City’s celebrated Michelin trio feature prominently in Richard McComb’s ‘MAD’ restaurant awards.
Reviews of the year typically feature the word “tumultuous”, not least because lazy writers facing Christmas holiday deadlines can’t be bothered to come up with a more imaginative description.
Would one rather cogitate over the nuances of the killer adjective, or head off to the latest cocktail party?
Fortunately for me, the food and dining scene in Birmingham during 2009 has been tumultuous. No, really. It has.
For this was the year when la cuisine Brum arrived on the national dining stage. Regardless of what you think of restaurant guides, Michelin remains the daddy. Should a Swiss or Japanese chef find him or herself in Birmingham, it is to Michelin, not Harden’s, that they will turn.
Stuffy? Formulaic? Sometimes. But André and Edouard Michelin’s guide, established in 1900 as a way of flogging tyres to the nascent motoring community, remains consistent in its recommendations.
Michelin counts, so when the culinary dining Bible decreed that Birmingham was worthy of not one, but three starred entries, then the rest of the country had to sit up, take note – and stop smirking.
Simpsons, under the exacting eye of head chef Luke Tipping, has been joined for top billing by Purnell’s and Turners, kitchens blessed with the creativity of Glynn Purnell and Richard Turner.
With Michelin glory has come renewed confidence and cooking vigour. Birmingham is no longer seen as a “chippy” city (pun intended) when it comes to food. The bar has been raised, irrevocably one hopes.
The new generation of young chefs coming out of University College Birmingham, the former College of Food, has its own home-grown idols to look up to and emulate, and I am not just talking about the Michelin boys.
Restaurants such as Opus provide young chefs with huge opportunities to learn. Such efforts often go unrecognised. And why should you bother that the kitchen has just given a rough-round-the-edges 16-year-old a break when you are devouring a delightfully cooked John Dory?
You shouldn’t: you should eat, drink and be merry. But that doesn’t mean such forward-thinking programmes, instigated at a considerable cost in terms of mentoring, should not be hailed. Today’s potato-scrubber could be tomorrow’s culinary maestro.
Places like Opus and Simpsons and Edmunds and many others I could name do our city, and its economy, a huge service by investing in its future.
Awards are, of course, arbitrary nonsense, shaped by the prejudices of the judging panel. Having never won an award, I know this for a fact.
The inaugural McComb Awards for Dining 2009 (otherwise known as the MADs) are no different. In fact, they are probably worse than any other food awards as I am the sole judge. Most of the winners couldn’t give a hoot and those that are excluded will be sniffy. It’s a lose-lose situation.
See what I mean about tumultuous?
* Restaurant of the year- Edmunds, Brindleyplace
Timing, as they say, is everything, and Andy Waters’ couldn’t have been worse when he opened a plush new restaurant on the cusp of the worst recession since the Second World War.
Timing, though, has also proved to be Waters’ saviour – namely, impeccable timing with the preparation and delivery of high quality food.
He and wife Bev opened Edmunds in July 2008 and within a year-and-a-half they have made it one of Birmingham’s Top Five restaurants.
I could have picked any one of the Michelin trio’s restaurants for the blue-ribboned MAD but it goes to Edmunds for the speed with which it has become established. Diners have different takes on restaurants but I’ve never heard a duff report about here.
The word is that Waters is moving back even closer to his classical French cooking origins and this can only strengthen the allure of this romantic, friendly dining room, run with aplomb by Bev. There’s good food, and there’s good food cooked with love – and the latter is what you get from Waters.
If Edmunds doesn’t get a Michelin star in January, I’ll eat Andy Waters’ hat, although if the chef has anything to do with its manufacture it will be highly edible.
* Chef of the year - Luke Tipping, Glynn Purnell & Richard Turner (joint award).
A total cop out, as I’ve gone for three. But there is method to this MAD.
If cooking skills could be translated on to the football pitch, England boss Fabio Capello would be able to draw on a formidable Brummie strike force for next year’s World Cup finals. For Charlton, Hunt and Hurst, England’s heroes of 1966, read Purnell, Tipping and Turner. Turner thinks he is the Special One so he could manage the team, too.
This triumvirate combine the attributes of flair, invention, consistency and sheer bloody-mindedness that Capello will be looking for in South Africa. None would be fazed by a penalty shoot-out. It’s the sort of pressure they face every day, because you’re only as good as your last Michelin meal.
