Black Country Pork Pies

Don Guest and Walter Smith pork pies
Don Guest and Walter Smith pork pies

The butchers of the Black Country have a long history of making delicious pork pies. I visited some of the best and worst in my Foodist blog.

The best I found were Don Guest in Halesowen and Walter Smith in Wolverhampton. Honourable mention for Michael Kirk also in Wolverhampton.

Don Guest & Son, 106A Stourbridge Road, Halesowen, West Midlands B63 3UN Tel: 0121 550 3832

Walter Smith, Mander Centre, Wolverhampton WV1 3NN Tel: 01902 423 755

Michael Kirk, 56 Woolpack Street (off Dudley Street) Wolverhampton Tel: 01902 425064

Ken Ho

叉燒酥 – Char Siu Sou

People who really know good food know that to yum cha or eat dim sum at a good Cantonese restaurant is a sure thing. It’s the equivalent of putting Stevie Wonder on the playlist at a house party (Superstition not My Cheri Amour), people will start grooving. Ring around, anyone up for dim sum? Yes! People are moving. There’s no better breakfast/brunch/lunch to be had anywhere in the world.

Ken Ho 双喜 (“soeng hei” lit. “double happiness”) is next door to The Hippodrome theatre and is currently my favourite place to yum cha in Birmingham. The selection of dim sum is smaller than the Chung Yings but what they do is all excellent. All killer and no filler, like the Har Gau 蝦餃. Bursting with juicy prawn. Roast meats are excellent, on par with the specialist roast meat shops in Chinatown. The flowing sand buns 流沙包 are a recent thing in global dim sum. They have a salty sweet runny duck egg custard centre and have to be eaten with care. So much better than the boring old custard buns 奶黄包 we had growing up. Pork chitterlings are prepared in such a way to make it look and eat like crispy suckling pig crackling. But best of all, is the off menu item pictured above. I’m loathed to tell you about it but I’m assuming anyone actually reads these blogs and acts on them. Then also assuming there’s enough of you to eat them all before I get there when the place opens at midday. BBQ pork puffs, char siu sou, are as good as Yauatcha’s famed venison puffs. I would go for these alone.

The only gripe is the tea charge, a minor gripe, and maybe the chicken feet in black bean sauce 豉汁鳳爪 could be better too. But I’m the only one who really appreciates that dish anyway.

Ken Ho
41-43 Hurst Street, Birmingham B5 4BJ
Tel: 0121 622 1323

Nemrut & Rod Roj

IMG_8251
Nemrut, lamb ribs and testes

Actual Turkish grill restaurants. You wait ages for one then three come at the same time. With Istanbul in Handsworth leading the way last year, Nemrut and Rod Roj are hot on it’s heels. I hate to use the phrase “expertly grilled ” as bloggers who say this tend to refer to cheap steaks in mediocre gastropubs. But get this, the Turks are expert grillers and to see a man (it’s always a man) tending an ocakbasi is both mesmerising and strangely appetising. The aroma of lamb or chicken fat atomising on hot coals and permeating back into the meat does that to you.

Nemrut on the Dudley Rd, like Istanbul, is not in the most salubrious part of town. The restaurant is large as is the choice of grilled meats with quail and lamb testes on the menu. The portions are generous and expertly grilled here (there I go again) but the bread and salads are average. The esme salsa is terrific here but no rice or bulgur wheat accompany the meats. They have a new location on Holyhead Rd in Handsworth but can’t vouch for that one.

Nemrut
381 Dud­ley Road, Birm­ing­ham B18 4HB
Tel: 0121 4544 999
12 Holy­head Road, Birm­ing­ham B21 0LA
Tel: 0121 5516 886

IMG_9419
Rod Roj’s Lahmacun and salad, £2.49. Better than a Greggs.
IMG_9420
Rod Roj’s Adana kebap

Rod Roj looks for all intents and purposes like a greasy late night takeaway for revellers. Situated on Smallbrook Queensway in the middle of town around the corner from the Chinatown bars it attracts its fair share of the inebriated and desperate. I can assure you that I’ve only been in the day and they know how to chargrill. Pop in for lahmacun, the classic Turkish flatbread smeared with lamb mince and a salad. At £2.49 surely the best value eat in the whole of the city centre. Stick around for the juicy adana kebap served with rice and bulgur, the best I’ve eaten. Shame about the pide flatbread which is the worst. But hey it’s free!

