So much hinges on the choice of venue. Do you go to the latest opening in town, where the chef has barely had time to have his, or her, first breakdown?
Or do you pick somewhere potentially controversial? If five years’ reviewing restaurants has taught me one thing, it is this: readers love the car-crash write ups. They love seeing vainglorious chefs brought down a peg and enjoy the fact that you, the so-called critic, has had a crap time.
The favourable reviews are far harder to produce and consume. Praise makes for poor digestion. There are only so many times you can say such-and-such was “good” or “very good” or “exceedingly good” without sounding either dull, or pretentious, or like Mr Kipling.
But targeting an out-and-out stinker, and I can think of a few, is not in my character. It goes against the English sense of fair play. It’s like when “Meerkat Manor” shows a vulnerable, runty hairball, called Gerald, being gobbled up by a hyena. We shudder at Gerald’s demise; and I don’t want you to shudder when you read my first review on richardmccomb.com. Not if I can help it.
So, I came up with a far better idea. I would revisit my favourite place to dine in my home city, Birmingham, and tell you what makes it special.
Unfortunately, it was full. So I went to Turners in Harborne.
Richard Turner is unique in the pantheon of British-born Michelin starred chefs. As far as I am aware, he is the only Youth Training Scheme recruit to have gone on to get a gong from the Munchkins of Michelin. If you know of another, please tell me. We might be able to set up a Facebook page for them.
Turner, then, has learned his craft pretty much on the job. He has taken the road less travelled, rather than today’s glitzy route of stages at Le Manoir et al. That makes Turner – and please don’t tell him this – one of the most naturally gifted chefs around. He cooks with his heart and that is a precious commodity in restaurants. Sometimes the radar needs a tweak, but the flight is always enjoyable.
Turners is in one of the unlikeliest settings for cooking of this calibre. It is sandwiched between a hairdressers, where the chef first clapped eyes on his future wife, and a Cancer Research UK shop in the High Street. The outlook is uninspiring, which may explain why the restaurant is not as well known, certainly outside the city, as its higher-profile Michelin sparring partners, Simpsons and Purnell’s. On cooking alone, and that’s what really matters, Turners deserves an equal billing.
The restaurant will be six years old this summer and has got bigger by getting smaller. The chef patron has cut the number of covers from 30 to 20-24. There are only eight tables. In London, critics would be wetting themselves at such exclusivity; in Brum, it’s just what we do.
The effect of reducing table numbers has been to make the dinky dining room feel bigger and increase the privacy of diners. The brigade has been scaled back – there are just three in the kitchen, including Turner – and consistency is assured.
After my meal, I asked the chef who was on the fish station. “Me.” Cold starters? “Me.” Meat? “Me.” Desserts? “Me.”
Menus have been simplified. There is an £80 tasting menu and a five-course Simply Turners menu, which diners can break down into constituent parts: one course for £30 (has anyone ever done that?), three for £50 and up to five for £70 (inclusive of amuse bouche and pre-dessert).
Being officially unemployed, common sense dictated that if I was going to be silly enough to eat out, I should go for the one or two-course (£40) Simply Turners menu.
I ordered the tasting menu.
For a canapé, there was what you might call a mini “mac ’n’ squid” – that’s a bite-sized burger of mackerel and squid with a chilli and lime mayo in a soft bun. It was served with chips, proper, gloriously cut, “knock-me-down-am-I-in-Belgium?” thin chips. Not soggy Jenga brick chips; not docker’s thumb-sized chips; just frite-style chips.
I recently made a pact with myself to refuse to eat anything called an amuse bouche but the mac ’n’ squid buttered me up, so I ate the statutory celeriac and apple purée espuma and accompanying Stilton “sandwich.” It was annoyingly effective for the task in hand, combining saltiness, sweetness and crunch.
In an attempt to avoid dullness and pretension, I will be brief about the following eight courses.
Frogs legs was billed as the first starter but the hopper was mugged by a flapper. The amphibians’ sweet thighs, one served beautifully crisp, were outshone by the plate’s showpiece slow-cooked egg. The waiter said the egg has been cooked for 1.5 hours at 62C. Or was it 62 hours at 1.5C? Whatever, it was stonking. The white had the look and texture of a Chinese dumpling; the earthy yolk gently welled out across the plate to coat the sweet peas and finally-arrived new season asparagus.
Three plump scallops came ceviche style with soy and honey, an acidic shred of pickled mooli, avocado purée and frozen horseradish, the latter of which, described as snow, may have had its day along with “soil” and “textures.” A lovely dish though.
It was at this point that the evening got a lot more interesting. The chef’s wife, Meena, was starting her official birthday celebrations a month early with a table of Champagne-quaffing girlfriends. On being presented with her canapé, one declared: “I’m gonna shove it in and see what happens.” This is why I love Birmingham.
Duck liver came roasted and poached with little rashers of smoked quacker. It really should have been too much meat but the vibrant protein was well matched with variations of pineapple, including an intensely flavoured fruit crisp that would have been superfluous in less skilled hands.
Summer, let alone spring, looked like it had come with the fish course: pavé of halibut with an artichoke barigoule, mussels and tomato fondant. Pretty as a picture and delicious.
And then the lamb, sourced from Wales by Roger Brown, the finest butcher in Birmingham and possibly the northern hemisphere. In football striking terms, having Turner cook Brown’s lamb is like pairing Dalglish with Rush, di Stefano with Puskas. The tender lamb, featuring a thin strip of fat, came with morels, a braised lamb “bon bon” and pungent wild garlic. There was no scrimping on the very good jus either.
The cheese consisted of a perfectly kept piece of buttery Brillat Truffe with slightly toasted raisin and walnut bread. I adore big cheese trolleys but when the fromage is this good, you only need one variety.
I followed the lead of the sommelier with some wine pairings. The star matches included a 2011 New Zealand Riesling from Millton’s Opou Vineyard with the scallop ceviche and a 2011 butch, dusky cabernet franc from Domaine Mas Barrau with the lamb.
Last year I had an amazing blackberry soufflé at Turners. As good as it was, a dinky raspberry soufflé with chocolate sorbet didn’t quite hit those heights this time round. It felt bullied by the chocolate.
The first pudding was trumped by the second, a coffee and vanilla cheesecake, topped with chocolate, and accompanied by peanut butter ice cream and a skyscraper high swirl of salted caramel.
My only regret is that I missed out on the tarte tatin on the Simply Turners menu. It is a classic tarte tatin. It hasn’t been fired through a foam gun or anything like that. “Well, I’m not going to serve it in a bloody glass, am I?” said the chef when I commented on it after dinner.
No, I can’t see that happening. I can’t see Richard Turner trying to reinvent the dessert wheel, just to be clever. And in this I rejoice.
Turners, 69 High Street, Harborne, Birmingham, B17 9NS
T: 0121 426 4440