Food critic Richard McComb enjoys a taste of Chicago in the heart of Birmingham.
In the home of the brave, big is beautiful – and boy, does executive head chef Dirk Flanigan like it big.
Back home in Chicago, Flanigan’s gastro-tavern caters for 800 hungry downtown workers and tourists a day and that equates to a lot of bison tartare, roast elk and 16oz ribeyes.
The Gage, which is just across the street from Millennium Park on Michigan Avenue, is known for its raucous atmosphere. The place is owned by the Lawless family, natives of County Galway, Ireland, and both the Guinness and whisky flow. But despite its Gaelic heritage, The Gage is not an Irish theme pub, even if some of the dishes, such as roast duck with black pudding hash, hint at robust food influences.
Flanigan has coined a phrase for his trademark cuisine at The Gage: “refined rusticity”. Big, homestead flavours sit alongside lighter, modern palate ticklers. There aren’t many menu cards that feature citrus caviar gelée and yuzu pearls alongside Scotch eggs and chips with curry gravy, the latter evocative of post-pub crawl carbs.
Flanigan chooses to demonstrate his more refined side at a special gourmet dinner at Opus restaurant in Birmingham. The idea for the Chicago Meets Birmingham Dinner was born following a visit to the Windy City by Opus chef-director David Colcombe. Colcombe had been invited to take part in the city’s Culinary Crossroads event, which celebrated the cuisines of nations represented during the NATO Summit in May.
The chef then threw down the gauntlet, or the oven glove, to Flanigan to come to Birmingham to showcase his skills to food-lovers in Chicago’s UK sister city. Both cities also happen to be part of the Délice Network of food cities, which comprises 14 of the world’s top dining destinations including Lyon, Barcelona and Osaka.
Both Délice and Opus are passionate advocates of Birmingham’s gastro scene and Flanigan’s visit to Birmingham proved to be timely, coinciding with last month’s Birmingham Food Fest.
As well as cooking on stage at the Colmore Business District’s food festival, Flanigan teamed up with Colcombe to lay on a thrilling six-course dinner at Opus. Each chef contributed three courses and left it to diners to decide which dishes bore the stamp of Chicago and which were hewn from Brummie passion.
The trickiest course to place geographically was the starter – a smoked lamb tartare with curry emulsion, “forbidden rice” and lamb gastrique. I’ve had a (non-smoked) beef tartare at Opus before and curry, obviously, screams Birmingham. But in-house smoking? And forbidden rice?
It turned out that the lamb was Flanigan’s invention.
Colcombe contributed a summer riff on Spain with a sweet and tangy native lobster gazpacho followed by Flanigan’s woody squab pigeon, pied de bleu mushrooms, corn puree and truffle.
The Chicago chef’s most eye-catching and delicious dish was a perfect roll of squid stuffed with mussels and clams, accompanied by delicate hon shimeji mushrooms. The pièce de résistance was a black (as in blacker than black) rich mushroom sauce, which cloaked the pearly white seafood like a monster from the deep.
Birmingham brought home the baton with Colcombe’s trio of pork, of which the braised cheek on creamed potatoes was a knock-out, and a plate of raspberry-inspired desserts.