EATING FOR BRITAIN: BACK IN BRUM (PURNELL'S & LASAN)
When I lived in Birmingham, The Jewellery Quarter was exactly that, the area of the city filled with diamond and gold merchants selling wedding rings to engaged people. It was not the nicest place in the world and, although not unsafe in anyway, not really an area of Birmingham that you would have any call to visit unless you were in need of something sparkly.
Move on twenty years and, like so much of the city, The Jewellery Quarter hasn’t half changed with its streets now filling rapidly with bars, clubs and restaurants. Even at lunchtime as I headed off to find my restaurant of choice, it was buzzing and it is little wonder that Glyn Purnell decided to open his eponymous restaurant on its fringes.
Purnell came to fame as the chef at Jessica’s, one of the city’s original fine dining establishments and he set up his own restaurant a few years ago to considerable local acclaim and now has one Michelin star.
It is not a particularly welcoming room with a slightly austere bar leading down to an awkward “L” shaped dining room where dated looking black tables were already filled primarily with couples taking advantage of the lunchtime offer of three courses for £20.
The service is full on Michelin but very engaging and I was soon served some superb bread with, heaven forfend who would have thunk of such a thing, butter that was not straight from the fridge.
Amuse too was straight out of Michelin 101 with a blob of uninspiring sorbet topped with blackened rice. I am never quite sure why people both with these. I’m a good northerner and like free stuff as much as the next person unless the next person happens to be a cabinet minister, but unfortunately most amuse add nothing to the meal except delay.
£20 only gets you a couple of choices per course, but fortunately there were things at each stage that I really wanted to try. To begin I plumped for a ham hock and chicken terrine. Despite hitting two of my “most hated” buttons being served on a slate and being subject to that little smear trick with the back of a spoon that every nitwit seems to do these days, it actually turned out to be very, very good indeed, each flavour coming through individually and working together and the terrine itself with superb texture and at the correct temperature.
Likewise a main course of slow cooked ox cheek with vanilla dipped potatoes (which worked better than anything that sounds so ghastly has any right to) and more of that new season asparagus. The meat retained a bite, but shredded beautifully with a fork, and the sauce, while rich, lacked the ferocity that now seems the norm for so many high end dining meat courses. Even a couple of slivers of pear, flopped over the cheek like dead Indians over the back of a cowboy’s horse did little to detract from stunning cooking.
More spot on flavours followed with dessert as I was presented with a fresh as you like rhubarb sorbet sitting on top of a perfect Pavlova, which crumbled to reveal a slightly chewy centre
Purnell can cook up a storm, there is no doubting that, the quality of the ingredients and the flavours and textures he draws from them are up there with the best, but there is a sense of unease in his presentation and something so awkward about the plating, that it is hard to escape the feeling that he longs to escape the constraints of serving Michelin star list tickers and offer up something more relaxed.
I may not rush back to Purnell’s, however if he ever does decide to open a more casual dining restaurant, I am not ashamed to admit that I would use a small child to club myself to the front of the queue.
After walking lunch off with a stroll along the canal and around the Jewellery Quarter, I made my way to supper at Lasan, one of Birmingham’s most highly regarded Indian restaurants, where I was to be the guest of the good people of Marketing Birmingham who had been helping me arrange meetings with producers.
Lasan’s owners had just been on a pilgrimage, which had taken them to all parts of India in search of tradition regional dishes and recipes, which they had brought back with them to try and recreate in Birmingham. This had resulted in a tasting menu comprising nineteen courses ranging from “South Indian Tiffin” of idli with sambar to minced lamb kebabs from Luckhnow and, instantly recognisable to someone with my background, Shorshe Mach, a whole fish cooked Bengali style in mustard.
The tour round India may have been a great challenge but so was eating the vast array and huge portions of food that kept being brought to the table. At first I assumed that we were being given special attention because the owners knew my hosts, but all the other tables were filled and all appeared to be receiving the same food as us
In a menu of this length, not everything is going to be perfect. The use of snapper instead of the hard to find hilsa fish meant the Shorshe Mach lacked the sweetness that comes form that boney river fish and some of the kebabs were a little on the dry side. But, on the whole it was an excellent effort to represent the hugely varied cuisines of India and I managed to make it to the end of the menu and polish off a warm gulab jamun covered in another Bengali speciality, Rabri, traditionally made by repeatedly cooking sweetened milk until it forms a skin until all you are left with is a thick rich custard.
I am not sure how long the tasting menu is going to be on offer, but, if you have the constitution for it, it is well worth a try.