Birmingham's most exciting bar has just introduced their latest cocktail menu, their fourth such iteration and, as has been customary, the menu artwork will get almost as much of a buzz as the drinks. Couch, in Stirchley, has already won a raft of awards since opening in October 2019, including a place in the UK's best 50 cocktail bars. Next week they'll find out if their shortlisted spot for Class Magazine's Menu of the Year award will convert into their latest silverware. Having done music and movie inspired menus, with the help of Midlands-based artist, Alana Patchett, it was TV's turn to get a wave of the Couch wand. Co-founder, Katie Rouse, talked us through just a few of the 16-strong carte with a first look at some of that talking point menu artwork, and a little insight into the process...
"We start with around 80 TV shows we love and the trick is to whittle them down to 16, of different genres and nationalities. It's about a two month process and all four members of the team 'finish off' each others' creations. So, at its heart, every drink comes from one of us, with ingredients matched to the TV show — rather than the other way round — and final tweaks or changes made by committee."
"For this one we pegged ourselves on British ingredients, harking back through the eras the Blackadder series were set in: late medieval, Elizabethan, the Regency and, of course, the First World War. So we have mead as the base ingredient and fresh, untampered with, merlot grape juice. There's Plymouth gin as an accompaniment and an oak moss syrup. It's a floral, almost perfumed, number with earthy tones."
"This is our take on the classic Adonis cocktail, and it's a mix of lapsang tea gin, sweet vermouth and rose sherry. Lapsang tea's in there because, whether you've watched Eastenders once or a thousand times, you know Dot always has a cup of tea. What you don't know for sure is what's in it, but you can bet it's either tea or sherry. We infuse the lapsang into the gin to give it smoky qualities that, no doubt, Dot had, and the rose water gives it the floral kick of a laundrette; hopefully with rather a lot more panache. This one might be an acquired taste because an Adonis tends to be. But you should give it a try."
THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR "We wanted to keep this drink in the style of the West Coast, which is home to the original tiki movement where the famous Vic 'The Trader' Bergeron was responsible for tiki drinks like the Mai Tai. Here we've got Discarded Banana Peel Rum, Hennessy cognac, pineapple and pistachio. Discarded is the name of the brand, but also their ethos for reversing needless waste — so they align nicely with us on that — and the rum is unbelievably good. This one will be a crowd-pleaser, for sure. Originally the picture was of Will Smith, but then he slapped Chris Rock and we thought we should maybe switch it up to this legend."
"Probably my favourite drink on the menu and definitely my favourite TV show. I've watched it seven times all the way through. This drink's a mix of twelve-year Glenlivet Scotch, tomato Torino and balsamic caramel. The Glenlivet 12 is Tony Soprano's favourite drink, although he does love the 17 when he tries it. This cocktail would be £14, not £9.50, if we used that, though. Our play on a Rob Roy (a Scotch Manhattan), full tomatoes get vac-packed into sweet vermouth and put in the sous vide for two hours. We make a tomato consommé by blending tomatoes with a small amount of water and pectinex to split it, then it's coffee filtered once split. It's then cut one to one with my tomato vermouth, and the balsamic caramel is used as seasoning."
"Discarded grape vodka, fluffy orange juice, stone fruit and gooseberry: this is our most sustainable drink, made up of ingredients discarded in some of the other 15 on the menu. So, for example, for one drink we use orange peel and the juice from the orange goes into this. We make it fluffy — a little thicker — by adding xanthan gum. We also infuse the leftover fruit stones from other drinks into the Planet Earth. A bit like boiling meat bones to make a stock, there's plenty of flavour in them. The result is like a Sex On The Beach meets a Garibaldi."
