Page last updated at 04:14 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 05:14 UK

Birmingham takes on capitals of cuisine

(left to right) Poached egg yolk, smoked haddock milk foam, cornflakes and curry oil; Tail fillet of beef with liquorice, Jerusalem artichoke, foie gras brick, rocket, tamarind juice and pig’s trotter nugget;

By Claire Marshall
BBC News, Birmingham

The words "Birmingham" and "fine dining" are not ones you might normally put together.

In fact, after asking a random selection of Londoners what food could be found in Birmingham, these were some of the responses: "Curries, sort of Indian tradition", "Beefeaters, that's all I know" and "the balti, wasn't it invented there?".

But Birmingham is quietly creeping up behind London to become Britain's second culinary capital.

The city now has three Michelin-starred restaurants. That's more than Manchester, Leeds, or Liverpool, none of which has any Michelin rankings.

Simple, modern

In a Victorian redbrick building in the heart of Birmingham's financial district is Purnell's. It was awarded a Michelin star in January and was recently named AA Restaurant of the Year for England.

The décor is simple and modern. At lunchtime there is a soft hum as smart-suited diners sip from sparkling glasses and eat beautiful morsels from wide, white plates.

In subtle command is the molten-eyed front-of-house Jean Benoit Burloux. He takes orders and offers advice on the menu in a dusky French accent.

"Madame, to begin with I could recommend a wonderful salad of Devonshire crab... served with smoked paprika honeycomb. For the main course, how about the duck rolled in liquorice charcoal with a cep puree, a liquorice puree and some butternut squash cooked in orange?"

Chef Glynn Purnell, born and bred in Birmingham, proudly points out that all the pictures adorning the walls of his restaurant were taken within a one-mile radius.

Glynn Purnell
Glynn Purnell is among a new breed of chef born and bred in Birmingham

"Birmingham's got great architecture," he enthuses as he sits back with a cup of tea after a busy lunchtime sitting.

"I opened a restaurant in 2003," he says, "and there was no gastronomic fine dining restaurant around. Now there's four, five, six… it's really transformed."

Many of the top chefs at these new restaurants, come from the city just like Mr Purnell.

He says: "It's great to see more Brummies are staying put in Birmingham, rather than thinking 'I've got to move to London where all the bright lights are'. All of a sudden, Birmingham has its own bright lights."

If you want to enjoy supper at Purnell's one weekend you will now have to wait until February to secure a booking, such is its popularity.

Tim White set up the restaurant review site Birminghamplus 10 years ago, when the idea of the city having a Michelin star was a distant dream.

"Sometimes, when there is the occasional national review of a Birmingham restaurant, there is almost a kind of condescension, an air of surprise: 'I went to Birmingham and I had something nice to eat'.

"Hopefully we're starting to break this down and now it's not considered unusual that you may come to Birmingham and have something which would stand comparison with restaurants in other parts of the country."

Thanks to the development of modern shopping/business hubs such as the Mailbox, the Cube, the Bullring and the Conference Centre, Mr White says that Birmingham has become more pedestrian-friendly, more people are going out, and in terms of restaurants there is now an "embarrassment of riches".

Chippy success

This transformation is not just happening at the highest end.

A chip shop in Ladywood, one of the most deprived areas of Birmingham, has been given a five-star grading by the industry's governing body Seafish.

A placard outside the front door of the Great British Eatery proudly proclaims its other award: regional winner in the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year Awards 2009. It is now a contender for the national award.

Go inside and its clear it's not a normal chippy. On the menu alongside the usual onion rings and mushy peas, you can find roast chicken and mashed potato, meatballs and even fresh mussels with a cider and bacon broth for £3.50.

The fish (sustainably sourced and cooked to order) is served in biodegradable packaging with a little pot of home-made tartare sauce nestled in one corner.

At lunchtime, there is a steady stream of customers. Two students tucking in to a tray of chips say they eat there twice a day, every day.

One of the owners, 28-year-old Andy Insley, stands beside the fryer in gleaming chef's whites, dipping pieces of fish into the bubbling beef dripping.

He says that he and his business partner Conrad Brunton were motivated by their belief that no-one was putting pride into serving the national dish. They wanted to offer the best.

My real hope is that a couple of the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi restaurants get a Michelin star
Tim White

"That's the colour we want," he says as the fish emerges, sizzling, from the oil. "Amber - beautiful."

Mr Brunton, 28, and a graduate of the Birmingham College of Food, stands behind the gleaming counter taking the orders and shouting them out to his co-owner.

"Without a shadow of a doubt," he says, "people are starting to see Birmingham much more as a destination for dining out. I know quite well the guys in the Michelin-starred restaurants and they do a fantastic job.

"And there's little independent places popping up such as ourselves, just trying to take pride in what we do."

Restaurant reviewer Tim White believes Birmingham is close to getting one, if not two or more, Michelin stars. He would like to see the vibrant multiculturalism of the city reflected in this.

"My real hope is that a couple of the Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi restaurants get a Michelin star," he says.

"The fact that the balti restaurants are sitting alongside the fine dining restaurants hopefully means that there will be some kind of cross-over so that the experience and expectation of using the finest ingredients and preparing food to a certain standard will spill over, and we will start seeing food other than European food at the top end."

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