Tag Archives: Birmingham

500 days of Summer

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Well, perhaps not quite 500.

This weekend promises something quite rare for myself – I will not only be able to spend the whole weekend waking up in my own bed, but I don’t have anything planned for the first time in ages. Yes, I’ve deliberately turned down some things to make it so, but it was from looking at my diary that I came to the realisation that since Mid-June, I’ve only had 3 weekends where I didn’t have something planned or more specifically, meant I had to go away. Yes, I know this is very much a First World Problem, but I was thinking that being so busy should also mean that there *must* be something I could post about, right?

In the space of 3 months, a lot has happened – I had a bit of a scare regarding a lump discovered in one breast which turned out to have been lumps (plural) and affecting both breasts (!!). After a tense few weeks of being prodded and poked for investigation and seeing sights which no woman should ever see, I am relieved to say that I’m OK and have been discharged from the hospital. Being discharged meant that I could commit to a change in job roles and start on a 2 year project which will hopefully result in even bigger and better things for me. Obviously during those weeks, I couldn’t really consider if I had a future, let alone what I should/want to be doing in it, but once I knew it was OK to do so, I started planning my future with a new invigorated sense of trying to achieve more.

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There have been trips to Copenhagen – Two in fact, but the second one was very much a last-minute thing and I’ll write about that in another post. The first trip included a meal at the always-brilliant Relæ, loving Mirabelle so much that we went back the following day for (what turned out to be) the same dishes – Which we didn’t mind one bit, a great experience at Ante (RIP) and most of all, a trip to The Amazing Pig Out at Amass (oh, and going there for Amass Fried Chicken in the garden of Amass the day before). Again, more about this another time…

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A fair amount of beer was consumed – Not only from a trip to the magnificent Birmingham Beer Bash which has established itself as a firm annual favourite in my calendar, but with the opening and discovery of some new tap rooms and bars, especially the (IMO) very brilliant Clink Beer in the Custard Factory. What impresses me the most about Clink Beer is that it was borne out of the desire to have somewhere reasonably central (especially in the Digbeth area) where you can get some really decent and interesting craft beers without having to pay inflated prices as you may for something in the City Centre or travel across the other side of the City (If like me, you don’t live that side of Brum). I’m very biased in that the location of Clink Beer is on my bus route home, therefore making it VERY easy for me to go for a few drinks and still be able to stagger to the bus home, but I genuinely love this place and hope they do really well (I know I will do my bit).

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Founders released their KBS 2016 and expectations were almost impossibly high given how KBS 2015 was one of my favourite beers EVER. Yet Founders managed to pull it out of the bag again – KBS 2016 was somehow even better than 2015 with deeper coffee and vanilla notes. The bar was already set sky-high, but it could well be stratospheric for KBS 2017. Other highlights included being able to finally try Founders’ Mango Magnifico (at the Birmingham Beer Bash), and it was delicious – Even with the poke at the end! Another beer highlight was the latest BQE offering from the always reliably brilliant Brooklyn Brewery which could well be my favourite EVER. Named The Discreet Charm of the Framboise, it’s based on their very delicious Bel-Air Sour beer (which I got to gorge on during the London Beer Mansion earlier in the year), aged in Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrels with a whole load of raspberries chucked in – All elements which individually I love so it was bound to be a winner in my books when you combined them all (and it’s every bit as delicious as I thought/hoped it would be).

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Food-wise, there were some highly enjoyable visits to Aulis at at Claridges and The Sportsman and I also got the chance to sample the talents and deliciousness from Alex Nietosvuori during his stint at Carousel before he moved on to Santiago, Chile on his next food adventures. Whatever Alex does next, I’m sure he’ll be a great success and I greatly look forward to tasting his food again. There was also a whirlwind visit to Silo in Brighton, but that visit is very much worthy of its own post.