Rod Roj 
Smallbrook Queensway, Birmingham B5 4HE
Tel: 0121 633 0999

Bader – Ladypool Rd

Wait what’s this!? A Birmingham food blog and this is the first time we’ve reviewed a restaurant in our famed Balti Triangle?! Hold your horses, it may be at the Balti epicentre of Ladypool Rd but Bader restaurant is not a curry house, the menu is half Lebanese. Amongst the sea of standard Balti house offerings along that road is an island of Arabian calm, because the other half of the menu is Arabic with nods to Maghreb and tagines. It’s the twin sister restaurant to the original on Coventry Rd in Small Heath (which is two doors down from Arabic grill Abu Zayd). Don’t expect the deep red hues of the kebabs you would find at the nearby Lahore grill, but more subtly spiced meat and tastier for it. The real treat is the lamb arayes, a small flatbread topped with a smear of minced lamb and freshly baked. For £3.50 each I could eat these beauties till I burst but that would do the rest of the menu a disservice. Grilled meats are a strength, cooked so that they are still juicy, a state unknown to the Pakistani grills that suffuse the area. The only let down is the rice which to my Chinese palate has been undercooked to an unacceptable degree on every occasion I’ve eaten there. But tough grain aside, it’s no reason why you shouldn’t visit Bader. Certainly the lovely Arabian décor is worth checking out on it’s own.

Bader
178-182 Ladypool Road
Birmingham
B12 8JS
Tel: 0121 773 9818

Byzantium

For a number of years I scoffed at the suggestion that Byzantium in Kings Heath was really good and I should check it out. I went already! A couple of times when it first opened mid-00s, it was a bit meh and was confused why anyone would believe otherwise. Good friends with good taste would genuinely beam when they talked about the place. But I found in those early visits that it was just very ordinary, a few olives or anchovies plucked from a can into a mini cazuela. Forgettable bland dishes.

But on a recent Monday evening we were stuck for a place to eat. A few of our favourite curry houses around here being closed on Mondays. So we found ourselves here and glancing at a Spanish tapas style menu with influences from other corners of the Mediterranean. Croquetas, flatbreads, hummus, patatas bravas, souvlaki, you get the idea. We ordered a few tidbits and a couple of the specials. And you know what? I was stupidly happy to be proved wrong about the food. For a quiet Monday night it tasted like it was cooked by someone that cared. The pork belly dish being the standout, very tender with a shattering crisp skin. Great croquetas too. It wasn’t all perfect, the two fish dishes we ordered, unsurprisingly, weren’t that fresh but forgivable considering the time of the week. Overall with the tasty little dips and the charred flatbread we ate very nicely for not very much money.

So the moral of this blog is; it pays to go back and a lot sooner than I did with Byzantium.

Byzantium
11 York Road
Kings Heath
Birmingham B14 7SA
Tel: 0121 4445444

Recalibrating for Bloggers Bias

We have been a bit lazy around here, almost two months into the year 2014 with no blogpost. How are you, the good people of Brum, going to decide which of our city’s unsung Indie food purveyors to spend your money in? Humbly assuming of course that you trust our opinion. It’s a funny thing blogging about restaurants, because invariably the places a blogger reviews are the ones we would go to anyway. Drawn to them because they serve food that sounds like what we want to eat at a price we don’t mind paying for. You don’t really need us to tell you that the new bar on Colmore Row (pick one) has nice drinks but the food is a bit average. You can work that out yourself. No it’s finding that Turkish place in Handsworth or the Spanish in Sutton Coldfield is really worth the short trip from the centre. So maybe the real value in this blog is to dig out these nuggets in the nooks and crannies of our city. Wipe the fluff off them and fearlessly give them a chew for you. A service we’re happy to provide.

