It's time for the MADs - the McComb Awards for Dining. Richard McComb reports on the culinary heroes and villains of 2012.
When they were launched in 2009, no one believed they would become one of the most respected and influential restaurant award schemes in the country.
It turns out they were right. The McComb Awards for Dining, popularly known as the MADs, have remained unashamedly niche. They are judged by one person (me) and are moderated by a non-independent ombudsman (me, again).
Chefs and restaurateurs famously cower in anxious anticipation as the clock ticks down to publication of the annual Michelin Guide. There is fevered speculation about the lucky winners and who might suffer the ignomy of being stripped of a star. Similarly, the AA and the Good Food Guide spark intrigue and excitement as they apportion rosettes and marks out of 10 for inspiring cuisine.
No such expectation or speculation is attached to the MADs – although in their favour, the awards are never leaked in advance, unlike the Michelin Guide, which has made a habit of shooting itself in the foot by breaking its own embargo.
Dining at restaurants continues to represents a luxury purchase; no one needs to eat out; it is far cheaper to eat at home. If survival was the name of the game – rather than the motivations of convenience, pleasure and a desire to try new cooking styles – restaurants simply wouldn’t exist. Against this backdrop, it is worth remembering that we have been in recession, or facing stagnant economic growth, since 2007, which incidentally was the year two of Birmingham’s finest restaurants – Purnell’s and Turners – opened.
The failure rate in the restaurant trade is notoriously high. The US National Restaurant Association puts the figure at 30 per cent within a year.
All of which means it is an achievement in itself to remain trading. To continue to trade while providing first-class food and sparkling service is truly something to be celebrated.
So here are the winners for 2012 (as well as a few stinkers).
Chef of the Year: David Everitt-Matthias
In a quarter of a century, David Everitt-Matthias has never missed a service at Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. He is always there.
In itself, it is a remarkable achievement but this is no time-serving chef. Everitt-Matthias treats every lunch and dinner as if his reputation depends on it, fusing innovation, big flavours and a faultless technique. Everitt-Matthias won his first Michelin star in 1995 and picked up a second, which he has retained ever since, in 2000. Michelin may divide opinion, but Everitt-Matthias does not. He was the original forager and continues to conjure up dishes of originality and delight – like a dessert of roasted dandelion root cream, milk ice cream and milk crumble – while impressing with his own take on classic ingredients such as lamb sweetbreads, wood pigeon and scallops (paired with a pig’s head carpaccio).
In an era when far too many chefs follow the latest fad (if they pickled fish breath in northern Spain it would get copied), David Everitt-Matthias is steadfastly his own man. A national dining institution.
Restaurant of the Year: Restaurant Bosquet, Kenilworth
Will you find the most stunning food in the Midlands at this restaurant in a well-heeled backwater of north Warwickshire?
Will you find mind-boggling innovation, the re-interpretation of classics and the deconstruction of tomato soup?
Would I go to Restaurant Bosquet every couple of weeks if it was round the corner and I could afford it?
The apparently skittish explanation for the attraction of this place comes from the fact it is entirely unskittish. Restaurant Bosquet is impervious to skittishism. It has been run for 31 years by Bernard Lignier and his wife Jane and during that time the core dishes and sauces probably haven’t change much. That is because classic French cooking doesn’t need a rocket up its behind or a water bath; it needs skill, love and dedication.
Lignier does craze things like bake his own brioche.
Is Restaurant Bosquet consistently good? I have no idea but I suspect, like most French restaurants, the standard ebbs and flows. But if you are hopelessly romantic, adore French cooking and still think food has something to do with sustaining, soul-nurturing consumption, rather than sniffy presentation and over-elaboration, then you might just agree with me.
Best Cocktail Bar: The Kenilworth
The Kenilworth, in Warwick Road, serves terrific cocktails to a remarkably non-twit clientele. It is small, intimate and dark inside as opposed to the boomingly noisy, large and soulless bars that spoil too many city centres.
The place has been run by brothers Stuart and Darren Insall since 2005 but it is the appointment of enthusiastic experts like bar manager Robert Wood that makes the difference. Robert is a walking anorak of cocktail-making facts and techniques.
If it seems a long way to go for a drink, don’t worry – the team behind The Kenilworth is due to open The Edgbaston next year as a small hotel and cocktail lounge. See you at the bar for a Suffering Bastard.
Culinary Achievement of the Year: Adam Bennett
Adam Bennett, head chef at Simpsons in Edgbaston, successfully qualified from the European cook-off of the Bocuse D’Or to represent the UK in the finals of the world’s biggest cookery competition next month.
Bennett, from Coventry, will go head to head with some of the best chefs on the planet at the Bocuse D’Or final in Lyon and is currently installed at a gastronomy bootcamp at University College Birmingham, where a special competition kitchen has been built.
The chef qualified in style, finishing in sixth place and picking up the prize for the best meat platter in Brussels. Bennett wowed the judges with his preparation of roulade of chicken with truffle, mushroom and tarragon, a casserole of chicken leg, cocks’ combs, veal sweetbreads, morels and pearl barley and a boudin of foie gras with jelly of Maury, leek terrine and smoked quail egg.
