Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Botanist: Bringing botany to Birmingham.

For years now I’ve heard murmurings about Chester’s critically acclaimed cocktail bar ‘The Botanist’ offering a sanctuary for both the young and trendy, and the well healed elite to quench their thirst with the latest ‘on-trend’ offering of botanical beverage. Relocate to Birmingham, where the hardened cocktails drinker is familiar with the well-established haunts set up by the Bitters and Twisted group, or the burgeoning independent market with the likes of The Bureau garnering attention from the Colemore Row legalites, and you’d agree that the market is already saturated (or more accurately paralytic on a Friday and Saturday!) So do we need another?
Hiding behind its intricate wrought-iron exterior, Birmingham’s incarnation of ‘The Botanist’ is centrally located on Temple Street, a mere stone’s throw from the likes of competitors Bodega and The Bureau, first impressions are good. There has already been discussion amongst my teacher friends about a proposed trip here when it opens commercially on the 6th of April, rather annoyingly already a week into our Easter break! I didn’t tell them I’d landed an invite to the press launch last Thursday, obviously.

Inside, you’ll be greeted to a sophisticated décor that is simultaneously chic yet comfortable with the addition of tastefully acoustic live music to create an mellow vibe. On arrival I was greeted warmly by the staff and ushered to the bar to sample the extensive cocktail menu. From the outset, ‘The Botanist’s’ brand is exactly what it purports: delicate and subtle flavours that combine refreshing fruits and the best of British herbs. My criteria for a good cocktail bar is that you shouldn’t need to look at the menu and that you should rely on recommendation only. Test one: find a cocktail that will be good for a lunchtime-drinking gin lover. I was recommended the Watermelon and Sage Sling (£7.50), which was at it says, with the addition of a spritz of lime juice to add a sharp edge to the velvety smoothness of the watermelon. I was impressed: this was looking good!

After being ushered to my table with some fellow foodies, it was reassuring to see that The Botanist offers not only an extensive cocktail menu, but also a respectable food menu to boot. Unlike its competitors, The Botanist doesn’t position itself as a cocktail bar that does food, or vice versa, it very much stands in both camps.  
Both carnivores and veggies alike will find something to tantalise their tastes in the extensive food menu. I opted for the Smoked Haddock Fishcake (£5.95) to start with and it arrived promptly and was strikingly presented. The micro herb motif that adorned the cocktails that my fellow diners were sipping featured again on the food, and the opulent colours were set off by the retro style Willow Pattern plates that it was served on. A nice touch, considering that this is a chain.

Between starter and main, my attentive waiter managed to persuade me to try one of the English Mojitos (it took a lot of persuasion on his behalf, of course!) A mojito with gin and cucumber is such a simple change, yet the result in stunning. A definite recommendation from me, and if you don't like it, I'll finish it off!

The real selling point of The Botanist’s food menu is the signature Deli Boards. For £9.95 diners can select four items from an extensive range including: Roasted Red and Yellow Peppers, Scotch Egg and Picalilly, Poached Salmon Fillet and three different cheese, all served with Turkish Flatbread. For the gastronomically fussy like myself, this is a real selling point as you can tailor your menu to suit your requirements without having to spend the earth (or seem like one of those customers!) My board consisted of the Salmon Fillet, a Four Bean Salad, a generous helping of the Houmus and a slice of Lancashire Blue Cheese. Each portion was artistically presented, as I was now becoming accustomed to, and decently sized- certainly sufficient for both a city lunch to share, or a relaxed dinner.
However, I did get a bit of food envy as we all do on occasion. In addition to the Deli Boards, The Botanist has two further divisions to the menu: ‘Off the Barbecue’, and ‘From the Rotisserie’. Form the barbecue you can enjoy a hanging kebab with either Halloumi for the veggies, or chicken, prawn, lamb, or beef for the meat eaters. Dramatically presented, each diner can enjoy a hanging kebab sopped with sweet chilli, ginger and garlic butter. I know, I should have had one of those to start off with, but that gives me a reason to go back, right?