We’re clearly gluttons for punishment. After all that Zoom-based immersion, it seems we now love going out for even more digitally enhanced fun. And we’re spoilt for choice for those inside games now the brief sun’s been and gone, with virtual reality on the high street and digital and experiential galleries becoming the way to see art. The newest treat is the UK’s first permanent immersive digital art gallery, opened in the heart of ol’ Cov last Friday, and a prominent feature of the City of Culture programme. The Reel Store, previously home to the Coventry Evening Telegraph, will now become a futuristic host to digitally projected art, inviting you to quite literally step into the gallery. Kicking off the otherworldly exhibitions is, appropriately, a mind-bender: exploring space through artificial intelligence. Machine Memoirs: Space, by internationally acclaimed artist, Refik Anadol, is now open and provides a 360-degree cinematic experience. Collaborating with NASA boffins, the exhibition uses artificial intelligence to present digital interpretations of space, based on two million images captured by NASA satellites, telescopes, and the International Space Station. Using machine learning, the computer sorts and categorises the photos to ‘understand’ them and then produces new interpretations, concocted by the machine itself. Artist, Refik, is a pioneer in the aesthetics of data and machine intelligence, bringing together the age-old arts versus science dichotomy. Using cutting-edge technology and big data (buzzword klaxon), he invites us all to explore what it means to be a human in the age of machines – without, thankfully, a robot overlord in sight. He says, “A collaborative relationship with machines can give us new insights, knowledge and the power to not only dream, but create a better world.” And this world looks stunning. Don’t miss it, with tickets starting from just £5. Tickets
TIME FLIES WHEN YOU'RE HAVING RUM
Huge, huge fact bomb: before rum, thousands of years ago, on the other side of the world in Asia, the Malay people produced a drink known as “brum” from fermented sugarcane. This city is duty-bound, then, to celebrate rum, our namesake’s little baby. And what better place than at the Birmingham Rum Festival? The Cuban Embassy, self-appointed home of rum in Birmingham (they stock more than 100 types), is again hosting the annual Festival on Saturday July 2, notching up their fifth one and making it better than ever. Celebrating rum in all its blends and distillations, they’ll be welcoming brands such as Diablesse and local crews Burning Barn and B Rum — the pineapple version of which is, by the way, excellent. The Festival promises to teach rum’s rich history alongside loosening your limbs, bringing the taste of the Caribbean to Moseley against the fitting backdrop of the beloved Cuban Embassy. Alongside the rum sampling, there’ll be authentic Caribbean street food and live music by resident house band, Rhythms del Toro, performing salsa, samba and reggae. Calling it: guaranteed sunshine in Moseley that day. Split into two sessions, there’s an afternoon ticket for daytime revelry (12 to 4pm), or evening shenanigans from 5:30 to 10pm, all starting from £15. Tickets
50% OFF AT THE OPEN ARMS
The Old Crown is Brum's oldest secular building and has existed since 1368. That's all well and good, but if you want to drink somewhere really old, how about in Warwick Castle, which can be traced back to 914 AD. The original castle was built in 1068 by William The Conqueror, who probably didn't have to put up with flat ham sandwiches and bloody Capri Sun straws, come meal time. If abysmal packed lunches are putting you off a trip to our region's best castle, then allow me to introduce you to The Open Arms and a whopping 50% off entry. Digbeth Dining Club will be back at the Castle with their giant outdoor pub and grub pop-up on May 27 to 29, and we've bagged you half price tickets on the Friday or the Sunday. Born out of lockdown, The Open Arms started out as an open-air beer garden but, since its inception, has gone on to welcome hundreds of thousands of early evening visitors, once the big crowds have cleared. The street food line-up includes stars of the scene, Tacos El Pap, Beef on the Block, Surf and Slice, Fat Snags and Flying Cows — the best burger on God's green Earth and, probably, even further afield. On music, Friday night's headliner is House Gospel Choir and Sunday’s is Norman Jay. Get 50% off entry on May 27 or 29 (no other dates, soz) by using code ichoose50in the orange padlock box.
Venue: Upstairs, 25 Bore St, Lichfield WS13 6NA; website Choice: Seven course tasting menu (£90) Chooser: The chef
One day I'll live in Lichfield. Not while it's under the troglodytic tenure of mouth-breathing moral vacuum, Michael Fabricant, but one day. Slotting into the higher echelons of 'pull factors' is Upstairs, the newly Michelin-starred first floor restaurant on Bore Street. The problem with falling in love with a sommelier, I found, is that during the two and a half hours you're with them, you'll do whatever they suggest. So when Upstairs' cork dork, Alex, recommends, for example, a sparkling dessert wine with your pud, you immediately find yourself nodding and the bill can, erm, progress accordingly. I'm not complaining, though. Not even close. Not only were Alex and the rest of the young team (almost all of whom wield the greatest accent on Earth) the most engaging and warm front of house crew I can remember in years, but they knew their stuff — in particular how to make a good birthday meal and f*cking memorable one. Almost worth spending the last two birthdays on a Zoom call for. Chef Director, Tom Shepard — whose CV includes Sous Chef to Michael Wignall at The Latymer, Development Chef at two-starred Restaurant Sat Bains and Head Chef at Brum's own Adam's — has a handshake that's strong like bull, but he also packs the most delicate of plating skills. He probably won't thank me, in fact, for using my own photo, which doesn't do his plate work justice, but I had to. This scallop and satay with coriander oil was, in a menu of rat packers, the Frank Sinatra. The shellfish was sizeable enough to treat yourself to big, Birthday Boy bites — three, four, five of them — before allowing the silky, delicately sweet scallop with its rich, buttery exterior to float, cocooned