Words by Ed King / Pictures from http://thechurchinnjq.co.uk
I don’t eat mussels. I don’t eat cockles, whelks, oysters or clams. So as the medicine ball sized bowl, full of the hard shelled sea treats, is placed on the table – I cringe. My colour coded companion loves mussels, and I begin to regret our decision to share dishes.
But tonight is about trying new dining experiences, on the table and off.
Carl Finn has been challenging the restaurant status quo for a couple of years now; first with the music centric Soul Food Project, and most recently with his series of ‘pop up’ Secret Dining Society events; many of which I had promised to attend. Although ashamedly, this steaming bowl of possible food poisoning (as I see all shellfish) is my literal first taste of Carl’s cooking.
Recently taking over The Church Inn on Great Hampton Street, an old man boozer of Birmingham yore, Carl has cozily decked out the back room whilst he renovates around it.
There are about 12 covers, it’s reassuringly warm, and the evening’s theme is French Resistance; only gaining entrance after flashing La Croix de Lorraine and saying the password ‘Gestaposlap’. In itself, worth leaving the house for.
Carl – who tonight shares an uncanny resemblance to a young Rene from ‘Allo ‘Allo, dutifully makes us all stand ‘for ze French National Anthem’. Imitating his proud hand across the chest stance, we all adopt the evening’s proxy patriotism; being thrown together for the night whether we like it or not.
A creative mixologist, Carl serves us two Courvoisier V.S.O.P. and egg white based cocktails; a ‘Little England’ – a creamy foam topped fruit affair in a tall stemmed Martini glass, and a ‘Bull Ring Market’ – a punchy mix of brandy, bitters and orange in a Old Fashioned rocks glass. Both are “pokey” and very smooth; but the ‘Bull Ring Market’ is clearly going to kick my face in.
Carl recommends the house white; a “cut grass and fruit” Grenache Vementino from Vaucluse, which is excellent – before leaving us with some duck mousse pate and kirsch.
I select the bœuf bourguignon, which requires a shift to Les Volets Malbec; and despite a sporadic toughness to some of the meat, is delicious. The broth is rich and strong, with a slick blend of wine, garlic, onions and juices from the beef. A few hunks of fresh bread later and we stare mournfully at an empty bowl; if it wasn’t the last one available I might be ordering it again.
Skipping dessert, neither my companion nor I are particularly sweet toothed, we move straight onto a delicious array of Fourme d’Ambert, Mont d’or and Comté cheeses; served with the seemingly omnipotent and excellent fresh bread.
I demand “the finest red wine available”, and (after publically disparaging Australian and Californian grapes) get treated to a rich, but dangerously drinkable, bottle of Marciac 2010 – or “duck in a bottle” as Carl initially pitches it. Again, it is excellent. I proceed to drink more than is healthy.
Staying around to chat with the table next to us, my companion and I eventually leave around 11pm; full, happy and about ₤40 a piece lighter.
Carl Finn is a classically trained French chef, and despite the joviality of “hiding from ze sea of Germans” at the market on New Street, delivers an excellent menu.
I am impressed, by the food and the ambiance; and I looked hard for faults all evening – finding only the overstretched talents of the host-chef-bartender a possible future thorn.
But The Church Inn, Carl’s first bricks and mortar adventure, feels like the start of something I’ll be back to explore; with plans to be fully operational next spring.
Plus I ate mussels; which were, in all honesty, fantastic.
‘Vive la resistance!’ continues at The Church Inn until Nov 18th.
For further details, and reservations, visit http://thechurchinnjq.co.uk