It is not that long ago that everyone, including me, got very excited about the resurgence – or should that be birth? – of good cooking in Birmingham restaurants.
When I started reviewing the city’s eating out scene seven years ago, I was, frankly, a lucky bastard. My appointment as food critic for the Birmingham Post coincided with Simpsons in Edgbaston cementing its credentials and the establishment of two then newly opened, critically acclaimed restaurants – Purnell’s in the city centre and Turners in Harborne.
Others have subsequently arrived on the scene, some good, some indifferent, some led by people who might consider adding humble pie to their pastry section. I’ve eaten plenty of the latter in my career; it doesn’t taste as bad as you might think.
When I left the Post last April, I wondered how Birmingham’s dining culture might evolve. Street food was taking off and the ritual of eating burritos in the rain has become increasingly popular. Are we in the midst of a fad, or is this really the start of a significant food movement that will remain true to its origins? I think it is too early to say if homespun van grub – the “phat” dirty burgers, the chilli dogs, the kimchi cronuts – will become part of the city’s embedded food culture. I hope it does. It’s been a breath of fresh air and some of the food is good.
The movement is led by a relatively small number of fiercely independent traders, which is what makes on-the-hoof dining so attractive to customers who despair at banal chain restaurant dining. But food businesses, whether they are set in bricks and mortar or rest on wheels, drain cash; and the very thing that gave birth to the street food scene, namely fashion (however well intentioned its aims), can be a fickle friend. Let’s cross our fingers and judge its success in a couple of years.
One thing I didn’t consider, a year ago, was this: the arrival of the next generation of innovative young chefs. We were all so excited by the fact we had three Michelin star restaurants (and now there are four) that we didn’t think about what would happen next.
Big name restaurants, the really successful ones, that hold on to gongs and plaudits for years, reinvent themselves with new kitchen stars, in the same manner as top football clubs rebuild. Recent events at Manchester United, struggling desperately since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, illustrate just how difficult this can be.
So if there’s one thing to watch now, I think it is the way the top kitchens in Birmingham respond to the fact that their chefs are not immortal. They are all getting just that little bit older. Some are in their late 30s, others in the their mid to late 40s. It’s hardly ancient. But as the years creep by, people’s outlook changes, they need to take a wider perspective to protect their businesses – and their families. So who keeps the restaurant not only ticking over, but pushing on to the next level?
Richard Turner’s restaurant in Harborne is a case in point.
Turner picked up a star less than two years after opening in 2007 in unlikely surroundings in the High Street. Fact: no other Michelin star restaurant is situated so close to an Iceland outlet.
Turner has held on to the Michelin accolade ever since, which, regardless of what you think of the French guide, is a mark of consistency.
He has recently recruited Yorkshireman Alex Bond, previously of Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham. Bains is renowned for giving young, creative chefs an opportunity to showcase their skills. It is a philosophy Turner has embraced by making 30-year-old Bond his head chef.
Matt Cheal, another young-ish chef (he’s 32) has recently taken over as head chef at Simpsons. It’s a comparable albeit slightly different scenario. Cheal has worked under executive chef Luke Tipping since he was a college student, so he knows the Simpsons way.
Bond has been dropped into the maelstrom that is Richard Turner’s kitchen, where typically it is a case of sink or swim. Most drown.
The appointment represents a gamble for both men. Turner has always been a hands-on chef, with the ability, in my view, to conjure up moments of cooking brilliance. Bond, clearly, doesn’t want to blot his CV. It is going to be a fascinating story to watch unfold.
What the pairing of the two chefs has done is to create what is perhaps a unique dining experience in Birmingham: a combination of the classic, French-informed style which is Turner’s hallmark and the modern techniques, textures and flavour combinations of Bond’s generation. On the Simply Turners menu, there is veal sweetbreads, foie gras and tarte tatin; on the alternative nine-course tasting menu, there is cheese custard, barbecued and fermented leeks, and pigs cheek served as a creamy accompaniment to sweet langoustine.
Simply Turners has a traditional cheeseboard, probably the best in the city; the tasting menu has a cheese course of fresh curd, honeycomb and walnut before the desserts kick off with a hay mousse, granola, rocket and tarragon.
I have eaten good scallops at Turners before, served with a Japanese influence. Now the shellfish is accompanied by three-cornered garlic, crispy shards of chicken skin and Parmesan custard.
Both menus are similarly priced: six courses on Simply Turners is £80 (but diners can have as few as two or three courses, for £40 or £50, if that’s what they fancy); the full tasting menu is £85.
The highlight for me on the tasting menu took me by surprise, not least because it didn’t have any protein. The centre of a salt baked celeriac (it’s cooked in a thin layer of pastry to retain the moisture) is scooped out at the table into a bowl, placed on top of a cushion of celeriac purée, then bathed in a celeriac broth. Winter truffle is grated on top.
If you have it, I’d advise sticking your nose right into the bowl and taking a major hit of the earthy, sweet notes then enjoy a ruddy good slurp and a chew.
This dish is what good food should be about: big, banging flavour and nurturing satisfaction. Drinking this broth each day will extend your life expectancy by 10 years.
One other thing I like: the waiting staff give the option of keeping a copy of the tasting menu on the table throughout the meal.
The menu is a useful mental prompt, particularly around course five when the accumulation of wine kicks in; second, the waiter doesn’t feel the need to explain every single leaf, shoot, globule, crumb and smear (not that Turner, thank God, is big on horrific dirty protest-style smears).
The menu’s introductory blurb, thankfully short, warns diners that the tasting menu may “challenge you as well as taking you on a gastronomic tour.”
But this restaurant, again thankfully, is about enjoyment and conviviality, not chef or front-of-house ego. If you are unsure, you can ask without feeling like a twerp.
Puddings remain strong: beautiful riffs on chocolate, including a Harry Potter table-side potion treatment; and a pretty and delicate take on liquorice and rhubarb. That’s what happens when you let a Yorkshireman in the kitchen.
- Turners Restaurant, 69 High Street, Harborne, Birmingham B17 9NS.
- T: 0121 426 4440