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.

Is there a good place for sushi in Birmingham?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Still no, I’m afraid.

I am a fan of the small, independently-run Mount Fuji which somehow survives as a small oasis in the culinary desert of the Bull Ring complex. The restaurant is squeezed on all sides by low quality chain offerings. Note how Jamie’s Italian and Wagamama are always full on a Saturday afternoon, but Mount Fuji is usually half-empty. You can eat fairly well here if you stick to the small plate options; I like a little plate of sushi, usually some eel, the dashi tofu, chicken karage, tempura vegetables and a miso soup. But the sushi is not great, it’s not really even good by standards of anyone who’s eaten at a half-decent Japanese restaurant. But I mention it simply because little independent places like this desperately need some support in Birmingham.

Yo! Sushi = No! Fuck Off! Sushi.

There’s also Ocean Dragon which YSL has been to, and thinks is OK. But Lap hates it, I think.

So where to head for good sushi? Your closest option is Ebi Sushi – in Derby! – which Lap blogged about way back in 2008. Sushi in Derby? The explanation is that Derby has a Toyota factory, and this restaurant caters to the Japanese managers. If you have a sushi craving, point your vehicle East (!!) for an hours drive and Mr. Ebi will see you right with some spanking fresh fish served in a very traditional style, including cuts of the fatty belly tuna, toro.

After that, you need to head further afield. We like Sushi of Shiori very much. OK it’s in London, but Sushi of Shiori is but a chopstick’s throw from London Euston. You could get there, have a meal and get back to Birmingham in just over four hours, if you timed it right.

A new place – Sushi Tetsu has just opened in Clerkenwell and we are keen to check it out soon as the early reports are very good.

Update 6th July 2012: There’s a new sushi joint in the Birmingham Indoor Market called Sushi Passion – needs to be checked out!

Dining in Reykjavik, Food and Fun

Who knew that the dining scene in Reykjavik was so brilliant? Certainly not me, I went to Iceland hoping to see the Aurora Borealis and incredible geological wonders. It turned out to be a bonus four day gastronomic adventure of exciting dishes in some fantastic restaurants too.

The holiday was booked months ago by the wife and duly put on the back burner by me, I’d not researched any of the dining options until a few days before the start of the holiday. I really wasn’t expecting a long list of options but the more I looked into it the more it dawned on me that Reykjavik was bursting with great restaurants with some tasty looking websites. So I hurriedly made bookings at a handful of restaurants: Fish Company, Fish Market, Grill Market, Seafood Grill – notice the theme running through here? What’s more the city’s top restaurants were participating in the annual Food & Fun festival. For the week we were there, guest chefs from around the world would be taking over the kitchen and celebrating the local produce by creating adventurous tasting menus.

The first night we had a Food & Fun tasting menu in Grill Market sheltering from the Arctic blizzard that had descended without warning. This is an ultra-cool spacious contempory dining space split between two levels. The open kitchen greets you as you enter at the ground floor with the flaming grill foremost. There’s a bar on this floor but we were lead to the lower level to the main dining area that exuded Nordic chic, warm wood merging with natural volcanic rock with industral metal flourishes. The menu started simply with potatoes boiled in seawater that was well matched with a smear of seaweed butter. Cabbage wrapped langoustine with mussels showed off the freshness of the main ingredients but the cabbage was oddly tough. A perfectly flame grilled slab of Arctic Char with roe, beetroot and cucumber continued to emphasis the quality of the local seafood. The meat course was a crusty chewy (in a good way) wood-fired beef ribeye, oxtail, potato skins and truffled gnocchi. This was a fantastically flavoured piece of meat, with a nice smoky flavour from the grill that is the heart the restaurant. A dessert of crunchy chocolate, caramel mousse and frozen skyr finished the meal in comforting fashion. The food menu was 6900Kr, around £35. It was the most expensive meal of the holiday so all those horror stories you’ve heard about the cost of eating in Iceland are completely untrue.

Cafe Loki serves up traditional Icelandic grub next to the main landmark in Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja; the monolithic futurist looking church. The only thing I knew of Icelandic cuisine before this holiday was the infamous putrified shark, Hákarl, which by all accounts reeks of old Victorian public toilets. Basking shark is inedible you see, the flesh is poisonous, but the locals over the centuries have found a way to make it at least safe to eat. They bury the sharks in the sand for six months, the rotting flesh is rendered non-toxic but of course is now utterly foul smelling. Hardcore TV chefs like Ramsay and Bourdain have wilted in the presence of this stuff. Cafe Loki serves up little cubes of the ‘delicacy’ as part of an Icelandic platter with arctic char, smoked lamb, mashed fish, dried cod and rye bread. It isn’t nearly as bad as it’s made to be, just merely like someone’s pissed on your Camembert. All our group of nine tried it, none of us gagged but then we are Chinese and pretty hardcore eaters! But seriously the other items were delicious, the best marinated herrings I’d ever eaten and a very moreish rye bread ice-cream which is a speciality of the cafe.

