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    Drinks, Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Beer and burgers with Byron

    Recently I went cycling for the first time since I were a kid and I’m pretty sure the only reason I made it home was because we stopped for burgers before heading back.  Thus reinforcing my idea that burgers are life.  And if burgers are life, then beer is burger’s natural life partner.

    So when Byron were like, come check out our new craft beer menu and tell us how you’d pair the burgers, I was all over this.  Anyone that followed my Melbourne food adventures will know that I have a soft spot for bacon cheeseburgers, and BBQ sauce is my favourite of the sauces (although garlic mayo comes a close second).  So naturally I was going to go for their Smoky burger: mature cheddar, streaky bacon, crispy onions, lettuce, pickles and smoked chilli BBQ sauce.  Now, that’s a lot going on in that burger, so I wanted a beer that wasn’t going to weigh me down, partly because I was going to the cinema after, but also because the rain outside was biblical and if Birmingham was going to end up undersea I wanted to stand a fighting chance of floating.

    I’ve been in to Byron before and even then it was pretty obvious then that they understood the bond of beer and burgers, as they’ve been collaborating with Camden Town Brewery since 2010 to produce their Byron Lager and Byron Pale Ale.  But Byron’s craft beer menu surprised me; the new craft beer menu is, in my mind, unashamedly pitched at beers that will compliment burgers, rather than being an extensive beer menu covering all styles.  And that’s a wise move; I got surprised with a super sour beer and burger accidental pairing in Oz and it just made me sad because it didn’t work at all.

    The beers are typically lagers, pale ales and IPAs and aiming for something middling will keep most people happy, particularly given the range of brewers.  I was pleased to see a couple of Beavertown’s beers on the list, as well as the, now fairly standard, Brewdog offerings and the Bristolian Moor Revival.  Whilst most of these are fairly commonplace names amongst the craft beer lot, there is also Peroni for people who want a name they know.  Birmingham’s branch has five taps, two are reserved for Camden Hells and Byron Pale, and the others are given over to guest beers – Magic Rock’s Hire Wire, which I have a total soft spot for, was on when I was there.  They’re all good burger beers, which is essentially what I want from a burger joint.

    So, to go with the Smoky burger, I went for Beaverton’s Neck Oil.  I really like Neck Oil, it’s a beer I’ll often pick if I see it on the menu because it’s juicy, crisp and not too heavy.  The guys at Beaverton call it a Session IPA, meaning that if you’re ‘On it’ this is a good one to go for because it’s not heavy and filling, and has a relatively low ABV…so you know, you can drink responsibly folks.  I like it for all those reasons, but because it’s light and not too heavy or gassy, it works really well with something filling like a burger, and the juiciness of it makes it really refreshing against the Smoky’s smoked chilli BBQ sauce, which has a really nice kick to it.  The flavours of the beer and burger don’t wrestle, but compliment each other. Individually the Smoky burger and Neck Oil beer are good, together they’re a great pair.  And in the interests of science, my friend Rob (who writes wonderfully, but mainly about SCFC) had the Smoky with the Byron Lager and this worked well too.  That’s the benefit to Byron’s new craft beer menu, it’s a sort of mix and match approach with their burgers which means you shouldn’t get a bad result.

    https://www.byronhamburgers.com/drinks/
    Disclaimer: This post was in collaboration with Byron, but seriously how difficult do you think it was for me to write about beer and burgers? And we all know how serious I am about burgers, all my own overthought views, as per.

    Pop-up and Event reviews, Reviews

    Chick-fil-A pops up in Birmingham

    It is oh so very typically British of me, but I have a soft spot for a queue; it’s the anticipation, the idea that this must be good because that many people have decided to give up their time to hang around instead of going elsewhere.  I bloody loved midnight releases for Harry Potter, not just because I needed to know what happened next, but that shared excitement is dizzyingly moreish.

