Report: San Carlo Fumo, Birmingham

Picture the scene, you’ve turned a few corners in the maze of Venice’s back streets and find yourself lost. You turn a few more corners and stumble onto a bacaro, a small Venetian restaurant bar. It’s a real find, there’s not a tourist in sight and you sit down and order what the locals are eating, mostly fresh seafood cooked simply but with robust flavours that reflect the centuries of culinary excellence of the great city-state of Venice. There are crispy yet moist bacala croquettes filled with moreish salt cod, and fresh grilled sardines served on crusty bruschetta adorned with sun-ripened tomatoes and punchy capers. You look around and see a gleaming tranche of pearly white fish seared to perfection, it flakes into soft juicy petals when prodded with an eager fork. All the dishes are small, Venetian tapas you could say or dim sum, a little something with which to touch the heart. In Venice the small dishes served in bacaro are called Cicchetti and this is also what is served at Fumo, the sister restaurant of that Birmingham favourite San Carlo.

Let’s snap back to reality, I was in a party of seven recently and ordered what seemed at the time half of Fumo’s lengthy menu. Olives, bread, bacala, octopus stew, octopus salad, crab salad, gnocchi with gorgonzola, porchetta, lamb osso bucco, sardines, halibut, scampi ravioli, sea bass ravioli, tuna tartare, baked ricotta, soft-shell crab, aubergine parmagiana, smoked salmon, buffalo mozarella… and a selection of desserts. Small plates mean more choice and more chance of landing a great dish. The real standout dish for me was the octopus stew, these were soft baby octopodi in a deep tomato based sauce with a good hit of chilli. I could have eaten a big bowl of it with the good bread. Shame it was one of the specials of the day as I would come back just for that dish. In the main though most of the dishes were fairly ordinary. The octopus salad lacked any distinctive vinaigrette and hence flavour. Porchetta tasted good but only two thin processed ham-like slices is pretty mean. Lamb osso bucco was tender and tasty but was the knuckle end, if you’re going to call it osso bucco then please make it the bone with a hole and plenty of marrow. The ravioli were well made, the sheets of pasta thin and delicate but the fillings were underwhelming. A generous portion of gnocchi was smothered with a pungent creamy Gorgonzola sauce but was marred by the Parmesan basket it was served in. I assume it was a basket but by the time it reached us it was as flat as a pancake. It had also been overcooked by a fair degree, the acrid tang of burnt cheese did no favours to the well made gnocchi.

Then there were the less than enjoyable dishes. The bacala came as three thin croquettes, the cod had not been soaked for long enough and it gave them a chewy mealy consistency coupled with blandness that made eating them a chore. The sardines on bruschetta were buried under a mountain of cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes were good, maybe that’s the reason for sheer volume of them, to hide the rank piece of sardine. The kitchen would have done better to open a tin of sardines and served them instead. There was a thin halibut steak that had been seared past the point of well-done and then some more. It didn’t taste fresh at all and stuck your teeth together with it’s dryness. The worst dish was the Honey Smoked salmon. This was a finger sized tranche that was unpleasantly salty and had a strange fishy bitterness. Worse it wasn’t skinned, worst the skin wasn’t scaled! Who in their right mind serves smoked salmon like this?! The kitchen needs to sort this out right away, it’s embarrassingly incompetent.

The service is typically Italian, that mixture of rushed and slow at the same time. If you’re not too demanding a customer it can be quite entertaining having up to six different servers getting your order mixed up. Some of the staff were very good but some clearly were there for decoration and should not be handling orders. We arrived around 7pm on a Friday and got a table right away. By 8pm the room was packed and there was definitely an enjoyable buzz about the place. The bar is elegant and the dining area comfortable. Which is why it’s such a shame the food was so hit and miss. With such a long menu I think it’s possible to have good meal there if you choose well. But on the other hand if you’d ordered the bacala, halibut, sardines and smoked salmon you would be close to having the worst meal of your life.

San Carlo have recently opened Cichetti in Piccadilly, if the food is twice as good as Fumo then it won’t be half as good as Polpo around the corner in Soho. Now there’s Venetian small plates to lose yourself in.

The smoke&umami guide to spaghetti bolognaise

Spag bol has enjoyed a recent renaissance in the smoke&umami household due to Hannah’s current insatiable appetite for meat .. which she claims is a result of breast-feeding. But we can’t eat steak for every meal, even though she’d like to, so spag bol is making a regular appearance in our weekly roster.

