I did an odd thing after my first meal at Adam’s – I went back, a week or so later, to see if I had got it right, or wrong.
I wanted to be wrong, but I think I was right.
Some of the food was very good, some was “shoulder-shrug” quality and some, if I’m honest, was pretty poor. Should a restaurant with ambitions like this serve duff strawberries? If you are asking the question, you are in trouble.
Chef Adam Stokes comes with bells and whistles courtesy of a Michelin star (for his stint at the grand Glennap Castle in Ayrshire) and some glowing reports north of the border. But that’s all history. I won a school prize when I was 10. Look at me now.
Everything about the Adam’s concept is on-message. The small restaurant in the incongruous environs of Bennetts Hills, in central Birmingham, purports to be a “pop-up,” even though it is due to be here for two years. That’s a long time to keep popping.
The theory is that Stokes is testing the Brummie waters before making a bigger splash, possibly at the new £30 million hotel earmarked for the former Grand Hotel in Colmore Row.
Whatever the real story, the notion of a posh pop up is very now, even if it’s a little off the pace, by a few years.
The menu presentation showcases the chef in that supremely confident new European way. So there are two rigid dinner menus of five and nine courses. I have no idea if you can swap dishes between the two menus but I’d imagine, and hope, that Stokes has balanced the flavours and combinations, so if you go off piste and pick ’n’ mix it kind of defeats the purpose of coming here in the first place.
There are two ways of interpreting this approach. You can either say: “This guy is a genius. A bit dictatorial, but a genius.”
Or you can go: “For Christ’s sake…”
Other on-trend flourishes include the use of very now ingredients, like goats curd, which is the new “tasting of beetroot.”
Of course, ambitious gastronomy in unlikely settings can work. It can have what they call “edge.” I recall a tremendous dinner at a restaurant that specialises in madly expensive things and insane preparation. The restaurant was situated in a glorified housing estate in a city in south-west France. The outlook was uninspiring. And it worked. I’m not sure a former sarnie shop in Bennetts Hill does. Maybe it’s just too familiar.
The dining room is small but a love it/hate it trompe l’oeil, showing what appears to be a vaulted monastic corridor, gives a sense of space. Let us pray… and pray we must. This is serious stuff.
A lot of thought has been put into the interior design – mirrors, mock-marble, spindly chairs, shiny things, lamp-shades – but such details tend to go over my head. Blame me, not the interior designers.
I do like atmosphere though, which I tend to associate with fun and enjoyment, and I am good at tuning in to it. The atmosphere had been pretty much vacuumed out of Adam’s on the night we visited. There were two other tables of two, and us. That’s six, all night. It’s a good job my guest, my dear Aunt Fanny, is a hardened drinker.
It would take too long to go through each course, so I have reproduced the full tasting menu below.
It was preceded with a couple of “snacks,” served in a pally way by Stokes himself, who seems to be a likeable guy. And yet it all felt a bit reverential. A bit: “Look at me.”
A frothy G&T that you cannot suck through the straw that is provided; a radish in a rather tasty savoury “ash” or “soil” (it was one or t’other, like it tends to be); a one-bite-roast-chicken-in-a-crispy-ball… it smacks of a canapé chef of confused sensibilities and too much time on his hands.
Note the retention of the radish stalks and leaves. It’s very important, very amusing. Unless you just think it’s silly. Stalks to the left of me, stalks to the right. Next year’s trend will be to leave mud on potatoes. Don’t forget you heard it here last.
The first course, a crispy square of pig’s trotter, smoked eel and bacon “jam” showed good skill and punchy flavour.
We’re off!, I thought. Not quite.
The produce, generally, was first rate, including the fish (brill), asparagus and the full-flavoured lamb, paired with neck, in one of the evening’s successes.
Other high-points included what was described as an “in between” course by our waitress. I thought: “This is going to be crap.” But it was good – sweet, tender rhubarb with frozen, grated foie gras, an effective take on a classic gastro-product.
Aunt Fanny insisted we had the wine tasting (seven varieties), which threw up some genuinely interesting, lesser known (to me) wines including a gutsy tempranillo from New Zealand.
The sommelier’s descriptions were, hmm, very thorough, prompting unkind thoughts of: “Please, go away now, so I can get on and neck it.” When it comes to talk, less is always more.
There you go. Rather good and rather deflating.
So I went back, sans Fanny, and had the three-course lunch for £25. (The nine course do is £75, plus £55 for the wine tasting.)
The lamb belly, Stoke’s riff on a Moroccan vibe, delivered a big hit of flavour but the tomato cous cous was far too acidic. The dish didn’t really come together, as if it was trying too hard.
Strawberries with vanilla cream and a pointless, tasteless milk crisp produced some of the most miserable red fruit of the summer.
The strawberries were dubbed “English” but they were like a tasteless supermarket take on English strawberries.
And they were turning. Natural geography, refrigeration and the old enemy – time – had not been kind to those berries.
I must admit I found this baffling. Didn’t the chef on puds pick up on that?
The difference in class between this dessert, on the lunch menu, and the chocolate dream, on the £75 menu, was immeasurable.
Bearing in mind the skills on show here, the chef’s ambition and the very real potential, I’d have to give lunch 4/10.
Dinner would get 6/10.
So an overall mark, if I was giving one, would be somewhere in the middle. With no stalks.
Pig’s trotter, smoked eel, bacon jam
Jersey Royal new potatoes, squid, lime
Brown shrimp, leeks, red mustard
Asparagus, grapefruit, hot mayonnaise
Brill, saffron, buckwheat
Lamb, purple sprouting broccoli, neck, parsley, gentleman’s relish
Rhubarb, foie gras, black pepper
Milk chocolate, espelette pepper, coffee
Goats curd, cherry, sorrel
Adam’s, 21a Bennetts Hill, Birmingham B2 5QP
Tel: 0121 643 3745