Knife & Fork: St Paul's House

I thought that since the new Saint Pauls House boutique hotel, restaurant and bar had opened recently and was promoting itself as the new “happening place” to eat and drink in the Jewellery Quarter, I would book a table for two and try it out. On entering, it is apparent that little expense has been spared in converting this space into something which is light years away from the not-very-appealing boozer that it used to be in its period as The Ropewalk. The ambience is reasonably welcoming though perhaps a bit confusing as to where to go or whom to speak to in order to confirm a booking. It is all perhaps just a bit overdesigned in some respects. It felt a little as if the establishment was making a major point about being different and a bit chi-chi. Anyway, we were taken to our table in a very quiet dining room where only one other table was occupied. That in itself was not a great problem as I imagined that we would probably receive very attentive service as a consequence.

The furniture is comfortable and welcoming although I was a bit at a loss as to what the visual relationships were between the tables and chairs – or the rest of the décor for that matter. It did not have the feel of a really integrated interior, but currently that’s not entirely unusual in establishments which are trying to make a statement.

All food and drinks on the menu looked quite interesting to begin with, possibly a little, shall we say, pretentious, but inviting enough. We shared the fish board to begin with followed by our main courses. I had the Dual of Lamb and my companion for the evening chose the Minute Steak, both of which we requested to be “pink”. I selected a bottle of Rioja – Villa Pomal Centenario - from the relatively small but very intriguing looking wine list. It looked as if it had been chosen with some thought.

While we waited we were offered a little basket with a very generous two pieces of bread and a small pat of butter. When the wine came I am sorry to say that the lovely and delightful, but ridiculously undertrained, waitress had to admit that she didn't know quite how to use the Waiters Friend bottle opener. The upshot was that, to avoid more embarrassment than was already evident, I opened the bottle of wine myself. Perhaps this did not presage well for the rest of the evening. I do not understand how a manager can put any member of staff out there in front of customers without proper basic training.

The fish board comprised of a “Crab Roulade” (in reality a bowl of shredded crab) mixed with I'm not quite sure what but it seemed to be mayonnaise and rather a lot of vinegar, not tasting much of Crab at all. There were a few slices of Smoked Salmon and you can't really go wrong there I suppose, Pickled Cucumber “Salad” which tasted mainly of vinegar, Seaweed Crisps which were hard then teeth-stickingly chewy and - heavens above - Lobster Bisque Popcorn. Well, that was a bit of a surprise. Yes, I know we read it on the menu but, really, why would anyone want popcorn to begin with let alone lobster bisque flavoured popcorn? I cannot really describe the taste accurately, but let’s try: cardboard with the vaguest taste of lobster and thus very strange. I thought this was a bit of a disaster and a quite unnecessary inclusion.

The crab was rather mushy, tasting mainly of vinegar and a little mayonnaise, hardly anything of crab overall although the texture was most definitely crab-like.

The Minute Steak, instead of being pink, was moderately well done, not so well done that it was like a cinder, but it was certainly not pink. Nevertheless, it was tender, tasty, and enjoyable. The accompanying Confit Tomatoes and Lamb’s Leaf greens were quite delicate, the Bearnaise Sauce delicious, but the Triple Cooked Chips rather mushy. My lamb, on the other hand, was delightful. The medallions were beautifully pink, very tasty and succulent; even the rib which looked a trifle overdone turned out in reality to be quite delicious, the accompaniments were tasty, the side order of Sweet Potato Fries were a little bit overdone and quickly turned mushy but, I have to confess, tasted pretty good.

Why is everybody doing salted caramel?

We then moved on to desert. The Sticky Toffee Pudding which we shared had most definite overtones of salted caramel. Why is everybody doing salted caramel at the moment, please? Doesn't anyone have the wit not to? Must every kitchen with pretensions feel the need to follow the culinary in-crowd?

Having said that, it was actually very pleasant and really enjoyable! It was well enough presented with slices of peach, three raspberries, and a scoop of ice cream.

The wine was not perhaps what I think of as a typical medium to full-bodied example of Rioja with those familiar and meaty vanilla and oaky overtones, smooth, velvety on the palate. This one was a bit on the thin side - not unpleasant, but not particularly flavourful either. I couldn't say that it was bad but it was a little, shall we say, underwhelming, especially for the meat dishes.

Overall it was not exactly an exciting or particularly satisfying culinary experience. This is a new establishment and may well need time to bed in yet, but, on the basis of this experience, it was rather disappointing. The management has stated that it aims to bring something of Shoreditch to Birmingham. Whether Birmingham actually needs Shoreditch is perhaps a question worth asking but - on the basis of this experience - it seems that some of the negative aspects of Shoreditch have been brought to Birmingham, rather than the positive. The menu was not without ambition but not terribly well thought out and, regrettably, not well executed in reality. I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps there is an underlying presumption that the word Shoreditch is all that anyone needs in order to impress in Birmingham.

My companion for the evening is someone who, like me, enjoys food, has eaten extensively around the world in all sorts of restaurants from the humble wayside café to the Michelin starred establishment. Her reaction: at best, 6 out of 10 and I think that's fair. I normally do not award stars or marks out of 10. It’s not the way I generally think about food but, on this occasion, I am stumped for words which would explain adequately the quality of the food and the overall experience of dining at St Paul's House.

