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Category

Hospitality

Nocturnal Animals

Walking into Nocturnal Animals was like walking into a new world. As soon as I stepped into the building It was no longer 2018. I was immediately transported back to the 80s. And this was a very good thing. On arrival at Birmingham’s newest hotspot, I meet the creative genius behind Nocturnal Animals, Alex Claridge (The Wilderness). He gives me a tour of his venue, including the retro 80s themed bar, the open kitchen restaurant (that boasts an impressive tasting menu) and hallways that would find a perfect home on the Starship Enterprise.

My senses are already heightened. I hadn’t been into a bar this alive before. I sit down on retro furniture whilst Phil Collins’ voice fills the building. Alex brings me a beer that Nocturnal Animals have infused with Yuzu juice and begins telling me about the cooking at his latest venue. Before the end of ‘Easy Lover’ I was beginning to realise that Alex was no ordinary chef. “I always saw the potential of food being more than just a creative medium that was served up on a plate. I knew early on that you could think outside the box with it,” he begins.

Alex is no stranger to being very creative with ingredients in his food and drink. The Wilderness gained a lot of attention for serving up ants on their menu, an ingredient that Alex, nonchalantly claims “adds a citrus note to a dish”. The current Nocturnal Animals dining menu consists of chicken liver parfait, Thai red langoustine and chorizo and Quail Katsu to name a few. “We are very obsessive about ingredients. And then of course we want each ingredient to achieve its true potential on the plate. If it’s beef or pork then it needs to be the best meat possible. We will start local but we will keep moving further afield until we find the best that’s out there. There is great produce in Britain but there are certain things that taste better elsewhere.”

“I always start with flavour in our drinks and our food. If I don’t serve up something that’s fucking delicious then that’s not good enough. I am very hard on my team. I refuse to let them be lazy.” This menu was created whilst Alex was listening to a specific 80s playlist, and this list of tracks was also given to the interior designers before crafting the décor of the bar, halls and dining room. This relationship with music is injected into every aspect of what this bar is about. Sticking to the Phil Collins theme, Alex pointed out that the inspiration behind the entire décor was the feeling he got during the drum solo in the song ‘In The Air Tonight’.

Other than Alex’s obsession with quality ingredients, infusing great music into the venue and serving up stunning cocktails, his story is also one full of fight. “I got sued by one of the worlds best chefs at a famous New York hotel over the name of my old restaurant. I had to scrap everything and start again. I was completely livid. From that place of anger and frustration I really didn’t give a flying fuck anymore.

There was a freedom that came with that emotion. Once you cease to give a fuck, you really stop worrying about what you can and can’t do and instead just do whatever you want.” After hearing Alex tell his story, it was clear that he could have easily given up, but instead, he came back fighting. This mindset is something that still lives with Alex and unlike other restaurants that live and die by the code that ‘the customer is always right’, he has the tendency to fight his corner.

“If someone throws a punch at us we throw several punches back. We never back down. A lot of chefs are concerned that if you take a stance people will think you are a dickhead. But I am a dickhead and I am not concerned about that.”

“All that said, I am a caring person and I want our guests to have the best time possible. We do make mistakes and we do everything we can to rectify those mistakes. During the opening of Nocturnal Animals, we were getting used to our new reservation system and there were some tables that showed up and they had been knocked off the system. There was no table for them. I put £500 tabs behind other venues out of my own pocket just to make sure they could have a good night and to show that we were extremely sorry. “But this whole ‘the customers is always right’ thing isn’t always true. If a customer disrespects any member of my staff then they need to get the fuck out of here as quick as possible. I don’t want their money, I want them to take their personality and fuck off. The tabloids do enjoy dragging me through the dirt with this approach. It’s not a stunt though, I am a human being and I approach everyone with respect and kindness. But if you cross the line and disrespect my business or staff, I will have you.

“I am not worried about a bit of trouble. Me and trouble have a really good relationship. We see each other often. If you didn’t like something then that’s fine, chat with me. But I will have no respect for you if you want to be a keyboard warrior.”

Alex was unlike any chef I had ever met. It was refreshing to meet a creative genius that lived and dies by what he creates, and most of all defended his art form too. I finished the rest of my beer and exited the bar. I found myself back on Bennetts Hill, bewildered, fascinated, and for a brief second, a bit unhappy that I couldn’t have spent the rest of the afternoon in 1987.

