Since Clare and I got married just over five years ago (at the time of writing), we've made it something of a tradition to go for lunch at Purnell's in Birmingham on the Friday of the week of our anniversary. Due to a scheduling clash this year though, we took the opportunity to make a weekend of it in the second city and enjoy an evening meal there instead. And enjoy it we certainly did.
After a pleasant day of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, gluhwein from the lovely German market and an afternoon nap, we made our way to the Jewellery Quarter where Purnell's is located. Following a helping of tasty olives and a fine glass of rum and gin, we took our seats for the meal.
Head chef and owner Glynn Purnell had (again, at the time of writing) recently launched a new menu, meaning diners were given a choice of two tasting menus: the six-course 'Reminisce' - which includes some of Glynn's classic recipes that had done so well on the Great British Menu, and 'Now' - which boasts twelve courses of more seasonal and contemporary dishes. As we've been lucky enough to have sampled some of the more tried and trusted dishes before we plumped for 'Now.'
There was no amuse bouche this time - boo, but with twelve courses it probably wasn't necessary. Anyway, the opening salvo was a delightfully gooey mix of cep Hollandaise with a runny egg yolk, accompanied by a crisp (yes, just one) and some freeze-dried Savoy cabbage to add texture and flavour. Following this was the unhelpfully named 'Autumn Salad,' which turned out to be an escabeche of beetroot, pickled red cabbage and a lilac-hued globule of cabbage purée. Both opening dishes were good, though the escabeche could have been a little more sour. The cabbage elements were delicious however, as was the creamy cep sauce in dish one.
Up next were two circlets of curry-cured salmon, sharing a plate with a strewing of wasabi crumble and some blobs of cucumber ketchup. The latter was cool, refreshing and surprisingly flavoursome while the salmon was soft and subtly seasoned. The wasabi crumble added a pleasing crunch and just a hint of heat from the Japanese horseradish. Dish four was one of my favourites of the evening; a ragout of pigs head (not as gruesome as it sounds), with crispy pork puffs, onions and a sprinkling of rocket leaves. The pork puffs were fantastic, think of pig flavoured popcorn, and the onions were sweet and crunchy. As for the ragout - tremendous. A warm, rich, hearty stew of slow-braised pork cheeks. It was very rich and salty - slightly too much so for Clare's liking but perfect for a sodium chloride fiend like myself.
The porky pleasantries didn't stay top of the tree for long as the next course was even better. A duo of sweet helpings of Cornish lobster were served up with strands of fennel, a shiny disc of Chorizo mayonnaise and a dusting of paprika honeycomb. This was clever and tasty stuff to be sure. Succulent lobster was beautifully matched with an aniseed tang of the fennel and the sweetness of the honeycomb. The mayonnaise too was excellent, creamy and warming without overpowering the seafood.
The halfway point of this gastronomic expedition was simply called 'Remoulade 2012' and came in three parts. A salt-baked cube of earthy celeriac was followed by a surprising ball of the same vegetable. Surprising because it looked solid, but when popped it in one's mouth it exploded to release a wholegrain mustard sauce. The last element was a shot glass of apple and celery - yes, celery - fizzy drink. Sounds bizarre? It was a little but it was also packed with flavour and cleansed the palate nicely in advance of the second half of the menu.
Dish seven took us back to the sea with a slab of tender and flaky red mullet. Surrounding the fish were smears of parsley purée and rings of pickled shallots whilst a bowl full of stones also held two small potatoes which had been cooked in salted water. The humble potatoes were elevated by the saltiness of their skins and the shallots added some acidity to balance the dish. As with the whole menu, everything was designed to provide a number of taste and texture sensations and it certainly did the trick.
A meat course was next, in the form of some wonderfully pink and squidgy venison. It sat next to a fallen column of salsify and a smooth spread of onion purée. Decorating the plate were two lines of intense liquorice and the dish was finished by a rich source. Liquorice isn't my favourite flavour but it went very nicely indeed with the deer meat. We were approaching the home stretch now.
As many tasting menus do, this one included a crossover dish and this particular example was one of the nicest I've ever had. A golden-brown mini potato waffle was topped with a small and beautifully crafted quenelle of foie gras 'butter.' Sticking out of this was a square of crispy and smoky chicken skin and drizzled over it all was some sweet maple syrup. Clare's not keen on foie gras and her version of the dish had sour cream instead and beetroot rather than bacon and chicken skin. When she saw the gusto with which I devoured mine I think she wished she'd had the same.
The final quarter of the menu comprised three desserts. First up were two apple and pear flavoured lollipops which looked and felt like Mini Milks (but were far tastier then they'd ever been. These nestled in a bowl of nutty crumble which soon became combined with the ice-cream. Our waiter gave us a spoon to 'pick up the deliciousness' as he put it. He wasn't wrong.
At number eleven in the hit parade was the nicest of the dessert triumvirate, 'mint choccy chip.' A bowl of mint essence was coated in liquid nitrogen and billowed forth clouds of minty smoke. Whilst this covered our table in a refreshing fog we enjoyed a chocolate sauce and crunch which was concealing some minty ice cream. Alongside this was a nugget each of chilled, mint infused chocolate which was more Vienetta than Mint Aero. Ending the meal was a rum baba, pineapple purée and frozen passion fruit. The frozen fruit was intensely flavoured and delicious and the baba was warming and sharp with alcohol.
This menu was quite different to our previous visits to Purnell's. The food has always been modern but this time it seemed even more experimental and really challenged the taste buds at every turn. Service was, as always here, exemplary though it was a shame that the immaculately groomed French Adonis of a maitre'd has departed to pastures new. Well, Clare thought so anyway.
We finished off our evening with a stroll round the corner to Glynn Purnell's recently opened bistro and bar: Ginger's. It serves an interesting range of cocktails and some of the dishes on offer make it look worthy of a visit itself. As for the main restaurant, this visit was probably our best so far and we'll certainly be back again next year.