I appreciate that this was a quiet night with only three tables occupied in the whole restaurant and it is still early days. I do wish the enterprise all the very best for the future but I think to make a real mark in Birmingham it is going to have to work very, very hard to provide a much better experience than this and one which is worth the money. Just being a new face in the Jewellery Quarter isn’t enough.

Cost for two, including wine £76

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

St Paul’s House, 14 St Paul’s Sq, Birmingham B3 1RB. 0121 272 0999

 

 

Knife & Fork (Chopsticks): Noble Seafood Restaurant, Shanghai

Some months ago I wrote about eating out in China and Australia, recording some of my culinary experiences during a working visit last year. Recently I was in China again to fulfil my duties as a Visiting Professor at Nanjing University of the Arts and undertake a few other interesting and enjoyable tasks. No business meeting in China is complete without lunch or dinner as a conclusion. There were several of these during my trip which was very much one of those living-out-of-a-suitcase experiences. The longest stay in any hotel room was three nights and I never, during the two weeks, actually managed to empty my bags properly.

The cities visited were Shanghai, Nanjing, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou, each with a different kind of cuisine. Shanghai of course is very much the most cosmopolitan of them all withal sorts of international as well as regional cooking available. I find that my colleagues and friends quite like to take me to impressive European-style restaurants when I am there but that’s not why I go to Shanghai; it’s Chinese cooking that I want to try. As always, my preference is to wander the streets and find a decent looking, clean neighbourhood restaurant and try the food there. Often enough there is no English menu but that just means looking to see what the locals are eating and pointing at it. Easy, really, and it occasionally results in a few surprises.

That said, one of the best places in the city is Noble Seafood Restaurant which is conveniently situated in the same building where I often have meetings and, this time, where I was teaching a Masterclass. Consequently I was taken there twice – and I didn’t complain. The setting is indeed somewhat noble, being decorated in a sort of mix of Olde Englishe and Louis Quatorze styles. The bone china crockery is very aristocratic looking and the cutlery would grace any English country house table. Somehow or other the silver plated chopsticks rest and the rosewood chopsticks themselves seem perfect in the setting.

The food is excellent, tasty, gently spicy, and full of textures from the delights of shrimps which offer substance, flavour, and bite to the saffron rice and noodles of many sorts which just glide into the mouth once you master the exact amount of “slurp” required.

It is more or less in the Cantonese style, slightly spicy but not overly so. In Britain most of the Chinese restaurants we encounter are in the “Cantonese” category but it means something much more complex and varied in China.

Normally, friends are keen to show off a little and explain something about the food so, when I am with them, there is absolutely no stress in deciding what to eat: I am happy to leave it to them. “Surprise me”, I say. And they usually do.

Noble is always a delightful experience. Food tends to come in quick succession. The concept of separate courses seems strange to most Chinese and things will just be brought to the table as they are prepared so the diners can dip in and out of several dishes during the course of the meal. Highlights will usually be the Tofu, Crab with Crab Roe, sometimes with Quail’s Eggs. The Abalone is delightful, not rubbery or slimy, just tender and more or less melt-in-the-mouth. Sashimi is also a good bet here and what they describe as baked Codfish is always tender and flaky. I am not certain that it IS cod but it’s delightful anyway. The fish that I most enjoy is usually one of the freshwater types – pike, perch, carp - which always taste slightly “earthy”. It’s a strange taste for a Westerner at first but kind of grows on you and eventually is delicious. It may be baked, poached, or deep fried in a tempura batter. The bones are always a bit of a trial and require careful sifting but the delicacy of the flesh makes the trouble worth it. Other meats are available, of course, too and one of the best at this place is the Peking Duck and the Roast Goose with Sweet Chilli Sauce.

Desserts in China are sometimes a bit hit-and-miss. The commonest authentic ones tend to be based on some form of sweet(ened) bean paste, often wrapped in a pastry of some sort. To a Western palate these are not at all sweet but, given all the current angst around sugar consumption, probably not a bad thing. Certainly they are an acquired taste but soon become quite delicious in their own way. Alternatives usually include some form of ice cream and/or sorbet, not really so very “Chinese”, I would say.

As I mentioned once before, wine is usually only drunk sparingly, often there may be just one glass to accompany a whole meal. That may seem niggardly to a Westerner but is an indication of its value in Chinese society. That said, wine consumption has risen incredibly over the past five or six years to the point where even quite ordinary stuff is expensive by Western standards. At the top end, it is Chinese buying which has driven the market to ridiculous highs. Once upon a time, an “ordinary” wine drinker here might have aspired to save up a bit and enjoy a bottle from one of the better French houses but now it’s virtually out of the question.

The steadily rising affluence of the Chinese middle class makes them more and more interested in the trappings of a suitable lifestyle and overt wine consumption is one of the markers of this.

The local wine is getting better too. For a long time only Chinese wine was available in most restaurants and it was pretty poor stuff but now much of it is pretty reasonable. It may not be a match for anything imported yet, but give the vignerons time……………

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

 

Knife & Fork: Last Minute Comfort Eating - The Old Contemptibles

After being away for most of the Christmas and New Year break and having had a surfeit of eating out, January was largely a month of cooking and eating at home. As a friend of mine, a very good cook and gourmet, once said to me: why go to the bother of going out for the evening and paying through the nose for food which is no better (often inferior, actually) than you can make at home. That is a fair point: if you can cook well and enjoy doing so, it is all the harder to find really good professional cooking that is genuinely much better. If you are having a minor treat for a special occasion or just feeling a bit lazy, then it’s a different matter, hence my recent visits to a few of the city’s less pretentious restaurants and some of the decent pubs which serve perfectly decent food. The restaurants were, indeed, not pretentious which is as well, since they had nothing to be pretentious about - but they filled a gap on a couple of occasions when I had unexpected visitors, so there are no complaints. Pub grub usually falls into the category of comfort food and that is exactly what we often want in the depths of winter when we might not be worrying too much about the calories. What can be more comforting than a glass or two of a decent beer along with a generous portion of fish and chips or a good, tasty pie?

