Simpsons, Birmingham – Review
20 Highfield Road,
Tel. 0121 454 3434
Food type: Modern French
Food rating: 6/10
Nearest tube: Five Ways
The reputation of the ‘grand old lady’ of Midlands dining, Simpsons, and that of Andreas Antona, Chef Patron of Simpsons, precedes it. The current Simpsons restaurant that we know today, a restaurant with rooms (4 themed ones to be exact) opened its doors to the Brummy public in 2004. Prior to that, the original Simpsons was situated at Kenilworth (Warwickshire) where Antona cooked for more than 10 years. He was awarded a Michelin star in 1999 which he has successfully kept since. The original restaurant was basically two shops slapped which served its purpose as a fine-dining restaurant. Of course, Antona had a greater vision which spanned beyond cooking itself which resulted in the uprooting of the original Simpsons for a grander location.
Simpsons at Edgbaston is converted from a Grade II-listed Georgian building with a Victorian Interior. The ancient building has been brought to life under the capable hands of Sue Evans in a fashionable, metropolitan sort of way with cream and caramel colours gently flooding the restaurant areas with a darker, mahagony brown used for the lounge. It is clear that emphasis has been placed on the main dining area (the veranda) itself which aims to project the greenery of the garden tha encircles the restaurant. The veranda flooring itself is laid with limestone with glass panels used as the roof, partially covered with blinds, to create a greenhouse effect, allowing natural sunlight to flood in. This was particularly the case on the day we visited, albeit only for a short period of time (which is to be expected with British weather) and I can only think that the restaurant would be absolutely stunning during Summer. White clothed tables are paired with ratan chairs whisking you back in time to the Victorian era of British Colonial rule. A glass panel allows diners to have a peek at the kitchen – you don’t need to pay top dollar for a spot at the chef’s table.
Before we go on, lets stop for a moment and talk about the Godfather of Midland chefs. Andreas Antona grew up in West London and took a 2 year cookery course in a local college after leaving school at 17. Following that, he went abroad, working in Zurich for 2 years and then Stuttgart for another 5. Antona then returned to England where he worked under Anton Mosimann at the Terrace, Dorchester Hotel and Michael Quinn, who was then Chef de Cuisine at the Ritz. After that, Antona decided to ply his trade outside the capital working at two country house hotels near bath and then the Plough and Harrow.
Due to take-overs by large hotel chains which compromised the quality of the food at the Plough and Harrow, Antona decided to open his own restaurant Simpson’s in Kenilworth. A bib gourmand was quickly awarded and a Michelin star followed as mentioned. Andrea describes his cooking as ‘classical with lighter more contemporary elements’. He places a huge emphasis on sourcing of ingredients as much as cooking it. In his opinion, ‘best’ does not necessarily have to be local or even British. This author can only nod in agreement every time I take a bite at a pretty disappointing piece of British beef. Amongst his proteges include one Glynn Purnell.
Today, Antona rarely, if ever, cooks in his own kitchen, leaving the cooking to his protege Luke Tipping (Executive Chef) and Adam Bennet (Head Chef). Tipping himself has worked with Antona for twelve years following Antona from Plough and Harrow, Simply Simpsons in Kenilworth before moving to Edgbaston. He is a former winner of the Midlands Chef of the Year award.
The menu has individually priced items with starters £9.50 to £14, Mains £20 to £23 and pudding £8.50. A seven course tasting menu is available at £70 and they are pretty flexible with substituition of items. As we visited for lunch, a lunch menu is also available at £30 for 3 courses including half a bottle of wine. We tried the tasting menu on this visit.
Bread Basket: Sourdough, Olive Tapenade, Polenta, Thyme & Salt, Cumin & Cheese
Bread is made fresh everyday and served piping hot. An impressive array of bread was brought to us in a basket – olive tapenade, sourdough, polenta, cumin & cheese and thyme & sea salt. These were all excellent with lovely fluffy interior and the right amount of seasoning. Of these, the olive tapenade was exquisite, with an almost cake like buttery texture with the saltiness of the olive coming through. (8/10)
Smoked Salmon Tartare, Lime & Dill
Curry Leaf Arancini; Salsify Crisps, Smoked Mayonnaise
Amuse bouche was an assortment of items. First a smoked salmon tartare, served on a Chinese spoon featured a classical combination of lime and dill. Hidden within the little ball of finely chopped smoked salmon was a bit of caviar which gave a lovely burst of saltiness. Next was an arancini (fried risotto beignet) flavoured with a hint of curry leaf. The addition of curry flavour did add an element of interest and surprise. Last but not least was a few thin strips of salsify crisp served with a smoked mayonnaise dip. The mayonnaise obtained its smokey flavour from the smoked fish oil used in making it. (7/10)
Salcombe Crab Meat, Smoked Salmon, Avocado Mousse, Tomato Jelly, Sesame Taco
The first official starter was a cold salad of crab meat and smoked salmon with a sesame tuille, tomato jelly, pepper coulis, salmon roe and avocado mousse. While this was an enjoyable dish, the smoked salmon overwhelmed the lovely, delicate flavour of the crab meat. In addition, I felt that there were too many elements on the plate – not that their flavours clashed but because their addition was noted only by its anonymity in impact. The tomato jelly in particular did not add anything of interest to the dish except to show off a different (and difficult) technical ability. (5/10)
