I will go out on a limb and say it is the first time Wagyu beef has been served four different ways in one meal in the West Midlands.
The breed commands a premium so it makes sense for an inventive chef to use every part of the beast, which is exactly what Gareth Ward did at a special dinner at Hampton Manor in Solihull.
Ward is usually to be found cooking at Ynyshir Hall in Machynlleth, Powys, Wales but he made the trek to Solihull, together with key members of his team, for the one-off event at Hampton Manor. It is a measure of the confidence of the hotel, and head chef Rob Palmer, that it is prepared to let Ward, Michelin star and all, take over the kitchen for the night and showcase some gastronomic fireworks.
(Incidentally, if the Michelin inspectors don’t bestow a star on Palmer’s food it will be plain silly.)
The beef formed the centrepiece of the 15-dish tasting menu: an onion cooked in Wagyu fat; a Wagyu burger; Wagyu rib; and a Wagyu caramel sweetie (again comprising what your granny would call dripping – i.e. more fat).
The latter, I have to say, was a challenge on its own but eaten with some of Ward’s exceptional bread, with a crust as black as night, it was transformed into a savoury/sweet joy. I could eat it in sandwiches for lunch quite happily, although I might need a weekly trip to a cardiologist.
The beef rib was delicious. I could have eaten a whole rib, cote de boeuf style, with some salty chips. If anyone does that, tell me. I will start saving now.
Ward, who has worked at two Michelin star Restaurant Sat Bain, is a great champion of local Welsh produce and fashionable flourishes include fermentation and Japanese flavours. You are never quite sure what is going to end up on the next plate, bowl, dish or plinth, and it is all rather thrilling.
Sweet and sour mackerel represents a couple of mouthfuls of unrestrained pleasure, slightly warmed raw fish bursting with sea freshness.
The shoots and micro leaves make sense, as they so often don’t.
Wild duck, shot perilously close to Ward’s stove in Wales (warning to ducks: it’s not a good idea to take to the wing near a chef’s bolthole) gets a salt pear and shiso treatment. The meat is exemplary.
There is humour and vegetal chutzpah with a dish named simply Swede.
A Hallowe’en-style swede, complete with candle, is placed on the table to impart the smell of bonfire night before waiters deliver the dish itself: different preparations of swede and a shot of fermented juice. It’s an haute cuisine detox, all good fun.
There is great imagination and taste variety in a quartet of desserts: “Lager & Lime,” miso treacle tart, tiramisu and elder pudding. The tart is a bizarre sweet/savoury soya bean concoction that defies logic but I loved it.
Wine pairings for the evening were put together by Sam Olive of Warwickshire-based Wine Freedom. Olive is on a mission to make wine “anti-stuffy” and “anti-homogeneous” and picks interesting producers off the beaten track, focusing on natural, organic and biodynamic methods.
The night’s biggest hitter was undoubtedly the Uruguayan Garzon Tannant, which, rather like the South American country’s celebrated footballer players, is capable of taking your legs from under you. This is remarkable drinking for £11.75 a bottle, great dusky fruit on a par with a big malbec, only nastier. Terrific with the Wagyu.
If Hampton Manor’s tie up with Ward represents a new trend for West Midland restaurants/hotels, I am all for it. It is great to see top chefs seeking out the Birmingham area and gives those of us who find it tricky to get out of the city a great way of experiencing some of the country’s imaginative cooking talent.
It would be great if other venues followed this lead as there are undoubted benefits for both the host dining room and the visiting chef. New experiences make for exciting food and aid culinary development.
Ward was full of praise for the restaurant scene in Birmingham and did not rule out a future venture in the city. It’s another mark of the city’s pulling power.
Congratulations, too, to the Hampton Manor brigade and the great front of house staff for working seamlessly alongside the Welsh invaders.
- Thank you to Fjona Hill for some of the pictures above – I was hamstrung by a wine flight and an iPhone.