But then we can’t strike rich everytime, not every place we try can be great and that’s where a lot of blogs fall down. Most food bloggers will only write about the nights they’ve had out where they’ve had a good time. Usually going something like this: “We had such an amazing night at X that started with amazing cocktails… the staff were so friendly and made us feel so at home…. steaks were mouthwatering and you can choose from two different cuts that had been aged for 21 days…. OHMYGOD the triple cooked chips were simply TO DIE FOR!… decadent chocolate fondant… we all went home slightly tipsy” and that’s great! You can blog about your crazy nights out but just don’t pretend you’re a food blog. The bias in blogs like those is so skewed as to make the most right-wing newspapers seem reasonable and balanced. For example, if you were to believe everything you read in the Daily Mail then you’d think that our country is full of immigrant bikini-wearing teenagers who want to rob you. If we were to believe those bloggers then every food outlet in Birmingham is just wonderful, representing the very pinnacle of their cuisine. Clearly this is not the case, and can never be in a city of over a million people each with their own opinions. So where is the balanced criticism? The truth is that our country is full of lovely decent people who eat in mediocre sometimes awful restaurants. Compiling the Birmingham and West Midlands Food Map last year has really skewed the blog a little, because all we do is recommend great places to eat and buy food. We haven’t had the time to dissect the bad places because frankly it’s harder to write a balanced piece constructively criticising them than being effusive about a good one. You try! It’s not easy. To show that all is not so rosy in the garden of Birmingham, here are some examples where I think most bloggers get carried away with the really rather mediocre food offerings.

Bodega

Everyone knows this colourful place on Bennet’s Hill, those bloggers talk about the cool vibe and the fantastic drinks in the cosy basement bar. They say the Pan-Latin American food is fresh and vibrant but whenever I’ve eaten there it’s been about as fresh and vibrant as a Birmingham pavement. I’m suspicious of pan-continental themed food offerings anyway*. There will be exceptions of course, a truly passionate and inventive Latin-American cook could offer you a sparkly fresh scallop ceviche alongside spiky carnitas and deep earthy feijoada. But with a menu that starts with those stodgy Tex-mex staples nachos and burritos, you know Bodega isn’t going for anything except lining your stomach for more cocktails.

Woktastic

I have to admit the name put me off for some time. How good can a Japanese restaurant be that’s named after bad pun about a Chinese cooking implement? Oh but so many people say it’s the best Japanese restaurant in town. Well fine, that could be true but only by the paucity of other offerings. Let’s get this straight the sushi there is not good, by Japanese standards is appalling, by British standards it’s just about serviceable. What it does do well however are Japanese comfort dishes like chicken katsu curry, a filling, tasty and unpretentious dish. Though I’d have preferred a Tonkatsu (pork) curry but Woktastic is Halal friendly, so they definitely know their market in Birmingham and it’s not catering for lovers of authentic Japanese cuisine.

Streetfood

Some of the best food I’ve eaten in this city have been under the Streetfood banner. Meatshack’s burgers, Sharians curry goat, wonderful dosas and pizzas from the market in Kings Heath. But really, reading some of the Streetfood reviews it seems that every oozy mouthful of Streetfood ever eaten in this city is an explosion of flavour. Just take a step back, yes you’re having a good time the tunes are great the beer is cold but apart from the few exceptions you or your mates can actually cook better than this. Don’t be taken in by the label “gourmet streetfood”, don’t let fashion hide what is in fact pretty ordinary stuff you could get at any farmers market.

