"It's not much but it's ours"

Monday, May 11, 2009


I used to live in Birmingham, although looking back on my short time there nearly twenty years ago, it seems like another lifetime and, as I drove my car into the car park of the Brindley Place complex surrounding the gentrified canal area, it almost seemed like another city.

I was back for a few days for my EATING FOR BRITAIN trip and, although I had two dishes very firmly in mind for my visit, Balti and Curry Goat, I decided give myself a couple of days to explore the city that had been home to me and my now ex-wife for eighteen months nearly two decades before.

As I said, it has changed almost beyond recognition, particularly around Broad Street where the complex, built in the 1990’s, bristling with chain restaurants, bars and clubs, surrounds the rejuvenated area around the Midlands Canal and forms a buzzing centre where once there were only derelict warehouses and seedy streets.

It’s smart alright, with a range of the usual high end hotels, including my own, the excellent City Inn, providing accommodation for those visiting the conference centre or the NIA, but there is still very much the feeling that it has been superimposed onto the area rather than having developed organically and consequently it has little of its own character.

The same too could be said of my first dining port of call, Edmund’s Fine Dining, co-owned by Michelin starred chef, Andy Waters and relocated from its original home in Henley-on-Arden to a sterile corner of Brindley Place where it offered a lunchtime menu of unchallenging and polite food for local business people.

I had arrived early, just after they opened and had the place to myself for most of my meal, taken from the set menu, which offers two courses at £19 and three at £21 including coffee.

Despite the seemingly excellent value, the food did not really deliver and elements of both execution and ingredient were found wanting. A starter of seared cep covered tuna was prepared pink and elegantly presented, but any taste of the main player was overpowered by the mushrooms used to coat the fish. The green beans in the salad lacked crunch and the tomatoes lacked ripeness adding nothing to the dish but a dull pink tinge.

The main course was a little better, with a flaky fillet of cod coming with a sauce of milk that was “smoked” presumably through using it to poach smoked fish and a perfectly prepared poached egg that broke to release the yolk over a bed of spinach leaves. It was a harmless but unremarkable dish that stays with me now only because of the fact that they had left the slimy skin on the fish, which I had to peel off before I could continue eating. Skin should only be left on fish if it is cooked to a crisp. Otherwise it is just, as this was, really nasty.

It speaks volumes that perhaps the best elements of the whole meal came with my first tastes of new season asparagus, lightly cooked to a crunch and some of the best boulangere potatoes I have ever tried. Excellent, but not enough to raise the lunch from the blah and not enough to make me ponder on an additional course.

Service was terrific and deserving of the added service charge to the bill and, by the time I headed out again, it was dealing with more customers all more bothered about matters of business import than the food being placed in front of them. From that point of view, at lunchtime, Edmund’s serves its true purpose serving inoffensive food to people with other things on their mind.

If it had been a case of so far so blah, my next meal in Brum hit the spot. After a morning chatting with the good folk of HEFF (Heart of England Fine Food) I was dropped off in front of The Great British Eatery, a relatively new fish & chip shop near the Five Ways Roundabout. If I am honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. The name screamed irony and, when I heard that it was the brainchild of two young guys, I had a strong premonition of experiencing the nonsense that seems to be prevalent in many new chips shops in London.

I should have known better than that. Matter of fact Brummies don’t really do irony and as soon as I walked into the small chip shop with its counter seating, the smell of beef dripping told me that things may just be alright.

I got chatting to the two owners, Conrad and Andy and, while they dished out my large portion of fish chips and peas, they explained how they had set up the place because they couldn’t find any decent chippies in Brum and how they had almost gone bust until they earned The Seafresh 5* award marking them out as one of the best in the country.

There is no irony at The Great British Eatery just really very good fish & chips indeed. The fish is fresh and perfectly cooked, the batter bubbly and crisp, the chips the correct size, colour and texture and the peas, the right colour and consistency. Not rocket science but seemingly beyond so many. Including a soft drink it set me back about £7 for enough food to make sure that any more meals that day would be unnecessary.

It’s not all perfect. Pickled onions were overly sharp and tough and a fish cake I sampled was on the dry side, but for two people who have only been making Britain’s national dish for a few short months, Conrad and Andy are doing a good job and deserve every bit of success they get and others could do well to note.

Nearly twenty years before I had decided it was time to leave Brum when I found myself saying “tara-a-bit” instead of goodbye to a customer. Now, as Conrad said the same as I left The Great British Eatery and walked to my hotel, I was actually rather glad to be back in one of my favourite cities.

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Anonymous Harters said...

Good to hear the Heart of England has a Fine Food organisation.

North West Fine Foods went belly up some months back to the chagrin of of many of its producer members and, seeing as I'd just paid my annual subscription, me as well.

Monday, May 11, 2009 11:24:00 pm  
Blogger Stewart said...

I was saddened to learn that GBE had closed down recently (in November 2011).
I am currently working abroad and had only just heard about it through Simon's excellent book.
I had planned to visit it upon my return to the UK as I live not far from Birmingham - now I will never have the chance :(
The GBE website blames overheads, an unhelpful landlord and the state of the economy for its demise. I hope that one day it can rise again.

Sunday, February 05, 2012 7:57:00 am  

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