Arabic Chicken and Rose Bakery

Fresh roast chicken and fresh bread for just £3.80, beats a sandwich and packet of crisps at Tesco

There’s a cheerful Yemeni chap on the Stratford Rd in Sparkbrook that sells “Arabic Chicken” from a rotisserie on the street. His rotisserie is fuelled by a worn looking gas tube snaking from the letterbox of Al Saada Middle Eastern store. If the prospect of stopping in Sparkbrook as you drive to your homes in leafier suburbs is unappetising, then you’re not going to like hearing that it’s really delicious. Oh and it’s £3.50 for a small whole freshly roasted chicken. It’s generously slathered in his secret recipe spice paste, heavy in garlic and cinnamon. He only cooks in the afternoon, so the chicken is always freshly roasted and moist. Now if only I could persuade him to stick a tray of potatoes at the bottom to catch all that aromatic chicken fat. Like they do in French markets.

Lucky then that the Rose Bakery is next door. For 30p you can get a fluffy Middle Eastern style flatbread to soak up all that chicken goodness. Less than £4 for real bread and meat made by real cooks. Worth getting out your car for I think, you’ll be stuck in traffic anyway.

Al Saada
168 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 1AG

Rose Bakery
170 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 1AG

Samosa City

Sweet Mahal's meat samosa, greatness
Sweet Mahal’s meat samosa, greatness

A great samosa is never too far away in our fair city. You don’t ever have to eat an onion filled meat samosa at your local Farmers Market ever again. A full guide to Black Country and Sparkhill samosa shops can be found on my Foodist blog.

Truly delicious meat samosas can be found at Sweet Mahal and Mushtaq’s on the Stratford Rd. Suraj gives a different spin on veggies samosas. Uppals sneaks in with great paneer rolls. The Punjabi Sweet Centre is a nice place to eat in, samosas could be better though.

Sweet Mahal
826 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 4BS
Tel: 0121 777 6777

Mushtaq’s
451-455 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 4LD
Tel: 0121 772 0631

Suraj Sweet Centre
703 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11 4DN
Tel: 0121 778 5100

Uppals
33 Barcroft Road, Wolverhampton WV2 3HF
Tel: 01902 451113

Punjabi Sweet & Curry House (aka Punjabi Sweet Centre)
285/287 High Street, Smethwick B66 3NJ
Tel: 0121 565 2187

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

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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

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Rod Roj’s Lahmacun and salad, £2.49. Better than a Greggs.
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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.

Smokeandumami’s 2013 Top of the Pops

It’s been a pretty good year for Birmingham food. Street food has definitely been on-trend, with original purveyors Digbeth Dining Club going from strength to strength, with the glorious Meat Shack certainly our pick of the vendors there, with both his regular burgers and specials both worth seeking out. Also helping the cause of street food was Brum Yum Yum, loudly declaring their intentions to transform the way we dine in the city, and having established a very popular regular Saturday event in Kings Heath. Food pop-up Can Eat run by Lap and Dom Clarke from Loaf Community Bakery’s premises gained a regular audience and a 5* review from Paul Fulford.

A number of independent openings have plugged the few remaining gaps in Birmingham’s food offering, perhaps most particularly Istanbul for Turkish food, and both Seoul Plaza and Banana Leaf Cafe providing much-needed lunch options in Selly Oak. All this we have been (kind of) diligently documenting on our Birmingham Food Map. We plan to continue adding new sites until we have the whole city covered (please leave suggestions in the comments).

A fourth Michelin star was added to Birmingham’s impressive roster of Simpsons, Turners and Purnells by Adam’s Restaurant. Huge congratulations to Adam Stokes and the other head chefs for this achievement, it cannot always be easy in the current economic climate. But increasingly we find our own appetites have increasingly shifting away from this style of dining, as evidenced by the eateries featured on this blog.

Sadly there have been the inevitable closures too: Lap’s favourite sichuan restaurant BBQ Village is no more. And it seems the useful independent Birminghamplus.com food board has gone the way of the dodo too?

Looking at the blog statistics, the most popular posts during 2013 have all been related to home cooking, including Nick’s treatise on brining, and Lap’s guide to butchering a pork shoulder for BBQ, the epic how to cook a fat steak, 9000 ways with razor clams and the definitive comparison of chilli bean pastes for those wishing to follow the peerless Fuschia Dunlop’s recipes..

On the Birmingham food map, popular entries have included fish and chips at the Black Country Living Museum (still unbeatable in Nick’s view), the estimable and very reliable Min Min and pho-slingers Nom Nom Noodles, Digbeth Dining Club and finest purveyors of curried lambs brain’s Mughal-E-Azam.

Posts from previous years that still keep giving in 2013 include Lap’s encyclopedic guide to the Birmingham Indoor Market and Wholesale Market, actually the most popular post on this site and a lesson to Birmingham Council who seem set on moving and marginalising this unique asset (Birmingham Council should realise that claims of Birmingham being a foodie city are just as much to do with the market as the four Michelin stars we claim as our own). Other popular posts are Lap’s excellent guide to eel smoking, his definitive guide to Hainan chicken rice, Nick’s guide to Moro-style beetroot borani and the unimpeachable beef rendang recipe, which I highly recommend you try. Finally, judging from the hits, thousands of you are still desperate to find a place for sushi in Birmingham, but it sadly remains  a bit of a desert out there.

So all that remains me to do is to thank you the readers of the blog for your support in 2013, wish you a Happy New Year and ask that you keep reading in 2014 and please do get involved in the comments section or on Twitter as it makes the whole experience much more rewarding for us!

 

 

 

 

2013 – My Year in Food

It was going to be a top ten list of the best dishes of the year but I can’t be arsed to put them in order and besides ten is a pretty arbitrary number innit? So instead here’s a stream of consciousness in a vaguely chronological fashion.

Keller Fried Chicken

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The year started strong on the 1st day with the best fried chicken any of us had ever eaten. A religious experience involving Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc Fried Chicken kit brought back from Yountville, CA by Nick. His kitchen is still getting over the mess he made that day cooking up those golden hunks. But it was worth it, the brine and seasoning made every bite juicy crunchy perfection. The standard that all fried chicken must now live up to.

Brisket Burnt Ends at Grillstock Festival, Bristol

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The Grillstock Festival in Bristol came early this year at the start of May which meant we were getting our practise on in the snow. But it was all worth it when we won best brisket and came 5th overall. Let’s talk about the brisket, it scored 476pts out of 500. So from the five judges it averaged over 95%. That’s like, almost, perfect! On that day the best part of the brisket was the burnt ends. In the evening after the judging when they’d had a bit more smoke I actually thought they were perfect. BBQ holy grail attained, he’s a clever bloke that Nick.

Anchovy on Toast & Prawns from Palamos at Etxebarri, Axpe

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Later in May was our first visit to the Basque grilling sage Victor Arguinoniz in his restaurant Etxebarri situated between Bilbao and San Sebastien. There were lots of highlights on the tasting menu. The first that shone out was a long fat anchovy that had been caught a year ago, cured by the chef and served on toasted bread. Very simple, very perfect. So much so that to try and describe it any more would be futile. The second dish was a pair of deep red prawns, grilled with salt. Again a perfect thing, the tail meat was buttery sweet and the head juice like a concentrate shot of seafood bisque. The best thing was that no one else wanted their prawn heads so I got to suck down eight of these.

Cha Ca La Vong and Goi Cuon

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Went through a bit of a Vietnamese cooking binge mid-summer. There is a dearth of good Vietnamese food in Brum that I can’t understand. Maybe it’s the logistics of the fresh veg and herbs required to make the dishes really special. The first dish Cha Ca La Vong, I marinated baby monkfish tails in turmeric and lemongrass before frying them with spring onion and mounds of fresh dill. They’re served over rice vermicelli dressed with cashews, coriander, sweet basil, mint, chillies and nuoc cham. A taste explosion! The second dish Goi Coun or Summer Rolls. A thin rice paper wrapper filled to bursting with fatty belly pork, white crab meat, prawns, rice vermicelli and all those herbs. Dipped in nuoc cham, don’t think I can wait till summer to eat these again.

Kabayaki Unagi

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As explained in this blog post here. The simple joy of cooking is learning to cook the things that you like to eat. This dish had always seemed really difficult to recreate but when I did the results were spectacularly good. The bonus being it was actually a doddle. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t think about cooking this again, the only problem is finding good fat clean eels.

Lobster Curry

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I like a bit of lobster I’m not afraid to admit. Usually stir-fried Cantonese style with noodles or Thermidor with buttery fettucine. But this summer I fancied a change and started experimenting with a Thai red curry sauce. Split female lobsters in half saving the roe and tomalley, char grill them then finish them with a red curry sauce thickened with the lobster innards. Yes, I’m salivating too as I type.

Everything at L’Enclume, Cartmel

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Late summer tasting menu at L’Enclume. We’ve been twice before in colder months so it was great to come back when the earth around Cartmel was at its most fecund. Is it possible to choose single dishes out for praise? Would be like choosing the best songs from your favourite album, you’d quickly end up with an album’s worth of songs. Possibly my meal of the year, but then that can be true in any year that we go.

Stilton and Prosciutto Macarons

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Been slowly perfecting my macaron technique this year using Pierre Hermé’s basic recipe and by Jove I think I’ve got it! So much so that it’s one of the few sweet recipes I know by heart. My favourite variation was a plain macaron piped with a mixture of white Stilton*, cream cheese, black pepper and crispy prosciutto. A savoury twist that surprised and delight everyone who tried it.

*apparently this year some TV Bake-Off muppet just stuck a wedge of Stilton between two mac shells. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t well received by the judges.

Mille-feuille at Jacques Genin, Paris

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We’ve all had mille-feuille in some form or another. Custard slices we call them here, some puff pastry layered with some kind of filling or another. Cut into it and the filling squirts out from between the cold claggy pastry. You end up eating a mash up of soggy pastry and sweetened dairy gunk. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Imagine made-to-order mille-feuille, freshly baked squares of perfect light buttery puff pastry piped with delicately smooth crème patissiere or even chocolate mousse. Well you needn’t imagine it, just go to Jacques Genin’s patisserie in the Marais area of Paris. You needn’t imagine your knife falling through the layers of pastry like a sigh, clinking the plate with a whisper. Nor the perfect balance of textures and flavours melting in your mouth.

Hall Green Salami

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I’ve been making my own dry-cured sausages for almost 7 years with some mixed results. Not having a humidity controlled drying room would account for that. Trying to gauge how the weather will pan out three weeks in advance has been the trick for me. I took apart half a massively fat Tamworth pig in mid-October, made some fennel salami and chorizo and the dry cool weather we had in Birmingham (akin to autumnal Tuscan mountain air) produced the best charcuterie I’ve ever made.

Dexter Prime Rib Roast

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I don’t often cook big beef roasting joints. Big crusty steaks, yes I’m your man. But this Xmas I wanted something other than the usual bird and ham combination so went for bird and beef instead and ordered a standing roast from Berkswell in mid-November. Knowing full well that it would be nicely aged by Xmas day. What I wasn’t expecting was Berkswell delivering in spades with the most amazing joint of beef that I’d ever seen. An untrimmed five rib Dexter aged over 5 weeks. They’d only had one Dexter carcass the whole year so I felt very lucky indeed. Two days before Xmas I trimmed it up and seasoned it, on Xmas day it was put into a 100C over for about 4hrs until the internal temp reached 40C then rested for 2hrs whilst we finished cooking the rest of the meal. A quick sear before slicing resulted in the best roast beef the family had ever eaten, to quote my cousin as she guzzling down another slice: “it’s the beef of dreams!”

CANeat

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Throughout 2013 I had the pleasure of cooking with Dom Clarke at our CANeat popups in Stirchley. Too many different dishes to list but the grilled mackerel, smoked beef rib and smoked belly pork & squid were personal favourites. Expect more from us in 2014!