Some months ago I wrote about an evening at The Shakespeare on Summer Row and last week I popped into one of the sister pubs, The Old Contemptibles on Livery Street – one of my longstanding favourites.

I had a dear friend visiting and additionally a colleague arrived unexpectedly from China. Well, actually, his travelling companion was refused leave to enter the country at Heathrow and sent back, but that’s an entirely different story for some other time. Often visitors from China are not happy to eat Western food – yes, I know we are expected to eat Chinese food when we go there, so why shouldn’t they – but this friend is well travelled and sophisticated. Additionally, when he was a student at BCU he was happy to explore the city’s pubs along with his currently absent colleague.

We tried different beers as accompaniments to the standard Cod and Chips, Chicken and Mushroom Pie, and Steak and Ale Pie, all suitably large. For his small stature our Chinese visitor easily scoffed the fish and chips which he pronounced Very Tasty with a smack of the lips. My Chicken and Mushroom Pie was topped with a disconcertingly large Puff Pastry which I had some difficulty dealing with using anything remotely like good table manners but it was delightfully tasty, lightly seasoned, and full of good chunks of delicious chicken. The Steak and Nicholsons Ale Pie was full of texture and taste, with a good gravy, all inside a Long Crust Pastry which was unfortunately, but not disastrously, just a bit on the soggy side.

Our beers, Acer from Bristol Beer Factory (slightly spicy with a long finish), Uncle Sam from the Cotleigh Brewery (tasty, spicy, a bit strong on the aftertaste to want a second), and our old standby Nicholsons own Pale Ale which seems to go with damned near anything, were excellent accompaniments.

So, a short notice decision to go out rather than cook at home, a wish for reasonable winter comfort eating and drinking in a pleasant and convivial atmosphere, were all suitably catered for by The Old Contemptibles. It’s hard to believe that I lived in Birmingham for more than 14 years before discovering this place. Better late than never at all…..

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

Knife & Fork: (Curried) Hen and Chickens

 

I often used to pass the Hen and Chickens pub on Constitution Hill – and keep walking. It was one of those places which, regardless of which name it was trading under, was not exactly enticing any time I walked past during the past twenty years. However, some months ago, a fellow Tweeter - @myJQ – recommended that I should stop being so timid and go and try one of their curries. He told me that they were really, really good.

Just before Christmas I had arranged to meet Andy Munro, our city Balti Guru, whom I have mentioned previously in reviews of Birmingham’s curry houses, and he was insistent that we should have our Christmas lunch at this very place. So, I had to go, especially now that I had someone to hold my hand, so to speak.

In the event, three of us met a week or so before Christmas and I have to say that everyone had been right. It’s actually a very enjoyable place to go and the curry is indeed pretty good. The unimproved interior is none the worse for that, having apparently escaped any misguided attempts at makeovers in what I imagine would be the past century or so. The staff seem to be very proud of that, and so were most of the customers that day. The clientele were an interesting and eclectic mix of what looked like office workers, business people, construction workers, and local residents. It all felt very comfortable.

The beer was splendid: my Christmas Ale was spicy, meaty, fruity yet hoppily bitter – just what you want at that time of year. The wine my colleagues were drinking, a South American house Merlot, was doing the job for them, too.

I had been warned that the portions were very generous but I was doubtful when one of my companions suggested that we should have only one for the three of us. However, he was right and the Mixed Grill at £15 was excellent value and was just the right size for. I do have to admit that we also had a couple of portions of chips as well – another first for me. I would never have dreamt of accompanying a curry with chips – how déclassé, my dear! Somehow or other, the chips were just perfect as accompaniment. They were chunky, dry, satisfying.

The Mixed Grill itself was comprised of Fish Pakora, Chicken Tikka, Coriander Chicken, Shish Kebab, and Chicken “Lollipops”, all in a powerful but not overpowering sauce. To be sure, this was not the most subtle masala I have ever tasted but it seemed right for the day and for the occasion. We lapped it all up. My lips were suitably tingling without reaching that stage of numbness which can make a strong, basic curry more of a culinary commando combat course than a pleasant challenge to the taste buds.

So, if you are looking for a decent, honest curry without frills, in a genuine old Birmingham boozer with loads of character and you don’t want to break the bank, you could do much, much worse than pop in to the Hen and Chickens. Take a friend though, not for moral support but to help you eat the enormous portions.

The Hen and Chickens, 27 Constitution Hill, Birmingham B19 3LE. 0121 236 3121

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

Knife & Fork: Syriana

Birmingham’s own version of the Flatiron Building on the corner of Constitution Hill and Hampton St on the Jewellery Quarter/Newtown border has hosted a number of enterprises over the years but, to the best of my recollection, Syriana Restaurant seems to be one of those which have lasted longest and gives every indication of being a successful operation. I had often passed by and wondered what it might be like. Was it actually Syrian cuisine? What exactly IS Syrian cuisine?

