Bar + Block, Birmingham

I was a weird child. Still am. Amongst the many childhood tales my mother has recounted to me, the first word I chose to utter is one of my favourites. It wasn’t mama, or dada. Not hello, bye-bye, yes or no. It was moo.

My boyfriend might point to this as an early warning sign of my infamous moods, but I prefer to think of it as a first declaration of my love of steak.

You see, a properly cooked steak is a thing of beauty. I personally like mine dry aged, charred on the outside and so rare that it could be returned to life with a defibrillator. Properly rested so that the juices disperse across the protein, not the plate. But this beef nirvana is rarely achieved; far too often my rare steak is overcooked, or the meat has been cooked on too low a heat so that the exterior is a sweaty, muddy grey. Cooking a bit of cow shouldn’t be that difficult yet it so often misses the mark. Luckily, my visit to Bar + Block proved they know how to handle a piece of meat (whey).

I know I’m in the minority, but I have a real issue with meat flavoured crisps. It’s just. not. right. I won’t pretend, then, that the arrival of beef popcorn to start the meal filled me with joy. Fortunately, in this case I was wrong; these little pops of meatiness would make even the cheapest of Cineworld seats bearable, and had completely disappeared by the time our wine arrived.

We choose three small plates from the menu to start us off. A gammon and pineapple scotch egg gets a mixed response; I like the nostalgic flavours of ham surrounding the egg, studded with sweet pineapple and the occasional tingle of chilli, but my dining partner brands it a complete bastardisation of a classic. I reckon I’m right.

Mac and cheese bites do exactly what they say on the tin; deep fried bits of molten cheese and pasta. They’re good, but better eaten with burnt ends; smokey, sweet and crispy bits of slow cooked brisket, with a hint of heat lurking in the background.

I’ll gloss over my boyfriend’s odd decision to order a chicken burger in a steakhouse, because it was a decent burger, but if you’re here it should be about the cow. And it was for me; a hunk of 10oz fillet, exactly how I asked for it. The exterior had a nice crust, the centre still gently moo’ing, with a tangle of samphire bringing welcome saltiness. I like it a lot, and it’s a bargain for it’s size at £22.95.

Dessert is definitely not needed, but we order it anyway. The sundae comes piled with churros, honeycomb, brownies and other things your dentist warns you about. It’s mammoth and would defeat the hugest of appetites for only six English pounds. The baked cheesecake with cherry is the only real disappointment of the meal. The texture is all wrong, a mass of bland, dense sweetness that tastes like it’s been defrosted. I should have ended on the steak. Serves me right for being greedy.

Bar + Block is never going to be my favourite restaurant, the place that I rave about to everyone who’ll listen and take all my friends to when they visit. But it does what it sets out to do extremely well; it serves up tasty, well cooked food at an extremely reasonable price. And for that I can’t fault it.

Bar + Block is at 6 Waterloo Street, Birmingham, B2 5PG.

Food was complimentary for review purposes.

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Gateway to India, Regency Wharf

The last time I visited the Gateway to India was in Mumbai; it was a little different there.  Perched on benches we ate cheap and tasty food, and watched men wearing little clothing pass by with bedazzled cows, whereas here, just off Broad Street…Okay, I take it back. Thinking about it, Mumbai really isn’t that different to Broad Street at all; give or take a few pitchers of Sex on the Beach, a visit to either will guarantee colourful characters, a riot of noise and hordes of taxis.

Gateway to India, then, is a fairly apt name for this newcomer. Could this possibly be the inspiration behind the name? We may never know.*

What I do know is that Gateway to India are serving up some seriously impressive street food, with a menu inspired by favourites from Mumbai and beyond. And when I say seriously impressive, I mean dishes that are up there with the best in the city. Look beyond the traditional interior and you’ll discover a menu more akin to the Zindiyas and Indian Streaterys of the city than your standard curry house.

