Restaurants: Waiting in the wings

EATING OUT: OLIVIER'S: Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Broad Street, Birmingham B1 2EP. Tel: 0121 644 6464. Open Mon-Sat 12-3pm and 5.30-9.30pm; Sun 12-2.30pm and 5.30-9.30pm (note that all evening times vary according to shows). Curtain-up menu pounds 9.50 for two courses, pounds 11.50 for three. Average a la carte price, pounds 15. Credit cards accepted
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BACK IN January, we made our first trip to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to see a matinee of the Snowman ballet. Before the show, we downed a hasty lunch in the Rep's restaurant, buzzing with pre-performance excitement from a whole host of small things and attendant parents. To my regret, I didn't quite have time to finish one of the best Caesar salads I've come across, made with the perfect juicy crispness of cos lettuce, heavy with Parmesan and streaked with anchovies and unorthodox black olives. William settled happily with a plate of properly judged goujons of fish, large and knobbly and obviously home- made. The chunky chips were crisp on the outside, soft inside, and very good dipped into the tartare sauce. Sidney's spaghetti bolognese from the children's Snowman menu disappeared at considerable speed, and when I grabbed a forkful for myself, I could quite see why. The sauce had that dense, meaty sweetness that comes with long, slow cooking.

On the strength of this brief meal, I invited several Birmingham colleagues to lunch there with me a couple of weeks later. For most of our meal we were the only diners in the room. Bereft of theatre-goers, the restaurant was a sadder place. It looks just like 101 other impersonal dining rooms in plastic hotels the world over, but at least it has a grand view. Its one distinguishing feature is the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the to-ing and fro-ing of Centenary Square. In the summer there are even outdoor tables on a narrow terrace.

A stripling of a bored waiter ambled up to the table with a laconic air. Two young chefs leaned casually over the bar and joshed and chatted the time away, moving only to make the odd excursion into the kitchen on our behalf.

From the blackboard specials one of my mates nabbed the carrot and coriander soup, which looked very fetching indeed when it turned up, with its generous scattering of deep-fried leek against the thrilling orange, and speckles of pepper artfully distributed round the rim of the bowl (speckled rims are something of a speciality here). Once the lack of salt had been remedied, it proved a competent rendering; creamy and thick and warming. Enthusiastic noises were being induced by my other pal's starter - rather vividly coloured red crepes, courtesy of a red pepper puree, which were filled with smoked chicken and accompanied very congenially by a "saladette" (their word not mine) of orange.

I, meanwhile, was having a set-to with a brace of enormous and disconcertingly phallic spring rolls, packed like cushions with springy pads of seafood that might have bounced from here to kingdom come with very little encouragement. They did boast a nice dressing, complete with a whiff of sesame oil. Little puddles of tomato coulis were dotted around, and some delicious shreds of stir-fried peppers and other vegetables nestled into a filo basket. A few more of those and a little less of the spring rolls and they might, I felt, actually be on to something.

Main courses, though, veered from the downright miserable in the form of the grey-brown cannonballs with a glued-up interior that masqueraded as smoked-haddock fish cakes, to the sublime with which, luckily enough, I was blessed. Sitting pretty in between, in the very-satisfying-on-a-chilly- day seat, were the slow-braised strips of belly of pork, admirably tender and clad in a becoming, dark, rich gravy, with some fine colcannon on the side. The dish's one downer was the lattice crisps, cooked to such a degree of brownness that the burn was making itself amply known.

No doubt about it, though, I pulled the star plateful of the day: the cracking Balti duck with red cabbage and coconut sauce. A nice nod in the direction of Birmingham's most famous culinary creation, it was also a damn sight more delicious than anything I've come across in a genuine Balti house. It was a huge portion, as is the rule at Olivier's. Six sterling chunks of tender duck breast with crisp, brown skin clustered around a central hub of red cabbage to end all red cabbage. Braised with sweet and sharp notes in the familiar way, it had then been invested with drama thanks to a hearty complement of spices and chilli. Fantastic. A fudgey aromatic coconut sauce meandered seductively over the duck breasts, bringing all the elements into harmony.

Sated though we were by this stage, we dutifully made our way on to puddings. A sweet orange tart was, in effect, a lemon tart made without any lemon and with not enough orange either, so that it didn't taste of anything much at all. What a pity, at this time of year, that no one had thought of replacing the modicum of orange juice, which I suppose must have been there somewhere, with the wonderful tartness of Seville oranges.

The Caribbean crumble was largely composed of rhubarb and apple, we thought, which didn't seem too Caribbean, though we did locate a wedge of pineapple and what we suspected to be a few cubes of pawpaw. Anyway, the fruit and the crisp crumble parts were fine, but it was hard to explain away the bizarrely rubbery pastry (a microwave at work?), that you could almost ping like knicker-elastic. And where were the apricots in the apricot anglaise, I would like to know? It was quite palatable without them, but that's hardly the point.

Well, what a rum place Olivier's is, to be sure. I kind of like it. Most of the time the cooking runs from pleasant to rather appealing, with the occasional dash over the border towards either extremity. On a summer's evening you could sit outdoors and watch the crowds stroll by. For a quick meal before the theatre, you could certainly do a great deal worse. It's not the great find I thought I was on to in the pre-Snowman excitement of our first meal there. But like the little girl with the curl, when it is good, it can be very, very good indeed.