As rites of passage go, getting your A-level results and finding out which, if any, university will take you must fall into the same category as “first kiss,” “first heartbreak” and “first hangover.”
Being indecisive, it was just as well my choice of university was taken out of my hands. The two institutions that interviewed me declined my entreaties to study English literature. Two other universities refused to look at me because I didn’t put them at the top of my list. I was a #reject.
On the basis that it didn’t interview me, and therefore had no idea what it was letting itself in for, Hull (my fourth choice) offered me a conditional place and it was there that I started a joint degree in English and American Studies many, many moons ago.
Our elder daughter, Polly, found out last week she had made it into her first choice uni. Like father, not like daughter (although she did get exactly the same grades as her old man). Like any self-respecting 18-year-old, Polly chose to celebrate her A-level success with… her friends. At a nightclub. She went to bed at 5am, apparently. Whatever next?
I decided to mark our big girl’s achievement with a surprise meal. I don’t think you can beat a Sunday lunch for a family knees-up and the default destination for a good Sunday lunch in Birmingham has got to be Simpsons.
After 11 years punching its weight in the top division of cooking, Andreas Antona’s Edgbaston redoubt deserves it reputation as a bona fide Brummie institution.
There have been plenty of profiles of, and plaudits for, the Cockney Greek-Cypriot, and with good reason. But Antona’s profile means the creative in-put and quest for consistency championed by his trusted lieutenant and executive chef, Luke Tipping, gets less credit.
Over the years, I have been as guilty as anyone in this regard. Tipping, as the torch-bearer of the Antona mission, is, in a sense, a victim of his own success: you simply expect a great experience when you go to Simpsons. However, it is easy to forget that this experience only comes together due to the commitment of Tipping and the standards he expects from his kitchen brigade in this Michelin-starred establishment. So thanks, Mr T.
The Tipping philosophy shines through at our lunch, from the excellence of the breads, including the trademark tapenade swirly roll and the good sourdough, the lovely pre-starter of a creamy summer risotto with the sweetest tomatoes, black olives, pine nuts and basil, and the petit four of passion fruit macaroons and rich rum truffles. Everyone does their job properly here, regardless of where they are in the pecking order. It’s a great strength.
In between the breads and the sweeties, there are some stunning courses from the lunch menu including a starter of pork cheek with aubergine, sweetcorn, hazelnuts and dandelion, and a gutsy main course of melting lamb shoulder served with discs of gnocchi, heritage carrots and anchovy onion purée.
A starter of mackerel shows what can be done with a beautifully fresh, humble ingredient when it is placed in the right hands. Just add fastidious preparation, a balance of complementary flavours and an artful eye and you have mackerel, avocado, pink grapefruit and avruga caviar. Let the zing sing.
On the à la carte, the salmon dish is terrific – just-cooked fish with sesame seeds on a bed of lentils and an umami-busting sauce épices, everything lightened with a bitter-and-sweet lemon and chicory salad. It is really very good, possibly the star of the lunch.
There is a broad consensus that the “strawberry” dessert (a vanilla panna cotta with honeycomb and tarragon) is the pick of the puds. Again, a simple idea, very well executed.
The £40 lunch menu includes half a bottle of wine per person and we had some Portuguese red to spare so I order a plate of cheese. This attracts an £8.50 supplement, wholly justified considering the quality of the cheese, including one of my favourite English cheeses, the semi-soft rind-washed Saint Oswald, from Gorsehill Abbey, Worcestershire. It’s a rich, buttery affair with matching pong, just like me. Lovely.
On a return visit, I would love to try the fillet of Aberdeen Angus. It is served with triple cooked chips or truffled macaroni cheese. But clearly you would have to have both the spuds and the pasta. Feel free to invite me. I’m great company. Really. Come on. Don’t make me beg…
- 20 Highfield Road, Edgbaston B15 3DU.
- Tel: 0121 454 3434