Issue 397
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“I had a couple in on the opening night. Early 70s, I guess. They’d not been out to eat in Solihull for 18 years, because they felt there just wasn't anywhere they fancied.” I’m speaking to Rob Palmer, finally, chef owner of Toffs, Solihull’s newest restaurant. Rob’s a breath of fresh air in the Brummiest of ways: laidback, wry, unassuming. I can't picture him on Saturday Kitchen, but who knows? It’s taken me three weeks to get hold of him on the phone, four weeks to get these pics from him and, I’m pretty sure, he still thinks my name’s Tim, not Tom, so unperturbed is the Castle Brom-born chef by the media circus surrounding his new launch. In a world of media-trained chefs, it’s refreshing to speak to a man who doesn’t seem to have any answers rehearsed; each response all the more authentic thanks to his Brummie lilt.
Rob’s the man who brought a Michelin star to Hampton Manor’s Peel's restaurant, where he worked for 11 years, seven as head chef. “Hampton had been going for that star with a number of head chefs, but we happened to win it when the baton passed to me,” he says, true to regional form, downplaying his part with almost parodical modesty.

Rob speaks very warmly about his time at Hampton Manor, one of the absolute jewels in the West Midlands' culinary crown. The desire to leave and launch his own place sneaked up on him only, really, when the pandemic made the world stop still and think. “As a really young chef I always fancied owning my own place… Did I?” He questions himself, trying to callback a distant memory. “Yeah, I did. But I was at Hampton Manor a long time and those that know the place, know it’s ever-evolving. [Owners] James and Fjona never stand still and that’s where the enjoyment lies. But it wasn’t until I was furloughed, briefly, that I got the chance to pause and think. Think that I do want my own place and that perhaps my journey with Hampton — winning a Star, four Rosettes — was maybe complete.”
The food, well, we’ll get on to the food — but it’s not a massive departure from his previous place. Why would it be? Rob was given carte blanche on the Peel's menus so it makes sense that there are similarities between then and now. Where Rob’s enforced the biggest shift on the gastronomic gradient is in ambience. Anyone who subscribes to the (completely correct) theory that a restaurant’s atmosphere is as important as its food, should be booking in at Toffs. The sheer buzz in the 26-cover restaurant — named after Rob’s dad who scored the nickname ‘Toff’ as a kid growing up in Shard End, thanks to Palmers toffees — is remarkable. It's infectious.

The chef’s table is more like a chef’s counter and it's the centrepiece of the venue. Six guests dine with ample space (you could fit seven or eight along there) right up next to the small, galley kitchen. It offers, more than any restaurant I’ve ever been in, an immersive view of a working kitchen; the team of just four chefs (half the number of Peel's) an arm’s length away. “You could reach out and touch us,” says Rob. “But don’t.” Being that close to the cooking, in football stadium terms being ‘on top of the action’, is electric. The clammer and clatter and clinker of the kitchen rubs off on you. You talk to the chefs as they serve and you talk to the diners next to you about your experience. “Every night it’s happened,” says Rob. “People along the counter start off as strangers and end up gabbling away to one another. It’s nice to watch.”
It’s interesting to hear Rob say that. Private dining room aside, the Peel's kitchen is hidden deep inside the manor, diners completely dissociated with it. Now he and his young team, with combined experience from Peel's and Cheal’s and other restaurants that don’t rhyme, like Ynyshir, are front and centre. But as much as we like to peer in, they’re enjoying peering out. “I guess the down side is that I find myself chatting to the guests a little too much. But it’s worked better than I ever thought it would. I’m still kind of naive when it comes to the logistics of a restaurant and, although the kitchen’s a little small, we seem to have pulled it off.”

