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Bar reviews

    Bar reviews, Reviews

    Haig Club whisky with a view at The Cube

    On the few brief glimpses of summer we get in Birmingham it’s worth either being outside in the sunshine, or my preferred option somewhere with air conditioning and a good view.  And way up high on level 25 of The Cube to check out the new Haig Club Bar isn’t too shabby a way to spend an evening.

    Haig Club, for those not in the know, is a light grain whisky launched by footballer David Beckham and produced by the titan spirits company Diageo.  It comes in a distinctive blue bottle that looks more like an oversized aftershave than whisky, but certainly makes for pretty pictures.  I once heard someone describe a dram as a ‘Breakfast Whisky’ and if I were looking for a way to describe Haig Club, this may well be it.  It’s incredibly light, easy-drinking but lacks the oomph associated with whisky, which will either disappoint drinkers or have the potential to turn them on to a spirit they thought they didn’t like.  Then again, sometimes it’s nice to have something a bit more temperate in the sunshine.

    The bar itself is nestled away in one of the corners of the top floor of the Cube.  It’s away from the bustle of main bar up there, but still has the wow-factor with the impressive views of the city whilst maintaining a sense of exclusivity.  If everyone who goes doesn’t take a photo like the one above of the cityscape in the background I’d be highly suspicious.  The shelves of Haig Club whisky lined up behind the bar also makes an impressive feature wall.


    Head barman Jack Spencer, previously of Bourne & Co and Bank, has taken helm of the bar itself and created a series of cocktails, several of which are based on fairly classic drinks, including the Ginger Julep and Clubman Apple Mule, as well as a few of his own including Berry Beauty and Pears in Paradise – and maybe a few other sneaky specials.  With such a soft spirit it going to be hard not to overpower it or create something sickly sweet and Jack manages to do a fine job of creating something that works.

    There’s also a food menu, which has been designed to highlight the flavours of the Haig Club whisky, apparently.  I’m not overly convinced by this, but it’s a decent array of tapas-style bar menu and there’s a good selection, although it seems to be fairly meat heavy, though there were some veggie options.  Highlights for me included the prawns and the chorizo and I really wanted to like the black pudding bon-bons, because hello black pudding, but I think they needed to be smaller.  I’m not overly sold on the food, it’s okay, but I don’t think it’s the main draw of the place; I think they’re more about having some snacks whilst checking out the view and having a cocktail or two.

    I don’t doubt that Birmingham is ready for a whisky bar, and I think it’s a brave move to focus one around a product which is incredibly smooth but lacks the depth that most people might associate with the spirit.  Then again with the bright lights, city lights twinkling below, perhaps it is more about starting the night than ending it, and if so a lighter-tasting whisky might be the way to go.

    Haig Club Bar, Level 25, The Cube, 196 Wharfside St, Birmingham B1 1RN

    Disclaimer: I was invited to check out the bar at a preview night where food and drinks were provided complimentary, but as ever my opinions remain my own. Also, totally stuck a reference to 50 Cent in there because I’m watching Power.

    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.

    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.

    Bar reviews, Reviews

    The Anchor in Digbeth relaunches

    cocktails_jacob_anchor

    Here in Birmingham we have a thing about anchors. It can largely be traced back to Matthew Boulton and the Crown & Anchor Tavern in London, with anchors now gracing Birmingham products worldwide as our hallmarking symbol. But I want to talk about a different pub and a different anchor.

    A few months ago, Julian Rose Gibbs, took over the CAMRA-lauded Anchor pub in Digbeth. Most discerning drinkers of Birmingham will know Julian from the heydays of the Victoria on John Bright St, which he opened back in 2008 as general manager for Bitters n Twisted. During Julian’s stewardship, the Vic went from being a disjointed pub to one of Birmingham’s best, with an eclectic vibe that some confused with ‘hipster’ but appealed to the daytime old man supping ale as much as the style-conscious cocktail drinker.  The Vic blended together good drinks, a great atmosphere and groups of people who you wouldn’t normally expect to see together.  And whilst it feels very much to this writer like the Victoria has lost its captain, its loss is the Anchor’s gain.

    craft_beer_anchor

    The Anchor is one of those pubs Birmingham is lucky to still have. Nestled away in Digbeth, the grade II listed traditional style pub has largely avoided the glitzy renaissance of the city’s drinking culture over the last few years, remaining steadfastly traditional, yet welcoming, and well regarded by real ale drinkers, often noted in the Campaign for Real Ale publications.  It retained a loyal set of regulars and for those of us who infrequently frequented it often had a soft spot for it too. And not just because of the cob sandwiches and Tayto crisps.

