Loves, The Glasshouse, Canal Square, Browning Street, Birmingham
Saturday 23 October 2010
It's a miracle, given the punning potential of its name, that no other national newspaper reviewer has visited Loves Restaurant in Birmingham since it opened a year ago. I can hardly bear to look up and see what the headline-writer has come up with. Loves means never having to say you're sorry? I'll do anything for Loves? How do I love Loves – let me count the ways?
The answer to that last, sadly, would be: not too many. Loves, named after the chef-proprietor Steve Love, and his wife, restaurant manager Claire, is a contradiction of a restaurant, in which location, design, food and atmosphere are all pulling in different directions. The result is an unsettling dining experience which sends you reeling out into the night, thinking, "What was that all about?".
It pains me to say this because the Loves are clearly passionate about what they do, and Steve is a genuine talent; a former Roux scholar with classical training whose path from his first eponymous restaurant in Leamington Spa has been strewn with awards, including Craft-Guilds National Chef of the Year.
When he opened Loves last year, he was hailed as capable of challenging Birmingham's big three – Purnell's, Simpsons and Turners – for Michelin honours. And I'm sure he'll get them; his food is inventive and complex, every plateful a mini-masterclass in technique. But there is so much more to a great restaurant than great cooking. There should be glamour and mystery, flirtation and cosseting, indulgence and adventure. All of which is almost impossible to achieve in a corner unit in a new-build development in Birmingham's deserted canal district.
For all I know, this might be a vibrant area by day, teeming with eager foodies. On a midweek night, however, the canalside site is dead, unpopulated and apparently terra incognita to local taxi drivers – my guest arrived panicky and late, having been told by his despairing cabbie that he only had a 50/50 chance of getting there.
Some expensive looking loopy carpet and textured wallpaper can't disguise the hotel-lobby blandness of the dining room, right down to the Jack Vettriano painting at reception. The wedge-shaped space, with its plate-glass frontage, feels like a shop unit that has been hastily converted by set designers into a superficially convincing restaurant, with a small bar area, a private room and a chilly dining area holding a handful of naked bistro tables.
The lack of tablecloths doesn't signal relaxed, easy dining. Far from it. Loves pulls out all the Michelin-pleasing stops, with extras brought forth from the kitchen between courses with murmured compliments of the chef, via a front of house team, led by Claire Love, which performs faultlessly, but with the coiled tension of a bomb-disposal squad in mid-assignment.
Steve Love is a chef of the "big plate, small food" persuasion, each beautiful-looking dish comprising several elaborately-wrought elements. Our starters, like supermodels, looked stark and elegant, but had clearly received hours of treatments. In a refined take on satay, speared nuggets of chicken, minced with peanut and lemongrass, stood to attention over raw cauliflower, beside a shot glass of mung bean espuma. Seared foie gras was served over pain d'épice, with a plump fig macerated in port and cinnamon, and dots of fig yoghurt to balance the sweetness.
Love's labour-intensive style was well showcased in a main course which presented Herefordshire beef in three ways – a lozenge of rib-eye, slow-cooked and rolled in carrot ash, a melting chunk of braised cheek, and nuggets of braised tongue, deep-fried in panko breadcrumbs. Tranche of plaice had been cooked sous-vide in dashi stock, losing some of its distinctive character in the process; the supporting cast, including brandade croquettes and tiny, bursting tomatoes, supplied a succession of exquisite mouthfuls, flashing dazzlingly then disappearing before you had quite worked out what they were.
Desserts are astonishingly laborious, given the size of the restaurant, and one would imagine, the team in the kitchen. An assiete of chocolate combining cold chocolate fondant and a parfait of iced banana and peanut, was striated with popcorn and cumin-scented caramel, racked into lines like a dessert-junky's secret fantasy.
Despite the evident excellence of the food, our dinner at Loves amounted to less than the sum of its parts. This style of cooking, with its Morse code of dots and dashes on each plate, sends out a message of special-occasion indulgence, and the prices push in that direction, too – with a £30 bottle of Argentinian Malbec (Tapiz Reserve 2005), we paid £60 a head before service. But this bland, flat-pack setting just isn't a special-occasion venue. Quite why the Loves ever thought it could be, is something of a mystery. If ever there was a case of right chef, wrong restaurant, this is it. To pre-empt the headline writer, it's a case of Love's labour's lost.
Loves, The Glasshouse Canal Square, Browning Street, Birmingham (0121 454 5151)
Three courses before wine and service £39.50 (à la carte), £25 (prix fixe)
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary; all of the service charge and tips go to the staff"
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