Issue 258
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THE PUB THAT CHANGED A CITY

"You won't make this about me, will you? I was just the landlord." On September 30, Carl Finn handed back his keys to The Church, a brave, soul-filled pub that changed our city. It did pop-ups before pop-ups were a thing, it introduced New Orleans to Birmingham, it changed what we imagined a Saturday night could be, and from our first pre-opening lock-in to our final night on Hockley's greatest terrace, Carl's tenure at The Church has been one long personal series of Cheers. But let's not lament the departure of our favourite pub landlord, but bump virtual fists over his team's legacy, because it turns out The Church has produced an uncanny raft of great independents that will continue to look after you.
One week after getting the keys to the dilapidated Great Hampton Street pub, Carl had turned its back room into a pop-up (pictured, top). There were no tills and sometimes seemingly no electricity — your bill was chalked up on a board using a system we never fully understood. Carl invented cocktails on the spot, the best recipes recorded in a book, which formed the opening menu at The Church. From there, Burns Night, Mardi Gras and French Resistance Night followed, where we all donned Second World War gear and hid under the tables when the air raid siren sounded. There was a mass New Orleans-style funeral around the streets of the JQ, with its very own trailer, and a brass band to signal the end of the Secret Dining Society Carl had been perfecting his trade with. People loved it. "It was a different time" says the Stirchleyite. "The independent scene was pretty much non-existent in Birmingham, and we stuck proper cocktails and ska music in an old Hockley boozer." And it turns out, The Church served more than just its punters — "It was there to assist with what everyone wanted to do at that moment: we had the best opening team I've ever worked with."
Head chef Niki Astley was part of that team, introducing jambalaya and po' boys to the city. After less than two years in charge of the kitchen, he moved on to launch a restaurant of his own: Two Cats, which opened on Warstone Lane, bringing Baltic cuisine to the JQ. Fast forward to today and you'll find Niki's skilful Asian fusion food in the form of Salt & Earth and its permanent residency at 1000 Trades.

Also in the kitchen at launch, and living above The Church, sous chef Ben Morgan who went on to open Kanteen in the Custard Factory, doing a big trade in brunch and lunch — think super fresh tagines and all the cake.

On drinks, from the end of 2013, the maker of the best espresso martini in the world ever. Bar manager and all round lovely guy Amanjot Johal, launched 40 St Paul's, servers of the best gins in the world ever (and winners of Icons of Gins best bar 2018). And Aman'll still make you an espresso martini if you ask really nicely. 
The inordinate number of launches that can, in some form or another, be traced back to The Church, didn't end there. Just a year after its official opening, a side project emerged. Dom Clarke — a regular in the kitchen at special events at The Church — left Stirchley bakery Loaf to open a restaurant with Asian food sorcerer, Lap-Fai Lee. Dom went for a few beers with Carl, and two hours later it was decided they'd all open a bakery called Peel & Stone in partnership with The Church's brewery, Everards. First under the JQ's railway arches, where Thanksgiving complete with a whole goat was a standout night, then at the end of Harborne High Street, where baklava croissants arrived on the Brum scene, Peel & Stone's commercial arm got so busy the team eventually had to give up their shopfronts.

Dom stepped away from the bakery to launch the pride of Stirchley: CanEat. The unassuming cafe is putting out some of the most interesting brunching we've seen, and from Lap's Asian suppers, to kebab nights with the Original Patty Men, to an imminent Thanksgiving throwback to The Church's annual celebrations, their pop-ups are completely brilliant. On cakes? Jodie Lennon who, guess what, originally joined Peel & Stone as an apprentice. 

Further extending the Peel & Stone dynasty, and therefore The Church's lineage, is Salcooks — a joint effort from Sally White and Rute Jesus, formerly head chef and pastry chef at Peel. The pair offer Portuguese-inspired lunching, right where the JQ bakery used to sell you your lunch. And Portuguese custard tarts. Really good ones.

Bringing things right up-to-date, recent head and sous chefs of The Chuch, Neil McGougan and Keith Holland, are imminently opening bao bar, Tiger Bites Pig, on Stephenson Street — bao, rice bowls, beers and sake are what to expect, and it looks ace.
On the subject of The Church's incredible success rate, Carl thinks the reasons are pretty simple. "People I worked for were careful never to show me how their businesses really operated", he says "but we were always totally transparent on how The Church worked, giving people the tools to be brilliant while they worked for us, but also to go off and launch their own projects." For Carl, the catering industry isn't something you get into for the money but to be creative: "You can't trap people, they need to be allowed to move on and satisfy their inner monologue. We didn't get in the way of people — the rest was them — this really isn't about me." 

