The Bartons Arms

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It’s quite a modern day phenomenon, Thai food served in very traditional pubs. There are quite a few dotted around down that there London. But the only one in Brum is at The Bartons Arms, a truly gorgeous restored Victorian boozer in a pretty rough corner of town. Sitting in the dining room it’s hard not to think that it may be the most beautiful in the city, not as grand or opulent as Mughal e Azam but definitely having more soul, possessing a timeless quality that’s been scrubbed clean and looks fresh again.

To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from the food. I find most Thai food served in the city to be pretty generic, like the offerings in our Balti houses, choose your gravy then choose the protein to go into it. Which is a shame because great Thai cuisine is so vibrant, pushing the hot-sour-salty-sweet envelope with complex flavours. Like a massaman curry which served here comes close to greatness, better than the roast duck curry with pineapple that should be more sour. Most Thai food in this country is generally too sweet and the food here doesn’t escape that syndrome. The juicy well cooked tamarind duck should be both sweet and sour but childishly errs to candy. The hot and salty can be fixed with a little dish of prik nam pla (Thai chillies in fish sauce) at the table but sometimes the sour need to be cooked-in. A gripe, which I happily acknowledge is down to personal preference, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the dishes here. The starters are mixed, nice honey ribs but bland chicken wings and satay. Fishcakes could do with a little more kick but are of a pleasingly irregular handmade shape. Never trust a perfectly round fish cake, they’ve probably been dropped into the fryer from frozen straight out of the packet. There is the sense of fresh ingredients here, from the Thai basil in the curry to the shredded carrot and cabbage garnish, it’s all been cooked with care.

The Bartons Arms
144 High Street, Aston, Birmingham, B6 4UP
Tel: 0121 3335988

Banana Leaf Cafe, Selly Oak

You’d have to try pretty hard to find a worse location for a restaurant than the back of the Costcutter grocery store in Selly Oak. However, on the occasionally true equation that restaurant shabbiness sometimes equals superlative food, I was excited to try the Banana Leaf Cafe. This had previously been recommended to me by a colleague as a Malaysian street food style cafe, run by Birmingham University students. We went in August, only to find that they were closed for the summer holiday. We returned a few weeks ago only to find that rather than a Malaysian restaurant, it was now a Sri Lankan restaurant run by a hugely friendly family. Served buffet-style, they had a phenomenally hot mutton curry, rice, fish-filled patties, a selection of dals and vegetable curries and several sambals. So excited was I by my huge plate of deliciousness I failed to take any specific notes on what exactly I was eating. However all the food was of home-cooked quality, and staggeringly good. Keen that we were enjoying ourselves they brought over a pancake which was cooked like a dosa, but wasn’t lentil-based. And to finish off, some chocolate cake. Strange, very lovely, extremely cheap. I am posting this in haste because I suspect you need to get down here and keep these guys open, so completely unlikely is their location. Open 7 days a week, I think just for lunch. I will confirm after our next visit

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Banana Leaf Cafe, back of Costcutter supermarket (up from and on same side of Seoul Plaza, down from Aldi), Bristol Road, Birmingham

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Red n’ Hot

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What’s in a name? In particular Red n’ Hot, what kind of establishment does it sound like? As you’re reading a food blog you’ll guess it’s some kind of restaurant but in other circumstances you might say it’s a soft-core porn collection from the days of VHS. Something a bit niche. In some ways it might as well be for all the mainstream attention it gets but it must be doing something right sitting in it’s prime Hurst St location next to the the Hippodrome. It’s actually a chain of Sichuan restaurants, the other branches in London and Manchester. With the recent demise of BBQ village it’s become my go to for that spicy branch of Chinese cuisine. It’s pure Sichuan too, no pandering to Cantonese, Shanghainese or Beijing tastes.

Neither seemingly does it pander to Western tastes, the dark frontage looks brooding and the dark beaded blinds prevents passersby from peeking in. If you do get through the door the first thing you see is a little office space, cus that’s what it is, a Chinese travel agency. Look beyond this bit and you get the restaurant, all bare black surfaces. The tables have hotpot functionality but I’ve never had that there, always going for the plated dishes from the phonebook sized menu with its 100+ items. The old menu was a little more concise with photos of every dish listed but this one only illustrates the highlights. The dishes are listed in English but the components are in Chinese, so cryptic names like Husband and Wife Slices can be a little hard to decipher (cold sliced beef tripe and pork tongue). But be brave, order a lot and ask for it spicy because these are flavours you should fully commit to.

