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The Mailbox

    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

    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.

    Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Strada set menu, Mailbox

    Prosciutto_Involtini

    My mum is pretty awesome and generally a good sport, even if she is a little bemused by this whole me writing about my dinner.  So she didn’t seem to mind too much when I hijacked one of our evening meet ups to check out the Strada set menu in the Mailbox.

    On arrival we tried some samples from the new menu, which I didn’t photograph – or rather didn’t photograph well at all because I was busy trying to work out how to eat pasta with a spoon.  They were tasty, which is always a good start I find.  But we were here to try the Strada set menu, which is a pretty reasonable deal; served Monday to Friday from midday to 7pm, you can get two courses for £9.95 or three for £11.90.

    caprese_salad

    To start my mum, predictably had salad, or rather the Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, which was simple but she said it was tasty.  I struggled a bit with the starters as I didn’t want anything overly cheesy but everything had cheese in, so in the end went for the Prosciutto Involtini, which were towers of  prosciutto di Parma and mozzarella with rocket and sticky balsamic.  Again, nothing too fussy but was a perfectly pleasant, light starter.

    As suggested, I went for a glass of La Cavea white wine, which is a mix of Garganega and Pinot Blanco varieties, which was light-bodied and worked well with the uncomplicated starter.

    Fish_Fritti

    If my mum managed to have salad for a starter, it was almost certain she was going to go for a fish dish for main and she did – the Fish Fritti.  This was made up of battered squid, salmon and seabass.  I’m not convinced my mum was expecting it to be fried and I though the batter could’ve done with being a little lighter, particularly on the salmon and seabass, but it sort of worked out like being a but like fancy scampi.  Being on a bit of a pesto kick, I went for the Cavatappi Genovese, which included pasta, basil pesto, pine nuts, green beans, new potatoes and Grana Padano cheese.  I personally prefer my pasta a little more al dente and I’m not convinced it needed the new potatoes too, but the flavour was good and the green beans cooked well.

    Cavatappi_Genovese

    And then there was the usual dance of can I goad my mother into ordering a dessert.   I think the dessert menu is pretty limited with tiramisu, ice cream and affrogato (which is basically coffee and ice cream) so you’re only really presented with two options.  I do think adding a third, non-ice cream option would be better than the affrogato/ice cream choices, and just offering those as choices within the dish.  But hey ho.  I went for some vanilla ice cream because I find it’s a really good indicator of whether a place really cares about their ingredients and the Jude’s artisanal ice cream I was presented with was creamy, with specks of vanilla and really enjoyable.

    vanilla_ice_cream

    Despite a few niggles, the set menu at Strada really is a bargain at around £12 for three courses.  Whilst I do think another dessert option would be a good idea, it’s a neat menu which does offer value for money, plus dishes change on a regular basis to reflect seasonal produce and to let the chef show off his creativity.  Overall, the Strada set menu is a reasonable option for budget-conscious shoppers looking for an indulgent lunch or early supper.

    http://www.strada.co.uk/menus/birmingham-mailbox/set-menu

    Disclosure: Mum and I were guests of Strada and so our meals and drinks were complimentary.  As ever, my views remain honest and I wasn’t obliged to write anything positive. However, if you want to win my mum other, seafood and salads are the way to go

    Pop-up and Event reviews, Restaurant reviews, Reviews

    Harvey Nichols refurb and menu launch

    harvelnichols_prIf 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.  roasted_scallops

    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).

    squid_ham_sundried_tomato

    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.

    smoked_haddock_crme_fraiche_potato_egg_yolk

    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.

    pork_belly_chinese_spices

    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.

    himalayan_salt_seared_fillet_steak

    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.thai_green_salad

    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.afternoon_tea_treats

    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.

    http://www.harveynichols.com/store/birmingham/

    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.