Saturday, 12 May 2018

20. Lunch At Pieminister.

Beggar Boy with a piece of pie by Giacomo Peroti

 I do like a good pie. Somehow it seems very English.

  So what could be better than a restaurant that specialises in serving pies? Let's head for Pieminister in Waterloo Street to find out. Fleetingly I think of Sweeney Todd and Bellowhead's song 'Black beetle pies' but such unpleasant fancies soon flee away as I arrive at the restaurant which specialises in minimalist decor and seems to attract far more male customers than females.
  Not much in the way of starters, somehow olives don't seem appropriate. And so straight to the main course - a chicken and ham pie on a bed of mash with accompanying mushy peas. I might have liked simple chips with my pie and peas, not modern chips with the skin on, but classic beautifully cooked chips, soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside, but such was not available. But let's be honest, how can you better classic pie and mash? And the pie was fine. The classic chicken and tarragon combination with just the right amount of tarragon so that the powerful herb enhanced the flavour without killing it straight dead. The mash too was fine - proper mash not some near-liquid purée with all the body squeezed out of it - and the peas were admirable, perfectly minted, I wondered if there was a hint of vinegar which would have been spot on.

Pie, mash and mushy peas

  I had a vanilla milkshake with the meal which served as an accompanying drink and a pudding. The milkshake was inadequate in size and overpriced but I guess Pieminister has to make its profit somewhere or the other.
  The service was excellent and all in all the experience quite pleasurable and if it survives I will be happy to lunch at Pieminister again.
  Pieminister had begun as a business for 12 years prior to its opening in Birmingham and had been started in Bristol with other branches in Exeter, Nottingham, and Leeds. It's pleasing to have a chain of restaurants that specialise in food with a distinctly British character rather than yet another tedious burger joint but the restaurant could have looked more British. And going out to eat should have a little bit of excitement to it but there is really no thrill to going to Pieminister. Perhaps things could be made to be a little less routine by having special pies of the day to add an air of immediacy to the menu. 
  Nevertheless, a visit to Pieminister is a perfectly satisfactory experience. You could say, "The pies have it, the pies have it".

Children eating a pie by Murillo 

Thursday, 10 May 2018

19. Folium Opens, Wilderness Wanders, Edmund's Closes And Turner On The Move.

  Dining out in Birmingham has been very interesting in the last few months. 

  Folium opened in Caroline Street. I've had two excellent lunches there so far. Ben Tesh is producing some wonderful food and the place is bright and modern and comfortable.
  What a pleasure indeed was the salt marsh lamb. A fine start to Folium in its Jewellery Quarter home.

  A little further into the Jewellery Quarter a surprise temporary home for The Wilderness. With work on its new Bennett's Hill home delayed, Alex Claridge is cooking in the previous location, down an alley in Warstone Lane, of Two Cats and, more historically, The Toque D'Or. The all-black decor follows the rule that less is more and Claridge's whimsies are no worse showcased in this perhaps slightly claustrophobic environment than anywhere else. Claridge' food is magnificent and full of humour. His Big Mac appetiser does to steak tartare what it has always been asking for. His lamb (charcoal, cucumber) is perfect and his 'Quail, Tamarind' (NAFB - the waitress will tell you what it stands for - not only is Claridge a gastronomic genius but also one of Britain's great comedians) gives us one of the most memorable 'curries' ever served up in Birmingham. Notably, all tables were taken at a mid-week lunchtime.

  Perhaps The Jewellery Quarter is the new Ludlow.

  Having mentioned the Toque D'Or there comes the sad news that Didier Philpott's later restaurant, Edmund's in Brinkley Place, closed suddenly and is to be reopened as Maribel where the Head Chef will be, of all people, Richard Turner, who closed his own Turner's At 69 shockingly suddenly in January this year. I liked Edmund's though it's fate always seemed sealed by how few people were lunching there whenever I went. Philpott's cooking gave us perfectly fine and accurate French cuisine better than that served at the persistently 2 Michelin star Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham and I shall miss it.
  Turner of course went through revisions of his menus at Turner's eventually ditching his multi-course tasting menus for a return to the pleasures of a la carte. Now an article in the Birmingham Post tells us that Turner will be presenting an 11 course tasting menu at a cost of £85 in Maribel but that there will also be a three-course a la carte menu which in my view is a relief.

  Finally The Post tells us that Aktar Islam, his days at Lasan numbered, is planning 2 new restaurants in the coming months - the Opheem in Summer Row which will feature 'progressive Indian cuisine' and  also in Summer Row will be the Mi Amore Ristorante Pizzaria to open in May. Oh good, another Italian-style restaurant - as Claridge would say, "NAFP", the last initial standing for 'pizza'.