For the final, Bennett and his fellow chefs will have to prepare two grand platters using Irish beef fillet and blue lobster and turbot.
Needless to say, it is the first time a chef from Birmingham has represented the UK at the Bocuse D’Or, which was launched in 1987 by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse.
Albanian Waiter of the Year: Albanian Tony
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice.
But there is a little-known saying in Albania: lightning strikes three times.
And so it is with the year’s most eagerly anticipated award for best front of house service by an Albanian plying his trade in Birmingham. Incredibly, the gong goes to Albanian Tony, restaurant manager at Simpsons, for an historic third successive year.
This consummate professional allies little-known Albanian charm and humour to an effortless ability to appear, almost at a diner’s will, with the restaurant’s celebrated carte de vins.
When he returns home, Tony relaxes by driving an old Soviet era tank through the countryside. It is skills like this that set him apart.
As a three-time winner of the Albanian Waiter of the Year award, Tony triggers a MAD regulation that states a person or body gets to keep an award forever if they win it three times. It is like when Brazil got to keep the Jules Rimet Cup in 1970, only there isn’t a cup, just a title.
Newcomer of the Year: Fumo
Fumo, the racy little sister to Birmingham-based San Carlo, opened in the summer in Waterloo Street on a mission to seduce the city with Venetian tapas-style food. In doing so, it stole a march on competitors, offering attractively priced, simply prepared, small plates of food that you can scoff in a few minutes or keep ordering for hours on end.
The San Carlo management, including the eagle-eyed Carmine Sacco, did what far too many restaurant companies in Birmingham habitually fail to do, combining research and an intimate knowledge of the city’s dining market with the provision of tasty, fresh food. Fumo quickly created a cool and relaxed metropolitan buzz which shows no signs of fizzling out. Fumo has made its mark in Birmingham by using good quality produce and employing chefs who are comfortable with the format.
I loved the baked melanzane Parmigiana, ravioli with truffles, orecchiette with spicy N’duja sausage and tomato sauce.
The “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better” Award: MPW Steakhouse Bar & Grill
I got ticked off for not being able to find the place and later learned the dining experience would have been enhanced had I not found my way to the top floor of The Cube.
Marco Pierre White’s reinterpreted Bernie Inn concept proved the old adage is true: if you build it, and put a celeb name above the door, they will come.
If you charge the best part of 30 quid for a fillet steak and chips in the culinary version of the long jump, you need to exceed expectations, not fail at the qualification distance. MPW barely made the sandpit.
After I reviewed the place, and my nine “real chips [including a burnt one] in beef dripping,” there was an overhaul of the kitchen and the restaurant management, so I expect it dazzles now.
At the time, I just felt I was being taken for a very long and very crappy ride; and it wasn’t a particularly pretty route. If you have aspirations to appear in TOWIE, it’s just for you.
Worst Meal of the Year: New Hall, Sutton Coldfield
If MPW was deflating for the gulf between intention and application – as well as for the serving of consistently dull, over-priced food – it was pipped to the post in all-round awfulness by a summer lunch at Birmingham’s solitary country house hotel.
Lunch at New Hall set a new record when it chalked up 2/10 – the lowest score I have awarded in more than five years reviewing for the Birmingham Post.
The “modern cosmopolitan dining” offered that day in the Terrace brasserie, including an anti-fish pie for £19.50, brought back memories of The Generation Game when contestants had to squirt sausage meat into skins.
I learned later that New Hall was between chefs and I really hope it has turned a corner.
Food of this standard is an insult to the beguiling backdrop of this historic moated manor house.
Best steak restaurant: Anderson Bar & Grill
It’s all been about steak during 2011 and 2012 and there have been some contenders for the best (and worst) in Brum.
New kids on the wooden serving block include the New Inn in Harborne, which continues to push on after some teething problems. Its heart is in the right place.
But I am going to go for Danny Anderson’s restaurant in the Jewellery Quarter for all-round steak satisfaction.
The true test of a good steak is: wouldn’t you have been better cooking it yourself at home and saving the money? If the answer is “yes,” the restaurant is in trouble.
Fortunately, Andersons delivers cooking skills and a selection of steaks (delicious Dexter sirloin, Aberdeen Angus hangar steak, 30oz porterhouse) that make it worth the excursion and the expense.
The shorthorn fillet on the bone is 2oz heavier and £7 cheaper than other similar steaks sold on the top floor of modern canalside buildings I could mention.
Best Twitter Row: Glynn Purnell vs Richard Turner
Two regular winners of MADs (Purnell won last year for his lunch while Turner’s experimental peanut soup took the “worst dish” title) clashed this year in the twitosphere.
The Michelin star chefs had a spectacular late-night falling out on the microblogging site in a spat over menus.
As the row played out, Turner effectively “twitter pic’ed” his entire service, providing some welcome food porn for insomniacs.
In time-honoured fashion, the cooks kissed, made up and declared it had been a case of “whisks at midnight.”