Anderson's Bar & Grill, 30 Mary Ann Street, St Paul's Square, Birmingham B3 1RL Tel: 0121 200 2515
From a scientific point of view, it is nonsense when food writers talk about so-and-so restaurant being the best for such-and-such a dish.
How can you possibly have tried every other rival dish in the same town or city, or country, within a period of time sufficiently narrow to make such a judgment hold water?
For this reason, I won’t say Anderson’s Bar & Grill produces the best steak dinner in Birmingham. But I will say that, for the life of me, I can’t think of anywhere else within the city limits where I would rather turn up for an uncomplicated, well flavoured, expertly cooked cut of beef.
Other places explicitly purport to be “steakhouses” when they aren’t. Anderson’s doesn’t call itself a steakhouse – but it unashamedly is.
Other restaurants, too, claim to have super views. One offers vistas of the city skyline and people flock there because of it. More fool them. If I want a view of Brum, and I’m not sure I do, I’ll wait for the Big Wheel, or the Birmingham Eye, or whatever it is they called it, to return to Centenary Square. You can stick a pork pie in your pocket, nibble it as you get to the top of ride and say you’ve had dinner with the best view of the city. Oh, isn’t it beautiful!
Knock yourself out.
Anderson’s has no view, largely because it is in a basement. There are plenty of sympathetically renovated red brick walls and a well refurbed ceiling with beams. But there are no windows. You can’t see the burning tyres or the water-logged flat roofs of Lee Bank Middleway. You can’t see pigeons copulating. I’m sorry, it’s disappointing, I know.
But if you want unpimped, unhyped, unbranded good food, then going underground is where it’s at.
I last time I went to Anderson’s, in St Paul’s Square, was at the start of 2010. It wasn’t long after the place reopened on the site of the former Bucklemaker, which succumbed to post-millennial skintness, a confused offering and a jaded interior. Was it a bar, or a lunch “tapas” joint, or a restaurant? For all these reasons, I liked the place. These things didn’t seem to matter in the 80s or 90s, in the era before busybody hospitality industry “experts” started haranguing restaurateurs and hoteliers on reality TV shows. Now quirkiness is deemed “off trend.” Today, diners are fickle. They need to know what a place is, they need clarity – or they panic.
Anderson’s has managed to pull off the trick of retaining The Bucklemaker’s character while creating a modern ambiance. So plush reds and dark woods are out; white and bright is in.
The constant in the evolution of Anderson’s is Nick Crudgington. It is run by chef director Daniel Anderson and restaurant director Simon Marsh, who both worked at the old place. But Crudgington, who was The Bucklemaker, is still there, front of house, in a roving role. In football terms, he’s in the hole, just behind the strikers.
He’s in good shape, too. The trademark Robert Plant-meets-Shirley Temple locks are still gloriously intact but Crudgington has shed a couple of stone. In an attempt to emulate the Olympic glory of Eric “Eric the Eel” Moussambani, the Equatorial Guinea swimmer who wowed the 2000 Sydney Games, Nick “The Catfish” Crudgington has returned to the pool after a long absence. Speedos have never looked so snug. Sources suggest Team GB is monitoring The Catfish’s progress with a view to granting wild card entry for London 2012.
The first thing you notice when you go down into Anderson’s is the smell – or lack of it. On recentish visits to both Miller & Carter and Marco Pierre Fright at The Mailbox, a bluey-gray fug of fatty burntness hung in the air. I’m not a fan of leaving a restaurant smelling of what I’ve just eaten, still less of what other people have eaten. Anderson’s manages to pull off this trick. It has something called a door leading to the kitchen and it has invested in air extraction. It’s the future.
The list of starters sounds appetising. Slow-roast belly of pork with a sticky chilli and honey glaze, lambs’ kidneys with devilled sauce and field mushrooms, moules marinière, red mullet with crushed peas and pancetta crumb. There are also daily specials, from which I had the scallops with crunchy discs of black pud, apple purée and peashoots. It’s a simple dish but it’s easy to cock up and was done well here.
I had just returned from Brussels where they eat oysters fanatically. I love them, they don’t love me. I’ve been ill the past two times I’ve had them, so I watched enviously as a lunch companion slurped through a dozen. We don’t really do this in Birmingham, I remember thinking. We don’t do shellfish very well. I can’t think of many places (Opus) where it’s a regular feature of the menu.
Then lo and behold, a young couple at Anderson’s ordered a sharing platter of oysters and a bottle of Champagne. There was no pomp or procession. It was like this happens all the time and that makes you feel good.
A place like Anderson’s stands or falls on the quality of its beef. There are other main options – rack of lamb, grilled lemon sole, organic salmon – but the steak’s the thing. It comes from Kenilworth butcher Alan Beck who dry-ages Aberdeen Angus, Shorthorn and Hereford beef for 31 days. There is also rare breed Dexter, which I love.
There are plenty of cut sizes, from an 8oz Hereford sirloin (£15.95) to a 16oz Shorthorn T-bone (£17.95). The rack of beef ribs (£14.95) sounds good value.
The speciality steaks list offers some serious carnivorous eating including a 30oz Shorthorn porter house steak for two for £32.50. I watched one being delivered on a board to a couple and it looked epic. There’s Shorthorn fillet on the bone and Aberdeen Angus hanger steak. There’s everything a man, and a woman, needs.
Sally had the Hereford sirloin, which was soft and tender and packed with natural mature flavour. I had to have the 12oz Dexter sirloin chop because Dexters may be small, they may be impossible to lead across a field, but boy those beasts are beautiful. The steak was very good, juicy with a sufficiently yielding chew.
The steaks had been properly rested before being brought to the table and were accompanied with a few garlicky cherry tomatoes. The chips? Let joy be unconfined! There were no silly Jenga-style building blocks. Instead there were fluffy chunks of crispy potato. I like mine a bit thinner but Sally says I’m neurotic and she loved these. Good béarnaise, too, and real onion rings. They’re a must-have.
The French make good mustard and Anderson’s could do with some of it because the mustard I had was poor. (Do you need a sauce and mustard? No, but I like trying these things.)
We drank a lovely bottle of fruity Fleurie Clos des Quatre Vents 2009 (£24.95).
The gauntlet was thrown down with desserts. I had the treacle tart with raspberry ripple ice cream because this would be where the evening fell apart. No one can make a treacle tart like my late granny Eve but this was good – dark treacle, good pastry, not sickly sweet.
We shared a plate of “properly” mature cheese to finish the wine. It felt like 1985 (in a good way) with a 2012 spin. Great service, too.
I can’t say Anderson’s does the “best steak” in Birmingham, but I haven’t had better. Don’t accept imitations.