Sabai Sabai, Birmingham

Turns out the North-South divide is universal. Here in the UK, it’s all dinner vs tea, baps vs cobs, chips and gravy vs jellied eels. Touch down in Thailand however, and it’s the milder flavours and dryer dishes of the North vs South Thailand’s seafood, hotter curries and love of coconut milk.

Being in the Midlands, we’re in the unique position of being in, well, the middle. According to a recent YouGov survey, people in the Midlands can’t decide whether they’re Northern, Southern, or nothing at all. Indecisive, you say? No identity, I hear? Nope, not at all. We just know how to have the best of both worlds, and that’s exactly what the fourth Sabai Sabai site in Birmingham city centre have done, installing not just one but two Thai chefs, one from the North of Thailand and one from (you guessed it) the South. Happy days.

A confession now. Despite living less than half a mile from their Moseley site, I’ve never actually visited Sabai Sabai; a combination of my laziness and a handy little app called Deliveroo mean that although you can often find me chowing down on a selection of my favourite Thai dishes, it’s always in the comfort of my own sofa, usually in my pyjamas. What can I say? It’s dark and miserable outside, I have Sky and I don’t have to socialise with people.

After visiting their new city centre site I can see that there are some things I’m missing out on by insisting on takeaway. The beautiful decor, for one; pretty light features, patterned ceilings and botanical flourishes. Save for my lone Swiss cheese plant, I definitely don’t have that at home. Then there’s the staff, including some recognisable faces from some of Birmingham’s finer establishments; friendly, knowledgeable and serving up a bit of humour alongside dinner. Again – much as I love Deliveroo – I wouldn’t credit the delivery drivers with much charisma and they never stay to pour my wine. Third? Cocktails. I can whip up a mean G&T at home but a lychee Martini? Piss off.

We start with the Sabai Sabai Meat Platter. At £12.95 per person, it’s certainly not the cheapest but the portions are large. Personally I wouldn’t choose this again – I’d rather order separately so I could have more of my favourite items and less of those I’m not so keen on – but it’s a great introduction to Sabai Sabai. The spare ribs are overly sweet for me, but I love the garlicky chicken wings which are braised before being finishing in the fryer to leave them falling-off-the-bone levels of tender. Lamb chops come pleasingly pink throughout, and the garlic, peppercorn and pineapple dressing it is good, although hiding a little meekly. Crispy duck rolls are fat and full of meat. Dunked in sauce they are addictive, and I hopefully eye up the rest of the table, but no one is giving theirs up. I understand.

Mains are a combination of old favourites and some new dishes I’ve not tried before. The Phad Thai never disappoints, but the unexpected star of the evening is braised Beef Short Rib in a Massaman sauce. The sauce is rich with spices, peanut and coconut and the topping of crushed cashew nuts and crispy shallots provide some texture to prevent the dish reaching retirement home levels of softness. The papaya salad is the definition of fresh – if someone could make this for me every day I’d be supermodel skinny in no time – and is a nice foil to some of the more meat heavy dishes on offer. In terms of sides, for me it’s the garlic fried rice every time; I could eat a bowl of this on it’s own.

My verdict? Us Midlanders have got it right. Whether the origins lie in North or South Thailand, pretty much everything I’ve tried at Sabai Sabai is delicious and deserves a place on their menu (and my plate). I’m sorry Sabai Sabai, that our relationship has been long distance for so long. I promise I’ll come and see you more often.

Sabai Sabai is located at 7 Waterloo Street (Birmingham City Centre) and also has restaurants in Moseley, Harborne and Stratford-upon-Avon. We were invited to dine as guests of Delicious PR, but all opinions and love of Sabai Sabai are my own (please see my Deliveroo account for proof).

Sabai Sabai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Chien Lunatique at 1000 Trades, Jewellery Quarter

I’m calling it. Simon Masding is the unsung hero of the Birmingham fries scene. It’s a scene which – admittedly – is a little lacking, but even if Birmingham was a veritable chiptopia I would still bet on Mr. Masding to provide more pleasure per inch than anyone else I know.

It all started back in September with his Kebabylon pop up at my favourite Jewellery Quarter haunt, where I declared his sweet potato fries “the best sweet potato fries I have ever eaten”. I’ve been chasing those batons of goodness all round 0121 ever since.

