Thursday, 28 April 2011

Purnell's, Birmingham: Fine Dining Fun?

Yesterday was our thirteenth wedding anniversary. We went for lunch to Purnell's in Birmingham. Glynn Purnell became a bit of a star after he appeared on the Great British Menu a few years ago. He sprinkled cornflakes on a poached egg yolk and some smoked haddock milk, and served crème brulee in an egg shell. Thus, a quirky, cheeky, inventive, Brummie character was born. Above all, he brought what looked like fun to what might easily have been seen as the rather too sombre and formal world of fine dining. You can see the menu here:

I did not take any pictures of the food or the inside of the restaurant. Far from being informal, friendly or fun, there was an atmosphere of sterile efficiency where the use of a camera would have been an unwarrantable intrusion. There was no charm in the smiles of the waiting staff; there was none in the food either. Not that the food wasn't good, some of it was exceptional. The home made bread and butter at the start was superb. Both our starters were wonderful. Mary had the Goat's Cheese, which she greatly enjoyed. I had the Duck Egg Yolk. It had little cubes of deep fried pig's trotter, and a freeze-dried black pudding crumble. The overall effect was like the best tasting fried breakfast ever. It was beautifully conceived, but very tiny. This, we felt was one of the major problems. The portions were miniscule.

Mary's main was Lemon Sole. The fish was apparently excellent, presented as a small cylinder approximately the size of a marker pen. I had Piglet, which was a very small piece of pork confit'd with vanilla, accompanied by two pieces of potato, amounting in total to about half of a single new jersey royal, some radishes (about three radishes in total, some warm, some cold, some halved, and some slices of a large one) and a piece of smoked pineapple, approximately two inches long half an inch high and wide, and which was possibly the single strangest thing I have ever eaten. It tasted simultaneously of pineapple and a bonfire. Not the kind of smoke you normally get with food, such as smoked bacon, or smoked salmon, but an actual, horrible bonfire.

For dessert I had the Pavlova, Mary had the Caramelised Apple Parfait. Both were tiny, very light and beautifully presented, though lacking a little intensity of flavour. The tea and coffee were excellent, as were the petit fours.

We ate everything. Every piece of food was at least interesting. Most, apart from the pineapple, were very nice indeed. One does not buy fine dining by its size, but, excepting the bread, the entire meal for both of us would have easily fitted in a cereal bowl. We were hungry when we went in, and we went straight to my parents' house in search of afternoon tea when we left,  after a three course lunch costing in total £116.

Was the food good? Yes. Was it a good meal? When comparing fine dining memories I have often said that you don't go to the Fat Duck because you are hungry; it is a theatrical experience lasting several hours, and, it seems to me, is well worth the money. Some other very good places, such as Gidleigh Park, or the Yorke Arms, give you a more satisfying “meal”, while still being bold, intricate and inventive with their ingredients.  At Purnell's there was no theatre, no fun, and very little food. In our opinion therefore, it was not a very good meal.  

I wonder whether radish as the primary vegetable component of a main course might come over as more fun on television than it does if it's your lunch?


  1. Just found your blog and wanted to compliment you on your taste in restaurants. I've eaten at most of the Yorkshire ones you've listed and broadly agree with your comments; you've been very fair.

    This meal at Purnell's sounds ridiculous. I was hoping to dine there a couple of years ago (before the TV gig and the Michelin star) but went on their day off. Oops. Fine-dining is all well and good, but one shouldn't have to swing by McDonald's on the way home to avoid going to bed hungry.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks Lester. Mary and I discuss McDonald's often after fine dining. Few desserts can match the Toffee Sundae, and every single McDonald's product is better than Purnell's smoked pineapple.