    Jules and his team, headed by Jacob Clarke, who many will recognise from the Victoria and The Botanist, have brought a breath of fresh air to the Anchor. The repainted almost Tiffany blue coloured walls compliment the dark wood and stained glass to create somewhere that marries the traditional and modern; something which is echoed in the drinks menu, with real ales sitting alongside craft beer and modest cocktail and wine menus, the latter of which has been has been curated by Ed at Connolly’s Wines.

    gin_selection_anchor

    Talking of drinks, some well known Victoria cocktail classics like the Bombphire and Sherbertini are rightfully back on the menu, the gin list curated by Carl Hawkins aka the GINtleman, and several drinks have been named after friends and ‘various Birmingham bar industry reprobates’. Sure there are some in-jokes and cynics will scoff, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of love here – for the drinks, for the venue and for the drinks scene in the city.

    It would be cliched to say they’re trying to create a place “where everybody knows your name” but whilst they might not remember your name but they will remember your drink.  Those who remember the Vic team of days gone by will remember a dysfunctional family where those who were on the other side were welcomed like visiting relatives. The Anchor isn’t trying to replicate the Victoria circa 2012, that would be impossible, but it is trying to create a proper boozer for the modern age; good drinks, good service and a sense of community, whoever you are and whatever you drink.

    For all the shiny newness that has come in the last few years of the Birmingham bar scene, it’s nice to see one of it’s anchors back; best of luck Jules and your team.

    The Anchor in Digbeth relaunches on Thursday 17th November.  Find it at 308 Bradford St, Birmingham B5 6ET.

    Bar reviews, Drinks, Reviews

    Botanist ale tasting

    botanist_beer_menu

    I’m a total sucker for a pretty drinks menu, so when I sat down at the table to hear about the new ales at the Botanist on Temple St I was already curious, and that was just because of some snazzy stationery.  Usually if I got to The Botanist, or anywhere really, I’ll stick to sprits and preferably in cocktail form.  It’s nothing personal, I’ve just never really spent the same amount of time learning about beer and which ones I like.  But then I got an invite to a tutored tasting from Kieran Hartley, one of the beer gurus at New World Trading Company, Botanist’s parent company, to hear about the 13 need beers and cider on the menu.  So I figured what the hell…

    beer_tutorial

    As one of the early birds, I ended up chatting beforehand with Bob and Sarah from Midlands Beer Blog, which is frankly a much better guide to beer drinking in the city.  For some reason we ended up discussing a Millionaire by Wild Beer Co.  On hearing our conversation, Kieran swapped out one of the beers to let us try this and I’m so glad he did, because it was so different from other ales I’ve tried.  Using lactose, which yeast can’t process so remains in the beer, it was designed to mimic salted caramel millionaire shortbread and did a pretty good job with an immediate salt hit, developing into dark chocolate.  Personally I’m not sure I could finish a whole bottle of the stuff, but I’d be willing to give it a try – or share it with a friend for a liquid pudding.

    botanist_beer_notes

    I really enjoyed the variety of beers we tried, which suggested that there was something for everyone.  The Camden Town Brewery’s Gentleman’s Wit is an award-winning Belgian style white beer made with slow-roasted lemons and bergamot.  It was a light, almost summery beer with not much aftertaste but very drinkable and would be good with dinner.  The Goose Island Honker’s Ale is an American take on English bitter, with dominant hops and a malty backbone whereas Thwaites Crafty Dan 13 Guns is an English take on an American style IPA – confused yet?

