[Disclosure: I was invited for a complimentary meal at The Rolling Mill shortly after it opened.]
For those of us who don’t live in Birmingham, the list of restaurants to visit is ever-growing and a living reminder that anyone who criticises the choice of eateries available in the second city has probably a) never actually been there, or b) never lived in a tiny town where the choice of restaurants can be counted on one hand.
Despite facing the same endless challenges as other cities in recent times, Birmingham has seen a flurry of new openings over the past few months, adding to its already long list and bringing choices from Instagram-lovers hangouts to restaurants and bars that cover a whole range of cuisine, price and quality.
Among those is The Rolling Mill – a former factory in the Jewellery Quarter that has been transformed into a restaurant bar that’s simultaneously industrial yet accessible to those of us who consider ourselves slightly not cool enough for some of Birmingham’s trendiest establishments.
The menu is broad and wide-ranging, with everything from small plates to hearty mains, pizzas and puddings. I wouldn’t argue that it’s ground-breaking but it’s not trying to be. This is a place that knows what people want and what works, plays around a bit with it, but doesn’t mess unnecessarily with the favourites.
Mum and I visited after an afternoon of festive fun in Birmingham, and while my eyes kept returning to a lamb chop dish that has won high praise from seemingly everyone I know who has visited The Rolling Mill, we decided to stick with a few small plates instead of a huge feed.
Steamed bao buns were a promising start, packed with sticky beef short rib, crunchy veg and fragrant herbs. Not the best I’ve ever had but far from the worst. They proved to be a great warm-up act for sticky, tangy, chicken wings that definitely were up there with some of the better ones I’ve had. Tender, fall-off the bone with a crispy outer coating in turn covered in the kind of finger-sticking good sauce that provides you with a second bite of the cherry as you try to suck them clean.
A spicy chicken dish was a bit like a stir fry I’d knock up at home and potentially a bit one-dimensional, but enjoyable albeit a bit pedestrian. Mac and cheese was a generous bowl of steaming, cheesy carby goodness – up there in mum’s view in terms of the mac’n’cheeses she’s tried (of which there are many), though possibly not the best.
In complete contrast, a bowl of spiced cauliflower – again in a slightly crispy coating then draped in a spicy mayonnaise – was a revelation. So often overlooked, cauliflower is (in my very humble opinion) hugely under-rated, but that’s not surprising given how many places seem to suck away any of its flavour and texture with clumsy, careless cooking. Not so here, great textures, lovely flavour, and a surprising winner when it came to our favourite dishes.
Kidding ourselves that our choice of small plates meant we really hadn’t eaten that much at all, we moved on to the dessert menu. A winter’s night meant one of several choices from ‘The Custard Parlour’ section of the menu – all retro puds designed to take you on a trip down memory lane (however unpleasant that may be) was in order.
Another unpredictable triumph, a croissant bread and butter pudding was everything this classic should be. Soft, squishy and sweet, with a slightly crispy crust and a custard that could very much rival anything I’ve had before. Comfort food at its best – the kind that reminds you that there’s a reason why no matter how many times you ate it as a kid, you can’t help but come back to it. A joyous last hurrah to what proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
When it comes to its food offering, Birmingham reflects the very thing that makes food so great – the fact it can be anything from a brilliantly-built £2 sandwich to a 15-course tasting menu designed to break the bank. Neither are right or wrong, not everyone likes the same, and whether you’re a multi-millionaire whose experience is about extravagance and image more than flavour, or someone who just really appreciates that bloody brilliantly-built sandwich, you can enjoy it all.
That’s what Birmingham does, and does very well. It has a host of Michelin stars, some of the best chefs in the country, and also some of the most down-to-earth bars, pubs, street food traders and casual dining options which means yes, all of us get to enjoy it in some shape or form, even if we’re less knowledgeable, less well off, and less confident.
For me, The Rolling Mill epitomises this. You don’t have to feel self-conscious, to worry about whether you’re trying new flavours you’ve never had before or whether you’ll still be paying for your dinner still in six months time. You can eat the things you know you like, know they’re done well, and enjoy it in nice surroundings with people whose company you enjoy. Because sometimes, it really is just that simple.