It is the time of the year, only it’s a bit late, when the most insignificant awards in dining are bestowed.
Yes, it’s the MADs, the McComb Awards for Dining. It’s Birmingham’s culinary equivalent of the Oscars, which means they are done on the cheap, aren’t very good but are much loved.
Before I run through the winners – who, if they are lucky, will get an extra two clicks on their websites – I will provide some explanation.
The bulk of the winners are in the Birmingham area because this is where I live and therefore dine out most often. I do not get to try as many places in my home city and environs as I would like and the reason for this is purely financial. I possess (“quite literally,” as a football commentator might say) an insatiable appetite. Sadly, it is not matched, at least not currently, by the largesse of my bank balance. This means I save up to eat at places I really want to go to rather than opting for the latest fad on the block. It’s not much fun spending your own cash on restaurant turkeys.
I get plenty of invites but I am dubious about the baggage attached to many of them. So I won’t be accepting the kind offer of a complimentary dinner at Marco Pierre White’s new chophouse thing at Hotel La Tour in Birmingham “in return for a review.” Brace yourself for the social media avalanche in the not too distant future, and some slavish write ups in local magazines and websites. In fact, it may have already happened; blink and you miss it. Don’t worry though, there is always another launch just round the corner.
The MADs have an international tinge this year, thanks to some trips I made East, to China, and West, to North America. The former was a transformative experience, an eye-opener in terms of appreciating the range of fascinating regional cuisines in this vast nation. The latter, the USA, remains an undiluted joy for a food-lover jaded by faff, purée splodges and soil. It’s a sprawling territory of discovery, where you don’t have to be a tattoo junkie to serve flavour-packed, real food in a cool urban venue, or a shack in the sticks. Tattoos obviously help though.
Hearty congratulations then to all the winners of the MADs. You’ve made me very happy, and that’s a gift.
MEAL OF THE YEAR: PURNELL’S, BIRMINGHAM
Predictable? A few years back, probably. But now I don’t think so. Glynn Purnell may be the city’s most famous chef but the influence of the blogging community, on social media at least, means newer restaurants, where frippery triumphs over flavour, tend to dominate web-chatter.
I’ve gone for Purnell’s because the Cornwall Street restaurant has progressed more than any other in the city in the decade I’ve been snooping about the food scene. I thought the head chef/patron had peaked a few years ago but a lunch in May (it happened to be my birthday) demolished that theory in a rather beautiful way.
Don’t be deceived by the cheeky chappy banter on TV – Purnell is a chef of immense culinary knowledge, technical wizardry and (still) untapped potential.
Anyone who can turn a slice of humble pollock into an inspiring dish of exquisite simplicity, the fish paired with crème fraiche potato, spring onion, and baked and buttered leeks, stands out from the pack. The term “modern British cooking” has been bastardised and devalued but this is the real thing, in glorious motion.
THE SHOCK (IN A GOOD WAY) OF THE YEAR: THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN, LEEDS
I travelled to Michael O’Hare’s restaurant (it’s above a gents’ outfitters) more in hope than expectation. Okay, replace “hope” with “dread.” O’Hare was out there, I had read – dramatic plating, bizarre flavour pairings, fancy tableware and cutlery, devil-may-care bombast. Yup, I’d hate it.
Naturally, astonishingly, I loved The Man Behind The Curtain.
I went for an early dinner, in order to catch the last train home to Brum, and ate I can’t recall how many courses in a blizzard of excitement and, crucially, contentment. Iberico milk-fed lamb, rolled in Gordal olive powder, was given a gentle blast on a barbecue. I had a few mouthfuls and wish O’Hare had served me an entire melting shoulder.
Best of all was the salt and sugar-cured cod loin, with a dashi of toasted cod skin, which came hidden under crispy potatoes. The spuds were dyed with squid ink to look like the black beaches, stained with coal, the chef recalls from his childhood in the North East.
O’Hare told me: “It smells like fish and chips, it tastes like fish and chips, but it looks like Siouxsie Sioux. It would go down a treat at Whitby for Goth Weekend.”
Superlative cooking and a Siouxsie and the Banshees reference from a chef who plays Led Zeppelin in his restaurant. I’m in every time.
BANKER OF THE YEAR: TURNERS, BIRMINGHAM
It baffles me why Richard Turner does not get the recognition his cooking so evidently deserves. Is he Birmingham’s most naturally gifted chef? I’d have a job dismissing that argument. Idiosyncratic, awkward, stroppy and touched by culinary brilliance.
I have never had a duff experience at Turners, his fusion of French classicism with nods to modernity rarely missing a beat. For this reason, I make Turners my Banker (yes, that’s banker) of the Year.
The sauces are tremendous, the execution of meat dishes (pigeon, venison, beef) in particular is consistently high.
The soufflés are exemplary, the stuff of Parisian dining finesse, and are in keeping with the classical French aesthetic.
The restaurant also has the best cheeseboard by a mile in the UK’s second biggest city. And for that reason alone, it’s a winner.
BEST FISH LUNCH: SHUNTONG TROUT RAISING CENTRE AND RESTAURANT (somewhere near The Great Wall of China), CHINA – 北京顺通休闲度假中心 – 箭扣长城
I am in rural China, about 30 minutes’ drive from The Great Wall, and I’ve just been handed a fishing net. It’s time to catch lunch.
