Self-taught chef Niki Astley cooks from the heart with his beguiling spin on Baltic food. Richard McComb reports
Being named after a sporting icon can be a burden. And when your namesake happens to be Formula 1 legend Niki Lauda, there are expectations of blistering speed.
In truth, chef Niki Astley didn't burst from the culinary starting grid. An unremarkable school report ("I was a degenerate") was followed by front-of-house work in an Italian restaurant in Wolverhampton ("I got my ass kicked") and a failed spell as a writer. Astley completed two novels, which are unpublished and destined to remain so. "They are vile," he says.
But at the age of 33, Astley finally finds himself in the driver's seat. Two Cats Kitchen, his small restaurant in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, is being hailed a gem. The "creative project" started as a pop-up in April 2014 and a permanent home was found on Warstone Lane last July. Within months of opening, Two Cats received a glowing review from The Guardian's Marina O'Loughlin. At the time, Astley was plating in the dining room before helping with the washing up.
Niki Astley and Diana Fjodorova
Two Cats champions Astley's interpretation of ‘New Baltic' cuisine. He met his Latvian-Russian girlfriend, Diana Fjodorova, eight years ago when they were working at the Wolverhampton Italian restaurant together. They subsequently visited Latvia for holidays, particularly Riga, and Astley fell for his girlfriend and Latvian cooking. "The restaurant is a love letter to a person and a place," he says.
His mission is clear: to present a refined restyling of traditional Baltic/western- Russian food, preserving some flavours and reinterpreting others. Astley says: "It is interesting how certain cuisines are given so much value over others. Why did Peruvian burst in at the high end, whereas Mexican essentially got sidelined into a new-fangled kebab? I think all cuisines have equal value.
"I got quite a lot of flak from classically trained chefs who asked why I was messing with oddities. When I say New Baltic, I mean dishes that don't belong to the tradition, but play with a similar palette of flavours and ingredients, rearranging them in ways that wouldn't have been found on old-school dinner tables. It's sometimes a question of process, sometimes a question of technique."
A starter of goats' cheese pelmeni exemplifies his vision. Astley's pelmeni, or dumplings ("like a Russian ravioli") are less dense and eggy than the original. The traditional soupy stock and sour cream combo is replaced with a light, sweet broth of onions and seasonal oil, such as lovage or wild garlic, to clarify the taste.
A workaday Russian salad, typically potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise, vegetables and meat such as chicken or pork, also gets a modern makeover. Astley delivers a multi-textured, savoury indulgence of smoked duck, chicken liver pâté, raw beef, crunch from croutons and sharpness from pickles. A crown of oyster leaves provides saltiness and visual vibrancy.
Kentish lamb is cooked sous-vide in rosemary oil at 65°C for 45 minutes and served pink with sautéed vegetables. A garum and mushroom ketchup notches up the earthy umami notes and plays on Mediterranean anchovy and lamb pairings. "It's a meaty pay off. It's pretty classical," says Astley.
Quail egg, lumpfish roe, thyme, cep powder and chicken liver mousse
He adds: "People think we are being odd for the sake of being odd. I didn't do Two Cats to be odd. I don't think it is a good selling point to get a reputation for being pretentious."
No gadgets or pretentions are required for a dessert plucked from mother nature's larder: celeriac ice-cream and pears with birch biscuit and verbena.
Celeriac, truffles and nasturtium
Astley explains: "The birch biscuit is based around an old pastry technique. You turn the biscuit into a paste, chill it and then shave it. I thought it looked like wood chip, so the obvious step was trying to get it to taste like wood. Birch is the popular choice of smoke in Baltic foods and they also use the syrup a lot."
Astley, one of three chefs, politely declines to answer questions about his aspirations and insists his current motivation is "purely practical" to establish a stable business. "But it's nice to have the attention. It's quite trippy," he adds.
From the menu
Seven-course tasting menu: £42; matching wines: £29
- Beetroot and buttermilk 'gazpacho' - dill, parsley, hard-boiled egg and spring onion
- Tartare Olivier - smoked duck, chicken liver pÁ¢té, raw beef, croutons, pickles
- Goats' cheese pelmeni, wild garlic oil and sweet onion broth
- Sturgeon, fennel seed and almond crumb, watercress and ukha
- Poached lamb, 'many vegetable' salad, garum and mushroom ketchup
- Birch biscuit, celeriac ice-cream, pears and verbena
Beetroot and buttermilk ‘gazpacho'
Two Cats Kitchen
27 Warstone Lane, Birmingham B18 6JQ
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