Rumour has it that the chef from BBQ Village relocated here and there is evidence in the Dry Fried Chicken with Chillies 辣子雞丁. The outrageous amount of chillies used in the dish is a hallmark. But then the Sliced Pork in Chilli 水煮肉片 is a little underpowered, it should be face-melting but wasn’t. It’s still delicious but when the waitress issues a warning when you order and it doesn’t deliver on maximum numbing 麻 and hot 辣 then you have to be a little disappointed. Nonetheless the flavours of the Sizzling Cumin Lamb 孜然羊肉 and Gong Bao King Prawn 宫保虾球 are excellent and worth going for on their own. Indeed I think dishes taste a lot cleaner than they did at BBQ Village so maybe the chef has cleaned up his act, literally, as the restaurant displays it’s 5/5 hygiene rating proudly. Some say it takes away something from the food, but in these more enlightened times maybe a little less MSG and sizzling oil is actually a good thing.

Red n’ Hot
Tel: 0121 6666076
35 Hurst Street, Birmingham B5 4BJ

BBQ Village 串串香

What do you think of when you think of Chinese food? Sweet and sour chicken, beef in oyster sauce, fried rice, sesame prawn toast or maybe dim sum? You won’t find any of that in BBQ Village, or actually you will if they give you the English menu. But why would you go to this Sichuan-Beijing hybrid Chinese restaurant and order the usual westernised derivative Cantonese dishes. I’ve been a little reticent to put this on the Brumfoodmap because of the recent bad news about it’s hygiene rating. But in a way it makes the restaurant authentic because by the standards of food safety in China, if it doesn’t kill you then it’s considered safe over there… and I haven’t died yet. So in the interests of finding the tastiest food in Brum, BBQ Village is up there with the best.

If you’re not familiar with this kind of Chinese food then you may be surprised by the flavour of some of the dishes. The name of the restaurant in Chinese 串串香 means tasty or fragrant skewers (see how the simplified character for skewer 串 looks like skewer of meat, it’s a simple language really!) Order these to whet your appetite and prepare your tastebuds for the full on assault of spicy flavours about to follow. Skewered morsels of lamb, beef and chicken are encrusted with chilli and cumin, for the more adventurous try the chicken hearts and gizzards or the tripe skewers. Don’t miss out on the bread skewers either, toast but not the usual prawn toast. Move on to a cold starter of mouth-watering Chicken 口水雞, the unmistakable tingle of Sichuan pepper dances on your tongue balancing the moreish hot, sweet and vinegary dressing. If you like that then try the fearsome Beef in Chilli Oil 水煮牛肉, my favourite dish, a cauldron of sliced beef that you should pick out of the chilli oil-slick. Do not spoon the oil over your rice! Dry fried chicken with chillies 辣子雞丁 ups the ante on the Sichuan Pepper vs Chilli stakes. By now the Sichuan pepper should have sufficiently numbed your tongue so that you are immune to the chilli heat, perfect then to appreciate the wonderful textures of the classic Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐. The silken cubes of bean-curd slipping down your now distended gullet. To balance your meal, the dry fried green beans 四季豆 and garlicky aubergines 燒茄子 are wonderful accompaniments and actually great standalone main dishes in their own right. If you like your food spicier then ask for it so because they will adjust it down to what they perceive as Western tastes.

BBQ Village do not only do prepared dishes but also hotpot where you cook your own food at your table. In fact you’ll see a lot of the Chinese clientele hovering over steaming pots of stock poaching raw strips of meat. I’ve never ordered it myself because I believe hotpot is better done at home and besides I can’t get past all those amazing skewers and Sichuan dishes.

BBQ Village
Tel: 0121 643 5723
55 Station St, Birmingham B5 4DY

Abu Zayd

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Sometimes you just want a lamb kebab, simple as that. There’s plenty out there on our streets, the kebab shop next door to the Chicken hut, they’ll grill you a lamb seekh past the point of well done then some more. So what makes this Arabian grill restaurant different? The kebabs of course, lightly spiced and lacking the garish red colouring that most kebabs shops in Brum insist upon. You can actually taste the meat. What’s more they grill on charcoal and they know how to cook so the meat is still juicy. A couple of lamb kofte, big portion of rice, salad and Lebanese flatbread £6.50, simple.

Abu Zayd
412 Coventry Road, Small Heath, Birmingham B10 0UF

Chung Ying and Wing Wah

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A Cantonese foodie can only live for so long without blogging about Dim Sum. Since my last post about Chung Ying Garden I’ve done some extensive research on your behalf.

