Issue 384
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A quick office straw poll suggested that the 19,000 strong I Choose Birmingham audience didn't need my ready-written 4,000 word long read on why we need to burn Secret Santa to the ground. So, I'm afraid you're stuck with a nose around the most exciting neighbourhood launch of 2021 — welcome inside Chapter. 
If you've been hiding under a rock for the last year, firstly, fair play; is there space for the rest of us? And secondly, you may have missed the news that Chapter is the phoenix from the flames of Opus, the beloved city centre restaurant that closed in May thanks to the Panny D and (although the owners never really mentioned it) a three-year period encased in scaffolding. Ann Tonks, Irene Allan and Ben Ternent, the trio behind the new Edgbaston venture, were collectively heartbroken by the closure of Opus, but speaking to them now are, unequivocally, focused on Chapter and the future. I, on the other hand, am stuck like Matthew McConaughey, behind an Interstellar-shaped bookcase of the past, and thus cannot help but compare the two. I already prefer the new place.
Opus, for all its qualities (namely well-priced, exceptional food), always felt like it skewed its priorities a little too far towards the business community. You can't blame them, positioned plum in our central business district; it made basic commercial sense to play to that strength. But in the natural warmth of Ann, Irene and Ben, and their ability to recruit staff with similar geniality, a suburban restaurant with all the Cheers-esque 'everybody knows your name' qualities that can come with it, was always where the future lay, even if none of us — probably them included — knew it.
The biggest difference, the centrepiece on which the entire venue pivots, is the open kitchen. The hum and hubbub Chef Director Ben and his team create, fills the restaurant and bar areas. Not in a distracting way — far from it — but in a 'background bustle' kind of way. And, as anyone who's ever met Ben will confirm, your dining focus is very unlikely to be disturbed by the sound of a pan being hurled across the kitchen. He's one of the nicest chefs I've ever met and he and his team (most of whom came across from Opus) are now front and centre — where they deserve to be — having been hidden away through no choice of anyone's in the previous incarnation. In Ben's words it took his team "hours not days" to get used to their new setting; the benefits being not just to the customer: "It's great to feel part of the restaurant," he says. "Being able to see a busy dining area while we cook is as much a positive for us working there, as it is for guests popping in."

If you're one for watching a professional kitchen operate, there are prime bar-height seats, with bar-height tables peering down and into the action. There are very few better dining spots in the city and my plan is to sit there so often they feel duty-bound to have some sort of plaque made for me.   
"The aim was to create a bar and restaurant that was vibrant but relaxing," says interior designer, Suzanne Barnes. "We wanted to give separation to the bar and restaurant, but also allow the space to feel as one. The inclusion of a raised floor to the bar area and, in turn, a viewing gallery into the kitchen, creates the theatre." Suzanne's combination of dark colours, geometrics, and burnt orange, textured walls all add to the ambience. I could (and will) stay for hours. 
"As a neighbourhood restaurant we really want to emphasise the accessibility of Chapter," adds co-owner, Ann. "Table settings are minimal, with no table cloths; we have an extensive children’s menu, and dogs are welcome in the bar lounge. But I think the vibrant, warm décor and that view into the kitchen really lend themselves to a lively buzz." She's not wrong. As customers began to stream in, Chapter found a certain pep that was missing back at Opus. A verve, perhaps, only truly found in a neighbourhood setting. Somewhere you can feel as at ease sat at the bar in tennis gear as you would having a bite with a business contact in the restaurant. That's a demonstrably tough balance.
That ethos of inclusivity transcends the restaurant, with the Chapter team commissioning brilliant Stirchley bakery, Ten Four Bakehouse, for fresh bread daily. The beers come in from Birmingham Brewing Company and Southsiders, Quarter Horse Coffee Roasters, are on 'Joe' duty. Ann's business partner Irene even stumbled upon Pershore-based Cosy Chocolate Company at the Edgbaston Village Market, which runs monthly on Greenfield Crescent, where Chapter sits. Cosy now provide all the restaurant's hot choc needs. On a national level Chapter puts exactly the same stock into provenance as Opus always did: Aubrey Allen meats, Channel Fisheries, M&J Seafood, Worcester Produce and The Hampshire Cheese Company all doing what they do best.    
So, how about the food? Well the beef brisket (below) was, in a word, beautiful. The salt beef is braised slowly for six hours with vegetables and herbs. When cooked, the chefs press the brisket in a homemade pepper rub, creating their version of pastrami. It's then cubed and added to the potatoes and sautéed onions, with a duck egg topper. At £12 this sits so sweetly in terms of quality of produce and price. Imagine what chain restaurant,The Ivy, would charge.

The only other dish I've tried (although I'm booked back in already) was the Agnolotti. Handmade by Head Chef Nathan Swift, the pasta is filled with roasted butternut squash, laced with toasted mixed seeds for texture. It’s served with grilled broccoli, brown butter sauce and crispy sage and, at £10, is worth every penny twice over.

