I went to a lovely fine dining restaurant in Walsall last week – these are not words I often say.
Walsall is not a place that sits comfortably in a sentence with the word ‘fine’. ‘Fine dining’, ‘fine shoes’, ‘fine wine’ – you name it, it doesn’t fit. It’s a place few outsiders bother to visit, despite being well-connected to the wider region. I grew up just down the road, so I feel I am entitled to call it as I see it. The town has had a rough old ride over the years; industrial decline, lamentable political leadership, crime, poverty, unemployment. Every lousy statistic you can think of has, at some point, been attributed to Walsall. It used to be famed for its annual light shows in the Arboretum, but those days have gone. Good news is in short supply in this neck of the woods. But now it has a ‘fine dining’ restaurant all of its own – oh yes, a fine dining restaurant in Walsall. Needless to say, the locals are cock-a-hoop about it.
Five Rivers à la Carte opened up just over a year ago and, if it had any competition it would be beating them hands down. In fact, last year it went travelling to find restaurants to compete with, and won the Hello Curry competition run by Birmingham Airport. Its dishes beat Lasan and the Horseshoe in the competition and, as a result, it now ‘represents’ the region overseas. I popped along for a press dinner where we went through a mighty ten course tasting menu. I sat with Paul, the food critic from the Mail, Sanjeeta from Dine Birmingham and Arshia, who works at the BBC.
First up was a beetroot soup flavoured with smoked paprika, cumin, coriander and tomatoes. The soup had a stunning reddish purple colour and possessed a refreshing, healthy quality to it, combined with a stern, spicy kick. The beetroot was perhaps a little lost in the mix, overpowered by the tomatoes, but it was a pleasant palate cleanser nonetheless. Paneer cottage cheese followed, served with peppers and flavoured with ginger and roasted garlic. The peppers exploded in the mouth, cutting right through the earthy cheese, giving sweet and juicy mouthfuls. Paneers are popular and no Indian restaurant can afford to get them wrong, Five Rivers does some of the best I’ve had. Masala crab cakes were our third and final starter, and I was pleased the chef hadn’t over-powered the delicate flavour of crab with the curry leaves and black mustard seeds used to flavour them. They were soft and moist on the inside and crisp on the outer layer, just as they should be. They also received a big thumbs up from Paul, who “loves his crab cakes”.
So many restaurants overcook fish that it’s always worth noting one that doesn’t. Five Rivers serves a succulent monkfish, lightly flavoured with coconut and served with a garnish of okra and butternut squash. For me, this was the dish of the night and I recommend it to all. A murgh malai tikka served with a cheese marinade and saffron mousse was served next. In a sense, this is a dish which represents what Five Rivers does best, combining heat and spice with delicacy and finesse. A good dish, but now I was pining for more fish. Indian food Five Rivers also does what I can only describe as European or even modern British. So we were served some slices of venison with pear chutney, parsnips and a red wine jus. On a normal night, this would have been well received, as it was all well-made and well presented, but it seemed somewhat incongruent amidst the other dishes.
There were three desserts, but I am only going to mention one, as I am not a big fan of Indian desserts. The mango panna cotta was served in a glass, flavoured with vanilla and topped with pistachio praline. It was a pleasant dessert and Sanjeeta and Arshia thought it was great. There was also some masala tea, which again the ladies loved, although for me the best tea is always of the builder’s variety. All in all, Five Rivers provides a great meal in a pleasant venue. For me, it should work on the desserts, or just do English desserts, if it wants to gain higher status. But among the mains and starters, there’s some fine cooking to be savoured by the people of Walsall and beyond.