Icelandic Fish & Chips and The Sea Baron are both in the old harbour. They’re part of a small cluster of little eateries that includes sushi, tapas and a Haitian Cafe. Icelandic Fish & Chips is not a takeaway in the traditional British seaside way. It quite a spacious comfortable restaurant with very warm and friendly service. They serve various deep fried fish in their special recipe batter made from spelt and barley. The chips are actually sautéed potatoes and they have vast selection of skyr based dips. We tried Red Fish and Haddock, both were really fresh and the batter crispy and light. Best of all though we ordered a big bowl of garlicky langoustine to share between us. We had langoustine at almost every meal, they’re ubiquitous in Reykjavik and that is no bad thing at all. The langoustine trail continued at The Sea Baron which has the most famous lobster soup in the whole country. Deep fishy broth with a generous amount of lobster (langoustine) tails submerged within. The soup is delicious, a nice hint of curry in there, though the bread supplied to mop it up with was disappointingly pappy. The Sea Baron is shack-like and does grilled fish and even minke whale but we were too stuffed to try anything other than an oversized grilled lemon-sole, which was merely ok.

Fish Company is at the forefront of Icelandic cuisine, particularly championing the concept of Nordic Sushi. Which isn’t as preposterous as it first sounds because if you have fish as plentiful and fresh as you do in Iceland then applying Japanese concepts to eating it makes perfect sense. It helps too if your culture deeply respects fish and it really shows at Fish Company, another gorgeous restaurant in the heart of Reykjavik city centre. The restaurant was participating in the Food & Fun festival too but we had lunch when only the regular menu was available. The wife was smitten with the bread here in particular the combination of creamy skyr, butter and apple jam that accompanied it. We asked about the apple jam having never come across it before, we were told it was a speciality of the restaurant and couldn’t buy it but will see if the kitchen could spare us some. Apple jam was quickly forgotten about when the starters of fish soup with lobster tails, and minke whale arrived. The fish soup had little cubes of coconut jelly and seaweed, there was a Thai red curry flavour to it and all in all it’s probably the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. The flavours were so deep, I can only imagine the amount of lobster tails that went into it. The dish of minke whale was very peculiar though, virtually raw there was a very strong livery flavour to the meat and a lingering mineral after-taste that was very interesting, like sucking on a freshly minted coin. The shredded cucumber helped to cleanse the palate a little but I couldn’t help thinking a good splash of something acidic would have done wonders. So to our mains of Nordic Sushi and Arctic Char, both wonderful dishes. The sushi was presented on a wide wooden platter overflowing with varied preparations of char, roe, maki rolls and the most savoury of marinated shark. The plated Arctic Char dish again featured langoustine and was highlighted with smoked apple. This is fine cooking and after our meal one of the chefs presented us with a little jar of apple jam to take home, we were delighted!

Just over the road from Fish Company is Tapas Barinn. It was displaying its Iceland Gourmet Fiest menu outside and we couldn’t resist the look of it. I mean how can you resist any 7 course menu that starts with smoked puffin and costs only 5890Kr? We shared one menu between two and it came with a shot of the local firewater Brennivin. It’s like aquavit and goes down very easily. Smoked puffin is a cross between duck and pigeon and went very well with the sharp and slightly sweet blueberry sauce. The rest of the menu was spot on too but especially the minke whale, which this time was served grilled in steak like fashion. It was delicious with no hint of peculiar after-taste. The restaurant is in the basement of one of the old buildings, the low ceilings suit the traditional tapas bar vibe. We got there quite early around 6pm and by the time we left around 9 it was packed with big groups of locals eating and being merry.

The restaurants in Reykjavik cater for large groups and certainly we found the service to be uniformly friendly, helpful and welcoming. In Grill Market we asked one of our servers whether the bill included a service charge, she said that all servers were well paid in Iceland so it’s up to you whether you wanted to leave genuine tip. We had to cancel some reservations in the end, regular holiday sightseeing stuff like Geysirs, Lagoons and Northern Lights got in the way of eating at Fish Market and the Seafood Grill. These will have to wait until we return along with Vox, Perlan, Lobster House and revisiting Grill Market and Fish Company of course. We’ll have to get a week off next time.

Birmingham Chinatown Roast Meat Battle!

Soul Food is the cooking of the poor American South, the food of slaves, with its roots in Africa and its branches now covering many US regional cuisines. Collard greens, cornbread, gumbo, jambalaya you get the picture. Now when I say Cantonese roast meat is Soul Food I don’t mean it in that respect. What I mean is the other definition; simple food that represents the very heart of your food culture. Food that above all others you keep turning back to because it’s food that you know will satisfy your soul.  三 燒 飯 Triple Roast Rice – a plate of sweet slightly charred char-siu, crispy tender pork belly, a succulent roasted duck leg sitting atop perfectly steamed Jasmine rice. A few greens, a drizzle of sweet gravy, some spiky chilli oil to dip your meat into and a cup of tea – that is the food of my soul. Huh, get down!

