Rating ***** Richard Turner is the chef with fire in his belly and his passion shows in the exceptional food he serves at a great price, writes Andy Richardson.
Every family has a black sheep, and Birmingham’s is Richard Turner.
A few years ago, the city supplanted Ludlow as the second-best-place-in-England-to-eat; after London.
Three Michelin starred restaurants, brilliant markets, great independent producers, a stunning food festival and authentic restaurants – the Balti belt needs no introduction, nor does the city’s China Town – make it foodie heaven.
The city is estimated to represent 27 different nationalities and styles of cooking – it quite literally presents the world of a plate. From fish and chips to lamb rogan josh; from curried goat to French crepes; from Polish barbecues to strawberry tarts and from foie gras with cherries, pistachio, chocolate and chicory to dim sum; the city has food to appeal to all palettes.
It’s not just about restaurants. Birmingham’s food culture extends far beyond the confines of halogen-lit emporia. There are plenty of farmers markets offering a range of honey-related produce, jams and chutneys, dry-cured bacon, pork and gammon steaks and pork pies, cakes, scones and fudge, traditional hand made cheeses, organic vegetables and fruits, free range eggs, freshly baked breads, yoghurt, cream, butter, cheese and cheesecakes, among other things.
Markets, delis and food halls complete the scene – but restaurants remain at the top of the food chain.
While there are exceptional talents elsewhere in the city, including Carters of Moseley, Lasan at St Paul’s Square, Loves Restaurant at Browning Street and the exceptional Adam Stokes, at Adams, the three restaurants that tower over all others are Simpsons, Purnell’s and Turners.
All are synonymous with all-powerful chef-patrons; Andreas Antona is the boss of Simpsons. He was born into a Greek-Cypriot family with a café in London’s Westbourne Grove. As a child he was taught the all-important chef’s skill – how to use a knife – and went on to slice mushrooms, blanch and skin tomatoes and even cooking steak and chips. He made a home in the Midlands and has held Michelin stars in Kenilworth and Birmingham. His restaurant is a Rolls Royce operation – recognised as one of the best in the UK.
Next up is Glynn Purnell, the brilliant and customer-friendly proprietor of Purnell’s, who made his name at Jessica’s, in Edgbaston, before moving to the city centre to open his own restaurant. Famed for his TV appearances, including winning stints on BBC’s Great British Menu, he is better known as the Yummy Brummie, a man with a sense of humour and touch of genius.
And then there’s Richard Turner, whose public image over the past three years has waxed and waned. He’s been dubbed an enfant terrible, an occasionally-controversial figure who’s unlikely to be slapping James Martin on the back on Saturday Kitchen. In an age of celebrity cheffing – when many non-Michelin chefs are celebrities first and foremost, rather than cooks, he is the antidote. Turner is a brilliantly instinctive chef; a man who, temperamentally, at least, is more like Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay than Raymond Blanc or Jamie Oliver.
He has fire in his belly – and sometimes that’s hard for other people to handle. If the choice was between creating a great dish or being popular, Turner would go for the great dish. If the choice was between cooking food that he’s passionate about or pleasing the crowds, Turner would cook the food of his dreams.
Turner is the steak, not the sizzle. He’s the substance, rather than the style. He’s the truth, rather than the spin. He’s also got a reputation for being a bear with a sore head.
Turner emerged from a family with foodie connections: his grandfather was the driver of the Birds Custard Rolls Royce. He started out more than two decades ago and was largely self-taught. He opened his eponymous restaurant in 2007, winning his Michelin Star in 2009 and being highly commended by Hardens and The Good Food Guide 2010.
He describes his food as being Modern British with French influences, he makes regular journeys to the world’s greatest food nation in search of new inspiration.
I’ve eaten on Turners on previous occasions and been dazzled by the chef’s brilliance. When food is placed on a diner’s table, it matters whether it tastes, looks and smells good. It doesn’t matter whether the chef got out of bed on the right side or the wrong side – not to the customers, at least.