He’s now back at 1000 Trades for January, slinging gourmet hot dogs made from Lashford sausages (some of the best sausages in the Midlands, if you’d missed that memo) and a variety of toppings that are more genius than Donald Trump on a Twitter rampage. “Do we really need fries?” asked my dining companion. A disgusted look gave the necessary answer; we ordered fries. At Chien Lunatique potatoes of the hand-cut, skin-on variety accessorise the dogs, and at first I’m disappointed because I truly am obsessed with those sweet, sweet, sweet potato fries. But when they arrive it’s love at first bite. Masding has done the double – won the FA Cup and Premier League, if fries had legs and could kick a ball into a net. God, I love the way that man handles a potato.

But enough about fries. It’s the dogs we came for, and they are just as good as the chips. There’s eight on the menu, each utilising a different flavour of Lashford sausage. We slept late – it’s one of those overcast, blustery days when the duvet is reluctant to release you from it’s welcome hold – and so I order ‘The Churchill’, reasoning that it’s technically brunch. Seams of black pudding run through the sausage, and a simple garnish of bacon lardons complete this homage to pigginess. It’s not ostentatious – in fact it’s almost laughably simple – but the use of the best ingredients possible means that this pork-and-bread combo is heads above the sausage baps that I usually stuff in my face after a night on the sauce.

Our other chien veers more towards the lunatique end of the spectrum. The sausage mix is given a decidedly Brummie vibe with the addition of Balti seasoning before being topped with tzatziki, onions and poppadums. I don’t think I would ever have ordered this – my cynical side immediately thought “gimmick” – but I’m bloody glad my boyfriend did. It’s almost as if he knows something about food. It’s a massive punch of flavour, the best six inches of pork anyone has ever served me. I’ll be coming back for more of this.

I could bang on about these bangers for hours, but that would be wasting time of yours that you could be spending eating as many of these hot dogs as you can before Chien Lunatique pops down on 3rd February. Make like a French ski instructor and allez vite!

The Chien Lunatique pop up will run until 3 February at 1000 Trades, 16 Frederick Street, B1 3HE. WEBSITE.

Indian Street Food Class, The Spice Club

As you can probably tell from my blog, I have a massive love for Indian street food. Since moving to Moseley my tried and tested hangover cure has become chicken tikka and aloo tikki chaat from Zindiya, eaten cross-legged on the floor so we can watch TV without staining the sofa. Trust me, it works.

But despite my adoration for the cuisine of the sub-continent, I have managed to reach my 26th year with pretty much zero knowledge of how to cook it. My repertoire stretches as far as a single chickpea and potato curry; a damn good one, I’ll admit, but after the billionth time it can get a little dull. So when I heard from the lovely Han Eats that Monica was bringing her The Spice Club cookery classes to Birmingham, our names were the first on the list.

The class lasted 3 hours and the format went a little like this: cook delicious Indian street food dish, eat said street food dish, cook another delicious Indian street food dish, eat second street food dish, leave happy and very, very full. Perfect for people like me, who can’t go more than about an hour without stuffing something in my gob. And after a slightly heavy Friday night, I was thrilled to see that the first dish we would be cooking was my favourite hangover-busting aloo tikki chaat (spiced potato cakes on a bed of chickpea curry), followed by chicken Kathi rolls (paratha filled with sukha chicken and a pickled lime and onion salad).

Monica was a fantastic teacher, making everything seem simple and giving us plenty of time saving tips along the way; for example, did you know that microwaving garlic bulbs makes them super easy to peel? With a small class size of six everyone was able to get involved in each part of the dishes, whatever their cooking experience, and it felt more like cooking with a group of friends than a formal class.

And the results? Stunning. Even with our amateurish skills we managed to produce some incredible tasting food, and after trying the same dishes on a recent trip to India it’s clear that Monica has absolutely nailed her recipes. They were so good that I recreated both at home the very next day with the help of the recipes we were given. I’ve been practising ever since and my parathas are slowly getting rounder.

If you’re even slightly into Indian food (or want to discover it!), I’d definitely recommend giving one of The Spice Club classes a go. It was such a fun way to spend a morning, and I came away with amazing memories as well as recipes. Monica runs a variety of classes, including vegan options, so you can choose the vibe that suits you (Kashmiri cookery class, I’m coming for you next).

I’m not gonna lie, I’ll still be phoning in the Aloo Tikki Chaat from Zindiya when I’ve overindulged in gin, but from now on my hangover free days will be spent in the kitchen making my own.

