This is the 400th issue of 'I Choose Birmingham' and what better way to celebrate than to obfuscate responsibility to Brum's culinary enfant terrible, Alex Claridge. Chef director at The Wilderness, Alex's new blog posts have been gripping the city's food scene for three months now and he's kindly dropping his latest post below — a gastronomic wish-list of things dear Brum is lacking. Ready the legal team...
Birmingham isn’t what it once was and — as any native will testify — thank god for that. It is no secret that restaurants have been a significant catalyst for said change, a fact that has, endearingly, been documented to absolute death by the writers who have made this city their turf. There is no original thought remaining to big-up Birmingham restaurants. It feels, therefore, a risky act of treason to write, as I shall here, that we still have a long way to go. Beyond the superlative write-ups, beyond the disproportionate proliferation of chains (some – granted – very much welcome) and beyond the dizzying ambition of fine-dining – this is a city at the beginning, I think, of its culinary revolution. What follows is an entirely biased wishlist for the Brum – an exercise I think is necessary if we are to manifest a reality that tallies with the hype. I am, it may be said, not a man for frivolity or making friends – rather one that cares deeply about Birmingham, in a conflicted and complex way. I write not because I doubt how exciting it has been to witness, and be part of, the city’s change. I write because I want us to continue the hard work, I want us to be a truly international city with food and drink the heartbeat of it.
THE RISE OF THE BISTRO
Everyday dining is the backbone of restaurant culture and an area which, regrettably, we are horribly under-served for a city of our size. There are heroes in the suburbs that deserve note — The Plough (rightly, an institution), newcomers Chapter and the charming Le Petit Bois, The York Road Mafia (including Poli, Upstairs, The Juke, and more) and The People’s Republic of Stirchley, of course, is full of honourable mentions, too many to list. The city too has Desi pubs aplenty — that remain deeply rooted as community spaces — including my local, the doyenne of the JQ, Hen & Chickens. That said, this remains a city where we have entire neighbourhoods that remain sans bistro.
I long for affordable, seasonal, and ever-changing dining in the grand and shabby tradition of the bistro in all corners. I am quite certain that there are very many hidden gems in communities across the city not yet plastered all over Instagram or frequented by this hungry chef — please do let me know your suggestions. We need more spaces that are everyday, adaptable, and built on quality and community, and for those existing to get the recognition and limelight they deserve.
SINGLE ITEM MENUS
Whether it is symptomatic of a Brummie’s endearing desire to please everyone, or whether it is just a trap for the regional restaurant, we have a prevailing issue with huge, flabby menus. As a chef, I can tell you the larger the menu, the more likely that there will be compromises on quality, authenticity, ingredient, etc. I also don’t think the blame lies with restaurants who are oft-times reactive to the customer need – doing what they must to remain viable. There are some notable exceptions to the rule, which I regrettably don’t have space to mention by name.
In London, and increasingly Manchester, there is the rise of hole-in-the-wall single item venues. For operators, it reduces the space and cost of establishing a restaurant, and for guests, in a city with a serious commercial property drought, it means the variety and diversity in a given square mile can be much improved.
I long for a Birmingham that has high streets, side streets and a city centre appointed with small, but perfectly formed venues that focus on one thing and do it f*cking well; jian bing, dumplings, roti canai, raclette, Taiwanese fried chicken, lobster rolls, oysters. These are but a few of my favourite things and I would love to be able to get the purist’s option in more neighbourhoods in my hometown – fill every street corner with one and I’ll be happy.
SUNDAY/MONDAY FOOD CULTURE
One of the perpetual challenges of opening and maintaining a restaurant in Birmingham is the total drought of customers on off-peak days. Simply put, there is a serious issue with Sundays and Mondays, especially outside the suburbs. Even more serious, because these are my typical days off and it’s impossible to find near anything I want to eat on either day. Hence my unhealthy addiction to Hockley Social Club or, when we’re feeling bougie, Pulperia or Oyster Club.
A recent visit to Manchester was alarming – to find most of the city open on Sunday through Monday, and most of the city fully-booked. I don’t know the answer to how we stimulate the city but all of us, as customers, will stand to benefit if, as one, we step away from the perpetual bias of Friday/Saturday and embrace any excuse to go out for food seven days a week."
UNDERSTANDING THE CITY’S NUANCED CULINARY HERITAGE
The pantheon of writing about the Balti, for the most part, is a travesty against the city in that it erases much of the nuanced history of immigration and food culture in Birmingham. Whilst we may now hail as part of our shared cultural capital the cuisine of the South Asian immigrants who set-up shop in the city, this was also a community that we at first scorned and who’s food culture too many are still happy to minimise as “going for an Indian”. To me it is telling that we live in an age where a corporate restaurant chain that, apparently, can only serve celebrities, and must serve every dish twice, is the most widely covered of our restaurants with roots in India.
