Issue 377
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I'm always wary about trips to London. One time I went there and stayed for 13 years — be careful, that's all I'm saying. My last visit, conversely, was a gem. A look at Vagabond, Battersea, the spiritual home of the next London brand to open in our nation's capital city, Birmingham. Here's a first look inside the new Colmore Row wine bar that opens tomorrow (October 29) alongside a natter with Vagabond's Harbonite MD, Matt Fleming, and their own winemaker-in-chief, José Quintana. 
It's hard not to feel a dash of pride that Birmingham's Vagabond will be the first outside London. Good operators, there's no doubt the company will have done their due diligence and decided that Brum more than aligns with their brand when it comes to quality expectation, passion for food and drink, openness and absolute zero snobbery. That pride swells when you hear Matt Fleming talk about his homecoming. "Birmingham has wild growth potential. The city I left in the 90s is a very different place to the Birmingham of today. It is one of, if not the most, exciting and vibrant cities in the UK. It's fast moving, it's inclusive and it's absolutely the first city we need to be launching into." Is he concerned that Brummies will be standoffish to another arrival from London? "Not a bit. I actually find that Brummies, contrary to perhaps citizens further north, are very receptive to new brands if they can see, right off the bat, that the newcomer adds to the city. And that's exactly what we'll do. We'll add to Birmingham." Matt's also quick to allay fears that are all too often realised in Brum, when a London brand launches here with an A-Team of staffers brought up from the big smoke for the first month, that soon migrates back south. "Not us," says Matt. "The pressure of leaving London and becoming a national brand means that every venue now has to deliver on the expectation of the first venue in Fulham. I can see why standards drop when companies swell fast, but we're growing at a gentle pace and with an ethos that means the exact opposite. We will deliver the same standard of excellence we do in London because our brand name relies on it. Besides," he adds with a chuckle. "I've got to make nice wine bar for my mom who still lives in Brum, and there's no way she'll stand for second best."   
For two years Vagabond have been looking at Birmingham locations, waiting for exactly the right spot. Paradise's new builds were considered for long periods before settling on 92-98 Colmore Row, where they will do proud with the former bank site that Chilango, the previous tenant, really didn't. Inside, it's beautiful, the building’s rich heritage given a new lease of life, existing original features used to add character and charm. Exposed brickwork and girders given space to breathe, the tall ceiling and grandiose building stature softened with well considered lighting and big flashes of greenery. They've even set about transforming the old basement vault into a private tasting room that, when open further down the line, will be be see-it-to-believe-it stuff. They have previous when it comes to old banks, their Monument site being exactly that, and our building is treated with equal respect and sympathy, Chilango's 'wacky' giant wrestling murals consigned, thankfully, to history. The 200 capacity Brum bar will offer guests a selection of wines from around the world – as well as a choice of 10 self-poured draught beers, spirits and cocktails. All wines are available via self-dispensing wine machines, which the brand has used since opening its first bar in 2010. The machines can be controlled via an app on guests’ phones. Birmingham will also be where Vagabond launch their own gin [below] and vodka and, in two weeks time, their own take on an Old Fashioned and a Negroni will follow. They're not doing this by half. "I'm more proud of this Vagabond," says the MD "than I am of any of the previous locations."   
Where to begin? There are, literally, over 100 to choose from, which can be dizzying for the non-aficionados. Fear not, guidance is at hand. Just let the team know what you tend to like. It doesn't even need to be a wine you mention as a jump-off point, just whether you're into fruitier tastes, sweeter or drier. Any clues you can give will help them direct you to a winner, and they'll do so with no pomposity whatsoever. That really was the overriding feeling I left with. It's accessible and interesting to all levels. If there's no staff member on hand and you want to dive right on in, the wines are apportioned into handy tasting brackets. Have a look for the coloured labels on each of the dispenser wines that read: "Spicy" or "Bold" or "Fruity" or 'Crisp" or "Vibrant". They really are pitching wine for everyone, and it works. For me, there were a number of standouts. A Chilean cinsault named Pedro Parra 'Trane' (named after John Coltrane) was a reductive, almost tarmacky number — a real walloping wine experience. But perhaps the biggest eye-opener was Vagabond's own line of English made options. Grapes grown right here and made into wine at their Battersea bar and working winery. Pick of the bunch (all of which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best value wines they sell) is their Crianza Rioja 2016, which pulls you fascinatingly in two directions. At first it hits your palate with a serious 'POW' but it finishes like a warm hug — a crowdpleaser, no doubt. Buy by the bottle would be my advice, using the taster machines for the pricier numbers.
Vagabond's head winemaker, José Quintana, runs the winery in Battersea and does so with the sort of palpable enthusiasm that might attract TV producers one day. "How many people does it take to make English wine?" he opens with. "Four. One victim, two people to pin him to the floor and a fourth to pour the stuff down his throat." It's an oldie, but it takes on a whole new tongue-in-cheek quality when delivered by a man who's on the frontline of changing exactly that opinion. "It's time for English wine to be drank not as a comparison to other wines," says José. "But as a wine in its own right. And a wine that's proud to be unlike any other wine on Earth." José took us on the entire journey from vineyard to glass and, though it was too long a trip to replicate here, how he finished stuck with me. "Two of our Vagabond wines," he said "Bacchus and Ortega — are both grown in Oxfordshire vineyards meaning they're as much Birmingham's wine as they are London's." 
Such is their commitment to wine that it would be easy for the food to feel like an after-thought. Not a bit of it. Within six weeks of opening his first venue in Fulham in 2010, founder Stephen Finch realised how pivotal the food would be. The usual cheese and charcuterie boards are, of course, an option but it's the hot food I want to usher you in the direction of. The sharing steak platter (£35) consists of roast hanger steak that's been previously sous vide with garlic butter, thyme and rosemary and served medium with parsnip crisps, roasted shallots, rocket and either blue cheese dressing or chimichurri. It marries brilliantly with the aforementioned Rioja Crianza. "Hardly the most molecular-sommelier avant-garde partnership," says Matt. "But when things work why meddle?" Traditional Spanish crispy croquettes Iberico, with serrano and bechamel (£6.25) are lightly crumbed, creamy clouds of comfort.  "What could be more Vagabond than partnering a wine from an obscure German grape grown in verdant fields near Didcot with a Spanish taverna staple?" says Matt teaming the croquettas with 2019 Vagabond Ortega. "Granted it’s not a combo you will find in the Larousse encyclopaedia of Gastronomy, but it works a charm."
The Vegan flat bread pizza (£11) is a full meal, no doubt, and will work wonders as a lunch-time filler. Roasted aubergine and courgette with sun dried tomatoes, Italian tomato sauce, piquillo red pepper dressing and rocket, pair it up with the 2019 Maria Bonita 'Nostalgia' Alvarinho. "If Alvarinho sounds familiar," says Matt "it’s the Portuguese name for the grape known as Albarino in Spain and the world at large. While it’s traditionally served with mountains of shellfish, it's vegan-friendly, so why not keep the vegan purity intact and try it with the sunny flavours of our vegan flat bread? The tangy crisp grape is given a bit more substance thanks to some grape skin maceration which gives it a bit more chew and weight than some. Very of the moment." But the champion of the food options was, for my money, the roasted chorizo in red wine. Whatever witchcraft they've performed on those taut-skinned halves of porky potency, is beyond me. Piled high with a well of rich red wine jus at the base (bread or truffle fries for dunking are a must) the sausage is flamed and charred, juice spilling from its pores, the snack snapping at the bite and unleashing deep, wallowing flavour. "Team them up with Atance Bobal, 2019," says Matt "an unusual banger of a wine." 
Vagabond are offering everyone a free glass of their homegrown wine. All you have to do is subscribe to their mailing list here. Once done you'll receive a confirmation email to say you're subscribed and, shortly after, you'll receive another email containing your free wine voucher*. But don't wait on that. Get yourself into this gleaming new gem in Brum's F&B crown. Colmore Row's back, baby, and Vagabond's leading the charge.   

