Restaurant review: Purnell's in Birmingham
There is a place to go for food that’s a little different with an exquisite and quirky edge. Andy Richardson heads to a posh spot in the city. . .
A generation ago, the most exciting man on Britain’s food scene was Marco Pierre White.
He changed the game as he blazed like a comet across the gastronomic landscape. An enfant terrible with a singular vision, Pierre White was a one-off, a uniquely talented cook who became the Godfather of modern cooking.
Rebellious, nonconformist and tinged with genius, he became one of Britain’s first celebrity chefs and his legacy still informs a vast number of cooks around the world. Ever the bad boy and a Picasso of the plate, he continues to generate headlines.
Pierre White’s background is instructive. He developed his love of food as a young boy, while still a pupil at Allerton High School, in Leeds. Having lost his mother at the age of six, he developed a love of food. That early passion informed his adult life, reaching an apotheosis when Pierre White became the youngest ever to secure three Michelin stars.
Though Glynn Purnell’s back story is a little different to that of Pierre White, there are more similarities than there are differences. Michel Roux Jr calls him one of Britain’s cheekiest chefs, rather than an out-and-out bad boy. He’s blazed his own trail, launching his own restaurant, like Pierre White, having previously cooked with the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes and Claude Bosi.
He earned his first Michelin star in 2005, when he also won English Restaurant of the Year from the AA. And his own restaurant, the eponymous Purnell’s, is now celebrating its 10th anniversary, having been starred by Michelin for eight of those years. Like Pierre White, he’s as comfortable in front of a TV screen as he is in the kitchen – his TV credits are as extensive and detailed as his many tattoos – and like Pierre White, the genesis of his love for food can be traced back to his childhood.
Glynn was born in humble surrounds, in Chelmsley Wood, and grew up on a large council housing estate in Solihull. His love of food developed as a boy, under the tutelage of his dinner lady mum. As a youngster, he would cook for his brother and sister, feeding them an a la carte version of beans of toast, infused with curry powder with chopped onions. Later, he’d eat pigs trotters while watching Blind Date. By the age of 14, he’d got his first gig, completing work experience at the Metropole Hotel, at Birmingham’s NEC. And a six-year apprenticeship followed once he’d left school. Soon, he joined the Michelin-starred Andreas Antona, at Simpsons, and the rest, as they say, is history.
This year, Glynn has been celebrating his 10th anniversary, a remarkable achievement for a kid who dragged himself up by the bootstraps and decided to make something of his life by working harder than the rest. And that’s given him a chance to revisit some of the classic dishes that have made him one of Britain’s most thrilling, creative and innovative chefs.
Like a band looking back on their first five albums and 17 Top 40 hits, Glynn has reflected on some of the dishes that have made him a culinary star and decided to revisit them. Many were inspired by his childhood – he does a seeing-it-is-believing-it version of cheese and pineapple, a Willy Wonka-esque fantasy version of mint choc chip, and an absurdly beautiful burnt English custard egg surprise, with which he won The Great British Menu with a perfect score in 2008.
In 2017, Purnell’s continues to go from strength to strength as its founder and proprietor balances the competing demands of running an ever-expanding business with running a seriously professional kitchen and making himself available for a burgeoning career as a TV presenter and author. Who can tell how he fits it all in? He probably sleeps for no more than four hours a day.
Purnell’s offers a series of menus. There’s 10 Years In The Making, which is available at all times and could quite easily be called Purnell’s Greatest Hits. There’s a similar menu, A Purnell’s Journey, which is abridged and provides a number of greatest hits, though in shorter format. Brummie Tapas in Purnell’s Living Room gives diners the opportunity to enjoy bite-sized dishes that are all about flavour, texture and the best of seasonal produce. And then, of course, there’s a seasonal lunch menu, featuring new creations that make the best of peak-condition ingredients. My friend and I visited for a midweek supper and chose A Purnell’s Journey. It was exquisite. We had been shown to our table by Birmingham’s best front-of-house manager, a charming and entertaining character with the best hair, dress sense and pocket handkerchief this side of Selfridges.
And from a table near to the window, we began a seven-movement symphony. A selection of three snacks showcased Purnell’s talents and danced on our tastebuds like ballerinas in Covent Garden. Black canary potatoes featured soft, slightly sour potato in a black crumb – delicious, satisfying and more-ish, like the best posh comfort food – alongside crackers dotted with caraway and other seeds. The crackers were dipped into a red pepper foam topped with chorizo crumb, a happy and playful mix of complimentary flavours and textures. Additional crackers topped with dots of whipped feta and red grape gel were out of this world. Savoury, creamy, sweet and intense, they were a feast for the senses.
Delicious pain de campagne bread followed, with whipped goat’s butter and salt. And then it was time for the first of Purnell’s signature dishes. Haddock and eggs is a creation inspired by his childhood and featured a milk foam, soft poached egg yolk that dribbled rich golden flavour, delicate flakes of poached haddock and cornflake-like crunch. Heaven in a bowl.
A carpaccio of Herefordshire beef with exquisite and tender red wine-braised octopus alongside sweet and sour onions was intoxicating and refined. And then it was time for the first of the big hitters.
His GBM 2009 dish, monkfish masala, has achieved the status ‘iconic’. Featuring the most tender piece of monkfish, lightly spiced, it was served with pickled strands of carrot, adding gentle acid to contrast the warming heat of curry. Coconut and coriander added texture and a decorative flourish. It was as exciting as Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop, as pretty as oils on canvas.
Roast creedy carver duck breast with apricot, apricot gel, edible flowers and greens was magnificent: sweet, savoury, delicate with a slight hint of bitterness – what’s not to like? And then came an excellent dessert; a raspberry tartlet with sweet toasted seeds and vanilla meringue. The pastry was as light as the proverbial feather and had the snap of the brittlest biscuit.
Light and delicate, it was as pretty as a picture, a true taste of summer. Service was exceptional throughout. The Purnell’s crew seem to have the personality to match their boss: they’re charming and polite, a little left field and ever-engaged.
The straight-talking, Blues-supporting, TV-programme-making, recipe-book-writing, one-man-tour-de-force that is Glynn Purnell has helped to raise the profile of Second City cuisine. And as he celebrates the tenth anniversary of a restaurant that was his lifelong dream, he continues to fire on all cylinders. His Greatest Hits are a superlative and swanky collection of radiant, regal and resplendent dishes. Ten years in, Purnell’s is throwing a party. Don’t get there too late.