Luckily, there is a dessert alternative of the kebab, featuring strawberry and marshmallow that I plumped for and was not disappointed.  A simple dish presented in a novel way, with generous lashings of Sailor Jerry chocolate sauce. What’s not to love?
So my verdict? The Botanist has hit a niche with its equal focus on providing quality food and drinks to a more discerning customer. Think sophisticated drinks and classy nibbles on a weeknight, a couple of inspired cocktails with colleagues on Friday, or a catch up with friends over a long drink at the weekend, The Botanist will not disappoint. With 25% off during April with online bookings it is definitely worth a try.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Gas Street Social? #Iamsocial

You know sometimes you get to Thursday and that weekend feeling kicks in and you feel the urge to treat yourself? Well that didn’t quite happen to Jess and I this week, but due to a combination of the standard teachers’ exhaustion coupled with us both working late, we ended up stopping off at the newly opened Gas Street Social at The Mailbox for a tasty morsel before crashing out.

I’d been eagerly awaiting the opening of Brum’s latest trendy eatery, especially as the latest offering to The Mailbox has a considerably more independent vibe than the plethora of chain restaurants that surround it. After nipping in on the opening night for the obligatory glass of fizz, (£6 for a glass of the house Bel Star prosecco) the relaxed and informal atmosphere made this a welcoming hang out. With some features akin to long-term-favourite York’s Bakery, Gas Street Social had a relaxed yet refined social space that openly invites guests to do just that: socialise.

On first impressions, the food spread is pretty impressive and will cater for most tastes in one way, shape or form. As someone who is quite fussy when it comes to meat, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Fish Board along with the other sharing platters. At £17.95 it is no snip, but between two it seemed reasonable, and something that is relatively unique amongst competitors that already offer charcuterie boards with relative abundance. To supplement our fish, we opted for the Crispy Arancini Balls (£5.95) from the Social Plates range and a couple of portions of fries to boot at a sneaky £3 each. The financially savvy amongst us will notice that what is essentially a snack is now starting to command a relatively hefty price tag...

The fish board itself was well considered and included lightly battered calamari rings, chilli buttered king prawns, Loch Duart Salmon and a rather rustic potted mackerel, all served with some thickly slices rye bread. On the one hand, this was well put together and offered a great spread, however there was considerably more mackerel than the other offerings and not quite enough bread to go around. Let’s face it, when you’re paying nearly £18 for a sharing platter you expect to be catered for. On the flip side, all of the fish was exquisitely cooked and the Loch Duart Salmon was a particular winner. The arancini balls were delicious, lightly flavoured with wild mushroom and truffle oil, and the fries were... well, fries. Simple.
Some other things to consider could be the 3 Social plates for £17 or 5 for £27 to include a selection from the veg, meat and fish range, or the rather impressive looking burgers. For the drinkers, there is a range of cocktails on offer to rival the likes of Bodega and The Bureau, all with a kitsch name and kooky presentation.

So my verdict? It’s good, I like it. It’s different and will attract foodies and drinkers alike. I certainly plan to go back... on Tuesday in fact and I’m taking friends. I guess that says it all.

Gas Street Social? #Iamsocial for sure!

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Cocktail Trio (with some assistance)

By Friday afternoon there is a tangible quiver in the air come 4 o’clock as the many young professionals, hipsters and miscellaneous city dwellers feel the urge to baptise the weekend with alcoholic splendour. So, for those of you needing inspiration for that late afternoon tipple, here is a rundown of my 3 current favourites for the essential summer bevvy: the cocktail.

The Lost and Found: Smokey Joe

For those of you who follow my Twitter account @countryboyblog, you will have already seen that I have tweeted about this on previous occasions (and accidentally uploaded about a bazillion pictures of it by mistake...) This is essentially a whiskey and coke, but not like any you have ever tried before. Instead of standard coke, this is carbonated with smoked bubbles and finished with a shot of maple syrup, resulting in a sophisticated warmth to this beverage. At £7.95, this is not the cheapest of drinks, and can certainly be undercut by some local rivals, but what you are paying for is a quality drink, served by knowledgeable staff, in a quirky environment.