To book a table at Nocturnal Animals, visit nocturnal-animals.co.uk

Loki

Loki

Cork-dork and entrepreneur Phil Innes, is not simply in the business of selling drinks. He sells the story behind the wine, and the experience of cracking open something beautiful with people that you value. Conor Rees meets the secret storyteller of Great Western Arcade.

When I think of people in the wine industry, I imagine vineyard owners driving through Italy in their bright coloured Ferraris, or businessmen sharing a bottle over a meeting in a high-end wine bar. But prior to sitting down with Phil Innes, founder of Loki, I knew I was meeting someone completely different from my above preconceptions. Just the name  – Loki – refers to the Norse god of mischief. All my prior research indicated that I was meeting someone, who knew his stuff, but was also a bit of a rebel.

What I didn’t know, however, is that I was about to meet one of the city’s best storytellers, who lives and dies by the provenance of wine.

We got our formalities out the way, and within seconds it hit me that Phil was the most passionate and knowledgeable wine guy I had ever encountered. Phil began: “Wine is one of those things where if you have a good palate then it’s something you can really fall down the rabbit hole with. It’s a never-ending journey. With wine, you can never reach the end of it and that’s what’s exciting. I could study wine 24 hours a day and I still couldn’t learn everything in a lifetime. It’s constantly changing too.”

You can get almost any different flavour combination with wine. The astonishing thing with wine is that the same identical type of vine can be planted 100 meters away from one another and both could react to its environment differently and result in a different tasting wine. Phil began telling me the story about how a Lebanese wine he recently tried had infused the flavour and scent of fresh lavender into its wine by having lavender groves running throughout the vineyards.

After chatting for 30 minutes and listening to Phil tell various stories about his wines, I realised that he had a story for each and every one of the wines he stocked. That’s because out of all the wines Loki stocks, Phil has visited around 95% of their vineyards. He wants to understand how and why wines taste a certain way. Who are the people behind the label?

All of this information is then sold to the customers. When you go into Loki, you don’t just buy a bottle and leave the store. You exit knowing how that wine was made, all of the thought and care that was put into that bottle and how the vineyard has extracted natural elements from its environment to intensify its flavour. Phil is selling you an experience and a story.

Loki
Loki

Phil then went on to tell me one of his most remarkable stories he had about one of his visits to a vineyard.

“One of the most amazing visits I had was to one of my producers in Beaujolais, called Richard Routier. His family are small landowners and they are not your wealthy winemakers. When you go to this area you realise that they are super poor.”

“When I was driving through Beaujolais, I was amazed by how much replanting other vineyards were doing. Replanting costs a lot of money and you would only do it in that area if you really had to.

“A lot of people replant the vines to stop animals from eating them, but these guys in Beaujolais can’t afford to dig up their whole vineyard and replant it. All they are doing is pulling out the dead vines and replanting it with new ones.

“Richard is a pioneer in doing things in a really organic way. The vineyard next to theirs is dying on its arse and he is there with this pristine, amazing and healthy vineyard. I asked him how he does it and he just talked with absolute passion about how he looks after the vines. He doesn’t spray anything, he just uses natural fertilisers, and those natural sprays encourage wildlife. One of the things that a lot of people forget is that nature is very good at dealing with a lot of pests. You have a food chain and certain things eat the little things that will be doing a lot of harm to your vines.

“Richard encourages native butterflies and other animals by building grasslands within the vineyard. His vineyards aren’t normal; they are literally some vines sticking out of a meadow with loads of insects buzzing around. It doesn’t make any sense doing what he does because it takes him a lot of time. He is basically asking nature, ‘can you help me out here’ rather than going to a factory, buying chemicals and a tractor to spray on it. His story proves you can save money whilst saving the environment and saving your crop by doing things in a sustainable way. I love that”.

I became engrossed with this story, and I realised how much more emotionally attached I could get to a bottle of wine. Phil scratches under the surface and shares the riches with his customers.

Phil isn’t just selling a drink; he is selling a story and an experience associated with each and every one of his wines. He is more than just a curator of beautiful and flavoursome liquid; he is the secret storyteller of Great Western Arcade.

@Conor_Rees

Visit Loki’s Site

Loki

40 St. Paul’s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI939LiODiw&feature=youtu.be

“40 St. Paul’s sits on the corner of St. Paul’s Square and Cox St. Finding it when you’ve had a few though, is quite difficult” – Conor Rees

Ever seen people walking around St. Paul’s square, glued to their phone, looking lost? Well, If you do, follow them, because they’re on a pilgrimage to find the best gin bar in the country.

