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I think I speak for most of Birmingham when I say the decision to pinch the name 'Grand Central' from New York and apply it to the retail floor of New Street Station — a name that easily carries enough historical wallop to be used for the entire development — was one of Brum's more awkward imposter syndrome mask slips. Subtler — way subtler — and more 'Birmingham' is The Grand Hotel's decision to open their Big Apple-style brasserie, Isaac's, with a Barwick Street speakeasy-style entrance befitting both the Bronx and Bordesley Street. Brum's newest restaurant opens today in a way you wouldn't have expected...
It might only be an entrance but sitting, as it does, in our city's clean cut central business district, it's got stones. Graffitied by Gent 48, one of Brum's best street artists (a man very heavily influenced by the graffiti that came from NYC in the 80s), it stands out. If you're looking for it, that is. The thinking behind the unexpected archway runs deeper than a simple marriage of Birmingham and New York's passion for street art, taking cues from the subway-sprayed train carriages of New York's underground system some four decades ago, and the warehouse spaces of Birmingham that followed not long after. The pristine Isaac's, grubbied and urbanised like an NYC brasserie in the Meat Packing District might. But through the door, it's all change.
Stepping off the street, it hits you like a train. New York. The subway-green tiling, the leather booth sections, the mahogany furniture. A basement feel with lamps giving each table a personal touch, this could be their world famous oyster bar beneath their world famous terminus. The tiled floors and walls bathed in the warm glow of countless (and I mean countless) bulbs. Framed pictures continue the theme but do so without forcing it down your eye sockets. This isn't a Disney take on a New York brasserie. This isn't a paint-by-numbers chain restaurant that might be thankful it's Friday. This is meticulously thought out, but it feels the opposite. Effortless. Relaxing. Something that's added to by the immensely affable staff.
Snacks are available. Think crispy bbq chicken wings, fried mushrooms and the like, at about £5 a pop, but I made a beeline for the starters and was absolutely torn for choice. New England corn chowder (£8) piqued interest, as did Maryland crab cakes (£9) but the barbecue pork ribs (£8) were the right decision, the supple meat falling from the bone like 12 European football clubs falling for a super league. Outside of street food I can’t think of better in Brum. These nibbles of pure naughty joy wash down well with Dig Brew Co's Optimo on draft, the bar championing the street art emblazoned indy pale ale. A nice touch that, supporting local, and something they will, I hope, follow through with more and more as they get settled.
I didn't order oysters at first. There's The Oyster Club up the road and I adore it. But the look the front of house team member gave me when twisting my arm was all I needed. That almost New Yorkian 'fuggedaboutit' shrug and a wink — this guy has clearly had a few of these oysters and he likes them. They're fresh Porthilly rock oysters and they slid down all silky and citrusy. The baked Rockefeller-style perhaps pipping the raw and real house hits, but ordering one of each is the way. The jumbo shrimp cocktail with avocado and passion fruit packed bouncy prawns with snap and bite, meaty hits of the sea throughout and a light, lush marie rose did them justice. The bread bites that accompanied weren’t as fresh as those prawns by some way, the only quibble of the meal and one they were quick to correct.
The meatball main was good but my unfortunate guest got glared at by yours truly for ordering meatballs. I don’t want to come to Isaac’s and try meatballs — I want southern crumbed cod and grits with asparagus, melted leeks and sauce américaine (£19).
...This. This is the business. With Opus gone (RIP old friend) fresh fish got that little harder to find, but this cod had clearly been on the bullet train from bay to Brum. The dish was also a masterclass in textures, the crumbed topping contrasting with the smooth, buttery grits and the melting fish to high effect. Some shoestring fries dunk ever so well in that elixir. Forgive me, mea culpa, but I’d not had sauce américaine before. A recipe from classic French cookery (says Weird Uncle Google) it’s a mix of chopped onions, tomatoes, white wine, brandy, salt, cayenne pepper and fish stock. Bloody actual hell, this goes on my death row menu — me, rightly sentenced to death for glaring at a date who just ordered what the hell she wanted, not what I wanted. Deep and velvety, this is the Adele of sauces. Like a lobster bisque, almost. Rich and homely I daren't think how long the stock needed to cook down for a base so ambrosial. On wines the £55 Sussex sparkling, Goring Blanc de Blanc, isn't actually bad value at £55 a bottle and, being 100% Chardonnay, will sing with the prawns, the oysters and the cod. If you're in the market for something less wallety, Sicilians swear by Grillo with shellfish and you've got that at £6 a glass or £25 a bottle. The wine menu isn't overly extensive and certainly not too expensive.
By far the most commonly ordered dish on the entire menu, I'm told, is the Baked Alaska for two (above). It's a showstopper and at £12 is good value. Kitsch? Maybe, but I scanned the room and there wasn't a single table that didn't light up with smiles the moment it arrived, tucking in with their dates, the browned and warmed exterior hiding fluffy sponge and quality ice cream, all lifted by a raspberry jus base. This is Instagram heaven, but by no means style over substance. The cookie dough smores in a peanut butter ice cream sandwich (below) was the other dessert that caught my eye, but ordering it would have been folly. I was done. And I was still warbling on about that cod. Have I mentioned that cod? Adele, I kid you not.
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