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Birmingham Shines with Culinary Star Power

As Britain’s second-largest city, Birmingham often gets compared to the biggest in the country, London. It’s an unfair comparison. It’s not a mini-London and it doesn’t want to be. A recent trip to this urban gem in the West Midlands confirmed it’s a unique destination with a groove all its own.

The best way to dive into all that Birmingham offers is just to wander. It is wonderfully walkable so you can hit many highlights, from its sprawling canals and Black Sabbath bridge, to the city centre and Victoria Square, on foot. My first day of sightseeing began at St. Phillip’s Cathedral, a Baroque church completed in 1725. I’d been told that the stained-glass windows were must-sees. On this sunny day, the light coming through them bathed the interior in a rainbow of colour. Glorious.

Birmingham, United Kingdom, UK, England, Culinary, Cuisine, Black Sabbath, Purnell, The Mount, The Wilderness, Jewellery Quarter

Feeling somewhat ‘Paranoid’? Have a seat on a bench that pays tribute to Black Sabbath, Birmingham’s favourite, homegrown heavy metal band. At top: Established by Michelin-starred Birmingham chef Glynn Purnell in July 2007, Purnell’s is located in one of Birmingham city centre’s finest conservation areas, close to Colmore Row and St Phillips Cathedral. (Michele Sponagle photos for VacayNetwork.com)

From there, I roam to surrounding neighbours, but truthfully, the primary motivator in coming to Birmingham is its dynamic food scene. My aim is to take a bite out of as much as I can and see how top-tier local chefs were putting the city on the map as a culinary destination that’s creating a buzz internationally. The question is always where do I begin? I head first for the stars—Michelin stars that is. The city has plenty of sparkle with 24 restaurants in the area recognized by the infamous guide.

Purnell’s, led by one of Britain’s most well-known chefs and BBC regular, Glynn Purnell, is first on my list. What you notice right away with my high-end restaurants is that tasting menus are less pricey (about 20 per cent) than those in London. That’s good news for foodies. As the dishes start to roll out of the kitchen, it is easy to understand why Purnell had earned a Michelin star.

Each is exquisitely presented with much thought given to texture and balance. For example, the cheese courgettes come with roasted pineapple and crispy pork skin. A pineapple sorbet is blasted with liquid nitrogen to give it a satisfying crunch, crowned with a beet root crisp and a sprinkle of beet root powder for added drama. It all feels posh yet approachable.

Birmingham, United Kingdom, UK, England, Culinary, Cuisine, Black Sabbath, Purnell, The Mount, The Wilderness, Jewellery Quarter

A Scotch Egg, perfectly done, according to the author. The Mount restaurant is a city favourite that serves Battered Haddock & Chips, Slow Cooked Lamb, Roasted Free Range Chicken and other popular dishes. (Michele Sponagle photos for VacayNetwork.com)

Instantly, I felt like I had become a Purnell fan, so much so I take a brief side trip to eat at The Mount, his upscale pub in Henley-in-Arden, about 30 minutes away by train. Classics, like Scotch eggs and fish ‘n chips, turn into artful, elevated cuisine with his mastery of taste and technique.

Then when back in Birmingham, I’m sad to learn I’ll be missing the opening of his new tapas place, Plates by Purnell’s, by just a few days. Next time.

I comfort myself with a tasting menu at The Wilderness (which also got a Michelin nod). I knew very little about it, but when I tell locals about my dinner plans, they nod their heads in approval and smile. I thought it was in the wrong place when I step into the all-black dining room, housed in a former factory of the Jewellery Quarter.

Birmingham, United Kingdom, UK, England, Culinary, Cuisine, Black Sabbath, Purnell, The Mount, The Wilderness, Jewellery Quarter

The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter is Birmingham’s Historic and Vibrant Gem. With over 800 businesses, 100 unique retailers and 50 contemporary designer makers, it is still the UK’s busiest centre for jewellery. (Brian Douglas photos for VacayNetwork.com)

Where were the white linen tablecloths and dainty floral centrepieces? Instead, the rock ‘n roll tunes tell me this wasn’t your regular fine-dining establishment. Many of the kitchen staff were young and bearded, like they had just wandered in from a craft brewery somewhere. Don’t judge a restaurant just on appearance, I learned.

I had to trust the hipster crew for this blind-tasting menu. It was exciting not to know what would come out of the kitchen next. I had just a foggy idea what British modern cuisine was before an incredible experience at The Wilderness, but after a steady stream of delicious courses crafted to celebrate many humble local ingredients, like carrots—pickled, mashed, roasted and steamed, presented so beautifully you could imagine it on the cover of a glossy food magazine. Each dish challenged perceptions and stretched the definition of fine dining.