Not half. At only 26 covers, it’s intimate. When they tried to push it to 30 the quality fell away, so they immediately reverted back. And that interaction between staff and guest, the hum of enjoyment, reverberates not just along the chef’s counter but back into the wider seating area. The interior is warm industrial — that’s genuinely how I’d describe it, with its bronze, brass and copper tones playing off against metallic tiling. It all combines to do the atmosphere justice. Stylish but soft. Fine-dining but completely at ease. “At Hampton we would pride ourselves on it being relaxed,” says Rob. “But you’ll always be driving up a winding path to an old manor hotel, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”
It’s my cup of tea, absolutely, but Peel's feels like a once, maybe twice a year treat. In Toffs, Rob’s produced as close to a neighbourhood restaurant as fine dining can get. Four-course lunches from £49, five-course dinners for £69, and for Silhillians maybe only a walk away, it falls into that wonderful Harborne Kitchen bracket of four, five, maybe six visits a year. You get to know the staff, they get to know you. You might even pop in alone.
And the food stands up. I mean, of course it does. Rob’s pedigree will see to that, along with shrewd appointments at both front and back of house. Ben Perks came with Rob from Peel's and was invaluable during the setup of the restaurant. While Rob was, in his words, “being pulled from pillar to post, to decide which f*cking lightbulbs I want," Ben would “immediately step up and know exactly what I needed doing in the kitchen and how I wanted it done.” And in sommelier, Dave Thomas, they have one of the most characterful grapesmiths going. A man who knows how to make you giggly as much as he knows how to get you squiffy. 

The produce is almost uniformly British, something Rob commits wholeheartedly to, joking “if only I could find British citrus, that would be everything covered.” Such is Rob’s commitment to British ingredients that his XO sauce, known for its roots in the Far East, is made entirely from UK produce, dried in-house. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce stands in for soy, to deliver that intense burst of sour and umami, with Cornish crab offering its shells up for rich flavour.
The sourdough is from a starter Rob first made nine years ago and is still going strong. “People fuss too much over bread,” he says. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Put your time and energy elsewhere.” Which he does. An Old Winchester onion cracker is a joyous play on a cheese and onion sandwich and sets the pace for classic tastes with gleeful twists. Monkfish (above), is one of Rob’s all time favourite ingredients. He and his team roast it quick, then flash barbecue the exterior, marrying it with a light smoked sauce. That sauce, ye Gods, it’s a 'worldy'. Monkfish bones are smoked over whisky smoking chips, then they’re roasted to get a caramelisation and made into a stock that ends up as some sort of liquid gold. So much flavour comes out of that fish bone, using so few ingredients, that it must be 13th Century alchemy. No wonder eighty percent of people who walk through the door say that’s their favourite dish.

The Creedy Carver duck from Aubrey Allen Butchers (below), makes its way from Merryfield, Devon. They roast it whole on the crown and apportion juicy cuts with carrot cooked in duck fat and carrot puree. Even the carrot’s green leaves go into that sauce, baked apple providing the sweet and sour English smack. It’s all good, in the neighbourhood.
I ask if he’s going for a Michelin star and he laughs a tired laugh. The question sounds corny when it comes out, but it’s something everyone wants to know and I like Rob even more for not ducking it. “I mean… I won’t lie and say a Michelin star isn’t a goal. It is. But I’ve invested so much time and f*cking money that right now,” he laughs again, “I just want to make some of it back first.”

And he will. It’s been busy every night, Solihull doing him proud on his decision to set up there. Rob looked in Kenilworth and he toyed with Sutton Coldfield, but he settled on Mell Square and it suits him. “Nobody’s done it here,” he says. “Nobody’s quite had the balls to do it in Solihull, so here we are.”

Never mind Solihull. A fine-dining neighbourhood restaurant as intimate and as kitchen-orientated as this, hasn’t been done in Birmingham and, perhaps, much further afield. Taxis to Toffs, is it?



