It takes quite a bit to winkle us away from the Isle of Wight but that doesn’t meant that we’re head-in-the-sand straw-chewers from hicksville. Being the ruralites we are, when we go away we generally eschew countryside and beaches (coals to Newcastle and all that) instead preferring a city break.
Hitting a metropolis is a great way to see what’s hot and what’s not. Are chip pails finally.. er, ‘paling’ into insignificance? Has the bottom fallen out of the roofing-tiles-as-plates market? We’re out there filling our faces and our notebooks, visiting cities and doing what we euphemistically call ‘research’. Recently in the country’s capital we were introduced to smoke and vapours cocktails. Brighton’s 64 Degrees tingled our tongues with ‘Rummy Bear’ and vitamin C sherbert. Our first taste of Jamie Oliver’s Italian concept was in Cambridge and in Lincoln we scoffed down sweet peanut butter salami.
We’ve just come back from a week in Birmingham. While the Isle of Wight was uncharacteristically experiencing biblical floods and hailstorms we were enjoying breakfast al fresco dazzled by the sun reflecting off the Bullring (or is it Bull Ring? Even the city itself seemed unsure). We get dozens of enquiries about where to eat on the Isle of Wight so we know the value of using a native guide. Consequently we asked the internet where we should eat in Birmingham, and the internet obliged. The highlight of our trip was dinner at the bonkers The Wilderness; nine courses of dust, charcoal, liver-filled glitter skulls and ants. Yes, ants. Other places we ate at are featured below:
Topokki, China Town
We were staying in a gorgeous National Trust back-to-back house in China Town and, as it happens, the first place that was recommended to us was right on our block. Topokki is a Korean restaurant with an informal cafe feel. The staff bustle about, parking you wherever there is a space. It’s a popular venue and there may be a small queue but, as we went early doors we didn’t have to wait. Nor was there much of a wait for our food; all rapidly freshly-cooked to order and extremely tasty. We thought it was a fusion between Chinese (but not as bland) and Thai (but not as hot). The presentation was very much Wagamama-style which is, of course, Japanese. Cat tried sikhye, traditional sweet rice beverage, which was odd but not unpleasant. The dishes were around eight or nine quid, with a ten per cent discount for cash payments. Topokki, Unit 1C Hurst St, Birmingham B5 4TD.
Original Patty Men
If we thought that the best street food Birmingham had to offer was the banana crepe and chicken schnitzel burger we scoffed kerbside at the rag market then we were mistaken. As it happened, Matt had gone on a reconnaissance visit earlier this year and had scoped out Original Patty Men in Digbeth. This is a previously heavily-industrialised area which has been earmarked for redevelopment. However, it’s a long way from any sort of gentrification; our walk to the cafe took us past garages, weedy abandoned lots and finally to the railway arches housing OPM.
When we said that hipsters hadn’t made it to Brum we were a bit disingenuous. Original Patty Men wouldn’t look out of place in London or Brighton. It was all lo-fi surfaces, no-fi plates and what Silo would probably term pre-industrial chic. Why, the chefs even had lumbersexual beards.
But what of the burgers? The range is pretty constrained, but that’s no biggie. The ‘dirty’ burger concept had certainly made it this far north. Cheese and mustard oozed out from our shiny brioche buns and Matt’s maple-coated bacon flopped out of the sides like some mockney chef’s tongue. It didn’t take long to nosh down the burgers and we were glad of our ODB fries, sloshed with patty men spice mix, jalapeno slaw, sriracha mayo, two types of onion, plus the kitchen sink. The music was fabulously 1970s rock and the drinks were pleasingly artisan: Siren craft beer for Matt and worthy Fairtrade Karma Kola for Cat. Burgers around seven English pounds each. Original Patty Men, 9 Shaw’s Passage, Birmingham B5 5JG.
So, if the hipster movement has slowly insinuated its way to Birmingham, can we use it to classify Rico Libre? No. Like all good genres, there’s always something that’s defiantly uncategorisable and it is Rico Libre. Making our way back through the mean streets of Digbeth as the midsummer sun still just about lit our way, we eventually found Birmingham’s hottest restaurant. To be honest, it couldn’t look any more unprepossessing. Housed in what was probably a pub back in the day and, at some point in its life, having been re-purposed as a cafe (or possibly video shop if the film posters pinned to the ceiling tiles are anything to go by) it looked like a temporary pop-up. We were quite stunned to discover that Rico Libre wasn’t squatting in the building until somewhere nicer became available, it had been there for a couple of years and presumably the teenager’s bedroom décor was a deliberate affectation.
