Highfield Road, Edgbaston. 0121 454 3434
Unarguably fine food and an Albanian named Tony defuse a potentially explosive McComb family dinner.
Moving house, getting divorced or being fired are cited as the most stressful events in life.
Yet these upheavals barely constitute ripples in the ocean of human anguish compared with the tsunami whipped up by that most dreaded of ritual encounters: the family lunch.
Anything can happen once relatives get round the table. Introduce parents or in-laws – particularly my parents – into the equation and anything will happen.
Like most families, we reserve our worst excesses for domestic dining. It can go off at any moment, from queries about the paucity of gravy supplies – Father: “Are we having gravy? Are we? You never make enough” – to admonishments over plate temperatures – Father: “How can you possibly serve hot food on cold plates?” – to incredulity about cooking times – Father: “It’s raw, I tell you. Raw. Stark raving raw.”
You may have noticed a common theme. It’s Father. He’s like Gordon Ramsay but older, without the hair, the amyl nitrate or the three Michelin stars. In a controlled environment, like our home, we have found ways to manage him, typically by keeping him out of the kitchen and ensuring his glass is topped up to meniscus proportions.
In fairness, Father tends to behave when dining out, although I have noticed he channels his gastronomy rage (a similar condition to car rage but with cutlery) via a little-known food-lover’s condition: Wrong Dish Syndrome.
It’s a genetic curse. Father inherited it from his mother and I fear I am a carrier. My daughters are doomed. Wrong Dish Syndrome manifests itself in determining to choose the dish you most fancy before inexplicably changing your mind at the very moment where the waiter says: “And sir would like ...?” At this point, the sufferer picks the dish they are least likely to enjoy before plunging into a fog of denial.
Dear Granny would order Dover sole and when it arrived she would stare nonplussed at the plate of succulent white flesh, saying: “I didn’t think it would involve Dover sole. Ooo, no, no. Not Dover sole. I’d never order that. Could I have the Steak Diane instead?”
Father has exhibited signs of this condition in recent years, ordering oxtail when he really fancied poached turbot. So we were on tenterhooks when we arrived at Simpsons in Edgbaston. Would he blurt out salmon tartare when he meant suckling pig? Any fears were quickly assuaged by the friendly, calm efficiency of our star waiter, Albanian Tony. He’s an Albanian (that’s what he says) working in a French-inspired restaurant, in Birmingham, who speaks English with a French accent. Is he really Albanian, or is he French? Is he really a waiter, or is he a spy? Frankly, I don’t care because Tony knows how to handle Father. Every restaurant should have an Albanian Tony.
Simpsons, of course, is the granddaddy of Brum gastronomy. That’s some feat, seeing as the city restaurant has only been open since 2004. In restaurant terms, Simpsons is a toddler, albeit it had a previous incarnation in Kenilworth. At six years old, it must be the youngest granddaddy in Britain but things are moving fast in Birmingham dining circles.
Simpsons, of course, was the first city establishment (with the former Jessica’s) to set Michelin’s pulses racing, picking up a star a few months after opening here. Since then, two others, Purnells and Turners, have joined the ranks. Simpsons is no longer a big fish in a small pond.
So does it still bring home the pancetta? It’s an unequivocal yes. Stylistically, the genteel, old world, Georgian ambiance of the building ensures the restaurant space remains unrivalled in the city. When I popped to the loo during lunch, I felt a million miles from both central Birmingham and Tirana. That’s a hard trick for a restaurant to pull off, creating an aura of relaxed well-being.
For that, huge credit must go to executive chef Luke Tipping, who is the unsung hero of the Simpsons success story. It is chef/patron Andreas Antona who gets the plaudits and with good reason. Antona loathes backslappers, so I’ll say this quietly (because he only half loathes me): he has arguably done more than any other single professional, through those he has trained and inspired, to turn round the food fortunes of a British city. Maybe he’ll get a spot on Broad Street’s Walk of Stars, together with Gary Newbon and Rusty Lee.
Antona rarely rattles a saucepan these days and Simpsons’ reputation for good food rests with Tipping, whose success is all the more remarkable since he didn’t join the industry until he was 21. A former Chef of the Year, he is now joined in the kitchen by two other winners. Cooking competitions can be a hit-and-miss affair but having a trio of winners in one kitchen is no coincidence.