Cheltenham-born restaurant-y mega hit, The Coconut Tree, launched their ninth award-winning Sri Lankan restaurant near Brindleyplace and, to celebrate, we're giving away a HELLA feast. Down on Gas Street, where Craeft and the Pickled Piglet lived, The Coconut Tree have taken the two storey listed building at 35 Gas Street. They're not playing games, either. Bespoke handmade furniture has been crafted in Sri Lanka especially; at full capacity it seats 70 covers, with an open plan kitchen on the ground floor, and an upstairs cocktail bar. It was originally founded by five Sri Lankan friends living in Cheltenham. They serve tapas-style dishes embracing plants, fish and meat, with Hot Battered Spicy Cuttlefish a trademark of both restaurant and country, while their Hoppers are bowl-shaped coconut pancakes served with sambal and Sri Lankan salsa. For your chance to win an unlimited Sri Lankan feast for two, plus two 'Cocotails' each, just subscribe to their mailing list. Winner picked at random and contacted by email, April 11, 12pm.


The ever-swelling, ever-evolving Edgbaston Village Market returns to Greenfield Crescent on Saturday (10am to 3pm) bringing with it about a dozen new traders on top of the 50-odd, by now beloved stalwarts. New to the fray are the family-run 1000 Trades Distillery, who will be packing pretty much their entire range, which includes their London dry gin (London dry being made all over the world, not just in London), their vodka and all their flavoured spirits, including a knockout lemon gin. They'll be making their bow alongside other first timers, Copper Beech Brewing Company (a Worcester-based independent nano brewery), Lightwood Cheese (exceptional) and Ludlow Pickle (try their pickled tapas). Also debuting are Marshall & Co, whose chocolate bars are the only 100% vegan bars I can, hand on heart, say taste as good as the creamy kind. If you've not been to Edgbaston Village Market, now's the time. Closed off to traffic, it has the upper hand on most of our markets that seem uniformly pitched next to major A-roads and do not make for relaxing times. More


Family portraits. A distinct genre of faux serenity, embarrassing throwback hairstyles, and little Thomas’s scowl captured for eternity, before you got the do-overs of the digital age. We often take for granted that we can simply flick back through time, but the gift of these photos has been realised in the major new heritage project, From City Of Empire To City Of Diversity: A Visual Journey. Produced by Sampad and funded by The Lottery in partnership with Birmingham Archives, Uni of Birmingham and Birmingham 2022 Festival, this work has unveiled how these portraits can inadvertently become a social archive. From just one company, Dyche Studios, Ernest Dyche and his son, Malcolm, unwittingly produced one of the most important photographic collections within Birmingham Archives. The duo’s portrait studios served the first wave of migrants arriving to Brum from Africa, the Caribbean, Ireland and Indian sub-continent in the 1950s, with visitors sending their portraits back to friends and family at home. These portraits, many anonymous, together with images from other important collections and photographers, including Vanley Burke and Paul Hill, capture the story of Commonwealth migration and visually record an important phase in the city’s history, to which migrants made a huge contribution. Researchers from Birmingham Archives pored over more than 10,000 portraits from The Dyche Collection, and with no records of names surviving, many of those captured remain anonymous – including these cool cats below. But happy coincidences have helped to name one anonymous couple. Pictured above is Pavandeep Gill’s grandfather, who left India for Balsall Heath in 1947, bringing his family over once he had established himself. After her grandparents died in 2019, an old portrait on the wall was traced back to the collection, and their story was reunited with their photos. Now a project volunteer, Pavandeep’s family will be displayed in the exhibition and it’s hoped more people will lay claim to the subjects of each photo so their stories can be told. See these stunners, for free in the Library of Birmingham Gallery until June 18. 
Venue: Hanbao, 46 Floodgate St, B5 5SL; website 
Choice: The Juicy (£13.50) Chooser: Kels, FoH