    I should probably point out that we were trying sample sizes of the beers along with hearing some history of the production of beer.  I’m a sucker for a good story so I always enjoy hearing the folklore surrounding drinks and there are plenty around beer.  The story Kieran told about the possible origins of India Pale Ale which accompanied us trying the Vedett IPA was entertaining, as was hearing that the samples of wheat grains that were passed round to get us to understand the history of beer had accidentally been eaten as a snack by another group!

    guinness_porter_botanistHonestly I couldn’t tell you what state The Botanist’s beer menu was before the new addition, but it now feels like a fairly comprehensive menu which had a wide variety of styles from IPAs to Belgian white beer, dark porters and a few oddballs.  Birmingham is quickly becoming a bit of a haven for beer drinkers and the Botanist’s new beer menu certainly makes it feel like it should be included on any ale trail.

    http://thebotanist.uk.com/location/birmingham

    Disclosure: I was invited to the tasting and drinks were complimentary, but that didn’t mean I had to be. One day I’ll get better at remembering names and I might remember what styles of beer I like.

    Bar reviews, Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Aluna, The Mailbox

    “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

    When rumours of a new bar at the Mailbox bubbled to the surface and claimed it would have “a magical, mysterious allure” with molecular-mixology cocktails, I’m not going to lie I pretty much imagined walking into Diagon Alley and drinking a Butterbeer. So imagine my surprise when I walked into Aluna and spotted a quote from Harry Potter on the wall.

    passionfruit_mojitoSadly for me, but probably wisely for anyone who actually managed to grow up, Aluna is less Leaky Cauldron and more contemporary bar. They’ve moved away a little from the industrial-chic which seems to be standard at the moment and gone for eclectic glamour – orange crushed-velvet seating, studded with fake diamonds and gold frames everywhere. It’s sort of odd, but sort of works.

    The first night I went was a launch night and I tried a few of the cocktails. They’re definitely keeping with the magical theme with headings like Hubble Bubble, Vaccines & Potions and Midnight Madness. It’s refreshing to see that they’ve done something a little different with the cocktail listings too – sure there are some standard cocktails, and even smoked version of classics have been slowly appearing on some menus in Brum, but they’ve also gone down the molecular route a little. Some of this works better than others, and I’m wary of using dry ice in drinks, but good on them for trying something a little different – at least in Birmingham.

    aluna_prawns

    However this time, my friend and fellow blogger Roz invited me along to be her plus one and try out their food options.  I can’t help but feel that the food menu itself is a bit of a let down. I wanted chocolate frogs, dragon milk cheese or at least soup served in cauldrons. Instead it’s all too familiar – burgers, steaks, ribs and classic dishes like fish and chips.

    For a starter I had the buttered black tiger prawns, which were actually fried in a buttermilk batter. The batter was suitably light and complimented the prawns well. It seemed strange that they didn’t already come with a dipping sauce, although I quite enjoyed them without, but the waitress recommended a garlic mayo and this worked well enough.  Odd as it is, my only real complaint with this starter was that with seven prawns it was a bit much.

    aluna_burger

    For main it was a pretty simple choice; I went for the Aluna Burger which is an 8oz beef patty, topped with bacon, cheese, jalapeno peppers, lettuce, tomato and mayo in a brioche bun, served with chunky chips and coleslaw – and because I didn’t realise everything was super-sized, I’ve ordered some seasonal veg too.  The burger itself was juicy and pleasant enough, although I think the patty could’ve done with a little more seasoning, but the brioche bun was one of the better I’ve had recently.  I did remove the jalapeno peppers from the burger, which I think was a wise move – I tried them later and they would’ve overpowered everything entirely.  The chunky chips were more like potato wedges, so didn’t really have the crunch I expect from chips and there were an awful lot of them.

    Roz had gone for the ribs, which were also super-sized, though sadly consisted of a lot of fat.  The manager did explain that they’d had a few issues with the ribs and were looking to change them.  The sauce had a good colour and was sticky and sweet, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

    aluna_seaonsal_vegThe seasonal vegetables should’ve been a riot of colour; aubergine, beetroot, broccoli, carrots, courgettes and beans, to name a few.  Instead what I could identify felt more like the leftovers from a Sunday roast – carrots and parsnips, roasted, I think, without any of the crunch you’d expect and a lack of colour.  I’m not sure if it was the portion size or just how they’d been treated, but I didn’t manage much.

