Descending into the basement of a city centre coffee shop, I’m sneaking in a cereal bar at the bottom of my bag.
I suspect I may not be the only diner to have brought an emergency snack as an insurance policy because tonight, in the bowels of Temple Row’s Six Eight Kafe, 20 of us are braving a nine-course supper consisting entirely of raw food.
The mad menu (surely the first of its kind in Birmingham) comes from a new pop-up kitchen that’s causing a stir on the city’s food scene.
Nick Astley (no relation to Rick) – by day, head chef at The Church Inn in the Jewellery Quarter; by night, founder of Birmingham’s Latvian supper club, Two Cats -– launched his “roaming kitchen” six months ago, inspired by the home food of his Latvian partner, Diana Fjodorova.
The Two Cats (or две кошки / divi kaķi) set out their mission as taking “a modernist culinary approach to north eastern European cuisine”, “away from the table cloths and price tag” of more traditional fine dining.
Since then they’ve served 11 dinners bringing imaginative menus to one-off pop-ups and three private catering events around Birmingham.
And tonight’s low-energy supper, created entirely out of raw food – cooking prohibited – could be their most daring project yet.
Trying to reassure fans on his Facebook page, Nick posted: “Contrary to what I’ve been asked, “raw” does not mean I will be plying you with lumps of uncooked flesh and vegetables!”
And when we arrive we find the chef hunched over a preparation table, carefully placing pretty purple viola petals in the centre of 20 tiny and delicate pre-starters.
Despite the unappetising connotations, the raw food movement is gathering pace as more diners seek to boost the nutritional value of their meals and question the environmental sustainability of turning the oven on night-after-night.
For Nick, it’s a chance to flex his skills in the traditional cooking methods that inspire him – fermenting, curing, pickling, etc. (and a pragmatic solution to planning a feast for 20 in a basement with limited facilities).
It’s not a super strict affair. Nick has granted us a little bit of bread (but sourdough, sticking with the fermentation theme), allowed one instance of boiling in his preparation and will briefly pull out a blowtorch towards the end of the meal.
But other than that, tonight is 100 per cent raw.
We start with an amuse bouche of Latvian cheese and cured meat, which comes with a little paper bag of bread and a dollop of deliciously dense butter.
The pre-starter is a tiny sandwich constructed with finely sliced translucent radish (like the delicate pancakes you get with aromatic crispy duck) enveloping shredded crab with the purple petal showing through the radish topping.
Next up is my favourite dish of the night, a visually stunning bowl of bright pink beetroot soup.
Made with kefir (cultured milk and yoghurt) the soup has a weird but wonderful viscosity, bringing together a combination of textures from crunchy spring onion spears, crisp beetroot coins, parsley curls and soft slivers of boiled egg white.
Stepping up the flavour is a plate of scallops, cured in elderflower vodka and served with preserved sea cabbage, powdered seaweed and pickled samphire.
The raw scallops are like the freshest sashimi with a melt-in-the-mouth texture and no chewing needed.
Their freshness is balanced with tart fine slices of pickled plum, salty sea kale, vinegary samphire and the slightly sweet jelly.
The flavour and texture combinations send a wave of genuine excitement around our table of four (which consists of two professional chefs and an award-winning cocktail bartender). Although, I have to ask: what sort of sadist tasks their diners with eating jelly with chopsticks?!
Continuing the finely sliced theme, comes celeriac beneath two delicate shavings of truffle, with sweet halved grapes, crunchy hazelnuts and peppery nasturtium leaves.
We all start buzzing at the arrival of a raw veal dish. It comes finely diced and presented a little like steak tartare, book-ended by two ribbons of pickled red heritage carrot, dollops of creamy sauce, funky sprout flowers, earthy pumpkin seeds for bite and black lumpfish roe spooned on top.
It’s seriously high-end comfort food.
An elderflower marshmallow acts as a palate cleanser after the veal, served on a little bamboo dish, toasted golden brown with a blowtorch and dusted with fennel pollen.
Nick announces the arrival of “first pudding”. My all-time favourite word coupling.
The glass of curds and blackcurrant jam is rich and generous, filled with thick cream and sticky fruit layered like Tiramisu, topped with whole blueberries, poppy seeds and crumbly dark bread.
A meal this remarkable has to finish with a flourish and it comes in the form of dessert with a deadline.
A dark bread compote sweetened with molasses appears warmed (it hasn’t been) sitting beneath a scoop of half-savoury-half-sweet Jerusalem artichoke ice cream and large, thin slices of pear.
The piece de resistance is a big frozen sorrel leaf, dusted with icing sugar. We’re told it can only hold its freeze for 30 seconds (during which time the combination of the sugar and the lemony leaf will taste like sherbert) so as soon as each plate is delivered, eager diners grab the stalk and gobble the leaf post haste.
It’s fun and it’s yum, and I vow to never look at an emergency cereal bar ever again.
This whole feast has cost us £33 each, including booking fee. It’s a steal.
It’s no surprise to find Nick is a fine arts graduate – his presentation is stunning – but it’s a shock to find he’s a self-taught chef.
This is some of the most imaginative and ambitious food I’ve tasted in Birmingham and could rival any of the city’s Michelin-star offerings, reminding me of Adam Stokes’ inspiring flavour and texture combinations plus the inventive pluck of Glynn Purnell.
Nick is leaving The Church in January to take Two Cats full-time.
And that’s a hugely exciting prospect for the bellies of Birmingham.
Follow him on Facebook here.
Latvian cheese, meat and bread
Crab, radish & viola
Beetroot & kefir soup
Elderflower vodka cured scallops, aspic of dulse, preserved sea cabbage, powdered sea weed & pickled samphire
Celeriac, hazelnut, truffle, grapes & nasturtium
Veal, oyster, lumpfish roe, pumpkin seeds, pickled heritage carrot, pickled flower sprout, kohlrabi & tarragon oil
Curds & blackcurrant jam
Pear, dark bread compote, molasses, Jerusalem artichoke ice cream & frozen sorrel