Purnell's Bistro, 11 Newhall Street, Birmingham, B3 3NY. Telephone: 0121 200 1588
Sitting in a restaurant, looking at limp plates of food and wishing you were at another place just down the road rates as one of the worst things in the world.
Obviously, it is not the worst thing. That’s probably an air crash or an earthquake or discovering Brian Conley is on the adjacent pitch at your holiday campsite.
But in eating-out terms, it is soul-destroying sitting in a dining room and knowing the real party is going on a short hop and a canapé tray away.
It is why I went to Purnell’s Bistro in Birmingham with a queasy sense of: “What am I doing?”
The thing is, Glynn Purnell continues to cook at his original, Numero Uno restaurant, the Mothership known as Purnell’s, which is in Cornwall Street, round the corner from the newish satellite bistro in Newhall Street. A good meal at Purnell’s is pretty much a banker. The man’s a genius. He cooks, he scores. Unlike his football team. Up the Blues.
The bistro is Purnell’s second baby and it has suffered severe teething trouble since its birth in Montague Road, Edgbaston. Then called The Asquith (due to the historic associations of the property), the restaurant folded following a little local difficulty with the landlord.
The Asquith then re-opened in the city centre, just off Colmore Row. I struggled to see why it was still called The Asquith and the picture was further confused when a cocktail bar, Ginger’s – a welcome addition to the city’s snazzy drinking scene – was added to the core business. Was the place called The Asquith, or Ginger’s? Both, apparently.
Due to his diligence, cooking brilliance and media persona, Purnell arguably possesses the most powerful brand in Brum gastronomy, certainly as far as outsiders are concerned. So why didn’t the second restaurant trade on Purnell’s panache?
It wasn’t a complete surprise when The Asquith closed last summer for a “relaunch,” which in any business – newspapers included – is code for: “Sorry guys, but this isn’t really working.” And it wasn’t. I reviewed the place and awarded 6/10. In retrospect, that was generous.
Out went head chef Jason Eaves, in came Micheal Dipple (and yes, that is the correct spelling of Michael/Micheal), and the restaurant was reborn as... Purnell’s Bistro. Hurrah!
Ginger’s has persisted as Ginger’s – it is named in honour of Purnell’s elder son, Oliver, and serves great cocktails – and there is no doubt that the explicit Purnell association has cut through the foggy identity problem.
So maybe it will be third time lucky. The signs are positive.
Some minor internal building work has transformed the feel of the previously cold and rather soulless dining room. The site is a cavernous space and the dining room, at the back, used to feel cut off from the buzz of the bar. But someone (well done to them) had the idea of opening up the room.
What’s more, a second, formerly closed off area has been opened up as a second public dining space. This new room has been decked out with warm red banquette seating and mirrors.
The place consequently feels warmer and more welcoming although I wish the boss would agree to cover the tables with linen as this would soften the harsh table settings.
The black tables remain steadfastly bare at Purnell’s cool flagship restaurant and this works because the vibe here is very modern.
A bistro is a different beast and needs TLC. But this isn’t a Homes & Gardens feature, so on to the main thing: the cooking.
The food, which was over-complicated for the casual dining brief during Eaves’s tenure, has been stripped back and is all the better for that.
Purnell’s stated aim with the restaurant was to create a place where diners can enjoy simple food with a buzz and he is well on the way to achieving the goal, assisted by an enthusiastic service team, even if I dislike being addressed as “you guys.”
It was still Christmas when we visited in early January, or at least it was according to the menus. The festive spread was still being offered, with a very decent sounding blade of beef, but we went with the à la carte. (Our own family Christmas was rubbish, I didn’t want reminding of it and when it’s over, it’s over.)
The starters offer robust flavours with refined presentation. Ballsy main ingredients include black pudding and chicken with foie gras. I enjoyed the confit duck leg with a good spiced parsnip salad hinting at Purnell’s love of curry influences.
Small pieces of pickled apple gave a nice sweet-sour edge. The duck could have been a little warmer but it was well cooked.
A dish featuring small chunks of lightly cured salmon with watercress, hen’s egg and wasabi was light and refreshing. My wife said it was delicious.
I liked the bread but not the bits of string knotting the napkins, which were Robin’s Nest era.
A main dish of venison “Bourguignon” pie had a great saucy filling but my spirits rather dropped when the meat arrived with a mashed potato topping (à la shepherd’s pie) rather than a pastry lid. I had set my heart on a bit of Boy’s Own pastry, which would have given the dish a texture contrast, too.
I found the spiced red cabbage overly sweet. The brassica paired better with the piece of roast foie gras which came with the dish, but I’m not sure the liver added anything to the main event: the pie. A spoon was needed for slurping the good gravy.
The good hand cut chips were spoiled by being under (un-) salted. There are no salt/pepper cellars on the table. Please, chefs, can we have salt and pepper back on tables? It doesn’t mean you are failing.
Roast sea bass with a Gruyère and potato terrine and caramelised onions was well cooked – moist, tasty fish flesh and crispy skin – but it lacked seasoning.
The desserts read well (crème brûlée with poached pears, pear sorbet and shortbread and blackberry parfait with Ginger’s mojito sorbet and English blackberries).
My apple tarte tatin had good fruit and adequate caramelisation.
Sally was underwhelmed with the pavlova, served with iced honey yoghurt and griottine cherries. There just wasn’t enough meringue. Pavlova, for me, is one of the those puds that is meant to be big, bold and bordering on camp. Or maybe that’s me.
Dinner for two with a nice bottle of light Italian red wine and service was £94.
I won’t grumble on about whether Purnell’s Bistro feels like a bistro. Do you find fruit crumbles in French bistros, like you do here? And if you don’t, and you are in the UK, and the crumble is good enough, why not?
I do, however, applaud the changes Purnell has made to Newhall Street and I like the style of eating he is trying to create here.
It is an encouraging work in progress and is streets ahead of the former incarnation.