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Food review: Tattu, Birmingham

There’s a tree in the dining room. Isn’t that ridiculous. A huge pink-blossomed tree adorns the basement of Tattu, a stunning, recently-opened restaurant in Birmingham’s gastronomic quarter. It’s evocative of spring and of a fragrant Orient. And it’s of the synthetic variety, but it’s the only thing that’s remotely fake in a startlingly good and innovative dining room combines style and function, taste and cool.

Tattu has three branches around the UK, including the one in Birmingham City Centre, and it plugs a gap in the dining scene that’s been yawning for far too long. For while the wider region caters brilliantly for fans of global cuisine, the one gap that’s seldom filled is that for refined Chinese food.

For sure, every town and village from Willenhall to Wolverhampton has a half-decent neighbourhood restaurant, or takeaway, that does a passable yuk sung and a bowl of satisfying noodles. But Chinese food, or, at least, the British equivalent of, seems to be rooted in the 1970s. While other cuisines have come on in leaps and bounds over the years, Chinese restaurants have remained slavishly in the past. There’s been little reinvention, little innovation, little sense of moving with the times.

Until Tattu.

Tattu does for Chinese food what other restaurants have done for the food of Spain and Italy, the Pacific Rim and the USA. It adds dazzle and panache, flair and excitement. Instead of sticking rigidly to big, stodgy, over-sized menus serving antiquated menus, it brings Chinese food kicking and screaming into the 2010s.

So there are small plates – almost tapas-style – on which guests can feast. Taster menus are called waves, the successful Shropshire restaurant House Of The Rising Sun did something similar with Japanese/Australian food some years ago – and guests can eat around the country, rather than being weighed down by a single, outmoded dish.

The restaurant is located in Barwick Street and when my friend and I called for a midweek lunch, it was very nearly full. Businessmen and women, friends and couples were eating wave after wave of Far Eastern deliciousness that combined sweet and salty flavours and provided the biggest umami punch.

The dining area defines cool. Located in a basement, it feels more like New York boho club than city centre restaurant. The interior is sleek and dark, there’s a modern bar above on the ground floor – and then there’s the giant pink tree. Fun times.

We selected a bunch of starters – and one main – rather than ordering conventionally. And that type of informal dining is welcomed in a restaurant that offers endless small plates on which diners can graze.

So my friend ate a plate of perfectly formed crispy duck rolls that were served with a cherry hoisin sauce. Crisp and filled with savoury, moist and tender duck, they were exceptional and set the tone for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

A coconut chicken salad with mint, coriander and shallots was similarly delicious. Creamy and fragrant, light and packed with flavour, it was a mighty construct of green, white and red.

I ordered a selection of dim sum, the pick of which was chicken truffle shumai. Four tiny dumplings were filled with shredded chicken and served in a small pool of soy. The dumpling dough was delicious, indulgent and more-ish. The flavours were magnificent, with the truffle providing a thrilling hit of flavour.

A selection of three further dim sum were equally good. Wagyu in red dough was marvellous, Thai chicken was so-so while a rock shrimp was simultaneously sweet and salty, offering fresh flavours of the sea.

I ordered an additional small plate of belly pork. The skin was crisp, there was a layer of warm, absurdly indulgent fat and the lower layers of meat were crisp from long, hot cooking. It was served with black vinegar and coriander, adding a pleasing hint of acidulation and fragrance.

My friend completed our tuck-in-and-share experience by ordering a plate of chilli beef with a side of steamed jasmine rice. The beef was big on flavour as sweetness and heat comingled while the rice was fragrant and sticky, perfect for mopping up the sauce.

Service was okay. Our waitress was a little robotic, in truth, insisting on following the script and explaining every course and the restaurant’s wave concept, when we already understood it perfectly well and needed not her exposition. When she insisted on explaining our food to us as it stood on the table, gradually becoming ever-cooler, we wondered why she didn’t use more common sense and class by simply letting us eat.

The best place to eat Chinese in the West Midlands isn’t Tattu. As good as it is, it can’t reasonably claim to be the best. That title is held by Birmingham’s China Town, where you can eat the same sort of authentic food that you’d eat in downtown Shanghai or Bangkok. There, chefs use traditional methods and sensational ingredients.

The tables and interiors are simple and uncomplicated, the menus full of crispy meats and delicious sauces and the prices absurdly cheap, giving diners arguably the best pound-for-pound dining experience in the West Midlands.

And yet not everyone wants to eat at restaurants that are, mostly, basic cafes. Some want a more sophisticated experience, where interiors are smart, menus are Westernised and there’s the opportunity to try different flavours in a relatively safe environment. And that’s where Tattu comes in. It’s taking Chinese food into the modern era, providing a bespoke dining experience for guests who want something a little more exciting than sweet and sour chicken with stir fried rice.

Stylish and suave, well-conceived and impressively executed, Tattu is doing for Chinese food what similarly modern restaurants have done for dishes from other parts of the world.

While some towns make do with awful, low-quality, fill-your-face buffets, Tattu is leading from the front and showing what Chinese food can be like in the 21st century. Let’s hope others introduce similar concepts to other towns across the region.

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