But don't just take my word for it on the quality of the dishes — Tiger Bites Pig and Tierra Tacos owners, Neil McGougan and Ed Shawcross were there when I was in; two guys who know a thing or two about fine food. I received a message from Neil shortly after that simply read: "If there's a better full English in the city I've not had it. Can't wait to go back."
That reasonable price point maintains even in the evening, where cod, chicken and mushroom mains all top out at £19. Fillet steak aside, it's impossible to spend more than £26 on a main and with this level of talent behind the dishes, I'll be amazed if the quality doesn't sing, top to bottom. Like Neil, I plan on finding out. 

Another stark contrast to Opus is in how child-friendly Chapter is. I mean, Opus was never a kid 'no-go' zone but the white table cloth was always almost too tempting a canvas. Chapter, on the other hand, has one of the most smile-inducing kids' menus you'll come across. Far from an after-thought, the menu itself is dedicated, in writing, to Layton, Philippa, Scarlett, Lottie and Rory, all offspring of members of the kitchen team and all with kid-friendly mocktails named after them. Roast chicken, mac 'n' cheese with broc is £12, but there are bags of £6 options that look like little person winners.

In January, Chapter will also launch their bar menu, with a pastrami sandwich currently listed at £7.50 and goat cheese tart at just £7. Whether these prices will be the same in six months, only time will tell, but shuffle this independent beacon of hope to the top of your 2022 To Do List. 
For more details, including menus and bookings, visit the Chapter website


Spaniard, Daniel López Villacañas, has the ability to paint Birmingham in ways many won't. Originally from Andalusia, Daniel moved to Cuenca as a teenager when his mum started teaching at the local school of art. After an international scholarship to study in Havana he came to the UK in 2015, purely to learn English, which he couldn’t speak a jot of despite learning from a young age. "You have to immersive yourself in it, I think." he says. In Brum, he met his partner and decided to stay, in Kings Heath. Daniel works with all sorts of media; from ceramics, photography and digital art, to paintings like acrylic on canvas, watercolour and inks on paper. He describes his work as 'experimental-conceptual' and that seems apt. Take his 'Black Painting' collection, for example. Using Indian ink on medium to large-scale abstract drawings, he'll finish the piece by taking it outside and letting the rain have the final say. When he's not asking Mother Nature to mess with his creations, Daniel often produces landscapes and cityscapes with walnut ink on 100% cotton, like New Street Station, above. "It's a very complex technique," he says with increasingly classic continental vivacity. "Water moves on the paper, it's alive, speaking for itself. The light comes through from the paper, runs down and plays with natural conditions like gravity. Painting with watercolour requires control and a fine balance between the water on the paper and the brush. You need a great understanding of light. I’m often looking for colour, depth, atmosphere and drama from the sky and from reflections. I absolutely love the drama of Birmingham. I love registering how this amazing city is changing. I find so much beauty in it — the greyness and moodiness. I love the contrast between historical buildings, amazing industrial places and 21st Century glass towers. I find it bizarre, eclectic, even exotic." Although Daniel dabbles in landmarks, my favourite works of his tend to be the lesser-known Birmingham spots that you may or may not recognise: a row of rooftops in Kings Heath, an unremarkable section of Lee Bank Middleway (below), the detours around Paradise, even. Originals, like these, (about 10 inches x 12 inches) tend to cost circa £300, but prints cost from £30. Follow Daniel on Instagram to keep up to speed on new work. Shop


Sure, the Brexit vote was a close call, but I Choose Birmingham's internet-shaking Twitter poll, this week, shows that 51% of Brummies don't actually like Christmas pudding. That's (*gets calculator out*) about one in two people. I'm not saying that mass sociopolitical upheaval is required, but what I am saying is that a desserty alternative might be wise. Step forward Kings Heath's Early Bird Bakery and their raft of amazing delicacies. Best sellers are, obviously, the mince pie and pastry big hitters, but for a finesse finish to Big Day™ din-dins it's all about the Baileys Entremet (above, £40). A beaut base layer of crispy cereal and milk chocolate supports indulgent chocolate Guinness cake, with Baileys and chocolate cremoux, hazelnut praline, milk chocolate mousse and milk chocolate glaze. All thriller, no filler, it's the Xmas pud-conquering queen of afters. You're forgiven (with a verbal warning) if you've not been to The Early Bird, yet; the suburban star in South Birmingham's bakery crown. Three years old now, Kings Heath probably can't imagine a life without it, such is the care and love that goes into both the products and the service. Aside from the Entremet, the bakery also has lemon meringue tarts, gluten free clementine and almond cakes, panettone and frangipane, to name a few. They're doing delivery (£3) to all B postcodes on December 22, 23 or 24 (your pick) with collection also available. All items will arrive in presentation boxes or gift wrapped, and you can include a gift message. If you are popping in, though, Early Bird's homemade ice cream is otherworldly, while the cute-overload Santa hat cakes (below, £4.50) and snowman cheesecakes can be found flying off the counter. Not literally. That would be dangerous. More


