Editor’s note: we have decided that, while restaurants remain open, we will continue to review them
Land, 26 Great Western Arcade, Colmore Row, Birmingham B2 5HU (0121 236 2313). Two courses £20, three courses £26, five-course tasting menu £35, wines from £29
In the beginning there was a wild mushroom risotto and the non-meat eaters looked upon it and saw that it was seriously lame. Really? Is that it? For many kitchens cooking in the European tradition, it was. Going back 20 years or so it often seemed that, without a lump of animal protein to put front and centre, many lazy cooks would fall back swiftly into the heavy embrace of the carbs. Those damn vegetarians and vegans might not get something imaginative, but at least they’d get fed. Bring on the rice and pasta. Or, if you’re really lucky, a vegetable gratin that could grout a bathroom.
A lot has changed. A lot hasn’t. As recently as February this year, at the splashy new restaurant of a chef who not only should know better but generally does, the meat-free options were pasta to start and gnocchi for the main. The come-hither menu descriptions listed roasted pumpkin and amaretto biscuits, pickled Thai shallots and dukkah. But none of that disguised those dishes’ true nature: pasta and gnocchi.
There has, of course, been innovation. All hail Ottolenghi. Likewise, new generations of cooks have arrived in waves, fully aware that the diverse traditions of the Indian subcontinent, of China and the Middle East and all points in between often get along just fine without reaching for an ingredient that once had a pulse. Give thanks, too, for the rich blessing that is miso; for the uncompromising heft of gochujang.
And yet, what occurs to me early on in my terrific lunch at Land, a small restaurant tucked away in the sort of Victorian shopping arcade in Birmingham that Pevsner wrote about, is how many clichés are still present in non-meat cookery in so many British restaurants. And how many of them are completely absent here. In your service I have been living through the cauliflower years. I have survived the aubergine years. Fine, sturdy vegetables, both. Love a bit of roasted cauliflower, me. I haven’t met an aubergine that I couldn’t spank with miso, grill to a charred mess and call dinner. But these can become as deadening a trope as that damn wild mushroom risotto. At Land there is none of that.
It’s why I would encourage as many cooks as possible to get to Birmingham right now to see what chef Adrian Luck is doing there. The rest of you should pop along, too. His menu of almost entirely vegan cookery is short – just three choices at each course – but it should be filed under thrilling. There’s enormous, nerdy attention to detail alongside a precise understanding of both acidity and spice that lifts the seemingly humble far beyond its origins. We sit in the small downstairs dining room, at the bare wooden tables overseen by just one masked and attentive waiter, peering at plates of edible wonder.
There are crescents of roasted onion squash the colour of a setting sun, on a bed of still-nutty puy lentils, bound by a mustardy dressing tangled with roasted red onion. What makes it sing is the addition of crisp lentils, perhaps deep-fried, to give it texture. There are the sweetest of Indian spice-roasted carrots, perched on a brilliant and vivid sweet-sour carrot and ginger purée. I could do serious damage to a bowl of that alone. There is the crunch of roasted seeds across the top. There are dribbles of what’s described as yogurt. As it’s a vegan dish, let’s assume nuts have been press-ganged into service.
A potato rösti isn’t really, but let’s not get too hung up on nomenclature: it’s a plank of multilayered sliced potatoes, deep fried to an encouraging golden. There’s a cloud-like smoked-potato purée draped across the top, dusted with cep powder and, next to it, a spoonful of a boisterously acidulated mushroom ketchup. Oh boy.
And on it goes. For a main course, a chunk of sweet potato has been roasted and partnered with a deep and sultry mole, that classic Mexican exercise in controlled burning used to produce a sauce full of spice and toasty dark-chocolate notes. There are whorls of avocado purée, and petals of the sweet potato skin, deep-fried for crunch. In another dish, sautéed king oyster mushrooms come on a cassoulet of borlotti beans lubricated with a little cream, the only dairy in the whole meal. The plate is topped with lacy “carbon tuiles” looking encouragingly like something worn by the women painted by Jack Vettriano.
Celeriac, as familiar a non-meat trope as cauliflower and aubergine, is given a new and complex seeing to here. Chunks arrive roasted, under snowy slices of more of the same. Underneath are pearls of barley in a dark, umami-rich yeast broth. There’s a dusting of yeast across the top as well as dollops of a black garlic purée. I have a credo: non-meat dishes should be good because of that fact, rather than in spite of it. But I can’t help describing this celeriac dish as deep, intense and, well, meaty.
With all these descriptions I will have missed a detail. I will have missed an ingredient or a moment of wizardry, because so much is going on. Adrian Luck is in complete control of his ingredients. It’s why I wish I could be just as enthusiastic about the desserts, but I can’t. Non-dairy creams can all too often have a musty, cereal back note, especially when sweetened. That’s what happens here in a sweetcorn tart with blackberries. The shell is tough and over-engineered, and the sweetcorn “cream” betrays its origins. Coconut milk might have been Luck’s friend here. A rapeseed oil cake with stewed apple, dribbles of caramel and a scoop of brisk buttermilk sorbet is much better, but lacks a certain largesse. Which is my fancy way of saying it needs loads more caramel.
But ignore all that because of the brilliance that has gone before. Land is designed to take you somewhere new. Even the wine list is calculated to encourage experimentation. “If you like pinot noir,” says one heading, for example, before suggesting a gamay. And so we toast Luck’s cooking with a couple of glasses of godello because we like pinot grigio. I am aware that describing a restaurant like this as a find, when it’s been there for three years and always knew exactly where it was, might be a little insulting. But I can say that I’m delighted I’ve now found it. You should find it, too.
A new take on the cook-at-home ingredient delivery model: outside caterer Rocket, has launched a programme of food boxes entitled “A cook’s tour”. Alongside those ingredients, available for delivery nationwide, you also get access to a video cook-along, complete with live chat. Upcoming boxes include Flavours of Istanbul, Temples of Balinese Cuisine and Korean Street Food. The boxes cost from £55 for two. For more info visit acookstour.co.uk
The tier 2 and 3 Covid-19 rules, prohibiting people meeting up indoors with anybody other than members of their own household, have resulted in mass restaurant cancellations. The Corbin and King group, which runs the Wolseley and Brasserie Zedel among others, says it lost 2,000 covers across the group to the end of October. At the same time a number of restaurant managers have told me that they are not clear how they are meant to police it. ‘Am I supposed to ask the members of every table for a proof of address?’ one maître d’ said to me. Another said there was a concern that, even to enquire of a table, might breach discrimination and equality legislation.
In other news, Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge has announced it will be opening a branch of Gordon Ramsay Burger. It follows the success of the first in Las Vegas where the chef’s take on the humble hamburger costs up to $25.99. So there’s that. No opening date has yet been announced (gordonramsayrestaurants.com).
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/oct/25/jay-rayner-restaurant-review-land-in-birmingham-serves-thrilling-vegan-food