But why am I writing this? Apart from addressing the bias, it’s important to let it out sometimes. If you’ve been served something bad don’t be so British about it and slope off muttering under your breath to never to eat it again. Sometimes it’s so bad that these people need to be stopped and told where to go. Politely though, in the British way. You’ll feel a lot better for it and in the end it might actually raise the standard. That’s always been my goal for food blogging. That’s why Nick and I get on so well, we don’t use this blog as an exercise in PR, it’s just all about the food.

* pan-continental food is deeply suspicious, it’s food stereotyping. At worst in big corporation’s hands it’s lazy mass-produced rubbish, at best in the hands of skilled chefs it’s just confusing. Imagine a Pan-European restaurant in Shanghai serving “authentic” spaghetti bolognese, fish and chips, coq au vin alongside tapas. How good can it be? There might be one or two dishes they do well but in the main it’s going to be sub-standard. But this is the equivalent to a Pan-Asian restaurant here in the UK serving chicken yakitori and satay skewers alongside stir-fried beef in oyster sauce and pad Thai. It’s usually a cheap mess wrapped in the illusion of choice.

Istanbul Restaurant

20131218-142249.jpg

In the news today, a man lost his sight in one eye after he’d been stabbed in that eye by a beggar that followed him into a restaurant in Handsworth. I hope that this doesn’t stop you from going out to eat in this neighbourhood as there are some really good ethnic restaurants there. Which has been bolstered by the addition of a Turkish one called Istanbul Restaurant.

It’s been open two months and I only found it by chance driving from The Farcroft to The Grove in my Indian Pub Grill Roundup. It was like a beacon because Turkish food is seriously underrepresented in this city, we have a couple of Persian but aside from the ubiquitous doner kebab you’ll be hard pressed to find a freshly char-grilled Adana kebap here. Adana, a city in the south of Turkey is where the owners are from and is also the name of the popular spicy minced lamb skewer. As you enter the restaurant you can see the fresh skewers laid out and might think it’s just another kebab shop. But if you hang around you’ll see little things that sets them apart. Like the way they prepare bread, grilling and pressing the hot charred lamb fat into it, they know what there doing. It comes warm, heavily scented with that fat and herbs, whilst you wait for your meat to the grilled. The salad that comes with the bread is fresh, vibrant and dripping with pomegranate molasses that puckers your mouth and makes you salivate, getting you ready for the deliciously grilled meat. I’ve only tried the Adana and Lamb ribs so far and can’t wait to go back and try the rest of the menu.

Istanbul is one of the world’s culinary capitals and what I had in Handsworth took me right back there. It’s real Turkish food and it can now be found in Birmingham.

2 Stockwell Rd, Handsworth, Birmingham B21 9RJ (on the junction of Rookery rd and Oxhill Rd)
Tel: 0121 4485223

Don Diego

20131212-221144.jpg

A roast suckling pig leg and a few potatoes for £18, go. I could just end the review there but I’ll carry on for a couple more paragraphs to annoy you.

Traditional Spanish food as we know it is not difficult, simple bold flavours with great ingredients. Then why do we get it so wrong so often? Tapas is an excuse to tip a cheap jar/tin of olives/peppers/chorizo/anchovy into a cazuela and charge quadruple for it. Who has actually ordered a paella in a Spanish restaurant in Birmingham and got something even close to what they could cook at home? It’s a bit of trick question because there aren’t that many Spanish restaurants in Brum and the best paella in town is Argentinian.

So when I heard that Don Diego was actually really good I was doubtful. Not least because it was in Sutton Coldfield, which like Solihull is a bit of a wasteland for good or interesting food (dons tin hat). It’s in a lovely double fronted property at the end of the high street and like most Spanish restaurants they’ve included la cocina sink in decorating it. Paintings of matadors, photos of grizzled peasants working the fields, maracas, flamenco paraphernalia, you get the idea. The food though does that thing of making you forget where you are, everything is cooked just right. Even when it’s not cooked like the embutidos you can really tell it’s all excellent quality presented with care and attention. The only gripe was the Pulpo a la Gallega, which was bulked out by serving it on sliced potato. That was quickly forgotten about when the the last dish arrived, did I mention the suckling pig leg? Ah I did.

