Review: The Stagg, Titley

Given that we’re going to be leaving the Welsh Marches soon, it felt like time to return to that most historic and significant of pubs, The Stagg at Titley. You’ll know it of course. You don’t? Call yourself a foodie? The Stagg is of course the very first pub in the entire world to have been awarded a Michelin star. In that sense, in this country at least, it stands as the first spot where the venerable Michelin guide stepped down from its pedestal of starched white linen, fifty page wine menus and waiters folding your napkin for you when you pop to the loo.

For my money, even twelve years later, the Stagg is still doing it right. The front room remains unashamedly a bar, where locals eye up arriving diners over the rim of their beer glasses. The two dining rooms at the back are handsomely decorated and furnished with no attempt to strew the place with rural knick-nacks or photos of pheasants and fox hounds. Yeah, this is where the local squire comes for dinner, no doubt.

Starters are very good. Pig’s head for sir and sweetbreads for milady. The pig’s head is breadcrumbed, and is a chewy, fibrous, porky delight. Served with a little pickled radish on top of a nice sauce gribiche. This comes in a tiny wee flowerpot with edible soil around the radish. Hey, we are deep in the provinces here, “on trend” is bound to be a year or two off the London pace. Maureen’s sweetbreads are excellent, quite rare in the middle, with a liver and walnut coating. It’s a gutsy mouthful, literally.

I can’t resist my first bit of grouse of the season. I get breast and leg, proper tasty, a good little bread sauce with bags of flavour, parsnips and a scrunchy game chip in “giant Hula Hoop” form. Autumn is here! Maureen’s fillet steak isn’t the most melting ever, though it’s nay bad. With a light shallot jus and some good chips on the side. The dish is saved by a smoked and roasted hunk of bone marrow, which does for the fillet steak what Johnny Depp did for Pirates of the Caribbean.

We finish with puddings. Yes indeedy, for all it has a star the Stagg is a pub and so you don’t have dessert, you most definitely have pudding. Maureen’s bread and butter pud is the proper job, with crunchy caramelised top and gooey beneath. My “Autumn Eton Mess” is a great concoction of plums and figs, hazelnuts, meringue and lots of fresh whipped cream. I’m sure the fruit has been introduced to some booze somewhere.

I grant you we picked the premium mains, but in essence it’s about £34 for three courses before drinks. That’s very high for a pub, but about fair for the quality. The wine list is utterly reasonable as you’d hope in a pub, plenty of bottles under £20 and some really good stuff. Boy, if The Stagg were fifteen minutes closer to Ludlow I’d eat here a lot!

Review: Asha’s, Birmingham

There seem to be two approaches to “contemporary Indian cuisine”. The first approach is to take a step back, look at all the amazing ingredients and techniques found across the sub-continent, and then create a menu of modern dishes riffing on the classics in new and interesting ways. The second approach is to take all the myriad variations on “meat in spicy sauce” that have been available in curry houses around Britain for decades and do them in posher surroundings with a higher price tag. Asha’s fits solidly in this second category, and does a fair job of it without really lighting my fire.

The decor is dark winebar chic with splashes of Bollywood colour. It feels both classy and manufactured, something you might perhaps expect from a restaurant with outlets in Dubai, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi as well as Birmingham. Service was friendly and polite. Kudos for including four different lassis on the drinks menu (though I’m amused to find that the plural of lassi is apparently “Lassies”).

Maureen’s starter was four big chunks of fish in sturdy batter, with a fresh green sauce. Not enough sauce for these mighty pakoras, so the whole thing was a bit tasteless. My papdi chaat was more flavoursome and definitely pretty, but I’m sure papdis are usually crispy rather than crunchy.

For our main course we had a Muscat Gosht and a Hare Baingan Ka Bartha (baked mashed aubergine). Both were utterly buttery, the aubergine particularly so. In fact, I think if I’d tilted my plate it would have slid down the incline. Beyond that it had a fairly modest flavour, just a bit of greenish spice. The gosht was properly spicy, with a fiery kick, but the taste to me was “generic curry” and not much more. Good pieces of lamb mind you, very tender. Really I’d be very happy if my local curry house served up this kind of thing… and in fact it does.

There we have it. If you’re after a good ol’ curry, and you want to posh it up a bit, Asha’s will fit the bill. It won’t be a cheap bill, mind you: we paid £22 each for two courses without drinks. But calling it “contemporary Indian cuisine” is only literally true in that this is indeed the Indian cuisine that most people are eating today.

Causa with smoked duck breast

Causa is cold mashed potato. Mmm… appealing! That must be why there are hardly any recipes on the internet for causa. Well, I’m here to add to that paltry tally.

The whole point about causa, and why I like it, is that it should be cold mashed potato with stuff. In this case I happen to have some amazing stuff: smoked duck breast from the Black Mountain Smokery, picked up on our annual wander around the Ludlow Food Festival (perks of living in Ludlow!). Fresh cobnuts are in season too, and the milky, nutty scrunch goes really well with the chewy, smoky duck. What are cobnuts? Cobnuts are essentially hazelnuts before they have been dried, straight from the tree.

