It’s not every day a chef lets you look at his little black book of recipes. Then again, it’s not every day you get served your dinner by the chef himself. Or eat fine dining food at a cafe in a random in Birmingham. Hurrah for new experiences hey, because my visit to En Place pop-up was certainly one of these.
Pop-ups seem to be the new in-thing to do, and I felt a bit late to the party having not tried one yet. I’d planned to get along to En Place last month but life got in the way, so nothing was going to keep me from this month’s, even a busy week full of food, work and not enough sleep.
So what’s the deal? What is En Place? Well basically, once a month chefs Mike and Josh take over the Six Eight Kafe in Millennium Point for two nights and turn it into a venue for a fine dining soirée. Their aim is to produce great food (obvs) but also to make fine dining accessible for everyone, to keep it a bit low-key so those people who hate all the pristine white linen, the napkins laid over your lap, and the prim and proper atmosphere, can enjoy good food without the fuss.
They sure manage this at En Place. Since they’re basically squatting in someone else’s venue, simplicity is key. No starched linen, no cut glass, no fancy wine list, and no simpering staff. You get a table, cutlery, and glasses, you bring your own booze, and you get served by the chefs. Fewer staff helps keep the costs down, as does the use of simple ingredients bought that morning from Birmingham market, meaning it’s a pretty bloody reasonable £35 for three courses plus amuse bouche (called snacks here) and petit fours (treats in En Place language). Who can quibble at that? Plus the lack of waiting staff means that if you’re a food fan, you’ve got the readymade opportunity to quiz the guys who actually cooked your dinner when they bring it to you.
Unsure of what to expect, I went with foodie partner in crime Midlands Gourmet Girl to see what they had in store for us. We joined a big gang of 12 for the night – many of whom were return guests – and very soon were being talked through the menu (lucky Tracey had even been given her own bespoke menu – the advantage of such a flexible set-up) by Josh and Mike, as well as hearing about their ideas behind the venture, and their aspirations. The disarming pair managed in a few minutes to get us excited about the evening ahead before dashing off to finish preparing our dinner. The evening we went to was all about showcasing modern cooking techniques, so we were looking forward to trying some dishes with a difference.
We started off with Beetroot ‘Air’ and chilled orange – a bowl of beetroot froth accompanied by a chilled orange granita. Great for cleansing the palette before the meal. Another ‘snack’ was cucumber marinated in wasabi, soy and red wine vinegar with a slice of ginger in it. Only small, but again a flavour-packed start to the meal. Our favourite snack was the Mojito in Spherification – a jelly-like orb of clear liquid that exploded in your mouth with a rush of Mojito. Cue plenty of surprised faces around the room as they sampled them!
To start, I enjoyed a delicate concoction of black pudding and egg, with the En Place boys’ quirky approach showcased on the plate (apologies for the pictures in this post, they’re not my best and I’m not quite sure they do the food justice). A confit egg yolk lay on top of cauliflower puree, with black pudding crumb and cauliflower ‘cous cous’ scattered on top. There were also blobs of yeasted cauliflower puree, adding a hint of Marmite-y taste to the dish. Yummy, but I did find it a tad too rich for me by the time you’ve combined black pudding with rich cauliflower puree then added an egg yolk.
The fish course was salmon tartare with pickled apple, curried ‘scraps’ – you know, those lovely batter bits you used to ask for at the chippy – as well as curried aioli and rapeseed oil powder. The salmon was tender and tasty, the apple sharp and crunchy, and the curry flavours kind of acted as the bridge between the different elements of salt and sour. By this point it had become clear that these guys not only like to give you great tastes, but a fantastic mixture of textures. From the crunchy apple and crunchy scraps, to soft salmon and creamy aioli, your palate certainly didn’t get the chance to get bored.