T&C: Voucher is valid from Nov 1 to Nov 30 at Vagabond Birmingham. It entitles you to a 125ml glass of Vagabond House Rioja or Sauvignon Blanc, or a glass of Vagabond Urban Winery wine


Stand-up and the movies haven’t always had a great relationship. Think the Tom Hanks and Sally Field vehicle Punchline, which inexplicably includes a backstage locker room, instantly making live comedy look like your local leisure centre. Or Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen’s Funny People, which couldn’t stick the landing after such a rollicking start. If you were going to attempt the perfect stand-up comedy movie, you’d do well to chart the rise of Slim, the former bus driver turned comedian, who worked his way to circuit legend status but, for whatever reason, couldn’t quite catch that key break... Until now! After more than 20 years in the game, Slim recently filmed a slot on the iconic Live At The Apollo, to give that would-be Hollywood movie the perfect Rocky-esque ending (actually, scratch that – Apollo beats Rocky in the first one, whereas Slim slayed the Apollo). In one enchanted evening, it felt like payback for Slim’s years of nightly graft, which has seen the pride of south London hone his innate likability, physicality and sheer funny bones, wowing audiences across the world in the process. This is your chance to see a master of his craft (Friday, November 5, at the Crescent Theatre) weave his magic before his glorious Apollo appearance hits our screens. You'll leave puffing out your cheeks wondering why Slim hasn't been a household name for years; it doesn't matter. It's happening now. £22


Professional brain tamperer and BAFTA nominated writer-producer Jed Mercurio (Line Of Duty, The Bodyguard) headlines the Midlands’ first ever TV festival, November 5 to 14 at MAC. Square Eyes TV Fest will be delving into boob tube’s past, present and future at a time when Brum is finally putting itself back on the televisual map. Mercurio and executive producer Simon Heath look back over six series of the hit BBC cop show, talking about its Midlands roots (filmed in Brum in the early days), the divisive ending to series six and the show’s future (£10). Elsewhere, join actor Cathy Tyson as she looks back on her extensive TV career, including Channel 4 mini-series Scully, Kay Mellor’s hit ITV drama Band Of Gold and the 1990 Pebble Mill production Out Of the Blue (£8). There'll also be a live panel discussion examining the most recent series of David Lynch’s cult hit Twin Peaks where you'll watch a key episode on the big screen (£10), while one weekend will be dedicated to classic television unearthed by Midlands archivists. Kaleidoscope features rarities and unseen clips from shows like Doctor Who and Monty Python, as well as a visit from chatty Rainbow legend Zippy. And lastly stand-up comic Joe Rooney will be on hand for a night of all things Father Ted, having played the rebellious Father Damo in classic episode The Old Grey Whistle Theft (£15). Full schedule  


SHOUT, the festival of queer arts and culture for Brum and beyond, has announced its programme for the 2021 event, which will run over three weeks in November. The festival presents a broad range of queer culture, reflecting the kaleidoscopic diversity of LGBTQ+ communities. It opens with an all-female queer comedy night at the Glee Club, then leaps across genres ranging from Kathak dance to heavy metal, and embraces stories from 1930s Spain to the contemporary Middle East. Artists explore issues from the giving and taking of offence to abuses of power, from online expressions of masculinity to the historic erasure of trans people. It’s a whirlwind three weeks of workshops, exhibitions, theatre, dance, films, talks, music and creative experiences, in ten different Brummagem venues as well online. Lots of events are free, and most of the rest are just £10 or less. More


Well Douglas is going places. And I don't just mean a phone booth on Temple Row, I mean he has the comedic gift and peculiar entertainment wherewithal to attract TV. Until that day comes, you'll just have to put up with joining him, this time as 'The Magnificent Dwayne', as he takes calls from the afterlife right by Pigeon Park, October 30, 5.30pm (free). His event details are typically scant but check out the video and go and see a bizarre rising star. Plenty more pop-ups are coming to that very phone booth, by the way. Actually though. It was the last working red telephone box in town, but was axed in 2018 when vandals did what vandals do. Since then Brum artist Imbue and his friend Jay, who owns street food good guys Pietanic, picked it up at auction and have set about making it into an arty, pop-up place. They have Provide, Pip's Hot Sauce, Space Play and more lined up.  
Venue: Qbox, 49 High Street, Harborne; B17 9NT; website 
Choice: Apple (£10) Chooser: Dan