Monday, 15 January 2018

18. Richard Turner Closes Turner's at 69 and Ben Tesh Opens Folium.

  Richard Turner closed Turner's at 69 in Harborne on 15 January 2018. Turner had opened the restaurant, known simply as Turner's for most of its life, in 2007 and it won a single Michelin star in January 2009. The restaurant was highly thought of throughout its existence but in August 2016 Turner changed the restaurant's style to some extent and the restaurant lost its Michelin star in the 2018 edition of the Michelin Guide. At the beginning of 2018 Richard Turner has announced that he closed the restaurant on 15 January 2018. This is despite the fact that Harborne has a busy dining scene with the opening of Jamie Desogus' Harborne Kitchen which one Harborne resident I know who likes to dine there describes as "almost as good as Purnell's but less expensive".

  Folium duly opened in November 2017. It got off to a slightly stuttering start in that I had a reservation there for lunch a few days after opening but my reservation had to be cancelled due to the non-appearance of a sous-chef. However I'm very pleased to be going to lunch there in a few days' time. I look forward to enjoying Ben Tesh's food having thoroughly enjoyed it in his former 'Pop up' restaurants. I'm pretty sure it will be worth the wait.

  Islam Akhtar, the chef director of the Lasan restaurant group, has stepped down from the role. He has made a number of television appearances including in three series of The Great British Menu where his soft shelled crab dish, which I ate at Lasan, won a place in the Banquet itself. Lasan was awarded a Michelin Plate in the 2018 Michelin Guide.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

17. Ben Tesh To Open Folium In November 2017.

  At last the glad news that Ben Tesh is to open his first permanent restaurant which he calls Folium. Service gets underway in November and it all looks very exciting. The aim is to serve modern British dishes in "a relaxed and informal atmosphere"and the 28 cover restaurant will be situated in Caroline Street off St. Paul's Square in the Jewellery Quarter.
  If you look up the meaning of Folium the definition " thin leaf-like structure" appears. However if you look up the meaning of Folium in cooking then you come across a text "Discovering words in the kitchen" by Julian Walker which links the word to the section on Pastry. It reminds us tha Filo derives from the modern Greek word for a leaf but mentions that the 1390 Forme de Cury includes a recipe which involves the use of sheets of thin pastry called foyles which are described as being "of paper". The piece then goes on to link 'folio', a sheet of paper, with 'leaf' which is what is meant by the Latin word Folium. I'm not sure if Ben Tesh would have gone through such tortured thinking to arrive at his restaurant's name but it will be interesting to find out.
  Tesh's partner, Lucy Hanson, will front the house.
  If the food served in his "pop-up" days is anything to go by then Birmingham will soon have another immaculate and brilliant restaurant to add to its fame as a truly great Food City. I have already booked myself a table. See Blog 10.

13. 2018 Michelin - Turner's Loses Its Star.

  This year's entrants in the Michelin Guide were announced at a live event on Monday 2 October 2017 held at The Brewery in east London.
  Last year's event was held at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in Savoy Place in London and was streamed live and looked like a very uncomfortable affair (see Blog 4).
  The Michelin Guide Great Britain And Ireland 2018 will be published on Thursday 5 October.
  This year's event confirmed that it's really all about London and its elitist classes who dine there. A sushi bar off Regent Street which seats just 9 diners and where a meal costs £300 became the fifth U.K. Restaurant to be awarded 3 stars. Meanwhile Claude Bosi, previously of Ludlow, saw his restaurant Bibendum in South Kensington achieve 2 stars making it the 9th restaurant in London to be so rewarded. Six more London restaurants were awarded single stars meaning that there are now 70 Michelin starred restaurants in London. No London restaurant lost a star except that one restaurant in the city closed.
  Yes, it really is all about London. We one eye yokels (to paraphrase Giles Coren - see Blog 6) who live in the provinces, clearly can't recognise a great meal when we see one or smell one or taste one. What a load of rubbish. And yet we still think that Michelin is the be all and end all of judging food quality.
  Birmingham chef, Richard Turner, last year decided that he'd had enough and purposefully gave up ridiculously expensive tasting menus and flim flammery in the full expectation of losing his Michelin star for his restaurant Turner's At 69 and the result is that has indeed lost his Michelin star this year. I don't suppose it'll bother his regular customers that much.
  Otherwise the situation in Birmingham remains unchanged - Purnell's, Simpson's, Carter's of Moseley and Adam's all retain their single stars but no new restaurant has been awarded a star nor have any of those established on the list received an additional reward. Slightly further afield, Peel's at Hampton Manor and The Cross at Kenilworth both retain their single stars and in Cheltenham Le Champignon Sauvage retains its 2 stars.
  So no real advance in the Michelin stakes for Birmingham and the West Midlands but what can we expect from a publication so centred on London and the south-east?
  But spare a passing thought for Manchester which likes to fantasise that it is Britain's "Second City" (which it isn't of course) - the 2018 Guide has not brought it any stars and so the city has not had a Michelin-starred restaurant for 40 years! Doubtless the Conservatives attending their party conference in Manchester this year will be looking forward to 2018 when it will again be held in Birmingham, Britain's real second city and gastronomic second city as well.

