It’s not so long ago that Birmingham and food had as much in common as British politics and peacefulness. The Second City and gastronomy made uneasy bed fellows. Such critics as Jeremy Clarkson fogged Brummigem in national newspapers, poking fun at a culinary scene that offered little beyond limp fish and chips and pallid baltis.
And then Glynn Purnell happened. The self-styled Prince of Birmingham, the much-loved Yummy Brummie, dragged his beloved home town up by the bootstraps and set tongues wagging. He became the first chef to win a new Michelin star for Birmingham – there are now four – and opened the doors to a new wave of restaurateurs and chefs.
Purnell, the wise-cracking, dish-creating, TV-show-hosting, football-playing, good-time-loving boy from next door, set the city alight.
Where critics have previously given Birmingham a wide berth, they flocked in their droves.
He’d learned his trade at two restaurants; Simpsons at Kenilworth, which later relocated to Edgbaston, and then Hibiscus, in Ludlow, under the two-Michelin-star couple Claude and Claire Bosi. Purnell soaked up knowledge like a dry sponge in a hot spring.
And then he embarked on his first restaurant, the much-loved Jessica’s, in Birmingham’s red light district. While he wasn’t being propositioned by ladies of the night as he left work after an evening service, Purnell was whipping up a storm.
From Michlein star to bistro
It wasn’t long before he’d won a Michelin star, dazzled millions on TV, become the subject of early morning radio conversations between Terry Wogan and George Michael and opened a new restaurant in Birmingham City Centre. From Gordon Ramsay to Heston Blumenthal, everybody wanted a piece. Purnell was irrefutably cool. Not bad for a Blue Nose from Chelmsley Wood.
And yet, there was something missing. Purnell’s catered to an upmarket clientele, offering tasting menus and lengthy celebrations of sensational produce and technical mastery; but he didn’t provide the sort of informal food that he’d grown up on and loved.
And so he opened Purnell’s Bistro, just a stone’s throw from his eponymous restaurant. Matching the standards of his Michelin joint but with a simpler menu and in convivial, unfussy surrounding in the bar and restaurants, Purnell’s Bistro was a hit. It remains the best in town for those looking for food that’s high on quality but studiously avoids notions of fine dining.
Birmingham is awash with mid-market restaurants. And most of them aren’t worth the salt in their cellars. The Second City’s independents have been over-run by chains that almost pretend not to be. So identikit restaurants, replicated in other towns and cities around the UK, sell mid-priced food that’s been made in factories and reheated on the premises.
And no, sadly, we’re not exaggerating. Purnell’s Bistro, meanwhile, and a small number of other notable exceptions, continue to toil gamely, doing the right thing, making stuff from scratch, putting love, skill and ethics into delicious menus.
In a competitive market, you’d imagine it’s difficult for them to thrive. After all, smaller independents don’t benefit from the huge economies of scale or buying power that the multiples-pretending-not-to-be-multiples enjoy.
And yet. And yet.
Just as the best shops on the region’s High Streets tend to be those owned by independent traders, so Purnell’s Bistro remains ahead of the crowd. And the reason for that is simple: it’s a love thing. Just as Amazon beats High Street shops hands down on price, so there are better deals to be found in other parts of Birmingham. But just as High Street shops beat Amazon comfortably on customer service, on quality and on experience, so Purnell’s Bistro walks all over the competition in similar fields.
Here’s a quick checklist for those weighing up the options. Find a decent independent like Purnell’s Bistro and the ingredients are better, the staff care because they work with and know the boss, the service is better and the environment is more innovative and unique.
Bottom line is: it’s a better dining experience with an ever-changing menu that reflects the seasons and passions of its chefs, rather than a one-size-fits-all offering that you’re as likely to find in Glasgow or Bournemouth as you are in Birmingham.
I’ve eaten at Purnell’s Bistro on numerous occasions since its launch and it’s never failed to impress. Good service from staff who are engaged with and invested in their work, interesting menus that provide highly-skilled chefs with the chance to demonstrate their skills and a cool, sophisticated dining environment that puts a smile on the face all come with the ticket price.
I popped in for a Friday lunch-for-one on my latest visit and thoroughly enjoyed the service, food and relaxing environment.
I started with slices of chef’s homemade bread with deliciously creamy, indulgent butter. Made on the premises and to a high standard, it was a pleasant introduction to a delicious three-course meal.
My starter was a wild mushroom tart, which was utterly fabulous. A creamy mushroom filling was encased by short, buttery pastry while beautifully cooked wild mushrooms, pan-fried in butter, sat on top. It was a true taste of the seasons: autumn on a plate. The pastry was magnificent, the creamy mushroom tart filling perfectly seasoned. In a word: yum.
My main was equally impressive. Beef teriyaki featured a delicious piece of steak that had been cooked to medium rare and served with a thick, umami-rich teriyaki sauce. A side order of soy sauce-infused noodles completed the dish while a small side salad of vegetable ribbons provided added colour and crunch. The beef was delightful; tender and perfectly scorched on the outside. The teriyaki was the work of angels while the noodles added ballast and bags more flavour.
Dessert was a vegan trifle comprising almond sponge, passion fruit, pineapple and coconut. Had it not been for the quality of the beef, I’d have been minded to convert there and then. Light, playful, bursting with flavour and easy on the eye, it was the quintessential Purnell’s dish. Service was great, the bill perfectly reasonable and Purnell’s Bistro had delivered for the nth time.
In a landscape that is constantly shifting and against a backdrop of feverish competition from multiples offering factory-made food, Purnell’s Bistro remains head and shoulders above the rest.
Ham hock terrine, salsa verde, cucumber ketchup, £7
Posh Scotch egg with GP sauce, £8.50
Wildmushroom tart with king oysters mushrooms and watercress purée, £6.50
Teriyaki beef with egg noodles and pak choi, £23
Glynn’s spiced cauliflower with toasted coconut and red lentils, £18
Free-range roast chicken breast with Moroccan cous cous and crisp Parma ham, £23
Stuffed honey-glazed peppers, £3.50
Mixed leaf salad, £2.50
Hand-cut chips, £3.50
Macaroni cheese, £4
11, Newhall Street, Birmingham B3 3NY
0121 200 1588