Smoked duck breast & cobnut vinaigrette with causa (supper for 2, starter for 4)

1 smoked duck breast, sliced
4 medium-size potatoes, good waxy ones
1 dried chipotle chilli
1/2 lime
salt & black pepper
2 tbsp extra virgin rapeseed oil
1 tbsp cider vinegar
Handful shelled fresh cobnuts
Handful flat-leaf parsley
salt & pepper
  1. Wash your potatoes and boil them in salted water with the skin on until they are cooked right through. Rinse with cold water and leave to cool. You’ll find they peel easily, and cooking them in the skin keeps more potato-y taste in ’em.
  2. Chop the chipotle and put it in a mortar with one tbsp hot water. After 10 minutes you should be able to pound this into a red liquid paste.
  3. Roughly chop your cobnuts, then finely chop your parsley. Mix the rapeseed oil and vinegar in a bowl until they emulsify together and then add the nuts, parsley, salt and pepper.
  4. Mash the potatoes, then add a tbsp rapeseed oil, the chilli paste, juice of half a lime and a pinch of salt. Mix well.
  5. If this is a starter, put a blob of mash on the plate and arrange a few slices of duck before spooning some cobnut vinaigrette on top. Watercress would be a nice garnish. I made a supper out of it instead, with more causa and a sliced avocado dressed with lime juice scattered on top. Either way, very slowly roasted tomatoes make a great accompaniment. Enjoy!

Review: Adam’s, Birmingham

If chef Adam Stokes’ favourite flavour of crisps isn’t salt and vinegar I’m quite prepared to eat my hat. Oh, I most definitely enjoyed my nine course tasting menu at Adam’s new venture in Birmingham, but those with a high blood pressure might want to steer clear.

Tucked very unobtrusively away in the centre of Birmingham, inside Adam’s is a small, smart modern dining room with a professional bunch of staff who become friendly if you take the trouble. It didn’t take us long to settle on the 9 course tasting menu. The wine list is short, and if you want to spend around £30 it’s very short. That said both our wines were great.

A really fizzy little beetroot meringue with goat cheese stood out in the pre-starters, though all were good. First proper starter was a dish of brown shrimps coated in a warm bernaise and salt-n-vinegar puffed rice. I would have loved it without the vinegar, instead I

liked it a lot. Next was a pile of lovely crab with wickedly crabby bisque, punchy curry-flavoured dust and startling scorched sweetcorn. I loved every element of this, although they worked better apart than together.

Dish of the day: sea trout with egg yolk, denatured cucumber and oyster leaf (zoiks! It really is oysters!). The denatured cucumber was a very effective bit of chef-y wizardry that resulted in a compact oblong of cucumber that was more cucumbery than mere cucumbers are. Clever, eh?

I personally loved the venison tartare with blackberries and burnt onion powder. But it really had so much sichuan pepper in it that by the end of the dish my mouth was just a great big chasm of bitterness. I loved it, others may go agh-yag-yag-yag-yag-yag!

Halibut with garlic and lemon. The translucent fish would have been under for some tastes, but perfect for us. The garlic sauce was punchy and very, very seasoned. I’d say the same of the main course; a lovely piece of beef with sterling haggis and a blinkin’ excellent tarragon puree, but seasoned to just a hair’s breadth below ick.

Puds were good not great, though special mention goes to the palate cleanser: fresh peas with goat curds and a sweet lemon and mint curd. Spiffy is the only word for it.

Altogether I found this to be an exciting menu, full of inventive combinations and cool bits of kitchen wizardry. So as a keen experimenter I loved it. But some of the dishes weren’t really the sum of their parts, and chef Adam is unashamedly heavy with the seasoning (when I mentioned it to our waitress she said “yes, that’s his style”). It’s great to have another fine dining option in the middle of Birmingham though, definitely worth a try.

Review: The Bennetts End, near Ludlow

Sometimes you get a better view from a hill than a mountain.

You’re probably expecting something philosophical now, but I meant it literally. Take the Clee Hills, for instance. Driving up over towering Clee Hill you are greeted by one of the vastest views in England. Stretched out before you are four different counties, and really it looks like you can see the whole length and breadth of all four, a verdant patchwork quilt of rural countryside where you could easily lose yourself daydreaming about a bucolic yesteryear that never was.

Or literally lose yourself, winding through the tiny maze of lanes that link up the little villages and hamlets in the valleys below Clee Hill while searching for the Bennetts End Inn! If you manage to avoid ending up in Rivendell or Brideshead you’ll fetch up at a big whitewashed pub with a good view across the shires. It’s somewhere between Knowbury and Hope Bagot. It could maybe do with a couple of potted bays to smarten up the car park, but inside and out it’s essentially a comfortable and unpretentious pub.

This is a Sunday lunch report, and if we’re talking genuine pub rather than high falutin’ gastropurb then this has to be the yardstick. Rather like green curry at a Thai or canneloni at a local Italian.

Crispy whitebait to start, and about as good as I’ve ever had, chef having taken the trouble to give them a perfect crispy coating rather than a quick dip in the flour. Punchy homemade tartare too.

The roast beef was excellent, generous slices a deep scarlet-pink in the middle. The gravy was very dark but very clear, shining brightly and puddled in the middle of a wickedly crisp Yorkshire pudding. I’ve never made one to this standard, that’s for sure. The roast taters were good, not epic. There was a super gooey bowl of cauliflower cheese and some well-treated veggies too.

For pudding, a raspberry and apple crumble. Now why doesn’t this particular combination show up more often? Cos it’s great. At least, this one was, with plenty of crunchy crumble and a huge jug of velvety homemade custard to balance the tangy pink raspberry and apples.

I’d pay sixteen quid for a great three-course Sunday lunch like this happily. With so many pubs around Ludlow town and this one so cleverly hidden down a nest of tiny country lanes, the best possible conclusion I can offer is: if I fancy taking friends out for Sunday lunch any time soon, I know where I’ll be going.