We were met by Nick Astley the Chef/Patron and his partner Diana who seems to have been the inspiration for the cooking and indeed the establishment of the restaurant. She is Latvian and apparently it was visiting Latvia and falling in love with the cooking as well as the people, which led to the idea for Two Cats.
The cuisine is Latvian-Modern, so to speak: contemporary takes on traditional dishes. This “New Baltic”, as the restaurant prefers to call it, perhaps mirrors the continuing trend for New Nordic, which certainly made foodies around the world completely rethink their ideas on Extreme-North-European-Meat-and-Two-Veg cooking. For most of us, I imagine that none of the Baltic States would come to mind when we think of delicate, subtle cooking; rather more we expect robust fare without a lot of finesse. So, it was rather exciting to be presented with this subtle, flavoursome, delightful food which makes good and creative use of the smoking, curing and pickling traditions of that part of the world.
The dishes are all relatively small, larger than tapas but not as large as conventional courses, so it is possible, desirable actually, to try several of those on offer and really sample the menu. There is also a complete tasting menu available for when you want the full culinary experience. Each month the menu varies with the addition of some and deletion of others.
We started with the Auksta Zuppa (Old Soup) and Goat Cheese Pelmeni. The Cold Beetroot and Buttermilk Soup – for that is what it was in essence – was a sweet, yet sharp confection, complex, subtle, tantalising, as I tried to identify the various constituent flavours: dill, cucumber, and radish. My companion’s Goat Cheese Pelmeni was equally interesting, the cheese itself strong and slightly pungent as you would expect, the lovage oil and flowers very delicate, the onion soup sweet and smooth; a really interesting set of contrasts and complements. The Pelmeni was perhaps too large in my friend’s opinion, although I begged to differ. I think this is simply a personal matter and no reflection on the food itself.
I then had the Raw Rose Veal with smoked duck, croutons, pickled kohlrabi, fermented apple and coal oil. Not everyone is a fan of minced raw meat but, if you like sushi and sashimi, why wouldn’t you care for raw meat – as long as it is good meat to begin with, well prepared and presented? This passed all the tests. It was delicate, the veal more or less melting in the mouth, full of flavour and delicacy. The accompaniments just went very well. Looking at text on the page does not do justice to the food as experienced. Rose Veal is, of course, the result of humane, more acceptable free ranging farming practice which does not involve shutting the young animals up in tight pens and results in this pink rather than white meat. There was a time when I could not have countenanced eating veal. Today I feel differently about it: utterly delicious when done well, as here.
The Squab Pigeon with toasted seeds, scorched broccoli, meadow sweet, red currants, and smoked sour cream had my companion in an ecstasy. This is young pigeon specially bred in France and delivered to select restaurants in Britain, not the cooked compacted elastic band that you often find. I couldn’t resist a mouthful or two myself and I understood why it was being so well appreciated. It was tender, moist, full of gamey flavour, and perfectly complemented by the accompaniments.
As these are relatively small portions, I opted to try the mackerel with gooseberry, fennel, sabayon, and almond and fennel sand. This was seriously tasty, a slightly surprising mixture of flavours and textures, but it certainly worked. Being such a strongly flavoured, oily fish, mackerel can be hard to get right in a restaurant as opposed to at home but I can say that, with the exception of a freshly caught mackerel I cooked just hours after plucking it out of the sea a couple of weeks ago, this was one of the best mackerel I have tasted.
And so to dessert. We decided to share the Almond Butter, granola, cucumber, elderflower jelly and meringue. I thought it was bitter, sweet, complex, with wonderfully mixed textures. My companion was a bit less impressed, feeling that the elderflower jelly was less successful. I loved the tiny sections of meringue which sort of teased my palate by their taste and texture.
To drink with this meal we had a bottle of Suri, a Barbera by Andrea Faccio, which was robust and full of flavour yet with deep-lying subtlety. All the wines on the short but excellent list are supplied by Connolly’s Wine Merchants in Livery Street. It’s good to see a local business working with others in the area to create good experiences.
And a Good Experience it was. A fellow diner that evening was the chef from a very highly rated Birmingham restaurant and I noticed that when he left he was very complimentary to Nick.
This venue has hosted several restaurant ventures since the days when it was one of the Michelle mini chain and perhaps only one has been really successful in terms of cuisine and reputation – the Toque d’Or. I rather think that Two Cats might be ready to fill that spot. You should go soon.
Cost for two diners, six dishes, and wine: £70 plus tip.
Two Cats Kitchen, 27 Warstone Lane, Jewellery Quarter B18 6JQ
#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman