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



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


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


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



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



Knife & Fork: Al Frash

The first recommendation from Andy Munro’s “Going for a Balti” is Al Frash on the Ladypool Road, smack in the centre of the Balti Triangle. This is one of the longest standing of Birmingham’s balti houses with a good reputation built up over the years.

Overseen by owner Mohammed Ahmed, the restaurant is open, clean, simply but comfortably furnished, designed with contemporary clean lines.  I went along with a colleague on a Tuesday evening, thus ensuring a relatively quiet night without too many customers making too many demands.

The menu is simple, relatively short (always a good sign in my view), offering straightforward traditional Balti favourites and others with a bit of a contemporary twist. The young waiter was pleasant, well-mannered, and suitably attentive without overdoing it. Is there anything more irritating than having your waiter constantly appearing at your table asking “Is everything all right?” If it wasn’t, the restaurant would surely have been told....

Anyway, none of that at Al Frash, just good old fashioned service, and damned good food.

A couple of lightly spicy dips, one of them a mint/sugar/masala infused yoghurt accompanied our starters, vegetable pakoras and tandoori chicken nibblets: both cooked just “to the point”, so to speak, neither greasy nor too dry.

My friend had the Lazeeza Balti Fish and I the Archar Gosht (Lamb Balti) for mains, with Sag Aloo (Spinach and Potato), Roti, Plain Boiled Rice. The fish was delightfully fresh, on a base of tomatoes and onions, with undertones of garlic and coriander. It was tender both in taste and texture, light and delicate in spite of the fish’s natural chunkiness.

My lamb was not quite uniformly tender but overall still good. There was a strong, but nevertheless subtle, flavour of Cinnamon, Coriander, and most definitely powerful Green Chillies. This was spicy but not tongue-numbingly so. Subtlety is more important than overt power at Al Fraish, it seems. The rice was fragrant, with the slightest hint of Cardamom, firm enough and not too soft or chewy as is often the case. The Roti bread was firm, soft, flexible and tasty, just right for gathering up the curry.

It’s BYO when it comes to drinks at Al Frash and we elected to accompany this dinner with Banks’s Best Bitter. That worked pretty well, cutting through the spices without fighting with them or neutralising them. A not too fruity New World Sauvignon Blanc would have accompanied the fish very well and perhaps something like a Sangiovese from Puglia  would have been ideal with the Lamb.

This was a spicy, fruity, and entirely tasty dinner experience. Our waiter was happy enough to chat to us about ingredients and cooking and later Mohammed Azad, the chef, came to our table to talk about his cooking, the spices and herbs involved, the methodology. He was utterly charming, engaging, and open about the ingredients. 

As someone who has recently been on a mission to make the perfect curry paste, I appreciated his informal advice. Each chef in the Balti Triangle has his own variation of these ingredients but the one thing which remains a deeply held secret is the basic Masala around which everything else is based. Azad’s Masala? Ah, that will remain a secret, I am sorry to say. Quite right too, as long as he continues to delight and tease out palates with his recipes.

Al Frash, 186 Ladypool Rd, Birmingham.

Dinner for two £30 approximately plus drinks.

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


Thanks to Al Fraish for the photos.

Brum Faves visits: Bar Opus


Corporate bars have come a long way since my days of working on London’s Fleet Street. Back then, us ladies who worked in the newspaper industry were prevented from being able to buy drinks at certain bars. Indeed in the early 1990s, there were two restaurant bars that I not only couldn’t buy my own drink but I couldn’t wear trousers at the bar.

My first visit to Bar Opus reminded me of these days but only because it’s just around the corner from where the Birmingham Post & Mail building used to be, before it’s relocation to Fort Dunlop. The third sibling of the Opus restaurant group, Bar Opus will clearly attract the corporate crowd the original restaurant in Cornwall Street does although the vibe is distinctly non-grey suited on a Saturday evening.

Tucked away under the One Snowhill building, set back from Colmore Row, we receive a bold, sociable service from the minute the bf and our out-of-town friend set foot in Opus three. I imagine it’s quite different during the day, however, on this weekend evening, the place is darkly lit and if anyone figures out how the taps work in the unisex loo first time should surely be compensated with a free drink.

We decide to take advantage of the tapas style menu to try a few things although one of our choices proved unavailable, we were recommended the honey glazed baby chorizo, which went down extremely well on our table. The child in me never loses the love for baby-sized versions so I’m a sucker for the dishes like mini but amply stuffed burgers and a basket of fries. (A new menu is coming was due so check what the current offering is). Elsewhere, the crispy salt and pepper Brixham squid with lemon aioli, served in ample portion, was appreciated.  These were quickly devoured - hence no photos - but go see for yourself!

Small plates are available from 12 noon at £5 each or four to share for £17.50. Regular all day menu includes breakfast also offered.

Do share your thoughts on @BrumFaves or comment below.

By avid eater and Brum Faves founder, Rickie J @RickieWrites

Photos courtesy of Opus Bar.

Knife & Fork: The Warehouse Café


Eating out, no matter how often or seldom you do it, is always still something of an adventure. Many of us like to stick to what we know and love and therefore don’t stray much beyond our favourite local eating spot. I hope that in my columns I will persuade you to try the unfamiliar and sometimes even the exotic as I work my way through the great variety of culinary experiences Birmingham has to offer.

Having recently returned to the city after a six year sojourn in the East of the country in a small city with excellent restaurants, I have been enjoying reacquainting myself with what Birmingham has to offer. The Michelin starred restaurants will undoubtedly be tried at some point but for the moment I am concentrating on those places that most of us can afford to eat in without having to apply for an overdraft.

Several years ago I found myself chatting to the local manager of Friends of the Earth, who told me about the vegetarian restaurant operated by the organisation. As someone who normally eschews “that vegetarian muck” I was kind of intrigued and decided to put it on my list of places to try. So, a few weeks ago, some seven years later, I eventually made it there with a former colleague.

My goodness, why did I leave it so long? Set in a dark, slightly foreboding, street in Digbeth, this turned out to be a little oasis of culinary light. We began with the soup of the day which was a Tomato and Coriander confection, sweet enough with just enough pungency for the spice and a more or less perfect texture: the kind of soup you might almost want to take with a knife and fork, so powerful is it. 

Our main courses were the Halloumi “Fish n Chips” which I have to say cold almost persuade me to give up the real thing and the Halloumi special which was a casserole of Halloumi with mixed veg. In both cases the tastes and textures were as near to perfect as a seasoned vegetarian might desire, with a mix of well-balanced complementary flavours. Even this confirmed “meatie” was convinced that vegetarian cooking can be interesting and satisfying.

The Kreissler pudding, which we shared, was something of a revelation. Subtle yet powerful, slightly sour yet fruity and full flavoured, delightfully textured, this was something I want to try again and again. My taste buds discovered one flavour after another, as each part of the confection made itself apparent. Made, I presume, with little or no added sugar, this is what healthy desserts should be about.

The Warehouse isn’t licensed but customers can bring their own. I had selected a bottle of Simpson’s Sauvignon Blanc (Naked Wines) which I had hoped would be a fairly safe bet and found that it worked pretty well.  BYOB is always a slight risk if you don’t know the menu but at least in this case the choice turned out to be a reasonable one, the acidity and complexities of flavours complementing those of the food pretty well. Charles and Ruth Simpson fetched up in the Languedoc some years ago and have established a reputation for wonderfully zingy white wines which benefit from the hot summers of this part of Southern France. This one is a beauty!

Would I return? Absolutely, and it won’t take me seven years either. This is a little gem of a place. It was certainly busy that night, and it deserves to be.  The staff were polite, calm, jolly, and gave every sign of being able to take almost anything in their stride. The overall cost for two starters, two mains, and one dessert shared: £34, a snip, I’d say.

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

Photos courtesy of The Warehouse

Foodie Faves: Marmalade

When the Birmingham Rep was refurnished and opened to coincide with the new Library of Birmingham, it launched with a fancy new restaurant that came and went before I had a chance to visit it. So when Marmalade launched in February, I was there on day two.

Indeed I watched it being built as I was a big fan of Rep Eats, the short lived in-between café that I used for coffee meets with clients. Never having owned matching furniture, I loved the hap-hazardness of the seating from colourful nursery kitchen tables to the seats pulled out of an old theatre. Now with Marmalade, it’s an altogether more comfy, pre-theatre experience.

Although this is an unusually classic and formal setting from the latest of the Bitters n Twisted group, known for their quirks (see Jekyll & Hyde’s Gin Parlour and the old skool boozer, Rose Villa Tavern) the interior still has a couple of twists and of course, it’s own cocktail menu.

I’ve already eaten here three times, firstly with the bf during opening week when they had the half price offer, then for a birthday lunch and recently with the girls.

I’m eating my way through the menu, starting with the light and yet filling sea bass which helped me enjoy beetroot for the first time, then the battered cod & delightful lemon pea puree, even though it wasn’t my customarily Friday-for-fish day and latterly the burger.

I’ve recommended the former two to appreciative diners and the burger although fairly standard is served with spicy paprika fries. All are around £12-13.

I’ve only noticed one dessert on the menu – gingerbread cheesecake, maple sauce, toffee pecans and mint - there may be others.

A thoroughly warm welcome awaits you followed by a pleasant dining experience, whether you’re popping to the theatre or just ravenous.

Note: Marmalade refrain from serving cocktails pre-theatre so do check timings if that’s what you’re hoping for! But there is happy hour 4.30-6.30 and all day Sundays to make up for it.

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By founder, editor & serial eater @RickieWrites.

Knife & Fork: Opus Café

Eating out, no matter how often or seldom you do it, is always still something of an adventure. Many of us like to stick to what we know and love and therefore don’t stray much beyond our favourite local eating spot. I hope that in my columns I will persuade you to try the unfamiliar and sometimes even the exotic as I work my way through the great variety of culinary experiences Birmingham has to offer.

At any rate there was no confusion of any sort in the kitchen of this culinary haven, the offshoot of serious eating house Opus in Cornwall Street. Not that this is in any way a lightweight; while it is definitely a café, it is a very serious café with light and airy food which is easy to eat yet complex and utterly fulfilling as a culinary experience.

We had ample but not large portions of bread with a nicely balanced olive oil while we decide on our main (and only) course and talked shop. By coincidence, we both chose the same dish, the Fillet of Cod with Spiced Orzo, Wilted Spinach, and Lemon Tahini Yoghurt. Under normal circumstances that would be a terrible mistake for a food writer but on this occasion I had not been intending to write about the experience, simply savour it, which I most certainly did.

The Cod, for such a butch kind of fish, was light, delicate, just melting in the mouth. The lightly spiced Orzo and the Lemon Tahini Yoghurt binding it bringing a wonderful mixture of North and South shores of the Mediterranean to Oozells Square, a perfect complement. This was, on the face of it, uncomplicated lunchtime food but clearly cooked with thoughtfulness, care and, might I suggest, love. Since the days of wine at lunchtime have largely gone, we were content to have sparkling water but I imagine a light, not too complex sauvignon blanc from the Adige would have been a perfect accompaniment.

This was the second time I have taken lunch at the Ikon since Opus took over the kitchen and I shall certainly be back. The price for two? I have no idea as my colleague was paying, and a gentlemen, especially one who cannot keep his own appointments diary, would never dream of asking, but somewhere in the region of £29 including two coffees.  Pretty good value for such excellent cooking and courteous, friendly service.

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

Photos courtesy of Café Opus.