Birmingham’s culinary journey from gastronomic backwater to a city of a thousands tastes can, perhaps, be encapsulated in just one letter – the letter ‘c’.
For probably the buzziest place in Brum right now – and among the most intriguing in the country – is bringing New Baltic cuisine to an area once best know for the c-less balti.
Mark my words: come autumn, there’s every chance that Two Cats Kitchen, open only since last July, will become the sixth Birmingham restaurant to hold a Michelin star.
Certainly, the meal I ate ranks alongside those I’ve enjoyed at celebrated modern London gaffs such as Dabbous, The Clove Club and The Typing Room.
The 26-seater is situated in an atmospheric old jewellery workshop that once housed the wonderful Gilmore’s and La Toque d’Or.
It’s a narrow, charming space, with bare brick walls, stained glass windows and simple tables.
The chef-patron Nick Astley is a calm, quiet presence at the pass at one end of the room preparing plates and occasionally bringing them to table.
Someone somewhere in the set-up has got superb taste in music, by the way. I do enjoy scoffing to the deep growling tones of Johnny Cash.
Dishes are explained in detail by the young, friendly and vigilant staff. Glasses are refilled when they need to be. But there’s no sense of pressure.
The food is fine dining but the atmosphere certainly isn’t – it’s relaxed, welcoming and hip.
This is food of northern Europe – far removed from the better known fare of the Mediterranean and even the classic cooking of France.
Astley boldly combines ingredients that at first thought seem unsuited but produces harmonious, interesting plates that that have layers of contrasting but complementary flavours and fabulous textures.
Herbs and gentle spices play a crucial role. Vegetables are often the star of the show.
A eat-with-your-fingers starter of chicory, pickles and the cured pork fat salo was a perfect balance of bitter, sweet and salty.
Beef tartar, snappily seasoned with caviar, gained a big umami hit from a boisterous shiitake broth reined in by peanut oil.
Then one of the most beguiling bowls of food I’ve eaten for a while – perfectly cooked squid on a mound of verdant parsley with sweet, roasted almonds and an underlying layer of acidity from, I guess, lemon.
That under-used vegetable salsify came with black trumpet mushrooms and sweetly-spiced black pudding, but may have benefited from a little more egg custard (or maybe a simply poached duck egg yolk).
Tender, deeply savoury pork shoulder came with earthy kohlrabi, buckwheat, punchy pearls of compressed apple and a sauce based on kvass, a traditional fermented beverage made from dark bread. Caraway seeds added gentle spicy warmth.
A beetroot and sour cream mousse provided a semi-savoury step towards a concluding dessert of birch biscuits – a little like that tooth-rotting Scottish delight called tablet – with a palate-cleansing celeriac ice cream, cubed pears and spruce.
The drinks menu is short, but well-chosen and fairly priced. The wines kick in at £20 a bottle and go up to £40.
There’s a good range of beers, spirits, interesting soft drinks and teas.
Need to know
Two Cats Kitchen serves only a seven-course tasting menu that costs £42. It’s a bargain
The drinks flight costs £29.
Options are available for vegetarians and people with allergies.
Two Cats Kitchen
27 Warstone Lane, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham B18 6JQ. 0121 212 0070.