Shuntong Trout Raising Centre has a huge number of pools, refreshed by the clear waters that cascade off the mountains. There are black trout and yellow trout and some smaller pool containing giant sturgeon.
Diners are encouraged to catch their own fish, which are despatched with a wooden club and cooked immediately over a barbecue, next to the car park, or in the kitchen.
I am with a party of UK hospitality managers from The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) and we have the trout grilled over charcoal as well as raw, sashimi style. The two hulking sturgeon are braised.
The texture and flavour of the fish is just stunning. The raw trout is yellowy/orange in colour and very delicate, served with wasabi. The barbecued meat is covered with a light seasoning for surface heat; it’s so juicy.
The lunch, eaten under an open-side marquee-type structure, also features pork belly and chestnut in a dark soy sauce, a stew of free range chicken (the bird was killed that morning), pepper leaves in light batter and creamy tofu. The price, with bottles of beer (chilled in a stream by the dining room), is £9.50 per person.
If you get the chance, go to this place. Just don’t ask me how you find it.
THE ONE TO WATCH IN 2016: ADAMS, BIRMINGHAM
There will be people serving burgers and burritos and pizzas this year, excelling at a single food commodity, and I celebrate their bravery in having a punt in the catering business. But it takes a skill-set of a different order, not to mention supreme confidence, to run a restaurant and master the techniques required to deliver an entire menu, starters through to desserts, to a high standard.
Adam Stokes, one of Birmingham’s celebrated five Michelin star chefs, is moving his gastronomic mission a few hundred yards from his outpost in a former sandwich shop to Waterloo Street.
This time round, it is a no expense spared affair, a far cry from the “pop up” with which the chef made his mark in the city. A cool £1 million is being sunk into the project and expectations are extremely high. The number of covers is going up from 25 to 36 and there will be a chef’s table for 12.
Will Stokes deliver the elusive two Michelin star restaurant to Birmingham’s dining scene? I suspect he will need a good year or so to settle in before thoughts can turn to such lofty matters. Plus, there’s a guy not far away in Cornwall Street who may have something to say in the city’s star race.
Guide books aside, it will be a fascinating story to watch unfold at Adams.
BEST BBQ: THE BRICK PIT, MOBILE, ALABAMA, USA
We have some noble exponents of the barbecue art, including the Midlands’ own Andy Stubbs (@andylownslow). But in truth we are playing catch-up with the US kings of the pit. I fell in love with smoky ribs, pulled pork and all the sticky-finger paraphernalia of BBQ when I sunk my teeth into some dry-rub bones in Memphis less than two years. I’m a later-life convert – and life has not been the same since. If my numbers ever come up on the lottery, a BBQ restaurant will be my dream venture.
I’ve been to the States four times in the last couple of years and a trip there would be unthinkable if it didn’t feature ribs very early on. Within an hour of landing at Mobile, Alabama this summer, we braved a thunderstorm to get to The Brick Pit at 5456 Old Shell Road. The shack was recommended by my Sweet Home Alabama buddy Verna Gates, who knows more about my dining proclivities than it’s healthy to know.
The Brick Pit did not disappoint. All the flavour comes from the hickory and pecan wood the meat is smoked over for 30 hours. The only sauces are the red ones (regular and hot) that are placed on the tables in this graffiti-covered eating space. We worked our way through giant platters of BBQ ribs, pulled pork and chicken, served with obligatory Texas toast, Susan’s coleslaw and bake beans. It’s the best “Welcome Home” meal in the South.
BEST PIZZA: ZELDA’S, SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA, USA
From the South, we head West for the best pizza I had in 2015, delivered at the deliciously no-frills Zelda’s in Midtown Sacramento. California’s gold rush city may be the state capital of one of the world’s biggest economies but there’s nothing snooty about this joint.
Step out of the Sacramento sunshine and it’s perpetual night inside Zelda’s, the illumination courtesy of Christmas fairy lights. This old-school dive bar specialises in Chicago-style deep-dish pizzas and large jugs of IPA beer.
The pizza is all about the quality of the tomato sauce and the crust. There are lots of choices from healthy stuff like pesto and spinoccoli to “Everything” (sausage, pepperoni, anchovies…).
Or you can just have that sauce with a whole lots of olives and cheese, like we did. It’s a little pizza-perfection.
Pair liberally with some of Sacramento’s wonderful craft beers and you’ve pretty much got all you need to sustain human life.
BEST BREAKFAST: ANGELINE, NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
And back South again, to Louisiana…
We ate at some great places in New Orleans, in a very short space of time, but one of the stand-outs for freshness and downright yumminess was chef Alex Harrell’s Angeline. If the breakfast service is an indication of the quality of this place, which is still relatively new, then make time for it if you get the opportunity to head to the Big Easy.
Some of us were still full from gorging on modern Louisiana cooking the previous night at Kingfish (equally great) and opted for exemplary wholegrain granola (with vanilla honey yogurt and fruit) and oatmeal (with roasted pecans and cane sugar bananas).
The big guns (me) went for a mountain of brioche French toast, dripping with Poirier’s cane syrup and crispy bacon.
Don’t miss out on the creamy Coosa Valley stone ground grits, the best I’ve had in the South. (Harrell, by the way, comes from Alabama – as do the grits. You may notice a theme here…)
As we were leaving, the sous chef was making fresh pasta for lunch. Boy, it looked good.
Better still, Angeline is only a short hop from an ecletic selection of bars and shops where you can buy just about anything, including some garments to cool off in the humidity.