Well, a few months ago, for want of anywhere else able to accommodate two of us at short notice on a Saturday evening, I found myself sampling the cooking which, it transpired, is actually Lebanese/Eastern Mediterranean in style. Given the chance nature of this experience, it turned out to be a very pleasant one. The frontage is not forbidding but neither particularly inviting, the interior is perfectly OK but not exactly luxurious, the place might benefit from a bit of a makeover or, at least, a freshen up: I am inclined to think that the décor is pretty well leftover from its previous incarnation as a straightforward Indian restaurant.

Nevertheless, that first culinary experience must have been good enough to warrant a return visit a few days ago.

The welcome was warm and pleasant, we were made to feel almost as if the staff knew us like regulars, which is always a good start. The place was warm, clean, and comfortable.

For my starter I had Wark Inab, vine leaves stuffed with tomato, rice, parsley and mint, with a lemon and olive oil dressing, served on a bed of green salad. These are similar to Greek Dolmades or Turkish Dolma.

My friend opted for Borak Jobneh, Lebanese pastry filled with mixed cheeses and parsley. The menu described the pastry as “freshly made” but in this case it was a bit leathery as if it had perhaps been reheated or maybe had been sitting for a while. However, once through the tough outer casing, the contents were somewhat delicious.

My vine leaves were a touch overexposed to the dressing but had a nice texture and were very tasty indeed. I began to conjure up memories of eating in warmer climes.

Our main courses were Farrouj Meshwi, a char-grilled baby chicken with baked vegetables, a helping of coleslaw on a lettuce leaf, and garlic sauce; and Lahm Bil Lkhodar, lamb cubes with a selection of seasonal vegetables and rice.

The chicken was full of flavour, a touch on the dry side, but enjoyable nevertheless. Although dryish, the texture nevertheless was good and whatever herbs had been used in the cooking gave a relatively subtle complexity to the dish. The garlic sauce was not particularly overburdened with garlic and, for my taste at least, might have befitted from an extra clove or two.

The cubes of lamb were described in the menu as “tender”. Often in eastern-styled restaurants lamb is a bit of a disappointment, being regularly tough and chewy. In this case “tender” did indeed mean tender. The meat may not quite have melted in the mouth but it was decently cooked and tasted very good indeed. The rice was fairly light and did not lie at the bottom of the stomach for ages afterwards, as can also often be the case.

This was not intended as a night for a special culinary treat. What we had hoped for was some decently cooked and presented Eastern Mediterranean food and we were not disappointed. After making my notes for this review I had a look on Tripadvisor to see what other people had thought of their visits to Syriana. “Variable” would be the best way to put it, some people almost raving about a wonderful night out while others were rather more negative in their criticism. All that tells me is that people come from all sorts of backgrounds and culinary experiences and with all sorts of expectations. Our experience on the evening was of a decent everyday restaurant which makes its customers very welcome and serves pretty decent food prepared and served in an Eastern Mediterranean style. The ethnic origins of that evening’s customers was pretty varied and that, for me, is often a good sign. These other customers gave every indication of thoroughly enjoying their experience.

On my first visit I had selected a bottle of Lebanese red wine from the restaurant’s small list and it was fine. My experience of Lebanese wines is that they can be pretty undistinguished or extremely good. Think of Chateau Musar, for example, in terms of the latter. There is not a whole lot in the middle: perhaps not entirely surprising, given the country’ recent war-torn history. Unfortunately, the really good ones like Musar are pretty expensive. On this occasion I took my own bottle of “The Parcel Series” Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, which did the trick perfectly. This came from Majestic Wine Warehouse at a cost of £13.49 per single bottle or £8.99 if you buy two or more. I do hate that practice, not because it makes me buy more than I want (that is simply not possible where wine is concerned) but because it is frankly bloody irritating.

The cost for starters and mains for two diners was a very modest £27.30 plus tip and wine. Pretty reasonable, I would say, for a decent meal, and well worth making a booking.

Syriana, 1 Constitution Hill, Birmingham B19 3LG. 0121 236 9444

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

Knife & Fork: Bacaba

Of all the unlikeliest places to find a really good restaurant, the New Birmingham Road in Oldbury is probably it but recently I had one of the most delightful culinary surprises in a while when I took up the invitation of Aram Jit Singh, co-owner of Bacaba, to have dinner in his recently opened enterprise. Having undertaken a complete refurbishment of the premises bought when a previous restaurant closed down, this restaurant and cocktail bar has been open since August 2015. A veteran of several other successful enterprises, some of them with his business partner, the Chef Indra Baluni, is to offer the highest standard of Indian cuisine with an international character.

The evening I went there was relatively quiet, the dining room at about half capacity so the engaging and enthusiastic Mr Singh had time to talk about his ambitions for the restaurant and his vision for providing the best food he can to the West Midlands. I wondered if the clientele tends to be very local but he told us of regular customers who come from as far away as Solihull as well as the city centre some eight miles away. Ever the canny businessman, he offers a pick up and drop service to local hotels and thus seems to be building up regular custom from travellers and visitors to the area as well.

I had wondered at one point if I might be on a fool’s errand driving that far out of town for a curry when there are so many Indian restaurants in and around the city centre. The drive, even allowing for terrible map reading and satnav (all entirely my fault), turned out to be well worth the effort.

