Yikouchi at Chancer’s Cafe, 1418 Pershore Road, Stirchley, Birmingham B30 2PH. No reservation. All dishes from £3.50 to £9. Beers and wines from £4 a glass
Yikouchi to Birmingham is a love letter. It’s a sweet tale of a young English couple’s interesting journey through life so far, served one raucous dish at a time. It’s a total joy. Yikouchi, roughly pronounced ee-koh-chuh, is the start of an idiomatic Chinese saying that means “One bite won’t make you fat.” No, one bite will not be enough. But who just wants a bite to eat when the food is so good?
It is owned by James Kirk-Gould and his partner Cassie who for six years lived in Beijing, where they taught English and explored local restaurants. Like the capital cities, these restaurants represented the diverse culinary traditions of the country’s many provinces. Here is the spicy food of Sichuan and Hunan, the dishes of Dongbei and Shanghai. They moved to Paris where Chinese food didn’t scratch their highly developed itch, so James started cooking it for himself. They moved to London where James discovered that his home cooking chops were good enough for him to turn professional. He started in the kitchen of Duck & Waffle, before becoming chef at the second Duck & Waffle near Piccadilly Circus.
But now they had their first child, a pregnancy that had encouraged Cassie to have such a deep sweet tooth that she started making fudge (stick with me, these things will eventually stick). In the West Midlands, they went in search of affordable housing. Cassie settles down Sweetmeat Inc, a fudge-making business located on the high street of Stirchley, just south of Birmingham city centre. James took chef jobs, but also cooked his Chinese food in pop-ups.
When the site of what had been a hair salon right next to the fudge business became available, they took it and turned it into Chancer’s Café, a tiny space with a few high tables and a simple kitchen open, providing just enough room for James and his 6-foot-4 frame. It’s two doors down from Eat Vietnam, a cafe with a large sign painted high on the outside wall that says, “Fish sauce isn’t for everyone.” What happens at Chancer’s Café may not be for everyone. But it’s definitely for me.
On the weekends, they serve a brunch menu of donuts and waffles, often with fudge sauce. Lots of fudge sauce. But from Wednesday to Friday noon and Friday evening it becomes Yikouchi. Somehow, using just two portable induction hobs for his woks, James is knocking out some exciting dishes paying homage to their time together in China. The menu is short, just over half a dozen choices, none of which cost more than £9. Credit where it counts: I’m here with Birmingham-based writer Simon Carlo, whose funny, well-written and far-reaching blog Meat and a vegetable pointed me to this brilliant gem of a place. As he sips a glass of £5.50 cava, I proceed to order everything on the menu and one thing that isn’t on the menu.
Mouthwatering chicken for £9 is a pearly, creamy whole skinless chicken breast, served at room temperature in a golden bath of chilli oil, puffed up with numbing peppercorns and dressed in coriander leaves and rings of olive oil. spring onion. It does what its name suggests. It’s a honking alarm clock. Just like the tiger salad, a bright heap of more cilantro, julienned cucumber and spring onions in a vinegar dressing. In between, we use our teeth to pull the beans out of the edamame pods served hot and salted.
There are two stir fries with rice. One is a large pile of bright, hand-torn green cabbage leaves, with pieces of sautéed red pepper; the other is pork slices, cooked with the assertive flare of Szechuan chili paste, black beans and lots of fresh green peppers. It’s not fancy food. It’s not precise. It’s bold and rough around the edges and all the more alluring for that.
On Friday nights, Carlo tells me, there are a few other dishes on offer, including their fried chicken. Since James is barely across the kitchen counter, I plead my case. Since I’ve come so far for lunch, could he drop some? He agrees to do it. What arrives is an extraordinary bowl filled with golden thigh pieces in a crystalline batter that shatters under your teeth, splattered with more salty, heavy chili oil.
There’s a lot of fried chicken going on right now. Marinating, battering and frying are now considered crowd pleasers by many cuisines, but not all fried chicken is created equal. Getting it right takes a lot of care and attention. It’s one of the best versions I’ve tried in a long time, and it’s only £9 a bowl. I try to hold a conversation while he sits next to us, but I’m not up to the task. I keep losing my thread, back to that piece there and that piece over there, until every rippling, crispy golden piece is gone and the bowl is empty. It’s true that one bite of this chicken does not make you fat. But you won’t stop at one.
For dessert, there is only their soft vanilla ice cream from the machine at the back of the kitchen. For 50p they’ll give you a serving of one of their many fudge sauces: the salty or the Irish Cream or the vanilla and so on. It’s a sweet end to a meal in many ways. My bill is modest so I add a bag of really good fudge from Cassie, who picked up a pair of Taste Awards Last year.
There is a story in which such a place is oddly found on a suburban shopping parade like the one in Stirchley. Indeed, as my train pulled into the nearby Bournville station, a local glanced at me, took a strong theatrical breath, and said, “You’re not going to try to review somewhere here, is not it?” like I was risking my life. And I thought I was supposed to be the sour-faced metropolitan snob. Of course, the stretch of Pershore Road that houses the Chancer’s Café isn’t exactly golden and shiny. It’s just a real place, serving the needs of real people. There’s a barber and a lawyer, a few pizza places, and, helpfully, a place that’ll let your pants hang out. Now there’s also Yikouchi who, for an hour or two, will take you somewhere else before dropping you off on the sidewalk. Enjoy the ride.
Popular chef Anthony Demetre of Wild Honey at St James’s in London is preparing a unique ‘Spring Social’ charity dinner on May 9 at The Crossing, a pub and dining room in Barnes, south-west London. The menu includes Wye Valley asparagus with chopped poached eggs and parsley vinaigrette, artichoke and vanilla scallops and slow-cooked roast lamb with peas, fava beans and lovage. Tickets cost £65 per person and the money raised will go to the Glass Door Homeless Shelter. To book call 0208 251 1244 (thecrossing-barnes.co.uk).
Isle of Wight chief Robert Thompson has announced his next adventure. He will become the chef-patron of North House, a 14-bedroom boutique hotel and restaurant in Cowes, which will open shortly. Thompson was awarded a Michelin star at the Hamborough on the island in 2006 when he was just 23, and in 2015 opened his first solo business Thompson’s. The restaurant will offer both an à la carte menu and a tasting menu (northhouseiow.com).
Disappointing news from Sheffield. Juke and Loe, which I really enjoyed when I saw it again on this page last January, is due to close after five years. Brothers Joseph and Luke Grayson said they were unsuccessful in securing a new lease agreement with their current landlord. They will close on May 28, but are looking for a new site (jukeandloe.com).
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1