The place was rammed when we arrived and optimists without reservations were turned away throughout the night. It was clearly the place to be and we were there, baby! Reading a review of Rico Libre from 2014 the writer says “Tapas is a novelty”. Not by 2014, honey. And certainly not for us old stagers who’ve for years enjoyed the varied pleasures of the Isle of Wight’s El Toro Contento and Moo Cow, plus venues for which tapas is old news, like Ryde’s Blacksheep Bar. However, this is Digbeth and the crowds were loving this stuff. For tapas it was certainly more in the style of Nomad than, say, El Toro – well-presented dishes with lots of fresh ingredients, edible flowers, squidgy poached eggs and tempura batter. The slates were there too. The elements were all in place but somehow it wasn’t really doing it for us. Cat had taken against the interior; it would be hard to imagine how they could have made less effort on the place. For Matt the flavours were a bit hit and miss. His pork belly, which should have been the centrepiece of his meal, seemed to have only acquainted itself with the coca cola sauce on its journey to the table rather than having an intimate and lengthy steep.
It was a curious place, with a bring-you-own booze policy and also a minimum charge per head of seventeen quid. We easily spent that – the little puddings were a fiver apiece alone. Some of the dishes were gorgeous and looked like good value for money. Others we saw emerge from the kitchen looked a bit half-cocked. Still, the people of Birmingham couldn’t get enough of this destination restaurant. Dishes from about £3 to £8, minimum spend of £17 per head. Rico Libre, 1 Barn Street, Digbeth, B5 5QD.
Our little back-to-back cottage had a tiny kitchenette. Within that teeny kitchen was a two ring baby Belling. More of a gesture than a useful tool, to be honest. So of course we ate out – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or perhaps that should be breakfast, dinner and tea as we were in the Midlands. Anyway here is the best of the rest:
This rather swanky restaurant was in the shadow of the Bullring and St Michael’s Church, with a backdrop of the futuristic Selfridge’s building. In fact, it was so good that we went there for breakfast twice. It had table service and plenty of outside seating. Matt enjoyed Brown’s version of a full English, with fabulous smoked bacon and grilled confit tomato, plus bubble & squeak with crisp prosciutto ham, poached free range eggs, hollandaise. Classy. Cat enjoyed scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with a twirl of watercress, but the best breakfast for her by far was buttermilk pancakes with mixed berries, English borage honey and Greek yoghurt. Browns, Unit 1 7 Spiceal Street, St Martins Square, Birmingham, West Midlands, B5 4BH.
We also had breakfast at Tapas Revolution, under the grand arches of New Street station. This had the edge for Matt, who scoffed up his breakfast Ingles. It was a tenner but was chock full of fried eggs; plus smoked pancetta, beans, morcilla black pudding, chorizo, confit tomato, portobello mushroom and grilled sourdough bread. Definitely worth the pesetas. Cat had the meat-free version: two poached eggs (alas the yolks were not runny), hollandaise sauce, avocado, pickled red onion, portobello mushrooms, confit tomato and grilled sourdough bread, £7.95. Good coffee too, and with a great view over the Grand Central concourse. It was such a nice place that we decided to have breakfast pudding of churros. Fabulous! Tapas Revolution, Ground, Grand Central, 68A East Mews, Birmingham, West Midlands B2 4XJ.
There were surprisingly few artisan coffee shops in Birmingham. To be fair we mostly loitered around the city centre and suspect that this shiny homage to economic development might be a tad expensive for tea shops to flourish. Nonetheless we found Faculty in the historic Piccadilly Arcade. It was satisfyingly pretentious: the tea came with a timer, the furniture was all upcycled from (possibly an infant) school and water was served in a vintage milk bottle. It was a great place for a sit down away from the hubbub of Saturday shoppers – and the biscuits were delicious! Faculty, Piccadilly Arcade, Birmingham, B2 4HD.
Bubble tea. What. Is. That. About. We tried it at Mee-Cha and found it too sickly. We liked the bubble texture, but it really wasn’t for us – leave it to the wasps. Mee-Cha, Bullring Shopping Centre Lower Mall, Birmingham B5 4BU.