    So, as I stood inside The Cube, where American premium fast food group Chick-fil-A had organised a while-stop pop-up, listening to the excitement of everyone around me was addictive.  What’s more, it had a distinctly American accent.  Word had gotten out to the American ex-pat community and several groups of people had traveled the length of our fair country just to get a taste of home.  One American boy, who was probably about eight, could specifically recount the last time he’d had a Chick-fil-A sandwich, which is dedication you can’t buy.  And apparently journeying to get a Chick-fil-A meal isn’t all that uncommon; I was recounting my visit to my American friend Erica who told me she often travels and hour and a half when she’s back in the states just to visit one of their branches.

    And it turns out that it isn’t just the food that inspires loyalty amongst the Chick-fil-A fanatics.  The food and drinks industry is pretty transient by nature, people pick up part-time jobs tending bar or waitress throughout school and college.  But, as Vice President – International, Rich Matherne, told me, Chick-fil-A’s retention rate for staff who want to stay with the family is impressively high.  Their venues lead in the US average sales per restaurant, beating the likes of McDonald’s, and with a relatively small amount of money needed to become a Chick-fil-A operator, they often see staff who have come up through the ranks secure a position.  This is even more impressive because they’re quite particular with who they’ll partner with and have a high number of franchisee applicants every year.

    At the pop-up in Birmingham, the whole atmosphere has a real wholesome family feel about it, not just because they’re family-owned, but because the staff are so polite (they respond to thanks with “My pleasure”, something which Erica confirmed is a consistent thing) and they close on Sundays.  Closing on a Sunday sounds like a mad idea but in an industry where you’re at the mercy of a rota, knowing you’re guaranteed the same day off every week must be a godsend.  I know it would make it easier for me to make plans with friends and family.

    We tried their famous chicken sandwich and waffle fries.  I’ll admit, I was a bit sceptical about the waffle fries, they looked a bit light and like they may have been cooked in a rush.  Turns out, I need not have worried, they were delicious – crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside but not oozing in fat.  I dipped them in the Chick-fil-A sauce that is available to dress the sandwiches, should you wish.

    Ah, the sandwich.  Ordinarily I roll my eyes at the idea that a burger is called a sandwich, but I’ll accept if from Chick-fil-A.  Their chicken sandwich doesn’t feel as heavy as a burger, and whilst it’s a chicken breast lightly spiced and fried, and encased in a bread bun with two (or three) pickles, that’s it.  There’s none of the extra faff that usually comes with a burger and it’s up to the diner to decide if they want to add sauce or not.  I’m what Rich called a ‘purist’, because although I did try the sauce and ended up using it for my fries, the sandwich was good enough that I didn’t need to add the sauce to it.  The food really doesn’t have the same run-of-the-mill fast food feel; the chicken breast is actually chicken, the fries aren’t overly greasy. As Rich puts it, it’s the kind of food mum’s don’t mind buying for their kids and I can totally see that, I’m pretty sure it would be the kind of place I could convince my mum to eat at.

    In the interests of science, I had a second chicken sandwich that had remained wrapped in the insulated bag and it did indeed remain fresh.  Rich mentioned that they’re often told stories about how some people who drive a distance to get their burgers actually like them at a cooler temperature and I could understand that – the flavours subtly changed when it was slightly cooler but worked just as well.  Had they been two burgers, I’d probably have needed to crash out on the floor, but the lightness of the sandwiches meant that I was definitely full but it didn’t feel like weighed down by it.

    Chick-fil-A haven’t decided where they’re opening outside the US, but they’re doing their research thoroughly, and they’re being supported by their friends who dropped in for food and to pose with the ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ mascot.  And if I needed any more convincing of the affection customers have for Chick-fil-A then the amount of adults who wanted their photo taken with the cow would’ve swung it – I think they might’ve been in equal measure with the children.

    I’m just hoping I’m not going to be like that little boy and have to wait two more years for another Chick-fil-A sandwich – fingers crossed they make it across the pond soon.

    Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Jiyaan, Solihull

    My mum has a favourite curry house, I know this and if you’ve been reading the blog for a while you’ll know too, because she once told me how poor she found the curry houses in some bit of Wales I’ve never been to but seems to have some significance.  But, turns out my mum doesn’t like to go to the same curry house too often, so she’s been looking for an alternate place to go.  This exploration has had varying levels of success, and she’s probably overdoing it by going to India on holiday, but when I got an email asking me to check out a curry house in Solihull, I knew I had to go and take my mum with me.

