55 Cornwall Street, Birmingham, B3 2DH. Tel: 0121 212 9799
The last time my children saw Glynn Purnell he was on the A38 at Castle Vale, waiting in his jeep at traffic lights.
My youngest, Olivia, spotted him. She said there was someone famous in the car behind us. I checked the rear-view mirror and clocked the stubbled, chiselled jaw of the wildly gifted, and sometimes simply wild, chef.
“It’s Glynn Purnell,” I said. ‘‘Admittedly, the phrase “It’s Lady Gaga” would have sparked a more raucous reaction from Polly, my eldest, but Purnell is a bit of a celeb in his own right, even without the PVC catsuit.
I turned round and waved at the chef. “He knows me,” I said, confidently.
The reaction was instant: Purnell blanked me, fearing I was one of the nutters who accosts him regularly in supermarkets.
Still, I’m heartened Olivia and sister Polly recognised Purnell.
When I was a nipper, I didn’t know the names of any chefs, with the exception of the Galloping Gourmet, whom I adored.
He came second to the Lone Ranger in my list of heroes, possibly fourth if you include Batman and Derek Underwood, but it was close.
Back then, there weren’t any British chefs of note, not for a pre-teen. Domestic cuisine meant Arctic rolls and cheese on sticks and cooks were blue-rinsed and matronly.
How times have changed.
Today, food is cool and sexy and dramatic and fun.
Cooking, or at least the end product of cooking, appeals to children, not just the financially-upholstered middle classes and waffling idiots like food critics.
And there are genuine cuisine stars, some in our own city, of which Purnell is the best known nationally.
But is he the best chef in Brum?
Purnell is arguably the most technically innovative, which isn’t – young chefs take note – a be-all and end-all.
He he is capable of producing some eye-watering fine dishes, as I discovered on a recent family visit. But is he the best? That’s a tough call.
Naturally, I had to take my daughters for dinner.
It was my birthday and they would have snubbed me on my big day if I hadn’t extended the invitation to them. (I’m being serious.)
Purnell, it must be said, was in an invidious position that night.
A meal we enjoyed en famille at his Cornwall Street restaurant in 2009 was one of the dining joys of the year.
The food was breathlessly well executed, at times fun, but always stamped with substance.
This January duly witnessed the reconfirmation of the chef’s one-star Michelin credentials and it’s hard to see the 36-year-old ever wavering from this standard.
But I’m greedy, on Purnell’s behalf, and I expect many others are too.
The fact of the matter is this: I’m desperate to see if Chelmsley Wood’s most famous culinary son can up his game, step up a level, bag another star. There are indications he can but that’s what they are at the moment: indications, albeit strong ones.
There’s a long road ahead and he appreciates that as much as anyone.
For promise of greater glory to come, take Purnell’s starter of cured and slow-cooked mackerel.
The dish consists of five perfectly round, perfectly cooked pieces of “man of the people” fish, the mackerel nattily dressed in the natural finery of its sparkling blue-green-silver skin, oozing with reworked evocations of the British seaside.
But the presentation and the garnish skips to another continent, jet-lag free, to reveal delicate Oriental influences.
It’s East meets West on a plate and it’s very skillfully done, the fish finished with soya bathed shitake, spindly Japanese mushroom, wasabi masquerading as tiny peas and fresh-as-a-daisy mizuna leaves. I loved every mouthful of this delicious, clean dish.
Purnell is famed for his modern take on “cheese on sticks” (but not, as yet, Arctic roll). For me, the mackerel is in another league, gastronomy at the deep end, brilliantly original.
Of the other starters, I was also prepared to elope with the roast duck liver. In a way, it’s a very unPurnell plate, the foie gras served with a poached duck egg yolk, Jerusalem artichoke purée, a slither of brioche and lovely forest-nutty morels.
So far, so French. The combination of the flavours is terrific, so good I almost scraped the enamel off the plate with my foccacia.
The chef can do classical as well as modern British. Should he do it more often? A moot point.
The carpaccio of beef, with parsnip terrine, sweet and sour parsnips, breasola, crispy corned beef and horseradish didn’t hit such a high.
The beef blazed in colour like a sunset over the M6 but it lacked the coherence of the “mack and quack”.
Those who went for the Devonshire crab salad suffered a bout of the “never go back” syndrome.
They enthused over the dish last year, and enjoyed it this time but the level of expectation that Purnell creates can be a double-edge sword. It was probably as good as last year but recollection can be a cruel mistress.
We were treated to monkfish masala with Indian lentils – a triumph for Purnell during last year’s Great British Menu on the telly – before the wraps came off the main courses.
The lemon sole, with purple potato presse and a white onion, leek and chive crème fraîche “fondue,” looked and tasted (I was allowed a fork) very good, bursting with colour and deceptively simply arranged. It said “summer’s on the way – eat me.”
The slow-cooked cod gave a similar visual come-on, but the flavours seemed more wintry.
I had had the dish previously and was interested on someone else’s verdict. They concurred.
We weren’t sure about the brown shrimp and parsley brandade. Traditionally a purée of salt cod, olive oil and milk, it was undeniably salty.
The breast of duck was divine. People sometimes complain about portion sizes at “fancy” restaurants but with this dish, and all the others, there was an abundance of protein without the clawing bulk of too much carb ’n’ starch.
Whoever butchered, prepped and cooked the duck is a genius.
I recently cooked a duck at home and the breast was the size of pencil sharpener. This was dense, moist flesh, punctuated with flavours of liquorice, charcoal and tamarind. Duck heaven.
Was there too much liquorice? For me, yes. But it’s still a great dish, so far above most of Purnell’s contemporaries you’ll need an extension to your extendable ladder to get up there for a peek.
The pick of the puds remains the Purnell signature burnt English custard egg surprise with tarragon strawberries and honeycomb.
The fruits were from Hampshire but the chef assured us they’ll be from Warwickshire when the sun finally heads north.
But be warned: the petit savarin with coconut cream, slow cooked banana, iced banana yoghurt and passion fruit and banana crème pâtissière bears all the hallmarks of a new Purnell classic. I’ve had it twice now (on different days, obviously) and I think it is a beautifully under-stated dessert. Again, it’s très Français. I like it.
Following a glass of birthday fizz – merci, Chef – we drank a bottle of Austrian pinot noir through the meal, a good tip from restaurant manager Jean-Benoit Burloux.
The brandy selection has come on leaps and bounds in the past 12 months and the display of classic Château de Laubade bottles is irresistible.
I scanned the selection for an Armagnac from the year of my birth but in the absence of anything from 1967, when there was no doubt a harvest failure, I was hit by a rare moment of inspiration. I opted to split the difference – with a glass of ’64 and a glass of ’74.
Obviously, there was only one way to end the evening and that was with a snifter of M Burloux’s latest area of spiritual interest: plum-infused saké. It was a very happy birthday.
The total bill for four, including service and drinks, gently kissed £300.
It’s an honest price to pay to experience the thrilling evolution of Purnell’s cooking.
Or you could go to a Ramsay clone restaurant, get inferior food – and pay twice as much.