In recent years I’ve had the privilege to spend some time with Mohammed Ali – an artist and historian with Bengali heritage who has dedicated much of his practice to documenting and understanding the origin story of the “curry” in the city. The majority of original restaurant owners were Bengali – many were wildly successful and Mohammed shows, with due pride, photos of these early operators outside their establishments looking more akin to rockstars than restaurateurs. More troublingly, Ali also can recount far too many stories of the blatant racism experienced in his Father’s restaurant. The cavalier attitude we have taken with a culture that, for many of us is not our own, has allowed us to erase these personal stories from our collective history. Much is lost when we minimise this seam of the city’s culinary heritage down to stories about Birmingham as simply the “home of the Balti”.
I want to see us celebrating smaller restaurants that are able to tell, through food, a more nuanced story. The history of our treatment of the restaurants of the South Asian diaspora is just one example in a list of many. This of course relies on a level of food journalism that can meet said nuance — on which note…
BETTER FOOD MEDIA
There are a handful of competent food writers in the city – the crowning glory being Rob at FoodieBoys who hasn’t written a sensical word in his entire life. Rob assures me a review of The Wilderness is pending, and what little I know is in it I am described as a goat (and no, not the G.O.A.T., a literal, actual goat). On the more sensible end of the spectrum, there are established bloggers who can write well and are sincere supporters of restaurants, but there are also those who can’t and aren’t. And of course there's the negroni-fuelled, influencer bashing and entirely inimitable Meat and One Veg. My personal views on the local newspaper of note are well-documented and I shan’t go into them here. I will say that we are a city blessed with a number of exceptionally talented young journalists (paging Kirsty Bosley), but I fear they simply do not have enough opportunity to write comprehensively on anything of note with the frequency they desire and deserve.
In London, one upside of the pandemic was the ascent of Vittles, a newsletter from an enigmatic journalist called Jonathan Nunn. It documents the complexity of London and international food culture in dazzling technicolour. You are as likely to read about the history of fast food in Karachi, or an analysis of the contents of the British aisle in a European supermarket, as you are to be told where to go and what to order. And if it is the latter, you can be damn sure they’ll be sending you to an unassuming frontage somewhere in zone 5. It is a joy to read and makes me long for a more comprehensive and critical culture of food journalism in our city.
"It's like that episode of Red Dwarf" I say to a chum who apparently "never got into Red Dwarf" immediately going right down in my estimations. And although unlike Rimmer, Lister and co, life isn't all just a big game of VR in the end, Otherworld does have dream-like qualities. Let's back up a bit. Otherworld is a new Virtual Reality venue where Nocturnal Animals used to be, bang in the heart of Brum on Bennett's Hill. Apparently it has the UK's biggest self serve bar area but I have absolutely no choice but to believe them on that. Here's how it works. You walk into a cloud like 'departures lounge' with baggage area, departures board and nearby toilet, the lid of which will open for you while an eerie voice tells you not to get up to mischief in the lavs. The level of theatre that has gone into this is mind-boggling and very impressive. It's like nothing else you will have ever done and if you look at the prices it bloomin' well should be. Costs vary wildly from £10 for 40 minutes on a Monday morning (because who needs a job?) to £41 each on a Saturday night. My advice to them, and let's be honest, they don't need it, would be to make everyone's first time as cheap as possible. Why? Because if you're over the age of, say, 30, the gaming is going to take a lot of getting used to. We only really started to get the hang of the controls with about 15 mins of the 50 mins game time remaining. When your 'departure' comes you'll be escorted downstairs (where Nocturnal used to have their restaurant area — god I miss that place) and plopped into a 'pod'. One person per pod but you can play specifically with your pal, of course. Once in the pod it all gets very, very, very odd. It would be remise of me to give too much away, but you'll be transported — virtually — to an island on which there are maybe two dozen different games to play and people from all over the UK playing them. I say 'all over the UK' but they're either in Birmingham's Otherworld or in one of their two London locations. They only have three venues, but having crowdfunded to the tune of over £1million there will be more soon. If you get stuck while playing, someone at their HQ in our nation's second city will talk you through it via the headphones — headphones I managed to break. The games vary from the just plain boring, to the overly complicated to the absolutely sensational. If you want to kill zombies — and trust me, you do — go to Arizona Sunshine. If you remember only two words of this write-up make them 'Arizona' and 'Sunshine'.
