Harborne Kitchen, Birmingham B17: ‘This is a kitchen with ambition’ – restaurant...

Harborne Kitchen, Birmingham B17: ‘This is a kitchen with ambition’ – restaurant review | Felicity Cloake

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I am fully expecting Harborne Kitchen to be embarrassingly empty on a Thursday lunchtime; in a largely residential neighbourhood, it’s certainly not competing on price with the reliable charms of the Pizza Express a few doors down. Indeed, from the outside, it has all the allure of a high-street dental surgery.

But I’m wrong: it’s two-thirds full. My friend, a local in this leafy bit of Brum, takes great pleasure in informing me that there’s a Michelin-starred rival just down the road, “next to the charity shop, opposite the bank”, a revelation that blows my tiny London mind – as, I suspect, was the intention. Gloves off, I think: Birmingham means business.

For a restaurant such as this to pull people in midweek as well as on Saturday night, it needs to get more than just the food right. Here, it isn’t the space, which has the smart but soulless decor of a well-kempt office (“You’ve obviously never worked in Birmingham,” the friend says). Instead, it’s the people who make the difference. The cheery chap manning the clipboard recognises my friend from a previous visit (or convincingly pretends to), the young brigade in the open kitchen greets us as we pass, and the waiter compliments me on my choice of wine in a way that makes me feel, briefly but gratifyingly, extremely clever.

Yoghurt sorbet, blackcurrant, nettles.



Yoghurt sorbet, blackcurrant, nettles: ‘Hands down the best iteration of this tedious weed I’ve come across.’ Photograph: Stephen Burke for the Guardian

Though Harborne Kitchen’s website describes the place, quite truthfully, as an “informal neighbourhood restaurant” (no tablecloths, proper bar snacks), the food itself is anything but casual. Kidderminster-born chef-patron Jamie Desogus, who insists that he’s not chasing recognition from any French tyre companies, has nevertheless talked of having a “lightbulb moment” at the Michelin-starred Clove Club in that London and, in my neck of the woods at least, not many neighbourhood joints serve three different tasting menus at lunchtime.

From the moment the yeasted butter arrives on a large stone, it’s clear this is a kitchen with ambition. There are a few similar modish touches that border on gimmickry (while I applaud the waste-not-want-not sentiment that turns fish skins into amuse-bouches, to call the resulting cod crisps “quavers” is a stain on the good name of those potato puffs), but there’s enough solid skill here to bring off some pretty bold cooking.

A classic, velvety chicken liver parfait is given a modern makeover with slices of pickled peach and crunchy seeds, while a screamingly green watercress velouté with thick cultured cream and glossy herring roe is as beautiful as it is simple. Two cuts of buttery confit duck are well served by a richly savoury shiitake broth and cubes of peppery Sichuan pepper jelly, the Chinese flavours wittily pointed up by a garnish of earthy, deep-fried kale (or crispy seaweed, if you prefer). A sweet, herbaceous nettle granita that garnishes the blackcurrant and yoghurt palate cleanser is hands down the best iteration of that generally tedious weed I’ve come across.

There are a couple of less successful dishes: some skilfully cooked but overpoweringly salty morsels of blonde ray and pork cheek with pineapple and coriander wows on the plate more than the palate; and a deconstructed plum cheesecake that I would happily have dispensed with in favour of second helpings of its accompaniments – nutty puffed wild rice (“like the best breakfast cereal ever”) and a pair of clean, intensely flavoured rice and plum ices. But, we agree, better to aim for those stars and occasionally miss, than to settle for a life of safe suburban dough balls.

Harborne Kitchen isn’t cheap – food of this complexity can’t be produced by two chefs and a microwave – and it’s not perfect, either. Sometimes it tries just that bit too hard, and the kitchen could do with a little more confidence in knowing when to leave a good thing well alone. But this would be impressive stuff in the city centre, let alone in B17, sandwiched between a mobile phone shop and a dry cleaners. A five-course tasting menu, a new handset and a freshly pressed suit, all in your lunch break: this, surely, is the Midlands Engine at its fuel-efficient best.

Harborne Kitchen 175 High Street, Harborne, Birmingham B17, 0121-439-9150. Open lunch, Thurs-Sat, noon-3pm; dinner Tues-Sat 5.30pm-11pm. £28.50 for three courses, tasting menus from £35, all plus drinks and service.

Food 7/10
Atmosphere
5/10
Value for money 7/10



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