I paid for our meal at Legna. I had a £20 off voucher after signing up to their mailing list, which anyone can do.
Yep, this is going to be another positive review. No surprise there, since Legna has been receiving plaudits and praise from people across Birmingham for a few months now. And that in itself isn’t a surprise, given it’s the latest opening by Aktar Islam, who is an old hand at this restaurant malarkey.
I guess Legna is a slight deviation from what some of us might have expected from Islam, who we came to know after his victory on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word and more recently, through his hit opening Opheem (which, as I write this, has been shortlisted as Restaurant of the Year in the GQ magazine awards).
Legna is a different beast. Same finesse, same ambition, but this is Italian and, unsurprisingly, Italian done very well. Just across the road from Opheem, it’s another place that Aktar has plucked from desolation and polished into a gleaming beacon of fine food and even finer service.
As you arrive you’re greeted by the impressive horseshoe bar with its even more impressive cocktail offerings that I’d taken the liberty of testing several times before even managing to dine at Legna. Beyond is the promise of many hours of dining pleasure, all set against the opulent background that manages to be impressive without ringing the style-over-substance alarm bells.
The menu is concise and, as you get in Italy, allows you the luxury of a journey that far surpasses any meagre three courses, without tying you into the eating marathon of an arduous tasting menu. You may want to go the whole hog and indulge in antipasti, a ‘primi’ pasta dish, followed by a pizza or secondi, and then a sweet. You may want your primi as a main course. Maybe you just want antipasti. Everything is possible in the same way the Italians don’t get precious about which course(s) you have as long as you enjoy your food.
We decide to go the whole hog (because why wouldn’t you on a quiet Wednesday evening), starting first with a gift from the kitchen in the form of a palate-cleansing tuna tartare. Chunks of fresh, meaty fish whose flavour was enhanced by the addition of citrus, perched on radicchio that brought both crunch and bitterness to the party.
Next came a basket of fresh bread complete with decent olive oil, decent balsamic vinegar (I say this because in so many places you don’t get the good stuff) and the winning offering of herb butter, lightly whipped into an easily spreadable gift from the gods.
To start, I felt unable to resist burrata. It’s just this weird obsession I have. Legna’s didn’t let me down. Far from it, in fact. There’s a reason why cheese like burrata and mozzarella are so often teamed with tomato and basil and it’s because it bloody works. The caprese salad is a timeless dish and a starter like this is definitely a relative.
Creamy, decadent burrata that oozes and melts in the mouth. Sweet tomato. Fragrant basil. In their raw form as well as more modern twists, plus the added delight of a glass-clear consomme poured over the top bringing more of that sweetness and the taste of Italy, right there on your plate.
If my starter was all sweetness and light, Jamie’s was the yin to its yang. Bresaola with peppery rocket with earthy, umami parmesan and truffle. Mum had opted for rabbit rillette – a densely-packed, meaty offering without too much jelly and the welcome addition of intense balsamic and mild, crunchy cippolini onions to balance the slightly gamey meat. I would, of course, show you a picture but Mum had dived into it before I could take one. Surely a good sign?
If Mr M was to live alone, there’s every chance he’d be happy to eat pasta every night. He loves the stuff. He eats it at work on a regular basis and at home whenever I’m not there. I’m the opposite. I’ll rarely choose pasta for a meal, whether at home or out at a restaurant. It just doesn’t do it for me. Except in a few situations.
The first is in Italy. I will order it every time over there. The second is in a really decent Italian restaurant in England where, again, I am unable to resist. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s all in my head. Or maybe the fact it’s homemade and fresh rather than dried and out of a pack whose use-by date expired at least six months ago makes it somehow taste better.
It was that thinking that led to a pasta dish of tagliatelle with celeriac, meaty, intense trompette mushrooms, Winchester cheese – probably the closest thing to parmesan that I’ve had in an English cheese – and a bit of truffle for good measure.
The pasta was delicate and soft, the mushrooms meaty in texture as well as flavour and the sauce an almost soup-like consistency that glided around the mouth leaving a silky coating.