Bodega: Blueberry and Elderflour Margarita (Jack) and Raspberry Caipirinha (Sarah)

This was a bit of an impromptu cocktail stop after an afternoon at the Sea Life centre. Sarah and I (being strong willed as we are...) were tempted by the appealing offer of selected cocktails being available for £4 until 7pm. I opted for the Blueberry and Elderflour Margarita (right) and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect! Moving away from it’s more bitter counterpart, this one was edged with sugar and floated with a couple of blueberries. Flavour wise, the two main ingredients worked well together and the tequila (which I usually hate after one too many slammers in my uni days!) added spice and warmth rather than the customary burn. Sarah plumped for the Raspberry Caipirinha (left), a variation on the Brazilian classic, which met with her approval and was deemed ‘fruity but sharp’.  For two cocktails for £8 you can’t go wrong with this, but after 7pm there is a bit of a price hike so get there early to enjoy these creations.

Jekyll and Hyde: Love Heart (Jack) and Lemon Bon Bon (Amy)

The Jekyll and Hyde is part of the same chain as Bodega and as such, has the same offers on cocktails until 7pm. Amy and I had no need for this as we started mid-afternoon... on a Monday (guess that’s one of the perks of being a teacher that during the summer hols you can be slightly sozzled on a Monday afternoon!) True to it’s quirky roots, the Jekyll and Hyde is offering up sweet shop themed cocktails this summer, served in retro jam jars. What I liked about this was right from the offset, our cocktail maker knew what she was doing and was able to alter my Love Heart (left) to make it less sweet and offer her own recommendations. Both mine and Amy’s drinks paid homage to their sweet namesakes, but we were both in agreement that the Love Heart would be the cocktail of choice on future occasions.

The verdict...

Well judging by my tweets, the Smokey Joe is definitely the drink of choice for both quality and innovation, but... where did I end up going back to on Monday evening... The Jekyll and Hyde, and this time for the Turkish Delight cocktail, AND I even coughed up the full £5.50, post 7pm price for this and it did not disappoint. 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Yorks Cafe Bakery Brunch (With Sarah)

One of the things I like most about school holidays is the fact that I can start to really appreciate brunch, and the many places around Birmingham that seem to be jumping on the brunch bandwagon and putting a contemporary spin on classic breakfast dishes and serving throughout the day. I’ve always been a huge fan of Home Cafe Deli (Church Street) which serves a brilliant range of brunch items complimented with a wide range of artisan coffees, but today, accompanied by colleague and foodie side-kick Sarah, I finally made it to the much talked about Yorks Bakery Cafe.

Now I’ve heard a lot of talk about Yorks from both the hipster community and the professionals of Colmore Row, and in the current environment where the independent coffee safe is becoming a fixture in most towns, standards are high. You’ll probably remember my recent visit to BostonTea Party and the high praise that the brownie and smoothie gleaned from my critical palette, so the bar was set high, especially as Yorks is of the same ilk.

Location wise, Yorks occupies a prime spot just off Colemore Row at the top end of Newhall Street; right on the main path up from the Jewellery Quarter, and within a stone’s throw of the city folk of the numerous law firms. Inside, Yorks is bustling and welcoming with a range of seating options including some outdoor seating to make the most of the rare glimpse of sun. With the decor demonstrating a slight inclination to industrialism, with trendy bare light bulbs, exposed masonry and complimentary art work, it provides a sophisticated place for your morning coffee, whilst offering a sanctuary to those hipsters who savour each mouthful whilst pouring over their laptops.

