Thursday, 1 December 2011

On location: The Vaults, Birmingham

Being a food blogger is great fun and all, but there's no denying it's punishing to the pocket. Being a food critic for a publication doesn't just lend kudos to a review, it's also decidedly more wallet-friendly. So when I saw that daily email Emerald Street were looking for food critics to celebrate the 100th issue of their sister publication Stylist, I sent my 90 word sample review in slightly less quickly than you could say 'free dinner'. But only slightly.

Luckily for me and my wallet, Emerald Street chose me as one of their five reviewers, and a few weeks ago I visited The Vaults in Birmingham for an evening of 'VIP treatment'. I roped in my trusty friend N and we hopped on the train, ready to make the most of our three hours in the Midlands.

Located in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, The Vaults is – as its name suggests – a subterranean space. Rather than a creepy crypt, it's half restaurant, half cocktail bar. Its low lighting, exposed brick walls and sleek black tables give a slick, understated feel – not my usual style, but given that the restaurant was already buzzing with diners at 7pm on a Wednesday, The Vaults clearly has plenty of local appeal. Perusing the menu, we were offered our choice of (pricey) cocktails: my raspberry martini impressed, but N wasn't asked whether she preferred a gin or a vodka martini despite both being on offer. The menu itself was also a little confusing: the table d'hote menu bore prices for either 2 or 3 courses (£16.50 or £17.50 mid-week), with supplements for more elaborate dishes. Diners with an appetite more modest than their budget may feel over-faced, but fortunately for us, we'd arrived hungry.

The menu at The Vaults changes monthly, focusing on local and seasonal ingredients, which head chef Daniel Humphries whips up into modern British and European dishes with a twist. I was pleased to note that the 6 starters and 6 mains were evenly-balanced between meat, fish and vegetarian dishes, and selected a caerphilly and leek pasty to start, followed by poached cod on pearl barley and lentils. N opted for yellowfin tuna tartare followed by the 21 day aged beef (£11 supplement) which our knowledgeable waiter talked up to such a degree it would have been churlish to refuse. Like the menu, the wine list wasn't the most navigable of documents – if it had an order, it wasn't price or country. It was a strong list with some interesting wines though: following the waiter's recommendations (and horror at my request for red with fish) again, we ended up with a bottle of far-too-drinkable Le Petit Bourgeois Sauvignon Blanc followed by a 2010 red from Alicante which defied my snobbery about Spanish wine-producing regions. I did consider the possibility that our suave sommelier was trying to influence the restaurant's write-up by attempting to get the reviewer inebriated, but surely such a thing would be highly unethical.

Caerphilly and leek pasty

Tuna tartare with shredded cucumber

My starter was baeautifully turned out, but its substance actually outweighed its style. My 'pasty' was  a satisfying yet light pastry, the flavours of the caerphilly and leek working well together, complemented by a spicy chutney. N's yellowfin tuna tartare was tasty but slightly under-seasoned and on the small side. She needn't have worried though: her steak more than made up for any deficiencies in the starter size.

Smothered in a rich peppercorn sauce and served with battered red onion rings and grilled tomatoes, this steak was not for the faint-hearted. Although initially aggrieved that the steak had already been sliced, N forgave all once she bit into the meat: it was tender, juicy and cooked exactly as she requested. As a non-meat eater, the £11 supplement seemed steep to me, especially given that hand-cut chips have to be ordered as a side, but N's raptures made me think it just might be worth it.

Poached cod with pearl barley

I have to admit to a touch of food envy: my poached cod was minute in comparison. Although it was tasty and light, the pearl barley didn't add quite enough substance for me, and I definitely still had room for dessert. There's no denying the quality of the flaky fish, but a larger serving would have improved my opinion. However, given that the pricing of the menu encourages diners to opt for three courses, these petite portions are understandable.

We had a tough time choosing from the autumnal selection of desserts, but finally plumped for a baked pumpkin cheesecake served with ice cream and a pear and plum pithivier, both of which were delicious and rapidly dispatched with. Again, portions erred on the slender side, but by this stage in proceedings, I was actually quite glad. Thanking our waiter, we practically rolled back to New Street and home to Oxford, reflecting on three hours well spent. With a strong menu and wine list served in a sleek setting, The Vaults has a lot going for it. I wasn't entirely convinced by the bias towards choosing two or three courses, but their competitive pricing makes a midweek treat affordable.

Emerald Street and The Vaults certainly know how to treat a girl. If our experience was anything to go by, London isn't the only nearby city worth visiting for dinner. Birmingham, we'll be back.

The Vaults is at Newhall Place, Newhall Hill, Birmingham. You can read my original review for Emerald Street here.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a very cool place with interesting yet homey dishes feeling dishes. :-)


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