Aalto Restaurant, Hotel La Tour, Albert Street, Birmingham, B5 5JE. Tel 0121 718 8000. www.hotel-latour.co.uk/aalton-restaurant

When I’m staying at a hotel I can’t wait to get out of it for dinner so the idea of going to a hotel specifically to eat is a bit of an odd concept to me.

There’s something unsettling about sauntering off the street into a hotel when you don’t have a room booking. It’s just not British.

And the very nature of hotel restaurants can sometimes makes them feel like an afterthought – a side dish to the main event.

But some of the UK’s finest chefs have opened hotel restaurants in recent years (Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park, Michael Wignall at Pennyhill Park and Heston, whose boosted his Michelin star collection and his pre-tax profits since opening Dinner in Knightsbridge hotel the Mandarin Oriental).

The evidence is stacked up against my hotel prejudice and this week’s visit to Hotel La Tour’s Aalto Restaurant has freshened my perspective.

This angular black and white building within stumbling distance of Moor Street Station is coming up to its second anniversary.

Sitting between the Bullring and Matthew Boulton College, one side of the hotel overlooks the dual carriageway, while the other is a few steps away from the new award-winning Eastside City Park. But despite its striking appearance and prominent position in the middle of a regeneration area, this place is still somewhat disjointed from the city centre and for many Brummies Hotel La Tour hasn’t yet made it on to the radar.

When we arrived for Sunday dinner the restaurant was empty – but undeniably beautiful.

Head chef Dan Pearce at Aalto Restaurant inside Hotel La Tour in Birmingham City Centre
Head chef Dan Pearce at Aalto Restaurant inside Hotel La Tour in Birmingham City Centre
 

Rich wooden flooring and panelling provide the backing to a palette of mute greys, warm reds and striking blacks and golds. And it’s perfectly lit – why is this so rarely achieved in restaurants?

On Sunday’s there’s no a la carte, just a specials menu offering three choices of starter, main and pudding. It’s cleverly devised with something to suit most tastes and although we did sneak a peek at the a la carte to see what we were missing we didn’t feel hard done by, especially as Sunday specials are priced at a very reasonable £20 for two courses or £24 for three.

Aalto isn’t reinventing the wheel, but these tried-and-tested dishes are presented beautifully, ticking all the boxes.

The waitress delivered a pre-starter of a little pot of popcorn which left us exchanging flummoxed looks across the table before we were quickly converted.

Seasoned with salt and pepper, it made a unexpectedly inviting amuse bouche.

I started with a cream of cauliflower soup which arrived in a classic porcelain lidded dish, with a side portion of chunky warm sourdough served on a little wooden board. It was a refreshing start to dinner, with truffle oil adding a comforting, buttery warmth, and each mouthful of the crumbled stilton chunks was a real pleasure.

My dinner date’s stunningly presented trout gravalax with citrus and chicory salad was a riot of colour, with beetroot and pink grapefruit providing a good blend of sweet and sour.

Plates cleaned, I went for the Paddock Farm pork belly with apple sauce, roasted potatoes, black pudding crumb and jus.

This little piggy was a Tamworth reared in Warwickshire, less than an hour away from my dinner table, and you couldn’t find a finer pork belly in Birmingham.

With minimal seasoning the meat was allowed to bask in it’s own porky glory, beautifully moist and mouthwateringly marbled all the way through. The black pudding crumb was a bit of a puzzler for a northerner who likes her black pud served as a slab, but it subtlely added a complementary depth of flavour, in harmony with the tart apple and sweet gravy.

My friend’s dish of roasted loin of cod came on herby, roasted tomatoes and courgettes, with tarragon and Rioja sauce.

It’s a pleasingly light Sunday supper but needed a side order of mashed potato (£1.95), and if I’d been less entranced by my pork and a good bout of gossiping I would’ve ordered one too, and perhaps a bowl of veg to pad out the nice but underwhelming half a roasted carrot and single baby leek.

We took the liberty of making up for the slightly shy mains with pudding: hot chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream and a Jaffa Cake pudding with chocolate sauce.

Jaffa Cake pudding at Aalto Restaurant inside Hotel La Tour in Birmingham City Centre
Jaffa Cake pudding at Aalto Restaurant inside Hotel La Tour in Birmingham City Centre
 

Both were a joy but the jaffa cake took the biscuit. Served as a little mound of sponge topped with a slice of soft candied orange beside a dollop of cream, the waitress ceremoniously poured the melted runny chocolate over the top at the table. It’s a winning pud and I’ll be recreating it at home after finding the recipe on the restaurant’s website. Nice touch.

I went to Aalto expecting pretentious food, unreasonably priced, served by snooty staff in a lobby with zero atmosphere but I got classic English dishes that didn’t break the bank (at just over £60 for two with Purity beer) and the least fussy, most professional and friendly service I’ve had in Birmingham. Word of mouth and the online grapevine throw up three comments about Aalto over-and-over:

a) rave reviews of the fish and chips (with fish fried in a light beer batter made with lager and chips cooked three times – yes please).

b) rave reviews of the afternoon tea (with unique twists like Welsh rarebit and mulled wine trifle – yes thanks, and

c) the observation that the restaurant seems to be rarely busy.

I’m guessing C is because visitors to the city are snaffling up A and B while Brummies just haven’t cottoned on to the treasure in our midst.

This restaurant deserves to be more full. It’s an ideal place for a date and would make a great celebration dinner, especially for a group of foodies taking a ring-side view of the kitchen at the chef’s table. Try it.

Verdict

Food 7

Service 9

Atmosphere 7