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From my own part, there was a rediscovery of my own love of cooking when I got to cook for a load of friends (and family) in M & B’s new kitchen (photos) which also meant I not only got to play with, but covet various bits of kitchen equipment and design in their lovely home. There was (as you would expect in cooking meal for 14 people) a fair bit of work to be done, but M&B were such fantastic hosts and so generous in letting me wreck and mess up their sumptuous kitchen (I mean, they actually made us breakfast pastries and personalised fortune cookies). But there was a moment at the beginning of the meal when the entire table were drinking their soup (pork fillet, mustard greens and salted duck eggs) and other than the odd guttural murmur, the only sound you could hear was of everyone happily slurping their soup. I was busy preparing the duck at the time to take a picture or video at the time, but I paused to take in that moment and a massive smile appeared on my face. So whilst I got a lot of thank you’s for cooking the small feast, I have to say a massive THANK YOU to M & B for not only letting me play in their kitchen, but also to everyone else that came along that day for helping me to rediscover the joy I get from not only cooking, but seeing people enjoying the food I’ve cooked.

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There has been a lot of reflection over the summer – My health scare at the beginning of the summer made me a lot more contemplative than usual, but the Olympics also made me think of the last Olympics in London – And how I can finally look back at that time more objectively. I mean, I remember posting about the Olympics on here and how I kept bursting into tears – During the National Anthem, whenever some athlete was crying.. I can look back on it all now and realise that at that time 4 years ago, I was deep in the throes of grief, but it hasn’t diminished my appetite for watching the Olympics. I mean, after being able to gorge myself in sport around the clock, I felt a bit bereft when the Olympics ended. (Although, as a side note, YAY for the Paralympics coverage!).

However, the main event was for me, the wedding of M & G. It may have been towards the end of the summer and in the middle of a *really* hectic few weeks, but more than anything, it reinforced how close my family all are – And how fortunate I am to have such a loving and utterly brilliant family. Whilst there were no tears from watching the Olympics, there was much laughter, some tears and some moments of tension between and from each of us at some point over the weekend. Naturally, all of us at some point turned our thoughts to our late parents and how they would have both *loved* to have been there. However, I know that I’m not alone in thinking that seeing the beaming smiles and howls of laughter across everyone’s faces – Along with the very evident joy and happiness on M and G’s faces as they got married – made us all feel fortunate to be able to share and join in these new happy memories for all. And whilst it’s a very old cliché, we all know that our parents were with us in spirit.

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So what now? I’ve already mentioned how I should (need) post about a few places, but after such a hectic summer, I think it’s time to step back a little and take things slightly easier – Not only will my body thank me for it, my bank balance will too! After all, I need to save up for bigger adventures 😉

Doing “research”: Blue Piano, Birmingham

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Being Chinese, I have a natural gravitation towards anything SE Asian, especially in food terms. It’s the sense of eating something that is actually different to Chinese food, yet retains that sense of familiarity about it. We don’t have many Malaysian or Singaporean restaurants (or takeaways) here in Birmingham, which is a shame because they’re very vibrant cuisines and given how popular Thai cuisine is these days, it baffles me that Neither Malaysian or Singaporean food is more popular. I’ve already documented about Bugis St Brasserie and a friend mentioned about wanting to try Blue Ginger in Kings Heath, but they were closed for refurbishment when I tried to go, so I tried out their sister restaurant, Blue Piano, instead. If nothing, perhaps it could be “research” for my forthcoming trip to Singapore.

The restaurant is located near the Five Ways roundabout in Birmingham and is tucked away amongst a slew of large, Victorian houses – Most have been converted into offices but this particular building has been converted into a spacious restaurant and bar. It’s not the most obvious place to have a restaurant – Indeed it was very quiet when I went – But here’s hoping that the food would make the visit worth it.

The first thing that caught my eye on the menu in the starters were the Top Hats; they’re nothing more than wonton pastries deep fried to resemble top hats, then turned upside down and filled with pickled vegetables and crushed peanuts amongst other ingredients. They don’t sound particularly special, but I’ve not seen them on any menu in the UK before and well, I’ve been craving for them for a long time now and that Rick Stein trying them in Singapore as part of his Far Eastern Odyssey didn’t help matters! And these didn’t disappoint when they arrived – The pastry was crisp and light and the pickled vegetables were sweet and tart, whilst retaining a lot of bite. Contrast the crunchy peanuts with the soft hard-boiled egg. and a little bit of sauce – delicious! The only gripe was whether you tried to keep a sense of decorum whilst eating these and nibble at them – in which case the thing falls apart and you get it all over yourself and your surrounding area, or whether you (try to) eat the whole thing in one go – which isn’t a pretty sight for others to look at you as you struggle to close your mouth in the first place, then try chewing the whole thing in your mouth without looking *too* stupid or completely lacking table manners.

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I was also intrigued by their Signature dish on the starters; Singapore Carrot Cake; it’s not actually made with carrots per se, but rather with mouli and is similar to what we have in Cantonese as turnip cake. However, it also came highly recommended (we cook it not only with egg but also with some sambal) so I felt compelled to try it anyway – And how glad I did. Soft, pillow-ey dumplings of the carrot/turnip cake with a crisp exterior, pan-fried with some shallots and sambal and topped with egg white and some spring onions – This was a perfect dish in contrasts of textures and tastes from the rather bland carrot/turnip cake with the salty and hot sambal. Very very nice – And still very different to the mouli/turnip cake I would get in Chinese cuisine.

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There were a few mains dishes I wanted to try, I was intrigued to try their Beef Rendang given I make it myself sometimes and don’t think my version is too bad. The Slow Cooked Pork sounded suspiciously like the Dong Po Pork which I know I make a decent version of, so I wasn’t going to go for that and the sea bass with garlic, ginger and soy sauce is pretty much something I used to eat every day with the Mothership, so no WAY was I going to order that. Instead, I got seduced by the words “Nasi Lemak” and especially when I discovered that you could order it with a main dish too, I couldn’t really go wrong! I opted to go for a tamarind prawn curry to accompany my nasi lemak, but the other 2 choices of fish sambal and chicken goreng berlada did also appeal to me. What came out was a rather large plate with the nasi lemak in the centre of the plate with a generous helping of the tamarind prawn curry on one side, and plenty of peanuts, ikan bilis, sliced cucumber and (for some reason), prawn crackers. Not that I objected too much to the prawn crackers as I don’t get to eat them very often. Oh, and there was half a hard-boiled egg perched on top of the rice. It was a pretty big plate (which helped with the £16.50 price tag), but in all honesty, it was worth every penny. Sure, I can nit-pick and question why there were prawn crackers and want more chilli sambal, but the rice was cooked just how I like it (fairly hard) and the tamarind prawn curry was a symphony of flavour with the spices and heat, not to mention how the prawns were perfectly cooked. Even though I was a bit full, I wasn’t going to let any of it go to waste!

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I was pretty stuffed by now, but they then told me how they has sticky rice with mango – Which could be one of my favourite things in the world to eat. Sticky rice (black or normal) is cooked with coconut milk and a bit of sugar, then served with fresh sweet mango – I’m salivating just thinking about it! Powerless to resist it, they fortunately gave me a bit of a break before serving the dessert and it was as good as I hoped – The mango could have been a bit more ripe, but the rice was sweet, soft, warm and unctuous. Hell, I want some now!

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All in all, a decent meal was had at Blue Piano – I’d happily go back to try some of their other dishes. It certainly deserves to do well and I really hope they do. If you’re at all put off by the higher prices compared to other places, all I can say is that you should absolutely go ahead and treat yourself to a meal here at Blue Piano – Because that bit extra you pay comes through in the quality of the food.

You can view the full set of photos on Flickr

Birmingham Food Fest

For the past few years, there has been an annual “Taste of Birmingham” event held in the summer which featured some of the City’s top restaurants. However, it was axed this year after being viewed as elitist given that the target demographic were high spenders or the corporate sector and it’s replacement was going to be something more “for the people”. After all, there are some fantastic places in (and around) Birmingham that only not sell, but produce fantastic ingredients on top of the varied and always improving restaurant scene. I know I’m biased because Birmingham is my hometown and well, I even named this blog after it, so when I heard that the Taste of Birmingham was being scrapped and replaced by something more befitting the City, I began to get my hopes raised.

Birmingham Food Fest (running October 14th – 23rd) is the all new improved food festival not only run by Birmingham, but for the people of Birmingham and beyond, to help spread the culinary profile of Birmingham to those near and far. The anticipation of it all began using social media like Twitter and Facebook and soon, word-of-mouth began to spread – And with it, excitement as people began to speculate what would be included. There were already assurances that top chefs from the City’s top restaurants would be participating, so perhaps this really could be better than the corporate tedium that was the Taste of Birmingham? I mean, people don’t automatically think of Birmingham as a culinary mecca but with 3 restaurants with coveted Michelin stars and a whole host of other restaurants like Loves Restaurant and Edmunds winning national awards, we’ve certainly got nothing to be ashamed of. Add to this the fact that Birmingham is such a multiculturally diverse city with cuisines from all over the world, it really could be something special.

Sadly, when the details of the Birmingham Food Fest were finally announced, I felt slightly deflated and disappointed; my initial thoughts were: “Is that it?” Where were the events to really draw people out and showcase the City? That’s not to say that it’s completely dull and there are 1 or 2 events that sound quite interesting, but there’s nothing that makes me immediately go “WOW!” and want to book tickets as soon as possible. During the whole festival, there’s only 1 event which features Caribbean food – And it’s an evening at Aston Villa Football Club. I understand the need to showcase the City’s plentiful venues and facilities, but why only 1 event considering the large Caribbean population we have in the City? And what about other ethnic cuisines? There’s one event which essentially sees you get on an open top bus from the City Centre to.. BALTI TRIANGLE! (via the Golden Mile, the Chinese Quarter and a few other select areas of Birmingham) where a delicious and authentic Balti at Imran’s restaurant awaits you. Now, personal misgivings about the Balti Triangle aside, I could kind-of see how this could be something fun and would get people involved, but when you think about it, it’s essentially transporting one singular bus load of people across Birmingham to Balti Triangle on a Saturday night when it’s going to be busy anyway. There are the more interesting events like the chance to “Dine Under the Stars” at the Thinktank’s Planetarium which sounds absolutely brilliant – If it weren’t for the £250 + VAT for 2 people price tag. Even the special Champagne evening to be hosted at Vaults restaurant sounds fantastic – a 5 course meal with 3 glasses of Champagne, but for £70, I could get a decent meal (if not better) with Champagne at normal price at other restaurants in the City.

What’s more, where are the food producers? Farmer’s Markets held across the City are a great success and demonstrate not only is there a demand for good local produce, but I’m convinced it’s helped to raise the profile and support our local producers and economy. So why not have something throughout the festival – like the International Food Fair we have where food producers from the across the globe, or indeed the Frankfurt German Market – where local food producers can sell their produce and promote their business? I am truly astonished that we don’t have anything like this during the Food Fest.

However, I don’t want to appear all gloom and doom before the event has even begun, and I think it’s only fair to point out that it’s not completely bad – Some of the offers that the local restaurants have during the Festival are quite good so it could possibly mean trying out restaurants that were previously out of people’s price range, or perhaps provide the impetus for people to finally try out a restaurant they’ve been meaning to. I hope at least that business for the local restaurants improves during the Food Fest.

And therein lies my problem with the whole thing: My overriding thought of the Birmingham Food Festival is that it’s an opportunity missed – Yes, there are a lot of offers from local restaurants, and there are opportunities for people to dine in different venues across the City, but the pricing is still quite high (and seemingly aimed at the Corporate market which the previous incarnation of the Taste of Birmingham targeted) and is very restaurant-centric. There is little or no acknowledgement of the diverse cuisines across the City and perhaps most shamefully of all, there is no acknowledgement of all the local food producers from across the City – And that’s particularly frustrating when I know there are some fantastic local food producers out there. I’m lamenting how the Birmingham Food Fest should be an opportunity for us, as a City, to shout out loud and show everyone how not only is Birmingham a great place to dine, or that we have a multitude of venues to visit, but also that we have local people producing some great food – Is this not something we should be proud of? I hope the Birmingham Food Fest succeeds – honestly I do, because to fail would possibly mean a return back to something like the Taste of Birmingham which isn’t at all geared towards everyday people (the likes of you and I), and that really would be tragic. I’ll still be going to as many restaurants as I can during Birmingham Food Fest as I want to show my support for my City and it’s restaurants, but I sincerely hope that next year, there is at least something to not only show what great restaurants we have, but also what else makes Birmingham so very great – It’s people, diverse culture and supporting local businesses and industries.