    Jiyaan is an upmarket curry house at the end of the of the High St in Solihull, overlooking St Alphege Church.  Despite many trips to Solihull shopping, I’ve never noticed it because there’s not a lot to take me down that way, but when you do it feels like much more of a charming town centre than a place to go shopping when I can’t face Birmingham city centre.  With it’s own entrance and modern but comfortable surroundings, it’s easy to forget that Jiyaan is part of the Ramada Solihull, something you only really notice if you need to go to the toilet.  The short section of the hotel I saw walking to and from the toilet made it feel a little dated, but Jiyaan has a lovely freshness to it with proper table clothes and napkins and bottles of water already on the tables.

    Typically mum and I go for a sharing platter when we go out for dinner, so we ordered the Jiyaan sharing platter made up of chicken tikka, lamb & mint seekh kebab, aloo tikka and paneer tikka.  The chicken tikka was delightfully spiced and the seekh kebab light, yet still moist, and certainly one of the better ones I’ve had.  It was, if I’m honest, probably a bit much for two people with the generous slice of paneer and the potato.  We ended up leaving a large amount of both of these, not because it was bad, it was really very lovely, but the paneer did seem a bit lost and we’d never had had room for mains if we kept going.

    And scoff all you like but I went for Chicken Tikka Masala for main, because I fancied it and also because I think it can be a dish that can often be mishandled if the chef isn’t good.  Thankfully this was not the case and the rich tomato sauce wasn’t too exorbitant but felt well balanced but still very much a chicken tikka masala.  Mum had the King Prawn Gassi, something she’s not tried before; a Mangalorean style dish of king prawns cooked with coconut milk and spices.  I worried it would be too rich but my mum was incredibly impressed, and the king prawns were certainly big and juicy.  It’s something she commented she wants to go back for again.

    Frankly by this point we were both a bit stuffed but I thought it would be rude not to try dessert.  Given how well Jiyaan had done with the previous dishes, I wanted to see what their take on a traditional Indian dessert would be like.  Ordinarily I struggle a bit with Gulab Jamun; I know it’s a dumpling and supposed to be heavy but the denseness of them and the sugary rose syrup is often too sickly for me.  But Jiyaan continued the theme of fresh and light dishes with Gulab Jamun that was light and springy and a scoop of ice cream which cut through, calming any of the sweetness that threatened to overpower.

    I was incredibly impressed with Jiyaan.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from there, given its location on the outskirts of Solihull town centre, a place awash with chain restaurants, and itself being part of a hotel, but it felt like the kind of place I would happily go back to.  The waiting staff were incredibly attentive to all of the guests in the dining room and happy to make some excellent suggestions.  We’re certainly not suffering for lack of curry houses in Birmingham and Solihull, that’s for sure, but Jiyaan’s well executed food, friendly staff and convenient location makes it somewhere I will be back to.

    The Jiyaan Restaurant, The Square, Solihull B91 3RF. http://jiyaanrestaurant.co.uk/

    Disclosure: I was invited for a complimentary meal in exchange for my opinion, but as ever it didn’t alter my opinion. If you don’t believe me, ask my mum, she takes her curry very seriously.

    Bar reviews, Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Indian Brewery Snowhill, Jewellery Quarter

    indian_brewery_company

    I’ll accept a lot of things in the name of good food and drink, after all we’re only human we all have crap days, but it’s kind of hard to forgive a place built for beer that does it badly.  Anyone familiar with the Taj Mahal will be aware that an emperor built a palace in memory of his favourite wife he loved her that much.  In my head, this is the kind of thinking that goes into building a tap house; a brewery is so proud of their beers they build a living shrine to it.  You’ve lovingly crafted this liquid nectar, it’s going to be super fresh and if anyone is going to treat it right, baby it’s you.

    Sadly not.

    Recently, I went to the Indian Brewery Company’s tap house, newly housed in the old Brewsmith’s building.  It was a Thursday night, and understandably busy, but the place cramped and the music felt intrusively loud; there is very little space to stand if the lines of bench-style seating are taken, and the place full of men in suits.  I’m not complaining about the suits, having already attracted the locals is a good thing, but cramming up by the door because there’s nowhere to stand isn’t fun.

