Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the critic from barking with a juicy bone…
Because I think I’ve already had it: Birmingham’s Lunch of the Year.
I know it is only July, but I can’t see how my experience at Purnell’s is going to be topped. It’s poetry on a plate.
Of course it might not surprise you to learn the meal was cooked by the team at one of the city most illustrious kitchens, although that doesn’t always signify quality. But what surprises me is how much Glynn Purnell’s food has pushed on.
It’s easy to dismiss the chef’s achievements. Yes, Purnell seems to have been around for ages, although his Cornwall Street powerhouse only actually opened seven years ago this month; and he is undeniably the most high-profile chef working in the West Midlands, thanks in large measure to his television work, so we are used to seeing his face.
Purnell is a bona fide Michelin-starred fixture of the Birmingham and wider UK food scene. The problem with fixtures is that it’s easy to take them for granted.
There was a time when I wondered how far Purnell could go. In fact, between you and me, I thought he might have peaked a few years back and fulfilled his admittedly very impressive potential.
I was wrong. And it’s all rather beautiful.
Inconsistencies have been swept aside. Here is a chef in command of his craft, happy to let the influences of classic French cooking shine through, complemented by modern techniques and global food tweaks and spins. Now he is confident to strip back where necessary, so fancy breads have been replaced by a beautifully simple French-style loaf, for example.
It’s not quite Purnell Unplugged; far from it. There is showmanship but the exuberance is part of a cohesive, captivating vision. It’s the difference between Ronaldo when he joined Manchester United and Ronaldo when he left for Real Madrid. In 2015, this chef’s flicks and feints work, and the rocket shots hit the net, not Row H, just like Ronnie.
(I was trying to find a comparison using a famous player from Purnell’s beloved Birmingham City FC, but hit a brick wall.)
We have the five course “graze” menu (£42) – which can be taken as a three-course £35 option – with some extras and a cheese course (£6.50 per portion).
Here’s the menu:
To kick off, there are some tasty, fun snacks including “The Obvious” (foie gras and apple) and Purnell’s inventive 2015 take on party finger food including a delicious “beef” tomato – that’s a tomato miraculously stuffed with slow cooked beef – and beetroot lollipops.
A starter of Provence asparagus with a perfectly poached egg yolk, a pig’s trotter nugget and meat juices looks like a work of modern art and the visuals are matched by the flavours.
Ditto the soy cured and scorched mackerel with a sharp apple sorbet and (not over-powering) heat from wasabi. Lovely textures, too.
Purnell’s lunch menu is a masterclass in using humble ingredients, such as the mackerel, in order to deliver value to customers without sacrificing on taste or cooking expertise. The dishes are lifted by beautiful presentation but, oddly, the most plain-looking course of the meal turns out to be the best of a very strong bunch.
Again, a less expensive main protein is used – Brixham pollock – and it is the cooking that takes the everyday white fish to a higher level.
The fish itself is unimproveable, pure and fresh, and is paired with crème fraiche potato, spring onion, and baked and buttered leeks . It’s just divine.
A winter staple, slow-cooked ox cheek, is somehow transformed into an early summer dish of earthly vigour. Pickled shimeji mushrooms provide a sharp foil to the rich meat.
A English cheeseboard with great crackers is followed by some terrific desserts for which the pastry chef deserves a huge pay rise.
A raspberry macaron with white chocolate and mint is a stunning pudding for a set menu. It wouldn’t be out of place on the menu of a luxe Parisian hotel, and this is just off the inner ring road in Brum.
Word reaches the kitchen that the reason for our visit is my birthday and we are treated to a classic Purnell creation: “Egg 10/10/10 Summer GBM 2008.”
It is the dish that earned the chef perfect scores from the judges on the BBC’s Great British Menu just a year after he opened in Cornwall Street. It has stood the test of time and, again, it is beautifully presented.
There is an additional surprise for the birthday boy – a cake. Yey! Happy birthday to me.
Service standards are very high and credit must go to restaurant manager Sonal Clare, another graduate of University College Birmingham’s finishing school for hospitality stars.
It is Clare who suggests a final glass of Marc de Bourgogne which provides a bold conclusion to a wonderful afternoon of eating and drinking.
The experience is topped off when I notice the chef has finally got rid of former maitre d’ Jean-Benoit Burloux’s rattly, kebab shop wine fridge that used to stand in the bar.
Now this may never happen again, and that’s the beauty of food. But on this day, this one day, Glynn Purnell is “My North, My South, My East and West, my working week and my Sunday rest.”
And then, naturally, I fall to sleep.