The last time I went to Hotel du Vin I was a cub reporter at a news agency sent to stalk Simon Cowell. I’d love to say sitting there for hours hiding behind the menu hoping to spot him in a clinch with someone was as good as trying out the restaurant and bar or checking in for my own cheeky night away, but that would be akin to some of the more sketchy claims we’ve all come across from various quarters.
It wasn’t fun. There was no clinch. There was no scoop. In fact, I don’t think it even ended up being a story. One of many wasted afternoons or evenings endured in the early stages of my career in journalism.
Anyway, let’s reverse out of memory lane and fast forward 15 years. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t been back to Hotel du Vin – not Birmingham’s anyway – since the ill-fated ‘Simon stakeout’. I’d love to say it was because I was traumatised by the hours of boredom spent there, but it’s nothing quite that dramatic. I’ve heard great things and the imposing building is just as tempting as it always has been but various things prevented my return – not least of all the long list of new places opening up every five minutes in Brum that sometimes means the longstanding venues get overlooked.
Lucky for me, a few weeks ago I found myself trotting up the steps to the grand entrance with a far more fun few hours planned than staking out a music mogul, instead trying out Hotel du Vin’s new menu with a bunch of other blogging peeps.
It’s not only the exterior that is as grand as I remember. Inside the bar area is elegant and welcoming and it’s instantly understandable why the likes of Bite Your Brum finds it so easy to spend so much time there (sorry Laura, couldn’t resist). The restaurant itself has a similar feel, understated but classy.
It’s a classic bistro menu, full of French favourites like escargots and cassoulet as well as crowd pleasers of sharing platters of Salcombe cock crab (nobody laugh like I did), lobster, or Fruits de Mer. For people like Mr M there’s a healthy selection of steaks, with fish dishes, vegetarian options and salads for other more adventurous people out there.
The good thing about being with a bunch of bloggers is you get to try a whole lot more stuff than just your own and your long-suffering other half’s dishes. To that end, we started with Toulouse sausage, coarsely cut and well seasoned, served with a tomato and red onion salad with sherry vinaigrette. A light, summery take on the same sausage we were munching just a month ago in cassoulet in the pouring rain in France.
The Bayonne Ham and Charentais Melon was another light dish, though not something I’d necessarily write home about. Probably not helped by the fact I’d never really choose something like this personally, opting for dishes that are a bit more adventurous than some cubes of melon and slices of ham, albeit alright in terms of quality, that even I could knock up at home.
Much more up my street are the Escargots a la Bouguignonne. You might remember I raved about some snails we had in Alquezar in Spain during our road-trip, saying they were much better in the rich sticky sauce than the ordinary garlic butter you usually get.
The Hotel du Vin version a bit of a halfway house – still traditional in flavour with garlic and butter, yet more weighty in texture thanks to the addition of breadcrumbs, making for a more substantial dish like the version we’d had in Spain. Alquezar’s still my fave, but these were an improvement on some of the traditional versions I’ve tried.
The Caprese salad was a return to summer feels, with the winning combination of Isle of Wight tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and balsamic dressing proving itself yet again. My photo definitely doesn’t do justice to the rainbow of colours on the plate, and my only criticism would be that the flavour of the tomatoes didn’t quite match the bright colours. I guess I wanted the same sunshiney flavour you get from tomatoes when you’re abroad, though perhaps I’m being unfair to expect my holiday food to be delivered to me in the middle of Brum.
The piece de resistance was the Fruits de Mer – a showstopping ice-laden platter stacked with oysters, lobster, Salcombe crab, prawns and squid ceviche. Alongside was a selection of shallot vinegar, traditional cocktail sauce, homemade mayonnaise and Bloody Mary ketchup that I could have quite happily had as a sauce to dip my bread in.
Yes, Fruits de Mer isn’t necessarily a demonstration of a chef’s skill and talent, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive or fun to eat – and this was both. We all tucked in to already-shucked oysters, fought over chunks of lobster, and scooped out every last bit of crab we could get out of that shell – exactly what you should do with a platter like this. It’s for convivial eating, for special treats, and for people who don’t mind getting their hands mucky.
Our epic first course over, we moved on to the mains, which those of you who don’t like sharing will be pleased to know we each chose ourselves and stuck to our own dish. Those choices varied from traditional French like this steak tartare to a lighter sea bass en papillote, packed with fennel, olives, lemon and thyme, transporting you from a Victorian building in the middle of Birmingham to a bistro somewhere in France.
I decided on roast cod with a herby crust, served on braised puy lentils littered with pancetta and button onions, making it a nice middleground between light and summery and rich, sexy and wintry. The cod was cooked right, the lentils soft without being mushy, and the flavours well balanced across the dish so you couldn’t help but try to make sure you had a little bit of each element on your fork.
I have to confess. By the end of the main course a lot of Hotel du Vin’s selection of wine had been drunk, and as you can see, a lot of food eaten. I managed to try some of the chocolate mousse for dessert – another classic – and had to leave as my fellow bloggers dived into the famous Hotel du Vin cheese trolley, another theatrical touch that takes you right out of the Midlands and dumps you somewhere in France, home of the ‘Chariot de Fromage’ and leaves you there for several hours in a cheese-induced coma before you come back to earth with a bump.
Needless to say, if you want to stay reality-free for a few more hours, you can move onto some of the bar’s cocktails before you stumble back out into the city centre, full of French-inspired food and wine and ready to face the world. That’s what I’d do if I were you.
Of course, I didn’t do that. I headed back to Rugby while the rest of my pals drank the night away. And I still had a headache the next day. Hotel du Vin is certainly somewhere you can lose yourself for a little while. Don’t worry, I know it’s not France. I know there are probably other places doing some of these French dishes a bit better, but the food is good and not too unreasonably priced.
On top of that, the surroundings are beautiful and the service good. It’s somewhere you could enjoy a romantic dinner for two, take your mum to for a treat, meet up with a business contact, or have a glass of wine with your friends, and it’s a decent place that manages to cater for all of these situations with style.
It’s safe to say, my return trip to Hotel du Vin was a damn sight better than that lonely afternoon waiting for Simon Cowell to emerge from his room. And I don’t plan on waiting another 13 years or so until I return!
I was invited to Hotel du Vin by Delicious PR to try the new menu. The food and drinks were complimentary.