We started with Poppadums in a basket form, filled with a Kachumber (cucumber) Salad consisting of chopped cucumber, red onion, tomato, green herbs, and a fairly gentle chilli sauce. These were refreshing, tasty, and nicely textured, just about right to prepare the taste buds for our starter. This was a shared Mixed Seafood Grill consisting of Fish Pakora, Salmon, Cod, and Jumbo Prawn, all gently grilled and covered lightly in a very gentle, subtle masala, brought sizzling in a flat iron dish to the table and accompanied by a simple green salad with a couple of slices of tomato. As far as we could detect, the masala consisted mainly of saffron, turmeric, lemon juice, chilli, and something else we could not quite decide on. This turned out to be powdered dried Mango which somehow imparted a simultaneous sweetness and sharpness. The helping was substantial, to the point that it might well have served at least one more person but, since my friend and I had both missed a proper lunch, we scoffed the lot.

This was a light and subtle yet substantial starter, sharp yet sweet, leaving us with just a hint of a tingle at the sides of our tongues.

For main course I had Nalli Gosht, a lamb shank, and my colleague the Patiala Shahi Macchi, a fillet of Tilapia in a masala sauce and roasted cumin seeds. This fish was very tasty, beautifully cooked “to the point”, and the sauce was very complex, being robust, full of flavour and subtle all at once, the roasted cumin seeds adding a little extra bite, so to speak. This was simply presented and garnished with sprinkled chopped herbs.

If the fish was simply presented, the lamb was even more so. The shank sat part in – part out - of its deep plate, ungarnished but sitting in a deep bed of creamy looking “chef’s special” sauce. My colleague remarked on how ordinary it looked but it was apparently intended to look very plain, as I discovered later in conversation. The chef’s view is that the lamb shank is its own garnish. While I think I might want to take issue with that, believing that a little sprig of parsley or coriander would have finished it off better, the sauce was one of the gentlest curries I have ever tasted, but rather complex and intriguing. It was cream based with a limited and subtle range of spices and a definite presence of almonds. This is the kind of cooking which reflects an Afghani influence in parts of India.

What seemed at first to be a gentle, almost bland sauce, gradually revealed some more lively elements. As an accompaniment for a lamb shank, this might not have seemed an obvious choice, but its slowly unravelling, complex warmth was easily a match for this one. The lamb itself just fell off the bone, was beautifully, slowly cooked and utterly tender: none of your traditional chewy curry lamb in this place.

The accompanying boiled pulao rice was delicate, light and airy, and the cheese naan was indeed cheesy without compromising any of the normal qualities of a naan. This, in fact, was a bit of a minor revelation. The idea of cheese naan seemed somehow slightly bizarre but the reality was delicious. This again was light and tasty, not tough and chewy as one so often finds.

To drink, we opted for beer and selected Mongoose rather than the more or less ubiquitous Cobra, being a much less gassy drink, fairly smooth, more complex in taste, and accompanying all our dishes surprisingly well.

So, overall, a very pleasant experience and worth driving out of the usual confines of the city, even worth the hassle of poor navigation. If you feel like a break from the normal run of city centre restaurants, I am happy to recommend a little trip to Bacaba. You are unlikely to be disappointed. This is good, thoughtful, well prepared and presented cooking.

  • Bacaba. 157a New Birmingham Road, Oldbury, B69 1QP. 0121 552 4756
  • Starters and main courses for two: £33 plus drinks.

Norman Cherry was the guest of Bacaba on this occasion.

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

Knife & Fork: Pub Grub

In my recent piece on Frieze Art Fair in London I wrote about eating at a decent gastro pub in Camden – The Colonel Fawcett - and I thought it might be worth mentioning some of the decent examples of pub grub that we have in Birmingham. Dining out is not always about the big culinary experience, after all, and often enough I am happy to eat simple, honest food in congenial pub surroundings.

I used to eat occasionally at The Old Contemptibles on the corner of Edmund Street and Livery Street. This is one of Mitchell and Butlers’ Nicholson’s branded houses and always has a decent selection of cask ales. I have been going there for a few years now but I didn’t frequent it before the makeover some years ago so cannot be sure how much the interior and ambience might have changed from the original. It is certainly a congenial place to have a beer. The eating area is to one side, with plenty of space for comfortable dining. The menu is reasonable and the service usually cheery and friendly.

Last week, on the way to the cinema, I popped into the Shakespeare on the corner of Summer Row,  another of the Nicholson branded pubs. Others in the group are Bacchus Bar in the basement of the Burlington Hotel in New Street and, confusingly, another Shakespeare in Lower Temple Street. Pubs can change a lot in relatively short periods as managers and staff move on and are replaced and it had been about six years since my last visit to this Shakespeare. I was not, however, disappointed. The pub décor seems not to have changed in aeons (which is good in my book) and there was a decent selection of beer which was well-kept and tasty.

The food menu had a reasonable variety of good plain dishes and I opted for the “famous” fish and chips, my companion for the evening taking the steak and pale ale pie. Both were tasty, well cooked, well presented and just hearty enough to prepare us for a screening of Guillermo del Toro’s utterly bonkers Crimson Peak which is as great a load of old tosh as I’ve seen in a long time (by which I mean that I enjoyed it immensely). I had no complaints about the cod which was cooked well without too much heavy batter and almost perfect chips. The flesh was meaty and well textured as you would expect yet quite delicate in flavour. My companion left some of the short crust pastry of the pie which was a bit on the doughy side, but not a disaster. The meat inside was delicious, apparently. We drank some of the Nicholson’s Pale Ale, Redemption Brewery’s Rising sun, and Cross the Line: perfect accompaniments.