Mum’s pumpkin risotto was the other dish I’d have gone for had I not had the tagliatelle. Probably one of the prettiest dishes of the night (and that’s saying a lot, given that these dishes could probably all hold their own on a catwalk), it reminds you why people really shouldn’t even tackle risotto if it’s going to be a soupy, soggy, sorry mess.
Instead it should be like this. Creamy and rich, the grains of rice plump and soft yet still with a bit of bite in the middle. Cooked properly so it’s taken on the flavour of the key ingredient, and with a few added textures to balance everything out – in this case sage and sweet charred onion.
Both of our pasta dishes were wonderful. But it was Jamie’s beef and wild boar ragu that took the prize. I’d heard a lot about this take on a classic bolognese and everything everyone said was spot on. We had a slightly less refined version of this classic at a small hilltop restaurant in Tuscany and I think the people there would have nodded in approval at this version in the heart of Birmingham.
Intense, meaty ragu that coats the perfectly-cooked pappardelle in a positively lascivious way, with the obligatory shavings of parmesan to add just a bit more sex appeal and also remind you that that stuff in the plastic tubs that you shake over your spag bol at home is really not fooling anyone that it’s parmesan. I would come back to Legna for a whole bowl of this dish and nothing else, it was that good.
Lucky for us, or perhaps foolishly, we were nowhere done and had ordered main courses, or ‘secondi’ to continue the night’s gluttony. For me, chicken cooked in the wood-fired oven, served on some of the pumpkin risotto that had tempted me earlier in the menu. Light yet with a bit of tantalising richness still lurking around, it was the perfect dish for a meal of this size.
Mum had opted for veal sirloin with aubergine and salsa verde and, while good on paper, I think she would perhaps rethink that choice to something a bit lighter if she returned. The sirloin itself was a hefty chunk of meat and while tasty, a bit too much given what we’d already consumed.
Jamie’s lamb shank presented a similar problem, though he still managed to power through. And of course, being full is no real criticism of the execution of the food. In fact, not only was Jamie’s lamb fall-off-the-bone perfectly cooked, it was also the first time he’s actually enjoyed polenta, he tells me. And that’s after having it a few times in Italy but declaring this the best.
Pre-dessert were a clever adaptation of that phenomenon that is the martini espresso, which seems to divide opinions as much as marmite. Innocuous chocolate truffles from the outside, their shell dissolved to produce an ice-cold explosion of the sexy cocktail from within.
For dessert I had opted for Legna’s version of tiramisu, combining the usual suspects of mascarpone, coffee and booze to finish the meal on another indulgent note. Tasty, though didn’t blow me away quite as much as some of the previous courses.
Mum’s lemon tart, however, did just that. Lip-smackingly tart balanced by a decent amount of sweetness. Another simple classic, done to perfection, to remind you why lemon tart appears on menus over and over again but equally why you may not find it as good as this elsewhere.
Ice-cream is Jamie’s Achilles Heel (according to him, it’s actually only a drink so even if you’re full you can consume it) so he couldn’t resist the allure of some gelato and declared it to be easily as good as any he’s had in Italy.
We finished with petits fours of a ‘Frozen Peach Bellini’ and an espresso and white chocolate fudge which, quite frankly, didn’t last long enough to take photos of.
I’d love to say we left at that point, but no, we felt the need to perch at the bar and try a couple of the cocktails. They do a rather special negroni that I’ve tried before, but I’m fairly confident that if you try any drink on this menu, you won’t be disappointed.
This post doesn’t really need any dramatic final conclusion. I think we all know Legna is good. Very good in fact. And we always knew it would be. This guy knows what he’s doing. An understanding that classic flavours and techniques are classic for a reason, paired with a fearlessness when it comes to putting his own stamp on them.
Legna brings with it bucketloads of respect for Italian cuisine, which has been winning hearts and minds for centuries, yet the confidence to play around with it and take it to new places. In the words quoted on Legna’s own website: “Rules are there to be broken, but we should never forget the wisdom of the past.” And when those words are applied to food, this is what you get.
I paid for our meal at Legna in full, apart from £20 off after signing up to their mailing list. You can do that too and then you’ll get offers and updates.