I was there a couple of weeks back and I’ve been thinking non-stop about some of the dishes I ate.  Chole Bhature is everything that I love about Indian street food; take one puffed up piece of fried bread, tear, and fill with a chickpea curry that has the right balance of zing and heat.  It’s that visceral, hands-on type of eating that I love, a far cry from the well mannered world of cutlery that we survive in.  It’s the same with pani puri. Delightfully light, crisp, puffs are drizzled with tamarind and a punchy mint and coriander sauce. Fill them and then pop in the gob in one piece to release a world of goodness.

My Northern tendency to put anything and everything between buttered bread is satisfied by the Pav Bhaji; a vegetable curry accompanied by a buttered bun to spread or dunk as you choose. It’s bloody brilliant.  Aloo Tikki are deep fried mashed potato patties, a concept that could easily have originated from Glasgow (the home of haggis pakora). These are delicious, fragrant with spice and served with the same chickpea curry that formed the Chole Bhature.  It’s at this point I should tell you I am madly in love with the vivid green mint and coriander sauce; I would gladly elope with it had it not been frowned upon to do so with a liquid.

And there’s more – I’ve saved my favourite dishes for last. Bhel Puri is an addictive combination of crispy rice and noodles, dusted with spices and finished with onion, tamarind and yogurt. Samosa chaat is the best rendering of the dish I’ve tried to date; a pungent and warming mixture of that chickpea curry and torn samosa that demands your immediate attention. Best of all is the dosa, a wrapping paper-esque tube filled with the most addictive potato spiced with mustard seed and cumin.  It is this that I have been dreaming of recently, all seventeen foot (a possible exaggeration) of it with the loose vegetable curry and tomato chutney.  At just a fiver for the vegetarian one it is the obvious lunch of choice, even when your work is twenty minutes walk away like mine is. Trust me, it’s worth it.

We tried other dishes – curries, grills and a brilliant lobster dish – but it is the above street food menu that for me really stands out. With ever more Indian streetfood joints popping up in Birmingham, I can truly say that this is one deserving of your time.

*It’s true, we may never know, but I’m 99.99% sure this is not the case.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Anita at Delicious PR for the invite. The meal was complimentary, my opinions are honest as always (ask my boyfriend – I haven’t shut up about the dosa since!).

The Meat Shack, Southside

“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us”; a phrase much loved by classic Western movies and American rock band Sparks alike.

Luckily for The Meat Shack, it’s one that doesn’t apply to burger joints. In a move which will inevitably draw comparisons with Original Patty Men, Meat Shack have gone from stalwarts of the Birmingham street food scene to setting up shop in the city centre.

But let’s make like proud parents and halt the comparisons. Even though you’ll inevitably have a favourite (in my family it’s obviously me), you should still have room in your heart for both. We desperately need more good burger places in Birmingham, and The Meat Shack has just upped our total by one.

The burgers, then. The Dutch Piggy is a beast of a burger, packed with both Dutch and American cheese (perhaps to honour their shared liberal views towards marijuana consumption – who knows?), streaky bacon, iceberg red onion, pickle, ketchup and chipayo. The patty is excellent – a densely packed hunk of quality beef which, although less pink than I prefer, is full of juice and flavour. It more than lives up to The Meat Shack’s “filthy dripping goodness” slogan, and combined with the toppings offers a perfect balance of flavour and texture. It’s essentially a pimped-up bacon cheeseburger, and a damn good one at that.

The Hell Shack is a burger for those braver than I, topped with green chilli relish and Holy F**k hot sauce. It gets a good review from my partner-in-crime but I prefer to retain my tastebuds, so don’t try it.

We desperately want to try the fried pickles but they are out for the day, so we opt for onion rings and chipayo fries. The onion rings are exceptionally good but at £3 a little steep for the quantity; after all, they are just bits of onion and batter. The fries are nice enough, but overall offer further evidence to my boyfriend’s theory that when the burgers are exceptional you should just sack off the fries and order two burgers.

Sides aside, the burgers are the headline act here and they are brilliant. The Meat Shack have honed their craft throughout their formative street food years in the city; they are now using that experience to bring something very special to Southside. Go, eat, support.

Find The Meat Shack at their new permanent home on 17 Thorp Street, Birmingham, B5 4AT.

Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

Our first trip to Harborne Kitchen is so good that we book straight back in for two weeks time, when my Mum is in town. My Mum is nothing like Dad; no demands of tablecloths and central heating in the height of summer, just the simplicity of a good dinner. And I know she’ll love it here – as I do – because it’s not stuffy, part of a new wave of restaurants who deliver high-end cooking without all the pretension. We’re Northern, so we like that a lot.

But back to the original meal here. A Saturday lunch on a day when British Summer Time was in full flow. And by that I mean it pissed it down, nonstop, all day. Even on such a miserable day, the dining room is bright and airy; a room big on natural light, walls in blue and white warmed by copper and beech. In case you can’t tell, I really love the decor.

With nowhere to be in any rush we take the full lunch flight of five courses for the far too low price of £35. We get nibbles of hot gorgonzola donuts that are as amazing as they sound, fermented carrots that are not quite as good, and fish skin crisps with a fancy rosemary vinegar spritzer. The latter convert me from fish skin hater to fish skin fan. They are pure salty goodness, and when combined with the vinegar transport me to the seaside. Bread follows; a house sourdough with whipped butter. We have since purchased this bread directly from them to eat at home. As should you. It really is that good.

The first proper course of lunch is my favourite. Jersey royals, wild garlic veloute, soured cream and herring roe. It’s a list of my favourite things to eat, with the exception of the roe which is hardly ever stocked at Moseley Co-op. It’s clean and precise, warming yet refined with every flavour distinct. Salmon next, cooked mi cuit, with lightly pickled cucumber and buttermilk. It’s light and fresh, the perfect fish course for what is already turning in to a lengthy lunch.

Duck liver parfait is gunned on to a shard of cracker and topped with crisp chicken skin. The liver is light in texture and big on offal flavour, with the addition of cherry providing enough acidity to cut through the richness. It’s pretty much perfect in my eyes.

The use of offal follows through to our lamb main which has slivers of tongue, cuts of neck fillet, and rolled shoulder meat. With this is smoked potato, olive purée, lovage purée, radish, sheeps curd and spiced aubergine. Still with me? Good. It’s a lovely bit of cooking, but far too generous in size even for me.

We get to watch some Kitchen wizardry with the first of the desserts. The pastry chef uses liquid nitrogen to turn an orange into flaky bits of frozen heaven in front of us. Along with the yogurt sorbet it’s a perfect palate cleanser for the last course. Milk and honey in various forms finishes us off. It is incredible, especially the honeycomb and the honey parfait, the milk ice cream and the dehydrated sheets of milk. It’s all incredible. Just go and thank me later.

Back into the time machine and the Sunday lunch two weeks later confirms that Harborne Kitchen is my favourite place to eat. Without going into the same detail as above we have an amazing confit chicken dish with black garlic, roast dinner with beef and Yorkshire puddings, all finished off with gooseberries and nettles for dessert. My Mum loves it. Of course she does; you only have to look at me to see she is a woman of taste. Harborne Kitchen can do no wrong; Birmingham is full of great places to eat, but for me there is nowhere better.

Harborne Kitchen is, unsurprisingly, based in Harborne at 175-179 High Street, B17 9QE. Check out their website here.

Tom’s Kitchen, Mailbox

The instructions from Dad were clear; somewhere warm, not too noisy, ideally with table clothes. Nothing mentioned about the food funnily enough, the importance of which clearly diminishes with age. I send a shortlist over to him – all places I have wanted to dine at – including Tom’s Kitchen, where I neglect to mention the lack of table clothes. I’ve been looking forward to eating here since it launched in January. Dad, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to live without linen for the evening.

The restaurant is in a curious location on the first floor of the Mailbox, tucked away by the escalators, well away from the mediocre chains that dominate the waterside bars and restaurants out back. Like me, the interior is classy and well groomed, all dark wood and oversized mustard leather sofas. It could be improved with white table clothes. Ha! Not really. I’m shitting you.

The menu is mostly bistro classics given the Tom Aikens treatment. And fermented carrots. I have to mention these because my Dad thinks the notion of them is hilarious in only the way a man in his mid-sixties from Macclesfield can. He insists that we have them for the table. The fine slithers have a little bite and the hint of spice. The fermentation process has imparted an almost curry-like flavour. They are the future. I know, I’ve tasted them.