Most Cantonese people would never roast their own meat as a) they don’t have ovens and b) it will never be as good as they can buy it. Now I do have an oven and I’ve practised enough that actually yes my roast meat is as nice as they make in Chinatown. But I can only roast one duck at a time so if I want a Triple Roast Rice then I do what every Cantonese person does and visit the specialist roast meat shop to get my fix. For years, I’ve been going to Peach Garden in the little alley behind China Court restaurant. They know me, I know them, their duck is always good, their pork can be temperamental. The place itself is a little cramped and grubby but authentic in that Hong Kong back street way. But I thought it was time to test my loyalty, I was going to be in Chinatown for three lunches in a row. I will ask for a Triple Roast Rice at The Village Café, Peach Garden and New Sum Ye and see who wins my mini Birmingham Chinatown Roast Meat Battle!

The Village Café, 6 Ladywell walk

First up is The Village Café on the main road next to Malaysian Delight.  Years ago these two units used to be one shop, the only roast meat joint in the whole city, run by the rudest, angriest old Chinese lady you would ever likely to meet. So there’s an attachment to this location, a link to a time before the Arcadian centre opposite was built, when Chinatown consisted of just the Chung Ying restaurant and here. In all three cafés I asked for the triple roast rice with a duck leg and was I pleasantly surprised that they didn’t charge extra for the leg here. You see if you don’t specifically ask for a leg or a breast then you may get a very bony portion of duck. As the legs are the most popular cut, most places will charge extra if you ask for it.  In all three places the duck leg is very good, succulent, tender, slipping off the bone easily. The fat fully rendered, the skin thin and melting. The Char Siu (bbq roast pork) is also good here, the balance of sweet and savoury just right with a proper charred glaze covering the moist meat and unusually a little of the glaze was smeared on the meat after chopping. Siu Yuk (crispy belly pork) was sadly very tired and tough, the crackling not at all crispy. The rice I found to be a little claggy and the Chinese leaf hiding under the meat was but a token gesture.  Not enough of the sweet gravy had been poured over the meat..

Char Siu – 4 (out of 5), Siu Yuk – 2.5, Duck – 4.5, Other – 3,

Overall 14 (out of 20)    Cost £6.50 (free tea)

Peach Garden, Unit 3 Wrottesley Street

In the grubby little alley behind the China Court building there is a hairdresser and three cafés. It would be the dankest smelliest alley in the whole city if it wasn’t for the perfume of roasting duck and pork that lingers in the air. Peach Garden hang their wares in the window, like in Amsterdam you can see the flesh before you buy it, glistening carcasses of roasted duck and sides of belly pork dripping their juicy goodness onto trays of offal. It is somewhat of an institution as it’s the only place I know where you can order a whole roasted suckling pig for celebrations. In that respect it’s held dear by the Chinese community in Birmingham. I sit near the front and order my usual triple roast and ask for a duck leg which is an extra £1. They chop up the meat neatly and efficiently, lay it on the rice with a generous amount of Chinese leaf. Then shock, horror, they microwave the whole plate. I wonder why they have done this at lunch when the meat should have been freshly roasted, have they always done this? The duck leg survives this treatment the best, it’s still juicy but the crackling on the belly pork is not crispy at all now. I’ve always found the char siu to be poor here and this portion lived up to expectation. Scrappy pieces of over-dyed meat with not much flavour. Nice sauce and the rice was good. They’ve had another bad pork day though.

Char Siu – 2, Siu Yuk – 2.5, Duck – 4, Other – 4,

Overall 12.5    Cost £7.30 (free tea)

New Sum Ye, B105 Arcadian Centre

The New Sum Ye has had another refurbishment, the signage juts out now in parabolic tribute. The interior has been jiggled, there’s a lot more room and the counter position makes more sense. Like Peach Garden, the burnished duck breasts press against the glass luring you inside. I don’t come here often, maybe once every couple of years, I’ve been pretty faithful to Peach Garden. But everytime I walk past I’ve been tempted, the meat looks delectable. It always looks busy which is a good thing as holding meat at these temperatures dries them out. I order the holy trinity, again the duck leg adds £1 to the price of the dish. This is the most generous portion of the three, each meat has been chopped with great skill and care. They’ve been laid at a jaunty angle across the biggest mound of perfectly cooked rice. Draped across the meat are two small heads of pak choy and everything is well dressed with the sweet savoury gravy. The char siu is wonderfully tender with a great sweetly charred exterior, it’s meaty too, they’ve roasted larger strips of pork neck. The duck leg is in top condition and slips down easily. But above all else it’s the Siu Yuk that is the revelation. It’s perfect, the crackling is so thin and crispy, the meat solid but moist. The chilli oil here is different from the other two places. It has a deeper flavour from the dried shrimp. I wolf this dish down.

Char Siu – 4, Siu Yuk – 5, Duck – 4.5, Other – 4.5,

Overall 18    Cost  £7.30 (tea is £1)

Verdict

So it’s pretty obvious which one wins my BCRMB – New Sum Ye. I’ve been back half a dozen times, the excellent quality is consistent, the place is clean and spacious. The Peach Garden could tempt me back with their special Pi-Pa roast duck if I’m in the mood but after thinking for so many years that it was the best, I have now seen the light – New Sum Ye has saved my soul.

New Sum Ye on Urbanspoon

Peach Garden on Urbanspoon