Tipping’s style is measured, traditional and unfailingly well executed. You will not find some of the wilder leaps of the imagination encountered elsewhere and I am not being critical in saying that. There is beauty in restraint, too. The chef’s classical French technique, allied to the occasional greater Mediterranean and Asian influence – we had a lovely coriander-fragranced sweet and sour prawn as an amuse bouche, prompting questions about why more Chinese restaurants cannot cook with this finesse – continues to delight.
The set lunch menu offers outstanding value in the Michelin market. There are two choices in each of the three courses, a pre-dessert and half a bottle of wine, all for £30. The bread, which comes as part of the meal, is superb, the best in town. People who say £30 is expensive should research the costs of buying good produce and preparing it expertly. If you’re a banker, you may be able to eat at Simpsons every week; if you’re not, maybe you can save up and go every second or third month, or once a year. But don’t tell me this is elite eating. It’s not. It’s just very good food.
I had a starter of ravioli of beef daube, Hispi cabbage, cèpe velouté and truffle. I feared it would be overly heavy. It was sublime, beautifully tender meat snuggling up on the palate with the distinct earthy truffleness. Both daughters lapped it up, as did Father. “Superb,” he exclaimed, a comment usually only reserved for his boiled eggs. The tartare of fresh smoked salmon, avocado sorbet and quail eggs also went down well.
Tipping, a Birmingham City fan, showed greater striking potency than his team when he chipped in with a surprise tasting before our main course. Simpsons has started using milk-fed Pyrenean lamb and my parents happen to live in that neck of the French woods, returning home periodically to consult their turf accountant and dietician. Critics might say using baby sheep from south-west France makes a nonsense of local food sourcing but then having parents living in the Pyrenees makes a nonsense of having an ethically reared family. Besides, the lamb was tremendous, pale as a vegetarian but far more tasty. The delicate chop came with aromatic couscous, semi-dried apricots, baby spinach, an astonishing aubergine caviar and north African ras-el-hanout spicing. What a dish. It’s on the a la carte. Give it a whirl before it all goes.
Having gone gaa-gaa for the baa-baa, the main of roast guinea fowl, green beans, artichokes, hazelnuts and sherry vinegar jus, although good, didn’t quite scale the same dizzy heights. That’s what comes of being spoilt. The alternative of halibut fillet, orzo pasta, broccoli, Avruga caviar and seaweed butter sauce was despatched with vigour by the children. A forkful confirmed my fears: I have early stage Wrong Dish Syndrome and should have had the fish.
The pre-dessert of mango mousse with passion fruit and fingerette of meringue was beautifully fresh, sweet and cleansing, laying the ground work for the unadorned joy of the chocolate tart and cocoa bean ice-cream. Father and Mother, who think it’s still 1974, had a modern, stodge-free light incarnation of rum baba with vanilla pineapple and Chantilly cream. Pretty bowls. Very enjoyable.
After coffee, petit fours and Armagnac, all seemed right in the world. Father said he wasn’t keen on the dark chocolate walls in the lounge. And that’s it, which represents a triumph for Simpsons. He had just told the hotel where they were staying they needed to redesign their website, fix the front door and find a new coffee supplier.
A note on the wines: for the price of the set meal, both were faultless. The white was a fresh sauvignon blanc from the Loire (a wine I would have happily chosen) and the red, refreshingly unchallenging and lunchable, was from the Rhone. Good value drinking.
For the puds, we splashed out on glasses of sunsoaked Cabidos, Comte Philippe de Nazeller, Petit Manseng Doux 2005. Sally, who had fruit salad and sorbets, was served a glass of Californian Elysium Black Muscat, Quady Winery. Albanian Tony said the petit manseng would have been wrong. Good spot. Sally, by the way, loved lunch. She called it one of the most memorable, enjoyable meals we’ve had. I really can’t top that.
(Postscript ... A point about our new restaurant scores. I’ve got it in the neck for recently giving a restaurant 4/10. One hotelier called me a “bastard.” A chef said I was over generous. They’re both right. I am a bastard and I should have given the place 3/10. According to the Post’s new criteria, 8/10 signifies: “Superlative cooking, abundant flair, creativity and individuality. Exemplary produce.” So today’s 9/10 is a bit special. I just thought I should clear that up.)