It was strange. The night we went, a Tuesday in October, only one other table seemed to be taken. We were surprised. So surprised, in fact, that we asked the waitress why it wasn’t busier.
‘Well, last night we had a party of 37,’ she said, before adding, casually, ‘including the Prime Minister.’
The Prime Minister! Well, well. And then I remembered – yesterday had been Theresa May’s birthday. So this was where she had come – to Maribel, in Birmingham – for her birthday dinner.
I was impressed. Not by the news that Maribel had hosted the Prime Minister, but by the news that she had 36 friends.
On the other hand, of course, not all of them will have been her friends. Some will have been her security people. And here, I really do sympathise with her. Just think about it, for a moment. Being PM, and thus unable to go anywhere – even to an intimate restaurant for your birthday dinner – without a phalanx of security guards surrounding you. Pretty dispiriting.
Maybe this is the real reason we expect our prime ministers to be married. It’s nothing to do with old-fashioned prejudices. It’s just practical. Because dating while being PM would be a nightmare. Imagine it. Trying to whisper sweet nothings over dessert – under the stern gaze of 15 plain-clothed policemen. Possibly a bit off-putting.
So that, at least, is one indignity that Mrs May has been spared. She’s been married for 38 years. And at Maribel, I would guess, she had a rare good night, security people permitting – because the food there is stupendous.
The menu is a blend of French and modern British. There was a choice between three courses for £35, six for £65, or nine for £90. My friend and I went for six. First, though, came a series of five – yes, five – amuse-bouches.
There was a gougère (a blob of savoury choux pastry) with punchy gruyère cheese. There was a miniature twist on Caesar salad: cos lettuce, chicken, quail egg, anchovy and Berkswell cheese. There was prawn with cucumber, wasabi and oyster leaf. There were little balls of smoked eel and apple, served on a dab of horseradish, topped with a nasturtium leaf, and presented under a comically enormous cloche, spilling with dry ice. And there was sourdough bread with yeast butter.
Each and every one of these dishes was exquisite. I’m sorry to have to use that word, because I hate it with a burning fury. ‘Exquisite.’ It’s so pompous and puffed-up and precious. The sort of word that only the worst sort of person – ie, a restaurant critic – would ever use. ‘Oh, my dears and my darlings, you simply must try the amuse-bouches, they were just so exquisitely exquisite.’
Unfortunately, however, in this case it’s the only word that will do. The only word that simultaneously captures how tiny these things were, and how delicate, and how perfectly crafted – as well as how terrific they tasted.
Usually I think this kind of preliminary micro- snacklet is a waste of time, designed solely to show off the technical wizardry of the chef. The diner gets next to nothing out of it: one gulp and it’s gone, before your tongue has even noticed the thing’s there.
But these ones were worthwhile. Because – and it makes my toenails wilt to repeat it – they really were exquisite.
The same applied to the courses that followed. First, mackerel with potato, seaweed and buttermilk. Soft light, and meltingly creamy. Then pork, served with parsnip, clam, pear and Stinking Bishop. (That name: Stinking Bishop. You only need to read it to know that it’s good. It is, incidentally, the very cheese whose odour is used to revive an unconscious Wallace in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Wallace would be very happy at Maribel. They love strong cheese almost as much as he does.)
Next: sea bass with fennel, shrimp and caviar. Slippery, sweet and salty, all at once. Then veal with artichoke, chervil root and swiss chard. Tender, rich and nutty.
Two puddings. A mini Eccles cake with Yorkshire Blue (yet more strong cheese), followed by rice pudding with plum sorbet and caramelised milk skin. Both were… Well, you know what they were. I’m not typing it again.
The one thing I wasn’t so keen on was the place itself. The chairs and carpets felt somehow as if they belonged in an airport hotel. The large, office-style windows gave a view of a drab and lonely square. And, as I said at the start, on the night we went, hardly anyone else was there, so the atmosphere was dead.
Mad, really, because Maribel deserves to be rammed every night. It only opened in April, and it’s not on a busy street, so maybe people don’t know about it. But they should. Put it like this. You can disagree with everything Theresa May has done in office. You can deplore her approach to Brexit, her calamitous election campaign, her determination to sidestep any question from the media more complex than, ‘What slogan do you wish to recite endlessly to our viewers today, Prime Minister?’
But I’ll say this for her: she can pick a restaurant.