So, well done again Birmingham, given the uphill struggle in the face of Michelin inspectors who think that civilisation begins and ends in London, there's much to be excited about still when it comes to food in the city.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

16. A Birmingham Banquet 1896

  I was delighted to have obtained recently a menu of a banquet held for the Annual Provincial Meeting of the Incorporated Law Society of the United Kingdom which took place in the magnificent Grosvenor Rooms of Birmingham's now being restored Grand Hotel on Tuesday 13 October 1896. The banquet took place in the presence of the first ever Lord Mayor of Birmingham, the Right Hon. James Smith (pictured below) and so it took place at a time when Birmingham was really finding its feet as a great English city. The legal profession attending the banquet clearly represented the elite in the city if the magnificence of their menu is anything to go by and the menu tells us what the "foodies" of the end of the Victorian age were being offered to eat by the chefs of the time. It's fascinating to compare it with the "tasting menus" of today which, after all, are mini-banquets of the 21st century.
  As the photograph below of the Grosvenor Rooms shows, they were dining in sumptuous surroundings and the food needed to match the place where it was being eaten. What else should a late-Victorian foodie expect?

  And what a menu! I presume that the menu offered two or three choices for most courses:- 

  Torte Claire
  Purée Tomate

  Clear Turtle soup
  Tomato purée


  Soles au Vin Blanc 
  Éperlans Fris, Sauce Tartare

  Sole in white wine sauce
  Fried smolt with Tartare sauce


  Ris de Veau Braisé aux Champignons
  Côtelettes de Mouton a la Réforme

  Calf sweetbreads with braised mushrooms
  Lamb cutlets in Reform Club sauce


  Hanche de Venaison, Sauce de Vin d'Oporto
  Dindon Bouilli, Sauce au Céleri
  Jambon de York Braisé

  Haunch of venison with Port wine sauce
  Boiled turkey with celery sauce
  Braised York ham




  Pouding Mousseline 
  Géléé aux Fruits
  Genoise Glace au Pistache
  Plombière á la Nesselrode

  Fruit jelly
  Genoese pistachio ice cream
  Nesselrode ice pudding


  Crevettes au Diable
  Devilled shrimps






  The dishes listed on the menu are fascinating - on one hand there are dishes which could not possibly be served now - turtle soup for instance since turtles are protected internationally and killing them to make a soup would be illegal - and then the pre-nouvelle cuisine dishes heavily dependent on the recipes of Escoffier and his cuisine of sauces.
  Two dishes were of particular interest to me and I had to look them up to see what they were - the côtellettes de mouton à la Réforme and the Plombière à la Nesselrode.
  The Reform Club sauce was invented in the 1830s by Alexis Soyer, head cook at The Reform Club in Pall Mall, who created it when a troublesome club member arrived at the club late one evening and there was a need to create for the hungry member a dish out of whatever ingredients were available in the kitchen at the time. The sauce is produced from a sauce poivrade - a pepper sauce - with juliennes of gherkin, mushrooms, hard boiled egg white, pickled tongue and cooked truffle.
  Nesselrode pudding. Mmmmm....... This stupendous dessert was created by Carême in 1814 for the diplomat, Count Carl von Nesselrode. It became the popular ice pudding of the 19th century and was particularly admired by the English upper classes. It was usually made in a dome-shaped bombe mound to make it resemble a pudding boiled in a basin. The dish is made from simmered chestnuts with sugar, vanilla, egg yolks, chestnut purée, cream and Maraschino. It is then frozen while currants and raisins are boiled in syrup and added to the mix with chestnut cream and whipped cream. Personally, knowing that Nesselrode pudding was in the line-up, I think I would have skipped all the previous courses, as delicious and as extravagant as they may sound, and then consumed vast quantities of this gift from God.
  Purnell's, Adam's, Wilderness, Simpson's, Carter's - no matter what your view of food is - get serving the Nesselrode pudding and make the diners of Birmingham very happy! Come on, you know you must!
  The menu also includes the wine list (below) and a page dedicated to the price to be paid for such a sumptious dinner - the after dinner speeches. Finally, on the back page there's a list of music played during the banquet.
  The meal is a contrast to what we think is right for our day and age but I wouldn't mind travelling in a time machine to 13 October 1896 to The Grosvenor Rooms and trying it all out.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