    Understandably, the bar takes up one side of the venue and Indian Brewery Snowhill’s beers make up the bulk of the offerings, with cans of Birmingham Lager used to decorate; a nice touch without looking too gimmicky.  There are several shelves of spirits and I saw a few people drinking wine; nice to see they’re catering for the non-beer drinkers too.  On my visit, there were lone cans of beer from Magic Rock and Evil Twin, on a shelf which would’ve been fine except they were served straight from that shelf, and unlikely to be at the correct temperature.  Call me dramatic, but that feels to me like a disrespectful way to treat other breweries beers, in somewhere that ought to know better.

    chicken_tikka_roti

    I’d like to be able to tell you that the can debacle was just a mistake, but when I was given a glass of Peacock, their take on an English style bitter, things just seem to get worse.  To me, and the two people with me, it did not smell right and it didn’t taste much better either.  The aroma was what caused me to google “why does my beer smell like pond water” because I could smell sulphur, and that’s not what I want to smell in my beer if it puts me off drinking. The reaction I got from the member of staff I complained to was a lesson in how not to do customer service and when he grudgingly replaced it, I realised the IPA he’d given me didn’t feel like it was being served at the right temperature either. My third drink there was a Diet Coke.

    And of the food. My chicken tikka roti was nice, the chicken tender and flavoursome but nothing particularly special, disappointing in a city like Birmingham where Indian food is ten-a-penny.  My masala fries arrived cold, and had to be sent back, replaced, this time, without much hassle.  As far as fries go they were alright, but I suspect others might find the heat of rather generous masala seasoning a bit overkill, as did one of my dining companions.  The fish and chips, and chicken wings enjoyed by my friends well received, the sauce on the chicken wings in particular, and something I’d be keen to try.

    fish_and_fries

    I really wanted to like the Indian Brewery Snowhill; a quirky little independent rising from the ashes of another fallen indie café, pushing forward the Birmingham beer scene and giving us somewhere exciting to go for food and drink.  This wasn’t my experience, but rather than leave me disappointed, I was angry.  I can forgive one mistake, but I had beer that didn’t taste right, poor customer service and cold fries.  I guess bad things do come in threes.

    I might go back for food, those wings looked good, but I won’t be back for beer. I’d rather go down the road or visit some of the cities award winning bottle shops and head for the Balti Triangle.  I can only hope that I witnessed a blip, but frankly there’s enough places selling better beer that finding out is likely to be low on my list.

    Indian Brewery Snowhill, 214 Livery St, Birmingham B3 1EU. http://www.indianbrewery.com/snowhill

    Disclosure: I paid for this myself. Well except one beer, which a friend bought, and reminds me, I owe him a drink.

    Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Butchers Social, Henley-in-Arden

    salted_caramel_chicken_wings_butchers_social

    I’m totally going to blame jet lag for not remembering Butchers Social when my mum suggested lunch in Henley-in-Arden recently. Not the sort of jet lag that makes you wake up at 4am; I mean the jet lag that affects those of us with a love of good food, whose circadian rhythm may be back on track but whose stomach still yearns for the food of their holiday destination. My head knew it was lunchtime, but my heart wanted the glorious burgers of Melbourne or £3.50 plates of Michelin-starred noodles from Singapore.  Failing that, Mum lured me to Henley with the promise of ice cream, but then we found Butchers Social.

    For those that missed the first iteration, Butchers Social began as a pop-up in an old butcher’s shop on Harborne High St, which stuck around longer than I think anyone expected but everyone was thankful that they did.  Whilst a fairly extensive refurb has happened and in its place, reopening as Harborne Kitchen, the dream of Butchers Social and those wings didn’t go away…it just moved to the town of Henley-in-Arden.  Which is technically a small town in Warwickshire, and on the way to Stratford-upon-Avon, but with its B95 postcode, it totally counts as one of ours still.

