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

Kabayaki unagi

20130922-002405.jpg

I’m a bit of a fan of eel, you might have read my thoughts on smoking one in an earlier blog. Love eating them but hate having to deal with them. But with anything sometimes you have to do the dirty stuff in order to get to the good stuff. The good stuff in this case being one of my favourite dishes. Simple grilled eel done the Japanese way with a sweet sticky soy based kabayaki sauce. “Oh yeah so what” you murmur “I can get frozen eel from Wing Yip “. Yes you can, it’s also the same kind of eel that’s on top of everyone’s favourite nigiri sushi. It tastes great but you really don’t know how great until you’ve tried the real thing fresh off the coals. Come on, think about that hot eel fat dripping down onto the hot charcoal, igniting, the vaporised lipids bonding with the kabayaki sauce as you lacquer it on. If you like Japanese food, then you owe it to yourself to try kabayaki unagi as soon as possible. It’s one of the most beloved dishes in Japan where specialist unagi restaurants exist to perfect it.

But now we come to the crunch! Where can you actually eat this dish? Certainly not in any Yo! Sushi or other high street Japanese restaurant. Even the high end places such as Tetsu, Shiori, Roka or Umu don’t do it. From my extensive research the closest is Nodaiwa in Paris, an offshoot of the Michelin starred one in Tokyo! You know I love this dish so much that I recently went to Paris and ate it there. But then I wouldn’t be much of a cook if I didn’t try to make it myself too. I mean how hard can it be? Well it’s not that hard at all except for one caveat. You have to fillet them and eels are the most difficult fish to fillet. But after that it’s all downhill!

20131022-222820.jpg
Dispatch your eel
I’m assuming of course that you’ve bought a live one because what would be the point of buying a dead one? Eels go off very quickly so cook them as soon as possible. My preferred method of dispatch is to lock one up in a pot with a slurry of salt. An hour should do it. Remove the eel and scrape all the slime off its leathery skin. Cut off the long fins that run along the top and bottom.

Fillet
This is the hard part. Because of the shape of them and the tough leathery skin they’re tricky to fillet conventionally. But when you come upon a fish conundrum you just have to ask yourself “what would the Japanese do?” as no doubt they’d have come up with a simple elegant solution. In this case the shape and tough skin has been turned into an advantage. Make a small drill hole in the top right-hand corner of your largest chopping board (if you’re right-handed) and peg the head securely to it with the belly facing away from you. Make an incision behind the side fin and zip your knife along the backbone to release the top fillet and open the eel out like a fishy baguette. Cut out the guts (hardcore unagi eaters skewer these and grill them separately). Snip the backbone near the head and cut out the bone in one long piece starting at the head. The tough skin will make sure the head is still firmly pegged to the board so you can give it some power if the bone is being stubborn. This is a lot easier with a traditional Japanese style single-bevelled deba knife, a useful investment if you eat a lot of fish or have a knife fetish.

Steam and Grill
Cut the fillet in half and thread the two halves onto thin metal skewers so that they are easier to grill. You can grill the eel from raw with just a little salt if you prefer but if you want to brush them with kabayaki sauce then it’s better to par-cook the eel first as the the sauce is likely to burn over prolonged grilling. Very gently steam the fillets for 7 to 8 minutes before gently grilling them directly over coals brushing with the sauce:

Kabayaki Sauce 4 parts light soy, 1 part mirin, 1 part sake, 2 parts white caster sugar by volume. This is the basic sauce, simmer until thickened. I like to add star anise and a whole clove of garlic too.

The grilling should not be rushed, take your time, brush as often as you like with the sauce. I like to do it six or seven times on the flesh side only as I like to make sure the skin is nice and crispy and plenty of the fat has rendered off. Give the flesh a final lacquering before cutting into bite sized pieces. That’s it, told you it was easy. Just serve over a mound of tender Japanese rice and lashings of the sauce drizzled over the top. Or if you’re a real Japanese food nerd, give it another grill over a tabletop Konro before you pop into your mouth. Truly one of the best mouthfuls of food there is.

20131126-115803.jpg

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

The Bartons Arms

20131020-205624.jpg

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

Lewis’s of Moseley

There patently aren’t enough delis in Birmingham, which I believe is an indicator of the level of homecooking going on. Though supermarkets provide the essentials, you really aren’t going to find five types of dried Mexican chillies in them. For that you need places like Lewis’s sitting in its prime location between the Fighting Cocks and Bulls Head in Moseley Village. Along with the venerable (and musty) Nima it’s one of two whole delis in this suburb.

I wasn’t joking about the dried chillies, Lewis stocks a nice selection of Cool Chile Co’s Mexican stuff from corn husks and masa harina to tomatillos. He’s also got a spiffing line in Mediterranean goods which are the lifeblood of delis like his. Where else would your yummy mummies (and me) go to find Spanish Tapas essentials like Santo Domingo Pimenton De La Vera, Valdespino sherry vinegar, Brindisa chorizo or Perello Gordal olives? Interesting pasta shapes like bucatini and panettone at xmas? Or even Vietnamese summer roll kits.