On a cold, grey Birmingham evening, I find myself standing in St Pauls Square, frequently checking Google Maps to make sure I’m in the right place.

40 St Pauls, located on Cox Street, has been named Best Gin Bar and Best Gin Menu in the country (not self-proclaimed. The actual gin police gave them a medal) and the excitement is heightened by the fact that there’s no sign, no bling and no lights – just a blue door with the number 40 nestled at the top. I enter the blue door (half expecting to wander into someone’s house), and Amanjot Johl (Owner, and one of the country’s best bartenders), stands ready to greet me in a cosy, homely bar.

We sit, and Aman begins unravelling his journey through the Birmingham bar scene. Former Birmingham institutions Ha Ha and Le Truc, a brief spell in London and then a return to Birmingham to work for Carl Finn at The Church.

“On a November afternoon, Carl Finn said ‘I don’t see you working for me much longer, I see you opening your own bar’. He was right. If you have the drive to be successful, and you’re confident that you have something new to offer the market, then there’s only one viable next step – Opening your own place.” And in 2015, during the height of Gin’s dominance, Amanjot saw his opportunity and opened 40 St Paul’s.

“Gin was in its peak and there was nowhere at that time, in my opinion, that was doing Gin right in Birmingham. Birmingham should have been leading the way in the drinks sector but for some reason, it wasn’t. There were some great bars in the city, but I could only really name 5 or 6 – and that wasn’t really good enough.”

Robert Wood, (The Edgbaston, Smultronstalle), helped out with the opening menu, and that December, 40 St Paul’s opened with great success. I wanted to find out how 40 St Pauls had become so successful. Aman attributes the bar’s success to the care and thoughtfulness put into each drink.

“My drinking habits have changed. I would much rather spend my money on a few really nice drinks that are made with love, care, and that use great ingredients, than going somewhere else and drinking a lot of drinks that are cheap and nasty just for the sake of getting drunk. It’s a trend that’s being reflected by people’s choice in food and drink over the last 5 or 6 years. People are drinking less, but they are drinking better.”

Aman’s nerdy obsession with gin quality is perhaps the reason why 40 St Pauls has one of the broadest offerings in the country too, stocking over 140 different varietals.

“The list is going to get even longer soon. I’m releasing a 40 St Pauls Reserve List, which contains 23 of the most difficult to source gins in the world. Some of which will never be produced again, some are antique, and some are still in production but are in such small numbers – it’s going to be really, really exclusive and nerdy, but I don’t care!”

Before I left, I wanted to ask Aman about his awards and what he has planned for the future after conquering Gin. He got up from his seat and walked over to the bar. Amanjot walked back over with a trophy in each hand, and nestled under one arm was a pair of 3d glasses wrapped around a menu.

“My aim is to try and win four more of these awards between October 2019 and May 2020 with our new cocktail menu – out next year. I don’t really feel the need to focus solely on gin anymore. We’ve already climbed those peaks, and there’s much more fun to be had with a cocktail menu. Each menu section has a bespoke piece of artwork (one of which requires 3d glasses), a flavour wheel and tasting notes, and we really want to develop that even further.”

“40 St Paul’s cocktail offering will go from 20 to 48 drinks next year. We don’t just want to be the best gin bar, we want to be the best bar, period.”

To find out more about 40 St Pauls, visit www.40stpauls.co.uk

Urban

Notes on Homelessness,

 & Veganism.

The first thing you notice when you sit down at a table with Hannah is her engagement level. She speaks concisely, makes good eye-contact and talks with real confidence and conviction. A natural leader, with clear communication, and not a hint of aggression. You can’t drift off when Hannah talks. You have to focus. In a world of elevator music, she’s stadium rock.

“I’ve lived in the city for nine years, and the homelessness situation has just got worse, year on year. And I think the way that people tend to deal with it ranges from ignoring them, or showing them negativity, to giving them money, which inevitably just serves to sustain whatever addiction they’ve developed to make it through the day. It’s horrible really.”

Hannah introduced a pilot-scheme in her two emporiums a couple of years back, with a focus on employing homeless people, sourced by local charity, Sifa fireside.

“Above all else, this builds their confidence, makes them more employable and gives them some experience working within a team – breaking down the main three barriers of entry for re-integration into society. They’re just people like you and me at the end of the day, but I think it’s difficult for them to get back in the game sometimes because of the stigmas attached to homelessness. The more taboo it is, the more we sweep it under the carpet, and that just leaves them on the fringe, with no hope and no prospects. And that’s our fault, not theirs.”