I’m not adult enough to be able to resist burrata, but I’m not convinced that the orange dressing and linaseed cracker are the best accompanent for the cream rich cheese. I quickly enforce a hostile takeover of my boyfriend’s rabbit rillettes on account of him looking far too happy. His loss is my gain, as I scoop the mild meat and crunchy piccalilli on to the thinnest of toast. It makes me want to eat rabbit more often.

My main of duck is delicious; the meat is cooked to medium, the skin crisp. The mushroom risotto is all parts delicious, accurately timed and deep with umami. A broth sits around the edge of the bowl that packs a mighty hit of mushroom flavour. At £24 it’s not cheap but it’s well worth every penny of Daddy’s money.

A burger is one of the cheaper mains on the menu at £17, but for that money it needs to be a bloody good burger – especially given it would buy two at OPM and leave change. It is very good – a fat puck of properly aged cow that blushes pink in the centre. I have a little issue with the brioche bun, the bottom half of which quickly breaks down to a nothing with the wet elements. The chips are delicious. I try a bit of Dad’s trout and get why he is so enthused. The skin is crisp, the flesh moist. The parsley and lettuce sauce is vivid in colour and flavour. It is simple and so tasty. The trout, that is, not my Father. That would be weird.

Only one dessert is ordered which divides opinion. I like it, which is all that matters. It is listed as a rum baba, a description that sends the other half into a fit of anger when it arrives. It’s not a baba blah blah blah he says. It’s just noise. The cylindrical sponge has the faint kick of booze and splodges of chantilly cream. Strawberries are present in freeze dried, ice cream, and fresh form. I don’t care how authentic it is, because it’s very, very nice.

I don’t see the bill, but fifty quid a head with wine is probably about right. I think that’s fair for what was a really excellent meal. Everything we ate was executed with skill and precision; as far as bistro style food goes for me it ticks all the boxes. Apart from table clothes, that is. But that’s another story all together.

Find Tom’s Kitchen in The Mailbox, Birmingham, B1 1RS.

Tom’s Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

T2, Birmingham

I'm attempting to cut down on the drinking at the moment. It may not be going entirely to plan – I spent Friday evening drinking wine and necking shots of Limoncello with my family – but I am at least making a token effort.

Clearly this has left a gaping hole in my life, so when T2 invited me to a masterclass I decided to see if I could drown my sorrows with tea rather than booze. I already love tea – my friend and I took a 4 month supply of Yorkshire Gold teabags with us when we were travelling (because tea is an essential) – but I have to admit I'm pretty lazy when it comes to seeking out new varieties.

T2 is an Australian brand which has recently begun opening stores in the UK. Their Birmingham store opened around 4 months ago, but I'd previously heard of them from my above-mentioned friend who raves about their London store. I have to admit, I'm a sucker for good packaging so even before I tried any tea I was a little bit in love with their branding. To be honest, they could put almost anything in those boxes and I'd be tempted to buy it.

During the masterclass, I was shown how to use their signature Teamaker to brew various teas & iced teas. T2 have around 200 varieties of tea to choose from, so the chances you'll find one you're into are pretty high. My personal recommendations are the Spi Chai – a blend of all the spices that go into standard chai tea, but without the black tea – and the Packs a Peach, a Lipton's Iced Tea-esque blend of peach, papaya, apple and chicory which was served iced. I took a box of the Spi Chai home and it even managed to convert my non-tea-drinking boyfriend.

I also had my first taste of Matcha tea, which is a powder made of the entire tea leaf. Matcha seems to be everywhere at the moment, hailed as the next saviour of our planet, healer of diseases, instant youth restorer etc etc. All this marketing hype has had the entirely opposite effect as intended for me – I have avoided it like the plague. Hipster health trends just ain't my thing. My first taste of the Matcha, made with 80 degree water, didn't do much to change my mind. Let's just say that it definitely tasted like it was good for you.

