This year, Birmingham has been all about the Michelin Stars. There are five now, and while I wish I could tell you I’ve checked them all out, I haven’t. In fact, bar my breakfast trip to Adam’s, a trip to Simpsons about a decade ago, and a lunch at Purnell’s a few years ago, I haven’t had a chance to check any of them out. It’s the mission for 2016!
That said, when I got the chance to try out Purnell’s again, I jumped at starting that mission early. It’s one of the originals and Glynn Purnell has become a star in his own right, taking part (and winning) Great British Menu and earning himself the title of ‘Yummy Brummie’.
Like so many top establishments these days, it’s all about the tasting menu at Purnell’s. You can choose between six and nine courses, with various options to swap stuff out or add extra courses. As we made our decision in the plush bar area, my dining partner and I quickly realised we would want to add all the extras to the six courses so decided we may as well just go the whole hog and have nine. Incidentally, I was in the midst of a stint ‘off’ alcohol (unusual I know) so eschewed the accompanying wine flight, but was impressed that it was no trouble at all for the bartender to knock me up a non-alcoholic aperitif.
Now, I know I usually ramble on, but this is a LOT of courses, so I’m going to try to keep the words down a bit and let my (slightly inferior) pictures do the talking. I also spent far more time enjoying my meal rather than taking notes, so do excuse some of the vague descriptions. It’s testament to how much I was enjoying myself!
And so without further ado we’ll get on to the food.
We started with ‘Nibbles’ – including a cheese and pineapple taco (think posh cheese and pineapple on sticks) and a smoked trout cracker with parsley. I don’t really need to describe how beautiful it looked and how amazing the attention to detail was, I just wish my photography skills were better. Needless to say, they were great little amuse bouches, perfect to get the tastebuds limbered up for a great meal.
After some homemade bread and butter whipped up into the texture of clotted cream, it was on to the start of the feast. First up was ‘Bacon and Eggs’, which you could swap for Haddock and Eggs if you wanted. I stuck with the former, and loved the orb of rich golden yolkyness that contrasted with a salty taste of bacon. Alongside came delicious baby corn wrapped in scorched lettuce which was surprisingly delicious too.
Next up, Chicken Liver Parfait with red wine braised salsify and crispy salt and sour autumn leaves. Another beautifully-dressed plate, and the creamy smooth parfait was great, especially in contrast with the crispy leaves. Some little beignets (doughnuts basically), were a lovely little addition on the side.
Next came slow cooked mussels with pickled cucumber, kohlrabi, and dashi. This wasn’t my favourite course, I have to say, even thought I’m quite a seafood lover, but the colours were great.
The fourth course was sashimi of tuna, with sea herbs and sour soy. It came on a squid ink tapioca crisp with some lovely tweezer-style chopstick thingies, just in case you’re not a chopstick aficionado. While I was on the water, my friend was working his way through several different wines and – for this course – sake. I’m not usually a massive fan of this Japanese drink, but I tried a bit and it was actually really good. I might have to start exploring it again.
The next course was due to be Looe Red Mullet, but we both swapped it for Monkfish Masala, one of Purnell’s dishes from Great British Menu 2009. This was one of my favourite dishes of the night. It looked and tasted amazing and just, well, worked (no surprise there, since it’s one of his better known dishes).
Chunky monkfish, spiced just right, served with creamy red lentil dhal at just the right texture. Purnell has talked before about how the dish reminds him of times spent at his favourite curry house in Ward End and it’s nice to know that memories of simple food like curry weren’t just chucked in the bin once he got his name in lights, but were used as inspiration to great new dishes.
I could quite easily have eaten the monkfish and lentils for the rest of the night, but with four courses to go, I managed to restrain myself. The sixth course was Creedy Carver duck breast with almond satay, ponzu and coriander.
Again, no wine for me, but I was surprised to see a white poured for my pal. It turns out that at Purnell’s (and yeah, probably at lots of other decent restaurants too), they pair wines based on the whole dish, not just the protein on the plate. So although a red might go well with the duck, it would overpower the almond satay, hence the white. Interesting hey? Well, I thought so.
The duck was served pink, as it should be, and I loved the almond satay, although the dish still didn’t trump the monkfish for me.
The cheese course, however, was another high scorer for me. Creamy nutty Tunworth cheese on top of crunchy pumpkin seeds and topped with pumpkin ice-cream. I know, you raised your eyebrows at that, and so did I, but it really was great. And there was a bit of (I think) pumpkin and orange glaze, which added a nice bit of acidity to an otherwise mild but tasty dish.
And so to pudding. If you’ve counted the courses you’ll know there’s two left, therefore two sweets. Gregg Wallace would be jumping for joy. First up was Burnt English custard egg surprise – Purnell’s “10/10/10” of Great British Menu 2008. And it’s no surprise why. While we’d had a bit of theatre so far, it’s all quite nicely understated. But here you can see the fun side coming through.
Delicate vanilla-laced custard carefully poured and set inside a real eggshell then slightly caramelised on top. It came in a lovely straw-filled basket before it was perched on top of its own little stand with a theatrical flourish. The egg would have been fine on its own, but we were treated to a pot of apple and pear compote and frozen apple snow with what I think was a pastry twirl.
And finally, Mint Choccy Chip. What a finale. First came this amazing glass stand, adorned with freeze-dried mint leaves. By the side, a bowl of aero-esque chocolate. And in front of us each, a bowl of rich, silky, naughty chocolate dessert. And so for the theatre…
You’ll guess from the pictures above that dry ice was poured into the glass centrepiece, creating not just a cloud of smoke, but filling the air with a minty fresh smell. Mint choc chip. Simple ideas, but executed in a way that makes you feel like you’re in Willy Wonka’s magical factory.
Just when we thought it was all over and we couldn’t manage more, there were the petit fours. Delivered in a retro tin, we finished our meal with a coffee and little treats of a golden bar with popping candy, sour blackberry, and a dark chocolate and peanut butter half-orb of loveliness. Wowsers.
And so, my dear friends, we came to the end of what really was a great meal. Some courses made my shoulders shrug and my eyes close more than others – the monkfish, the burnt egg custard and the mint choccy chip were my faves – but there’s no denying that Purnell’s is deserving of the reputation it’s got.
Not just that, but while I remember it being slightly stuffy when I last went for lunch, it felt like a relaxing place to enjoy good food. A place where you can quiz the waiter or sommelier on a dish, take pictures and notes like a crazy person, and ask for your non-alcoholic drink to look like a cocktail, all without people frowning on you or looking disdainfully at the child who was mistakenly let into the grown-ups’ room. And that, for me, is a big deal.
I’m not saying Purnell’s is somewhere you should pop into for a Friday night bite to eat. It’s not the cheapest restaurant in the city (that’s an understatement) – the nine-course menu is £88 and the six-courser is £68 – but as tasting menus go they’re not too bad at all. It’s somewhere for a special occasion, a place to try new things, be inspired, and treat yourself to some great food.
So that’s one off the list! Bring on the rest of Birmingham’s Michelin treats!
We paid in full at Purnell’s. They didn’t know I was planning on writing a blog.