So this is not a place with pretensions to be a gastro pub but it does offer good food and drink at reasonable prices which set you up for the evening. Having recently downloaded the Nicholson’s Hop Circle app, I was looking forward to using it for the first time in order to claim my 25 pence per pint discount. Imagine my surprise when I realised that my lovely friend had quietly paid the bill. Another time, then….

On the way home we had a beer in The Queens Arms on Newhall St, one of those old bars which seem to have become more friendly in recent years without losing too much in the way of original features. There’s no food that I am aware of but it offers a decent pint and a friendly atmosphere.

Another bar offering food which is worth trying is The Old Joint Stock, which I find a bit too packed and noisy to consider the food as anything other than fuel for the engine, but which nevertheless has some great Fullers ales to taste.

In the Jewellery Quarter The Rose Villa Tavern (aka the School of Jewellery Common Room) in its most recent makeover offers surprisingly decent food, and there are others such as The Lord Clifden and The Church, both on Great Hampton St, where I have drunk good beer but not yet tried the food, which I am told is pretty good in both. One informant tells me that The Hen and Chickens, further down Great Hampton St towards the city centre, which from outside looks less than inviting, frankly, does excellent curries and just has to be sampled. So there are three for my list.

If you venture out to Aston (oh go on, be brave, it’s not that frightening) The Bartons Arms just has to be visited if only for its architecture and interior design. It is simply magnificent and I understand that on certain evenings there are official tours of the building followed by food and drink. The wonderful, and almost surreal, surprise here is the restaurant which offers pretty damned good Thai food. I went there a few months ago, had an excellent and ridiculously inexpensive meal, wrote a review, asked the manager for a little more information about the recent history and a few jpegs – and received nothing, even after a couple of prompts. So, no full review, folks! But go anyway: you will almost certainly love it.

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

Knife & Fork: Butchers Social

This restaurant began life as ashort-term pop up in the former Walter Smith butcher’s shop on Harborne High St a few months ago, the intention being to try out the site for just a few days or weeks. Such was the reception that it is still there and trading successfully if the evening I was there is anything to go by. The long-term plan of the two chef/entrepreneurs, Jamie Desogus and Mike Bullard, is to develop the site, extend it at the back, and establish a new fine dining restaurant here.

With this in mind, there are occasional fine dining evenings taking place and these seem to be rather sought after. Given the success of Butchers Social, the partners are now considering finding another site in the area in order to continue this part of the business while the current side is developed. It certainly seems to be a winning formula. The menu is short and simple, comprising variations on Chicken Wings, which seem to change regularly and other simple but genuinely interesting dishes. There is a small selection of wines and a list of nine featured beers and ciders of which normally only four or five are available at any time, due to the small number of pumps. There are, of course, a few bottled beers to be had as well

The evening I went there, it was quiet to begin with, filling up pretty quickly by about 8pm, to the point that people were having to wait a little in order to find a table. The décor is trendily basic, the tables being made from three industrial pallets joined together and much of the wall and other paneling fashioned from industrial quality chipboard. Quite funky really, certainly not luxurious. But then, neither are the prices. Everything seems quite reasonable and therefore the clientele is fairly democratic.

Chicken wings would not normally be a natural choice for me, conjuring up visions of cheap mass market cooking, but these were quite delightful, flavoursome, fairly lightly cooked, a bit greasy, yes (how couldn’t they be?) but not overly so. My friend had the squid and couscous sala and we shared French fries cooked in truffle oil, a real delight. The squid was perfectly cooked, tender and, well, perfect, really, the fries light, airy, and very tasty. This was certainly a very different experience to what you might expect from the normal kind of fried chicken joint.

To drink, we opted for some of the “craft” beers on tap. Living near Two Towers Brewery, following the business on Twitter, but never having actually drunk one of their beers, I thought I really ought to try the Hockley Bitter while my friend had Hockley Amber, a light and fruity ale. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed by my choice although the Amber was rather splendid.

As it happens I went to an event at Two Towers a week or so later, tried the Hockley Bitter there, and found it to be a much superior pint. It’s all in the cellaring, guys!.............. I will certainly be back to Mount St to drink more.

So, all in all, a decent experience sampling simple, well cooked food with a slight disappointment over one of the drinks. The disappointment was not enough to put me off and I will be back. Once I’ve saved a few more pennies, I shall definitely sign up for one of the fine dining evenings, too. Jamie and Mike have impressive CVs which include service in several top-end restaurants, including Per Se and Le Bernardin in New York, and Petrus in London. I want to see what these fellows can really do.

Butchers Social. 175 High St, Harborne B17 9QE

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

 

Knife And Fork: Two Cats Kitchen

I had dinner at Two Cats Kitchen a few weeks ago when it had just recently opened. Allowing for the inevitable teething troubles which any restaurant will experience in the early days, this meal definitely augured well for the future. If Two Cats lives up to its early promise, it will definitely be one to watch.

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

@BrumFaves

Knife & Fork: Jojolapa

This Nepalese styled restaurant has been in Newhall Street for nine years now and seems to have survived longer than any of the other enterprises which have occupied the site over the seventeen or so years I have been here. Jojolapa means not just the word welcome in Nepalese, but encompasses all the feelings and connotations of a visitor being made welcome and being part of something.

