Grana Padano Lunch at San Carlo, Birmingham

I bloody love cheese. Hard, soft, stinky, mild, cow or goat – I don’t discriminate. And now that winter has officially rolled in, I have no shame calling out for cheese in every meal. Luckily San Carlo have my back, rolling out a special menu dedicated to cheese – Grana Padano in particular – which will run throughout the whole of November.

The new menu kicked off with an afternoon of cheese and wine, where we were joined by a Grana Padano expert (how can I get this job, please?) to sample the cheese and dishes that San Carlo have created to showcase it.

First order of the day – after prosecco, of course – is a tasting of the cheese in it’s pure, unadulterated form. Three hearty chunks of Grana Padano, ranging from a spritely 11 month old vintage with a mild, creamy flavour, through the nuttier 16 month vintage, to the robust 20 month ‘Reserva’ vintage which smacks of umami and has a lovely crystalline texture. It’s a versatile cheese, the various vintages able to suit different dishes and palates.

Good stuff, but there’s one surefire way to make any cheese taste better; add carbs. And San Carlo are on it. Our first dish is Gnocco Croccante; essentially large gnocchi with a crisp coating, atop a smooth Grana Padano sauce and accompanied by fresh truffle. It’s rich, cheesy and all kinds of delicious, with the crunch of the coating giving texture to a dish which would otherwise be soft enough for my great grandma to enjoy. A crisp Pinot Grigio does a great job of cutting through the richness of the dish.

Next up is a mushroom risotto, served in (wait for it) a WHEEL OF CHEESE. This is the stuff of dreams, people. It’s a good risotto, hearty and warming with lots of mushroom, but the rice could have done with a fraction longer in the pan and a touch more salt. It’s paired with a glass of rosé. Yes, I thought they were crazy too, but it really worked. San Carlo know their wines; I should never have doubted them.

Finally there is more gnocchi, this time in a Grana Padano basket with a Gorgonzola sauce. A glass of red is essential here, standing up to the big, cheesy flavours on the plate.

We leave, taking with us a distinct odour of cheese. Perhaps three in a row is a bit too much, but as standalone specials these dishes are a perfect way to get your cheese fix. They’re available at San Carlo until the end of November, which by my calculations means you have exactly 506.5 hours to get your hands on them. Godspeed!

I was invited to the press event, but was not asked to write about it. Find San Carlo at 4 Temple Street, Birmingham, B2 5BN

San Carlo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Summer Menu Tasting at Hotel du Vin

Everyone knows the best way to welcome someone in from a torrential rainstorm is with a large glass of fizz. At (ironically) their summer menu tasting, Hotel Du Vin went one better, welcoming us with a blind tasting of four different varieties; the challenge was to identify Champagne, French Cremant, Prosecco and English sparkling wine using only our eyes, noses and tongues.

I’m definitely more of a gin girl so it was no surprise that I put in an abysmal performance, scoring a solid 1 out of 4. More surprising was the fact that the Nyetimber, the English sparkling wine, took the title of all round favourite. Maybe this Brexit thing will be okay after all. Sod off France, and take your inferior fizz with you.

Actually…please, please don’t. After tasting the French-inspired summer menu I want to stay mates with our closest neighbours more than ever. There are two menus in play at Hotel Du Vin; the à la carte and the Prix Fixe menu, which is obscenely good value at only £17.95/£20.95 (2/3 courses). It’s also served in what is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest dining rooms in Brum. High ceilings, and panelled walls adorned with lots of art gives it a traditional, intimate feel without straying into stuffy territory.

I start with the English charcuterie board. Whilst not as pretty as some of the other starters which arrive (the smoked salmon, for example, is served theatrically under a glass cloche filled with smoke), the generous helping of meat is well sourced and flavoursome. I personally don’t love the pickled carrots and cauliflower that accompany it – I think they’re too big and clunky – but I still enjoyed the dish. I claimed a mouthful of the Scallops Ceviche from my neighbour/boyfriend (relationship perks); they are light, fresh, and very much deserving of their place on a summer menu.

My main is a rack of Yorkshire Dales lamb, served with pea, bean and goats curd salad. It’s a tried and tested flavour combination, cooked well, although it will set you back £26.95. If it were me, I’d save £11 and plump for the crispy porchetta dish, my favourite of the entire evening. Roasted pork is served with a thick “French Onion Soup” sauce, apple sauce and crackling. It’s rich, simple and utterly delicious.

For dessert I opt for Crepe Suzette, served with a side of theatre as they flambé the pancakes with butter, brandy and orange at the table. Classic and fun, it’s a great end to the meal.

As is to be expected from a place who’s name literally translates to ‘Hotel of Wine’, dinner is accompanied by an abundance of naughty grape juice. For summer, Hotel du Vin have curated a collection of wines made from the Pinot grape. Featuring bottles from around the world, it’s great to see some more unusual regions sitting alongside the classics. A Slovenian Furmint-Pinot Blanc is one I’ve tried before and happily revisited, though a Brazilian Pinot Noir failed to impress. Their main wine list is extensive, and their sommeliers knowledgebale, so you’re sure to find a bottle to suit when you visit. And you should visit. Hotel du Vin is serving up good, solid Gallic-style food, in a beautiful setting, with lots and lots of wine; it’s a no brainer.

