Review: Purnell’s, Birmingham

I struggle to love Birmingham. It’s handsome in parts, ugly in others, and sits in that uneasy size bracket where a city is too large to be friendly but too small to be metropolitan. Someone give me a list of reasons to love Birmingham and I’ll check them all out next time I visit, promise. Then perhaps I can update this intro. At least I’ve found one of the good bits, and that is Purnell’s.

Purnell’s is right in the heart of Birmingham’s ever-rejuvenating financial district and the dining room is a dead match for this; a sober palette of greys, browns and creams with leather-encased chairs and huge light fittings depending from a high ceiling. The lighting is bright, the mood is comfortable and the tables have acres of space. It sets the scene for service that is sleekly professional from a handsome young team that don’t over-engage unless you want them to. If you like cosy, informal, bare wood and irony then you’ll hate it.

Of an evening there are just two tasting menus on offer, though judging by the pair adjacent you can go a la carte if you tip the maitre d’ a nod and a wink. We went the whole hog with the Purnell’s menu.

Glynn’s food has a really strong balance of great technique, popping flavour combinations and a sense of humour. He likes his waterbath and uses it to great effect, notably with fish. One of my favourite early courses was the poached duck yolk with smoked haddock foam, cornflakes and curry oil. This was a complete retake on the classic flavours of kedgeree and the stars of the dish for me were the slippery, perfect flakes of smoked haddock lurking under the piles of foam.

Later on the stand-out dish of the day was madras monkfish, the precisely water-bathed slab of translucent fish had a meltingly fleshy texture that sang a song with the brave spices used as a coating. Of course, a water bath doesn’t guarantee perfection and couldn’t disguise the fact that the venison sourced for the main was quite a chewy specimen with no great amount of flavour.

Actually, I have another candidate for dish of the day: a charcuterie plate of beef carpaccio, corned beef cube and braesola with accompaniments of octopus and sticky candied onion that was all exquisite.

Going back to the sense of humour, or theatre if you like. There was another witty deconstruction when our waiter took us through a three-part remoulade. First was a cube of salt-baked celeriac, to get that earthy and snarky taste onto the palette. Then a grain mustard cream encased in a delicate shell of butter so that it collapsed in a cool/warm explosion that coated the tongue. Finally a shot of spritzed celery and apple juice to clean up and leave us smiling in anticipation of the next trick.

On a special occasion, when you’ve decided to throw £80 at a chef to show you what he can do, it’s absolutely right to be treated to some dazzle and flair, a bit of theatre and fun. Parties are no fun without games.

Parties haven’t had cheese and pineapple on sticks for a couple of decades, though, and this was one bit of retro gastronomy that I don’t think Glynn has really nailed. Nice cheese-filled gougere, lovely goat cheese mousse, but I think the pineapple flavour needs to punch out more to be a proper punchline. One or two other dishes

didn’t quite hit the high notes either, the flavours of British seafood having all the great taste but none of the presentation, but overall we felt treated on course after course.

The first dessert was more theatre, with liquid nitrogen poured over a bowl of mint foam to fill our nostrils with the scent of toothpaste and heighten the pleasure of the chocolate pot with mint ice cream. The star dessert was pure cuisine; a literally perfect vanilla creme brulee served cleverly in an egg shell. This came with a frankly pointless cake that was saved by the zingy textures of apple surrounding it.

Purnells, for me, is hovering just a smidge below the very toppermost restaurants in the country. A couple of shrug-worthy dishes couldn’t knock the shine off of all the big-smiley ones. This is a great evening out at £80 for the full Purnell’s menu. The wine list is much as you might expect from high-end fine dining, with a handful of options around the £30 mark. Go, for sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>