Birmingham, United Kingdom, UK, England, Culinary, Cuisine, Black Sabbath, Purnell, The Mount, The Wilderness, Jewellery Quarter

Aktar Islam is an English Michelin-starred chef, restaurateur and entrepreneur who created Opheem in Birmingham. Known for his modern interpretations of Indian cuisine, Islam was crowned champion by Gordon Ramsay on Channel 4’s The F Word in 2009 and in 2011 won the fish course in the final of the BBC Two series Great British Menu. (Michele Sponagle photos for VacayNetwork.com)

Two tasting menus down and one more to go… Opheem, known for its modern interpretations of Indian cuisine, was on my radar. It’s the only Indian restaurant with a Michelin-star outside of London. At the helm was Aktar Islam, one of the most celebrated chefs in Britain. His approach is to push boundaries with Indian flavours, marrying them with global cooking techniques, both traditional and modern. From the moment you enter Opheem, you know you’re in for a grand experience.

You don’t go directly to the dining room. Instead, you’re seated in a plush lounge to wind down, and warm up your taste buds with a few tasty nibbles (like smoked eel cannoli with potato purée), a cocktail, a glass of champagne, and a shot of sweet and sour cucumber juice with a kick from chillies, served in a small glass vial.

Once in the dining room with an open kitchen, the magic starts. As the dishes arrive—each inspired by an Indian city or region, you can see chef Islam giving them a final tweak before they land on tables. Highlights include lentil porridge with citrus, Orkney scallop with mooli (white radish), mango and coconut cod, Cotswold chicken and spice rice, mutton and a Granny Smith apple samosa.

When I chat with him and ask about food trends and the alleged end of fine dining when Noma closes next year, he just laughs. He doesn’t care about what’s trendy. He’s a chef who goes with his instincts, shaped by years spent in kitchens (including the one in his father’s restaurant) and traditions rooted in India where his family came from. His passion for flavour shows on every plate and a day after my visit, I’m already itching to go back.

Birmingham, United Kingdom, UK, England, Culinary, Cuisine, Black Sabbath, Purnell, The Mount, The Wilderness, Jewellery Quarter

Vegetarians beware. Fazenda’s gaúcho chefs (passadores) roast succulent cuts of meat in the way it has been done for centuries, preserving the individual taste of each tender cut. (Michele Sponagle photos for VacayNetwork.com)

I find other exciting places to eat across Birmingham. Though they might not be part of a Michelin Guide, they deliver well-prepared delicious food. Next to my hotel, The Grand, a stunning historical property that quickly became my hangout of choice for cocktails, I discovered the joys of South American fare at Fazenda Rodizio Bar & Grill. Passadores (meat chefs) come to your table with long skews of barbecue meat, from lamb to ribeye to chicken hearts, and deftly cut slices onto your plate until you flip over a card you’re given to red. That signals to servers you’ve surrendered and cannot handle another morsel.

I also find artfully crafted pizza near the city centre. For a quick lunch, I stop at Rudy’s for a few slices. It takes ’za seriously, using dough fermented for 24 hours, authentic San Marzano tomatoes and ovens imported from Naples. It doesn’t get more legit than that. Pair with Rudy’s own pale draft and a burrata salad served with house-made bread, I’m transported to my happy place, which includes a lot of carbs.

Before I left Birmingham, I had to try its famous Balti. What is it exactly? Andy Munro had answers. He’s an expert who has written a book on the subject, Going for Balti: The Story of Birmingham’s Signature Dish. I met him at Shababs in an area known as the Balti Triangle. He explained Balti is not a dish, but a cooking style.

Birmingham, United Kingdom, UK, England, Culinary, Cuisine, Black Sabbath, Purnell, The Mount, The Wilderness, Jewellery Quarter

Spice things up at Shabab Balti Restaurant, an Authentic Indian Restaurant and Takeaway. (Michele Sponagle photos for VacayNetwork.com)

While many Indian dishes take a simmered low and slow approach, Balti uses high heat, so the process is quick. The essential piece of equipment is a Balti bowl, a shallow, flat-bottom bowl made from pressed carbon steel locally. It is purposely non-stick so that the dish benefits from caramelization for buckets of flavour and vegetable oil, which stands up better to high temperatures, is the preference over ghee. After a quick demo in the kitchen to see how it all comes together, we’re at the table tearing chunks of piping hot naan and sliding them through the pool of sauce of the chicken curry.

Trying authentic Balti is definitely a must-do while you’re exploring the neighbourhoods and sights of Birmingham—a city that can stand tall on its own merits up against any other urban destination in Britain. Especially when it comes to food.


Visit Birmingham Website: www.visitbirmingham.com

Visit Britain Website: https://www.visitbritain.com/en