Think of Europe's great gastronomic destinations and Lyon, Barcelona and Milan might come to mind. Birmingham, it's fair to say, wouldn't necessarily be first pick for the top 20. But last month, that's effectively what happened, when Birmingham hosted the inaugural event for Delice, a new educational and marketing network linking 20 of the Good Food Cities of the World, including the three above.
Some of Lyon's most celebrated chefs rolled into town to cook up regional banquets at two of Birmingham's best restaurants, Simpsons and Opus. I was there just as the Delice festivities were winding down, and sensed both the excitement the event caused, and the resentment about the way the story was treated nationally, with one food website dismissing Birmingham's inclusion as an early April Fool's joke. The ridicule is unfair; true, the city has struggled to shake off its faggots-and-peas, buckets of balti image, but there's enough decent middle- to high-ranking restaurants to constitute a dining scene, albeit not one you'd automatically compare with Lyon.
Most flamboyantly talented of the city's chefs is Glynn Purnell, who won Birmingham its first Michelin star at Jessica's. He celebrated by getting a Michelin man tattooed on his leg, which is either incredibly butch or slightly effete; I can't decide which. Last year he left leafy Edgbaston to set up on his own in the city centre, leaving his star behind him.
His eponymous headquarters occupies a handsome Victorian warehouse conversion in the financial district. With a lunchtime clientele largely made up of local business people, the dining room exudes patrician sleekness, like a post-industrial gentlemen's club. The colour scheme is power-dressed grey and beige, but exposed pillars and giant ball-of-string lightshades lend a hint of warehousey edginess. Tables are bare and the tall windows undressed; ours looked out across the road into Opus, the last restaurant I reviewed in Brum. I guess it's what you'd call a gastro-cluster.
Glynn Purnell's cooking, though, is very different from the relaxed brasserie style of his neighbour; here, you find yourself making comparisons with masters of modernism like Heston Blumenthal, Tom Aikens and Hibiscus's Claude Bosi, under whom Purnell once briefly worked. This is food that's designed to draw attention to itself, not to provide a pleasant backdrop to a social occasion.
Take his starter of salmon, marinated for 24 hours in coriander seeds and orange juice, then cooked sous-vide for a brief seven minutes, leaving it with a butter-soft texture and a surprisingly briny taste. Presented on a plate striped with a miso/caramel reduction, flanked by clusters of salmon roe and a Martian posy of enoki mushrooms, the dish achieves a Zen-like harmony, both to the eye and the taste buds.
A second starter of crab salad was a masterclass of harmonising tastes and textures, with a celeriac remoulade providing a creamily neutral background for a beautifully judged combination of white crab flesh, crisp batons of apple and crunchy fragments of smoked paprika honeycomb.
This feel for texture was even more marked in an orientally influenced main course, which partnered duck breast with glossy black rice containing an admixture of deep-fried kernels, to create smoky, crunchy explosions. Black pools of glossy liquorice purée and a silky, melt-in-the mouth cube of foie gras butter demonstrated Purnell's idiosyncratic but instinctive feel for flavour combinations, while tamarind purée picked up on a recurring theme, the use of ingredients from the sub-continent, so intrinsic to Birmingham's food scene.
A blast of Indian spicing might have improved the one dish which we found rather too subtle, brill poached in black-truffle infused coconut milk. Served with a reticent supporting cast of salsify and thinly sliced florets of raw cauliflower, it was all a bit pallid and over-reliant on black truffle and truffle oil for impact.
In truth, we'd only ordered it because it was recommended by the absurdly handsome young manager, Jean-Benoit Burloux, a French maître d' straight from central casting. His enthusiasm for his wine list, which offers a better-than-usual selection of wines by the glass, proved that he was much more than ornamental. We ordered the most expensive, a 2005 Delas Frères Condrieu (£14.50), mainly to keep him talking.
The honeyed subtlety of the Condrieu worked well with some of the more intense flavours of the main courses, and carried us through to the desserts, deep-fried cinnamon ravioli with griottine cherries, and blackberry parfait with apple sorbet, both superb.
Our bill came to £70 a head, but Purnell's also offers a three-course lunch for £18.95 which sounds like a bargain for cooking of this skill. Given the choice, you might not necessarily opt for Birmingham over Lyon, but certainly, this is a restaurant that can hold its own among the UK's best. It can only be a matter of time before Mr Purnell is bracing himself for a second visit to the local tattoo parlour.
Purnell’s, 5 Cornwall Street, Birmingham (0121-212 9799)
£38.95 for three course à la carte dinner plus wine; £18.95 for three course lunch
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69 High Street, Harborne, Birmingham (0121 426 4440)Reuse content