The class cost £55 and was held at the Kitchen Food School in Digbeth and ran from 11-2. Details of upcoming Birmingham classes can be found here. If you fancy trying some of Monica’s recipes, check out her Spice Diary blog.

The Crown Inn, Hallow

It creeps up on you, getting old. One minute you’re spending your weekends at warehouse parties and stumbling in at seven am, the next you’re taking a serious interest in kitchen utensils and investing in a pension. One thing I’ve realised as I’ve grown older (and hopefully a little wiser) is that my Mum and Dad were actually right about a lot of the things my past self was sure they were oh so wrong about. Dying my hair black? Terrible idea. Spending a week sobbing over my first break up? Not worth it. And all those long walks in the country? Really bloody nice, actually. Especially ones with a decent pub at the end of it; one where you can sit in front of a roaring fire, the feeling slowly returning to your toes, and sate your appetite with some properly good grub.

The Crown Inn is exactly the sort of pub you always hope to find at the end of those walks, but it’s also so much more. Yes, the portions are comfortingly massive and the corners are cosy, but there’s some seriously ambitious cheffery going down. The whole pub has been refurbished and the kitchen is newly headed up by Chris Monk, formerly of Cheltenham’s two-Michelin-starred Le Champignon Sauvage; a truly brilliant restaurant which produced one of my top meals of 2017.

From snacks and starters we take a scotch egg from the more traditional end of the offerings, and a more unusual breaded lamb shoulder which arrives studded with feta and drizzled with vibrant salsa verde and redcurrant vinaigrette. The generously proportioned scotch egg would improve with a little extra seasoning, but the ham hock is tender and the yolk perfectly runny. The lamb is another big plate, however the freshness and acidity the other elements bring means that it doesn’t stray towards trouser-bursting territory.

The menu entry for my pheasant main reads as if Chris Monk has plunged his hands into my brain and pulled out a list of ingredients that speak to my soul. Two accurately cooked breasts are joined by a wedge of the most delicious hash brown (yes, I promise you it’s better than that guaranteed hangover curer from McDonalds), creamed cabbage with bacon, blackberries and the thickest of black pudding purées. It’s a triumph of a dish – Autumn on a plate – and my soul weeps when I cannot finish.

Our other main, beef shin cottage pie, is a fantastic rendition of a classic pub dish. Gone is the mince, replaced by shredded beef shin and topped with prettily-piped mash. It’s served with beef fat carrots – because all vegetables are better with animal fat – and a jug of thick gravy. As a Northerner, I very much approve.

We can’t decide between the sides, so order all three. Obviously do not do this; it is far too much for two people and even this gluttonous pair barely make a dent. The chips are thick cut and well seasoned, although they could have done with a little more colour, but my recommendation? Get the gratin instead. Dig your spoon through that gloriously golden exterior and you will be rewarded by creamy, cheesy, nutmeggy layers of potato with the perfect level of bite. Root vegetables arrive in a pool of sticky maple glaze, the remnants of which we drizzle onto our chips. We regret nothing.

After the richness of our mains, we welcome the refreshing pre-dessert of lemon and mango with open arms. I love this stuff; the sweetness and acidity of the lemon has been perfectly balanced. If we were anywhere else, we probably would have stopped here. Felt our trousers strain and made the sensible decision not to order any dessert.

The soufflé though. Apple soufflé, served with salted caramel ice cream. Show me a person who can resist that on a menu, and I’ll show you someone I don’t want to go for lunch with. It was everything we wanted and more, structurally perfect and god. damn. delicious. We still regret nothing.

I’m seriously impressed by The Crown Inn. It takes all the best bits of pub grub and elevates them to something really special. Yes, you could happily tramp in after a long walk in a pair of muddy boots, but you could just as easily celebrate a special occasion here, or tuck yourself away in a corner on date night. Whatever the occasion, I only have one piece of advice; go hungry.

Make your way to The Crown Inn by car, foot or any way possible by navigating to Main Road, Hallow, Worcester, WR2 6LB.

Lunch was complimentary for review purposes.

Crown Inn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Masala Kraft, Mumbai

We’d had a long day; an early flight, travelling and the onset of a cold had all taken it’s toll so upon reaching the luxury of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel we couldn’t bear to leave again. Downstairs it was then, to Masala Kraft (one of the hotel’s numerous restaurants) for some ‘North Indian cuisine’.