    Henley-in-Arden always seems like the kind of place that’s build for proper english summers, perhaps because the only time I seem to go is for ice cream and there is precious little on what I expect is the high street. There are, though, lots of places to eat; a collection of cafes, the well-respected though relatively new Cheal’s and a bunch of pubs I never remember then name of but are pleasant.  Having exhausted the charity shops, including one that seemed to be selling clothes at full retail value, Mum and I went in search of lunch.  For anyone that ever doubted the legitimacy of A-boards as advertising, let me tell you, it was the one outside Butchers Social that made me realise where we were.  Okay sure I was trying to take a photo of the funny sign about coffee, but it worked and we went in.

    lobster_salad

    I’d be lying if I told you I had any plans to order from the main menu because it was clearly always going to be about the chicken wings, after all it’s what Butchers Social is famous for, round these parts.  Because my tastebuds beat my sense of reasoning I ordered the soy, ginger and spring onion chicken wings, and of course had to have the salted caramel wings too.  Two portions of wings totalling 1kg is a bit extreme, this was clear madness on my part and why I ended up going home with a doggy bag.  I know everyone bangs on about the salted caramel wings and they were delicious, but I found them kinda sickly after a while – I would totally order them again but with someone who would help me out by sharing the dish, although having them cold the next day was a winner.  The soy, ginger and spring onion chicken wings are probably the best wings I think I’ve ever eaten and I really like fried chicken.  The salty yet slightly sour earthiness of the soy sauce and crispness of the skin was superb.  I am struggling to convey how much I enjoyed those wings, just know they were fantastic.

    My mum had the lobster salad which was on the specials too, and her exact words were “well, this is delightful” which I take to be a very good sign because, for as much as my mum likes salads, I’ve never heard her call one delightful before.  I tried a bit and I can see why.  Lobster rarely appeals to me because it always seems like an unnecessary faff and whilst playing with your food can be fun, if I wanted to work this hard for my dinner I’d bother to cook, but this was indeed delightful, light and not at all messy. Unlike my wings, though thankfully a bowl of wet wipes are provided so you can make a mess safe in the knowledge you’ll be able to clean up after.

    soya_ginger_chicken_wings_butchers_socialA final note about the service, which was attentive and friendly.  I’d totally missed the bit about chicken wings being half-price on Saturdays in January, but we were reminded and this was after I’d ordered myself two portions, so probably good they didn’t tell me before.  That said, they would’ve been a good deal at full price…and certainly enough to lure me back to Henley-in-Arden, which is turns out is only about a half hour train ride away from Birmingham city centre.  Which is nothing, not for wings like these. Go, go now, and take me with you.  Or bring me some wings back.

    And I still got my ice cream.

    Butchers Social, 97 High St, Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, B95 5AT

    Disclaimer: Food was provided by the venue which my mother paid, in full, for everything because she is awesome. I left a tip, because I try. Also, that lack of apostrophe, I’m just going with what they do.

    Afternoon tea, Reviews

    A festive trip to The Edgbaston

    My friend’s birthday is two days before Christmas and we seem to have a traditional celebration of afternoon tea; last year we went to Leamington Spa, the year before Stratford-upon-Avon. But the end of this year has been a bit rubbish for both of us so we wanted to stay local, but still enjoy something fantastically indulgent.  I’ve already written about my experience of afternoon tea at The Edgbaston so when they could fit us in, I knew we’d be in for a great afternoon. And The Edgbaston didn’t disappoint!

    The above picture is of the amuse bouche is a suitably festive with Irish whisky and chocolate cream with shortbread and the table was dowsed with smoke that smelled like Christmas.  I’ve been to enough afternoon tea and a few festive ones to know that everyone tries to add an extra sparkle at Christmas but the Edgbaston’s afternoon tea nails it.  The afternoon tea itself had hints of festivity with turkey sandwiches and smoked salmon, snowflakes and mince pies.  It was even better than last time, the desserts are wonderfully delicate and the scones are a delight.

    Edgbaston_winter_afternoon_teaAnd then I may have convinced Beccy we should also enjoy some cocktails, tis the season and all.  These were two cocktails from their festive Christmas menu and I’m not sure if they’re on the menu anymore.  Mine was the short, whisky cocktail with mince pie flavours – and a mince pie garnish. Lovely stuff.  We also had a second cocktail each and I went for my favourite drink at The Edgbaston, the Clover Club 3000.
    Disclosure: We paid for our own afternoon teas and cocktails…I mean really, who needs birthday cake when you can have afternoon tea?!