* Pub lunch of the year - The Bell & Cross at Holy Cross, near Clent.
By happy coincidence, Roger Narbett, who runs this village pub with wife Jo, is chef to the England football team. But if Team Capello fail to perform next summer, it won’t be due to a lack of balanced, first-class catering.
The Bell & Cross was named Best Pub in Britain by The Good Pub Guide and deserves all the plaudits.
The rooms have been beautifully refurbished, suitable for the cloth-cap brigade, suburban trophy wives and happy families.
Jo’s magic touch with hospitality pervades the charming 19th century building. Sunday roasts are a treat. The beef sells “Til we run out,” so don’t leave it too late.
* Turkey twizzler award for crappiest meal - Berlioz, Burlington Hotel,
Recalling the events of this wasted evening are too painful. Ask me next year and I might not cry. Annoyingly, the dining room, aesthetically, is pleasing. It’s what goes into it on trays that is the problem.
* Most high-risk terrorist dish of the year - Foie Gras Three Ways, Turners.
A stupendously fine starter of the livers of a force-fed fluffy bird is enough to send the Animal Liberation Front running for their balaclavas and blow pipes, but Richard Turner’s trio of unethical delights was sublime.
It comprised a “bon bon” of buttery liver in a potato crust, a ballontine and a classically pan-seared scallop of offal, served with apple puree, pain d’épice and a Sauternes sauce. Worth getting your granny’s grave dug up for.
* Most innovative use of a domestic applicance - The fridge, Purnell’s.
Glynn Purnell is a master psychologist as well as a master chef and he knows how to keep restaurant manager Jean-Benoit Burloux happy: let the Frenchman have his fridge.
It’s a simple trade off: the Lyonnaise lion runs one of the tightest ships in the restaurant trade so long as Purnell allows him to keep his kebab-shop display fridge for top vintages.
You can’t miss it, to the left of the bar. It’s survived in situ for two-and-a-half years.
But it doesn’t buzz anymore.
* Unsung hero of year- front of house - Raj Kumar, Maharaja, Birmingham city centre.
Raj has been serving customers at the city’s oldest Indian restaurant for 25 years (it’s been there a decade longer) and he’s never had a day off sick.
Raj says there’s never been a day in his working life that he hasn’t wanted to turn up for service at the Hurst Street curry temple.
It’s the people, he says, they make the job worthwhile.
He’s either a lunatic or a saint. Fact: Raj is the only person, ever, to ring me up, unsolicited, the day after a take-away curry, to check everything was all right.
* Unsung hero of year - Kitchen - David Colcombe, Opus.
A Brummie born and bred, David Colcombe remains one of the most decent, hard-working and committed chefs you are likely to meet outside a sanitorium. Opus’s chef director is one of greatest champions of this city’s culinary renaissance, nurturing young talent while turning out some outstanding dishes.
Colcombe’s quiet revolution was recognised this year when he was made Honorary Fellow of University College Birmingham (UCB) and a Visiting Professor of Culinary Arts. Ill-health forced a spell away from the grill but Colcombe is back, his sparkle undiminished.
* Rising star - Helen Evans, Simpsons.
Helen Evans is still at student at UCB but was crowned British Culinary Federation Young Chef of the Year 2009. The sole female competitor in the final, Helen is honing her considerable skills during placements at Simpsons in Edgbaston.
Still only 22, she is being mentored by Luke Tipping, one of the best in the Michelin business, so don’t be surprised to see Helen making culinary waves (of vanilla foam). A star is born.
* Best outdoor-cooked eggs & muffin of year - Tom Baker, Cotteridge.
Food evangelist, founder member of the Birmingham-based LOAF social enterprise and self-taught cook, Tom Baker combines a democratic, culinary zeal with down-to-earth rustic cooking. Yes, like his surname, he is a baker – and an outstanding one at that. One of my food highlights was sharing freshly cooked muffins with the man, topped with fried eggs, all cooked in his adobe-style wood-fired earth oven. Dining alfresco in Cotteridge has never been so good.
* Rip off of the year - Popadoms.
Sometimes complimentary but often charged for, these oversized crisps cost 0.001p to produce and are sold for 30p-60p each, beating hands down the disgrace of charging £2.50 for a couple of chunks of focaccia and “dipping oils”.