Food review: Gastromonic genius at Birmingham's Simpsons
Food critic Andy Richardson learns the tale of a team of three gastronomic giants.
The story of Simpsons is the story of three men. And it is the story of the way a no-mark provincial town became one of the most important international gastronomic cities in Europe.
Rewind the clock two decades and Birmingham wasn’t so much flying under the radar as existing off it. Nobody knew, nobody cared and frankly, that was no surprise.
But the chef-restaurateur Andreas Antona had other plans. As the Second City started to grow, with the arrival of new buildings, new shops and the brilliant, iconic Selfridges store, he decided it was time for a serious restaurant.
And so he relocated Simpsons from Kenilworth to Birmingham, retained his Michelin star, and helped to spark a new era.
At the same time, Antona’s old protégé, Glynn Purnell, was winning a star of his own for Jessica’s, just up the road. Purnell had started out as a kid chef under Antona, in Kenilworth, and the two remain friends.
It’s one thing to earn a star, it’s quite another to retain it. But that’s what Antona has done during two decades of utter brilliance, which leads us to the second man in this story: Luke Tipping. Executive Chef Tipping has been at the helm, seeing people come and go, steering the restaurant through challenging times, taking care of business. Tall, slim and handsome, Tipping is to food what Paul Weller is to music. He’s always had it, it’s never left him, and he’s been the proverbial Changing Man as fortunes and fashions have come and gone.
Throughout it all, Tipping has stayed true to his own beliefs, helping to nurture and develop new talent, forging exceptional relationships with brilliant producers and keeping creativity and the highest levels of skill on the menu.
Tipping remains at the pass each day, whether it’s a quiet lunch service for 13 or a hectic Friday or Saturday night for a full house. He is the great unsung hero of the West Midlands food scene – Antona is its Godfather.
Though Simpsons is the tale of those two men – the restaurateur and the chef – and their remarkable alliance, it is also the story of new talent that emerges and is given the chance to shine, just as Purnell was all those years ago.
And so the third man whose star dazzles at present is Leo Kattou, the kitchen’s head chef. Kattou has an impressive pedigree and has impressed on TV, with a daring run on MasterChef.
He is integral to the day-to-day success of Simpsons, a man who started as a kid, stayed for 10 years, has continually improved his skills and has a lightness of touch that others might envy.
A competent cook and good man manager, Kattou is Simpsons through and through, a product of the system who has grown in stature, skill and confidence during his ten years under his two respected bosses, Antona and Tipping.
The restaurant has developed over the years, most recently when Antona ploughed more than a million into an extensive refurbishment. Light and airy, in stone and wood, Simpsons is a beautiful space in which to dine. Pre-refurb it had the sense of a great French restaurant. These days it feels sleek, sophisticated and distinctly Nordic. In a word, it’s fabulous.
While Andreas, Luke and Leo are key players, Simpsons also have exceptional front-of-house staff. And so when I called for a midweek lunch, three waiters and waitresses and a restaurant manager were fleet of foot. Polished, reasonably formal and exceptionally efficient, all went about their business with enthusiasm and considerable skill.
As enjoyable and luxurious as the dining experience is, however, Simpsons is all about the food. And the decision that Andreas once made to put Luke in charge of his kitchens must rank as one of the best he ever made.
And so I started with a small amuse bouche and dazzling bread – seeded sour dough with indulgent Jersey milk butter and a black olive tapenade roll, which has been ever-present for some 20 years. Little wonder, it’s a terrific three-bite roll.
I started with a thrilling dish of Wiltshire pork belly with onion, potato, lovage and smoked eel cream. The eel cream was rich and intoxicating, a powerful addition that provided a counterpunch to the pork’s umami-rich flavour.
Tiny, thimble-sized pieces of eel and pork crackling were added to the dish while a warming broth was delicately seasoned and demonstrated rare talent. The belly was beautifully cooked, the fat rendering out and adding maximum flavour, while the outside was perfectly caramelised.
My main was just as good. A Cumbrian chicken fillet was served with a terrifically sweet Roscoff onion, slices of acidulated and crisp turnip and a sweet-sticky pickled walnut puree.
The balance between sweet and salt, umami and acid was damn near perfect. It takes real skill to cook with such precision. An intense, deep, rich jus was stickily indulgent.
I opted for two desserts. Greed can be a wonderful thing. A deconstructed blood orange cheesecake was as light as a feather and cleverly paired sharp-sweet flavours and a range of textures. Dehydrated pieces of orange and fresh edible flowers made it look as pretty as a picture.
Choux buns filled with perfectly pink Yorkshire rhubarb were a veritable treat: a taste of the season and a perfect way to end.
Beyond London, there is nowhere better to eat in the UK than Birmingham. It has more Michelin stars, more diversity and more talent than any other town or British city.
And the men who transformed the city’s dining scene continue to operate at a true Rolls Royce of a restaurant. Antona has made an outstanding contribution to West Midlands gastronomy; Luke Tipping is a chef whose talents continue to shine.
Lunch menu is £45 for three courses including house wine.
Carrot broth – Skrei cod, black garlic, trompette mushrooms, chickweed and fennel pollen
Heritage beetroot – pickled baby & raw beetroot, ice goat’s cheese and sorrel
Wiltshire pork belly – onion, potato, lovage and smoke eel cream
Manor Farm BBQ hogget – broccoli, tamerilo, cod roe, olive £10 supp
Gilthead bream – monk’s bear, fennel, shrimps and dulce
Cumbrian chicken – Roscoff onion, turnip, pickled walnut purée
Banana – Banoffee pie soufflé, banana ice cream, caramel sauce £10 supp
Yorkshire rhubarb – white chocolate choux bun, rhubarb sorbet
Cheeses – fruit preserve, seeded cracker, treacle bread £12.50 supp
20 Highfield Road
0121 454 3434
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