I’ve been a bit quiet of late, it feels like ages since I’ve been out in Birmingham but in reality I suppose I’ve just been visiting my favourite places instead of going somewhere new. And that’s what this is about, you don’t need to hear my opinions on the best burger in town each week, if it changes then maybe its worth comment but for the most part, I write things down so I remember them and that’s always been the number one priority. This was one I knew I’d want to reflect on again.
I’d been keeping an eye on the opening date for the Oyster Club for some time, there are often comments made about how far away we are from the sea in Birmingham and whilst its true, I remain unconvinced that it’s the reason why we lack a good seafood place in the city, it’s a hard thing to get right and a lot of people still don’t veer very far from the British Classics. Sad times. I love fish and seafood and always want to order it when we go out. A fish course is often my favourite part of a meal.
Anyway, last week we went as a party of four to celebrate a birthday. It was a Wednesday night and reasonably quiet as a result but not uncomfortably so. To me, ‘Oyster Club’ makes me think of the oh-so-famous Oyster Bar in New York’s Grand Central Station and to be honest- that is pretty exciting. I love the idea of perching on a swanky bar stool, ordering half a dozen oysters and something mildly intoxicating at lunchtime. I am sure this is a fantasy image of life I’ve stolen from TV but if that was my Saturday afternoon I would be pretty pleased with my life of indulgence.
The layout of the Oyster Bar is a little different from what I expected, there isn’t a huge amount of space with a couple of tables on the lower level and the bar area and some high tables up top. It looks beautiful but didn’t provide the separation between casual dining and sit down meal that I wanted. Perched on a high table next to the stairway doesn’t feel like luxury and although it might be badged as a more casual approach it doesn’t give off that air. It floats somewhere between the realms of ‘laid-back night’ and ‘fancy pants dinner’ but not well, it was jarring, maybe we should have specified that we wanted a standard table but since when is that ever a consideration when going somewhere that comes with it’s own oyster menu.
If you are reading this then it’s probably because you are interested in the food and not my opinions on restaurant layout so lets get on to that. We were celebrating a birthday and were excited about the prospect of fresh oysters in Birmingham ,at our perch we were handed a card that told us about the origins of the oysters on offers and provided some tasting notes, from our table we could see them on display, there were 4 varieties on offer (out of 6) and we ordered 3 dozen in total. This is a lot of oysters, even for 4 people. The staff gave us a look that implied we had overordered and to be honest our feelings as a group were mixed, one or two is fine for me but others would have happily ordered more. When they arrived (in shifts because of the volume) to the table I was reminded of the description by Anthony Bourdain of the first time he tried these jewels of the sea, there is some bravado about eating oysters, a sort of showmanship about eating something that has such a marmite reaction, a lot of people still think of oysters as ‘posh’ but forget that for many years they were a paupers food. For me, it’s an equal mix of delight and revulsion. No matter how much I enjoy eating them there is always a moment of doubt in my mind before the first one slides off its shell- my brain looks at it and tells me it’s too big and I won’t like it so I understand why people have such strong feelings about them, even now it’s a battle between the desires of my taste buds and the logic of my brain. Two tableful’s later we finished our plates, we were able to order our main courses midway through this process, which was a nice option.
On to the mains- We had been given a few pointers in advance of our visit and I had found it difficult to decide what to have, I knew it would be fish but I don’t like to order the same as someone else because it limits my tasting options, I also kept feeling drawn to mentions of cockles and brown shrimp even though they were accompanying ingredients, it’s these things I want to see on a fish menu, simple humble foods that done well are simply delightful. Just writing this makes my mind wander into thoughts of potted shrimp. I feel very British. For fish in the UK I would always choose Nathan Outlaw’s.
I ordered the Skate Wing with pickled cucumber and capers (£22), I had skate at Rick Stein last year and remembered something about it having good sustainability credentials if correctly sourced and this helped inform my decision. Two of the table ordered the tempura halibut and I was confused by this – it’s fish with minted peas and tartare sauce (£24) and the chips will set you back another £4.50 but were admittedly very good, I’m not sure why but I just assumed our normally adventurous party would go for a more unusual choice. A portion of roasted turbot (£29.50) also arrived at the table and I felt the food envy kick in. A side of tender stem broccoli which amounted to around 4 stalks (£4.50) topped off the order.
You might see where this is going, or you might have read something similar already but feedback informs change and we did give our opinion at the end of the meal. There is no denying that the food was cooked perfectly, I honestly enjoyed every mouthful and thought the portion size for my skate was generous, that said there is only so much plain fish I can eat before it gets little boring. The tempura had positive reviews from the table and was again a decent sized chunk of flesh but I struggled to feel excited by it – top peas though. The turbot was probably the standout from our choices although much like the capers on my dish, the cockles were somewhat scarce.
We enjoyed our meal, we really did but it was not memorable, we had a couple of desserts to round things off and the salted caramel ice cream that came with my chocolate fondant (£10.50) is probably the thing that sticks in my mind most, it was truly excellent and I’ve made my thoughts on salted caramel known before. A tiramisu (£9) and the Sticky Toffee pudding(£8) both received positive comments.
The staff were perfectly pleasant but the delivery of service was not as polished as we had expected and maybe this is where things faltered. I’m not sure ‘A casual and relaxed approach to dining’ works here. An Oyster Bar? Great, do that, I would come for short sharp visits and feel spoilt. A Fine Dining restaurant? Wonderful – Adams is lovely and the food here is good. Mix the two together and it’s hard not to come away feeling like you’ve been fleeced. I have no objection to paying a premium for good quality food but I want the service and the experience to go with it. We had a bit of back and forth about the wine and our server was more than helpful but we needed a sommelier really – the result was us returning wine that was recommended to us but wasn’t up to scratch or worthy of its price tag. We tapped out at £400 for 4 people but left with a nagging feeling that it just wasn’t worth the money. We would have ordered starters and more drinks but it didn’t seem fitting with the atmosphere and didn’t feel comfortable enough to lounge around for a coffee afterwards which would be the norm.
I feel really torn writing this, I love Adams, I was SO excited about the opening of the Oyster Bar and there are aspects that I really enjoy but if we could give the night a ‘do-over’, we would probably have a drink and a few oysters before moving on elsewhere. It hasn’t quite hit the mark but I hope that it will evolve Jordan and I have considered going back to give it another shot just because we are convinced we could have had a better experience but in the meantime, I can’t think of anywhere else in the city that I could go to for seafood so any suggestions are welcome.
N.B. On further reflection we decided we really want to go back to Adams so there is an additional positive point there.