When reviewing restaurants it’s easy to get carried away with what’s the next big thing and what’s the hottest new opening… not that this isn’t all very well and good (there’s nothing wrong with keeping abreast of current trends), but sometimes it’s good to take stock and visit a long-standing bastion of culinary delight.
With that in mind, I head to Purnell’s in the centre of Birmingham. Glyn Purnell opened the restaurant in 2007, gained a Michelin star in 2009 and has been serving witty, high-end gastronomy to the lucky inhabitants of the West Midlands ever since.
The room at Purnell’s is not your usual fine dining affair of starched table cloths and deep pile carpets; here you get bare wooden tables and walls adorned with what can only be described as Matalan chic. There are canvas prints of the BT tower and bare twigs in big vases – it’s more 90s bistro than modern day Michelin.
When faced with a menu of either 6 courses or 10, it’s a no brainer – more food always wins. I’m slightly taken aback, however, when I see dish number 2 in the list; it’s called ‘Emotions of cheese and pineapple on sticks – Soixante-dix’. Did I read that right? ‘Emotions of cheese?’ To be honest, I am not sure I have ever heard a more pretentious phrase in my life. I can’t help but wonder what else could be in store, perhaps frustrations of beef or manipulations of fudge… Then I remember, this was a menu created by Glyn Purnell, probably the least pretentious chef in the UK and also one with a brilliant sense of humour. Anyone who has ever seen him on Saturday Kitchen or Great British Menu can back me up on this. I hope (and assume) that the menu’s emotional cheese is just product of this.
Tasting menus at restaurants usually end up being a mixed bag of highs and lows, but Purnell’s bucks the trend with more than its fair share of highs and only a couple of less good courses. Dishes of particular note include a witty take on breakfast called ‘Haddock and eggs – cornflakes – curry oil.’ It arrives presented like a fried egg, the white consisting of a smoky haddock foam and an unctuous poached egg yolk in the middle. The dish is topped with dots of curry oil and is a triumph of texture, flavour and inventive cooking.
The meal also includes one of the best dishes I have ever had the pleasure to eat: ‘Monkfish masala – Indian red lentils – pickled carrots – coconut – coriander.’ This dish won the fish course on Great British Menu back in 2009 and it isn’t hard to see why. The monkfish is firm and meaty and the combination of spice is a complex whirl of flavour, sitting next to sharp pickled carrots, lentils and thin slivers of fresh coconut. I would stilt walk up the M6 at rush hour for another mouthful of this dish.
The good times keep on rolling with desserts. ‘Mint Choccy Chip’ is a light, yet rich, warm, mint chocolate mousse. It’s served next to a bowl of mint fragrance that springs to theatrical life when liquid nitrogen is poured over top, creating billowing clouds of mint aroma. It is all flavour and fun. The meal ends on a high with ‘Burnt English custard egg surprise. Rhubarb and ginger.’ This – the richest crème brulee I’ve ever tasted – comes served in an egg shell, with tart, crunchy rhubarb and a smooth as silk ginger sorbet.
A couple of dishes that are less successful include ‘Remoulade 2012’ and ‘Roast hand dived scallops – Devonshire crab mayonnaise.’ They lack nothing in invention or execution but both arrive over salted. It is quite something when out of 10 courses, the only negative to be found is some over zealous salting.
Purnell’s deserves its place as one of the UK’s best restaurants. Glyn Purnell’s humour shines through in his cooking, but importantly it always enhances the gastronomy and never appears superfluous. If there were more chefs like him around, then the British dining scene would be a much happier place. Birmingham, I salute you!
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words Mark Bixter