    I found the pudding choices a bit limited, although frankly I was quite full by this point.  Roz went for green apple sorbet, which she said was lovely and refreshing but again at four scoops was just too much.  I went off menu and asked for some vanilla ice cream, which I noticed they served along side some of the other dishes, and I found it was fairly bland, so I could see why it wasn’t on their main menu.

    DSC_0011

    Whilst I found the food to be pretty underwhelming, the service throughout was excellent.  Our waitress was speedy, attentive and ready to recommend things.  I’d spoken to one of the managers on the launch night about their ethos on hiring staff and he said they’d gone for people with excellent customer service that they could train up, particularly on the cocktail side of things.  If the waitress serving us was anything to go by, they’d certainly chosen well.

    I couldn’t help but feel a bit deflated by Aluna.  I wanted it to be so much more; something different for the city and as much as I dislike the word mixology, I wanted it to force the city to up its game with cocktails and with food which followed suit.  And whilst the cocktails are certainly trying something new, variable as that may be, I found the food to be generic and uninspiring.

    The ‘choices’ quote from the mirror on Aluna is spoken by the Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore, but there’s another one from him which sums up my experience “We must all make the choice between what is right and was is easy” and sadly, I feel Aluna went for easy.

    www.aluna.uk.com

    Disclosure: My meal was complimentary as I was a guest of Roz who was, in turn, a guest of Aluna.  As a Ravenclaw (I totally did the Pottermore test), I say it as I see it and my views remain my own and honest. Quotes are fro JK Rowling, obvs.

    Bar reviews, Pop-up and Event reviews, Reviews

    Yelp at Bar Opus

    I’ve been meaning to go to Bar Opus ever since they announced the opening.  I really have no excuse; I’ve enjoyed trips to their two sister venues and it’s round the corner from work, but yet somehow it was still on the ‘to visit’ list.  So when Yelp Birmingham announced they were doing a cocktail event there – I asked very nicely if I could go along.IMG_1326.JPG

    Two Snowhill, where Bar Opus is located, is an impressive building and the tall skyscraper feel is echoed in the venue.  It’s lofty and open plan with the bar and kitchen both open to curious customers.  Open from 7.30am for breakfast, I can imagine it’s an ideal place to go for a breakfast meeting, although they also serve light lunches and bar plates at other times of the day so it’s got every culinary mealtime covered.

    For Yelp’s Cocktail Opus (love the pun), we were graciously given a drink on arrival and a chance to catch up, before being treated to a gin cocktail masterclass by Langley’s brand ambassador, Carl Hawkins.  Carl helped found, and managed, the gin paradise that is The Jekyll & Hyde so it was clear that he knew his stuff and having seen Carl perform (honestly, it’s the only word for it, he’s a true showman), I knew we were in for a treat.  Balancing the story of gin’s evolution can be as tricky as balancing a cocktail, but Carl kept it humorous, interesting and full of things to taste, including a couple of cocktails; the classic Collins, which we made ourselves and contained rhubarb syrup; a Spanish-style G&T made by people who knew what they were doing; and finally we were presented with a twist on a White Lady – a carbonated version which was incredibly moreish.

    IMG_1337.JPGOnce we were suitably merry from all the gin it was time for some food.  Having dined at both Opus on Cornwall St and Cafe Opus in the Ikon Gallery my expectations were high and whilst I didn’t get to try a massive range it was good.  The fish cakes covered in sesame seeds were lovely and light and weren’t stingy on the fish and whilst the burgers weren’t my favourite in the city they were pretty decent.

    Sadly I had to skip off after that, although it would’ve been lovely to stay and check out their bar more, and order something from the menu. But on our way out we were presented with Opus privilege cards, which is a great excuse to go back – and I certainly intend to!

    Disclosure: I was invited to Yelp’s Cocktail Opus free of charge in exchange for writing something on Yelp about the event.  Rightly so Yelp are pretty keen on people being honest about their experiences and don’t require you to write anything positive unless you actually believe it.  Which I can totally get behind.  Thanks to Vicky, community manager for Yelp Birmingham for the invite.