It’s a tough gig to smash onto Brum’s burger scene. But visiting Hanbao, it’s clear they chose the right gap to fill in Floodgate Street. With a transformative original venue in Worcester, replete with a rooftop bar (sadly lacking in Brum’s), the boys at Hanbao sure know how to pick their spots. Downwind of Wine Freedom, the newly opened ‘east meets west’ diner sits in another airy, light-filled space. Unlike their neighbours, the plants aren’t real; an odd detail to notice, but hard not to, with a whopping great fake tree spreading out from the corner. Employing the successful Worcester strategy, brothers Seb and Alex Lam bring the same asian-inspired flavours to Floodgate, offering playful puns and antagonistic menu name choices. The vegan option is, and don't shoot the messenger here, called Hard to Please. The centrally situated shanty-style bar plays a natural focal point (ignoring the fake tree) and conjures the street food of China and Hong Kong, where the brothers have trawled the best vendor inspo to create their niche in the burger game. With some of the best patties in town within a short walk, these burgers need to deliver. Blimey, they do: in bamboo baskets, no less. Hankering for the miso mirin caramelised onions, the Juicy (£13.50) was mine and, by George, it was a Ronseal moment. The juiciness of that burger stuck with me, on me, and produced a makeshift gravy for chip-mopping. Little jaws might not cut it, mind: it’s a double stack and a slippery beast. But the bun stands up to it; a sure sign of quality. The pleasant surprise came from the chicken wings (£6). Inhaled by the quick and the hungry, the whole table briefly paused to moan satisfaction at the miso honey glaze. The crispy umami skin cracked perfectly to reveal chicken so tender, its removal from the bone was X-rated. The almost too sweet cocktails could be dangerous alone, but were balanced with the food’s salt, fat and heat, the Rhu-Tang-Clan (£8) practically a palate cleanser as a rhubarb and custard sweet in alcoholic form. With decent background music in a bright, Sunday afternoon location, Hanbao suggests a vibe shift when the lights go out: moody spotlit lamps create the atmosphere of busy night time markets, suggesting we’re in for as busy and vibrant a night shift as you’ll find in Worcester. A lip-smackingly good burger spot for this side of the tracks, it's good value for money and teases bigger things to come as they find their stride 
 with yesterday's full launch night, that verdict is incoming. Menu 


I injured myself clapping if you want a natty four-word summation of both how good yesterday's opening night of Joseph was and the general state of my physical wellbeing. There were technical hiccups and wardrobe slip-ups, but absolutely none of it could infringe on a funny, wholesome, self-aware, top-to-bottom slobberknocker of a show. Your boy, Jac Yarrow, didn't put a foot wrong as the man himself, but it was a pregnant Alexandra Burke as The Narrator who the capacity crowd raised the frickin' roof for, and rightly so. I wouldn't presume to guess how far gone she is, but Baby Burke will have known something was going on as Alexandra skipped effortlessly about the stage from curtain up to curtain down, banging out belter after belter and visibly helping the half dozen or so kids in the cast to relax into the night. Perhaps the biggest Burke bombshell (given we all know she has a set of lungs) was her capacity for fourth wall tomfoolery, little comedic looks to the crowd helping along the modern mentions sprinkled throughout the script to keep things current. She was sizzlingly good against the Egyptian backdrop. Her consistent stage presence only ever had to wrestle for your attention during Jason Donovan's brief, but literally jaw-dropping turns as The Pharoah. Rolling back the years... ish... he had us howling. Hippodrome tickets remain up until Wednesday, but best availability can be found today, tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday. 


Remember the halcyon days when we all joined forces to knit sweaters for oil-struck penguins? Aside from tram rage, a more positive venture to unite this city is, surely, a mass craft project. 4600 Gifts, produced by Craftspace, is inviting you, the good people of B-town, to personally welcome the athletes to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games via the medium of crafting. Only Brummies can turn a humble washer into something fabulous. Using locally-sourced materials, you can make a unique gift – which will be presented to each of the athletes in July – at free workshops around the city. Alternatively you can join in the mass-making events on April 9 and 10 at Selfridges, or at Cathedral Square from May 13 to 15. The artistic team behind 4600 Gifts is made up of a mix of product designers, artists and designer makers including Pottinger + Cole, Laura Nyahuye, Mahawa Keita and Kalandra McFarquhar, all based in the West Mids. If you’re all fingers and thumbs, don’t worry: a child could do this, and over 9s are welcome too. Craftspace will show you how to turn a simple set of materials into a one-off gift to the Commonwealth visitors. All levels can take part, with the gift concept developed so the most uncreative types can have a go. Pro-crafters can, of course, put us all to shame with embellishments and showboating. Book a seat at the workbenches and get following Craftspace on Insta for updates.


