Fumo, 1, Waterloo Street, Birmingham, B2 5PG, 0121 643 8979
Mr Black, my therapist, is trying to explain how there are two parts to the brain – the primordial brain, and the other bit. I think he is talking about brains in general, rather than just my grey matter.
The other bit is to do with sophistication, but as sophistication is an alien concept I find this part of the dinner-table tutorial a struggle. This much I get: when it comes to food, the primordial brain tells you to lay waste to the bread basket within seconds of its arrival and compels you to order red meat, any meat in fact, with blood sauce – and tell the chef to hold the goddam garnishes. What does he think I am? A Paleolithic hippy?
The other part makes you ask the waiter if the chicken’s nipples have been marinated and cooked sous vide. It challenges you to ask earnest questions about the kitchen’s sustainable sourcing of local nettles and activates your seasonality gag reflex if the menu features raspberries in December.
(Question: do chickens have nipples? And why do I care? This is why I see Mr Black.)
I know there is a point to the psychoanalysis of food and I hope to bring you further updates. However, our evening of therapeutic dining is punctuated with so much fun and laughter that my brain, both sections, is shot. This, in turn, may have something to do with the dry martini that kicked off proceedings in Fumo, the seductive little sister of Birmingham’s San Carlo restaurant. The bottle of light Falanghina del Beneventano from Campania bares some responsibility, as does the deep Sardinian Chuèrra Cannonau di Sardegna Jerzu Riserva 2007. But a lot of the blame must be apportioned to my guest and his decision to order Armagnac, particularly the second one.
I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that this is the normal state of affairs for a restaurant review but I find it terribly hard to say no, especially to a therapist, and some nights you just have to go with the flow. And it flowed a lot.
Fumo opened a few weeks back with a fraction of the marketing budget of Jamie’s Italian, at the Bullring, but it is everything that industrial restaurant is not. It’s got style, burgeoning character (certainly for somewhere so new) and some good, unfussy food. It’s only a newcomer but Fumo has pretty much established itself at the top of the pile for restaurant/bars in its market.
Why? Because it gives customers what they want. Fancy that.
Rather than trying to impose an ambiance and a style of food on the restaurant-going public, Fumo has made itself accessible and cool without trying to be achingly trendy. The idea of offering small, sharing plates of food is the golden arrow that has slayed the competition. I’ve never been to a Venetian tapas-style restaurant but that’s what Fumo is based on. The concept of the three-course menu (often a deadening experience in uninspired dining rooms) is ripped up in favour of a procession of little plates of meat, seafood and vegetables. Whether you are a Size Zero or an Olympic weightlifter, there is plenty of scope.
Carlo Distefano, the founder of the ever-expanding San Carlo brand, first tried this concept at Cicchetti in Manchester. The place now takes up to £70,000 a week. That’s a lot of octopus salad and agnello osso bucco.
Diners, clearly, like small plates. It makes them feel less greedy and if you order a duffer you can quickly move on. The psychology works brilliantly because not all the dishes we had were brilliant, although none of them was bad. The fact a good one comes along so quickly obliterates any misgivings you might have had. With good dishes, you are left wanting more. With less good plates, you think: “Oh, well, it was only a taster.”
To succeed, this style of service relies on speed, the quick delivery of new dishes and sound ingredients. All of which you get at Fumo.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in a city of the supposed dining enthusiasm of Birmingham (and dynamism there is) I can’t believe it took so long for someone to open a properly conceived, good quality restaurant offering pick ’n’ mix small dishes. It was an open goal and a company of Italian heritage has just creamed the ball into the back of the onion net. Now everyone is playing catch-up. Damn those Italians, they’re good. Mama mia!
Naturally, you will be waiting for the buts, so let’s get them out of the way. What didn’t I liked?
The acoustics. There’s no carpet in the restaurant and little in the way of deep fabrics, which is aesthetically pleasing but means there is little to absorb the noise, so I found it hard picking up my therapist’s voice. This explains why I allowed him to order so much alcohol, so I don’t want to be overly critical. But still, canoodling lovers might have their work cut out being heard and could be forced into sexting.
I’ve no idea how you fix a problem like this but Carlo Distefano or Carmine Sacco, his franchise operations manager, will know a man who does. Things get done with people like this around. Last week, a new Cicchetti (pronounced “chi-KET-tee” in Venice and something completely different in Barnt Green) opened in Piccadilly. It had been scheduled to open in September but the management changed their mind and pressed to open in time for London 2012. They did it.