 

How it works:

  • Sifa recommend a candidate to help out in the coffee-shop with cleaning, plate-running, pot-washing etc.
  • Urban employ the candidate for a couple of shifts per week.
  • Instead of paying the candidate directly, they pay a local hostel to house the candidate for the week, taking them off the streets, and ensuring their safety.
  • “So my sister went vegan two years ago after watching that documentary that everyone watched.”

    Side note: I watched it too when I got home that evening. It’s brilliant. I’m not vegan, but I’ve definitely developed more of a conscience as a result.

    “Anyway, that got me thinking. We serve thousand of meals a month – that’s a lot of meat. And current trends dictate that people are seeking out more plant-based options.”

    I asked her how she planned on doing that without alienating meat-eaters.

    “Vegans don’t always hang out in packs. It’s important in 2018 that we cater for everyone. That’s why our menu serves, meat, fish, vegetarian, vegan, even gluten/dairy-free options. It wasn’t always that way, but we’re slowly marking our territory in a market that needs to adapt.”

    “Reducing meat consumption is better for your body, as well as the planet – but telling people what they may or may not consume is bigoted. You have to be pragmatic as a business owner, and not back yourself into a corner.”

    “That said, I think it’s important to have other objectives instead of just pure, fast profit. The adaptation of the menu to include more vegan options was a personal choice, not a professional one. I made the decision emotionally, but then rationalised it when I saw it in practice.”

    To find out more about Urban, click here.

    Digbeth Dining Club

    “Some-times there’s a man. I won’t say a hee-ro, ’cause what’s a hee-ro? But sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time’n place, he fits right in there, and that’s the dude” – The Big Lebowski

    Jack Brabant is very much part of the zeitgeist. It’s an exciting time to live in Birmingham. Things are changing, and with change, comes opportunity.

    “In 2008, the dream of owning your own restaurant became out of reach for many people. The banks just weren’t lending, and starting up a food business traditionally required a pretty sizeable outlay.”

    It was around this time that street-food culture really started to take off in the US, in newly gentrified hipster-hoods like Venice Beach LA, Williamsburg NY, and Pearl District in Portland.

    “The idea to do something really came about in 2012. There really wasn’t all that much going on in the way of street-food. Shoreditch had it. Manchester’s Northern Quarter had it. But we didn’t.”

    “Digbeth seemed like the perfect place. Relatively empty streets, not many residents close-by, plenty of disused bars, nightclubs and warehouses. I met the owner of Spotlight, and asked if he’d let me hold a street-food event outside his club on a Friday night. Within a few months, we’d become business partners.”

    “Restaurants were struggling at that point, especially the mid-range, £10 a plate restaurants on the high street. There were hardly any independents. All these talented chefs started crawling out of the woodwork. Baked in Brick, Low ‘n’ Slow, OPM, all these magnificent cooks, suddenly had a really cost-effective platform to serve their ridiculously high-quality food at a reasonable price. Throw in some records and some craft ale, or cocktails, and you’ve really got yourself something special.”

    Jack would never, ever brag about this – It’s not in his nature. But I think a little perspective is called for here. DDC has served as a platform for over 100 different traders, many of whom have gone on to host pop-ups, cook at street-food events around the country, and, in some cases, start their own restaurants. Digbeth Dining Club itself has become an institution, with a real focus on quality, value and an unmatched atmosphere, three nights a week.

    The quality has remained high throughout, and it’s now normal for 1000 people to eat at DDC on a mellow Thursday. That’s good going.

    I asked Jack about the beats. “So we’ve experimented loads with music over the last six years. We’ve had techno, trance, house, hip-hop. But I think, really, the funk and soul vibe lends itself much more readily to the atmosphere of DDC.”

    And the treats? “So, again, we’ve had everything. There’s always a couple of bars on. Cocktails seem to go down particularly well, but craft ale in a can never fails to impress either. It just depends on what people are eating, what kind of weather we’ve got, and the vibe on the night.”

    And finally, I ask him one more, deeply personal question. Apart from DDC, where’s Jack’s favourite place to eat? He raises an eyebrow. Then I get a cheeky smile as he says: “Desi Pubs. It’s a Birmingham thing. The Covered Wagon in Yardley Wood. But any of the original ones really. The Vine. The Grove. The Soho Tavern. Indian food in a pub. It’s the best.”

