Take it to the Bank, Frank

A London restaurant's arrival in Birmingham is just another sign of the city's revitalisation. One local boy is delighted
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The centre of Birmingham, devastated in the Sixties by the dismal Bullring development, used to be a byword for failed urban planning and inner-city blight. But that image is outdated, as I discovered on an eye-opening recent visit to Bank, the new sister branch of the thriving London mega-brasserie.

The centre of Birmingham, devastated in the Sixties by the dismal Bullring development, used to be a byword for failed urban planning and inner-city blight. But that image is outdated, as I discovered on an eye-opening recent visit to Bank, the new sister branch of the thriving London mega-brasserie.

The network of canals beside Broad Street has been cleaned up, and the surrounding area transformed from a post-industrial wasteland into a buzzy, modern, leisure zone. In the shadow of the International Conference Centre have bloomed waterfront pubs and restaurants galore, along with a theatre, concert hall and aquarium, all connected by cute little walkways and footbridges. It's reminiscent of London's South Bank complex, only not so complex, and with much prettier concrete.

Bank is situated in the heart of this reclaimed area, in a square called Brindleyplace (the breathless elision seems to imply that the locals are so busy and successful that they don't have time to stop halfway through and start reading a whole new word). My companion, the comedian Frank Skinner, was eager to extol the revitalisation of his home city. "Apparently there are more miles of canals in Birmingham than in Venice," he claimed, somewhat implausibly, as we approached Bank's understated plate-glass façade.

There's nothing understated about the restaurant's interior, whose epic scale and shiny exuberance will be familiar to anyone who has visited one of architect Julyan Wickham's previous projects (they include Kensington Place, fish!, and the original Bank in London). At the heart of his latest design is a long, glassed-in kitchen, giving all diners a view of the beaverings of Bank's chefs. Running along one side of the kitchen is a long, stool-lined bar, which like the dining area, manages to feel both comfortable and futuristic. Several design touches are carried over from the original Bank, including the glass ceiling-decorations, Hockney-esque seaside paintings, and jokey, red leather, bucket chairs.

Despite only having been open a few weeks, Bank has obviously started to draw its target audience of affluent, youngish diners, and was already fairly busy, given that we were there for an early supper during the post-Christmas, pre-New Year doldrums. Nevertheless, the staff still seemed to outnumber customers by a factor of two to one, and a phalanx of waiters lurked, black-clad and a bit ominous, awaiting our summons. Meanwhile, the kitchen seemed to be positively teeming with chefs. "Better not order the broth," advised Frank, when I pointed this out.

Bank offers roughly the same food as in the London branch, though prices are a pound or two cheaper, averaging £9-£15 for main courses. The menu is flexibly subdivided, Ivy-style, into multiple categories, including pasta, crustacea, fish and meat. French and British classics form the backbone (including sausage and mash and the obligatory fish cakes), but there are also more complex, Oriental-influenced offerings, and a strong showing of Italian and American favourites. From the daily specials, Frank ordered a pumpkin and coconut soup. But his choice of glazed belly of pork as a main course prompted an unexpected warning from our waiter, who breezily advised, "It's very salty and fatty - is that okay?"

"That wasn't guidance, it was a vicious West-End review!" Frank marvelled, having ordered what sounded like a giant pork scratching.

My starter, a gorgeously coloured pea and gorgonzola risotto, delivered the perfect combination of sweetly explosive, whole fresh peas and the savoury crunch of just-cooked-enough rice, the whole bound with a hint of Gorgonzola and frisked up with lashings of freshly ground, black pepper.

Frank's soup was so pleasing to him that he started to complain about his spoon being too small, and had to be discouraged from drinking directly from his bowl.

"I wasn't sure if the pumpkin would work with the coconut - that mixture of a cold Hallowe'en's night with a tropical island - but it goes really well," he enthused.

When our main courses arrived, Frank was bracing himself for a slab of salty fat, and was relieved to be presented with a generous portion of decorously pink flesh. Despite its lacquered skin and the accompanying hoi sin sauce and sesame-infused Chinese vegetables, the dish reminded him of his mum's gammon hock.

My cod supper scored top marks for crunchiness of batter and crispness of big, yellow chips. I was pleased to see it was served with the full range of traditional trimmings, including tartare sauce, malt vinegar and mushy peas.

Bank's dessert list offers various nursery indulgences, including sticky toffee pudding, but I stuck to a nicely unslithery crÿme caramel. Frank's banana tatin was the only disappointment of the meal, being apparently constructed for looking at rather than eating.

The bananas were ranged vertically in the pastry base, and only their tips were caramelised, leaving the rest dried out and chewy, like roasted sweet potato. "It looks like the Giant's Causeway," Frank said. "Unfortunately it tastes like the Giant's Causeway too."

While I paid our bill (most reasonable at £25 a head), our waiter made conversation with Frank, politely asking, "Have you got anything interesting coming up soon?"

"Yes, probably that banana tatin," Frank replied. The waiter took it in good part. In fact, service throughout the evening was excellent, and poised on just the right side of the line between friendly and matey. Refreshingly, no service charge is added to the bill. It's just one of many incidental details which warm the heart at Bank, from the wonderful bread which comes without charge, to the first-class coffee to finish. "If I had to take someone out for a meal in Birmingham, I'd definitely come back here," Frank concluded. "It's a proper, flashy restaurant, but it isn't over-posh. You feel you could come here without having to dress up."

I wondered, though, whether our treatment could really be held up as representative; didn't Frank perhaps feel that because he is famous, he can no longer have a normal experience anywhere he goes? "Yes, I do feel that," he replied. "And by golly I'm happy about it!"


Bank, 4 Brindleyplace, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 633 4466. Lunch: 12-3pm (Mon-Fri), 11am-3pm (Sat), 11am-5.30pm (Sun brunch); dinner: 5.30pm-11pm (Mon-Thur), 5.30pm- 1.30am (Fri & Sat). Disabled access. All cards