I’ve been accused in the past, as have many bloggers, of only eating freebies in chain restaurants and nothing else. Well, that’s not true (along with so many of the other criticisms, snipes and claims made in the safe haven of social media) as there are plenty of meals I’ve paid for on this blog and many of them in independent restaurants, bars or hotels that would probably disintegrate like the Wicked Witch of the West if you mentioned the word chain to them.
However, I do indeed also eat in chain restaurants. I’m human, there’s lots of them, and I think some of them are doing pretty good stuff. They include Bistrot Pierre, which I’ve visited in Leamington and enjoyed so took up the offer of checking out the new menu at the Birmingham venue. Plus, they didn’t just offer me a free meal – they offered YOU free drinks if you use a special code at the bottom of this post. But you have to promise you actually read it and don’t just scroll to the bottom!
Bistrot Pierre is right on the canal in the heart of Birmingham. You can get to it via Gas Street or you can wander through the Mailbox and along the canal to get to it. It’s a Grade II listed building that was once the headquarters of the Birmingham Canal Company but has now been tastefully restored into a fairly large restaurant. They’ve put some new glass bits on the side but it’s one of those additions that works and artfully blends old and new without you weeping for the loss of the historic stuff.
Inside, rather than a huge open plan space like many places these days, they’ve kept the rooms so you have the feeling of being in a fairly intimate dining room rather than a big old chain. We sat in the older part of the building but if you want the views you need to get yourself to the new glass bit overlooking the canal, or maybe even the little courtyard if it’s a sunny day.
The French memorabilia and paintings are to be expected but again, they’ve been done quite tastefully and my friend out I found ourselves quickly relaxing into the easygoing bistro environment.
We were there to try the spring menu, which endeavours to bring the kind of seasonality we’re all demanding (quite rightly so) from restaurants now. The classics are all still there – goat’s cheese and mussel starters, beef bourguignon, steak frites, along with plenty of other slightly less stereotypical dishes, but there are some new additions to pep things up a bit too, plus a tidy little lunchtime prix fixe deal and an appealing selection of specials.
My friend went for a new addition to the menu – a new Vietnamese crispy duck salad with soy, chilli, ginger, coriander and sesame seeds. It was an impressive portion, including a generous amount of duck, leaving her slightly full, but I’d rather be served too much than not enough. It was colourful, fresh-looking and tasty thanks to the big, bold Asian flavours.
I opted for a simple scallop starter off the specials – Noix de St Jacques. The scallops were cooked right and decent enough in quality. They were served with Alsace bacon and hazelnut butter which overall brought too much salt in my friend’s view. I was okay with it but can see what she means, and although I like salty stuff, I also like to taste my scallops which were slightly masked.
On to the mains. My full friend was slightly ruing the fact she had chosen a rather large dish of Moroccan spiced slow-cooked shoulder of lamb with pearl couscous, harissa, toasted pine nuts, dried apricots and mint yogurt dressing. This is probably one of the better looking dishes I’ve seen at a restaurant of this level. It looked everything you imagined it would – rustic, warming, substantial with a clear Middle Eastern vibe going on.
It tasted great. Spiced enough to bring warmth and depth yet to allow the lamb, which by the way was tender as hell and fell apart at the touch of a fork, to really sing. I’m a fan of ‘big’ couscous as we call it in our house, and the addition of pine nuts, the fresh, slightly sour mint yoghurt dip and a rich sauce made for an all-round crowd-pleasing dish.
I had been trying to be vaguely healthy (yes, what a load of bullshit) and wanted something a bit lighter, so opted for one of the new dishes, poulet printanier – which basically means spring chicken I think. A bit like me. It sounded great – pan-fried chicken breast with asparagus, fricassée of wild mushrooms, peas, truffle oil and tarragon. It looked slightly less appealing. Not really their fault, dishes like this often aren’t the most photogenic though it definitely did look like more of a spring dish than a wintry bourguignon.
More importantly – it DID taste as good at sounded. Moist chicken breast, asparagus that still had a slight crunch, meaty mushrooms, slightly sweet peas, all in a sauce that was neither too heavy nor too loaded with truffle oil. It was easy eating, yet slightly beyond what I’d cook at home, which for me ticks the box for a night out like this. It all came with some eminently respectable veg which I personally didn’t need at all, but was a nice addition.
We should have stopped, but were tempted by a Café Gourmand. If there was a weak link in the meal, I’d say it was this. It looked lovely, and I’ve had one of these from Bistrot Pierre before, but I just wasn’t blown away. The caramel profiterole was a bit dry and unyielding, the berry macaroon was ok but I’ve had better, the chocolate brownie was pretty good, and the vanilla ice cream on an almond crumble was probably my fave, though again, I could have done without it.
In all fairness, we were a bit full anyway, but I could easily have left this which was a shame after some pretty good food on our previous courses. Either way, it didn’t detract from what was a good evening. The food was enjoyable, the service was attentive and the surroundings are nicely done. It’s not independent, it’s not avant garde, fine dining food, and it’s not trendy, industrial street food. It’s decent French-inspired brasserie food. It’s somewhere you can pop into, have some tasty food, glug wine and natter with your friend in nice surroundings. And sometimes that’s enough.
Yes, reading James Joyce, going to the ballet, drinking fine wine or eating Michelin-starred food is great. It’s challenging, it’s fulfilling, and well worth experiencing. But there are times you want to read a novel that’s decent but doesn’t require a degree, or watch a good film, or drink some wine that’s nice but quaffable. And eat food that’s tasty but easy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and don’t you dare let anybody tell you different.
We dined for free at Bistrot Pierre for the purposes of this review, though I wasn’t asked to specifically write anything positive.
Bistrot Pierre have also kindly offered to treat my readers to a free drink for each member of the party who books through Eat with Ellen. All you have to do is include this code – LBP6DK8W.
Please do read their Ts &Cs though – they’re on their website here. Enjoy!