in your cheeks inside that satin satay sauce, then glugging it back with a bottle of Alex's outrageous Kallstadter Riesling, 2020 (£48). A coddled, creamy Burford brown — the king of eggs — comes with pea lettuce and hollandaise, a joy to burst and tumble across your fork, and then your tongue. It upstages a perfectly poached Atlantic cod, its parmesany crust too potent for my palette — maybe when I'm 43 I'll like cheese with fish. But no matter, the poached and smoked guinea fowl was a ten. Served with barbecued white asparagus, a zingy shitake mushroom ketchup, gratings of earthy oyster mushroom and an IPA jam (stick that on your croissant) the bird rests in a deep guinea fowl sauce and comes topped with hazelnuts. After a long stare into the plate, chewing slowly and effortlessly, day-dreaming, I raised my head only to see Alex on the other side of the room grinning, giving a double thumbs up. God, I love this place. Wiltshire lamb next, with sauce Robert (stop sniggering), barbecued spring onion and caramelised onion puree. The lamb was served pink, borderline red: just how I like it. A real blood and thunder dish, this one, packed with finesse but with a jus so deep you'll feel it in your shoes. The transition course is a Thai green curry, with coconut rice pudding, a mango salsa, mango sorbet (because you've got to have both), sweet Thai green curry foam, deep fried wild rice and coriander. It's about as mental as it sounds but earns its place on the menu as both a talking point and a preposterously good pudding segue. The dessert is a pastry éclair, topped with a savoury biscuit, filled with a caramelia ganache, banana crème diplomat, Pedro Ximenez gel and almond crumb granola, with banana ice cream and caramel. It's a cacophony of flavours and textures, like Wagner in Wonka's factory, but none too sweet, all so exquisitely balanced. I momentarily forgot myself and began eating mine like a hot dog. Perhaps the best thing about Upstairs is that every member of staff would have seen that as the highest compliment.Menu
MEET THE RAINMAKER
An extraordinary pop-up exhibition has graced a new Kings Heath Gallery and workshop space, where Precision Imaging once lived, near the library. Daniel López Villacañas, whose studio sits above the new Art Rooms, has filled the white walls with his inimitable sketches of Brum, as well as his — equal parts bizarre and brilliant — black rain pieces. Like the ones pictured, Daniel allows the rain to alter his work, and he'll do it on cardboard or anything 'ordinary'. "The joy of an artist," he says, "is to discover the unusual in everyday life, reflect on an ordinary object like a box, a window, a manhole, the rain marks on the walls; little things that speak of our surroundings and define ourselves. For me, this one, [speaking of the largest piece, pictured] reminds me of the markings behind drainpipes. That's what I like about it." Each to their own! Even Daniel's watercolours are affected by the trickle of water, this time rain being replaced in his studio by a spray bottle. From famous landmarks to disused buildings on Bradford Street, it's a remarkable collection from which originals start at £425, and reproductions start at just £30. Be sure to have a closer look at the cardboard box beside the front door, that you would have probably disregarded without a nudge. Marvellous, mad and easily worth 20 mins of your time. On until May 31, 12 to 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday. More
LOST AND FOUND
Unless you’re Samsung selling your latest earphones, it’s pretty clear women still experience implicit limitations in modern life. So: an apt time to explore women’s experience of the city through – shocker – women’s eyes. Found Cities, Lost Objects: Women in the City, curated by Turner Prize-winning artist and cultural activist Lubaina Himid CBE, is now in town. In the Gas Hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, the exhibition examines modern city life from a female perspective, with an impressive pedigree of female artists on show. Exploring the shared female experiences of urban life, different artists convey the privileges enjoyed, and boundaries faced, by women in the modern city, especially as its venues and spaces shift to new uses. On display until 4 September 2022, over 60 works feature and present the full rostra of modern and contemporary art, including painting, sculpture, photography and film from both the Arts Council Collection and Birmingham’s own collection. From Google Maps to A to Zs, place is the focus in the exhibition; seeing reimaginings of cities designed and built by and for women, questions over the sanctity of – and access to – different parts of society, and documentary photography capturing the life of the city from the female gaze. Former social worker, Helen Cammock’s There’s a Hole in the Sky Part II: Listening to James Baldwin (pictured), uses film and audio to stage an imagined conversation with the author, interrogating the history of storytelling, migration, and the dynamics of power; no doubt influenced by her own experience in social work. A fascinating insight into the contradictory experiences of women – free, but within limits – this is a must-see, with no ticket price but a ‘give what you feel’ to ensure there’s no barrier to seeing it. More
Tonight (May 19) Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham and 1000 Trades (JQ) launch a bi-monthly instalment of live music from around the world. More —
Midlands pop-up pub, Schooners, will be not so much popping-upping and more staying-putting when they open on Kings Heath's York Rd, where retro sweets and thingummy store 'I Had One Of Those' once was. The new owners promise to keep it local on craft beer, gin, rum and more. —
You'll know this by now but the brilliant Pause (coffee and cakes) is also making The Heath their permanent home. — Tickets are on sale for Brum's first roller disco-meets-nightclub, Rollerjam, from June 10 onwards. Let the broken ankles commence! —
For the first time ever The Oyster Club will be holding a tasting menu, June 9. —
A reminder that The Cuban Embassy, Moseley are doing 50% off food. Details —
Tickets are still available for Omid Djalili at Symphony Hall, this Saturday (May 21). £28
WORDS: Tom Cullen, Claire Hawkins
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