Wing Wah next to the Chinese hypermarket Wing Yip in Nechells has probably the best Cheung Fun 腸粉 in the whole city and generally the standard of the Dim Sum there is very good indeed. However I don’t know if I’ve been unlucky because everytime I’ve been I’ve had the noisiest migraine inducing experience. It’s just too popular with the buffet crowd who descend en masse at most lunchtimes. All-you-can-eat-Chinese-food seems to pull in some big noisy families which makes the vibe somewhere between that of a theme park and feeding time at the zoo. A shame for those eating from the Dim Sum menu and looking for a more relaxed meal. But try it out yourself, there’s plenty of free parking at least!

No I think I’ve found the best overall Dim Sum experience a lot closer to Chung Ying Garden, at the original Chung Ying. The ex-chef of my old favourite the Golden Pond has moved there and it shows. Every dish I’ve tried has been excellent. Har Gau 蝦餃 (pictured) is the litmus test for me. Like good nigiri sushi it looks simple but it’s in these apparently simple things that you can really judge the skill and discipline of the kitchen. These I can’t fault. Though I still think the steamed chicken feet in black bean sauce 豉汁鳳爪 not as good as they were at GP! Never completely happy am I?

Chung Ying
16 – 18 Wrottesley Street, Birmingham B5 4RT
Tel: 0121 622 5669

Wing Wah
278 Thimble Mill Ln, Nechells, Birmingham B7 5HD
Tel: 0121 327 7879

I had high hopes that China Court would surprise me after so many years. But recently eating over 50 items there in one sitting with 12 other Chinese diners, I realised those hopes were completely unfounded. None of us thought it was any good. There was one dish I actually thought was decent, but the rest was poor to middling. The taro puffs 芋頭角 were actively offensive, appearing to have been reheated several times over a considerable length of time. One to avoid!

Shanghai Blues (ex Golden Pond) is decidedly average and for some reason don’t do crispy fried squid 魷魚鬚 which is a must amongst my circle of friends. Though some of the Sichuan options can make it a little more diverse, the basic quality of the Dim Sum isn’t really up to level of the Chung Yings.

Miss Korea

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Someone who’s culinary opinion I respected very much recently declared Miss Korea the best restaurant in Birmingham. Well I don’t know about that, it could well be the best Korean in town, but with a choice of two real Korean restaurants the competition isn’t exactly stiff!

Korean bbq has been around for a few years as an option in a few of the new wave of Chinese restaurants such as BBQ village. But it was only a year ago that Brum got its first wholly Korean restaurant in the form of Miss Korea. Located a couple of doors down from Min Min Noodle Bar, the sleek blackness of the interior and the cooking equipment embedded in the tables leaves you in no doubt that this place means business, Asian business. The charcoal burners can be quite intimidating for newbies. Hell they’re still a little intimidating to me. I’m still never sure which way to flick the switch or turn the flange as the signs are all in Korean. But before you get to all that grilled stuff there is the wonderful array of Banchan, Korean appetisers, to explore. Kimchi, which is slowly taking over the world, comes in cabbage and cucumber forms here and are essential to start off your meal. Also the water spinach, but not so much the seaweed as it’s a bit tough and oddly flavoured and I’m usually all over seaweed like seaweed is all over beaches.

To kick off the meal proper the kimchi fried rice with pork is a winner, a slightly greasy mound of fried shortgrain rice studded with pork accompanied by a seriously snotty fried egg that mixed together makes a wonderfully moreish dish. Or try the various Bibimbap, the most famous Korean rice dish, a hearty melange of fresh ingredients atop plain rice served in a searing hot stone bowl. Asian comfort food at its best, both particularly good when slightly drunk. As is cooking your own meat on the blazing hot charcoal heated hotplate. Thinly sliced marinated beef ribs (galbi) or beef and pork strips (bulgogi) are probably the best options. Quickly seared then wrapped in lettuce with a little ssamjang (sweet Korean chilli sauce) it hits plenty of gastronomic pleasure spots. However, the unmarinated beef ribeye steak would be heavenly if it looked like the nicely marbled piece shown on their menu but the real life offering is clearly sub par and not fit to be grilled in such a way.

Some people are put off by the idea of cooking your own food at a restaurant but I think the whole experience is really rather good fun. Just remember this when your waitress is changing your hotplate regularly because you’re choking the restaurant out with your grilling ineptitude. Don’t worry because you’re in good company, I have at least three changes every meal. It makes them very grumpy indeed. The service can be a little cold which may be a management issue because they also reject requests for tap water. An attitude they should seriously reconsider and the reason why Miss Korea cannot be called the best restaurant in Brum.

