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Food review: Real shepherd’s delight in a pie at The Ivy

The artist Tracey Emin became such a fan of The Ivy’s shepherd’s pie that a waiter would take it to her without her having to order. On one occasion, the confessional painter decided to break with tradition by ordering a steak. She got a few mouthfuls into it before realising her mistake – and without having to say a word, the offending meat was whisked away and an already-prepared shepherd’s pie was put in its place.

Tempura salt and pepper prawns with wasabi miso sauce
Tempura salt and pepper prawns with wasabi miso sauce

Emin isn’t the only one who partakes in the classic English dish. The Rolling Stones guitarist once looked forward to long and chunky lines before a gig. He still does. Though these days they are of mashed potato on his beloved shepherd’s pie, rather than heroin or cocaine. Richards has moved away from Class A drugs and hard liquor and groupies towards proper English suppers. And before a recent show on The Rolling Stones tour, he posted a social media picture of his meal and said: “A great Shepard’s Pie. Thank you, Manchester!!!”

Shepherd’s pie is indeed a classic English supper that supposedly originates from 1791, when the potato was introduced as an edible crop for the poor. It was based on leftover meat and low-cost potatoes and there are numerous variations. It’s no surprise that it is an ever-present at The Ivy, whose original restaurant was opened in 1917. Steeped in tradition, the London branch became a theatrical institution and was much loved by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, John Gielgud, Lilian Braithwaite, Terence Rattigan, Binkie Beaumont and Noël Coward among others. More recently, it has welcomed Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt, David and Victoria Beckham and Emma Thompson. Perhaps its location, near to London’s theatres, as well as its etiquette, or urging people not to use smartphones while dining, is the reason for that.

The Ivy

More recently, The Ivy has branched out and there are around 30 branches across the UK, including one at the former Louis Vuitton store, at Temple Row. It bears all of the hallmarks of its more famous London branch; it is a vast, colourfully decorated space with exceptional front of house staff and an all-day menu that features all the hits.

The food is the gastronomic equivalent of a Greatest Hits compilation by the world’s best bands. It’s as though the culinary equals of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Marvin Gaye, The Sex Pistols, Jay Z, Frank Sinatra had all been gathered into a room – or kitchen – for the delectation of guests. A dazzling array of cocktails, gin and tonics and more make The Ivy suitable on any day at any time.

The décor is immaculate. Vast pictures of Birmingham are interspersed with modern art and art deco motifs

The Birmingham branch has been a hit since launching a couple of years ago. In a city filled with chains-that-don’t-look-like chains, it’s one of the few that stand out. While the joy of Brum is mostly the independents run by the smartest bunch of restaurateurs outside of London.

The Ivy is an exception. It is consistent, interesting and of a high standard. For sure, it’s standardised and you’re going to get the same menu in Birmingham as you do in Cheltenham or London. But standardisation is fine if the quality is high: nobody ever complains about a First Class British Airways flight, whether they’re catching the plane in London, New York or Sydney. Quality is quality, wherever it lies.

A candyfloss fizz is one of the cocktails on offer

It’s not just the menu that catches the eye. The staff operate at a high level, though there is inevitably a high turnover. When my partner and I visited for (yet another) Saturday lunch, our waitress was exceptional. A manager later told us she’d only been in place for three months – they will do well to hang onto someone so charming, engaged, proficient and polite. The décor is immaculate. Vast pictures of Birmingham are interspersed with modern art and art deco motifs in a vast, starry space. It is bright, buzzy and a place to be seen.

Dominated by a relatively youthful crowd and with a disproportionately high ratio of women-to-men, it is alive with chatter and good vibes.

The best recommendation for any restaurant is whether you dig deep and return and I’m probably into double figures, in terms of visits, having been dazzled by the quality of service and food on numerous occasions. It’s never let me down.

We started with a small bowl of delicious truffled arancini. One-bite small and full of earthy Italian goodness, they were thrilling. With a crisp outer coating and creamy, slightly al dente rice, they’d been cooked with no little skill.

Shepherd’s pie like no other

A crisp duck salad followed for me, featuring warm, deep fried duck with a five spice dressing, toasted cashews, watermelon, beansprouts, sesame seeds, coriander and ginger. Light, filling and full of interesting flavours, it was like a Strictly Come Dancing tango. My partner’s marinated yellowfin tuna was served with a citrus ponzu dressing, wasabi mayonnaise, chilli and coriander. A kaleidoscope of colour and flavour, it has an exceptional balance of sweet, umami and gentle heat.

My partner opted for salmon with a champagne sauce and broccoli as her main. It was exceptional. The fish had been cooked with great skill, so the outer was beautifully caramelised while the inside was still pink and a little opaque. There was no need for a side of anything starchy, it packed a punch and more than met expectation.

A crispy duck salad with five spice dressing

I followed in the footsteps of Tracey Emin and Keith Richards, ordering the shepherd’s pie. It was heaven in a bowl. Served with a deliciously intoxicating red wine sauce and topped with Wookey Hole Cheedar mashed potato, it was the food of the gods. No wonder Richards has given up the smack and developed an addiction to pie.

A melting chocolate bombe for desert

We stayed for desserts. She ate a melting chocolate bombe with vanilla ice cream and a hot salted caramel sauce. As much theatre as a dish that provided sustenance, it was unexpectedly light. My malted banana ice cream with chocolate brownie was filthy – no calories spared and to hell with it.

We stayed a while and got busy watching people; The Ivy is one of the Second City’s more interesting hang-outs and makes for better viewing than a Netflix special. In the space of just under two years, it’s made a decided impression on Birmingham and become an integral part of the city’s dining scene.

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