When it comes to compiling and hosting a festival of high energy global muzak, nobody does it better than Surge Forward. This fifth edition of Surge in Spring comes after a two year hiatus because of you know what and they'll be focusing on new collaborations with a fusion of genres, and it's coming in hard and fast to Midlands Arts Centre, April 22 and 23. Highlights, and I have to admit to referring heavily to the press release here, include the Bosnian-born Swiss accordion maverick Mario Batkovic, who mixes classical and contemporary sounds to create his own unique approach. I've gone and Googled the lad, of course I have, and he's out of this world. One YouTube commenter says it better than I ever could: "He makes my skin and organs vibrate." Mario has received widespread critical acclaim, including from Rolling Stone magazine, who voted his self-titled debut album in the Top 10 ‘Best Avant Albums of 2017’. Also on the bill are the Krar Collective (above) who will serve up a feast of exuberant Ethiopian song and dance tunes. Led by Temesgen Zeleke, the band perform a contemporary take on roots music, reflecting the diversity of cultures within Africa’s second most populous country. The ancient krar lyre becomes a gritty rock guitar, weaving around the stunning vocals of Genet Assefa and the driving rhythms of Amare Mulugeta on traditional kebero drums. If these lot can't bring out the sunshine, I don't know what can. On the Saturday night, over 20 musicians will share the stage for the musical force that is Surge Orchestra. Expect a melting pot of fusions spanning jazz, folk and roots, all presented with an ever-present groove; with appearances from Cheng Yu and Liu Qing of the UK Chinese Music Ensemble, Irish flautist Eimear McGeown, rapper Juice Aleem, guitarist Niwel Tsumbu and Syrian oud player Rihab Azar. A host of free, joyful pop-up performances will also take place around Midlands Arts Centre across the two days. Paid-for performances start at £7.50 + a booking fee. More


Fancy upsetting your in-laws? Take them to see Bobby Mair at the Glee Club, April 15. If Kurt Cobain were a comedian, there would be parallels, such is Bobby's excruciatingly unpredictable quality. He's a brilliant comedian, yes, but he's also a maverick, a renegade, a loose cannon and there's nowt wrong with that. He will smash this gig, but courtesy of his envelope-pushing, edgy gear, there may be audience members clutching their metaphorical pearls. Comedians love him. Bobby's the kind of act that, when on stage, other comics will leave the green room to watch, because he's guaranteed to stir the crowd. £14
There won't be a Thursday ICB email next week, after a surprise call-up for yours truly to the Eintracht Frankfurt first XI to face Barcelona in the Europa Cup Quarter Final. Thanks yeah, pretty stoked. (School holidays) 

Sunday Times best-selling author of Why Mummy Drinks, Gill Sims, will be at Solihull's The Core with her new show, Tits, Gits and Little Shits. £22.50 

Ikon is hosting the Birmingham book launch of MUSE by Brummie art hero, Ruth Millington. April 13, it's free, but do book.

A bank holiday gin festival is coming to Stirchley. Compulsory attendance

Comedian, Ed Gamble (him off the telly and one half of the Off Menu podcast), will finish his Electric tour at the Alex, Nov 20. Tickets on sale tomorrow, 10am. Prices unknown.  

Party N Paint is a drinksy, painty and hip-hoppy event where you produce a masterpiece on canvas and wake up the next day cradling it in bed, with a hungover. Zumhof, Digbeth, April 23. £32.93
Stirchleyites, Attic Brew Co, are at Yorks Cafe near New Street Station, today at 4pm, to do tastings of their new coffee stout. Details
WORDS: Tom Cullen

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