Rating: ** - It was a front-runner in the renaissance of the Brum dining scene but more than a decade on, can Bank still cut the mustard?
I blame Bank. It’s because of Bank that I caught the bug for eating out.
It was a decade ago, Evanescence were top of the charts with Bring Me To Life, and Bank was very much at the forefront for bringing the Brum restaurant scene to life.
Before the arrival of Bank, the chances of finding a decent spot to dine in the second city were few and far between. There was Didier Philpot’s La Torque d’Or but that was tucked away in the gem quarter – the city centre was a barren place, save for 15 branches of Pizza Hut.
Once Bank established itself, the flood gates opened and, although Brum still has a long way to go before it can boast truly world class dining, there’s much more on offer now than just deep pan pizza. There’s even a sprinkling of Michelin stars.
On my first visit to Bank I was mesmerised by chic, airy interior and open plan kitchen – I felt like I was in some hip loft-style apartment in NYC. I was enchanted by the seamless service; how did the waiters know what each person had ordered without prompt? And you got bread. Lovely bread. For free. Who’d have thought such a thing was possible?
The food was good too. Cod fritters followed by a chicken Caesar salad (I was in my chicken Caesar salad phase when I thought it was the height of sophistocation).
I have been back to Bank a few times in the last 10 years, each time full of hope that it’ll be as good as that first time but left wanting.
It was with the same rose-tinted spectacles that I found myself back there for this review.
The space still has that contemporary, industrial feel and as the maitre d’ marched us the length of the bar (surely the longest bar in Brum, apart from possibly The Square Peg) and into the restaurant area I felt a familiar flutter of anticipation.
It was a Wednesday night but there’s was still a considerable buzz from diners and people perched on bar stools sipping cocktails as good looking as the staff.
Our waitress was no exception; a petite, smiling blonde who welcomed us warmly and rattled through the considerable specials – mainly featuring fish including lemon sole with parsley and whole seabass.
As we cast our eyes over the menu, the other half commented on its heavy Asian-influence. And he was right; starters included chilli squid with Thai herb and noodle salad, crispy duck spring rolls, and king prawn tempura, while main courses choices featured Thai green chicken curry and tandoori baked seabass with mint yogurt.
However, I was relieved that many of the Bank classics such as chicken liver parfait, fish and chips and salmon fishcakes, not to mention a wide choice of steaks remained on the menu.
It’s these staples that have always made Bank the type of upmarket joint you can take anyone, from a work colleague to your gran and be confident they will find something to eat.
That said, we decided East was best and opted for the Asian platter for two to start. But before that arrived we got bread. Free bread. But in all honesty, if I’d have had to pay for it I’d have asked for a refund because it was below par, bordering on stale. I desperately wanted to enjoy it but was left disappointed with each bite.
Sadly, this set a bit of a precedent for the entire meal. The Asian platter arrived soon after. Served on a long, rectangular plate, it was jarring when the waitress placed it length ways between me and the other half. Surely, placing it horizontally, giving us optimum dining – and viewing – space, is logical, no?
Anyway, we shuffled it round and were then able to appreciate its prettiness, although we both noticed that some of the micro herbs doted on top of each item were a bit wilted, a bit yesterday.
Much the same could be said for the platter. It all tasted of yesterday. Not bad, just not fresh. I’ll start with what was good – the tempura prawns were light, hot and tasty although it appeared the sweet chilli dipping sauce was out of a bottle. I’m thinking Blue Dragon. Now, I’m not a snob. I use bottled sweet chilli sauce at home all the time but when the price tag is £15.95 is it wrong to expect more?
The chilli squid was okay too although its bed of vegetable ribbons were insipid with little bite.
The Thai fish cake had no real hit of chilli while the duck spring rolls were only edible when giving the accompanying plum sauce a wide berth.
‘A taste of the world,’ was how the waitress introduced the dish. I’d say it was more a taste of the deep fat fryer.
A pair of overdone chicken skewers looked sad sat in an pool of watery coconut milk. They were a touch dry but could have been saved with some chunky satay dip. No such luck.
It’s a shame the skewers didn’t quite hit the spot since my main course was just a larger version of the starter; I didn’t quite compute, or expect, that it would be exactly the same. The chicken breast arrived in a bath of white coconut cream, and was a bit unappetising.
Thankfully the chicken was more moist than its skewered sisters but the accompanying cubes of orange sweet potato – the only real break in a sea of white – were woefully underdone.
They were both hard and underseasoned. I couldn’t eat all of the sauce, it was just too rich with so little to cut through it.
The other half chose the crispy duck with Chinese greens, honey and sesame. He described it as ‘underwhelming’ and a tad measly for its £17 price tag. However, he did like the fried lotus root crisps which were scattered atop the meat. I nicked one and can confirm they were delicious with a real hit of soy saltiness.
Neither dish came with accompaniments and we didn’t order any. I begrudge having to order side dishes to make a complete meal, instead they should be glutinous extras. I think I’d have felt more satified if my chicken dish had been accompanied by a soft dome of white rice. May as well keep with the colour scheme, people.
The waitress didn’t ask if we had enjoyed our main. Maybe from the clean plates she thought it was obvious. Maybe we were just hungry.
Crestfallen we soldiered on to pudding. Surprisingly there’s not much Asian influence where pudding’s concerned. Choices were pretty standard; sticky toffee pud, lemon tart and creme brulee. No surprises there, although there was a passion fruit cheesecake on the specials board, which I guess could have been classed as Eastern inspired.
We plumped for the selection of ice creams, selecting chocolate, salted caramel and Malteser. We both agreed the inclusion of ‘Malteser’ ice cream cheapened the Bank brand. What next? Oreo-flavoured milkshakes? Blue Dragon Sweet Chilli dipping sauce? Branded by-products are the rightly the domain of the golden arches, or kiddie-friendly chain pubs, not Bank. Leave the Cadbury’s Caramel flurries where they belong. But curiousity – and greed – got the better of us so we ordered it.
The ice cream was disappointingly presented in a sundae glass (I felt like I was back at Poppins circa 1988, the only thing that was missing was the squirty cream and sprinkles). However, the chocolate flavour reigned supreme. It was silky with a real cocoa hit. The salted caramel was also good, but the Malteser flavour was a flop. In fact I couldn’t decipher whether it actually was Malteser ice cream or the waitress has misheard us and given us vanilla instead. We shared the wafer cigarillo, which was nice but out of a box.
On settling the £77 bill, which included a small glass of South African Sauvignon Blanc and two large bottles of San Pellegrino, I felt somewhat deflated, like I had revisited my first kiss only to discover that boy wasn’t so cute anymore.
I so desperately want Bank to be good. It should be the place that bridges the gap between mediocre restaurant chain and the often intimidating Michelin star haunts.
But you just can’t Bank on that anymore.