Harvey Nichols, The Mailbox, Birmingham City Centre
Brunch in Harvey Nichols has always been quite far down the list. The connotations of a generic and soulless cafe dumped in a hidden corner of every large department store, but frequented by no one who knows the way to a nicer venue, persisted in my mind. So to did the thought that like much of the merchandise in Harvey Nichols, it would be a hideously overpriced, status-driven endeavour, with no place for those not in the market for purchasing a £300 grey hoodie as an after-brunch treat.
Imagine my excitement then, to discover that not only is the food is the Harvey Nics restaurant absolutely delicious, but the decor is gorgeous, the staff welcoming, and the temptation to segue straight from brunch into lunch was almost irresistible. And the toilets are far and away the best in any venue in Birmingham.
There are two entrances to the restaurant. We came down the stunning wooden spiral staircase, so that you descend like a 1930s film star in an MGM musical into the gold mirrored art-deco space below. At 11am on a Saturday, the restaurant was humming with activity, but by no means full. Ladies who lunch, a number of well-do-to looking older couples, and four young women who arrived for afternoon tea filled up the space.
The menu is simple, and almost entirely devoid of any gushing adjectives and details: maybe too much so, as without asking the waitress, I was in the dark about the ingredients of an ‘omelette Arnold Bennett’. It turned out to be haddock, cheese and chive, and I duly ordered it. Research later showed up my ignorance of fine dining, as the Arnold Bennett is a popular-enough dish Delia Smith does a version. Apparently, it was invented for the writer by the chefs at the Savoy and has spread from there. Only a few options on the menu, but they are varied from omelette, to corn beef hash, porridge, pancakes, and a full English. The table service was sometimes slow, but if you are in the mood for a long lazy chat over breakfast, the surroundings are so pleasant this almost seems part of the experience.
Tea and cola came, both in superior crockery, as you would expect given the venue. Even the glasses are on message with the art-deco styling, and the tea pot poured brilliantly smoothly. Branded Harvey Nichols dark chocolate squares came on the side of the hot drinks; the dark chocolate was divine.
The first dish to arrive was the corn beef hash with duck egg, which I was pleased to see that in line with the Black Books theory of fine dining was served in a tower. It received a rave review, as did the ‘Ulster’ full English, with potato bread had been substituted for toast. White pudding rounded out all the other high-quality full English ingredients, which were notable for the non-greasy finish.The Arnold Bennett was delightfully light and fluffy, yet completely filling. It seems too jolly a dish to associate with such a glum writer.
I have never in my life visited toilets that announce themselves with a blast of perfumed air, but that is what happened in Harvey Nichols. Inside, the intensity of a gold-on-gold-on-mirrors theme is relieved by the art-deco design, with clean shapes to mitigate the bling. Dyson driers and automatic flushing adds a technological ‘no touching necessary’ edge.
When you finish eating, there is always the option of browsing the mini food market next to the restaurant, where you might find a lovely gift or delicious treat. I was sorely tempted by an egg box full of 6 caramel eggs all in different colours and flavours for Easter.
Price: high end, £8 for an omelette, £9 for the Ulster fry, £8 for corn beef hash, £3 most soft drinks and tea
Atmosphere and design: art deco design, gold and mirrors, reminiscent of the set of a 1930s film, slightly updated for the present day.
Food: a sparing list of choices, but each one immaculately made and presented
Toilets: simply lovely, perfumed, clean, bright, with Dyson driers and automatic flushes
Enjoyment: An unexpectedly lovely place to head for brunch, or any other meal. Great to hang out and chat, a quiet atmosphere, but welcoming and relaxing.