SUGAR PLUM BALLET


The Nutcracker. Along with morning mimosas, re-watching a badly-aged James Bond and chronic heartburn, the annual run of performances at the Hippodrome has become a proper Crimbo tradition for us. Sir Peter Wright’s production was gifted to Birmingham in 1990 (we only got him some smellies) and takes a trip through a winter wonderland via sizeable sets, snowflakes and an army of toy soldiers. Performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the production features the kind of Christmas dancing that’s unforgettable but in a totally good way. Throw in the creepy music from the old Alton Towers ads, The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and some 60 silver- sparkle-spray-painted dancers and you’ve got a true spectacle. November 23 to Dec 13, tickets are from £20.

FILM: FANTASTIC BEASTS 2


Potter heads will love this latest trip to their universe, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — and guess what, there’s an evil wizard whose assault isn’t quite baked in yet. Grindelwald (a bleached Johnny Depp) and his allusive relationship with Jude Law's charming young Albus Dumbledore is nuanced and interesting for non-heads, while real fans will find a ton of details and references to pour over. The underlying theme of politics within J.K Rowling’s world shows through the eyes of Alison Sudol’s character Queenie, whose love of her rounded Muggle lures her into trickery beyond her antics in the first film. Newt and his fantastic creatures once again charm us, and his love interest Tina (and she didn’t even see those baby Nifflers). Times & trailer

FESTIVE BITES & XMAS LIGHTS


Once you’ve witnessed Little Mix turn on the Merry Hill Crimbo lights, frankly no other guest switch-on compares. Good job then, that Edgbaston Village has got plenty of what’s really important to you for its 2018 Christmas Lights Switch On: food, tipples, and a real-life Rudolf. In between clapping choirs and santa spotting, the Edgbaston-wide gourmet pop-ups are where it’s at, so be sure to get your grub on. Simpsons is serving maple cured sausage hot dogs with onion mayo and crispy onions, dished up via their kitchen window, whilst The Edgbaston is on hot buttered rum and mince pies. On Nov 23 from 4pm until 7pm, register.

KONGS: KING OF THE HILL


There are two big openings in the city centre today. While we collectively curse Frankfurt's glad tidings, Brum can be fully jubilant about a Bristol-import. Kongs is bringing retro arcading, ping pong, beer and burgers to the old Chameleon site on Hill Street. Mortal Kombat, Streetfighter II, and Donkey Kong (of course) are part of the fixtures and fittings, with table footie, at 50p a game, to get you ready for permanent kitchen resident's Burger Theory, who have previously street-fooded in Brum. Double-bone wings (£4), loaded chilli-fries (£7.50) and lots of things with kimchi is what to expect from the menu, as well as patties like the Down n’ Dirty (£9), a burger with crispy bacon, cheddar and mozzarella, pink pickled onions, plus the wonderful sounding dirty burger sauce. Further details about the opening are still taking a while to load, but ping pong'll be just £5 for half an hour Thursday to Saturday and free the rest of the week, plus, like at the Bristol and Cardiff locations, there'll be ‘Play Your Vinyl’ nights where you can, err…you know. Ready player one? 
Venue: Migas, 5 Manor Road, Sutton Coldfield, B73 6EJ; Website 
Choice: Tortilla (£5); Chooser: The owner

It was April 2017 when we described the dining scene in north
Birmingham as "like being North of The Wall. Bleak. Desolate. Not worth the journey." There was uproar, people burned the ICB logo on the hardened streets of, oh I don't know, Four Oaks? Thankfully there won't be protests outside our tiny office this time round as things have improved massively. Lichfield's The Boat Inn has landed in the hands of excellent chef, Liam Dillon, Bodega has bought South America to Sutton Coldfield and now the ace El Borracho team have launched cosy, happy Migas, next door to the presumably panicking ASK Italian. Migas. Te amo. So utterly worth the journey. Veggie options were the standouts with the team's tortilla, fluffy and alive. Layered with buttery Tetilla cheese and piquillo peppers, one guest, who spent three years living in Barcelona, described it as the best tortilla he'd ever had. Our waiter's top pick, a simple aubergine and sesame seed number in sweet molasses (and therefore vegan) had us all demanding the recipe. While on seafood, the octopus, that comes heart-shaped, was charred to perfection, improving by the bite until a small squabble broke out for the final meaty mouthful. Make sure you get some table bread ordered, too, the sauces were scoop-upably unmissable. Menus
 
Tickets for the excellent Verve Poetry Festival are now live. It's taking place Feb 14 to 17 next year.
The Paperdolls have got a market-full of independent makers, designers and artists for your viewing and buying pleasure at the Custard Factory on Saturday. Entry is free.
A few tickets remain for Loki's humungous wine and spirits fair, also this Saturday. At Malmaison, tickets are £25.
Moseley's Zindiya is on food at Kings Heath's The Juke from 1pm right through to 10pm. Yum to that. More


"It's the fate of most Ping-Pong tables in home basements eventually to serve the ends of other, more desperate games."


Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001)



 
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WORDS: Katy Drohan, Tom CullenRobb Sheppard, Andrew Lowry
PICTURES: Jack Spicer Adams (Carl in the pop-up bar), Lionel Taplin (Kongs)
DESIGN: Common Curiosity (Church graphic)

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