Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter may be known for its gold, silver and stones, yet since the licensed renaissance of the area a few years ago, there are many more independent gems tucked away of the food and drink variety that you wouldn’t otherwise find in the city. So on a milder than usual February evening, a little mission was hatched to discover a selection of these establishments – a decided cross section of what’s on offer in this historical city neighbourhood, fully armed with healthy thirst and appetite.
Sat halfway down Frederick Street is the intriguing concept of Ana Rocha – part bar and gallery, part antique show room. A whirlwind of cocktails, curiosities, Spanish tapas and art, all wrapped in a former 19th century factory space.
Being owned by a Spanish partnership there is a sense of the Mediterranean in the air, from the tall white walls and ceiling to the abundance of golden cane palm plants scattered around. This isn’t your typical tapas house though; it’s more a background for all of the owner’s passions that they want you to enjoy.
It’s a unique setting and experience, your eyes wandering around the room wondering whether to sip your drink or explore, and you’ll find that you’ll do both.
Though their cocktail and wine list is impressive, my companion and I wanted to ease into the evening with a pint of the Barcelona brewed Estella Damm, quenching thirst whilst sat on an antique sofa surrounded by late 19th century Japanese cupboards, Louis XIV style mirrors, old vinyl and 1950’s television sets.
It’s a unique setting and experience, your eyes wandering around the room wondering whether to sip your drink or explore, and you’ll find that you’ll do both. With mouths to feed and stomachs to line, we drift out of curiosity and take the short walk to Lucky Duck noodle shop.
Caroline Street’s aesthetics have not only been enhanced by a large scale enhancement project, they have the culinary asset that is Lucky Duck shining bright on the junction of Regent Parade. Having opened its doors in Spring 2018, this speciality noodle shop has been producing heavenly bowls and buns for almost a year, regularly changing their menu to keep things fresh and forward.
Upon entering this intimate dining room, there’s a simplicity that feels correct. I’m usually one for low key lighting and darkness around the edges but the lightness of this space feels synonymous with the almost Zen like quality of the décor, provoking a tranquillity and peaceful dining experience within the surroundings. There’s nothing formal about the experience but it does conjure respect and good dining behaviour.
A warm welcome was given to us as we were sat at a table for two, with neatly placed chopsticks and spoon, intricate paper flowers in vase, and sounds of Bombay Bicycle Club gently spreading throughout. The tables are placed at just the right distance from each other to maintain ideal discretion from other diners and the scent from the kitchen makes the food tangible before you’ve experienced it.
..served in a bamboo steaming container, looking succulently soft and sticky, each with its own individual ingredients seductively peering out.
With drink and food menus in hand we choose a bottle of Asahi Super Dry Japanese Lager each and trace the menu for choices. This is an easy game as it’s a stripped down offering with three noodle bowls to choose from and four buns, all of which are equally enticing. This is my first experience of this type of fare and I can see the comfort and appeal as the bowls and buns go out to other diners.
After we made our order and a short wait, our bao buns arrived to start, served in a bamboo steaming container, looking succulently soft and sticky, each with its own individual ingredients seductively peering out. We went for three of the options, the first being a Duck leg filling with Ponzu, a wonderfully zingy marinade made of rice wine, fish flakes, vinegar and seaweed infused with the Japanese cirus fruit Yuzu, enhancing the tender meat with perfect pockets of crunch from the spring onion. A vibrantly orange, delicate batter coats the moist chicken pieces in a spicy, sweet glaze – super sticky and savoury.
My companion got decidedly excited about the Szechuan Aubergine filling with sesame seeds, a kind of soft bun meets soft vegetable with a subtle saltiness that makes this choice a delight, further enriched by the almost sesame seasoning of the seeds. Our last bun had a Korean Fried Chicken filling that was hands down my favourite. A vibrantly orange, delicate batter coats the moist chicken pieces in a spicy, sweet glaze – super sticky and savoury.
