Glynn Purnell set up this restaurant in July 2007 in central Birmingham, and was rewarded with a Michelin star in 2009, which he has retained ever since. Mr Purnell trained at Simpson’s in the city in 1996, and later worked for six months as sous chef to Claude Bosi when Hibiscus was based in Ludlow. He became head chef of Jessica’s in 2003, and gained a star in 2005 for that restaurant. This was the first Michelin star that a Birmingham restaurant had obtained.
The Purnell’s dining room has large, widely spaced tables with no tablecloths, and muzak playing in the background. The decor is what a designer might describe as "busy", wih a vaguely 1970s feel. There was wallpaper reminiscent of batik, boldly striped purple carpet, with banquettes covered in green printed velour that included a paisley pattern.
There was no carte menu, just a six (£68) or a nine-course (£88) tasting menu, though they will happily adapt this to any reasonable food preferences. The wine list had around 250 labels and included Godello Blanco Finca Cobatos 2015 at £30 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £11, Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2016 at £50 compared to its retail price of £19, and Leung Estate Pinot Noir 2013 at a hefty £90 for a wine that will set you back about £23 in the shops. There were also some prestigious wines by the glass, thanks to the Coravin system. By the bottle there were posher labels such as Coche Dury Mersault 2007, a steal at £360 given its retail price of £462, and Vega Sicilia Unico 1994 at £690 for a wine whose current market value is £457.
There are no nibbles here; the first dish that arrives is the initial course of the tasting menu. This was "cheese and pineapple", a knowing nod to the 1970s cocktail dish beloved of the kind of English dinner party portrayed in the Mike Leigh play "Abigail's Party". This version had a Parmesan mousse, salt baked pineapple, crisp pasta sticks and frozen pineapple, presented with a flourish of dry ice, which itself is surely becoming almost as dated a restaurant presentation idea as the dish that is being lampooned here? If we focus on the dish, the Parmesan mousse was comforting and the pasta sticks delicate, but the pineapple and cheese combination did taste a little odd. It was pleasant enough, but perhaps this was a case where the dish was trying to be a bit too clever for its own good (14/20).
The bread that appeared was a better example of the capabilities of the kitchen. It was a light brown bread with a delicate crust, devoid of eccentricity and the better for it (16/20). The next dish was a poached egg yolk with haddock foam, cornflakes and curry oil, served with croquettes of haddock on the side. This combination of flavours worked very well, the haddock flavour excellent and lifted by the gentle hint of spice from the curry oil, the croquettes having a crisp coating and plenty of flavour (16/20).
Skrei cod is very much the trendy ingredient of the moment. It is a mature migratory cod caught from January to April off the coast of Norway. Only about 10% of the cod that is caught at this time is labelled as “skrei”. In order to pass muster the flesh must be unblemished and the fish bled out at sea. Although newly fashionable on UK restaurant tables, the Vikings used to dry it and use it as a source of protein in their voyages. Here the skrei was served with mushroom duxelle, potato crisps, wild mushrooms, fish sauce and lemon gel. The combination worked nicely, the duxelle being particularly good. The crisps were delicate and the fish had good flavour (easily 15/20).
Beetroot mousse came with escabeche of beetroot (i.e. marinated in vinegar) and horseradish crumble, with watercress purée, with strips of beetroot artfully displayed. This all worked well, the horseradish a very effective flavour with the beets, and I would have scored this dish a point higher but for the unforgivably limp watercress leaves used as garnish, which should never have left the kitchen (15/20).
This was followed by Orkney scallop that appeared to be wrapped in potato, with a potato beurre noisette, sea trout eggs, mussels and a potato and mussel sauce with dill oil. The scallop was of good quality and nicely cooked, and the dill flavour worked quite well, though there did seem to me to be too many elements on the plate competing for attention (15/20).
The dish of the night was monkfish curry with pickled carrots, coriander, curry oil, spiced red lentils and coconut. Monkfish can easily become too chewy if not properly prepared, but here the cooking was precise and the flesh was lovely. The lentils worked really well as a foil to the fish, and the coconut and gentle spices nicely enhanced the dish (17/20).
Tuna au poivre was seared on three sides and came with parsley oil, capers and sphericated lemon. This was decent enough but the tuna was cooked a little long to my taste, the overall effect nice enough but not as good as most of the other dishes (14/20). My main course was venison from the Balmoral estate, served with wild mushrooms (including pied de mouton), crisp potato, bone marrow, parsley oil and Bordelaise sauce. The latter is based on a demi-glacé with added red wine, bone marrow, butter and shallots. This was a very enjoyable dish, more classical than most of the menu and none the worse for that. The venison had excellent flavour and the rich sauce went well with the earthiness of the mushrooms and potato crisps (16/20).
Our menu then moved into the dessert stage. Passion fruit sorbet came with mango foam, pink grapefruit granita, wine gel and a layer of tempered white chocolate. This was excellent, the tartness of the fruit a good foil to the white chocolate, the textures of the dish very good (16/20). This was followed by poached rhubarb with tuiles of nutmeg and popping candy, sweet toasted seeds and ginger sorbet. On the side was an eggshell containing creme brûlée and purée of rhubarb. I really liked the creme brûlée with its nice acidic touch, but the poached rhubarb was rather undercooked and was too hard, though the ginger flavour worked well (15/20).
Finally there was a display of dehydrated mint over which dry ice was poured, releasing a strong mint aroma within its fleeting fog. The dessert itself was a take on mint chocolate chip ice cream, here with warm chocolate mousse, mint ice cream, chocolate crumble and chocolate tuile. The tuile was delicate and the mousse good, but spearmint is a brute of a flavour and ended up, as it so often does, dominating everything else around it (14/20).
Coffee was Nespresso, and came with a trio of petit fours: dark chocolate and peanut butter, a chocolate and caramel bar and a jelly of blackberry and star anise. The bar was quite hard in texture and the jelly quite sour, so for me this was not the most inspired conclusion to the meal.
Service was excellent, with plenty of attentive and friendly staff. The bill came to £188 each, but that was with copious amounts of nice wine. If you shared a modest bottle and went for the short menu then a typical cost per head might be around £105 all in. Overall I enjoyed my meal at Purnell's, which takes a playful and creative approach to food without losing sight of the importance of delivering enjoyable dishes. There were one or two touches of inconsistency that pulled the overall average score down, but certainly this is a well-deserved Michelin star.Book