The service throughout our meal was impeccable – polite down to the last detail – and the room, all dark wood and burnt oranges, is undeniably handsome. But there’s one big problem; there is absolutely no vibe whatsoever here. Zero. Nada. Nil. And that’s important. A restaurant shouldn’t feel clinical or unmemorable. If it does, then – even if the food is incredible – I’m unlikely to want to return. And the food wasn’t even incredible.

To begin comes a platter of poppadom shards, mixed with what look like prawn crackers, without any of the prawn flavour. It’s a bizarre plate, probably containing no more than one or two poppadoms if pieced together, and about seven of the prawn-crackers-that-aren’t-prawn-crackers. It’s a total over complication. Just give me a bloody poppadom please, with some decent chutney and pickles. I’ll be much happier.

We skip starters, though I note they are priced at almost the same cost (if not more) than some of the mains. Our first choice of main is a chicken pulao. a Biriyani-esque dish of rice layered with chicken curry, priced at 1750 rupees (excluding tax). Once you factor in that tax, it works out to be around £26. FOR SOME RICE AND CHICKEN. It’s good, and fairly plentiful, but in no way special enough to warrant that price tag; a few days later, a biriyani at least as good costs just 150 rupees.

Back at Masala Kraft I fancy dhal makhani, but can’t quite stomach paying near to £15 for it; I reckon if you gave me fifteen quid I could make enough dhal to feed every guest in the Taj. Instead I opt for Baigan Bharta; tandoor cooked aubergine cooked down with onions and tomatoes to a thick sauce. It’s £17, doesn’t come with rice (that’s an extra £7.50, thanks), and a huge disappointment, gaining the dubious award of being the only dish during our whole trip with no depth of flavour at all. It’s flat and thoroughly, thoroughly boring. I douse it with the £5 raita to try and give it some personality.

We drink two glasses each of Sula, an Indian wine that we become extremely familiar with over the two weeks; my Mum bloody loves a wine. By the glass it’s a little more that we’ve paid elsewhere for the same wine, but considering the location that’s to be expected. It’s better than the alternate option of foreign wine; I understand mark-up is necessary (as well as customs charges) but it seems crazy that a bottle of wine which you can pick up in Tesco for under a tenner appears on the menu at around £75.

We knew that the bill would be a lot, but £110 to me seems extortionate for the amount we had (two mains, rice, naan, raita and four glasses of wine). Especially when you compare it to the full tasting menu we had at Indian Accent a few days prior, which came to just under £170 including a bottle of the same wine we drunk this evening.

I’m not going to slate Masala Kraft for being so eye-wateringly expensive; it’s in the Taj, so of course it’s pricy. I don’t mind paying a lot for a meal (being able to eat out is what gets me through the day job) but it HAS to be worth the money, and this is where Masala Kraft fails miserably; I didn’t walk away excited about the food or the experience in any way.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone dine here when, for a fraction of the price, you can eat as well – or better – at any number of places in the city. Be adventurous, and leave Masala Kraft to those dining on expenses.

Masala Kraft is located inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Colaba, Mumbai.

Masala Kraft - The Taj Mahal Palace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lord of the Pies, Macclesfield

One thing in life I’ve learnt recently is not to criticise where people decide to eat. I know that not everyone has the same taste as me and, honestly, that’s fine. Feel free to tell me how Miller & Carter is best for steak and I will look you in the eye and smile whilst my brain contorts and the backs of my eyes flicker uncontrollably. You love Rub Smokehouse? That’s great, I demand you tell me about it first thing Monday morning. And, what, you’re a massive fan of Wetherspoons, I hear you say? Good, me too. I’m not making that mistake; I’ve seen what they did to Marina O’Loughlin.

See, The Sunday Times’ latest food critic made the error of criticising JD Wetherspoons a few weeks back, an action that caused a reaction far greater than Newton’s third law could ever have imagined. The people spoke – no, shouted – via the medium of social media. It was pretty grim reading and totally uncalled for. It turns out the mixed grill is not named for the emotions it invokes, and paying customers really do eat for reasons other than necessity. Ms O’Loughlin rightly defended herself and made it clear it was not snobbery, pointing out that you could eat well for the same price elsewhere. In a stand of girl power not seen since I learnt the moves to ‘Spice Up Your Life’, I am agreeing with her. And I have proof thanks to a rather wonderful find in my home town of Macclesfield.

