‘Anyone for cowboy butter?’: lunch with Joe Lycett at one of Birmingham’s hottest restaurants

<span>Under starters’ orders: Joe Lycett before the first course on the 670 Grams tasting menu in Birmingham. All photographs by Kirsty Bosley.</span><span>Photograph: Kirsty Bosley</span>
Under starters’ orders: Joe Lycett before the first course on the 670 Grams tasting menu in Birmingham. All photographs by Kirsty Bosley.Photograph: Kirsty Bosley

“I thought sweetbread was just bread that’s sweet,” admits comedian Joe Lycett, holding up a morsel of Kray FC, veal glands plucked from a bucket decorated to look like the Colonel’s famous fried chicken tub. The snack, a new version of one of chef Kray Treadwell’s signature dishes, is golden and crisp, gently spiked with fermented hot sauce, zhooshed with garlic emulsion and bedazzled with tiny gleaming globes of oscietra caviar.


When I was asked to be the guest editor for this edition of the New Review magazine I was astonished and sickened. “What is that?” I said to my PR manager while pouring Black Tower Pinot Noir into empty Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottles.

“It’s a prestigious publication inserted into the Observer with features and pictures,” he replied.

I couldn’t believe the cheek of the man. He well knows that I don’t believe in editing. Like all rightwing commentators, I believe that any form of editing is an assault on freedom of speech. I prefer things to be “unfiltered”, “unleashed”, and “uncensored” (and, if you’re interested, “uncut”). Deleting an erroneous semicolon is just how Stalin began his decades of terror.;

After much back and forth, the leftists at the New Review said that my insistence on not editing this issue made the task of me editing this issue “impossible” and “frankly, ridiculous”. Exactly what you’d expect from those lazy liberal comrade snowbastards.

“How about, Joe, you write a thoughtless stream of consciousness piece and send it to go behind a paywall at Mail+,” they said, “and in addition we will dedicate this issue of the New Review to your home city of Birmingham?” My high-intensity prescription antihistamines had kicked in by that point, and I agreed.

So, against my better judgment, this issue is all about Birmingham. Inside you’ll find a piece about allotments by Rebecca Nicholson, writing about the state of the city from Brummies Nathalie Olah and Kirsty Bosley, a conversation I had with Robbie Williams about art, and other contributions from Kofi Stone, Claire Douglass, Munya Chawawa, Katherine Ryan, Janice Connolly, Matt Arnold, Matt Nation, and an exclusive cover painted by me. If that’s not your thing then I’ve written the Mail+ piece and they assure me they’ll run it on one of the weeks Boris forgets to submit his copy (ie next week).

We’re side by side in Bodhi Boys, the pre-dinner lounge beneath restaurant 670 Grams, and I encourage Joe to shove the meat in his gob and trust the process. He needs little encouragement and I make fast work of my veggie version, a mouthful of fried cauliflower.

It’s an alluring introduction to the work of 32-year-old Kray, former Michelin Guide young chef of the year winner and current grafting father trying to catch his stride in the Birmingham food scene.

We’re in Digbeth, the colourful graffiti-painted neighbourhood that forms the backdrop of Joe’s Channel 4 show Late Night Lycett. “Let’s have lunch,” he had suggested, keen to sing about Brum’s restaurant landscape. I write about food for the website Birmingham Live and Joe wanted to hear our accent in the New Review. “We could rinse that Observer expenses account?!” he added. The hungry council estate kid in me yelped.

It’s quite the landscape, our beautiful Birmingham, the greatest foodie city in the country outside the capital, with five Michelin stars shared between four brilliant restaurants and a sixth almost guaranteed when the genius Brad Carter finally settles into a permanent spot on Colmore Row after a year of exploration. We could be eating anywhere, from the two Michelin-starred Opheem, where Aston-born Aktar Islam is producing exquisite Indian dishes in a way that honours the city’s longtime love of spice, to Digbeth Dining Club street food hangouts, where former MasterChef contestant Sai Deethwa and binman turned street food chicken specialist Jamie “Greidy” Reidy have put in shifts to turn their ideas into fully fledged businesses.

I’d chosen 670 Grams for a couple of reasons. For a start, it’s a stone’s throw from the River Rea, the source of all life in Birmingham and the reason the Beorma tribe settled here in the seventh century. Something about that felt significant to me, a Birmingham bab with a desperate desire to find a deep, poetic meaning in everything in the post-council-cuts city.