There’s a popular misconception about Michelin restaurants and it is this: they are beyond the reach of ordinary folk. As an ‘ordinary folk’ who occasionally eats in such restaurants, I’d beg to differ. Those who look in the right places will find Michelin restaurants that offer great dinners that are also great value.
The Taste of Turners menu, for instance, which is served on Tuesday evenings, offers five courses for £35. It’s a bargain. Such a price matches that on offer at other eateries – while offering exceptional quality.
Sure, you can blow a small fortune if you want to – though mostly, on wine. I’m happy to nail my colours to the mast and describe Turners’ eight course tasting menu, at £80, a bargain. With scallops, roast duck liver, john dory, grouse and more besides; it features exceptional and expensive ingredients that are treated with skill and respect by Turner.
When my friend and I visited, we opted for the economy version and dined on the Taste of Turners Menu. It was sublime. In the blur of dinners that becomes the working week of a jobbing restaurant critic; it ranked in my top two this year.
We began with an amuse bouche, a small taste of beetroot and goat’s cheese. The classic combinations were treated with skill, a goat’s curd mousse providing a salty, savoury contrast to the piquant beetroot and peppery micro leaves. Presented like an oil painting at the National Gallery and served with style, it got our evening off to the perfect start.
The breads were a revelation, too. A buttery, brioche-like roll filled with sweet and salty bacon was stunning, while a small French baguette was similarly good.
Our fish course was a ceviche of mackerel with gooseberry, butter milk and smoked belly. It was brilliant both in its conception and execution. Ceviche is delicious; raw fish is slowly marinated in citrus so it slowly begins to cook, while retaining a sashimi-like texture. The acidic sweetness of gooseberry cut through the oily richness of the fish, which was admirably fresh. It was heavenly; a stunning combination of the sea and the land using simple, low-cost ingredients. It wasn’t dressed up in a funny dress, with froths, foams and other fireworks. It was simple, peasant food elevated to the level of Michelin-starred genius.
And so to the main. The guinea fowl featured a breast with stuffed thigh, sweetcorn, mushroom puree and a jus roti. I got the sort of high that I imagine a bee gets when it discovers a mountain full of heather pollen, or a mountain pig feels when it discovers a white truffle. The balance of flavours was dreamlike; they were robust and strong, earthy and powerful. Richard Turner is like the Yorkie advert. He doesn’t do food for wimps. He does it for real foodies; foodies who want their senses to be dazzled. Ours’ were. The unobtrusive sweetcorn gave balance to the heavyweight, lip-smacking, knock-out flavour of the mushroom. The jus was a treat. I’d have happily asked the maitre d for a cappuccino cup full of the stuff. Intense, sticky and reduced with consummate skill, it was splendour and majesty on a plate.
We enjoyed a little breather before receiving our pre-dessert, which was a voluminously-served chocolate mousse with chocolate soil. It was thick, intense, buttery and the perfectly seasoned soil had a sweet-salty crunch.
And then we arrived at dessert and our waiter brought out an apricot soufflé with almond milk ice cream. The soufflé was tall. No, tall doesn’t cover it. I thought the waiter might have to take the roof out to get it to our table. He spooned a deliciously sharp apricot coulis to the bottom of the soufflé, which danced on my tastebuds like a Catherine wheel on bonfire night.
We were sated by the five-course masterclass and enjoyed a superlative dinner. Richard Turner might not be Birmingham’s best-known chef and he might not be its most popular – but is he its best? It’s a question that deserves attention but, good as he is, I’d say no. There are three other chefs in Birmingham whose food I’d rather eat – namely Glynn Purnell, Luke Tipping at Simpsons and Aktar Islam at Lasan.
Nonetheless, Turners is an exceptional restaurant – if only its chef would learn how to smile . . .
- Turners, High Street, Harborne, Birmingham B17 9NS
- Tel: 0121 4264440
- Web: http://www.turnersrestaurantbirmingham.co.uk/