Turners, 69 High Street, Harborne, Birmingham, B17 9NS. T: 0121 4264440
The first thing to say about this review is that it isn’t a review, not strictly speaking. It is the offspring of circumstance.
This is what happened...
I found myself stranded at home alone, my wife and children having departed for a brief summer sojourn at Mother-in-Law-on-Sea. The initial thrill of having the house to myself and being able to watch violent gangster movies soon wore off. I fended for myself for a few days but there are only so many times you can eat pasta with Loyd Grossman stir-through sauces without ending up speaking like Loyd Grossman.
As for cooking for yourself, as in proper cooking, as in meat and two veg, well it’s pointless, isn’t it? Who can be bothered to cook for one? I can do beans on toast, kippers, cornflakes and a plain omelette, but anything else is a waste of time.
I know a lot of singletons and old people are faced with this dilemma. What a hellish existence. Cooking for one is joyless and ready-done meals taste of cardboard and sugar and salt. If I end up on my own in sheltered accommodation, spurned by my daughters, who will have grown tired with me playing George Michael CDs and wearing leather trousers, I expect I will die of starvation. The death certificate will read: gastro-euthanasia.
There was only one way of banishing these dark thoughts: make a lunch reservation at a good local restaurant.
So I phoned Richard Turner, mainly because he doesn’t have many friends and I thought I’d do my bit. Turner also happens to be a tremendous cook. In fact, he may be Birmingham’s best chef. But is he? Ah, there’s the rub. (Did you notice how I copped out of that?)
By popping into Turners, I would kill two birds with one stone, kick-starting my new care in the community outreach programme for isolated chefs while simultaneously bagging a decent lunch.
Fortunately, Turner said he’d let me in, despite a little local difficulty after I awarded his experimental amuse bouche of peanut soup the 2011 award for the year’s worst dish. (The chef blamed a wayward rising star of the kitchen for the nutty broth. Turner and the protégé have since parted company.)
I was keen to try out Turner’s lunch menu, which is £22 for two course, or £27 for three. The price includes some cheesy puffs to nibble, proper bread, a pre-starter (a delicious cauliflower espuma with summer truffle – I can’t say amuse bouche any more – I’m allergic) and a pre-dessert. None of it was preposterous. For this sort of cooking, it’s remarkable value.
I didn’t want to upset the chef-patron so I ordered a bottle of Evian water instead of tap. Turner thinks eau de Severn Trent taints fine food. He’s bonkers. I also had a glass of slightly chilled Romanian pinot noir. Twenty years ago, the Balkan wine would have obliterated the chef’s hard work but times have changed and this was ideal for a summer’s day.
I had the lunch menu, sort of, starting with a dish that wasn’t on the lunch menu: a perfect cylinder of house cured pavé of wild salmon mi-cuit with avocado purée, soya and honey dressing. At the table, the dish was showered with a mini-snowstorm of frozen horseradish, which is this year’s “textures of beetroot”. Here, the frozen root worked with the components, rather than poncing about like a faddy accessory, and the acidity of the dressing was just reined in.
From this starter, two things became apparent and both were borne out by subsequent courses. First, Turner’s presentation has moved up a notch. This is very pretty, immaculately plated food, backed by the chef’s trademark attention to squeezing maximum flavour from ingredients.
The other thing is the chef’s use of a few key garnishes to accompany the star protein of the show. There are generally two or three garnishes to punctuate and complement the central component, be it meat, fish or a dessert. It’s a style aspiring chefs – and many established chefs – could learn much from.
A salad of quail had a well-executed confit leg and a smoked breast (with a stray bone) and came with garden peas and girolles. Again, it was a picture.
Confit belly of pork came with the mothership of scallops, some nibs of salty chorizo, coco de paimpol beans, spinach and confit tomato. Everything was faultless. Even the foams worked. Ditto the roast loin of rabbit (very fractionally overcooked) with new season carrot, rabbit pastille, gem lettuce and tarragon jus.
By now, I was worn out with watching one of the waiters de-crumbing the table after every course. I’m really not that messy when I eat. I’d have said something but the lad might have OCD and I don’t want to upset him. I’ve been there, double checking locks, light switches and plugs. It’s a curse.
Desserts have always been good at Turners but what followed was superb, all the more so for being deceptively simple. Red fruits languished in a glass with vanilla syrup and Pimm’s granita as a celebration of the joys of English summer berries.
But a blackberry soufflé with hedge sorrel ice cream charted previously unexplored territory in Brum. It’s like a Victorian country house cook had worked alongside a grand Parisian chef to concoct the ideal summer pud. The chef doffed his cap (not that he ever wears one) to the trend for using green things plucked from hedges and the effect was sublime, the sorrel imparting a lighter mouthful of appleness, somehow mildly woody but very fresh. Great, sweet blackberries lay at the bottom of the soufflé like sunken treasure.
I can’t tell you how good this was; you will have to go yourself. I won’t be knocking up this the soufflé in my warden-controlled block in Hall Green. It’s is a bone fide 10/10 dessert for me.
But like I said, I’m not marking this lunch – a move which many readers will prefer. My lunch contained items not on the standard ‘lunch menu’. The pavé of salmon and the pork and scallops were from the a la carté, for example.
However, the excellent quail salad, the rabbit and that blackberry soufflé were all on the £27 lunch deal. The dessert, in many restaurants, would attract a £7.50 to £10 supplement. Go quickly, before the chef changes his mind.
* A point of order: my restaurant reviews – as opposed to general food features – are conducted anonymously. I endeavour to be as impartial as I possibly can. That said, Birmingham’s restaurant scene is a close-knit affair. This means it is just silly to don a fake beard in several establishments because staff only say: “Hello, Mr McComb. Nice beard. Why are you booked as Mr Hamburger?”
I am as sure as I can be that the fact Richard Turner – for whom you can read Luke Tipping, Glynn Purnell etc – knew of my presence made no difference to the quality of the food. All the other plates delivered to other customers looked the same and you can’t rise to this level of cooking as a one-off just to please a snivelling food critic. And boy, can food critics snivel.