    Bar reviews, Drinks, Reviews

    Be at One, Birmingham

    bartender_shaking_BW

    Like most of the rest of the planet, I’m quite looking forward to the end of 2016.  It’s not been one of my favourite years, for various reasons, one of which was the great SD card meltdown and computer strop which meant that a bunch of stuff kinda got forgotten about. 

    But I’m in clear up mode before holiday and I stumbled across some photos from when I went to Be At One bar, a London-based bar group which opened in Birmingham earlier in the year.  I went on the preview night where the staff were overly friendly in a sort of try-hard way which brings out my hatred for small talk even more than normal – talk to me about your release from mental health hospital on the bus stranger, I’m fine with that, but bartenders pretending to care how my day has been…nah.  Look, I get it, bartenders are there to make sure you have a good time but talk overly in depth to me about the maturation process of the spirit you’re pouring, complain about something like the weather or whatever, but don’t channel the spirit of Matthew McConaughey with all your “alright alright” over-enthusiasm.  I’ve been in to Be At One since and they do seem to have calmed down a bit, thankfully.

    cocktail_be_at_one

    Hyperactive bartenders aside, Be At One is underground…I mean literally.  It’s underneath Piccadilly Arcade and the entrance is pretty small because it’s basically a set of stairs, so there’s a nod to the speakeasy but not much more, especially given there’s usually a doorman and red rope outside.  Downstairs the bar has a nice vibe which feels like it encourages a party, without feeling like you got to the party too early if you’re there when it’s quiet.  It’s deceptively inviting in some respects, like you think you’ll kill time having a drink before your train arrives and then find yourself dashing for the platform because you’ve been there too long.

    BW_double_drinks_bartender

    Drinks wise the menu has over 150 cocktails, and some non-alcoholic cocktails and a wine list too.  For those who might think that’s cocktail overload, the menu has some handy tips, namely a top ten’s page which has the most popular drinks on there if you’re not fussy and a flavour wheel which lets you pick your poison based on your preferences for sour, bitter, smooth and then your spirit of choice.  It’s not foolproof, but it’s definitely a good start.

    cocktail_wheel

    I was invited down on opening night and I mainly tried out the classics…which was a bit of a risky move on my part because it seems like several chains in Birmingham think sugar syrup is the answer to everything.  Thankfully this didn’t seem to be the case for Be At One.  Sure, my first Aviation could’ve done with a touch more sourness but was a very good effort.  The Sazerac was made with a spritz of absinthe rather than a rinse, but at least this meant no wastage and didn’t seem to affect the drink, and the Daiquiri I tried was spot on.  One of my favourite drinks, the Clover Club, is referenced in the sweet section of the flavour wheel which worried me a bit.  To me, the Clover Club is a fantastic drink, pre-prohibition era, fruity and dry, where the sweetness comes from the raspberry syrup or grenadine but it’s not really sweet.  Thankfully Be At One’s doesn’t fall susceptible to over-sweetness, although the foam head on the drink wasn’t as bountiful as I’d have liked.

    making_drinks_at_bar

    Overall, my couple of experiences of Be At One have been largely positive.  Birmingham’s cocktail renaissance is in full swing and sure, Be At One is another out-of-towner but unlike some of the others it doesn’t feel like style over substance or that it takes itself too seriously.  But it also doesn’t stray too far and seems to stick to what it knows. The only time I asked a bartender to go off-menu he looked panicked, but with a comprehensive drinks list which is a nice mix of classic and contemporary – and creamy, sweet things if that’s your deal too, there should be something to keep most people content.  Be At One is a pretty safe bet.

    smiling_bartender_be_at_one_BWBe At One, Piccadilly Arcade, Birmingham B2 4BJ. http://www.beatone.co.uk/cocktail-bar/birmingham

    Disclosure: I was invited down to the opening and drinks were complimentary, but this hasn’t affected my opinion. And yes, I really did have a conversation on a bus with someone who’d recently come out of a mental health hospital.