On a street of hotels and law firms, Simpsons is an overgrown house of a restaurant. There's a modest big of parking without and a few steps up to the entrance. There's a comfortable lounge, a party room, teaching rooms, four bedrooms, an welcoming foyer which doubles as a shop for the restaurant's cookbook and guidebooks to Birmingham food, and there are dining rooms. The dining rooms, overlooked by the large-windowed kitchen, wrap around a patio and yard, with tidily trimmed grass and enclosing trees. A fountain plays around a clear crystal ball. Simpsons isn't just a restaurant, you see. Simpsons dominates Birmingham gastronomy like nothing else, training up the chefs who will later open their own restaurants, and bringing high-end cuisine to a city with remarkably few highly-rated restaurants. My taxi driver recommended the cooking school - his son-in-law had taken a class there recently. I was there for the food.
It's rare that I look at a menu and am tempted by every single dish on it, but that's exactly what happened when I sat down for lunch there. The tasting menu looked lovely, but I dismissed it as likely taking until dinner time to eat lunch. The two three-course lunch menu options looked tasty. The à la carte menu offered all sorts of tempting variations on meals which I could combine in too many ways. The waiter came back a second time and offered assistance. Once he assured me I could probably finish the tasting menu in under three hours, I gave up trying to pick and choose, and went for samples of as many dishes as possible.
Soon after, three pairs of amuse-bouches arrived at my table, each an understated, straightforward warmup act: a pair of sweet, spiky littel crab cakes on skewers; fluffy little pancakes (baked polenta?) topped with mini marinaded mushrooms; and two delicate little salmon rolls topped with salty caviar. After a selection of small and sometimes pastry-like breads arrived, the meal began in earnest. The first course, a salmon and melon salad, was whimsical, sophisticated, and delicate, one of the two particular highlights of the entire meal. Two cubes of salmon and two matched cubes of cateloupe were topped with a few rich duck lardons and spicy little greens, and dressed with a lime and ginger dressing.
The next was a slight disappointment. I liked each of the elements in it - scallop with crisp top and smooth interior, cep composte, cep foam, and pumpkin purée - but the end result was less than the sum of their parts. Slow-roasted mullet was much better as a complete dish, served on a base on thin fennel slices, with lovely little toothsome lentils and rich, meaty juices beside. It was a warm and cozy dish, the first of several in the meal which made me think it classy comfort fare. After was the other highest point in the meal for me: a dish of fun. Succulent seared duck foie gras perched on a sweetly roasted banana, a thin slice of gingerbread, and banana purée. The textures worked beautifully, and the tastes were a delight - a throughly successful dish.
The last of the mains was a firm, tasty piece of pigeon with hearty accompaniaments of savoy cabbage purée and fruity, refreshing quince purée, with a generous slice of smoked pancetta and potato terrine, all topped with a juniper berry sauce. This and the salad which followed were nicely salted; it's not that they tasted salty, so much as bits of salt came through the flavors now and again, adding to the overall experience.
The salad was the first of the dessert-like courses, filling the role of cheese course. It was composed of poached pear, a smidgen of raw pear for texture variety, a pleasant blue cheese - fourme d'amert, toasted walnuts, a small tangle of micro greens, and a minimal-but-effective honey and balsamic dressing. I saved up my alcohol quotient for dessert. The salad was paired with a Juraçon, who botrytized origins paired nicely wih the blue cheese, while its apricot juice notes balanced the poached pear nicely.
Next came a pre-dessert of doughnut ball on a stick with creamy, light, smooth confiture du lait, a little bit of lightheartedness but, like the amuse-bouche, narrow-concept flavors. Dessert itself was a gentle moussey chocolate tart with very nice short pastry, accompanied by red wine plums, and cinnamon ice cream. The accompanying vin de Constance from South Africa was a little more intense than the tart, slightly more dominant.
I was nearly done and it had indeed taken under three hours. I loitered in the late afternoon sunshine over fresh mint tea and a selection of mignardises. The small bowlful of chocolate nut balls were particularly good. Green apple fruit jelly has a pleasing simplicity compared to more exotic fruits; the lemon macaron was just as it should be; a cherry liquor chocolate was intense by comparison, but with more personality than either a dense, chewy piece of pistachio fudge or a raspberry on a pastry shell.
Service throughout was superb, attentive and caring. The waiter took feedback on the food personally; indeed, all the staff were well-informed and passionate about working there. One staff member gushed about how gorgeous the garden is at night, with the trees covered in thousands of fairy lights. They looked after me and worked around my minor limitations. From choosing alteratives to the default red wines accompanying dessert courses to their temporarily overlooking my reservation but having space for me anyways, it was a pleasure to work with them.
I'm looking forward to going back. Classy French food, often innovative, usually interesting, occasionally spectactular, in a comfortable and welcoming environment made for a very good meal indeed.