Tuesday, 15 March 2011
My history with Virgin Trains, if you'll forgive me a brief diversion from the business of eating, is long and rather troubled. I have been travelling semi-regularly up and down the London Euston-Liverpool Lime Street route since 2003 when I first got a job in the capital. Back then, they were in the slow and tortuous process of upgrading the tracks and stations on the west coast main line, meaning while journeys up on Friday evening were generally fine, the return leg often meant 5 or 6 hour relays on bus replacement services and creaking diversions through the centre of Manchester. I put up with the misery though, partly because I had to - how else was I going to travel, helicopter? - but also because, as we were constantly reminded, once the seemingly endless engineering works were complete, we would be treated to a superfast and super-modern Pendolino (tilting train) service which would whiz lucky travellers around the country in record time.
The reality, once it arrived, was somewhat less impressive. The new Pendolinos were fraught with technical problems, from blocked toilets and faulty lighting to "climate control" systems that would remain stubbornly inactive in the depths of winter while blasting the hermetically-sealed carriages with warm air on the hottest days of the year. There was always a scrum over the seating, as the oh-so-advanced seat reservations system never worked properly and would assign travellers to seats in carriages that didn't exist or for bizarre sub-segments of their journey - I once, for example, booked my usual journey only to discover my seat was operating on some kind of timeshare system and someone else was entitled to it between Crewe and Stafford. Don't think I took this misery sitting down either (literally on one occasion where I had to stand in the aisle of a hugely oversubscribed train for 3 hours) - I complained every opportunity I got, about the mess, the heat, the inconvenience, the hour and a half I and a few hundred other passengers spent in pitch blackness somewhere outside Rugby while the hapless driver repeatedly attempted to "reboot the system" - and the response was always the same: a coupon for money off my next train ticket, sent to my house, which to use I had to post off to an address in Edinburgh after booking a ticket over the phone from a call centre that seemed to have access to a completely different set of available journeys than those that appeared on the website. I used to dread every journey, every call to that useless booking line, every minute spent sat glumly in the food hall at Euston station while the train was "Being prepared".
To be fair, it's a lot better now. The online seat reservation system, a full 8 years after it was promised, still hasn't materialised and if you book a ticket online there's a 1 in 4 chance they'll automatically assign you to one of the surprising number of seats in each carriage with no window. The entertainment system, which once ran an airline-style mixed programme of music and comedy across a number of channels, when it worked (which wasn't often), has long been abandoned and even the in-flight magazine "Hotline", never a riveting read but better than nothing when you were sat in an overheated carriage in a seat with no window, has now been discontinued. But, more often than not these days, the trains are running on time. And, yes, if you know with several months notice of an impending journey you can find some relative bargains; if you don't, the standard return is £70 odd and it's cheaper to get a return flight to the south of Spain but hey, that's privatisation for you.
So all that said, it was with a certain amount of self-satisfaction I found myself booking a day trip to Birmingham courtesy of Virgin Trains' PR people, who are promoting the idea that with enough notice you can fill your day with fun and joy without breaking the bank. And indeed, our two return tickets to Birmingham (one using a Young Persons Railcard) came to a rather bargainous £34.90 which meant all the more spare to spend on lunch at Simpsons, one of a healthy number of fine dining places in Birmingham but strangely the only one of any note to be open weekend lunchtimes. First, though, we had to get there from New Street station, and as it was a nice sunny day and we had half an hour to spare, we thought it might be a nice idea to walk the mile or so to Edgbaston, to take in some fresh West Midlands air and do a spot of sightseeing. Well, you can't say we didn't try:
Not the prettiest of walks is it, although I'm going to give Birmingham the benefit of the doubt and guess that we didn't really see the best of the place. Also, once we arrived outside Simpsons the surroundings were much more pleasant, even if the front of the building reminded me rather worryingly of the Fawlty Towers title sequence. Inside, we supped Kir Royales in the salon of this grand old building and swiftly decided on the £77 a head tasting menu. Well, if we're going to come all this way, we might as well do it properly.
An amuse of watercress and potato soup with truffle oil was excellent, although very, very familiar to anyone who's ever eaten in any restaurant aiming for Michelin stars. The bread was also great, made in house and placed on the table without the fuss of watching a waiter clumsily manhandle one bun at a time using two spoons in one hand. I've always wondered why some places just don't give their front of house staff tongs - it would be far less cruel.
