While Aston Villa may be struggling to stay in the top flight, its restaurant is definitely Premier League. Mary Griffin reports
Football stadiums aren’t typically renowned for their gourmet food offerings, but across the country both fans’ food and corporate cuisine has been upping its game.
Regional winners include the celebrated Killie pie sold at Kilmarnock FC’s ground and, closer to home, Kidderminster Harriers’ Aggborough soup.
Stepping it up a notch, Delia has brought a restaurant and bar to her beloved Norwich FC while Raymond Blanc has supported Arsenal’s Diamond Club.
And Copenhagen’s Geranium restaurant on the eighth floor of the Geranium Parken Stadium not only boasts two Michelin stars, its chef Rasmus Kofoed won the gold medal at the Bocuse d’Or in 2011 and last year the restaurant was ranked among the 50 best in the world.
Aston Villa’s addition to this culinary cavalcade has a unique selling point.
The awkwardly named VMF (Villa Midlands Food) was set up in late 2010 as a training restaurant, offering a way in to the hospitality sector for young people living within a 10-mile radius of the stadium who are not in education, employment or training (NEETS).
They spend two years with Aston Villa Hospitality and Events, working toward a Level 2 NVQ Diploma in Hospitality Services with Walsall College.
While learning the ropes in food preparation and service, the trainees are encouraged to muck in at Villa’s allotment plot just over a mile away in Brookvale Road, growing seasonal produce to be used in the kitchen.
An impressive 80 per cent of the food served is grown or reared within just 40 miles of the ground from farms in Bloxwich, Wythall, Tamworth and Earlswood as well as from other independent producers across the Midlands.
And for the other 20 per cent the restaurant seeks Fairtrade goods.
This recipe is obviously working as VMF has amassed a substantial haul of awards in its first three years, twice scooping the top gong at the Football Hospitality Awards as well as a Green Apple Environment Award.
It has also gained a reputation as a hidden gem on the city’s “fine dining” scene with those who’ve sampled VMF’s catering at events (me included) tempted to try out the restaurant for themselves.
I’m not sure why Villa insists on hiding this gem from the hungry public.
Our taxi driver wasn’t sure where VMF restaurant was and when we pulled up outside the Trinity Road railings we found ourselves milling around a deserted gate unsure where to go next before being waved over by a friendly security guard at the front desk who directed us up two flights of stairs and along a series of empty corridors before we found our destination.
The design of the restaurant is classy in its simplicity, with ambient lighting and well balanced acoustics (I know that sounds less than crucial but if you’ve ever found yourself either having to whisper your dinner table gossip to save broadcasting it across the restaurant or trying to block your ears to the whittering of a neighbouring table you’ll appreciate it).
As well as boasting homegrown, locally sourced and Fairtrade produce, the menu benefits from the input of VMF’s refreshingly diverse workforce, with dishes named after and inspired by staff members and the family cooking they’ve grown up with.
On the current menu you’ll find “Abdul’s tikka masala haddock” developed after obtaining Abdul’s mum’s recipe for tikka spices (said to be the best in Aston), Asha’s vanilla creme brulee and Albert Francis’ blended spices for a Jerk chicken terrine.
Our dinner at VMF was both a happy celebration of old friends reunited and a sad farewell to friends now departed so to toast the occasion we ordered a glass each of Prosecco (£5) while perusing a tempting menu.
I started with the chicken tikka terrine, a beautifully colourful dish beneath wisps of fresh coriander.
Beside the slab of terrine comes a dip of finely sliced onion and tomato and a scattering of mini poppadums.
The concept is first class and the little bitesize portions of poppadum topped with terrine and dip make an exciting start to a meal, but while the all-singing all-dancing supporting cast of this dish get a glowing review it was let down by its lead character, the terrine, which really needed more spice.
My dinner date’s starter of confit duck leg with an Asian salad was a real showstopper.
Beneath an outer layer of tantalisingly crispy, chewy duck came a hulk of beautifully moist meat that flaked off the bone with the lightest touch.
The rich sweet meat was perfectly partnered by a fresh and spicy Asian salad that packed the zest and punch the terrine had missed.
For my main I chose the rack of pork with Fairtrade orange, a bold combination that worked well.
My meat was slightly overcooked but my friend was content with her beef main, and anyway, soon both dishes were outshone by the side portion of potato, a dauphinoise with a crunchy caramelised exterior making way for soft, fluffy, buttery potato inside.
Just when I was hoping for a hattrick, the dessert disaster struck.
My dinner date again triumphed with her choice of pear tart while I couldn’t resist the banana creme brulee.
Unlike any other creme brulee I’ve tasted (and I’ve tasted far too many), it was more like a clotted cream panna cotta, thick in consistency and with none of the traditional gelatinous creme brulee texture.
Sadly there was no banana flavour to the brulee, just two sorry looking chunks of banana on the side next to a beautiful buttery shortbread.
Deserts demolished, we ended the night with a 15-minute chat with our waiter and, while the food is good it’s the personal touches that raise VMF’s game.
The service isn’t pristinely polished like some fine dining restaurants but it’s warm and relaxed and for the absence of waiters who eerily float from table to table making unnecessary tweaks you get the pleasure of being served by a waitress who cares more about what you want than what the rules dictate you should want and a maître d’ who genuinely cares how you answer his question “how did you enjoy your meal?”.
We also saw the chefs take a quick parade of the restaurant floor, meeting diners and looking as happy as everyone else.
For anyone not living in Aston, VMF is a fair old trek but it makes the grade as a destination restaurant for a special occasion, and with three courses for a very reasonable £24.95 it’s worth a £20 return taxi fare to stray away from the usual well-worn trail.
* Open Fridays and Saturdays from 7pm to 10pm and for Sunday lunch between 12noon and 3pm.