Birmingham trio in Sunday Times Top 100

Another day, another list, another “Top 100” something or other…

This weekend, The Sunday Times, in association with Harden’s, publishes its annual list of the Top 100 restaurants in Britain.

The full list and rankings are under wraps until Sunday – otherwise no one would bother buying the newspaper – but we can say that three Birmingham restaurants are among the eight Midland establishments in the Top 100.

Drum roll… and the winners are: Simpsons, Purnell’s and Lasan.

Glynn-Purnell-and-Richard-McComb-at-the-Colmore-Business-District-food-festival

Elsewhere in the area defined as the Midlands, they are entries for La Becasse and Mr Underhill’s in Ludlow, Shropshire. As much as any of these lists/guides matter, I’m pleased for Will Holland, who’s just handed in his apron at Alan Murchison’s La Becasse and will be flying solo in the new year in Bridgnorth.

Holland, you may recall, was stripped of a star by Michelin last year and failed to win it back in the 2014 little red book – proving, in case you needed convincing, that Michelin gets things horribly wrong.

Anyway, enough of that.

As a champion of Birmingham’s gastronomic scene, it is of course gratifying to see Brum bag thee slots in The Sunday Times/Harden’s Top 100.

Anyone barmy enough to be awake and listening to me on BBC WM radio this morning (Friday, 1 November 2013) will have heard me make a pig’s ear of a mathematical calculation. I meant to say this:

“There are 64 million people in Britain, according to Wikithing. Divide 64 million by 100 (the number of restaurants in the list) and you get 640,000. So, for every 640,000 head of population, there should be one restaurant in the Top 100.

“Birmingham has a population of just over one million – so the city should have two restaurants in the list. But we’ve got three. Hurrah!”

Which is a complicated way of saying: “We are punching above our weight.”

So, this is a good thing.

But a list wouldn’t be a list without a gripe.

Let’s consider the omissions. Based on other lists, guides and word-of-mouth opinion, you could make a case for three other Birmingham restaurants featuring in the Top 100: Turners in Harborne; Loves in the city centre, near Brindleyplace; and Adam’s, in Bennetts Hill, just off Colmore Row.

Steve Love has a loyal fan base and Adam Stokes won a Michelin star within six minutes of pulling the cork on his “pop up” this year.

Richard-Turner

But it’s Turners I am dumbfounded by. It is just glaringly wrong that Turners isn’t on the list.

(I’m not actually dumbfounded. This is a subjective, eating-out list, compiled in large part on the basis of reports filed by a South-East bias of dilettante armchair “foodies” in Guildford. But go with it for now.)

Aktar-IslamI am chuffed for Lasan chef-director Aktar Islam. Lasan is the only Indian restaurant outside London featured on the list.

If Aktar, with his film idol looks and dazzling interpretations of classic Indian cooking, had set up shop in Kensington, rather than Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, he’d already have a glittering reward from Michelin.

SimpsonsSimpsons and Purnell’s are shoe-ins in any Top 100 for Britain. There’s not really much more to say about them.

Classy, assured, inventive, first-class produce. And Simpsons has Albanian Tony front-of-house.

It’s worth name-checking the other three restaurants in the Midlands area listed in the Top 100: Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham; Hambleton Hall, Rutland; Winteringham Fields, Lincolnshire.

We live in an age of soaring utility bills, so it’s also interesting to look at some practical financial facts in The Sunday Times list. Namely, the cost of eating out in 2013.

According to the list, the typical cost, per person, of a three-course dinner with half a bottle of house wine, coffee, service and VAT is:

• Purnells: £75
• Lasan: £77
• Simpsons: £81.

The Sunday Times list, now in its fourth year, it is based on 80,000 reviews from 9,000 “consumers.” According to my rubbish maths, each reviewer sent in, on average, eight or nine reports. Who are these people? Why are they reviewing? Did any of them come to Turners?

Essentially, is this list any more instructive than any other guide or list? Is Harden’s simply a posh TripAdvisor?

I think it’s worth asking these questions.

Similarly, I don’t think lists, per se, are a bad thing, particularly if they raise the profile of the restaurant and hospitality industry. The restaurant sector is like any other business sector – and profile helps sales.

Of course, The Sunday Times list makes no mention of Britain’s wider culinary scene outside upscale restaurants. And Birmingham has a broader and richer food scene that knocks the rest of the country, bar London, into a cocked hat.

What makes it all the more exciting, and interesting, is that it’s a relatively new scene.

So when I talk about food in Birmingham, I mention the four Michelin-star restaurants (Simpsons, Purnell’s, Turners, Adams) but I also mention, and consider, so much more.

Like the broader independent restaurant scene; the expanding coffee shop culture; street food; the growing influence of Chinese cooking; the rising standards of pub dining; and yes, baltis.

You couldn’t have talked about all that 10 years ago. And that’s pretty remarkable.

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