    To find out more about Digbeth Dining Club, visit digbethdiningclub.com

    Opheem. By Aktar Islam.

    Opheem 1

    It’s 2pm on a stiflingly hot summer day. But in this opulent, temperature controlled private dining room, it’s perfectly cool. Aktar runs back to the kitchen to grab me a bottle of Strathmore out of the fridge. “Stay hydrated.” He says, giving me a sincere look. “It’s hot.”

    It is hot. But for Aktar, at this particular moment in time, it’s considerably hotter. And not least because he’s been in front of the pans all morning in a thirty-eight degree kitchen. The reason it’s particularly hot for Aktar at the moment, is because everyone’s eyes are on his new venture; Opheem.

    Once we get the formalities out of the way, the recap on his career (quite the curriculum vitae) I jump in with the hammer: “How do you come up with those dishes Aktar? What’s your process?”

    He looks at me. I stand my ground (kind of).

    “You know ‘Vindaloo’ comes from the Portuguese ‘alho’ – meaning ‘garlic’ – It has nothing to do with potatoes.”

    I didn’t know that.

    “So say you’ve got a vindaloo. Roasted spices, sharpness from the vinegar, heat from the chilli, savoury from the garlic, and then that luxurious, gelatinous feel from the slow-cooked meat. You understand?”

    I most definitely understand.

    “So the way it works with me is simple. I taste something, something simple like a vindaloo, then try and make every single element of it as beautiful, pleasurable and interesting as it possibly can be. Then I add extra textures and flavours to enhance the whole eating experience.”

    “So take the meat. (Vindaloo was a Portuguese-Indian dish. They made it with pork.) So I travelled out to Wiltshire to find England’s tastiest pig. Then I cook it in three ways. The gelatinous feel comes from the trotter, slow-braised. The smoky sweetness comes from in-house smoked ham-hock, and then the beautiful meatiness comes from the seared, seasoned loin.”

    I’m hungry now.

    “So then there’s the sauce. There are two main objectives with a good sauce. The texture, and the flavour. So I do a purposely muted down, velvety sauce, but before I put it on the plate, I dab some small spots of concentrated, roasted spice puree, so you get an explosion of flavour when it reaches your palate. More velvety, and more flavoursome, all the good-stuff, just much more sophisticated.”

    “I then taste all the components of the dish. With this one, I felt that while the essence of vindaloo was there, the dish needed some balance, both nutritionally and in terms of texture. So I puree some carrots with chicken-fat and star-anise, add some sautéed kale with garlic and shallots, and then add some crispy pastry to give the dish some crunch.”

    Aktar’s Process:

    “I eat traditional food, and think about what exactly it is that I’m enjoying.”
    “I think about how I can deconstruct it and change it to make it more interesting.”
    “I try and add a unifying element, like a delicious sauce, or puree, or both, for balancing out the flavours and keeping the base-notes consistent throughout the dish.”

    “People use words like ‘fusion’ and ‘progressive’ to describe my food, but to be honest, I always try and keep it true to it’s roots. I do find it hard to enjoy food though nowadays, because I’m always taking it apart in my head. Even our snacks are deconstructed iterations of Indian street-food. I can’t even enjoy a chaat without thinking about how it would play out if it was re-fashioned.”

    Aktar’s a self-confessed dichotomy – a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ of deconstruction and re-wiring, but also obsessed with tradition and nostalgia.

    “My mum is an exceptional cook. The traditional menu is an homage to her.”

    I could go into depth about his leadership-style, his obsession with kitchen-tech or his Swiss-watch like precision at dealing with kitchen-panic, but to be honest, none of it matters. It’s the end result – The food, that really matters. And it’s beautiful.

    To find out more about Opheem, visit opheem.com

    1993

    Kicked out of school.

    1998

    Starts working for Dad.

    2001

    Takes over Dad’s restaurant, Karma.

    2009

    Joins Lasan as Head Chef.

    2010

    Wins Gordon Ramsay’s F-Word.

    2011

    Wins The Great British Menu.

    2012

    Opens Fiesta Del Asado and finalised for TGBM.

    2013

    Opens Raja Monkey.

    2014

    Finalised again in TGBM.

    2015

    Opens Nosh & Quaff.

    2016

    Opens Izza Pizza at Selfridges, his fifth concept for Lasan Group.

    2017

    Leaves Lasan Group.

    2018

    Opens Opheem.