15. The Good Food Guide 2018.

  Prior to the publication of The Michelin Guide, "The Good Food Guide 2018" appeared on the shelves of various book shops.
  For the first time in my life, I have bought myself a copy though I'm not sure why since I find it to be an intensely annoying publication based on the opinions of seemingly poncey elitist "inspectors" ("the restaurants included in The Good Food Guide are the very best in the UK", says they self-importantly) along with the opinions of middle class food snobs - a sort of upmarket remoaner "Tripadvisor" collection - with the most astonishingly hilariously pretentious quotes sprinkled liberally throughout the publication - "...a modern classic pairing of scallops and maple-glazed chicken wings, leaking umami from every pore, gains even greater resonance from baby parsnips fragmented with woodruff. Fish dishes rise to the aromatic challenge too, when miso-glazed cod arrives in geranium and coconut broth, while the favoured dessert has been bergamot parfait with orange jelly and liquorice cream." It's hard to believe that anyone writes like that anymore.
  That said, the book does have a sense of where we are now with British dining. Elizabeth Carter, the Consultant Editor, hampered by her flowery writing style, in her introduction reviews the current issues for we who like to eat out in Britain and sets current developments in a historical context.
  She deals with the now rather hackneyed subject of "the increasing sophistication of the restaurant-going public" and its effect on sustaining "a higher level of achievement at the cooking end".
  She writes about the way that "grand old dining-rooms are being seriously challenged" and that there is a "very strong sense of the generational passing of the baton". "They're not afraid to use the fine-dining moniker - in the modern way, of course: relaxed, engaged and entirely focused on the food. It makes the current restaurant scene a hectic one, but one that is more varied, more accessible, and certainly more exciting."
  Carter then gets bogged down, inevitably, in the London dining scene and how rents are leading to restauranteurs opening establishments in neighbourhoods rather than in the city centre. We won't worry ourselves here about the suffering of London diners. However Carter writes "And it's not confined to London - it's happening throughout the country made possible by the happy coincidence of an increasingly sophisticated and demanding audience of young professionals" (Corbyn-supporting, Brexit-rejecting champagne socialists who live in places like Moseley and Harborne). Dining out is certainly an important facet of modern social history.
  Carter writes about some exciting young chefs in this context - those who are reaching out for the baton - and includes Paul Foster who was named The Guide's "Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year" in 2012 and draws attention to his first solo business venture here in our area at Stratford-upon-Avon in the form of Salt in Church Street which he opened earlier this year. I have dined there myself three or four times and agree that this enthusiastic young chef is coming up with some remarkable dishes but likewise there were one or two which seemed to miss the mark. Foster seems to be The Big Thing in the West Midlands at present just as Matt Cheal was last year. I'm nor even sure if I prefer Salt to its next door neighbour, No. 9 Church Street, long established and home to some excellent dishes although sometimes Chef's creations have not always appealed to me in the eating as much as I thought they would on paper.

  I'm not entirely sure that the young Turks are actually taking over from our West Midlands giants at present though if I were to name one the reader might not be surprised to read that that name would be Alex Claridge whose The Wilderness goes unmentioned in the 2018 Guide (unlike The Michelin Guide).
  Elizabeth Carter writes about the impact of the new chefs on the move from tasting menus ("food spread over three or four hours with price-tags heading north of exorbitant"), though I'm not entirely sure if this gradual death of the Tasting Menu is not due more to the dining public and established chefs just getting fed up with the whole thing as seems to have been the case with Richard Turner at Turner's at 69 in Harborne and with him, his customers.
  She deals with the trend of sharing plates, not in itself to me a particularly important issue and urges diners to reject loud music in restaurants. I agree with her on that one but wish she would also campaign against loud diners in restaurants as well - if anything they're more of a problem than the mood music.
  So, if I hate the book, I do at least appreciate the introductory review. 
  I also like The Good Food Guide's highly detailed scoring system even if I don't necessarily agree with all the scores it hands out. Purnell's scores an ungenerous 5 out of 10 which is defined as "exact cooking techniques and a degree of ambition, showing balance and depth of flavour in dishes" - I think Glynn Purnell does a little better than that. The score of 6 for instance is "exemplary cooking skills, innovative ideas, impeccable ingredients and an element of excitement". Who can question that Purnell's dishes are full of innovative ideas and I do not believe that anyone who has ever dined there could not have experienced "an element of excitement" (much more than Simpson's (cooking score 7).
  So, who makes it into the 2018 Birmingham list? Well there's Adam's (score 7), Carter's Of Moseley (6), Edmund's (3), Harborne Kitchen (4, new entry), Lasan (3), Opus (2), Purnell's (5), Purnell's Bistro (2), Simpson's (7), Turner's at 69 (4) and Two Cats Kitchen (2, now closed).
  The Guide includes its top 50 restaurants in The United Kingdom list in the book and Birmingham has only two restaurants placed in that list - Simpson's at number 40 and Adam's at number 43. Well, we all like lists, don't we?