First course was described on the menu as 'sea bass tartare', although there were definitely chunks of orange salmon mixed in with the yoghurt binding as well. I liked it - I think we both liked it - how can you not like fresh chunks of gently cured salmon and sea bass - but it wasn't too exciting.
That's not an accusation you could level at this dish of foie gras, banana(!) and pain d'epice, which contained a mix of flavours and textures that were genuinely surprising. Foie gras and banana seemed quite a natural match and the bread provided a nice rough texture, but this was let down slightly by the foie which not the finest example I've ever tried, being bitty and stringy. I should also say that my friend wasn't at all sure about the banana and foie but then she isn't the world's biggest fan of banana anyway.
It was a shame that the obvious physical effort that had gone into crafting these little balls of cucumber and potato to dress the Scottish scallops wasn't matched with attention to detail in other areas. This dish was frustratingly underpowered in terms of flavour and seasoning, with only the lovely crispy broccoli being interesting enough to comment on. A shame.
Fortunately this mackerel dish was exciting enough to make up for the scallops. A wonderfully tender cylinder of very lightly poached mackerel arrived dressed with a couple of crispy "sweet 'n' sour mackerel nuggets" and a well-chosen selection of fresh herbs and pickled lemon. Everything you'd want in a seafood dish, and then some, I enjoyed this immensely.
Despite being warned that the meat arrives pink, and being perfectly OK with that, I'm afraid I had to send the first version of this dish of duck, kumquat and Chinese greens back as the duck arrived cooked through to grey and rather tough. But the second go (dressed oddly with some egg noodles that hadn't been there the first time round) was much better, the sharp kumquat and softer greens working well. The duck itself didn't have a huge amount of flavour, and I'd have liked a crisper skin, but no major complaints.
The tasting menu cheese course was a pretty flower of Tête de Moine cheese on crisp bread, and tasted every bit as good as it looked. I'm going to keep my eye out for Tête de Moine from now on - it had a lovely nutty flavour and delicate texture that was quite addictive.
Pre-dessert of doughnut dunked into rhubarb compote and some kind of vanilla custard was very good. Tried and tested combinations perhaps, but none the worse for that.
My passion fruit and chocolate mousse was actually swapped in from the set lunch menu as I didn't really like the sound of the white chocolate & green tea mousse that came with the tasting menu. I'm glad I made the switch though - this was heavenly, the sweet, fresh chunks of jellied passion fruit and zingy sorbet contrasting the rich bar of dense chocolate underneath. Passion fruit and chocolate is usually a good combination, and this was no exception.
Petits fours looked better than they tasted, but perhaps that's the point of petits fours. I quite liked the white chocolate truffle one though.
So, was it worth it? The first thing to confront is the price, which at £87 per head (once service is added) for the food alone puts it at the higher end of what you might expect to pay for lunch anywhere in the UK. Even the Ledbury's tasting menu is only a few quid more, and that's pretty much my favourite restaurant in the country right now; the food at Simpson's was good alright, parts of it were very good and nothing was less than good, but I was never astonished. Also, there was the wine list - not a single bottle of anything under £31, which is fairly inexcusable; maybe if you're a wine buff you can find something of interest on the list but if you just want something drinkable to go with the food and don't want to double your bill on a single bottle of white, then you're stuffed. Simpson's is an expensive restaurant.
I had a good time, of course. I'm shallow enough to be impressed by foie gras and fancy puddings and with a bottle or two of wine to wash it all down, coupled with the comfortable and easy service, the afternoon slipped past in a pleasant haze. But if I hadn't been tasked to travel to somewhere - anywhere - and spend Virgin Trains' money on lunch, and this had been from my own pocket, I don't think I'd be feeling so positive. And that said, I don't think I'll be back, although I won't write off Birmingham as I believe there are lots of interesting places to eat - Purnell's, Turners and the Indian restaurant Lasan all made my hastily-constructed shortlist but were unavailable for one reason or another. But that's for another time. For now, I'd like to thank Virgin Trains to allow me to exorcise some of the abject misery of the past 8 years and yes, alright, for a journey to Birmingham and back that was on time, correctly heated, swift and relatively painless. We even had a window.
Lunch for two at Simpson's and train tickets to and from Birmingham New Street were paid for by Virgin Trains. Our tickets were booked a couple of months in advance and cost £10 each way (£8 for my friends with a Young Person railcard) and were found using the Virgin Trains Best Fare Finder. Travelling at weekends and booking as much in advance as possible will get you the best deals.