You’ll be hard-pressed to dine in one of Birmingham’s better restaurants without finding somewhere in the establishment someone who has learned their art in The Birmingham College of Food at University College Birmingham (UCB). Offering courses for students from 17 and up UCB has had full university status since just 2012 (ah, such a simpler time that wonderful Jubilympic year) but it celebrated its 50th anniversary just two years ago, and its history goes back to Victorian times (great article here if you’re a local history geek).
To ensure that their budding chefs, bakers, and front of house staff are ready for the real-world beyond their training, the College of Food run a fine dining restaurant that’s open to the public, and has a menu which is a complete bargain, just £26 for two courses or £30 for three courses. We’ve been meaning to go for a couple of years but as it books up well in advance for its lunch and dinner sittings which operate just Monday to Friday, we’ve not managed to make it but were invited by UCB to give it a go before the second lockdown and jumped at the offer – so this was an unusual freebie, see our Reciprocity Promise here.
The front of house team greeted and seated us, and lecturer Liz who was overseeing front of house explained to us that those staff in black shirts were on their very first evening shift in the restaurant, and that we’d be seeing the lecturer and other staff instructing the juniors as they served us. Similarly the kitchen was staffed with a mix of chefs for whom this was their first service, and some that had been studying at the college for two years. It added a fun element knowing that we were guinea pigs for this new team but in all honesty the food was excellent and the service was, if not flawless, absolutely charming. The students were engaging and helpful, some nervous, some chatty, and managed wonderfully with the COVID-19 secure style of service.
I started with a well-made Negroni cocktail (just £4.50!) and we nibbled the freshly baked bread while we took in the menu. The cheese and onion bread was my favourite, but the wholemeal and semi-brioche were equally artful in their execution; all light as a feather and full of flavour.
We ate here on the evening of 4th November, so literally the last service before lockdown two kicked in, so we went all out with cocktail, three courses, and wine, of course!
For starters we ate the champagne risotto, and the guinea fowl choux farci. The risotto was creamy and well-seasoned with multiple textures of butternut squash, and a snapping parmesan and almond tuile. It was a pretty dish with edible flowers, glossy bright risotto, and earthy mushrooms cutting through the richness. The guinea fowl was minced and seasoned and stuffed into a shining cabbage leaf. It was flavoured with fennel (I think), and served on a heady sauce of shimeji mushrooms and shallot purée. I would have happily been served either of the starters in any restaurant, and there’s no doubt that the kitchen here is confident and knows what it’s doing.
We were recommended a Lebanese Chateau Musar cabernet sauvignon, stuffed full with black fruit flavours, to drink with our food. If you’ve not had it before I thoroughly recommend it, and sold here at £35.95 it’s basically at its retail price rather than restaurant price.
For my main I had the blossom honey and lavender glazed Gressingham duck. The duck was spot on medium, and the glaze delivered the promised honey and lavender without being heavy handed (which is a risk when working with lavender – no one wants a mouthful of soapy perfume). The pommes anna tasted appropriately calorific (everything is better with butter), and candied beetroot married well with the duck, and the cassis sauce added some drama to the plate. The duck croquette was golden and crispy. The French trimmed rack of lamb was also cooked perfectly medium, and it was served with unctuous slow-cooked lamb shoulder, all brought together with a glossy sauce.
Chocolate desserts for me must scream chocolate, and the Alunga chocolate mousse delivered. Velvety mousse, interestingly presented, was served with passion fruit marsh mallow – I could add spoonfuls of this sweet passion fruit fluff to every dessert I eat. We also had the blackcurrant mousse with autumn spiced pear, and a remarkable apple and tarragon granita that really freshened me up after such a sumptuous meal.
I’d imagine you’ve got the drift by now that we had a super meal and service, and will rush back there as soon as we’re able to! With a bit of lockdown luck they’ll be operating a Christmas menu between 2nd and 11th December and there are tables available for their festive menu for lunch and dinner and I’m sure it’ll be an absolute treat. You can find more details about that here, and you can find their normal offering here.
Thanks to lovely lecturer Liz for the warm welcome, and to the front of house staff (Emma, Ella, Tawanda, and Kesha) that looked after us. We had a super evening and can’t wait to come back!