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!

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