An absolute must-see series of photographs taken by documentary photographer Janine Wiedel, in and around Brum's industrial heartland, is on show at The Hive, in the Jewellery Quarter, until January 7. 'Vulcans Forge' has nothing to do with living long and prospering and everything to do with coal mining, iron and steel mills, chain-making, forging and the JQ itself. In the late 1970s, industries were struggling against the advances of tech, minging international exchange rates and decades of underinvestment. Small factories were being replaced by mass production. Even before the ravages of that there Thatcherism, the coal and steel industries were battling for their future. The exhibition has around 200 original prints from 1979 and provides a fascinating historical, as well as personal, insight into the working lives and industries that no longer exist and indeed are often viewed negatively within the context of the global search for alternative energy sources. "As I got deeper into my subject I began to feel that much of Birmingham could well belong to Vulcan’s people: sons of fire, casting their thunderbolts,” says Janine.  In 1977, American Wiedel was awarded the West Midlands Arts Bursary and spent the next two years documenting its five counties. She converted an old VW van, which provided her with both a home and a darkroom while she was working in the area. “Gravitating towards the rundown, industrial wastelands below Spaghetti Junction and wandering amongst the Victorian remains, I was always aware of the loud banging noises coming from the small workshops running alongside the canals. Historically, Birmingham was referred to as ‘the workshop of the world’ — ‘the city of 1,000 trades’. It was here the Industrial revolution began. Remnants of this history could still be felt, and I set out to discover how much of this world still existed, and to document working lives that were in danger of disappearing.” Janine had previously photographed the Black Panthers and student protests in the United States, Inuit communities on Baffin Island and spent five years, on and off, documenting Irish Travellers. Having spoken to Janine, her story is one of the most fascinating I've heard in many years; a fish out of water, but one with the wherewithal and nouse to flourish. I would love to have written more about her but this is the last email of 2021 and the exhibition will finish the day after the next issue, on January 7. Do go along if you can — it's one of those collections where you'd give anything to be able to speak to the subjects, just for a minute. The guys below, for example. Imagine asking them about their lives. It's free and totally COVID compliant. More


There are two kinds of people in this city: 50 bus people and 11 bus people. Me? I'm 50 bus people, mainly because when I was 12 I stayed that night at my friend Nirmal's house and in the morning he put me on the 11 bus to get me home, but he put me on the one going in the wrong direction. So that journey took over three hours and I've not been on one since. Regardless of your preference in that double decker, Jets versus Sharks debate, both are celebrated in a new print from Rotunda Industries. "The idea for the print," says artist Dave Twist, "is that it's in the style of Sex Pistols designer Jamie Reid's classic 'Pretty Vacant' poster. Where the personal connection comes in for me — the memory of the 50 night service bringing me back to The Maypole for that extra trudge home to the Hollywood estate, after yet another punk show at Barbarella's, circa 1977. The teenage days of getting the Number 11 and heading over to Winson Green the long, long way, for band rehearsals. That original Pistols' design had the bus destinations as 'Nowhere' and 'Boredom' — which seemed about right for the outer circle." Rotunda Industries is a small B14-based team of musicians and creatives producing the kind of Birmingham-celebrating apparel and accessories that seem to resonate with I Choose Birmingham's audience. Founded in August 2021, their stuff has been worn by Joe Lycett, John Taylor of Duran Duran and Fuzz Townshend, to name but a few. Alongside apparel, they also produce vintage, Birmingham inspired fine art prints and homeware, all screen printed in the city. An A2-sized bus print costs £35.
Winter Funland, the UK’s largest indoor funfair, brings 26,000 square ft of family festive entertainment to the NEC. Indoor ice rink, rides, a helter skelter, dodgems and loads more are all part of the dry, warm alternative to the city centre freeze fest. Tickets cost £23.50 each, or £89 for a family of four with almost everything free when you get in there. 'Almost' meaning food isn't and Santa's grotto isn't. Until Jan 3 

Nobody does sweary oven gloves like the Custard Factory's Ridding & Wynn. That's just a stone cold fact.

As restaurant bookings drop off a cliff, yet again, don't forget the venues of Brum that need your business to survive. Vouchers are a handy way to help them out. Here's a link to The Wilderness's options, for example, but your fave place will be posting across social on how you can best assist them, if you can afford it.

Looking to shop local before Big Day™? Every stall holder at Kings Heath's Kingsway Market is a local creative, artisan or trader veh, veh much worthy of your hard-earned Queen's paper. The open air market is free to enter, running every Thursday (5pm to 10pm) and Saturday (10am to 5pm) with an additional Christmas market on Sunday 19 December. Your last minute, get out of jail-er will be on Thursday, December 23. More  

That's it for I Choose Birmingham in 2021. We'll be back, all being well, January 6. Have a great Christmas and thanks ever so much for reading. Fix the Floozie.
WORDS: Tom Cullen

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