There is nothing quite as satisfying in the world of restaurant punditry as seeing a young chef step up to the hot plate, hone his craft and build on his promise.
Obviously, it’s equally pleasurable to see a chef with an over-inflated opinion of his cooking come a cropper but we will leave that for another day.
Today, I come to praise cooking – and Champagne, and cocktails, and quite a lot else – and not bury it. I also come to praise the vision and ballsiness of the brothers behind the restaurant/bar/hotel in question.
First, the chef. I recently attended a special dinner showcasing a tasting menu put together by Ryan Swift, in a collaboration with Moët Hennessy, at The Edgbaston in Birmingham.
I was introduced to Swift’s cooking at Hampton Manor in Solihull and saw great potential married to the distractions of youth – too many smears on the plate, imaginative flavour combinations that could sometimes be too imaginative. But the boy could clearly cook.
At The Edgbaston, where Swift started cooking a few months ago, everything points to a new maturity and confidence. It’s great to see, and of course eat.
Early season Lichfield asparagus, paired with Iberico ham, a yolk-perfect crispy quail’s egg and white truffle is one of the best starters I’ve had so far this year. The dish is accompanied by Krug Grand Cuvée, which remains one of the gold-standard fizzes.
At about £120 a bottle at retail it should be, but the Krug delivers. The very nice chaps at Moët Hennessy are keen to demystify the brand and encourage more diners to give it a whirl as a special celebration drink. They want it to be seen as a drink of affordable, fruit-packed, toasty exclusivity.
Several hours later, when we open another bottle after what can only be described as an epic tasting of cocktails and spirits, and some tremendous cooking, I have to say I am feeling thoroughly demystified.
The Edgbaston, which has three different cocktail bars, including a Mr Goldfinger-style sumptuous subterranean shelter, is pioneering the pairing of cocktails with fine food. This means getting both teams – the kitchen brigade and the shaker squad – working in tandem. Thankfully, Stuart and Darren Insall, the brothers behind The Edgbaston and sister venue The Kenilworth (in, you got it, Kenilworth), have snapped up one of the best barmen you could hope for.
I don’t say this lightly, but Robert Wood is a cocktail genius. If Wood doesn’t know it, it doesn’t exist. And if it doesn’t exist, he’ll invent it and make it taste like a classic.
After the Krug, Swift’s food is paired with drinks devised by Wood in concert with the chef. Ordinarily, I’d run a mile from a cocktail pairing dinner (“Sex on the Beach with your kimchi, sir?”) but with Wood at the bar there is peace and light in the world.
Convention is turned on its head for Swift’s take on a classic foie gras starter. The liver is cleverly run through with salty smoked eel and served with compressed sweet/sharp apple and Sauternes jelly.
Instead of the statutory sweetish/floral French/German white wine match, there is a Figue highball with Hennessy Fine de Cognac.
Wood lifts the figgy and syrupy sweetness with San Pellegrino water; the cognac imparts honeyed dried fruit. It works very well with the richness of the liver.
I applaud a chef who picks fish as the centrepiece of a tasting menu and Swift’s roasted Cornish turbot is joyfully undeconstructed with an absence of obvious faffing.
Scallops are poached in Champagne and there is caviar – touches of old-school dining glamour that don’t feel jaded because the dish has honesty, integrity – and vegetables from a beach.
Does Wood’s “Dirty Sexy Martini” with Belvedere Unfiltered Vodka and in-house Champagne vermouth work as well with the turbot as a classic dry white wine? I wouldn’t do it regularly but as a tasting experience, which is what this is meant to be, I’m in. In a sea of wet martini wannabes, this is a bone dry beauty and lifts the fish.
Incidentally, there’s no pressure to have cocktail pairings, or lengthy tasting menus. The Edgbaston also has conventional wines and à la carte dining.
But if you do that you might miss out on Wood’s Mocha Sazerac with Glenmorangie Original, which accompanies Swift’s take on tiramisu (Amaretto caramel, Valrhona chocolate, coffee sponge and mousse). Candy floss is involved in the cocktail, which sounds wrong, but it turns into a fairground attraction. If I tell you too much, it will take the fun away.
Before the coffee and chocolate flavours there is time for a huge splash of citrus, courtesy all things lemon – Swift’s dish of whipped lemon curd, cylinders of toasty meringue, lemon sorbet and pine nut crumble matched with Wood’s Tarte au Citron Flip with Belvedere Citrus Vodka.
Right there, in one pudding and one cocktail, is your annual recommended dose of vitamin C. Who said gastronomy couldn’t be healthy?
The Edgbaston, a small boutique hotel with six bedrooms, opened in May last year and the Insalls say it took until now to find the right chef to deliver their food concept. I admire their patience, their vision and their nerve. The venue is around the corner from Simpsons, the grande dame of Birmingham gastroland, and opposite a new Peach pub, The Highfield. The idea is to create a food quarter in this corner of the Calthorpe Estates’ empire, and raising profile and perceptions will be key.
The Edgbaston knocks spots off most (all?) central/city centre cocktail bars in Birmingham and Swift’s cooking just adds to the attraction. The place is a few minutes’ in a taxi from Broad Street and there are no hen parties, kebabs or strip bars, which may, or may not, be a plus for you.
The Insalls have also got something no one else in Birmingham, possibly the world has got, although it might have already gone because we gave it a good tasting. Sorry.
The thing in question is a flagon of rum from 1944 that survived the days when sailors in the Royal Navy were given a daily tot.
The flagon was purchased together with two others from a salty sea dog who stashed it for half a century until fate brought it together with the Insalls.
A fellow dinner guest, an eminent gin distiller, estimates the rum now has an alcohol content of 64% and was produced in the 1930s. Like they say, it’s got legs, deep amber hues and tremendous length.
So too has the delicious rare brandy that another fan of The Edgbaston keeps behind the bar for special visits. He is now one of my best friends, even if I can’t quite remember his name. It’s his fault for treating me to a sip of his Hennessy Paradis Imperial cognac.
A blend of cognacs from the 19th and 20th centuries, one is advised to drink slowly in order to appreciate the structure and depth, and thus avert sending your new best chum into bankruptcy. At about £1,500 per crystal decanter, it’s not one for flambé-ing bananas.
So, good cooking combined with Krug, extraordinary cocktails, 70-year-old plus rum, rare cognac… what an extraordinary night.
Many Birmingham venues purport to offer a unique experience. This is the real deal.
Now, has anyone seen that flagon?
- The Edgbaston, 18 Highfield Road, Birmingham B15 3DU
- T: 0121 454 5212