I decided to try a glass of the Romanian Calusari Pinot Noir, a medium bodied red with juicy plum, red cherry fruit and a velvety finish
We didn’t try the Pork Cheek Katsu with Sriracha Mayo bun as we figured three were enough, and they were the right balance of sharing as a starter, but it did sound equally appealing. There’s also a gluten free option where you can swap your bun for fresh lettuce, but for us it was all about the buns! We did try one of the items from the menus ‘Bits’ section, being the Pickled Cucumbers with Chilli which cleansed the palette nicely, though a bit more of a kick from the chilli would have made these even more moreish.
Whilst waiting for our bowls I decided to try a glass of the Romanian Calusari Pinot Noir, a medium bodied red with juicy plum, red cherry fruit and a velvety finish, she went for a glass of the French L’or de Sud Grenanche Blanc, a crisp and fresh white with aromas of peach and pineapple with a nice creamy texture.
And the bowls arrived! And these are generously sized bowls, a real feast for the eyes.
My Ox Cheek Pho with Rare Beef and Beansprouts had all the textures of tender cheek, melt in your mouth rare beef with the crunch of pak choi, oozy soft boiled egg, chilli and noodles swimming in a Vietnamese Pho broth that tasted deeply savoury and warmly spiced. It’s satisfying to work through the ingredients with your chopsticks taking in the different flavours with each mouthful then as your food decreases you can start to lap up the broth.
The zang of spring onion balances out the flavours and the pak choi and noodles add complimentary textures.
Pure comfort feeding and yet still light on the stomach. Opposite me sits a bowl of Pork Shoulder Tonkotsu with Pickled Ginger, Pak Choi and noodles. My companion informs me that the ginger shines in this pork bone broth and the accompanying pork is delicious. The zang of spring onion balances out the flavours and the pak choi and noodles add complimentary textures. I taste and agree, respecting her for choosing a soft boiled egg too as an extra, because why wouldn’t you?
Gluten free noodles are available, and if you choose the vegan option of Mushroom Miso Broth with Spring Onion and Shiitake then chef/owner Dominic Simmonds, formerly of Purnell’s Bistro points out that all of the noodles are egg free so suitable for vegans.
This was a very satisfying experience, done really well in all aspects and there’s not a day gone by since dining here that I haven’t thought about returning to get another bun fix. With a frequently changing menu, nothing’s being taken for granted here and the fact that you can BYOB for a small corkage fee is a nice touch. What’s the best thing to do after buns and bowls? A mead and cocktail tasting session sounds about right. So another short hop to Frederick Street leads us to The Vanguard.
Nestled on the top floor of the building that also houses the lovely 1000 Trades is a tucked away asset to Birmingham’s discerning drinkers. The Vanguard specialises in Mead, its heritage and history, and a passion for fusing this ancient honey wine into a carefully crafted collection of signature cocktails.
Owner Sam is truly passionate about his offering and there’s not a man in town that could compete with his knowledge and enthusiasm for a liquid that dates back to 7000 BC.
After an absorbing intercourse about the varieties of Mead available in the 21st century, we’re presented with ‘The Tasting Board’, a sample selection of four alternative varieties that each has their own distinctive characteristics and accessibility for different palettes.
‘The Garden Mead’ has hints of mint, pea and lavender due to the bees being situated in a lush garden to create their honey which is then infused with mint during the brewing process.
We start with the ‘Traditional Mead’, made from a blend of three types of honey. Whilst being informed that this is a classic example of still mead, we discover its sweet, slightly syrupy consistency, full of flavour and very easy on the way down. At 14.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) this is of the stronger offerings of mead you’ll find.
Our next sample is a full English garden experience. ‘The Garden Mead’ has hints of mint, pea and lavender due to the bees being situated in a lush garden to create their honey which is then infused with mint during the brewing process. A really curious 11% ABV concoction where the pea and mint dance on your tongue and the mint lingers a little afterwards.