There is a wide range of food on offer, with a standard brunch menu which runs throughout the week as well as an ever changing array of freshly made sandwiches and cakes. I opted for the Scrambled Eggs with Smoked Salmon at a cost of £4.95. For a brunch under a fiver, I was not expecting much if I’m honest, but I must admit I was amazed at what arrived at my table minutes after ordering! The eggs were presented neatly (and for those of you who cook, you will know that this is a near impossibility when working with scrambled eggs!) with a decent helping of salmon and a blob of mascarpone cheese to add more textural variety. What really impressed me was the quality of the bread (a nice artisan loaf, lightly oiled and toasted) which is testament to the fact that serious though has gone into the food that is served here. Sarah went for the other end of the spectrum, plumping for the stack of pancakes served with caramelised banana and maple syrup (£3.95). As someone prone to food envy, I have no shame in saying that these looked awesome! 4 pancakes served with a healthy dash of maple syrup and a whole banana is enough to meet the needs of most people’s sweet tooth!

To accompany my scrambled eggs I was lured into trying one of the array of fine teas on offer, and on this occasion chose the Jasmine Dragon Peal tea (which I won’t try to explain in detail, but essentially is balled Jasmine which slowly unfurls to infuse your brew with a light a delicate taste). Again, I was really impressed by the fact that this was served as loose leaf tea in an individual cafetiere as this shows real commitment to quality without the pretention and price that usually accompanies servings of this nature.

Once again, I had high expectations and once again, they were surpassed. I can see Yorks becoming a weekend favourite, especially in the cold winter months where the lure of a hearty brunch and steaming brew become essential. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Oatie Cookies with about a million varieties (ish)

When it comes to biscuits, these oat based cookies really deliver! My mum originally discovered these in an American cook book that we bought way back in 1993 when we were in California. Just one of the 365 great cookie and brownie recipes the book promised, these are have become a firm favourite amongst family and friends alike. The base for these is really versatile and lots of things can be added or substituted to make sure that these suit your own taste. The basis I have used for this recipe is dark choc chip, with a slight hint of coffee, however if you scan down you’ll see some of my suggestions for what could be used instead. And the other good thing about these is that that can ready in less than half an hour to provide a great companion to that morning coffee you crave!

These are the coconut and white choc, with a few chilli and ginger I made for work. 

Ingredients (to make between 24 and 28, 2-3 inch cookies):

4 oz of butter, softened
2 oz granulated sugar
2 oz dark brown sugar
1 egg
½ teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 tablespoon of coffee liqueur or 1 tablespoon of instant coffee (cold)
3 oz flour
6 oz rolled oats
½ baking soda
½ teaspoon of salt
6 oz of choc chips.


Preheat oven to 150 C if using a fan oven like me, or 180 C if using a conventional oven.
Add the butter and sugar to a large bowl and mix well. Add the egg and continue to stir thoroughly. Following this, add the vanilla and coffee.

Add the dry ingredients and mix until it forms quite a thick cookie dough of a dropping consistency.

Drop the dough onto a greased cookie sheet 2-3 inches apart (I usually reckon 8-9 cookies per tray) and bake for 10-12 minutes.


Now this is where these cookies come into their own! To strip this back to the bare bones, follow the recipe up to where you add the choc chips and coffee. Instead of this, why not try:

Removing a handful of oats and adding a handful of desiccated coconut and 6 ounces of white choc chips and mixing in to the cookie dough?

Adding a teaspoon of ground ginger and ½ a teaspoon of cinnamon (perfect for a festive variation!) Or maybe omit the cinnamon and add a good pinch of ground chilli for a warm afterglow.

Otherwise try my mum’s favourite: cinnamon and raisin. Or why not try white choc chunks and dried cranberries?

My most recent creation was with dark choc chips with a couple of teaspoons of grated orange zest and a tablespoon of orange liqueur.

And here they are! Choc and orange awesomeness!

The list is endless! Let me know what you try!

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Panna Cotta with Raspberry Coulis

After being given some anodised silver pudding basins for Christmas last year I have been looking for something to try these out. I’d already used them with the Chocolate Fondants and they were very successful then, but a fondant in this hot weather wasn’t what I was craving. Panna Cotta on the other hand is a desert quintessential to the warmer summer months, served garnished with fresh fruit, refreshing coulis and finished with a sprig of fresh mint. This creation debuted for Alev’s birthday dinner, and again is completely gulten free. This version is served with a raspberry coulis, but there are many different variations that this can be served with. I’ve even seen it served with a chocolate sauce for those of you who are looking for some serious indulgence!


