If ever there was need for an example to show the new-found confidence in Birmingham, both as a destination in itself and as a burgeoning food and drink destination, the new concept-store Harvey Nichols would be it.
The 45,000 square foot Harvey Nichs, as it’s affectionally known, was designed in partnership with Virgile + Partners to present the a concept store offering customers luxury retail – and it feels like it, particularly as you descend down the stairway into a store where everything is lit in a luxurious golden hue.
In the old Harvey Nichs the food hall and cafe felt like a bit of an uncomfortable fit amongst the high end fashion, handbags and associated lifestyle. But descending down the stairs, from the third floor, into the belly of Harvey Nichol’s new concept store, it finally felt like a venue which had found a way to make food and fashion fit seamlessly. The restaurant is enveloped by the food market and bar, giving it a sense of belonging but without feeling like you’re dining in a clothes shop. The bar, which has a fairly extensive selection of spirits, is ripe for people watching without feeling voyeuristic.
The food hall retains some of the old favourites, but has increased its selection, including a number of items which will suit people with certain dietary requirements – the no cheese pesto was indulgent and fresh enough that the lack of cheese was no loss. The bar and dining area are separated by a wall of alcohol – with an extensive selection of wines, including a lovely English sparkling wine and a carefully selected range of spirits (the whiskies were of particular interest).
Over to the dining area. The menu has been designed in collaboration with one of Birmingham’s Michelin starred chefs, Glynn Purnell, who was on hand during the preview evening to tell us about the concept. The menu itself is fairly small; designed to be all day dining there are six options labeled under brunch and an all day dining section with sixteen dishes, which include a number of items that can be scaled up or down depending on whether you want a light bite, sharing dishes or a main meal.
The food preview night offered a taste of a number of dishes (although sadly not the burger, which is an excuse to go back). First up we tried the roasted scallops, with piperade and scorched baby gem lettuce, and the scorched provencal squid, Oxsprings ham, oliver tapenade, sundried tomatoes and red pepper – both of which can be served as lighter items or main dishes. The scallops were beautifully sweet and speaking to one of the chefs later, he mentioned he’d shuck the fresh scallops that morning, having sourced them from someone he had previously trained and trusted. The squid too felt lovely and fresh, cutting well without being too rubbery.
Next was the spiced smoked haddock with sour crème fraîche potato and poached free-range egg yolk, made to look like a fried egg. It was a whimsical concept and a clear mark of a Purnell dish, but had the wonderful balance of taste to back it up with.
I’d heard a lot about the pork belly dish and once it was presented I could taste why; the Hampshire pork belly cooked in Chinese spices and served with pak choi and sesame glazed noodles really was utterly delightful. The sweetness from the Chinese spice glaze balanced well with the pork and the cut itself was flavoursome and delicate.
The Himalayan pink salt-seared fillet steak and fries was an incredible popular dish on my table and it’s easy to see why. The dish arrives with pink meat, but we were told as it’s placed down on the table, that should we wish it cooked further to leave it on the hot sea salt slab. This did feel like a bit of a gimmick to me, and I wasn’t about to ruin a delicious piece of beef to test out how well it worked, so I’ll take their word for it.
Ordering a salad when out for a meal always seems like an absolute waste to me, but it’s often my mum’s number one choice so it was nice to see that the Harvey Nichols’ menu had three to choose from. I tried the Thai green salad which was a riot of colour and taste, and had the option to add scallop, should you wish.
For dessert there was a large bowl of Glynn’s famous chocolate mousse with a mango sorbet and chocolate crumble – this is apparently similar to one of the dishes on the menu at Purnell’s, although not on the menu I tried earlier in the year. I’m not a massive fan of chocolate, but the contrast of rich warm chocolate against the cool, refreshing mango really was superb – although sadly did not photograph well.
Have strategically placed myself near the kitchen, I was able to go and chat to the chefs whilst they were plating up some examples of their afternoon tea. It was refreshing to hear such enthusiasm for the menu and to hear about the provenance of the ingredients – the raspberries for one of the petits fours was sourced up the road in Tamworth and likely to change, once they were out of season. The afternoon tea also includes sandwiches on beetroot bread and a coronation chicken which has a lovely smooth flavour.
After dinner it was over to the bar (after I got a sneaky preview of the store because come on people), where I tried some of the tinctures and syrups created in-store for the cocktails, including a curry sugar syrup which would’ve been amazing over ice cream. Chatting to Sam, the bar manager, it’s clear that there is a real passion to help push forward the city’s cocktail scene and bring something a little different.
2015 is a hell of a year for the drinks and dining scene in Birmingham, with more places opening and rumoured to open than I can remember in a long time. It’s a testament to the city itself, to the bartenders and chefs who’ve been faithfully working away and pioneering to put Birmingham on the map. And when a national, well respected name like Harvey Nichols adds to that, it’s hard not to think that maybe that faith isn’t going unrewarded.
Disclosure: HN invited me down to their preview…although I’m still trying to fathom out why. Scrubbing up and making sure I didn’t spill anything took a lot of focus and so everything here remains my own honest opinion because I wouldn’t have had the energy to lie, even if I’d have wanted to.