Don Diego
5 Manor Rd, Sutton Coldfield B73 6EJ
Tel: 0121 355 5354

Chamberlain’s

How long should one mourn for something lost? I suppose it depends how dear it was to you, the joy it brought to your life and the sadness it left when it was gone…

A bit dramatic for a chippy no? But I did mourn the loss of the Great British Eatery, easily the best Brummie fish and chips for a few brief years before its ignominious closure in 2011. I’ve been moping ever since. The Black Country Museum is too far away and not open in the evenings. There’s nowhere else that fries in beef dripping which in my book is a must for best fish and chips. Well that is apart from Chamberlain’s but I’d been far from convinced on my early visits there, the chips were flabby and the batter too thick. But out of desperate longing for our national dish* I’ve gone back to Chamberlain’s a few times recently. I can now declare my extended period mourning over! Simpy impeccable cod/haddock and chips cooked in beef dripping, what more do you want? Some nice plain mushy peas would be nice, the minted stuff they have in there is really dull. And the haddock & mackerel scotch egg should be avoided, nice idea but the freshness is dubious. But the sides aside, if you’ve been missing proper fish and chips then I can’t think of a better place to go.

*even in curry capital Brum I still consider Fish and Chips the national dish

Chamberlain’s
8 Wolverhampton Road
Birmingham
B68 0LH
Tel: 0121 4297709

Indian Pub Grills – A Roundup

20131122-013541.jpg

Classic pub grub, remember that stuff? Not the gastropub fare that you get nowadays. Not the multi Michelin starred gourmet delights of Tom Kerridge’s proper pub food. No I’m talking about the horrors of the 80s and 90s, where if you wanted more than a bag of pork scratchings or piss-stained peanuts you ran the eminent danger of salmonella poisoning from a week-old reheated lasagne. Those were the days, you really didn’t want to see what was going on behind that greasy kitchen door. Some bloke scratching his arse all the while dropping fag ash on your chicken kiev? The least of your problems. When the food came, it was obvious it was nothing more than a cheap sop for desperate binge drinkers. You had to drink more to erase the memory of it.

All those old boozers, all those kitchens, all that potential. Well in Brum some of that potential has been realised. In venerable pubs across the city, kitchens have been handed over to people who actually care about cooking good food for a decent price. The Thai chefs at The Bartons Arms being a shining example of this, but also the exception as most of those kitchens have been skewered by the expert grillers of the Punjab. Yes, in back rooms across the metropolis, fingers are being stained red from the smoky spice of a thousand kebabs. Here’s a smoke&umami (i.e. brief) guide to some of them:

The Vine
152 Roebuck St, West Bromwich, West Midlands B70 6RD
0121 553 2866

The daddy, the one everyone thinks of when you talk about Indian BBQ. On an unassuming back road, first left after the big West Brom roundabout, the small traditional frontage gives no indication to the behemoth of a grill room and garden in the back. Order your grilled food from the grill area but order your curries and bread from the bar at the front. The trick is to get them to arrive at the same time. I have no idea how the system works, it’s semi-organised chaos, just cross your fingers! Thankfully everything arrives pretty quickly as the kebabs are pre-cooked and finished to order. In all of these places it’s always the mixed grill, why would you order anything else? A mountain of grilled meats for not much money where you can assess the strengths and weaknesses of each restaurant. On the plus The Vine does pork steaks and the spicing is pretty much spot on. On the minus the chicken can get a little dry. Curries are good but breads are pretty ordinary.

The Sportsman
13 High St, West Bromwich B70 6PP
0121 553 1353

A stones throw away on West Brom high street is the other one. It’s the question that always comes up; The Vine vs The Sportsman, which one is better? The question should be; is there any difference? To me, not really. The grill room at The Sportsman is smaller and still feels like a back room of a regular pub. You can order everything from one hatch so it all comes at the same time. I really can’t decide between here and The Vine. The food is identical. Toss a coin if you’re in West Brom.