For main course, I was served lamb breast, which came with lamb’s kidney, a pea and broad bean salad, and a scorched lettuce leaf. This dish just gleamed with the colours of summer – pink lamb set alongside the bright green of the lettuce, peas and broad beans. The lamb was tender with some crunchy skin, the pea and broad bean salad sweet and fresh, especially with the inclusion of some mint. I like the way the ‘scorching’ made the lettuce slightly bitter and gave it some crunch. Although I’m an offal lover, the kidney was probably my least favourite part, but I’m wondering if that’s because I’ve been more used to the flavours of pig’s kidney in the past. There certainly wasn’t anything wrong with the cooking, nice and pink and tender. While I was dining on lamb, Tracey enjoyed an alternative of a crispy chicken thigh that she declared was delicious.
Between each course we had the chance to grill Josh (who seemed to be lumbered with serving us our dishes) on how they’d been cooked, what was what, and get a bit of a flavour for the techniques that had been used. It was a good combination of modern techniques and food theatre without losing track of the traditional stuff that most of us love – like a nicely cooked piece of meat.
Pudding, for me, was the winning course – the En Place take on PBJ, or peanut butter and jelly. The peanut butter was in the form of a perfectly-executed peanut butter parfait. Creamy and rich yet light at the same time, and so moreish that I did, I’m slightly ashamed to say, demand more! It was joined on the plate by cubes of cherry jelly and a smear of cherry puree which were just the right tartness to cut through the rich parfait. Add to that candied almond and a butter, crunchy biscuit base and again it was the perfect mixture of tastes and textures to make for an utterly fabulous dessert – one of the best I’ve had in a long time. Seriously, I could’ve eaten that parfait all night long!
Alas, it wasn’t to be, and we moved on to the final leg of our meal – ‘treats’. We started with ‘White Russian Krispies’, another bit of Heston-esque restaurant theatre. We started with a bowl of dehydrated rice krispies with coffee, which Josh poured vodka-infused milk onto, filling our table with the ‘snap, crackle and pop’ sound of childhood, mixed with an adult’s appreciation of extra alcohol . It was slightly surreal eating a bowl of spirit-infused cereal as one of the closing scenes of an evening meal, but the idea was so original and the taste so remarkably like that of a White Russian that any weirdness was dismissed by our enjoyment. This was followed by some slightly more traditional petit fours of homemade strawberry and clotted cream fudge, and a delicious chocolate and honeycomb combo.
The meal finished with Mike and Josh coming out of the kitchen to join us all for first a round of applause, followed by a well-earned beer and more chance to chat with them about their venture, plus the opportunity to have a sneaky peek at the little black book full of their ideas, recipes, menu plans. We left Millennium Point slightly reluctantly to catch our train, having had some great food in a setting completely different to anything either of us had ever had before and already talking about coming back for the next one.
There are several reasons why En Place is worth a visit in my book. The imagination it takes not only to execute an idea like a pop-up restaurant, but behind the dishes themselves, is something you only get at a certain level of cooking. Menus are often similar, with ‘on-trend’ ideas taking over and dominating restaurant after restaurant after restaurant. Here these guys are trying to do their own thing, and they’re doing it incredibly well. The execution is impressive enough until you see the size of the kitchen they’re working in, the limited resources and budget, and the fact they’re making themselves chefs, sous chefs, pot-washers, waiting staff and restaurant managers all at the same time. And all with smiles on their faces. And then there’s the cost – there aren’t many places you can get fine dining food using all the latest techniques, drawing on years of cooking experience, for £35 a head. If the aim is to make this level of food more accessible to people, I defy anyone to claim that it’s not succeeding. If your only reason not to try some more refined food is the cost, then you’ll have to find a new excuse because this is great value, almost too good to be true for the quality that you get.
The black book said it all for me. This project is not something that these guys take lightly – the level of detail in menu plans, recipe ideas, different dishes, and the work behind them is the best evidence you could have for their commitment to making this a great experience. We all know that there’s plenty of competition out there and to do something different, despite all the obstacles there must be, deserves recognition in my view. Bravo boys, we’ll be back!
We paid for our meals at En Place. They knew we were both bloggers but haven’t mentioned it, let alone ask us to write anything positive for them. Everything in this blog is my honest opinion.