Thank you to Delicious PR for the invite. As always, my honest views and opinions. 

Find Hotel du Vin on Church Street, Birmingham, B3 2NR

Bistro Du Vin - Hotel Du Vin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

First look at Gusto Birmingham

When details of the new Gusto restaurant appeared on the boarded fronts of The Grand Birmingham I was super excited. I’m originally from Cheshire so grew up visiting Gusto in Alderley Edge – I even remember it as ‘Est Est Est’ before it was rebranded – and it has always been one of my go-to restaurants whenever I am home.

As if I needed an excuse to visit, the opening coincided with my last day at work, so we booked a table for Saturday to celebrate. When we arrived, we were greeted by the wonderful Adam Hayes. We sat right by the floor to ceiling windows which are so, so good for people watching. I could sit there all evening with a glass of wine watching the world go by. As with all Living Ventures venues the interior had been beautifully thought out, and included the signature olive tree covered in fairy lights. Something else I liked was the way the restaurant had been split into three zones, meaning the noise from larger groups didn’t overwhelm smaller tables!

Onto the food: to start, we ordered the oven roasted pork ribs and the meatballs in spiced tomato sauce. We also had some baked rosemary focaccia bread to nibble on; this was good but a little thick for me. I would recommend the dough petals or garlic pizza bread over the focaccia as when I’ve tried these before they’ve been perfect.

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The meatballs, served with a rich, thick tomato sauce and topped with cheese, were a lovely comforting starter without being too heavy. The pork ribs came smothered in a delicious tomato and barbecue sauce and was accompanied by a crunchy (possibly pickled?) vegetable salad. The salad was beautiful, it was light and fresh and really lifted all the flavours in the dish.

To drink we ordered a bottle of ‘Gomila’, a Slovenian wine. I had no idea that Slovenia even produced wine but apparently they do, and it’s good! Another thing I like about Gusto in general is that they always give you a separate ice bucket so that the wine doesn’t clutter up the table. I had been out on Friday so didn’t fancy anything more than wine but they do have a brilliant cocktail menu as well!

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I am a huge pizza and pasta lover so I usually stick with those but I thought I’d branch out a little for our main course. Firstly, we had the pan fried fillet of sea bass. To my immense joy, the crispy vegetable salad made another appearance in this dish. Seriously Gusto, can you put this on the menu as a side so that I can order it every time?! The sea bass was perfectly cooked and seasoned. Usually I have a phobia of eating fish skin because so often it’s soggy and slimy and disgusting, but here it was crisp and lovely and I ate it all!

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We also ordered the slow cooked pork belly which was equally amazing – I think this is my top pick of the evening. The pork belly was gorgeous and soft, and perfectly complemented by the crisp texture of the crackling and the sweet sharpness of the apple sauce. Pork belly dishes can sometimes be really heavy but Gusto cleverly serve it with gnocchi rather than potato, and add hints of basil. This stops the dish being too stodgy and, most importantly, means you have room for dessert!

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Sticky toffee pudding is my absolute favourite dessert EVER and I know that the Gusto version is damn good. However I was intrigued by the almond milk panna cotta, served with honeycomb, flaked almonds and lemon curd so decided to go for that. I was slightly disappointed that it came in a bowl rather than standing up (not as fun and wobbly) and if you had a mouthful without any of the toppings it didn’t have much of a standout flavour. However in combination with the sharp lemon curd and berry flavours and the crunchy texture from the honeycomb and almonds it was a nice fresh dessert and I can see it working really well in summer.

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He had the chocolate & hazelnut brownie, served with pistachio ice cream and chocolate sauce – could you get a more perfect combination?! Brownie desserts are often way too sweet and artificial tasting but this one was brilliant. I loved the slight bitterness of the chocolate sauce, it made the dish feel like it was made with good quality chocolate rather than just being a sugar overload!

I’m so pleased Birmingham now has its very own Gusto, the team have done a great job and I look forward to many more visits in future. And also, before I finish, can we just mention how beautiful the toilets are!?

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Gusto is located at The Grand Hotel, Colmore Row, B3 2DA WEBSITE

Bag-in-Box wine tasting at 1000 Trades

I am the first to admit that the only thing I know about wine is that I like drinking it. So the idea of ‘wine tasting’ has never really appealed to me; it has always seemed a bit snobby and pretentious. However, when I saw that 1000 Trades were running a Bag-in-Box wine tasting for only £5 I was quite intrigued.

1000 Trades are a champion of these natural Bag-in-Box wines and I’ve always really enjoyed drinking them. I was really interested to find out more about them so I took the plunge and booked my first ever wine tasting!

