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    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.

    Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Review: Searcy’s Balcony at Selfridges

    Cities are great, they’re great because there is always something happening, a sort of slow hum, the soundtrack of living.  And I like nothing more than to find somewhere to sit and appreciate this; I’d call it an abstract people watching if it didn’t sound so bloody pretentious.  It is, for me, one of the many reasons I like going out for dinner, because you can watch the action of the staff moving like they’re in a choreographed dance between tables, the clinking of cutlery and glasses, and the people watching, oh that’s always the best bit.  Everyone plays the guessing who’s on a first date game, right?

    And way up high in the skies of Selfridges in the Bullring is The Balcony, not an inventive name, I’ll give you that, but it does give you an indication of where it is.  I love that floor, because as my mum puts it I “have a thing for bags” and I like to covet them and daydream over a time I can justify buying a Mulberry Bayswater.  It is, at times, a floor that feels a bit like a museum but the restaurant itself is neatly tucked away in a corner and stretches out into the belly of the Bullring – but the view is not intrusive, it just adds a bit more life whilst giving a relaxed vibe.

    We start with a cocktail, because we’re on a floor of shoes and handbags and it’s probably the done thing here.  The cocktail menu is compact, nine alcoholic and two without, and the theme seems to be British summer time – lots of berries, fruits alongside gin and fizz.  The Goji Blush is made with organic goji berry liqueur, organic Virtuous vodka, lemon juice, honey, raspberries and Selfridges Prosecco; it’s a light, delicate drink, made well by the bartender and simple enough that most people should enjoy it.

    I honestly worried that the menu at The Balcony would be miniature bites aimed at ‘ladies what lunch’ but don’t actually seem to be interested in eating.  But thankfully they’re well thought out dishes that allow you to be as gluttonous or restrictive as you like.  Mains are classic dishes: braised shoulder of lamb, fish and chips, salmon fish cakes and the like.  There’s also a burger – we’ll get to that later though.  For starters my friend Jo-ann had the pea and ham terrine, which she enjoyed but said would’ve preferred less pea and more ham, though not ungenerous with the meat.  I had pesto gnocchi mainly because it has been a very long time since I’ve had it and I was surprised to see it on the menu, but it was a nice light version.

    For mains, Jo-ann had the braised shoulder of lamb, fondant potato and butternut squash purée and unsurprisingly I went for the Lake District beef and Applewood cheese burger with fries. Jo’s lamb was a good-sized portion and she said the lamb had been cooked well, the butternut squash puree added a nice summery look to what could’ve been a more wintery dish. My burger was delicious, the smokey applewood cheese gave it a lovely flavour and the bun was toasted but still pliable…all in all a very decent burger and one I’d be happy to go back for. The miniature mayo and ketchup pots were a nice touch and the fries were of a good standard.

    The Oreo cheesecake that Jo-ann had looked lovely, but also seemingly a little tough to crack through the base – I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.  I went for the stick toffee pudding, another classic dish on the menu, which had a lovely caramel flavour and the toffee sauce had a perfect touch of saltiness to cut through the sugar. Delightful.

    For a menu that I expected to be all a bit ‘ladies what lunch’ this was a surprise. Sure, you’re paying more because of the location and associated exclusivity, but the portions are a reasonable size and the menu is largely fairly classic, well-known dishes done well using nice ingredients. For those people who want to eat well but dislike the hectic crowds that can sometimes descend on the Bullring, the Balcony is a good place to seek refuge, if you don’t mind paying a little for it.

    The Balcony at Selfridges, Bullring, Moor Street Queensway, Birmingham B5 4BU

    Disclaimer: I was invited down, or should that be up, to the Balcony for a complimentary meal. As ever views remain my own, because lying is too much effort to remember.

    As featured in, Musings

    I was on the telly!

    Hey look, I was on the news! And no, it wasn’t because I was being arrested for something.

    I’ll admit, being in front of a camera and public speaking are two things I’m really not keen on, so I can only blame the amount of caffeine I’d had that morning for saying yes.  Because it was totally one of those days I decided not to wash my hair or put make up on, so queue me running around at lunchtime to look half-way human – and yet still I managed to pull a series of funny faces. Standard.

