Thursday, 27 November 2008

Spoilt for Choice

MENUS with too many choices make me nervous. And not just because I'm hopelessly indecisive. Long menus are for the preserve of cheap Chinese restaurants and please-all family pubs.
So faced with three different menus at the City Inn, Birmingham, last night, I began to panic.
I have to admit the menu read beautifully but this just served to make me more anxious.
How could a kitchen pull off so many dishes - and with such a diverse ingredient list - to the standard their price tags commands?
Tucking into my starter, however, I realised there must be a touch of a touch of magic going on in the kitchen.
My twice-baked piquillo pepper and spinach souffle was delicate and subtlety flavoured. It's accompanying chestnut and fig salad with grain mustard vinaigrette was refreshing and piquant.
And there were no complaints from my friend who gobbled up her neatly proportioned pan-seared Argyll scallops with pickled radish, apple and frisee salad.
Restaurants serving this standard of food usually come with a side dish of stuffiness, but City Inn was refreshingly relaxed and the friendly staff efficient and well-informed.
It was on our waiter's recommendation that my friend chose her main course - featherblade of beef with Roquefort risotto and spring onions. He'd tried it during a tasting session and said it was 'special'.
Worried it would be heavy, she said: 'I needn't eat it all.' But the portion was not overbearing and the meat so unctuous she savored every mouthful.
My baked hake and chorizo and butterbean cassoulet, was as delightful to eat as it looked. The cassoulet was served in a miniature copper saucepan (which has now been added to the must-have at home list).
It was uncomplicated, well-executed fare using quality ingredients.
Enthusiastic young sommelier John Thurlow matched my main course to a zesty Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough, New Zealand, while my friend's beef proved an ideal partner for a fruity Argentinian Malbec from the Mendoza winery.
A selection of mixed sorbets provided a light end to my meal, similarly for my friend who chose the blood orange and blueberry jelly with orange and mint salad and yogurt icecream.
Over coffee, the restaurant's operation manager Gareth Turbitt told us that the City Inn is trying hard to market itself as a restaurant with rooms, rather than the other way round.
"People have a preconception of hotel restaurant food - that it's usually bad," he said. "But here we are serving some of the best food in Birmingham, as good as most of the top restaurants.
"But we are something of a hidden gem at the moment."
I have to agree. Most people visiting Birmingham venture as far as nearby Brindley Place but miss out on the quality food being served just round the corner.
The City Inn bar also serves award-winning cocktails including an incredible zesty mojito, better even than those I'd sipped in Havana.
And it was in that very bar that our evening suddenly turned very blurry...
Have you been to a City Inn restaurant recently? What did you think?

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