Food review: Dinner at 8 has honed its craft

What a difference a year makes, says Andy Richardson.

The last time we visited Craft, in Birmingham, we ended with the following line: 'There are plenty of good restaurants in Birmingham. Craft isn’t one of them.' Harsh? For sure. True? Absolutely.

What a difference a year makes. The humility of owner,Sam Morgan and his ability to learn from his mistakes. The appointment of a new Executive Chef and business partner, Andrew Sheridan, has catalysed a quiet revolution.

In the space of 12 months, it’s become one of the most interesting and exciting restaurants in the Second City. Gone are the rubbish chefs and staff who didn’t know one end of a menu from the other. In their place are hard-working, committed cooks and front of house staff who want to deliver value for money and an experience to remember.

Dinner at 8 – the small, 16-cover chef’s table that sits within Craft – was the most enjoyable culinary experience I’ve enjoyed in the past two years. Not since a superlative 20-odd-course blow-out at Gareth Ward’s Ynyshir have I walked out of a restaurant wearing such a wide smile.

8 is a funky, post-modern dining room

Despite lockdown, Birmingham is booming and Andrew Sheridan can justifiably count himself among the second city’s biggest attractions, alongside the brilliant, entrepreneurial, risk-taking Aktar Islam, of Opheem fame; the preternaturally charismatic Glynn Purnell, he of Purnell’s and Saturday Kitchen; and the classily impressive Adam Stokes; a Michelin star holder who provides Brum with a dash of Mayfair. Well done, that man.

It’s not simply the addition of Andrew Sheridan that has transformed Craft. The willingness of Morgan to accept his mistakes and learn from them has driven the change. With Sheridan as his skipper, their drive, energy and vision is clear for all to see. The food, incidentally, is stunning.

It’s been a year since the former Great British Menu star Sheridan landed in Brum. Hopefully, he won’t leave. He brings dynamism and edge to a starry dining scene, one which can only be bettered in the UK by the world class destination that is London.

Tomato tart and v8 juice

Sheridan provides big flavours and comforting dishes. Unpretentious and filled with soul, his dishes are lovingly created and provide his personality on a plate. His style is redolent of the brilliant, former Michelin star holder Anton Piotrowski, of Roski, in Liverpool, with more than a dash of Gareth Ward, from the aforementioned Yyshir. He goes it alone, however, creating dishes that are evocative of childhood, providing recognisable classics that have been re-imagined for a new era, cooking food that delivers smiles aplenty.

Hospitality is about looking after guests and providing pleasure. That’s something Sheridan does in spades. His restaurant is designed around a stove, with 16 seats lined up around it, just as London’s brilliant Spuntino did. Guests are part of the experience. Sheridan is performative throughout, narrating dishes, engaging with guests, outlining flavours and exchanging stories. Seldom has a Second City dining room been so warm and friendly, so joyous and convivial. The atmosphere when my partner and I ate was one of a party among friends, where co-diners quickly got to know one another while honing in on exceptional food.

Celeriac was served with a smokey broth

In keeping with Sheridan’s ethos of 8, there were 8 courses priced at £88 and the number featured prominently – Eight Days a Week was a nod to his native Liverpool and The Beatles, V8 was a supercharged vegetable dish and so on.

We were greeted at the door by Sam Morgan, the owner, who took us into the covid-secure dining room where we sat at the edge of the table. The attention to detail was remarkable. The number 8 was etched into a tabletop counter, at which we sat, and even into the cultured butter. Neon signs illuminated a room that felt like a New York club while funky tunes and audio visual displays on screens provided entertainment.

We began with a tear and share bread, served in the dark, moody room beneath mini spotlights that illuminated each table. The first dish, V8, comprised a beautifully clear, sweet vegetable liquor served with a sweet, tomato tart. Delicate and light, as pretty as a picture, the flavours were familiar and reassuring, serving notice of Sheridan’s talent.

Beef carpaccio with extra truffle

A beef/cep dish was his take on beef carpaccio, with added truffle, enriching beef fat, thinly sliced brioche and microplaned cheese. Luxury, in four mouthfuls. Just as a DJ or conductor takes his audience on a journey, so Sheridan did likewise, building slowly through the 8 courses.

Next came a fabulous smokey celeriac dish, Square Root of 8, with a crystal-clear vegetable broth and umami rich flavours. When a chef turns a humble vegetable into a dish greater than the sum of its parts, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

The most memorable dish of the evening, Lucky 8, was a take on the humble bacon and cheese butty; though it could not have been more different. Topped with lardo, with moist, sticky, indulgent carb-rich bread, it was fabulously, messily memorable.

Eight Days a Week was a scallop and apple dish served in reduced cream with citrussy sorrel, a nod to the classics and a further taste of luxury and exceptionalism. Sheridan’s light take on a classic combination reminded of real quality. Delicious.

Pork and cheese

The main, a stunning venison Wellington with a streak of foie gras through the centre, was a genuine show-stopper, the sort of dish that lives in the memory for decades. Presumably created over a period of months and refined by its creator, it mixed classic flavours of an earthy mushroom duxelles, venison, buttery puff pastry and stunning foie with a deep, rich, intense jus. I’d have happily bought a spare to take home. It was one of the best dishes of the year.

There were two desserts; a deconstructed carrot cake with an orangey carrot jam and light, sweet cream, followed by a mint chocolate dish that was as pleasuring giving as Aero or Ferrero Rocher are to an eight-year-old.

A drinks flight was expertly served, the owner – Sam – waited tables (stunning commitment, humility and grace) while Sheridan was the orchestrator, cooking, serving, chatting and dispensing bonhomie.

The transformation of Craft and launch within its confines of 8 changes the game. Like Leicester come from mid-table to win the Premier League, or Liverpool discovering the genius of Jorgen Klopp to finally win a title, it’s revolutionised what went before.

There is bad news, however. Sheridan may obsess about the number of 8, but he’s damned if he’s going to receive that score from us. Without question, it’s a straight 10.

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