In recent times I’d all but stopped making spaghetti bolognaise. Partly because Hannah claimed it gave her heartburn. But shamefully, I think it might be because it got a bit naff. What with all these purists like Carluccio telling us it doesn’t even exist in Italy. I guess everyone knows now it’s *correctly* a meat ragu, shouldn’t have tomatoes in it, and should be served with flat noodles – never spaghetti.

GET OUT! I’m sick of Italian food purists, especially as you can’t ever be right in Italy anyway, with disputes over recipes carried out with fierce localism. Two villages 5km apart will happily wage a bloody vendetta over whether it’s permitted to put a splosh of cream in a carbonara sauce (er, probably).

But, to be fair, I did find that I was getting bored with my usual, “traditional” recipe which was essentially onions, red wine, mince and tomatoes.

I’ve made it much more ragu-y by dialling down the tomatoes and adding beef stock.

But the thing that really makes this dish sexy again is the liberal addition of chicken livers, which gives it a proper grown-up taste that kids presumably would hate.

The other thing that’s rekindled my love of this dish is being able to make it in my pressure cooker (just like people did in the 70s/80s!). This means you can get it done in under an hour from start to finish and the results are as good, if not better than slow cooking.

And of course, this dish when done properly can serve up a huge whack of umami. Meat is a good source of umami, as are tomatoes and of course the obligatory parmesan on top. But there are plenty of ways to boost umami further; I use Worcestershire sauce (bet they don’t use that in Emilia-Romagna) and tomato paste. Some use fish sauce. A judicious splurt of umami paste wouldn’t necessarily be a bad call. And the Waitrose beef stock that’s branded Heston has konbu in it as well. No wonder it tastes so good!

And, to be fair to the Italians – serving this with a thick ribbon pasta like papardelle or tagliatelle is probably more appropriate than spaghetti. Don’t forget to add a a good knob of butter at the end.

The brave Felicity Cloake tackled spag blog on her “Perfection” series on the Guardian website – I don’t really agree with her conclusions, but it’s worth a read!

I reckon most readers of this blog have got their own recipe for spaghetti bolognaise. Here’s mine.


1kg beef mince, fatty
200-400g chicken livers, preferably organic (it’s nice to know what your offal has been up to) – the amount will depend on how much you like the taste of chicken liver!
1/2 bottle of full-bodied red wine
2 onions, chopped
2 small carrots, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
bundle of fresh thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
500ml beef stock (Heston’s cheaty Waitrose stuff is excellent)
2 tablespoons tomato paste (umami!)
1 x 400g can plum tomatoes
good sploosh of worcestershire sauce (more umami!!)
And if you want even more umami, add some umami paste / umami powder

papardelle/tagliatelle/spaghetti to serve – always dried, ideally a decent brand, never supermarket fresh crap

The way I do this is to sweat off the onions, carrots, celery and garlic – as I chop them – in that order – in the pressure cooker with a little vegetable oil. When softened, remove from the pan and into a bowl. Next, fry off the mince in stages over a very high heat, trying to get as much colour on the mince as possible. Remove from pan. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and reduce by half. Then add all the cooked ingredients and the rest of the ingredients to the pressure cooker, cover, bring to high pressure and cook for 30 minutes. If the sauce is too runny, strain the liquid into a smaller pan and boil rapidly until the sauce reaches the desired consistency, and add back to the meat. Pick out the bay leaves and thyme if you are posh.

As with all such things this is better the next day, and even better the day after. This will make enough for at least 10 servings, so I like to freeze what I don’t use.

Birmingham places I want to check out, but haven’t yet

Just a placeholder page for places I want to visit but haven’t got around to yet:

  • Sushi Passion: a small sushi place in Birmingham Indoor Market
  • The Karczma: billed as a traditional Polish restaurant, near Moor Street
  • The King and Thai: supposed to be a good Thai restaurant doing properly hot Thai food in Broseley, Shropshire
  • The Vine: near the Hawthorns, supposed to do good Indian BBQ, according to Dom Clarke (alternative: The Sportsman, suggested by Gary Weir)
  • The Wildmoor Oak: Bromsgrove, for jerk chicken
  • The Hop Pole: Bewdley, supposed to be a good food pub.