The World Wakes up to Birmingham’s Food

By now most of the newspapers have picked up on the New York Times’ choice of Birmingham as a “place to visit in 2012”. Generally stories plough the same tired furrow. After covering off the obligatory line of ‘Birmingham!? Really? Yeah, I know I bet you thought it was a shit-hole.‘ will go on to point out the regenerated Bull Ring and Selfridges, mention our three Michelin-starred restaurants, and perhaps the Balti Triangle (it’s got loads of curry restaurants!). Maybe a mention of the canals, of defunct industry and if you are lucky a little dig at the accent too. And Cup-a-Soup. And Tizer.

To many, this is all old news at this point.

So I was very happy to get the opportunity this week to speak to Nick Wyke from the Times and give him my (opinionated) view of the cities food offerings and perhaps help represent a more interesting view of Birmingham’s offerings.

And I was absolutely delighted yesterday when I read his piece that that he’d managed to get so many of my suggestions into the piece. Of course he mentioned the great Turners, Simpsons and Purnells but he also covered:

  • my favourite farmers markets, Harborne (2nd Saturday of the month) and Moseley (4th Saturday of the month), and a few local producers including Lightwood Cheese
  • the two best delis in town, Anderson and Hill and Capeling and Co
  • our burgeoning coffee scene including Urban Coffee Co and Six Eight Kafe
  • the incredible Birmingham Wholesale Market (save our markets!!) – mentioning sea urchins and alphonso mangoes, two seasonal imports available at this fantastic place
  • the Chinese quarter, including the Golden Pond where we like to have dim sum
  • alternative (and superior) options to the Balti Triangle: Lasan and Jyoti’s as well as stalwarts Al Frash and Al Faisals
  • my favourite meal of all: the dripping-cooked fish and chips at the Black Country Museum

I also re-iterated my thoughts that Birmingham has great high-end options and decent cheap eats (mainly Indian and Chinese) but very little in the middle bracket, with the exception of the awesome Carters of Moseley.

So now we have risen above the cliches, I am hoping this article (and this blog) will show the city council that there are other options than reflexively granting permission for new Nando’s, Pizza Express or Cafe Rouge when they sit down to plan.

In the long run, as demonstrated by the interest from the New York Times, this could do a great deal for Birmingham’s tourism industry as well as our own enjoyment of the city.

Restaurant Review: Viet An, Corporation St., Birmingham

The weather was bitter again this week so what better than a warming bowl of Vietnamese pho (pronounced fur) after work?

Viet An has been open 2 months, and cleverly, has built an early customer base with an initial offering via Groupon. For some reason I only tend to get sent offers for waxing and day spas on Groupon and I didn’t spot this offer.

Viet An has taken the place of a huge old pub opposite the magistrates court in this seldom-visited part of Birmingham (for me), near the children’s hospital.

Brightly coloured signs welcome you in, and the effect inside is psychadelic. The room has been cheaply decorated but has great charm. You are given a very warm welcome – proceeedings are run by a lovely Vietnamese grandmother, who speaks little English but bounds over to tell you how each dish should be eaten.

In fact the effect is so charming that I would be hard pressed to slag Viet An off even if the food was terrible.

Luckily it was pretty good. The menu is minimalist, usually a good sign, and kitschly illustrated. The usual Vietnamese staples are there, minus Banh Mi, a slight disappointment.

We fairly ordered the entire menu. Beer is a carry-over from the previous pub, being mainly crap brands on tap – hopefully they will import some Vietnamese beer soon.

Starters of Vietnamese spring rolls were great – crisply fried batter with a decent amount of pork filling.

Lotus salad had authentic flavouring with decent hits of mint, lime, fish sauce, chilli, garlic and peanut coming through.

The third dish of Banh Xeo was my favourite – the silky pancake batter could have been mistaken for an omelette. Slightly underseasoned, when added to the dipping sauce this was perfection.

Sizzling beef was unremarkable.

Just as we were getting full, the signature dish of pho bo arrived, a huge bowl with a decent amount of beef in it, as well as some little balls which were probably unmentionables. Chilli sauce and tuong (bean sauce) was supplied to pep it up a bit. A small plate of garnishes including some Thai basil could be added.

I could pick plenty of holes in Viet An if I was inclined – the pho stock wasn’t meaty enough, ideally it would be thick with gelatin from big old beef bones. The lettuce and carrot garnishes looked a little bit sad. The ingredients could be of better quality, and more Vietnamese herbs wouldn’t go amiss.

But Viet An is charming and authentic and also very cheap. Places like this should be encouraged.

Oh, and one final word of warning – it was absolutely freezing in the dining room so either go on a warm day or keep your jacket on!