Fillet of Monkfish, Spiced Turnips, Kumquat Puree, Five Spice Sauce
Following this was an Asian-inspired fillet of monkfish which was correctly cooked and timed perfectly. This was served with some spiced turnips. As a reference point, the turnips were not as good as the turnips I enjoyed at Ambassade de L’ile . Some buttered kale and kumquat puree accompanied this dish although they were pretty unremarkable. (5/10)
Crispy Poached Duck Egg, Jerusalem Artichokes, Parsley & Almonds
One of the most interesting dish (while reading the menu) was a crispy poached duck egg. The duck egg is first moulded and poached using a cling film to achieve a symmetrical shape. Apparently only a small amount of the egg white is used. The poached egg is then cooled before being breaded and shallow fried using a low heat to achieve a crispy finish. The finished egg is served with Jerusalem artichokes as a puree, served raw topped with some finely chopped toasted almonds and pan-fried until crisp. The sweetness and slight nuttiness from the artichokes was a good foil for the richness of the duck egg and the idea of using the artichokes in the raw form created interesting contrasts in textures. (6/10)
Duck Foie Gras, Banana, Pain d’Epice Puree, Peanut Nougatine
One of Tipping’s signature dish is a odd combination of pan seared foie gras with bananas (caramelized and au naturel). While the initial reaction was that this combination was too alien, it surprisingly worked well thanks to the peanut nougatine (think peanut butter) which gave the dish a toffee like flavour. Another element of interest was the pain d’epice crumbs (spiced gingerbread) which gave a sensation of crispiness to the liver. My only gripe with this dish is the order which it appeared on the tasting menu – while I appreciate that foie gras is usually served as a starter, because of the robust flavours on the plate, I felt this would have been better served after the main course. (7/10)
Duo of Cornish Lamb: Slow Cooked Leg, Roasted Fillet, Semi-dried Apricots, Toasted Cracked Wheat, Cumin Jus
Cornish Lamb was served two ways – a bit of leg slow cooked until falling of the bone and a pink roasted fillet. The dish itself had a very Mediterranean flavour with the addition of the semi-dried apricots, cumin jus and Greek yogurt. Even the toasted cracked wheat bore a slight reminder to couscous. This was a pretty good deconstruction of a lamb tagine! (6/10)
Roasted Pigeon, Haggis, Muscade Pumpkin, Confit Cabbage, Caraway Sauce
A very enjoyable dish of roasted pigeon was actually off the menu but put together by my request. The dish itself keeps the trimmings from the venison dish with quenelles of haggis and confit cabbage. Nice juicy chunks and puree of pumpkin, along with candied pumpkin seeds, gave a natural sweetness to match the gamey-ness of the pigeon. The sauce had good depth of flavour. (7/10)
Creamed St. Maure Goat’s Cheese, Pickled Beetroot, Toasted Pine Nuts, -8 Balsamic Vinegar
Cheese course was a classical combination of goat’s cheese and pickled beetroot which I have experienced in various shapes, size and forms. This was a well executed dish although it lacked excitement from my point of view and in retrospect I would have indeed have preferred having a gander at their cheese trolley. (4/10)
Doughnut, Apple Puree
Pre-dessert was a simple sugared doughnut with a bit of Granny Smith apple puree on the bottom – a deconstructed version of doughnut and jelly if you will. This was pleasant in itself, the doughnut light and airy with the sharpness of the apple puree matched by the sweetness of the doughnut. (5/10)
Treacle Tart, Popcorn Ice Cream
Dessert was a small slice of treacle tart and a popcorn infused ice cream (popcorn must be the latest food fad in Birmingham I guess). Simply put, the tart was delish with good quality pastry and crumbly, but not over-sweet filling. The popcorn ice cream was perhaps more of an interesting sub-note to the dish. (6/10)
Macaroons: Lemon, Rasperry & Chocolate, Salted Caramel, White Chocolate & Passion Fruit Lollypop, Simpson’s Chocolate, Marbled Chocolate Orange
Petit fours were a selection of multiflavoured macaroons and chocolates of every flavour. Of interest was the marbled chocolate orange which tasted as stunning as it looked. (7/10) More chocolates in the form of chocolate coated hazelnuts were brought to us as we retreated to the lounge for our dose of tea although these tasted pretty unremarkable. (4/10)
Hazelnut Chocolate ‘Popcorn’
Full and thoroughly satisfied we made our long, sluggish trek back to London.
Service was pleasant and thoroughly attentive throughout. The staff at Simpson’s made our experience here thoroughly enjoyable and they are an asset to the restaurant. They were quick to pick up on the fact that I was interested in pretty much all aspects of the preparation of the food and took their time to answer any queries I had.
The cooking here was unique in its own right drawing inspiration from different cuisines and tried and true classics adding a modern twist to them. Technique was high although at times some dishes had an element or two which were unnecessary and I felt that they were there to showcase techniques. When they did work though, the dishes were an absolute treat. I was very impressed with the consistency of the food especially as Tipping was not in the kitchen when we visited. The only problem I have is the pricing which is more akin to what you will find in London. You do pay as much for the view and location as you are for the food.