(For the Panna Cotta)

3 gelatine leaves
250 ml milk
250 ml double cream
1 vanilla pod (split lengthways)
25 g caster sugar.

(For the coulis)

175 g caster sugar
175 ml water
200 g of raspberries (plus extra for decoration)


Soak the gelatine leaves in water until soft. They will get considerably larger, and try to resist the urge to touch them!

Pour the milk and cream into a saucepan and add the sugar and vanilla pod (complete with seeds) and heat on a low heat until gently simmering. Remove from the heat as soon as this happens.

Drain the water off the gelatine leaves, and add to the milk mixture stirring until dissolved. Pour the mixture into the pudding basins (this will make enough to fill 4 of approximately 150ml each. Leave these to cool thoroughly before chilling. When I made these, I made them the day before and left to chill in the fridge overnight but they do set within a couple of hours if time is a premium.

For the sauce, place the sugar and water in a pan and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the majority of the raspberries and blitz with a hand blender until smooth.

Press the blitzed raspberry mixture through a sieve to remove the unwanted seeds. Allow this to chill before serving.

Turn out the panna cotta when you are ready to serve and spoon the coulis around the base. Garnish with a fresh raspberry and a sprig of mint.

Country Boy says:

When turning these out, they can sometimes be a bit unwilling to leave the pudding basin so either plunge them into a shallow dish of hot water first, or quickly run a blow torch around the basin once upturned.


The coulis can be made with any sort of summer berry (or a mixture if you wanted to be really adventurous!) Why not try it with blackberries in the autumn and when it comes to blitzing, throw in a few sprigs of mint to create a cool buzz, or use strawberries with a squeeze of fresh lime to add some zing. Let me know what you try. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Chocolate Olive Oil Cake (for Sophia)

As you have probably gathered with my previous blogs, I associate the dishes that I make with certain people. This cake is one that I discovered a couple of weeks ago courtesy of the voluptuous Nigella so it probably should come with a warning about how sickeningly delicious it is. Anyway, enough of Nigella, this cake is one that I made with my especially awesome friend Sophia in mind. Like Alev, Sophia doesn’t eat wheat, but this comes with the added bonus (complication?!) of the fact that she also doesn’t eat any dairy either. Yes bakers, I know what you are thinking- worst nightmare and all that! But fear not, help is at hand in the form of this really quite surprising Chocolate Olive Oil Cake, which is a future staple of the City Kitchen. Sophia, this one is for you...


150 ml olive oil (or any good quality vegetable oil)
50 grams of cocoa powder
125 ml boiling water
2tsp vanilla extract
150 grams of ground almonds
½ teaspoon of bicarb
Pinch of salt
200 grams of caster sugar
3 large eggs


Preheat your oven to 150 degrees (if using a fan oven like me, 170 otherwise) and grease a 9 inch spring form cake tin (or standard sponge tin works just as well)

Pour the boiling water into a heat proof bowl and sift the cocoa powder into this and whist vigorously. Add the vanilla and set aside to cool.

In another bowl, combine the almonds, bicarb and salt. Meanwhile beat the eggs, oil and sugar until you have a light yellow, creamy batter.

Following this, slowly pour in the cocoa mixture and continue mixing, then slowly add the almond combination to this as well.

Pour this into the prepared tin and bake for 40-45 minutes.

Country Boy says:

This cake should still look a bit moist when it is finished, and it does have a bit of a funky texture even when cool. When removing from the oven, slide a sharp knife into the centre and it should come out clean.

Serving suggestions:

This cake is so versatile you can either serve it warm with a spoonful of Greek yoghurt or crème fraiche, or cold with a cup of tea. I also found that this cake was at its best 24 hours after cooking as its had time to settle properly, so try and resist the temptation for that long, but if not, enjoy it when it’s warm and seductive.

I’ve also debated changing this up a bit with the addition of some crystallised ginger, finely chopped, when you mix in the three main ingredients. Have a go and let me know what you think.