    But seriously, the BBC is a respected institution worldwide and I was honoured to be asked to be on the local news edition talking about The Wilderness’ new reservations policy – more interesting than it sounds, I promise! I was even more proud that my mum and her husband were impressed, and my mum spent the evening forwarding me congratulatory texts from her friends. Because being on the telly is kinda terrifying but ace, but knowing your mum is super proud is totally the best thing about it.

    Thankfully you can no longer watch me on the telly, so I will attempt to summarise some of what I said on the telly and add a bit more context.  The Wilderness has been very vocal about the amount of no-shows they’ve had at their restaurant and the impact it has on their business, so implementing a 30 – 40% deposit to secure a reservation seems entirely reasonable.  It’s an investment in a special night out and it’s not like somewhere like there can count of walk in, in the way mass mid-price chain restaurants might.  It’s not like deposits or paying up front is a new concept; Christmas parties and Valentine’s day are just two examples, not to mention that you generally pay for theatre, gig and cinema tickets up front.

    Personally, I would rather invest in a special night out and be guaranteed a table that faff about. Things like no reservations policies, paying up front and larger deposits are all a result of a small amount of people who aim to go out for dinner but have lost all sense of common courtesy and forget to cancel reservations they don’t need. Don’t be that person; cancel a booking you can’t make with as much notice as you can, restaurants are run by humans and the good ones will try and help you out if there’s a good reason you can’t make it. We all want the city’s dining experience to be a good one, so try and be one of the good ones.

    Pop-up and Event reviews, Reviews

    Original Patty Men grilled cheese pop up

    For very little reason other than I wanted to remind myself about this filthy, gorgeous grilled cheese AND rumours have it Original Patty Men are doing another pop-up soon, I figured it might be time to blog about the OPM grilled cheese pop-up.

    Back at the beginning of March, one of the best places for burgers in the city announced that they were going to do a pop-up.  And grilled cheese pop-up, at Quarter Horse Coffee on Bristol St, at that.  I dashed out of work, power walked down and immediately ordered a braised ox cheek with pickled fennel and red Leicester cheese grilled sandwich.  I promise you, there is ox cheek in that grilled cheese, it was just oozing so much cheese you might not see it.  Lactose intolerance be damned, this was a thing of beauty and I’m glad I rushed down because the queue out the door when I left suggested there wasn’t going to be many hanging around – and indeed they sold out pretty quickly.  There was a vegetarian option, if memory serves, and whilst I have nothing against ordering the veggie option, there is no way in hell I’m ordering it if OPM are involved…that’s just madness.  The murmurs I heard from people around me who had ordered it suggested it was very good indeed.

    And because it was on sale, I had a bottle of Siren Craft’s siren Calypso, a dry hopped Berliner Weisse.  Given OPM have partnered up with Siren Craft for their Shaw’s Passage venue, it’s not surprising to see the two paired together. In my head, I’m a little wary of sour beers because I think I don’t like them, but turns out I’ve had a few now and this isn’t actually the case and I need to remember this – or check untapped before I order beer.  Anyway, Calypso and grilled cheese were a perfect match; the sourness from the beer cutting through all that oozy, melted cheese, complementing and contrasting each other superbly. Perfect.

    I totally know what the next OPM at Quarter Horse pop-up is and it’s a doozy, so you’re not going to want to miss this one (unless it means you get there before me and then there aren’t any left, then you should forget I said anything).  As ever, well worth keeping an eye on Original Patty Men’s twitter account to find out more https://twitter.com/OriginalPattyM

    Disclosure: Paid for it (and the subsequent pain from eating all that cheese whilst being lactose intolerant) all by best. So there.

    Musings, Pop-up and Event reviews, Reviews

    The Studio’s spring 17 menu tasting

    I’m not going to bore you with lots of words about how delicious the menu tastings are at The Studio, because if you’ve been reading the blog you’ll know how much I enjoy them – or you can read past menu tastings here.  But here are some pictures from the Spring 2017 menu tasting, because who doesn’t enjoy a nice excuse to look at pictures of food?!

    Also, that’s the apple and sultana strudel with custard in the first picture.

    Chicken and mushroom pie with flaky pastry and garden peas

    Chicken and Cajun sausage gumbo

    Hot smoked salmon salad with lime and chive dressing

    Salted caramel cheesecake

    Cajun belly pork with new potatoes, shallots and butterbeans

    The Studio, 7 Cannon St, Birmingham B2 5EP

    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.