Very much a family affair, the dining area is presided over by Sanju Shrestra and his wife while father Ganesh, a veteran of Shimla Pink and Rajdoot and now officially retired, oversees what’s happening in the kitchen. The philosophy is very much about offering good quality Nepalese/Indian cuisine rather than a pure Nepalese experience on the basis that any previous efforts in Birmingham to provide pure Nepalese cooking had been unsuccessful. While I had hoped to have a totally authentic Nepalese meal, I appreciate the desire to play safe and attract as wide a clientele as the place needs to be financially viable. There certainly seems to be a loyal clientele for the restaurant so they must be doing something right. It is certainly decent, honest cooking which strikes a good balance.

My colleague and I opted to share a portion of Chillie Chicken as a starter, after the almost obligatory Pappadums and dips. These latter were perhaps a bit crisper than the norm but the mango chutney, raita, and chopped onions were fairly standard.  So, no surprises there.

The Chillie Chicken, on the other hand, was delightful.  Tender, and cooked in a curious sort of sweet and sour sauce which was not like, say, your normal sickly British Chinese restaurant sweet and sour, there were hints of coriander, cumin, cardamom, and tomatoes. Indeed, according to Sanju, it was the tomato sauce which imparted the sweetness: I don’t know if this is something bought in or prepared from scratch but it certainly had a high sugar content. Nevertheless, the balance between both extremes was very satisfactory and we certainly finished it off quickly enough.

Our main courses were a bit more mixed. My Hassh Ko Masu – sautéed duck breast - was tender and full of flavour. Again coriander and cardamom were much in evidence but other spices were harder to identify. Sanju told us that his father has some spices imported from Nepal as they are simply not available here, even in Sparkbrook or Handsworth.  This surprised me as I had always thought that pretty well any herbs and spices could be bought in the local ethnic supermarkets. It seems that there is a particular kind of Nepalese peppercorn which is not normally exported and is preferred for some of the dishes. At any rate, my duck was a great success, and was well accompanied by a pleasant and dry portion of Pilau rice and a naan bread which was dry, even slightly on the crispy side, and sweetish, almost reminiscent of the taste of Peshwari Naan.

My colleague’s Keema Muttar however was a bit less interesting.  This is very much an Indian dish, certainly not Nepalese food as such, so it was probably unreasonable to expect any surprises.  Basically a minced lamb with peas in some spices, it was pleasant enough and did display some lovely subtleties of flavour but it did not match the duck for flavour, texture, or taste. That is not to say that it was in any way bad cooking, just that the Duck was really good.

We received a complimentary dessert of Khulfi which cleansed the palate and I think completed the meal satisfactorily. The pistacchio and cardamom tastes were well balanced, the level of sweetness just about right.

To drink we selected a bottle of Akau Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand which did the job very nicely without quite setting the world on fire. However, given some of the heavenly top end Australian and New Zealand wines I had been tasting during the previous two-week sojourn in Western Australia, it would be unreasonable to expect more. It was a perfectly decent bottle, probably more subtle than the £20 price tag might have suggested, displaying the qualities you would expect of a Kiwi wine: good acidity, a dryness balanced with reasonably powerful fruit, hints of pineapple, elderflower, even nettles, just about right to cut through the heavier of the spices but not to overpower the delicacy and subtleties of the food, either.

The cost for two and a half courses plus wine came to a very reasonable £68 including service: not bad at all. While Jojolapa might not yet be on my list of all-time great Birmingham restaurants, it is clearly a good place to eat Asian food which is a little different to the normal on offer in the city centre and well worth trying out next time you want something more than just “an Indian”.

I would love at some point in future to ask them to prepare me what they think of as a meal genuinely representative of Nepalese cuisine. On the basis of what I sampled, I am sure that it could be a really interesting culinary experience. I also rather suspect that others might feel the same way. Maybe the time is right to concentrate more on that part of the menu.

Jojolapa 55-59 Newhall St, Birmingham B3 3RB 0121 212 2511

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves

 

Knife & Fork AKA Chopsticks

The header for this column should, by rights, be Chopsticks, since I have hardly used a knife and fork for the past three weeks as I have undertaken my latest China adventure.

The visit began in the relatively sophisticated surroundings of central Shanghai where I met colleagues for a lunch meeting at one of the many international restaurants, this one Italian themed.  I love Italian food but I don’t come to China for its European cuisine.  That said, the lunch was splendid and felt pretty authentic.  I am sure the mainly European kitchen staff would have appreciated that their efforts had gone down pretty well. 

My main business was an hour and a half by Express train (nearly 300 kilometres per hour) in Nanjing, a smaller and less international city but still at least the size of London and with an estimated expat population of over 20,000.

As Visiting Professor in the College of Design of Nanjing University of the Arts, I always try to settle in to the local way of life as much as I can when I go there, so there was no question of eating anything other than Chinese food. Here you can sample a broad range of Chinese cuisine, from Beijing (think Peking Duck) to Sechuan Hotpot style.  The latter involves cooking the raw ingredients in a boiling pot of “soup” on the table. The genuine Sechuan version is very hot and spicy but those which I sampled in Nanjing were (mercifully) a little milder.  Nevertheless, I reached the point of numbed tongue a couple of times.

The local Nanjing style of cooking which seems to be general across the province of which it is the capital city, Jiangsu, is sweet with fairly gentle spice content.  Meat features a lot, chicken, beef, pork, occasionally lamb. There is a wide variety of vegetables beyond those which we would recognise easily (Broccoli, PakChoi, Lettuce) some of which I never learned the names for. Cucumber and Aubergine are to be found and all sorts of fungi.  My favourite amongst these is the one just known as “black fungus” which is gelatinous, firm, and tasty, even a bit crunchy. These usually seem to have been lightly cooked and/or pickled. 
The meat is always in a thick, sticky, sweet sauce of one sort or other and, although I normally do not care for sweet main courses, I did develop a real liking for them.

