Magazine article The Spectator

Bank Birmingham

Magazine article The Spectator

Bank Birmingham

Article excerpt

MORE canals than Venice, more trees than Paris, more hills than Rome. Jewel of empire. Cradle of the British revolution that truly changed the world. Crib of the Chamberlains and Sir Dick Knowles; home of Hattersley and Jenkins. Underloved, unlovely heimat of insouciant pride. It is a measure of its people's easy confidence that Birmingham is so far behind every comparable European city in the provision of 'proper' restaurants. They just don't care. If you want Balti, you're in the right place; it was invented in Brum. If you're after bruschetta, you'll probably find that as well, on some unselfconsciously kitsch brand-new pavement piazza. But if it's barquettes Bagration that turn you on, or anything else vaguely classical, you're more likely to meet it almost anywhere in urban Britain but here.

In the last couple of years the lazy giant has begun to stir, but only just. A Petit Blanc opened in Brindleyplace (yes, that really did count as a major leap forward); Gilmore, St Pauls and the Jam House lead the rejuvenation of Hockley and the Jewellery Quarter; Jonathan's (for years the only serious non-ethnic restaurant in Britain's wealthy, otherwise vibrant second city) is still there.

And now there is Bank. The original opened in London in 1996, to critical acclaim and commercial reward. Here was big, sophisticated brasserie eating for the Nineties: buzzy, minimalistic distraction for over-wealthy youngsters who had grown up on the dance-floor not expecting to be able to converse. The food was generally thought to be good. For style reasons, it was important that it be so. Poor food would have been tacky; and that wouldn't do. But you could serve flambeed dog-face with an apricot glaze to the smug grotesques who pack the place, and not five in 100 would notice the difference.

Speaking of which, I took my schoolfriend Eddie Hughes, who is a Conservative councillor in Walsall, to the second Bank, in Birmingham. He is a fine man, but not a great gourmet. As we sat down (45 minutes late at about 9.45 p.m., but without causing eyebrows to raise; in London we would have been sent to stand in the corner) he reminded me of his habit of taking the raw ingredients of a meal - chicken breast, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, glass of milk and a nice fresh fruit salad - throwing them in a blender and drinking the product in three or four gulps. When the wife is away, Eddie explains, it just doesn't seem worth cooking and eating when one can blend and drink one's dinner in a fraction of the time. Brillat-Savarin he is not.

He began with half a lobster grilled with butter. And, to give him his due, he made all the right noises about what a splendid lobster it was, and how he could see what he'd been missing by throwing his meals into the blender. 'Mmm. This is really delicious. I'm really enjoying this lobster,' he kept saying, like a radio soap-opera character desperately setting the 'man in restaurant really enjoying lobster' scene. Obviously, I knew he was lying. He would have said exactly the same if I'd given him a plate of deep-fried cockroaches coated in slime and told him they were baby lobsterettes in a spittle sabayon. Pressed, he admitted as much. But I appreciated his making the effort to lie. Sincerity is superfluous in matters superficial.

My own first course was pea risotto with Gorgonzola. It's something I often order it having become restaurant-fashionable in the mysterious way that certain dishes do but which always disappoints. …

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