Second, Kray’s family-run restaurant is not yet perfect. It’s not even pretending to be, though my £5 handbag was given its own stool to sit on, offering my Sainsbury’s cross-body the Hermès Birkin treatment. The ceiling could be decorated with those foil blankets that St John Ambulance gives you when you’ve tear-arsed your way around a 10k course, the walls dripping with slapdash paint and decorated with a few graffiti scrawls that would make your nan turn her nose up quicker than a vegetarian who’s been served sweetbread.

The tasting menu (£80) is back after an attempt to switch to small plates towards the back end of last year. The reason? Kray just wasn’t enjoying himself as he had been when he was freshly out of the kitchens of Glynn Purnell and Michael O’Hare. Now he was taking a few steps back to move forward. There’s poetry in that, too.

In the main restaurant, our waiter Amy brings tower-like plates topped with a hand-dived Orkney scallop for Joe, joined by more caviar and langoustines. The crockery is tall and tapered, the ideal dimensions for the cup holder of your car, perfect for drive-by scallops if Digbeth wasn’t so frequently plagued by roadworks. I have truffle parmesan nigiri, but we both have the Thai herbs, aloe vera and sanbaizu dressing to bring it to life. “Could you taste the aloe vera?” I ask Joe, emboldened by my handbag having its own stool. Neither of us could pick it out but I don’t know what sanbaizu tastes like, either, so why pretend?

A little tin of mackerel with buttermilk ranch dressing, kohlrabi and dill gets little rise out of Joe, my own heritage beetroot earthy but not thrilling.

Cod with dashi, nori and chicken skin ups the ante, cut with pickled cucumber and “scraps”, which Joe pleasingly pronounces with a delicious rolled R. Flatbreads are next, his with wagyu beef fat and sprinkled with salty truffled pecorino that smells heavenly. It could be a little lighter on the bake but I smother my beef-free version in “cowboy butter”, churned with whatever leftover herbs they’d had in the kitchen during the week. “We cowboyed it!” restaurant manager Rume explains when he collects our empty plates. Under the table I scoot my boots.

Sweetheart cabbage comes next, with smooth ajo blanco, bursting briney capers and dukkah. It’s a fresh precursor to what will be a five-hit finish.

Joe brandishes a murderous-looking knife like Norman Bates before slicing into a juicy Tamworth pork chop drenched in massaman curry sauce. An almost buttery smoked aubergine sits alongside, gorgeous, I know, because I have a serving of my own. Mine sits beside half a lowly sand carrot and my heart sinks. “Too simple,” I think. And then I put a chunk in my mouth and realise I’m wrong.

Happiness, joy and amusement light me up at the complexity of flavour, so much so that I shove a chunk of it into Joe’s mouth as well. That’s what a well-treated carrot will do to you: inspire overfamiliarity.

A £15 supplement for truffled Baron Bigod brie, sitting atop a fig cake made of leftover bread and pickled walnut, proves to be a great use of the budget. Digbeth honey, produced by bees that no doubt foraged along the Rea, sweeten my tongue. If we didn’t have warm brie stuck to our gnashers, we’d probably start cheering.

A fresno pepper sorbet, served with compressed pineapple and Diplomático rum (“a slushie, basically” says Kray as he introduces it) cleanses and warms, but Joe is unable to hide his desire for chocolate. The arrival of an interesting spoon gives hope and the malted crémeux (with banana caramel, crispy sunflower and smoked vanilla ice-cream) takes us into orbit.

Gifts from the kitchen come in the form of two virtually too beautiful to eat chocolates, one with an almost violently tart fruit boost and the other filled with mellow, come-down coffee. There’s a smooth custard tart, too, served on a Bird’s tin as a nod to the custard powder that was invented near this very spot in 1837.

Kray’s spot isn’t polished, but we don’t promise that in Birmingham. We’re a young city, clever, hopeful and hard-working. We can’t offer perfection by the tonne, but brilliance? Creativity? We’re serving that up in 670 Grams.

670 Grams, 4 Gibb Street, Deritend, Birmingham; 670grams.com

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• Late Night Lycett airs Fridays at 10pm on Channel 4