The Asquith, 11 Newhall Street, Birmingham
Saturday 22 October 2011
I've managed to nab a table at the hottest new opening in town. And not just any town – this one has just been pronounced the food capital of Britain. The chef is Michelin-starred, and well-known to the public as a former winner of TV's Great British Menu. The cocktail bar, managed by a recently crowned National Bartender of the Year, has already been open for a few weeks, to pump up anticipation. But hang on – why all the empty tables? Where are the food bloggers? How come the couple nearest me are having a whispered argument and I can hear one of them hissing, "I told you we should have gone to Café Rouge..."?
Birmingham may be, according to the food magazine Olive, Britain's foodiest city, with three Michelin-starred restaurants and a host of local-hero producers. But there's a lack of sizzle around the restaurant scene, judging by my visit to brand-new arrival, The Asquith. If this opening had been in London, it would have been PR'd to the rafters, and rammed with well-wishers and early adopters. But whatever Birmingham's foodies are doing this opening weekend, they certainly aren't at The Asquith.
Which is a surprise, seeing that this is the latest venture from Glynn Purnell, poster boy for Birmingham's food scene and probably the city's most talented chef. He made his name at Jessica's, in Edgbaston, before setting up on his own with Purnell's, where he serves modern French food of rare finesse and invention.
Earlier this year he returned to the Jessica's site and opened The Asquith, offering a less formal, more affordable version of Purnell's high style. But it closed after six months, following a dispute with the landlord. Now, a few months later, Purnell has opened The Asquith version 2.0 in the city centre, bringing head chef Jason Eaves with him.
Just a block away from Purnell's in the business district, it occupies the ground floor of a modern office development. A large cocktail bar, Gingers, hogs the bulk of the space, with the restaurant tucked apologetically to the rear – clearly this is designed to be a great bar, with a rather nice restaurant attached. Neither room is overburdened by atmosphere. But the staff are warm and solicitous, and the cocktail list is fantastic, in both senses of the word – its creations include lamb and mint-flavoured Sunday roast in a glass, though I wimped out with something involving marmalade vodka, ginger beer, and not a hint of Yorkshire pudding.
The small restaurant area, sealed off like a decompression tank at the rear of the bar, is windowless and cramped, its 10 unclothed tables arranged around a large central pillar which blocks all sightlines. As it happened, I was grateful for that pillar; it helped to hide my shameful status as lone diner with newspaper. My dinner date cancelled shortly after I arrived, which meant that not only were there not enough guests to fill the restaurant, there weren't even enough to fill my table. The staff took my sudden change of status in their stride, offering consolation in the form of warm rolls glazed to a high shine, and a pre-starter of celeriac veloute, shot through with the unexpected tart shiver of apple purée.
The Asquith's menu is a model of concision and good taste, with five options at each course, all of them tempting. Behind the bald telegramese of 'Poached hen's egg – goat's cheese foam – onion soubise – sage' was a starter which achieved a shimmering balance of unstable elements – lightly poached egg, translucent potato wafers, whispers of goat's cheese foam, flashes of fried sage, all underpinned by a sweet obligato of onion.
My main course was a sensational reboot of a classic Tournedos Rossini, with braised ox cheek standing in for steak, and sautéed duck liver for foie gras. With Puy lentils and pommes purée, it was a memorably satisfying, grown-up plateful.
By this time, a few more couples had trickled in, dressed up for dates, and all tactfully averting their eyes from the lone weirdo. A cheerful looking Glyn Purnell was on the premises, striding around handsomely, and making sure everything was running smoothly.
And indeed it was – this may have been opening night, but the food is already tip-top, with many of the dishes perfected at the original incarnation of The Asquith. Service, too, was smooth and... understanding. No one batted an eyelid when I ordered my second very large glass of Shiraz, or motored my lonely way through a substantial frangipane tart, with iced honey yogurt and Griottine cherries.
I've never reviewed a restaurant on my own before, or indeed reviewed one on opening night. But The Asquith survived both tests triumphantly. It may not be Birmingham's most beautiful restaurant, but the quality of the food offers a ringing endorsement of the city's claim as a foodie capital. Now all it needs is customers. So if you're in Birmingham, get there fast and take all your friends. Just like I did.
The Asquith, 11 Newhall Street Birmingham (0121 236 2600)
Around £35 a head before wine and service. Set lunch menu £14.95 (two courses)/£19.95 (three courses)
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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