For those that want to work their way up to the stronger mead, the next taster is called ‘Yore’ at 4% which is an entry level sparkling mead with a lighter semi-dry taste, very refreshing and a unique alternative to perhaps a wine spritzer. ‘The Garden Mead’ has hints of mint, pea and lavender due to the bees being situated in a lush garden to create their honey which is then infused with mint during the brewing process.
The final part of the board is a creative twist on dry mead. ‘Hopped’ is a 5% Spanish blend of honey, brewed using three types of hops, the Mosaic hop being the predominate, mellowing the characteristic sweetness bringing greater body and a crispness not felt in the other three tasters.
An insightful and unique tasting experience that opened our minds and palettes to a drink that is hidden in the background of today’s drinking culture yet is an essential part of social drinking history that helped define the brewing processes we use today.
Having become very much sunk into our evening in the Jewellery Quarter and the intimate Vanguard space, we decide to work our way though their classic cocktail list. Not classics that you would usually find under this title, these are Vanguard classics, original, thought out and each punching with flavours and character that your taste buds may never have experienced.
I choose ‘Yuzu Spirits’, a fusion of gin and Yuzu Sake, using Japanese lemon that is a cross between grapefruit and mandarin, with undertones of bergamot and lime giving it a real zest and sherbet appeal..
Whilst I choose ‘Yuzu Spirits’, a fusion of gin and Yuzu Sake, using Japanese lemon that is a cross between grapefruit and mandarin, with undertones of bergamot and lime giving it a real zest and sherbet appeal, my companion takes on the ‘Rhubarb Negroni’, a punchy rhubarb flavoured mead medley enhanced by gin and Aperol with a bitter orange flavour cutting through.
Our final two classics are ‘The Bartender’s Handshake’, a party in a glass of saffron, mint, lime, almond and mead with the bitter herbal remedy of Fernet-Branca liquor, a taste sensation that I don’t recall having before and one that I’d like to investigate further and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, a makeover on the classic Midori sour recipe with taste layers of cantaloupe melon, Yuzushu liquor and bubbles that brings a sense of clarity to your mouth and soul.
Overall, The Vanguard is making waves in glasses that are unique in their delivery and original in their flavour, combined with the low lit ambience and cosy setting, it’s the kind of den you could easily drink an evening through, making many new discoveries that will forever stay in your taste memories.
Suitably woozy from a great experience we decide that it would be rude not to drop into 1000 Trades on the ground floor to round the evening off, and who couldn’t resist the temptation of this warm and rustic neighbourhood favourite with their selection of natural wines.
We order a bottle of Secateurs Red, served to us in a carafe and find our way to a table by the open fire. This organic wine has a wonderful perfume with peppery, spicy, smoky and ripe red fruit notes, supple and smooth but with enough grip and freshness to finish dry and refreshing. A perfect digestif to a perfect evening of food and drink under the blanket of the Jewellery Quarter.
We’re offered a jar of marshmallows to roast on the fire, whilst the speakers sing out laid back beats and grooves and the gentle hum of conversation moves around a room..
We’re offered a jar of marshmallows to roast on the fire, whilst the speakers sing out laid back beats and grooves and the gentle hum of conversation moves around a room that belongs to Birmingham’s music community and local artists. 1000 Trades is a fine example of unpretentious perfection and escape from the city’s chaos as is the Jewellery Quarter as a whole.
Our little mission was a breeze, visiting four different independent establishments within five minutes walk from each other, their own identities and offerings, all with a personal touch that you don’t tend to get in the more commercial ventures of the city centre.
We could have had an equally diverse night in the many other eateries and bars that become this great neighbourhood of the city, such as Rebel Chicken, Wolf Bar, The Rose Villa Tavern, Actress & Bishop and the Lord Clifden to name a few. And it’s not just neighbours that are welcome here, wherever you reside, The Bloc Hotel, Jewellery Quarter is the perfect reasonably priced boutique hotel base to explore the area.
Now I need a bun!
Review by Ollie Lloyd of The Yardbird.
Grapevine Images © of Lucky Duck & Vanguard