Restaurants: We were much amused

Victoriana in Birmingham and Frank Skinner, too. It is all a fantasy for Tracey MacLeod

Birmingham's most notorious contribution to British gastronomy is the balti, which has swept all other curry forms before it in its fiery progress from the streets of Sparkhill and Sparkbrook to the shelves of Marks & Sparks. But I knew there had to be more to Birmingham than curry, so when comedian Frank Skinner and I were planning a day out in his home town, I asked him to pick a favourite restaurant which would show that it had another, more sophisticated side.

Instantly, he nominated Jonathans', adding, "It's got a kind of Victorian theme, which I know sounds terrible. But, honestly, it's really good." Visions of dimpled serving wenches and mutton-chopped burghers in Good Old Days garb sprang horribly to mind. But such was Frank's enthusiasm that I checked in my metropolitan cynicism along with my coat, and prepared to be charmed.

Nothing about the roadhouse exterior of Jonathans' quite prepares you for the wonderland within. Inauspiciously situated in a 1930s shopping parade beside a busy roundabout a few miles outside the city centre, it rubs shoulders with a surgical appliance shop and a McDonald's. But inside, the premises have been converted into an eccentric vision of a Dickensian coaching inn, a warren of wood-panelled rooms and mysterious cubby-holes crammed with antiques, damask drapery, and supporting cast of Victoriana. As Frank observed, "This isn't a place that's chucked out the chintz, is it? In fact, when the chintz was chucked out, this is where they chucked it."

Our evening began, in true country-house style, in a panelled library, where we were seated for a pre-dinner drink and issued with a little map to guide us round the premises - as well as the restaurant, Jonathans' comprises a bistro and 44-room hotel.

While we studied the menu, we pondered the mystery of the Jonathans' rogue apostrophe, which seems to be in altogether the wrong place, although as Frank pointed out, "There may well be two Jonathans, in which case, that apostrophe is a pretty classy touch." Also classy is the interconnecting series of candle-lit dining rooms, some holding several tables, others just individual alcoves discreetly curtained off for trysting couples. Our table, which was of the non-trysting variety, was located in a minstrels' gallery, where we had a commanding view of what must be one of the largest collection of antique cheese dishes in private ownership.

Jonathans' could usefully have supplemented their diners' map with an index to the menu, which is positively Trollopean in length and scale. The Victorian theme is nodded to in the form of a daily soup tureen and traditional main courses such as steak, kidney and smoked oyster pudding, but most of the dishes are firmly rooted in modern brasserie convention. Fresh fish and game are bought daily from Birmingham markets, and there's a Mediterranean influence in the use of fresh herbs, balsamic vinegar and grilled vegetables.

My starter of avocado with shredded crab and king prawns was a little too vigorously combined, giving it an over-smooth texture, though the piquant crunch of marinated spring onion rescued it from mulchiness. Frank's half-lobster with baked scallops was substantial and well prepared, and he mopped up the accompanying garlic black butter with some delicate home- made thyme bread.

The main courses (or "main removes", as the menu had it) were excellent. My roast duck breast sported a good crisp skin, and came with a compote of red cabbage, prunes and walnuts, which was fragrant with cloves and lightly enough cooked to retain its crunch. Frank was delighted with his giant Yorkshire pudding stuffed with roast vegetables and swimming in Marmite gravy. Since he stopped eating red meat, Yorkshire pudding and gravy are two of the things he's missed most, and he found the Jonathans' vegetarian version a very acceptable substitute. In fact, it was so good that he spontaneously ordered a side dish of mashed potato to soak up the gravy. It was brought in moments by of one of the attentive and courteous waiting team, none of whom seemed to be dressed in a notably Victorian fashion.

Tradition, though, takes a firm grip on the pudding menu, an orgy of spotted dick, Bakewell tart and treacle sponge. Top billing goes to "Jonathans Special Trifle" (by this time, the author had obviously been defeated by the challenge of where to position the apostrophe). Recognised by the AA restaurant guide as "the premier British trifle", it cost a hefty pounds 6.90 and was laced with so much sherry that just the smell was enough to send Frank reeling. "One mouthful of that, and next thing you know, I'd be found face down on some wasteground. No wonder it's recognised by the AA..." His bread-and-butter pudding was as good as it gets, a shimmering yellow wedge in a lake of custard with a lingering eggy aftertaste. Coffees and sweetmeats followed, bringing the bill to pounds 72, which included my glass of wine and pre-dinner cocktail.

Resisting the temptation to withdraw to one of the withdrawing rooms and unlace our stays, we asked to be shown around the premises, an expedition which took in function rooms, a curio shop, and a complete street of mocked- up Victorian shop facades. Jason, our guide, also pointed out a photo of the owners, and we were delighted to learn that they are indeed two Jonathans, one of whom, inevitably, is an antiques dealer. The mystery of the rogue apostrophe duly solved, we felt able to step back into the 20th century.

On the motorway home, Jonathans' already seemed like a sepia-tinted dream, and we agreed that it was much better than balti, even if substantially more expensive. But then, as Frank pointed out, "It isn't an everyday restaurant, is it? It's the kind of place you'd come to celebrate a special occasion - like the repeal of the Corn Laws"

Jonathans', 16 Wolverhampton Road, Oldbury, West Midlands (0121 429 3757). Lunch: Mon-Fri noon-2pm. Sunday: noon-2.30pm (closed Saturday). Set menu, pounds 15.90. Dinner: 7pm-10pm (closed Sunday). Set menu, pounds 28.50. All Cards. Limited disabled access

Photographs by Mike Scott


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