Yikouchi at Chancer’s Café, 1418 Pershore Road, Stirchley, Birmingham B30 2PH. No booking. All dishes £3.50-£9. Beers and wines from £4 a glass
Yikouchi in Birmingham is a love letter. It is a sweet account of a young English couple’s interesting journey through life so far, served up one clamorous dish at a time. It’s an utter joy. Yikouchi, roughly pronounced ee-koh-chuh, is the beginning of an idiomatic Chinese saying that means “One mouthful won’t make you fat.” No, one mouthful won’t. But who wants just one mouthful when the food is this good?
It belongs to James Kirk-Gould and his partner Cassie who, for six years, lived in Beijing, where they taught English and explored the local restaurants. In the way of capital cities, those restaurants represented the diverse cooking traditions of the country’s many provinces. Here was the chilli-spiked food of Sichuan and Hunan, the dishes of Dongbei and Shanghai. They moved on to Paris where the Chinese food did not scratch their highly developed itch, so James started cooking it for himself. They moved to London where James discovered that his amateur cookery chops were good enough to enable him to turn professional. He started in the kitchen at Duck & Waffle, eventually becoming head chef of the second Duck & Waffle near Piccadilly Circus.
‘Beguiling’: stir-fried pork. Photograph: Jonathan Cherry/The Observer
But now they had their first child, a pregnancy which had encouraged in Cassie such a profoundly sweet tooth she started making fudge (stay with me; these things will all tie up eventually). Off to the West Midlands they went in search of affordable housing. Cassie set up Sweetmeat Inc, a fudge-making business on the high street in Stirchley just to the south of Birmingham city centre. James took cheffing jobs, but also cooked his Chinese food at pop-ups.
When the site of what had been a hairdresser’s right next door to the fudge business became available, they took it on and turned it into Chancer’s Café, a tiny space with a few high-top tables and a simple open kitchen, boasting just enough room for James and his 6ft 4in frame. It is two doors down from Eat Vietnam, a café with a big sign painted high on the outside wall that reads: “Fish Sauce Is Not For Everyone.” What goes on in Chancer’s Café may equally not be for everyone. But it is certainly for me.
‘A bright pile of coriander, julienned cucumber and spring onions’: tiger salad. Photograph: Jonathan Cherry/The Observer
At the weekends they serve a brunch menu of beignet and waffles, often with fudge sauce. An awful lot of fudge sauce. But from Wednesday to Friday lunchtimes and on Friday evenings it becomes Yikouchi. Somehow, using only two portable induction hobs for his woks, James knocks out thrilling dishes paying homage to their time together in China. The menu is short, at barely more than half a dozen choices, none of which cost more than £9. Credit where it is due: I am here with the Birmingham-based writer Simon Carlo, whose funny, well-written, wide-ranging blog Meat & One Veg tipped me off to this brilliant cut-gem of a place. While he sips a £5.50 glass of cava, I set about ordering everything on the menu and one thing that isn’t on the menu.
Mouth-watering chicken for £9 is a whole skinless chicken breast, pearlescent and creamy, served at room temperature in a golden bath of chilli oil, bobbing with numbing peppercorns and dressed with fronds of coriander and rings of spring onion. It does what the name suggests. It’s a honking wake-up. As is the tiger salad, a bright pile of more coriander, julienned cucumber and spring onions in a vinegary dressing. In between, we use our teeth to strip the beans from edamame pods served warm and salty.
‘You won’t stop at one’: fried chicken. Photograph: Jonathan Cherry/The Observer
There are two stir-fries with rice. One is a big pile of shiny, hand-torn green cabbage leaves, with chunks of sautéed red chilli; the other is slices of pork, cooked up with the thrusting, assertive rush of Sichuan chilli paste, black beans and lots of fresh green peppers. This isn’t elegant food. It isn’t precise. It’s bold and rough around the edges and all the more beguiling for that.
On Friday evenings, Carlo tells me, there are a couple more dishes on offer, including their fried chicken. As James is only just over the kitchen counter from me, I plead my case. As I’ve come so far for lunch, could he possibly knock some up? He agrees to do so. What arrives is an extraordinary bowl full of golden chunks of thigh in a crystalline batter that shatters beneath the teeth, splashed with more of the hefty, salty chilli oil.
‘Pearlescent and creamy’: mouth-watering chicken. Photograph: Jonathan Cherry/The Observer
There’s lots of fried chicken about at the moment. Marinating, battering and deep-frying bird is now regarded by many kitchens as the crowd-pleaser of choice, but not all fried chicken is equal. Getting it right takes due care and attention. This is 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 it sits next to us, but I am unequal to the task. I keep losing my thread, drawn back to that piece there and that piece over there, until every golden undulating, crispy chunk has gone and the bowl is empty. It’s true that one mouthful of this chicken won’t make you fat. But you won’t stop at one.
For dessert there is only their soft-serve 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 salted or the Irish Cream or the vanilla and so on. It’s a sweet end to the meal in so many ways. My bill is modest so I add to it a bag of Cassie’s very good fudge, which picked up a brace of Great Taste Awards last year.
‘A sweet end’: soft serve. Photograph: Jonathan Cherry/The Observer
There’s one narrative in which such a place sits oddly on a suburban shopping parade like that in Stirchley. Indeed, as my train pulled into nearby Bournville station, a local took one look at me, did a theatrical sharp intake of breath and said, “You’re not going to try and review somewhere here are you?” as if I was risking my life. And I thought I was meant to be the sour-faced metropolitan snob. Sure, the stretch of Pershore Road hosting Chancer’s Café is not exactly gilded and shiny. It’s just a real place, serving real people’s needs. There’s a barber’s and a solicitor’s, a couple of pizza parlours and, helpfully, somewhere that will let your trousers out. Now there’s also Yikouchi which, for an hour or so, will take you on a journey to somewhere else before depositing you back on the pavement. Enjoy the ride.
The highly regarded chef Anthony Demetre of Wild Honey in London’s St James’s, is cooking a one off “spring social” charity dinner on 9 May at the Crossing, a pub and dining room in Barnes, southwest London. The menu includes Wye Valley asparagus with chopped poached egg and parsley vinaigrette, scallops with artichoke and vanilla and roast and slow cooked lamb with peas, broad beans and lovage. Tickets cost £65 per person and money raised will go to the Glass Door Homeless Shelter. To book call 0208 251 1244 (thecrossing-barnes.co.uk).
Isle of Wight chef Robert Thompson has announced his next venture. He is to become the chef-patron of North House, a 14-bedroom boutique hotel and restaurant in Cowes, which is opening 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 venture Thompson’s. The restaurant will serve both an à la carte and tasting menu (northhouseiow.com).
Disappointing news from Sheffield. Juke and Loe, which I enjoyed very much when I reviewed it on this page only back in January, is to close after five years. Brothers Joseph and Luke Grayson, have said they have failed to reach a new lease agreement with their current landlord. They will close on 28 May, but are looking for a new site (jukeandloe.com).
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1