Miss Korea
Bromsgrove St, Digbeth, Birmingham B5 6AB

Digbeth Dining Club and Meatshack

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Filthy, dirty, dripping – usually adjectives with negative associations to food. That is unless you’re cresting the current Streetfood trend. I won’t bore you with the Streetfood gospel, no doubt you’ve heard all about it, this apparently new way of dining is sweeping the nation. Or at least London. But wait. Birmingham is now on the Streetfood charabanc with the Digbeth Dining Club’s rota of mobile caterers. Late last year among the atmospheric inner-city train arches of Digbeth at the back of the Spotlight bar, there were intrepid Streetfood vendors doing their thing every Friday evening. Burgers, pizzas, stews, wraps, toasties, baps, buns, cakes, burritos, tacos, hotdogs, that is the canon of Streetfood. Some of the offerings are more successful and tasty than others, and some done with more dedication and care than others. Quite frankly there are some vendors who I think are having laugh. If the new Streetfood is about tasty inventive gourmet handmade food at reasonable prices then they fail on every account. But there is one vendor that always delivers on those promises. The prince of Digbeth Dining Club – The Meatshack.

The Meatshack’s burgers are the best in a 100 mile radius. Paul Collis has really studied what makes a good burger. His style of smashed mustard fried patty and semi-steamed bun really makes for a juicy, filthy, dirty but also outrageously tasty burger. The patty is a secret mix of aged local Hereford beef (ask for it pink) and the buns are the finest soft brioche. But he doesn’t stop there, there are wonderful specials that change constantly. His candied bacon variations are awesome but personally I think the black pudding variation his best yet, or maybe it was the special special suckling pig burger (pictured). Now if only I can get fries with that…

The Digbeth Dining Club had a winter break and will be back on the 1st March 2013. I will be there, as always, at the front of The Meatshack’s queue.

Digbeth Dining Club
Spot*light, Unit 2 (opp. Air Nightclub), Lower Trinity Street, Digbeth, B9 4AG

Lasan Eatery (now known as Raja Monkey Cafe)

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Ahhh Franky Dosa, sounds like a Bollywood film star but is in fact the star of the menu at Lasan Eatery. I hesitate to call this place a curry house as you would automatically think it another Balti type establishment. This is definitely not that, it’s modern and light with a pared back menu from across India. Eatery is the right name for it with casual banquette seating and small open kitchen as you walk in. What curry house can you see your order being skilfully cooked?

Or for that matter in what curry house can you also order a dosa? A South Indian stuffed crêpe made from lightly fermented batter of ground rice and lentils. Served with sambar (a thin flavourful veg curry) and chutney, being southern they’re usually veggie and at Lasan Eatery there’s the standard dosa stuffed with spicy aloo. But there’s also chicken-stuffed and of course the very special mr Franky Dosa stuffed with mutton. They make their dosa crispy here just how I like it. They’re quite large for a starter so I tend to have a few sides of tadka dhal, aloo gobi or matter paneer to make up a whole meal. But then I would missing out on the excellent main curries. A classic Bhuna Gosht tickles the tastebuds every time I order it, sadly my favourite Rajastani Laal Maas didn’t make the recent menu reshuffle. Maybe I should start a petition to bring it back?

Lasan Eatery
1355 Stratford Road (opp. Waitrose), Hall Green, Birmingham B28 9HW

Rossopomodoro, Bull Ring

“Where can I get a proper wood-fired pizza?”

“Is there anything decent to eat in the Bull Ring?”

Was I right people of Birmingham? Were these questions vexing you to your very core?

Thought so. Here’s the answer. Rossopomodoro, situated in Birmingham Selfridges food hall. That’s the food hall that doesn’t really sell any food, but can offer you the delights of Krispy Kreme, Pret a Manger and Mr. Ed’s Diner. Yes, that’s our Selfridges food hall people of London, don’t judge us.

Now I wouldn’t pretend Rossopomodoro is perfection. But their pizza is, I think depending on who is shaping the dough and manning the fire, anything from pretty good to excellent. Not a fan of too many toppings on my pizza, I’d go for the Verace – which pimps the mozzarella and adds a slick of decent quality olive oil. Their tomato sauce is pleasingly simple, I think it’s just decent quality, well-seasoned, canned Italian plum tomatoes (which you can buy to take home if you want, better than most supermarket brands). I think they also import their flour, which is a bit mad but they end up with a decent tasting crust so whatever works for them.

However, don’t expect anything great from the starters which I always skip after a singular disaster with some arancini. Pasta is no better than found at regular Italian chain restaurants (i.e. woeful) and I’ve never stuck around to find out if their desserts are any good.

But that doesn’t take anything away from the pizza! If you are shopping in the Bullring and fancy a sustaining pizza, and who doesn’t from time to time, then here’s your answer. It’s surprisingly unbusy as well. In fact, I wonder how well it is doing, so pop along and support it so I can still eat there in future!

Rossopomodoro, Selfridges Food Hall. They also do takeaway. Pizzas around a tenner.