Thirty two pounds sterling, that’s what I spent in Lord of The Pies. For that, the bf and I had four pies; two we ate, the others we took home. We had two sides, and to wash it down he had a local beer, me my favourite Forest gin and tonic. According to her piece Ms O’Loughlin spent £42 purely on food. Now, price is where the comparison with Wetherspoons ends. The pies here are unbelievably good; the way you always imagine pies will be but so rarely are. They have burnished buttery pastry cases and fillings that have been cooked with love and patience. It’s easy to see why my beef and ale has won awards; the sauce is deep and heavenly, the large chunks of meat spoonable in texture. He who I am with has one with chicken curry. He doesn’t talk whilst eating it. This is why we leave with extra pies in hand; I need this weapon in my artillery.

The sides are almost as special. Mash with black pudding speaks to my Northern soul in the dirtiest of tongues. Likewise potato wedges that are really proper chips, crispy on the outside and fluffy in the centre. We dunk these with gusto into the last of the gravy jug. The lovely lady behind the till questions if we are local – the chip dunking should have answered that by itself. I love it here and it sits somewhere in-between seeing my mum and my dad in reasons why I should come home more often. A cheap meal doesn’t have to be a bad one; Ms O’Loughlin you really should give it a try.

Lord of the Pies is at 19 Chestergate, Macclesfield, SK11 6BX.

Sticky Walnut, Hoole

My grandmother used to live in Hoole. It wasn’t very cool then; as kids our dining highlight was lunch in the Morrison’s cafe. We haven’t changed much – my sister and I still bicker incessantly after a few hours in each other’s company, and my dad still thinks it’s hilarious to wind everyone up – but luckily Hoole has. It’s now got some decent drinking holes, a hip barbershop doing a roaring beard trade, and the place we are here for – Sticky Walnut.

It’s charmingly bijou for a place with such a big Twitter presence. I like it a lot; the cookbooks lining the walls, the striped aprons hanging by the door, the relaxed, friendly service. It’s warm and unfussy, exactly the sort of neighbourhood bistro that everybody should have nearby.

Whilst browsing the menu, we drink a cherry bellini and a fantastic negroni that makes me want to go home and hone my cocktail making skills. The lunch deal is obscenely cheap – 1 course is £12, rising to £19 for 3 courses – with a quality far beyond it’s price point.

We start with fat Gordal olives and rosemary and thyme focaccia. My sister moans that it’s too salty; she is wrong. My boyfriend and I fight over her last piece.

My first course is a chicken liver pate that a previous guest claimed (via the always informative Trip Advisor) gave him instant food poisoning. Luckily I escaped this medical miracle and thought my generous slab of pate, served with red onion marmalade and more of that focaccia, was a brilliant rendition of a bistro classic. Butternut squash soup with chestnuts, miso butter and a milk roll had beautiful depth of flavour and umami tang, whilst the mackerel fillet with burnt apple, labneh, za’atar and cucumber was probably delightful, but unfortunately my dad fails to share. Typical.

Hours of my life have been spent drooling over photos of Sticky’s signature braised featherblade, so I was never going to order anything else. I’m not sure what deal Sticky have struck with the devil to produce a dish this fucking delicious but it was definitely worth it. The meat is braised into a tender, rich, sticky heap of bovine goodness that is every bit what I imagined and more. An onion purée and curly kale accompany it, as do moreish truffle and Parmesan chips. We order more bowls for the table and all swiftly disappear. A pork chop with Romesco sauce is simple and effective, although one of three is cooked slightly rarer than we’d usually take it, and pan fried sea bream is stunning; perfectly crisp skin, Jerusalem artichoke purée and a salted lemon tapenade that has me frantically searching the internet for a dupe recipe.

It’s my birthday when we visit – organised by my boyfriend as a surprise – and with every birthday must come cake. My boyfriend has a habit of writing things on plates and so appears a chocolate mousse cake, topped with strawberries and honeycomb, to wish me happy birthday. It’s probably the nicest birthday cake anyone’s ever got me, but it’s testament to Sticky’s menu that I am still insistent on trying the almond and fig frangipane tart that I picked out days in advance. Fuck it, it’s my birthday and I can have two desserts if I want to.

I don’t need to shout about how Sticky seem to just get get it – they’ve got four restaurants and Gary Usher to do that – but they really, really do. Please Gary, can we have an Elite Bistro in Birmingham?!

You can find Sticky Walnut at 11 Charles Street, Chester, CH2 3AZ.

Sticky Walnut Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato