Friday, 30 November 2012

Lost and Found in Birmingham

It's not that often that a new bar opens in the centre of Birmingham, so when details started to trickle through on Twitter from various sources that Bennetts Bar on Bennetts Hill had closed, and was being refurbished and opened as The Lost and Found, it certainly generated a lot of interest. As any new venture must do these days, the team behind the opening quickly established an online presence, engaging with the local twitterati and cocktail-imbibers, releasing a few photos and snippets of information, while aiming to keep a sense of 'mystique' about exactly what would be on offer until the opening week revealed all.

As someone who used to drink in Bennetts fairly regularly in it's heyday, and still admired the building itself, I was certainly intrigued to see what would be done with the place, and what kind of bar this would turn out to be, as these days to appeal to drinkers with money to spend and an eye on the 'vibe', you have to offer more of an all-round package than just giving somewhere a lick of paint and hoping for the best.

The events manager for the L&F, Bea Elmer, had a well-organised opening campaign – for two days a 'soft launch' trial would take place, with those on Facebook and Twitter invited to win tickets for either lunch or dinner – this I think cleverly combined creating an opening buzz, with many people having the feeling of a privileged 'first peek' at the interior and the warm glow of trying out the food and cocktails, while allowing the service and kitchen staff to see how they coped with a full house and iron out any last-minute niggles before it fully opened to the public on Friday 30th November. So having secured some tickets, myself, Neil, Richard and Mike met on the Tuesday evening to check it out.

On walking in, I was immediately impressed by the welcoming ambience and soft but plentiful lighting, and the sense of the new and shiny mixing with the old and characterful. Bea explained they had been aiming for 'Victorian botanical hideaway' and this theme was carried through with trailing greenery, a raised conservatory area, a forested wall and lots of little touches such as plant specimens in bell jars along one wall, bird motifs, and leafy pictures of the “patroness” of the bar, Hettie G Watson. The large space is divided up with a library section to one side, and two mezzanine areas and seating booths; some of the floor plan from Bennetts Bar has been retained but given slightly differing identities within the whole. Where Bennetts suffered a little from identity crisis, and at times could be simultaneously very busy while seeming like an unwelcoming barn of a place, now the low-slung soft lighting dotted around the room has really broken up the space without compromising the grandeur of the high ceilings, and has created a warm atmospheric touch. There is absolutely amazing attention to detail in the décor – from the dainty light fixtures on the way to the restrooms, the shelves of little cosmetic jars and bone-handled combs in the ladies', to various ornaments and objects scattered around subtly and in keeping with the theme of each area.

The building itself dates from 1869, and was the former National Provincial Bank of England, with a beautiful domed entrance, and the ground floor is on a long-term lease to Marstons. Therefore the time period chosen for the character of the bar is very fitting, and it was wonderful to see the architectural features inside allowed to shine through, with the high Corinthian columns smartened up, and understated wall art in some areas allowing the building to feel lofty – the eye is drawn upwards – while intimate at seating level. Even the interior dome over the side door seems fitting in style to the leafy theme. So a very sympathetic renovation that has created a lovely environment to settle into for the evening, and definitely something different for the centre of Birmingham.

The trial offer was for a main course and drink, and a sample menu had been chosen to showcase the range of dishes offered and give an idea of the cocktails – general manager Kate explained they have an extensive cocktail list that will tinker with botanical infusions and signature concoctions as well as classics, and they have employed several bartenders with a pedigree of working in cocktail-led establishments to bring their own ideas and expertise. Luckily in dining with three companions, we were all able to sample the three different mixes on offer – Cosmo Daisy, which was wonderfully fruity without being too sweet; a Citrus Britannica to wake up your mouth; and a pineapple and black pepper margarita, which made me purr like a happy cat.

We tried a range of mains between us – sirloin steak, scallop & pancetta salad, fish pie and swordfish. My sirloin steak was cooked well – rare but with a lovely searing around the outside for flavour, and served with fluffy chips, sweet tomato, mushroom and a watercress salad, and a little pot of flavoured mustard. The fish pie impressed, coming out in a large cast iron dish and filled with salmon, haddock, mussels, leek and scallion in a flavourful sauce. The swordfish was good too, topped with a finely chopped tomato and onion salad. There were some niggles with the food, but as this was a 'trial run' I won't detail them here, as the purpose of the event was to gather feedback and hopefully iron out any problems before the bar 'went public' – so we duly completed feedback forms and hope the particular issues we had will be picked up by the team. Overall though we agreed we'd certainly enjoy a return visit to dine again – and probably order more of the luxurious fish pie!

After a pause to order another cocktail, we decided to try the pudding menu – around £5-6 each. These were all very well executed and presented, and we passed them round the table so we each got to try them all. My personal favourite was Richard's lemongrass crème brûlée with chilli shortbread; Neil liked the honeycomb with lemon curd, dark chocolate mousse, fresh raspberries and chocolate soil; we also tried the custard tart with candied lemon and vanilla cream; and the pistachio brownie fingers, served with hot chocolate fondant and raspberry cream.

There are a rather promising six handpulls installed on the bar, but as the trial events were a limited run, no ale was available on these evenings as turnover would be low – so I'm keen to see what beers will be served once they're fully open. I imagine these will be from the core Marsons stable, and the bartenders believe Jennings Cocker Hoop and Ringwood Boondoggle will be on regularly; perhaps these will be joined by something dark and roasty, like the Ringwood Porter or Marstons Oyster Stout, or the experimental Marstons Single Hop series. It would be great if interesting guest ales also make an appearance – and there are many out there that could be chosen to fit the 'botanicals' theme – such as zingy Enville Ginger, Ilkley's Siberia (a rhubarb saison), Williams Fraoch, brewed with heather and honey, or the Victorian-recipe Kernel Export Stout. Some of these are available year-round in bottles, so a rotating guest bottled beer along these lines would also make a fine addition and offer something different to beer already available in the city.

Before we left, Bea introduced us to “the secret of the Lost & Found” - which I couldn't possibly divulge but I will say I found it rather exciting! We all had a great evening and marvelled at the beautiful surroundings, and hope to return soon to check out the ale and the rest of the menu!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Food & Drink highlights at the Birmingham Festive Markets

Every November Birmingham plays host to a German festive market - this is now in it's 10th year and arose because the city is twinned with Frankfurt, and is now considered the "largest authentic German market outside of Germany and Austria". Some Brum inhabitants may feel a little shortchanged by this, as several of the stalls carry similar stock, and many feel it is overpriced and an unnecessary nuisance of crowds and noise when trying to go about your normal business - plonking a double line of stalls down an already busy pedestrian thoroughfare can bring out the festive rage in the best of people. But there are good things to be found if you can get past the irritation and mellow out (the glühwein mit rum helps with that), and in recent years there has also been the addition of a 'craft market' of English-based stalls to take the enforced revelry all the way up to the Symphony Hall area.

If you can steel yourself against the crowds - or pick a quieter time to go - and can justify spending a bit of cash on yourself, my recommendations follow for the best food & drink options to check out. These are based on my personal taste, so more meat than sweet, and washed down with something tasty too.

1. Hogan's Cider
This is the best thing about the festive market, from my point of view! Hogans now have a corner of the Craft market up by Baskerville House/Broad Street firmly marked out for themselves, with wooden picnic benches and some cover from the cold and rain providing the perfect environment to get stuck in to some quality cider and perry. Allen Hogan will often be behind the bar, ready to dispense great drinks and cider wisdom to those with a keen thirst. This year the range on offer is bigger than ever, on draught, keg and bottle, and includes mulled cider; Panking Pole 6.2% - slightly hazy but very smooth-drinking; Pickers Passion 5.3%; and Hazy Daisy 3.9%. Some traditional cider makers dilute their cider down with the quaintly-named 'brook apple' (i.e. water!) – dilution helps to obtain a lower ABV, make the crop go further, and to bring down the tannins, to make a more drinkable product. Allen's version is diluted with fresh pressed English apple juice, which gives a sweeter edge and a full juicy flavour, for a very slurpable cider without the higher alcohol content. Conversely, due to the high quality extra juice used, this makes Hazy Daisy more expensive for Allen to produce than the other ciders in his range! But if you're planning a bit of a session, I can recommend you start with this delicious drop before moving to the six-percenters.
Hogan's stall also stocks Purity Mad Goose ale, Freedom lager, and some warming spirits, with bottles of cider and perry available to take home.
My personal favourite is the Vintage Perry - and I'm happy to brave the worst of the winter weather to huddle under a heater and enjoy a pint of this with other cider and perry loving chums.

2. Pork with dumplings and red cabbage
This can be found at the beer chalet nearest the Museum, at the side of the Town Hall. They offer roast pork ("with cracking") or pork neck ("without cracking"), served either in a bap, or - the best plate in the market, IMHO - with a potato suet dumpling and red cabbage. The pork is plentiful, the dumpling stodgy enough to soak up the gravy, and the red cabbage sweet and subtly flavoured with juniper. It may not seem cheap at £7.50 for this plate, but that's pretty comparable to what you'd pay in a Munich bierkeller for a similar meal, and matches any pub lunch in town. Washed down with a half of weissbier, if you love pork as much as me, this will put a big smile on your face and set you up for further market exploring.

3. Wood's real ale
Real ale at a market is a bit of a rarity, but Woods appeared at the Craft Market a few years ago, and now offer three ales on handpump, with several bottles and packaged gift sets available. There seems to be a fair turnover of the draught ale, so the exact beers on offer may vary each time you visit, but the condition of these when sampled on Saturday last was all spot on, and I'd happily spend a while drinking their signature Shropshire Lad bitter (4.5%), or for something more robust, their seasonal Cracker at 6%.

4. Stein of weissbier
Sadly this isn't *quite* as exciting a treat (for me, personally) as it used to be - as up to a few years ago they served the more enticing Paulaner Hefe-Weiss for £3.50 a pint - a bargain for one of the quintisentially clove and banana-accented Bavarian weisses. In recent years, they've changed to Franziskaner - not quite as much happening flavour-wise, and this year on sale at £4 - but still, it's a pretty nice experience to grab a heavy glass halbe-stein of German weiss while you mull around or munch on some porcine treats, for less than the price of a non-imported beer in many London establishments - even better if you have the time and capacity on your hands to enjoy a whole stein! (though best to have worked out where your toilet options are beforehand, otherwise you'll have to endure the dire festival-style cubicles... be warned!). If you can squeeze into one of the wooden drinking huts that have covered tables in the back, the press of bodies will keep you warm while the cold beer goes down and you plan your next tactical move through the throngs.

5. Roast hams
Right at the busiest point of the market, where there's a pinch-point for pedestrian traffic going in two different directions through the main drinking and gawping area, is a stall selling roast ham. Huge banks of hams rotate on spits at the back, while surly-looking staff carve off chunks and stick them into buns. For ham-in-a-bap at £4.50 this does seem a little expensive, but as the price hasn't changed in many years, and with the rise of street food in England at similar costs, it doesn't seem that unreasonable these days. You'll be rewarded with hot, rich, salty, thick ham goodness – just the thing to act as a restorative between steins.

6. Hot cider from Orchard Pig
This producer is based in the Somerset area, but have had a stall at the Craft Market for the past few years. This year they have some smart new branding and a range of products on offer - from sweet/dry ciders to horseradish liqueur - but my recommendation here, as well as their draught still cider, would be to have the spiced, mulled cup of cheer - it will warm you up and soothe away any of that lingering hatred of the crowds and bustle. Well, until you stop drinking it and try to go anywhere, that is.

7. Many flavours of Wurst
Everyone likes a sausage! Well, mostly ... There are several sausage-merchants at the market, as you'd expect, though sadly the little Nurnberger variety are missing (I guess to be expected as it is nominally a Frankfurt festive market). If you have a large enough mouth for this kind of endeavour, then go to the sausage stall with the large circular grill, between the Council House and the Floozie in the Jaccuzi fountain - they have fast turnover and about 3 different types of sausage (Bratwurst, Weisswurst, and 'Spicy' sausage) and you can load it up with sauerkraut, senf (German sweet mustard) and ketchup before you bite in and get it half in your mouth and half all down yourself.

8. Mead
There are two different mead sellers at the market - an Eastern European stall, selling bottles of mead to take away, and some mead-based liqueurs, as well as honey with different flower accents; and a drinking-stall further down New Street towards the Bull Ring, where plastic 'Viking horns' will be used to dispense hot or cold mead to shivering consumers. I'd recommend the European mead stall for bottles to take home and enjoy with friends and family at the turning of the year, but if you need a quick, hot, honey-based pick-me-up, that you're guaranteed not to find in Birmingham the rest of the year round, head down for the horn!

9. Meat Stall
A stall selling meaty goods to take home has been at the market for several years, but each year it changes location, so I have to hunt around anxiously until I've found it and know my supply of pig-based treats is secure for another festive season. The range here keeps expanding, and seems to have several new additions this year – so as well as different types of cured salamis (with chilli, herbs, nuts, garlic, pepper etc.), and sides of bacon and cured ham, there is also a chilled sausage cabinet with cook-at-home weisswurst and frankfurters, and meat pâté and spreads. Another rare thing you can find here is “schmalz” - a lardy spread that the Germans love to eat on bread, and is best topped with some crispy fried onions. I'm sure it's terribly bad for you but as a once-a-year treat in small doses, it would be pretty tasty washed down with a rauchbier or bock.

10. Hot chestnuts
Something simple to finish – a bag of hot chestnuts with a sprinkling of salt. We ate these all the time in winter when I was growing up – the benefit of having an open coal hearth to cook them in – so there may be a bit of nostalgia creeping in here. But I've noticed that chestnut seller carts are commonly found in parts of London like Covent Garden, and wondered why they never appear in Birmingham. But at the market, here's your chance to grab some. They make a good snack to pick up at lunch and take back to the office, acting as a handwarmer in your pocket. And (depending on how much salt you like) probably one of the healthier things to be found among all the beer, meat and sugary foods lining the streets.

Normally the stalls at the market are reliably/disappointingly* (*delete as appropriate) the same every year, so it was a pity to discover my most frequent lunchtime haunt, the flammkuchen stand, wasn't selling any this year, and indeed hadn't brought their usual lovely German wine selection with minerally Rieslings, elegant Sylvaner and rich Spatburgunders. This would definitely have taken up two of my top ten. But instead they are offering some 'lachs' - sides of smoked salmon, which are finished off by hanging on a wooden board over a roaring brazier, to absorb a little more smoky flavour before being sliced - so I'll have to give this new offering a go while mourning the lack of flammkuchen this year.

There are plenty of other food & drink options if the above don't appeal: pretzels, doughnuts, frankfurters, sweet and savoury crepes, fried cheese croquettes, fat pieces of garlic bread, fried potatoes, schnitzel, elaborate cakes, and many things in between, and the market is open from 10am to 9pm daily until 22nd December. So if you can put that 'Winterval' misanthropy to one side, I'll maybe see you there for a pork and cider feast!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Adventures in Sunday Roast

I have a difficult relationship with the concept of a Sunday Roast – which still seems to be a strong tradition in England; certainly lots of pubs offer it as an enticement to spend a lazy afternoon with them, and from scanning Twitter it seems a lot of people still do it at home as well.

When I was growing up, it seemed to me to symbolise the tedium of childhood Sundays, where nothing was open, everything moved at a slower pace, and the television schedule was terribly dry and religion-oriented. Although I always ate it up and asked for seconds, the roast was kind of the antithesis of food I would actively seek out, preferring more exotic flavours from round the world, preferably with a bit of spice and garlic.

In addition, something which has coloured my view of it ever since, when I was about 11 I was called to the kitchen and told I needed to learn how to make a roast dinner, so I could “make it for my husband” - I took afront to this, thinking firstly, I may not want a husband, and secondly, if I did, why wouldn't they be making the roast? So since then it had been a point of principle not to learn how to make a roast – a small act of anti-genderisation politics against a meal that wasn't my favourite anyway!

But I have been treated to many lovely meals made by @dave_car that just happened to involve a roast element – pheasant, partridge, quail, grouse – so in an effort to return the favour, and feeling inspired by a chicken and garlic dish I'd had recently at @DraftHouseUK, I decided I'd finally give it a go and adventure into the world of the "Roast Dinner".

I knew that the key thing (apart from me not messing it up of course) would be to start with good ingredients - so I visited Harborne Village Butchers, a newish shop run by two lovely guys who have worked as butchers in Harborne for many years. All their stock is free range and I've been impressed with the quality of every single thing I've bought here since they opened. So I nervously confessed I needed to learn how to roast a chicken, and asked what they had suitable for two people, with leftovers. They fixed me up with a free-range bird, ready for the oven, and a jar of goose fat for the potatoes, and I promised to report back how it all went in return.

Next was a trip to @lokiwine in Birmingham's Great Central Arcade, to ask Phil's advice for a decent white to go with chicken, with the caveat 'anything but Chardonnay'. Phil was able to help out with a few suggestions, including a Viognier and a Spanish white, which I mulled over while checking out a few fine samples from his Enomatic sampling machines. Eventually we settled on a Jean Orliac Loup y Es-Tu? Blanc which I think includes Viognier and Marsanne in the mix, so should be zippy and fresh but with a slight honeyed note to balance it out.


Preparations started on the Saturday night - as I only have a small oven with one shelf, about three batches of roasting would be needed to assemble a complete meal. I decided to roast some little Chantenay carrots with orange juice and local Rea valley honey (from Stirchley), and these worked out really easy to do - top & tail 1kg of carrots, give them a scrub but don't peel, mix olive oil & the juice of one orange in a hot metal baking dish, chuck the carrots around and then drizzle over about a teaspoon or so of honey and give it all a good mix. Then roast for 20-30 minutes at Gas 6, taking them out and turning over every 10 minutes until they're a bit browned looking and yielding, but still with some texture left. I found these also made a good accompaniment to a range of other dishes like winter-spiced lamb or pork in wine.

With part 1 done, I slept a little easier, and woke up on the Sunday morning ready to tackle the next bit - potatoes. This involved using King Edwards (Delia's suggestion; other good varieties are apparently Maris Piper and Desirée), cutting into equal-sized chunks, par-boiling for 6 minutes and then shaking a bit in a colander to rough up the edges. Meanwhile, I got my baking tray good and hot at Gas 7, and spooned in half the jar of goose fat (around 100g), which quickly liquefied. I tossed the potatoes in this to cover, and then roasted for around an hour, checking and turning them every 20 minutes. They came out nicely golden, so I put them to one side and my oven was now free for the main event.

... and after!
... before ...
This didn't involve much prep really - sticking my hand up it to check there were no giblets and shoving some lemon halves, bay and rosemary in there; then rubbing the skin all over with a mixture of olive oil, sea salt and finely chopped rosemary. Lastly, surrounding it with a mixture of stock, white wine and garlic cloves that had been simmered a little, and covering the dish tightly in foil so no steam escapes. Then into the oven it went, and the nervous waiting commenced. Towards the end the foil was removed and it developed a nice golden colour - finally looking like I imagined it should! 
I used this recipe and was pretty impressed it all went to plan.

The finished article
So finally I plated up with the potatoes, carrots, and some green beans, and the sauce containing about 15 cloves of garlic each, and served it with the wine - and then stared at it for five minutes exclaiming "it worked!". The chicken was beautifully moist and tasty, and most importatly too the sauce was full of flavour, with the garlic cloves soft and squishy to be added to each mouthful. The potatoes had stayed crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, with the vegetables hopefully adding some balance health-wise. It's fair to say I felt rather pleased with myself in my 'new venture'!


Credit to @dave_car for this one
The following week, I was back at Harborne Village Butchers, this time asking for "whatever bit of beef would be suitable for roasting for two people, with plenty left over" - I also wrote down their instructions on cooking the beef just right - i.e. flavoursome but pink in the middle. But on this occasion although I made the veg and potatoes, I did need @dave_car to step in - he laid the beef on a bed of shallots, rosemary and sage to roast, and made a great gravy with the meat juices and some Reserve port - and to top it off, some mini Yorkshire puddings. The beef came out perfectly tender and enticingly medium-rare, with lots left over for future meals. So another roast success, albeit not all my own work this time, but still, I can chalk it up as another area now explored in my cooking map of 'unknown places'!