Richard Turner is no newbie to this stuff. He’s been impressing people in Birmingham long before I had ever saved up enough pennies to go to a posh restaurant. And like all the best rock stars, he hasn’t been scared to move with the times.
From 2007 to 2016 he was at the helm of Michelin-starred Turners Restaurant in Harborne. It lost its star after he moved into more casual dining, confessing he was ‘bored’ and then went on to close in January.
Fast forward a few months and he’s back. This time in the city centre at swanky-looking Maribel. Within literally minutes, people said he was ‘back’. Like, in the way people say someone is back when they return with a hit album after a brief hiatus. And the kind of excitement that makes you want to go and try it for yourself.
The Brindley Place venue certainly feels like a fine dining establishment. Sleek, chic and yet with a fairly intimate feel, thanks in part to the fact that it has stuck to 35 covers.
The menu is a simple choice of four, six or eight course tasting menus (with the option of a three-course lunch). At £45, £65 and £85 respectively it’s not unreasonably priced. Not for food like this.
We opt for six. The middle-ground. That way you’re feeling like you’re pushing the boat out without feeling excessive. Not that I’m any stranger to excess.
First up is a collection of amuse bouches. Or snacks. Or whatever the cool kids call it these days. (I can tell Maribel is cool because they play cool music, no elevator-style Muzak here). Let the games begin.
First up is Gougere made with 36-month aged Gruyere. I’ve never had Gougere before and that in itself makes me sad that I’ve missed out on 36 years worth of eating this. Imagine a profiterole. Made with cheese. Filled with gooey, strong cheese. Imagine that, then imagine that somehow it’s even better than you think. That was this.
It was followed by a dramatic smoke-filled cloche that hid inside little cubes of smoked, breadcrumbed eel on horseradish cream, with a peppery nasturtium leaf on top.
A ‘duck egg’ with frog’s leg was a clever Michelin-style play on flavours and appearances, presented in the shell, itself in a ‘nest’, with layers of garlicky foam on top of a rich egg yolk. One of those dishes that makes perfect sense when you make sure you have a bit of every layer on your spoon.
A mini Caesar salad was a refined version of a classic. Simple and refreshing. And let’s not forget a slab of ‘Adams sour dough’ with Bungay raw butter.
Sourdough is everywhere these days, right? Often fairly tasteless with a texture that can only be compared to cardboard, or perhaps maybe even MDF. Not this. This is the kind of sourdough that made everyone decide it was the best thing since, well, sliced bread. And I can see why. Light and yielding and yet tastier than most breads you’ll get elsewhere.
Our first proper ‘course’ is mackerel with potato, seaweed and buttermilk. It reminds me of some of the courses we had at the Driftwood Hotel in Cornwall. Full of tastes of the sea. From the samphire-esque seaweed to the crispy tube of fish mousse.
‘Duck, blackberry and ginger bread’ was a dome of smooth, yielding yet powerfully rich duck liver parfait with blackberry in the form of a blanket of blackberry jelly draped over the top of it as well as a few fresh blackberries, plus the sweet crunch of gingerbread crumbs sprinkled on top. A far cry from your average chicken liver pate.
Next up was Turbot, langoustine, mussel, mushroom, chervil, verjus. I’ve been a fan of turbot since I scored a couple straight off a fishing boat in Padstow courtesy of a drunk fisherman – something about the combination of memories with its clever combination of firm texture and delicate flavour.
Pair it with similarly delicate flavours of mushroom, chervil and lime-like verjus and it made for a light, refreshing dish to follow the silky rich parfait.
The venison course that came next was my favourite. A winter classic, complete with tried and tested flavours and a bit of dramatic presentation to remind you where you are.
Beautifully pink meat, served with a vertical tower of parsnip that you can imagine being the inspiration for the next crazy building to occupy the Dubai skyline. Creamy cabbage, piquant Stilton, balls of sweet pear, crispy kale, and crunchy hazelnuts.
Add it all together and it’s everything fine dining should be. Classic flavours yet brought together in a way you’ve probably never had before. A way that experiments with textures, aesthetics and flavours yet does it in a way that doesn’t alienate you but draws you in and reminds you why it’s good to step out of your comfort zone.
Continuing on the rich, wintry theme, an Eccles cake with Yorkshire blue followed. Now, I’ve often been mocked by my penchant for a slice of mature cheddar on a hot cross bun, but I’m pleased to say that this dish is my vindication.
Yes, okay. A perfectly-executed pastry with a quenelle of smooth, umami blue cheese-flavoured yumminess isn’t quite as rustic as a slice of Cathedral City on a Tesco Value Hot X Bun, but it brings together the same marriage of sweet and savoury that is clearly a winner if Richard Turner is doing it. Thank you, sir, you just saved me years of argument and ridicule.
At this juncture, I suppose I should mention the drinks. After much deliberation, we had decided to partake in the wine flight. A little treat but often something that’s worthwhile when you’re going to be working your way through such a range of flavours, styles and courses.
And as much as it might seem intimidating somewhere like Maribel, it’s the perfect kind of place to explore wine. With a wine flight (usually, when you have a good sommelier, which clearly you do here) you’re talked through each wine so you know where it’s from and how it’s made but, more importantly, what flavours you’re looking for and why it’s served with the particular course you’re having. I know, I know, you think it’s all mumo jumbo. But trust me, when a wine is paired right with food, you’ll know, and suddenly everything gets a whole lot tastier.
After various wines, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our Medjool date steamed pudding was paired with an Espresso Martini. Hurrah! Something different, but which also made perfect sense. The pudding itself was sweet and sticky, the stuff of childhood memories, and countered perfectly by smooth, slightly bitter coffee ice cream and the punch of the Martini.
Don’t worry – we’re nearly at the end (bet you’re glad I didn’t go for the eight-course menu, hey). And this, folks, really was the Piece de Resistance. If I said ‘Salted caramel, honeycomb, chocolate, meringue’ you might think, ‘okay, I like all that. It sounds okay’.
But what if I said ‘Deconstructed wagon wheel’?
A childlike mess of chocolate mousse, encrusted with chunks of chocolate cake, squidgy meringue and crunchy honeycomb. The stuff of kids’ and adults’ dreams alike. The perfect indulgent end to a treat of an evening. And a dish that goes to show that no, fine dining isn’t all weird fiddly stuff that you have never heard of or seen. It can be the simplest favourite treat, just done slightly differently.
Nobody needs me to tell them that Richard Turner is a great chef. Everyone knows it. The critics know it. He knows it. But for what it’s worth, I agree. The food is exquisite, obviously. It’s intricately thought through, perfectly executed and presented.
But most importantly, it’s an education in what I think fine dining should be about. Not dragging people kicking and screaming out of their comfort zone, but gently coaxing them into trying things they might not ordinarily have opted for. It’s the carrot rather than the stick approach by a man who is brave enough to put his passion for flavour above all else.
It’s that kind of courage that leads someone to turn away from menus that ‘bore him’, no matter how successful they might be. Or who will serve up a riff on a Wagon Wheel because that’s what he wants to do.
And it’s that attitude that is why Richard Turner is still cooking for the likes of you and me, and probably will be for a very long time.
I was invited to dine at Maribel for the purposes of this blog. We took some friends and while two of our meals were free, the rest we paid for in full.