Don't panic if you're struggling with a game or even struggling in the island 'hub' area, a key bit of advice I can give is to not be too British about hitting the 'help' button. You'll need it and time is money. Every game has different controls — don't try and play too many, but also don't stay in one if it's not for you. Virtual Reality isn't going away, on the contrary, it's on the cusp of absolutely changing the world and I don't think I'm being overly hyperbolic there. Otherworld is the very best VR you'll find anywhere in the UK. It runs rings around anything else I've done. It goes from the sublime to the ridiculous, but there's no doubt in my mind my second visit will be far more satisfying having learnt what I learnt the first time round. Final thing — you get money off at the bar while you play. That sounds like a terrible 'Disney Dollars' gimmick but I got a half priced pint out of it and I'm truly terrible at gaming. Hated it. Loved it. Can't wait to go back. More
IF SIMPSONS DID CHOCOLATES
Pretty, aren't they? If Simpsons did chocolates they would look a lot like this. Maybe you can tell where I'm going here because Simpsons now do chocolates. Yep, Brum's longest-held Michelin starred restaurant has launched Soko. Soko was born during lockdown when new ways of working had to be found for businesses to survive. Gifted pâtissier Bharat Chandegra began collaborating with Andreas Antona and the team at Simpsons, which had launched a home delivery service for meals. It soon became apparent that with people unable to visit their favourite restaurants, there was a hunger for fabulous chocs and sweet treats. As restrictions eased and the country began to return to normal, they realised that there was a market for their goodies and so Soko became a permanent and separate entity. The patisserie and chocolates are all made in Solihull and currently only sold online, but they can be ordered for collection at Simpsons and, if you're out that way, their sister restaurant, The Cross at Kenilworth. A box of 12 is £16 and flavours include salted caramel and passion fruit, bitter orange dark chocolate, blackberry caramel and tahitian vanilla, kaffir key lime pie and raspberry, pink gin and juniper. The Instagram account is something else. More
Venue: Bistrot Pierre, 46 Gas Street, B1 2JT; website Choice: Prix fixe (£14.95 for two courses) Chooser: My wallet
"Our best EVER Prix Fixe Menu" screams the Bistrot Pierre homepage which, if true, is sadder than that time I left my Global Hypercolor t-shirt on the radiator. Now, Bistrot Pierre — crushing though this is — is one of our city's most beautiful restaurants, and I mean both inside and out. It's gorgeous. But, in their new outlandishly cheap £14.95 prix fixe, I wonder if their CFO was so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. Thank god for the bread basket because the baked camembert opener was greeted with universal chuckles across the table, so diminutive was it in stature. The 'lightly smoked' mackerel pate, meanwhile, was so lightly smoked I wonder if the skipper on the trawler that landed it was finishing off a Silk Cut Purple the moment it was hauled on deck, and that was your lot. On mains a punchless chicken diane had serious texture issues coming out mushier than a misjudged Richard Curtis sequel, while the bavette cut minute steak — and I wasn't expecting much — looked about as appetising as a slither of car tyre on the A38(M). The accompanying peppercorn sauce was devoid of peppercorn, leaving the house white the star of the show. To add insult to injury, and this isn't their fault at all — in fact, they did warn us — the weather turned midway through the meal and we couldn't be sat indoors because it was chockerblock by then. The bloody sun floats on a throne of lies. Don't believe it. Menu
Duplicate Publishing Fair, an annual celebration of printed zines, comics, artists and books will be held at the Birmingham School of Art on Saturday (May 7). Details —
On June 4 Bijan Moosavi will transform Eastside Projects second gallery into a fictional Iranian nightclub in a not-so-distant dystopian future where ecological, socio-economic, and human rights issues caused by the expansion of Neoliberalism in the Middle East start to unravel. Yikes! More —
Park Regis' new Indian restaurant, Indus, will open its doors tomorrow (May 6). —
The RHS Malvern Spring Festival is underway and on until May 8. It's a little over an hour's drive. More —
Birmingham International Dance Festival, the largest dance festival in the UK, is back from June 17 to July 3. Details —
The West Midlands Police Museum has opened its doors following a two-year project transforming it from a Victorian lock-up. Get sent down —
Speaking of the cozzers, a police orchestra is set to perform the world premiere of a new arrangement of The Specials' iconic song Ghost Town. The arrangement is part of a the UK City of Culture celebrations. Saturday, May 7, £8. —
Comedian Mark Watson plays the Old Rep on May 15. Reviews have been veh veh good. £23.50
WORDS: Alex Claridge, Tom Cullen
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