Food review: The Distillery, Birmingham
One of the nicest lamb dishes I have ever tasted was served to me at The Distillery in Birmingham.
Slow-roasted in Middle Eastern spices, it oozed flavour as it sat on my tongue. It melted like butter as I rolled it around my mouth, and cut like it too. It was pretty much perfect.
But more of that treat, which is an indicator of all the good work to come, in due course.
I had no idea The Distillery even existed before a recommendation by a friend. But as my wife and I were already out to enjoy a show at the nearby Birmingham Symphony Hall, making a night of it seemed a good idea. And so it proved.
From the top, it’s worth mentioning that it’s not cheap – particularly when it comes to drinks – but it serves to underline the old idiom that in this life, you get what you pay for.
The Distillery, in Sheepcote Street, is split over two floors, with an elegant gin bar on the first floor and a staircase leading to the pub and open kitchen dining area at street level.
Not that you’d know it from first glance. From the outside you encounter a rustic, traditional Brummie boozer, which on entry unfolds and expands around you like the Tardis.
Some of the older features have been left in place in order to inject the traditional pub character into this modern venue. But at the same time the gleaming brass fittings, stripped wooden benches and open-plan layout also give it a modern touch.
The downstairs area is completely hidden when you first see it, explaining in part its unexpected volume when you step through the doors, and there is also a beer garden overlooking the canals which currently lies empty, longing for the return of summer and the throng of the evening drinks crowd.
And the liquid side of things plays an important part in the restaurant and pub’s success. Its gin is made in a copper still that sits centre stage in the cocktail bar.
The Roundhouse Gin boasts of its ‘citrus flavour with herbal notes and spicy undertones’, and is made with a combination of pink grapefruit, basil, black peppercorns and 13 traditional botanicals. It is produced in small batches.
But it’s not the only option on the menu, and the variety of trendy gins are also served in a panoply of cocktails – concoctions like a “Barrel-aged Negroni”, which is a tea-flavoured gin mixed with Campari and Martini Rosso, as well as with more traditional gin mixers.
After a minor hiccup in which we were let down by the online booking system – has society really been improved by online booking? – we were offered a table for two in the bar or restaurant, and took our place in the less starchy, more convivial atmosphere of the bar.
The menu is small – but sometimes, as here, that is a very good thing. Gordon Ramsay is always barking on about how a menu just needs one dish for each meat, and not a long list that can just confuse the customer and make chefs’ jobs more difficult. The most important thing is what is offered up is cooked well.
While my eyes were drawn to the unexpected and no doubt undersold Scotch egg with HP sauce, we shared a starter of crispy brie bites with cranberry sauce.
And they were very nice too. The breadcrumbs were lovely and crispy, the cheese hot and gooey, and the cranberry providing more tang than sugar.
Sharing the starter also ensured we had plenty of room left for mains – and it was a good job too because there was plenty to go round.
We chose different options with the intention of sharing, as good couples do - when the lamb arrived the love was in short supply.
Our eyes had been drawn to the robata grill and rotisserie section of the menu, particularly the slow-roasted lamb leg Shawarma, with came served with chopped salad, house flat bread, garlic yoghurt, tomato and harissa sauce, and sumac.
It was a bit of a do-it-yourself dish where everything came served in its individual pots and sections.
But it was a triumph. The lamb turned to liquid in the mouth and the spices burst from the meat and rose through the senses.
When folded into one of the warm flat breads with the other ingredients, it was a dish that was to be savoured with the eyes closed.
There was enough for two fully-filled flat breads or, if you fancied, you could instead tear bits off and eat the meal bit-by-bit.
Kelly’s jerk salmon came with coconut, lime, three-bean salsa, tamari and a maple syrup dressing, with a side of sweet potato fries.
Again, it was very nice. The portion was generous, and the fish flaked apart delicately – a sure sign that it has been cooked to the second. The unusual extras complemented the meal well.
After two fairly filling mains, we shared a dark chocolate pot, which came with crème fraîche and honeycomb. It was very thick, very chocolatey and very moreish. Again, sharing one was enough on this occasion.
There were plenty of more traditional pub options to choose from – the burgers menu was large and included some exotic combinations, like pork and chorizo with red cabbage and fennel slaw, and buffalo chicken with pickled red onion, gem lettuce and aioli. The Dirty Jack burger catered for the vegetarians out there – and now, thanks to vegan-promoting Forest Green Football Club, of all things, I now understand what Jackfruit is and how versatile it can be. I may have to sample some in the very near future.
Pizza lovers were also very well catered for and the sourdough bases looked delicious when they came out, topped with proper Italian favourites such as margherita, San Daniele, diavola, pepperonata, quattro stagioni, affumicato and funghi.
Don’t fret, however – the toppings were listed in English and were all easy to follow.
Once again, I could’ve settled for anyone of them and gone home a happy man.
There was also selection of salads to choose, for those perhaps watching their waist post-Christmas, and a special Sunday roast menu too.
All in all, The Distillery is something new, fresh and a bit different to many of the other pub-restaurants in this part of Brum. It wears its heritage for all to see. Perhaps most excitingly, it’s full of surprises, from the spices and the flavour combinations of its meals to the sprawl of the inside of the building compared to its diminutive exterior.
As much as anything, it’s worth popping into, especially if you like beautifully-cooked, do-it-yourself lamb dishes, and gin cocktails.