The Grove
279 Grove Lane, Handsworth, B20 2HA
0121 554 3120

It was making me itch a little being in the Black Country. Being a Brummie born and bred it has that effect on me! So it’s actually nice to find myself in Handsworth, no lie, actually very pleased because at one end of Grove Lane is where I went to school and at the other is The Grove pub freshly rebranded as a bar and restaurant. Fond memories of underage drinking were not rekindled as the place has been completely refurbed. There is still some semblance of the front bar but out back is now a large spotlessly clean dining room lined with hd TVs showing Sky Sports. The semi-open kitchen and grill is in one corner. This is the best ordering system of all, one hatch where you order, they give you a remote buzzer that vibrates when your order’s ready to pick up from a separate adjacent hatch. The kebabs taste a notch above those of the The Vineman (see what I’ve done there) and despite also being pre-cooked the chicken tikka is some of the juiciest and flavorful I’ve ever eaten. The seekh kebabs are spicy, thick and meaty. Special praise goes to the bread here, parathas and rotis are excellent. No pork though which is a shame but for me the best of the bunch.

The Farcroft
Rookery Road, Handsworth, Birmingham, B21 9QY
0121 554 0957

Staying in Handsworth we’re now in the fairly rough looking Farcroft, which will please purists who complain about The Vine having been sanitised. If you want grit then this is the place for you. A big pub which has seen better days. You wend your way through the back gate to the BBQ area where you get fairly standard renditions of everything including pork steaks. Strangely the mixed grill is small here, it only includes wings, seekh kebabs and chicken tikka. But, like the surroundings, everything is really cheap so you can order extras to your wallets content. Spicing is really good here but a hard sell for me considering The Grove is just two minutes down the road.

Hen & Chickens
27 Constitution Hill, Birmingham, West Midlands B19 3LE
0121 236 3121

Quite a small corner pub on Constitution Hill a brisk walk from Snow Hill. They’ve only been serving Indian BBQ for about 6 months and pride themselves on cooking everything from raw. Only problem is that there’s an interminable wait for your food. Compounded by no visible kitchen, always a worry with these kind of places. There’s a primeval buzz to seeing stacks of skewered meat piled high ready for the flames. It’s one of the big draws of these pubs. It’s worth the wait though, the large mix grill is good and includes fried chicken, fried fish and green chicken! A kind of green chicken tikka, quite tasty though I could really do without the fried stuff in my mixed grill especially as they sacrifice lamb chops for them. The bread here, a bit thin and crispy, isn’t as good as The Grove. There’s not much dining space but they have plans to extend out into the beer garden. A good option if you’re in town and have craving for mountains of meat.

The Shaftmoor
266 Shaftmoor Lane,Birmingham B28 8ST
07956 879688

Here’s one from the southside of town. Yes we have meat lovers down here too though mostly we’re catered for by Muslim kebab and curry houses. So it’s actually rare, possibly unique, to find a grill in a back of an actual working pub in the south of town. The Shaftmoor, similar to The Farcroft, is a big old pub not far from the Mughal e Azam . Which probably does the best mixed grill anywhere in the city not just in the back of a pub so it has some stiff local competition. The grill is actually called Minesh’s BBQ as Minesh has taken over one of the pub’s outhouses. He was plying his trade down the road in The Sparkhill Social Club in Sparkbrook but moved because it got a bit rough. I did the same! This is the smallest operation I’ve come across so far, just your man on the grill and taking orders at the same time. Hygiene is also the most dubious as he cooks everything from raw. Seeing him scoop a big handful of seasoned raw minced lamb, expertly forming seekh kebabs then handing your change covered in lamb gore is certainly keeping it real. Some may be may put off by this, I was a little, especially when I found a rare piece of chicken tikka in my order. The seekh kebabs are delicious though. If you want to get close to the action then this is the place, this has the most backyard feel of all of them.

20131122-013554.jpg