I've been ill. [Violins]. Not, you know, *the ill*, but definitely a man flu variant. Coming out of it, I was absolutely desperate to not have to leek and potato soup for the 49th time, but also thought it best I didn't sit in a restaurant. Time to try Qbox. The idea of former Simpsons chef Dan Sweet, it's a funky little Harborne kitchen with all the high-end restaurant requirements but in diddy form, meaning Dan can put out exceptional takeaway, but there's no dining in. The ever-changing menu offers lunch, dinner and Sunday roasts, from Thursdays to Sundays. No fault of Dan's but worth saying, the 15-minute transition time from Harborne to Stirchley (home) did no favours on the temperature of the food, so do be within easy striking distance of the venue. But even that didn't hide the incredible calibre of the cookery. There's a homeliness to his dishes (his nan being his first food mentor when he was about six) but with the obvious elevation of a man who's spent years in a Michelin-starred kitchen. The barbecued chicken breast with smoked confit leg was rich but never heavy. Deep chicken sauce sat weirdly well on a crisp lettuce wedge, dusted by the poultry fairy in a fine chicken skin crumb. Potato and onion terrine (layers of potato with lashings of burnt butter and soft onions) felt nourishing and snug, but the confit onion had flatlined from the lengthy journey and needed 5 minutes in the CPR oven to revive it. Truth be known, I shoved it in the fridge overnight and bought it back to life the next day for lunch and it was great — the more you over order on takeaway, the better value it is, as my GP always tells me. The absolute standout, though, and fitting in a nominative determinism way, was Chef Sweet's 'Apple'. When I arrived to collect, diners were queueing up just to order this pud. And wow! Apple bavarois is filled with apple compote served with baked marzipan, apple marigold and apple blossom. I, like 93% of the planet, don't like marzipan, but it was either hidden away or playing so merrily with the rest of the dish, that it failed to disturb. On the contrary, every mouthful was black-belt level lovely. If you regularly feel a little bit disgusted with yourself after a takeout, Qbox is the antidote. And if you've been poorly [violins], I can't think of a better way to celebrate being on the mend. Just make sure you're geographically Harborne-able. Dan's food deserves it.


On the cycle ride to work today, in Highgate, I got surrounded by a flock seagulls fighting over chips. I won't lie, it was the least magical experience of my year so far. Conversely the most magical experience of my year — and probably (although I'm not quoting them) the most magical experience of my kids' years too — was the falconry show at Warwick Castle, that we witnessed on Monday. The big thing for Warwick right now is their Haunted Castle Halloween theme that runs throughout October. It is excellent. Genuinely funny actors playing ghoulish parts, there's the Witches of Warwick concocting powerful potions, the all new Upscares Downscares show (quite scary) and the crowd-pleasing Horrible Histories Maze. There's a Troll Hunter School, the Haunted Hollows trail, the Witches Tower and loads more. But there is no doubt in my mind that the falconry display is one of the West Midlands most spell-binding experiences. Check out this video I shot of an owl almost carrying my four-year-old away with it. Well, okay not really, but these giant birds of prey skim over the heads of visitors and it is, no hyperbole, mesmerising. Make sure you arrive at the show (there are two per day) with plenty of time to get a bench seat and if you miss out on a bench, sit just left of them as you look at the river. From £26 per person when booked online in advance. That includes falconry. More
Sixes Social Cricket are bringing their bars and batting nets to the Mailbox from December 16. Booking are now open.

All of the city centre's Christmassy goings on, on one handy landing page. Worth bookmarking this as it has everything from the Frankfurt Market to the more Brum-focused one in Pigeon Park, all the way over to what the JQ has going on, and loads more.

Rugby stars Mike Tindall and James Haskell head to Birmingham as they tour their podcast The Good, The Bad And The Rugby. They'll be at The Alexandra Saturday, May 28. Tickets go on sale tomorrow (October 29) here, from £35.

Isaac’s, the New York-style brasserie on Barwick Street, will serve Thanksgiving dinner for one night only on Thursday, November 25. The full menu looks immense. Crab and chilli donuts? £45

Still seats available for comedian Geoff Norcott who plays The Old Rep tonight, if you're at a loose end. £17.74

YOLK looks like a high-end Mr Egg delivery service, and I'll be ordering as soon as possible. Does egg travel well? Hope so. Instagram, Uber Eats
Digbeth Art Space in the Zellig Building (Custard Factory-ish) have a Halloween Fest-Evil of 20 artists, Saturday (Oct 30).
If you've not managed to watch the brilliant Paradise Lost movie, detailing the demise of the Central Library, then it's showing at Artefect (Stirchley), Saturday November 6. £5

Vegan food gods Plant + Pulse are popping up at the equally god-like Anchor pub in Digbeth every Friday and Saturday. More 
WORDS: Tom Cullen

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