The other real staple of course is fresh water fish, often from the Yangtze which flows through the city. While I was there the river was flowing hard, looking like a torrent of cold cocoa after all the recent rainstorms and floods. It may be no surprise that Chinese freshwater fish often taste slightly “earthy”, given how muddy the waters can be. Often the fish is served in a soup from which you simply help yourself, sometimes adding the liquid to an existing bowl of rice, sometimes in a separate bowl.  There never seems to be an exact convention to this so I have always just followed the trend at any particular table. Other times fish will be served on a platter, again for each diner to help themselves.

The convention once more is to use your chopsticks to loosen and take a modest portion – a mouthful - at a time. In upmarket establishments separate chopsticks for serving will be placed on each dish but on an everyday basis you just use your own.

Worried about hygiene? Tough – just get over it and enjoy the food! At most local restaurants there will be no napkin supplied, perhaps some small flimsy tissues which you take as required to wipe drips etc.  Somehow or other, most Chinese people manage to make relatively little mess. I am a bit more clumsy and always having to try very hard to avoid dribbling.

My dining experiences in Nanjing varied from the formal dinner of welcome from my university colleagues to very informal visits to everyday neighbourhood shops where the locals ate. While I am always pretty careful about where I eat, I have learned just to accept local hygiene practices and not worry too much about them.

Once my two-week Masterclass was over I was free to travel and with my colleagues Wang Kezhen and Wang Chao (one of those cases where two Wangs DO make a right) flew to Guizhou province to visit the minority Miao people, with an especial interest in their metalwork and embroidery. Flying in to Guilang city was a two hour flight to a completely different world. We were transported from sophisticated new China to a sort of intermediate state of being where new China has taken root and is developing at an amazing pace, but in parallel with old China. 

I occasionally had some sense of bewilderment over the next few days and felt that for many of the older generations it was much the same as they experienced their country and its somewhat mediaeval way of life transform into not quite the modern world but certainly one which was inexorably mutating for them out of a lifetime of habit and familiarity to something quite alien.

A couple of hours drive North from Guilang we used the new city of Lai Xi as our base from which we could drive a further one and a half hours into the mountains to visit some of the many Miao villages. Our local guides, university lecturers Zhou and Chen, were knowledgeable and extremely well connected, with the result that we were able to meet some of the remaining modern masters. Zhou is an established  expert on Miao culture and that includes the food.   

The cuisine here is seriously hot and spicy.  If you don’t like spicy food you will simply starve in this province. Hotpot is the norm.  The soup is pretty spicy in itself but additionally each diner is given a small bowl with a mixture of chopped herbs and spices to which some of the soup is added.  When the raw ingredients have been cooked in the hotpot, they are then dipped into this before eating. This is not just tongue and lip numbingly hot: it is tear forming, convulsively hot. I had a sense of the Gweilo* being tested out at one point but I know my limits and was not going to lose the enjoyment of new culinary experiences for the sake of proving myself a man, so to speak. The main ingredients I could detect were several kinds of chillies (there’s a surprise), coriander, star anise, and what is known as Chinese Peppercorn, originally an import from South America.

This is not food for the faint hearted but, if you are just a little brave, and not put off too much by the sight of the open kitchens, the new tastes, textures, and sensations are well worth it.

Our final Guizhou meal was in some suburb of Guiyang on the way back from our Miao adventure.  Zhou knew of a tiny little place which served wild fungi, freshly picked each day. There are risks involved, of course, since you have to trust the owners that the fungi ARE safe but, again, by being brave and following instructions to cook in the hotpot for at least ten minutes, oh, my, what flavours, what textures, as a reward. As someone who occasionally has foraged for wild mushrooms in the British and Norwegian countryside, I know the risks and am always ultra-cautious but I am oh, so glad to have had that particular experience, one I shall remember for a long time.

Earlier I wrote about proving oneself a man. One other common custom throughout China is drinking Moutei, a distilled rice liquour, or one of several similar drinks. Wine at meals is not common.  Sometimes beer is taken, but often a bottle is shared out amongst several diners. Wine may be limited to just one glass for the entire meal. If Moutei is present that means an endless round of toasts to the guest(s), the whole company, to and from various individuals or subgroups, until the bottle is empty. The killer is when someone calls out “Ganbei” (Dry Glass): this means that everyone involved must drink the contents of the small glass in one draught – no exceptions. This is always good natured but often enough might degenerate into a competition, and that’s tough. If there are some drinkers still sober or who have not admitted defeat at the end of the bottle then a second might be called for. 

Mercifully I have not encountered that sort of experience for a year or two and on this trip it was all very civilised. Eating and drinking with good friends of other cultures is an immensely rewarding experience.  I only hope that when any of them make their next trip to the UK I can show them as many excellent culinary experiences as they have given me. 

*A Cantonese term sometimes also used by Mandarin speakers. Originally an insulting reference to Westerners or any foreigners, especially Japanese, it is variously translated as White Ghost, Foreign Devil, Long Nose: take your pick. The Mandarin word is Laowai which would normally mean simply Foreigner but one of my friends suggested to me that it can mean One of the Cream Coloured People…………..

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman

@BrumFaves