After eight years as Glynn Purnell's sous chef, "adopted Brummie" Simon Szymanski has struck out on his own and opened his first restaurant, Nomis, in Shropshire's Bridgnorth. Tom Vaughan reports
Eight years as Glynn Purnell's sous chef will do a lot for you, it seems. It'll lend you a Brummie accent, it'll litter you with Purnell mannerisms and it'll teach you a lot about running a restaurant.
Those who remember Jessica's, the Birmingham restaurant that Purnell and his sous chef Simon Szymanski ran as a kitchen brigade of two, picking up the city's first Michelin star in the process, will recognise a lot in Szymanski's first solo venture, Nomis, in Bridgnorth, Shropshire.
"Glynn's methods and the way he runs a restaurant I've taken to mine: the way the front of house is run, the way the cutlery is laid out, the way we work in the kitchen," says Szymanski.
Just as with Jessica's in its early days, Nomis is very much a bare bones operation. Opened a year ago without any financial backers, the operation has to be a streamlined affair. As a result, it's just Szymanski and a sous chef in the kitchen and just the restaurant manager front of house.
Although much of the running of the restaurant is done the Purnell way, everything on the menu is Szymanski's. He has embraced the rural location of his new restaurant, and almost everything on his menu comes from within a 40-mile radius. His butcher is four miles away; a local smallholder provides him with seasonal vegetables; summer gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries arrive courtesy of a nearby farm; cider and cheeses are from traditional Shropshire suppliers; and even some of the wines are English, from nearby Halfpenny Vineyards.
A lot of the menu is dictated by what the two-man brigade is able to turn out. So a dish may consist of only three parts as opposed to five or so at his former employer's. A £600 water bath is a godsend, admits Szymanski - as there is only one stove in the kitchen, donated by Purnell after a kitchen refit at his restaurant. A smoked chicken terrine (£5), for example, sees the brigade smoke chicken breasts with applewood chips before cooking them in a water bath, making the terrine and serving it with fennel and tarragon and orange salad.
To save space on the stove, fish and meat are also started off in the water bath. Cornish hake is cooked at 58°C for 15-20 minutes with cardamom, then served with Shropshire broad beans and peas, slow-cooked tomato and tomato jelly (£13.50) (above).
A portioned lamb chop again gets the sous-vide treatment, cooked at 62°C for 30 minutes then crisped up on the stove, and is served with broad beans with mint and "crispy lamb" - sweetbreads cooked in lamb fat, which are then panéed with mint and deep-fried (£16.50). All the main courses arrive with side vegetables - at the moment courgettes, new potatoes and peas - mostly from his smallholder supplier.
Eight years running Purnell's pastry section has given Szymanski a good handle on desserts. So a dessert called "strawberries and cream" delivers a lot more than the classic version. The strawberries arrive in various guises: slow-cooked in the water bath at 75°C for two hours, the juices used to make jelly and the leftover pulp dehydrated, and both served in a glass with strawberry foam, macerated strawberries and English cream (£5). "It's about getting two, three or four components from one thing. It's simple, really, and it's not about overcomplicating the dish with flavours," says Szymanski.
A year in and the 40-seat restaurant is slowly building up custom. It's early days still, but a few accolades in time would do wonders for Nomis's reputation and repay the hard work his small team has put in getting it off the ground, says Szymanski. And, with his CV, you wouldn't bet against it. "Whoever says it's easy to open a restaurant can sling a hook. If it was easy, we'd all be doing it. People might say I'm crazy going out on my own, but you've got to try."
Nomis 65 St Marys Street, Bridgnorth, Shropshire WV16 4DR
Sample dishes from the menu
English pea soup, ham hock, parsley, £4.50 Cured sea trout, cucumber and radishes, £6 Cornish crab cocktail, brown bread, lemon mayonnaise, £6
Gressingham duck breast, gooseberry, carrot and vanilla, £16.50 Local pork fillet, apple turnips and runner beans, £14.50 Warm Brockhall Farm goats' cheese terrine, summer veg and tomato, £9
Dark chocolate mousse, cherry sorbet, compressed cherries, £5 Coffee and walnut cake, coffee ice-cream, £5 English raspberries, elderflower jelly, elderflower ice-cream, £5