The evening was run by Tom Craven of Vinnaturo and Sam Olive of Wine Freedom. Sam works with importers to supply fine natural wine to bars/restaurants etc, mainly in the Midlands area. Tom sources natural wine from farmers, puts it in bags and pouches and sells it. In his own words he “buys wine he likes from people he likes” – sounds like a pretty good job to me!

We started with a quiz to find out where on a numbered scale our palates lay. We then lined up in order and were given a small piece of paper to taste. Some people (myself included) found the taste absolutely disgusting – like when you leave a paracetamol on your tongue for too long – and some people weren’t at all bothered! The point of this was to show how different people’s palates are and therefore how different people’s taste in wines would be. As I was at the lower end of the scale, I am more likely to enjoy lighter, fresher whites than robust reds, which fits pretty well with what I usually drink.

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Tom and Sam then explained a bit more to us about why they choose to import and distribute organic (no man made chemicals except copper & sulphur) and biodynamic (‘supercharged organic’, using spiritual philosophy) wines which haven’t been messed around with either in the vineyard or the cellar. I was surprised to learn that supermarket wine has 1000s of permitted ingredients and manipulations, and part of the reason you feel so awful after a night of drinking wine is the effect of all these chemicals on your body (I have to admit that I drunk a LOT of organic wine that evening and didn’t feel nearly as bad as I normally would. I happily got myself to work for 8.30 without even needing a coffee!). In addition to being better for the people drinking it, natural wine is much better environmentally for the vineyard land and the people who live around it.

They also explained why they put the wine into boxes and pouches rather than bottles. By using this method they are able to make huge savings on shipping, which can then be passed onto the customer. It’s a great way to make really good wine more accessible to more people. Again, it is more environmentally friendly as it cuts CO2 emissions by around 50% compared to importing bottles.

Most of the wines we tried were from grapes that I had never heard of. As the famous grape varieties – Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon etc – have become more and more fashionable, more vineyards have started growing them over the wealth of other varieties (some of which have sadly now been lost). 1000 Trades are trying to introduce people to some of these other brilliant varieties, using the wine list to give you cues on which ones you might enjoy.

My pick of the evening was definitely the Trebbiano. This was a lovely easy drinking white grown in acidic volcanic soil, which actually makes the wine more alkaline. It’s fresh but also has a creaminess due to a second ‘fermentation’. At the time I said I could happily drink this all day. This was confirmed yesterday evening when I managed to put away about 5 glasses in a couple of hours…

I came away from the evening feeling like I’d learnt so much more about wine, without being overloaded with information. The format of the wine tasting, where we moved around and tried wines at our own pace, having conversations with Tom & Sam rather than being lectured, made the evening really fun and accessible. And as if everyone wasn’t already convinced, they brought out a cheese board and charcuterie platter at the end – HEAVEN!

Bag-in-box organic and biodynamic wines are available at 1000 Trades, 16 Frederick Street, B1 3HE. WEBSITE

Kebabylon at 1000 Trades

Confession: I am a massive fan of kebabs in any form. Yes, even the greasy, 3am, back-of-a-taxi variety. So when 1000 Trades announced their two week Kebabylon takeover I was understandably delighted.

It didn’t take much persuading for my boyfriend to join me. Living in the Jewellery Quarter, 1000 Trades is fast becoming our favourite after work hangout with its chilled vibe, quality drink selection & always on point soundtrack.

The (boxed!) wine there is always fab but as I was about to bite my hand off in hunger I can’t remember which ones I tried. He drank the Titanic Stout & the Wild Beer Co Millionaire Stout. Both got good reviews but the Millionaire Stout was the stand out favourite, with rich decadent flavours of chocolate and salted caramel.

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Kebab-wise, we went for the ‘Med in Brum’ (chicken, sun-dried tomato, olives, feta, guacamole etc) and the ‘El-Chapo’ (chicken, chipotle en adobo, scotch bonnet pink slaw, jalapenos). Containing all my favourite flavours, the ‘Med in Brum’ couldn’t fail to deliver and I think I managed to finish it in around 2 minutes flat. I also loved the smoky, tangy chipotle en adobo sauce on the ‘El-Chapo’. I thought the heat was perfect but my boyfriend is a chilli addict and would have preferred hotter – so let them know at the hatch when you order.

Unlike those 3am kebabs, the fresh, natural ingredients wrapped in light Lebanese flatbreads mean no morning after regrets as you are left satisfied without it being too heavy on your stomach. What more could you ask for?!

Side dishes are often an afterthought and as such, massively disappointing. Not so here. The sweet potato fries were honestly some of the best I’ve tried – perfectly seasoned and beautifully crisp – and topped with the scotch bonnet pink slaw (creamy & crunchy with a gorgeous heat at the end) they made an ideal side. I didn’t manage to try the grilled avocado halves but have heard great things.

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I’m now officially a massive Kebabylon fan and will definitely be back for more. Get down to 1000 Trades while you can and let me know your thoughts.

The Kebabylon residency runs until 18 September at 1000 Trades, 16 Frederick Street, B1 3HE. WEBSITE