There’s a limited but good selection of charcuterie and cheeses, some fresh seasonal veg including gorgeous heritage tomatoes. Fresh artisanal bread daily from Lucky 13 Bakehouse and cakes from the Bake Birmingham gents. Service is superbly friendly and best of all there’s seating so you can try everything whilst sipping an excellent Monmouth Coffee Company coffee. Just what every suburb in Birmingham needs, not another flipping Tesco Express. Gets busy on Moseley famers market day (4th Saturday of the month).

Lewis’s of Moseley
11 St Mary’s Row, Moseley, Birmingham B13 8HW
Tel: 0121 4499933

Loaf Community Bakery, Stirchley

Tom and Dom from Loaf have been rightly annoyed with me for not having put the fabulous Loaf Community Bakery on the Birmingham Food Map yet. A source of great shame; when we conceived the map project my plan was to post one item per day until we were exhausted of all options. However, it was not to be, due to burn-out from non-blog projects.

Yet, I don’t feel that bad, as I figure if you already read this blog, and are therefore an afficionado of the Birmingham food scene, you must know of Loaf already, which serves as a kind of beacon for those interested in food in the City. But anyway, sorry to Tom and Dom and pleased I can correct this wrong now!

So what to say about Loaf Community Bakery – originally a ‘bread club’, a subscription-based bakery run from Tom’s house and domestic oven, he has since harnessed the support of his community to set up a fully-fledged bakery and cookery school in a shop front on Stirchley High Street. Tom has strong ideas about the power of projects such as his, not just to supply great food, but to help communities ‘save’ their local high streets from shuttering and the inexorable creep of the major supermarkets.

The way I look at it: these guys bake what is easily the best bread in Birmingham, bar absolutely no-one. Properly made, hand-shaped crusty sourdough, part-rye loaves like the ‘Maslin’ and dark, treacly all-rye tin varieties. Great big bloomin’ bloomers, multi-grain loaves and specialty breads like focaccias and brioche. You might also find a sticky bun or two if they haven’t sold out.

It’s not just bread, there is a (most) weekly Friday lunch club called Stirchley Brewhouse, with a rotating menu of sandwiches and hot food, usually one meat and one vegetarian option, with Sarah Frost’s amazing cakes to have afters.

There are occasional pop-ups, including the highly-rated CANeat event which a no-choice set menu of progressive and innovative food (5* review from Paul Fulford).

There is also the cookery school which hosts a variety of interesting events. I have been on the Simply sourdough course which I can highly recommend, there are other bread-making courses, foraging, clay oven building, fish and seafood (run by blog co-writer Lap), pickling and preserves, and many more!

The opening hours are informed by the baking schedule, so it is open 2pm-7pm Tuesday-Friday and then they do an overnight bake on Friday so open 8.15am-2pm on Saturday. But not Sunday or Monday.

Loaf Community Bakery and Cookery School, 1421 Pershore Road, Stirchley, Birmingham

[mappress mapid=”30″]

 

 

 

 

 

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

photo (3) photo (2)

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

[mappress mapid=”29″]

 

 

Seoul Plaza, Selly Oak

What’s not to love about plucky little Seoul Plaza? For budding David Changs this Korean supermarket is the place to get your gochugaru (red pepper powder) and brine shrimp for making home-made kimchi, and your gochujang and ssamjang for bo ssam. There are also aisles for Chinese and Japanese ingredients, including a reasonable selection of fresh Chinese vegetables. You can pick up a decent Pi-Xian chilli bean paste here for fish-fragrant aubergines or mapo tofu. Those back from Japan with a hankering for Pocari Sweat will find it in the fridge, along with those weird drinks that look like they have frogspawn in (nope, never tried). If you can’t be bothered to make your own kimchi, you can also choose from their freshly-made options.

In the past few weeks, perhaps most excitingly for those desperate to find food in Selly Oak, they have started a hot food counter, serving takeaway rice, noodles, Korean fried chicken, fried dumplings, vegetable and pork dishes. The Korean fried chicken has a decent crust and decent sauce. A great deal for under a fiver. This is rapidly becoming our canteen for trips out from University campus.

They even have a small section for crockery and homewares, I got some nice Korean clay rice bowls here, perfect for serving kimchi jiggae. You can even pick up a rice cooker while you are there, or even an authentic Korean dedicated kimchi fridge, a snip at £700.

Seoul Plaza, 536 Bristol Road (down from and opposite Aldi), Birmingham.

Bowl of takeaway goodness from Seoul Plaza! My new lunch!
Bowl of takeaway goodness from Seoul Plaza! My new lunch!

[mappress mapid=”28″]