good pizza isnt going to pass muster when we have some excellent pizza already established in this city. It starts well enough; a starter of lamb sausage with potato and spicy tomato sauce is comforting and big on flavour. Better is the aubergine parmigiana, that is firm and meaty. I’d say this is the nicest rendition of this dish I’ve had had it not caught in parts and taken on burnt notes.
Well then the generator overheated, granite spewed on to Bennett’s Hill, and they had a full on meltdown. It became quickly clear that some parts of the dining room were making full use of that oven which blasts pizzas in about a minute, turning tables quickly. We were not in that part of the room. It took one hour to get our pizza and that was only after raising it with a manager. They turn up, one five minutes before the other, the two looking visibly like they’d been given five minutes difference in cooking time. The pizza is okay: it’s clearly not a true sourdough base, one seems a little underdone, the other is heavily scorched. The toppings are unevenly distributed, a minor detail, but one that others seem to get right. I don’t enjoy the No.7, which surprises me, because almost all of the ingredients appeared successfully over the two starters. The one with chorizo is better, but only because that cured meat is superb in quality. Claire notes that the pizza she had for lunch the day before was way better, a worrying thought for inconsistencies across sticking some dough in an oven.
Now we know they’ve had a bad day, and so do they. The manager reappears, apologises and wipes the bill. He also does the same for the table next to us who’ve had a similar experience. He asks that we come back and give them another go, a fair request given how well it is handled, and one that we will do when they’ve settled in over to months to come. The previous night we went to another pizza place that opened on the same day here. The difference was huge; they were operating like clockwork and turning out some of the best pizza we’ve had in Birmingham. Part of me thinks that Franco Manca believe they can walk into a central spot and live off their reputation. They can’t. For now it appears that they’ve cut off too large a slice to swallow.
Thankfully the wait times for the A2B that took us there and back were much shorter.
The night we book in to eat at Asha’s is unknowingly the festival of Eid. Inside the restaurant is heaving and celebrations are in full swing. It is everything that makes Birmingham so special: there are families here, but there are also friends and colleagues; communal tables hosted by those who do not need to be here, but choose to in support of those who have passed through the hours of sunlight without food or water for 28 days. It is wonderful to see those who have entered Ramadan for Islam are joined by non-muslims in the breaking of the fast; food is being shared, traditions respected. Everyone is joyous. In a period of history where the parties of the right are trying so hard to segregate and divide, Birmingham (and in particular on this evening’s dinner, Solihull) stands united in solidarity. It is a message more powerful than any written on the side of a bus, or placard wielding rally. In this city We Are One.
I’ll be honest, it is not how I envisaged the start of this piece to go. I expected it would be based around how much I’ve enjoyed Asha’s in Birmingham for almost a decade, and how my initial reactions to them opening another branch in a bland shopping centre in Solihull not known for good food was one of surprise. Both of these facts are true and probably don’t require dwelling on. Instead we’ll talk about the new site, tucked away at the back-end, sandwiched between the chains at the top of the escalator. It doesn’t seem the obvious place to pay £21 for a prawn bhuna, but then Solihull happens to be a place desperately short of options for good food considering how affulent this end of the city is. And it’s a beauty of restaurant; low slung ornate lighting penetrates the twilight, with booths cleverly concealed down one side and an endless bar running the length of the other. Tables and chairs are every colour you can think of, just as long as the only colour you can think of is black. It’s the most romantic setting to come to Touchwood since the back row of the Cineworld opposite.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the food is that it is entirely reminiscent of the central Birmingham location, which, having never written about, I will now have to breakdown. It’s premium curry house fare; the wheel hasn’t been reinvented, but it has been given new tyres and shiny spokes. Sometimes it’s subtle, like the tray of chutneys that accompany the poppodums. You probably won’t notice the difference with the green sauce that is now synonymous with the giant crisps, but the mango chutney is refined and has balanced acidity, whilst a papaya chutney is a classy affair with sultanas and nigella seeds that you’ll not see too often. It’s when they wield out the big guns that you know you are somewhere which wants to be taken seriously. We’ll overlook the etch-a-sketch dribble of sauces on the tandoori platter we started with and instead look at the quality of the produce: curls of king prawns, blistered and juicy, two pieces of chicken tikka, another two chicken malai; each huge poultry piece marinated until the proteins soften and the yogurt catches on the edges for that slight smokiness. The cooking of the meat so accurate that I swear a sous-vide machine must of been used, even if the flavour tells me otherwise. And then there are the seekh kebabs, as good as any I’ve had. Soft meat that threatens to fall apart on the lightest of pressure, loads of lamb flavour despite the obvious presence of ginger, chilli, garlic, and cumin. We finish this and know that the curries that are to follow are going to be good.
And they are. They really are. It’s obvious that each sauce is made only for that one mention on the menu, over the base sauces that plague cheaper establishments. The prawn bhuna is an exercise in this; the tomato rich sauce tastes strongly of the sea. Like the girls I used to take to the cinema here, it is thick and luscious, with a good amount of ginger thrown in to the mix. Twenty one pounds for this is punchy, but then it happens to be a very lovely curry. A chicken tikka masala has a generous amount of poultry, as one would expect for £15, in a more generic sauce thickened with lots of double cream. In all honesty it lacks the whack of flavour that the bhuna has, but it is still a very strong rendition of the most British of curries. Both get saffron rice piled in, mixed about and scooped on to naan bread fragrant with lots of garlic.
Portions are very generous, leaving no room for dessert and the remnants of the curries in a brown bag for lunch the following day. I really enjoyed this new Asha’s; the food was consistent, the quality of the produce high, and the staff really superb. In reality Indian food in this city has never been more prevalent: we have the balti houses, the street food places, those like Opheem pushing the boundaries for progressive Indian, and places like here who do the more familiar dishes in luxurious surroundings to high standards. I have no problem in saying that in my mind Asha’s is the best place in the city to splash a small chunk of cash on those more conventional curries. Everything about it screams class.
A2B are based in Solihull. Let them take you for a tour of their manor.