Shortly after Michelin announced its stars for 2016/7, one of the region’s best chefs posted a humorous tweet.
The food world’s most important and most influential guide had honoured chefs from the top of Scotland to the tip of Cornwall and all points in between... Except for one rather large section of the North West.
In a map that was uniformly dotted with a vast cluster in London, there was a huge empty space at Manchester and Liverpool. Nathan Eades, head chef at the one star Simpsons, in Birmingham, posted a map with the glaring omission. It looked like an aerial photograph of a man with a bald patch.
Were we to do something similar by reflecting cartographically on the dining scene in Birmingham, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Powys and the Black Country, there would be a similar bald spot above the Black Country.
Shropshire formerly had four Michelin starred restaurants and though those have now moved on, it retains its reputation for excellence among mid-priced independent eateries. Birmingham has usurped the shire county as the UK’s best destination for food, with the obvious exception of London. It has five Michelin starred restaurants and others in its hinterland. The scene is vibrant, too, among other, non-starred independents and the quality is somewhere off the chart.
Staffordshire has more than its fair share of fine restaurants, too, with The Moat House, at Acton Trussell and Swinfen Hall, at Lichfield, the pick of the bunch.
But when it comes to eating out, the boroughs of Sandwell, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Walsall have little going on. OK, so maybe that’s not fair of Walsall. The Fairlawns Hotel and Spa, at Aldridge is one of a small number of restaurants offering better-than-average food.
In Wolverhampton there’s the redoubtable Bilash, at Cheapside, not forgetting the Mount Hotel, at Tettenhall.
But Sandwell and Dudley are the poor relations. For sure, both have plenty of cheap as chips curry houses – and some are utterly brilliant and dashingly authentic – but looking for a little quality is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack, or trying to find a washed away surfer in the Pacific.
There is, of course, an exception to the rule. And it’s called Saffron Restaurant, on Wolverhampton Road, at Oldbury. Praise be. Were location all-important, Saffron would be wiped off the map. It looks like an extended house, or dodgy transport café, and sits bleakly on the side of the main road linking Birmingham with Wolverhampton, forlorn near to a railway bridge and not far from Junction 2 of the M5.
But step inside and the effort made by its proprietors becomes instantly evident. Let’s qualify that; it’s not a restaurant that’s undergone a six-figure makeover any time recently – or, indeed, any time at all. The styling is perfunctory: there are a dozen or more curry houses across the region that have equally good furnishings. But it’s comfortable and clean, a small step up from the usual.
What does set Saffron apart, however, is both the food and the service. They are light years ahead of the local competition. It has its own take on fine dining. Thus, Saffron’s trophy cabinet bulges like that at Manchester City.
It’s been featured on Channel 4, is a former winner of Best Restaurant in the Midlands from the Good Food Guide and still holds one AA rosette, denoting food that cuts the mustard. Six successive years of achievement reflects the outstanding quality of its food and customer service.
Saffron was established in 2003 and between 2009 and 2010 won more brass than Brasstown.
And though those glory years seem to be behind it, it retains high standards. Little wonder it’s a hive of activity from opening time until its close, with take away orders and diners in for the evening.
I visited early in the evening for a midweek service and the restaurant was already a hive of activity. Three waiting staff worked the floor with charm and professionalism, seating guests quickly and offering attentive and engaging service.
Over poppadoms and decent chutneys – a deliciously thick and aromatic yoghurt dip, sweet mango and tomato and chilli were delightful – I perused the menu. It was a work of beauty. The regulation baltis, bhunas, jalfrezis and pathias were noticeable by their absence. Saffron doesn’t do Westernised curries that have been rehashed to suit Johnny Englander’s palate. Instead, they create dishes that reflect the authentic tastes of India. There are some concessions, of course, and so dishes of rabbit varuval, a South Indian speciality, and lobster find their way onto the offering.
I ordered the rabbit. Damn. The rabbit was off the menu. In its place, I started with chicken tikka. One mouthful was all it took to confirm what other reviewers and critics have previously noted. The quality was delightful. The spices were subtle and mild and the cooking was exquisite. The chicken was as tender as a lover’s embrace and as moist as post-monsoon Mumbai. It was served on a small garnish of sweet, Indian salsa, providing a hot/cold, hot/sweat contrast. Bitter salad leaves completed the dish. Wonderful.
My main was just as enjoyable. Murgh Tariwala is a North Indian household favourite comprising chicken with onion, ground paprika and coriander leaves. It was served with light, fluffy rice and demonstrated the chef’s high level of skill. The chicken had been cooked witih similar skill, so that it was tender and soft; the flavours were well judged with a masterful balance of gentle heat. There were no faults, it was food of a standard that you’d expect to find in highly-priced, upper class Indian restaurants in the city – rather than near a railway bridge in Oldbury.
The bill was perfectly reasonable, the staff were pleasant throughout the evening, making regular trips to the table, and it’s a restaurant that made an instant entry onto my must-return-to list.
Sandwell and Dudley may provide the bald patch on the region’s map of decent restaurants. But, hope springs eternal and Saffron is the stand-out exception to that rule.
By Andy Richardson