All was not lost though; next we used the cinnamon matcha to make a matcha latte. After whisking the matcha in a tiny bit of water, we whisked with soya milk until frothy and add a little bit of honey. This was a game changer; consider me a matcha convert. Next time you see me, I may have transformed into a 6 foot supermodel with zero wrinkles. That, or I'll just be sipping a matcha latte. At £24 a tin, it's not cheap, but I loved it so much I couldn't help myself. I now have a tin of matcha in my cupboard; WHO AM I?!

Throughout the tea masterclass, the staff were incredible enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They passed on lots of information such as perfect brew times for different teas and facts about how the different teas were made. Even if you're not booked in for a masterclass, you can pop into the store and they'll be on hand to answer questions and make you up a sample if there's any flavours you want to try. I'll definitely be back at T2 very soon – I've got a kitchen cupboard crying out to be filled with little orange boxes!

Thanks to T2 for inviting me to take part in their complimentary masterclass. Their Birmingham store can be found in Upper Mall West, Bullring.

Bleecker Burger, Victoria

A recent trip to London saw us trying to tick as many places off our ‘must-eat/must-drink’ list as we could in 30 hours.

All our lunch and dinner slots were already full when we were recommended Bleecker as “the best burger in London”. Our dilemma was solved by a quick Google; their speciality is the Bleecker Black burger, a double cheeseburger with beef black pudding. Black pudding is clearly a breakfast item, giving us a perfect excuse to squeeze in a trip to Bleecker for the most important meal of the day. We later found out that the Bleecker Black is temporarily unavailable (a situation described by Twitter users as “drastic” and “worse than Brexit”) but we’d already justified it to ourselves, so sod it. Burgers for breakfast it was.

The little black front of the Victoria branch faces directly onto the biggest Shake Shack I’ve ever seen. Must be stiff competition for them, we thought. How wrong we were. I guarantee that one bite of a Bleecker burger and you will never step foot in that particular branch of Shake Shack again. Anyone who does so is a fool.

A classic bacon cheeseburger and a Bleecker Blue (blue cheese sauce, onion, lettuce) are swiftly ordered and we ask for them to be cut in half for sharing purposes, as Bleecker don’t give out knives. We’re totally down with that, because what kind of sick human being eats a burger with a knife?

The patties in both are cooked to a perfect pink with meat that oozes quality; flavour this good can only come from using top notch beef (Bleecker’s is dry-aged, rare breed and pasture fed). This is a serious burger. I hate places that completely eradicate the flavour of the patty by piling it high with ridiculous toppings. I’ve learnt it’s usually an indication that the patty itself is shit. Here, it rightly takes centre stage, putting in a performance well deserving of an encore.

Both are encased in the much maligned sesame bun, which in most places seems to have been permanently relegated in favour of it’s trendier cousin, the brioche bun. It stands up perfectly against the beef, providing an ideal receptacle for the burger juices whilst still maintaining it’s structure.

The blue cheese sauce on the Bleecker Blue is very good, not too overpowering but still delivering a whack of flavour. It’s an excellent burger, but the bacon cheeseburger is something else. It is complete burger nirvana – the best bacon cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten – and at only £6 is probably the cheapest hit of euphoria you can get in London. That encore I was talking about? I sent my boyfriend in for a second one as soon as we’d finished the first.

Fries wise, Bleecker’s signature are ‘angry fries’, topped with blue cheese sauce and hot sauce. The flavours worked together but personally I just wasn’t that into it; I think the sauce took over and distracted from how good the chips actually were (they were very good).

Our last minute dash to Bleecker turned out to be my favourite of the weekend in terms of sheer unaldulterated eyes-rolling-back-in-your-head bliss. Yep, it even beat the 3 Michelin starred lunch we had the previous day. One week on and I’m still thinking about it more than men allegedly think about sex (19 times a day, according to the extremely reliable http://www.shape.com). I’ll be back for that Bleecker Black soon.

We visited the Victoria branch of Bleecker at 205 Victoria Street, London, SW1E 5NE. They also have branches in Spitalfields and Southbank. 

Bleecker St. Burger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato