Month: November 2014

Rico Libre, Birmingham


It was through idle conversation that I found out that Rico Libre sits on the site that once was Barn St Diner. Now I’m sure that some greasy spoon on the back streets on Digbeth has little relevance to most, but it does to me. I was born from that cafe. Well, kind of. My teenage mother worked in there as a waitress when she met her future husband, who had happened to pop in for some breakfast. Some bizarre courtship started that involved my dad going there frequently to see mom, who occasionally put Smarties in to his sausage and egg sandwich, just to let him know that she cared. Amazingly from this sprung the bastard offspring of my younger brother and I, as well as a 30 year marriage year that is still going strong. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye and I haven’t even got to the food yet.

Inside the vivid green frontage of Rico Libre still lies the skeleton of a greasy spoon. The square building has a dining area which takes over half of the space, with simple cotton sheet splayed tables, the menu on a chalk board and a painting of a bull on the walls that not only echo’s the Spanish food served here, but also Birmingham’s only Bullring which is just up the road. There is a large kitchen space, once where my mother ruined many a breakfast, and a passageway to the toilet where my father did not play the dusty old piano. You get the feeling they are going to need this area for more tables very soon.


What they still share with a greasy spoon is the desire to feed people well and at a reasonable price. They concentrate on the staples of Spain, the sort of food you find if you veered away from Sticky Vicky and into the side streets. Grilled halloumi had a bitter twang from a rustic salsa of tomato and basil, whereas more of the salsa came with grilled aubergine. The aubergine, properly salted to retain some bite, was given life by a red mojo sauce full of garlic and chilli heat. It’s difficult to find a good mojo sauce outside of its home in the Canary Isles. This one is worth a journey all on its own.


Plump king prawns came drenched in a spicy oil with more garlic and chilli, whereas chicken “Marbella” nearly never got ordered on the chance it would be served by the cast of TOWIE. Thankfully the thighs were fantastic things, all moist in a sauce of reduced white wine, littered with peppers and chorizo. Another chicken dish paid homage to the north African influence in Spanish cuisine with more of the thighs in a intense sauce of cinnamon, cumin, and, I think, preserved lemon. The dish given richness by the pellets of soft boiled quails eggs. We further pile the plates high with garlic heavy mushrooms and crisped up fried potatoes in a sauce galvanized by lots of hot and spicy paprika.


Dessert options are limited, but with three tapas dishes for twelve quid, most will be too full to make it to this stage. As greedy as I am, I worked my way through a huge portion of rum and pineapple granita which was in essence a frozen Pina Colada. There was also a light passion fruit mousse in a chocolate cup – both are refreshing ways to finish, given the punchy flavours on every dish previously served. There is nothing delicate or refined about the cooking here; its bold and in your face, exactly how good Spanish food should be. Everything served has the sole purpose of tasting good, which should the goal of every restaurant, regardless of the cuisine. Mom and Dad found happiness in this little old building on Barn Street, now thanks to Rico Libre they wont be the only ones.



Rico Libre on Urbanspoon

Cielo, Birmingham

I spent my early twenties working above Cielo Restaurant. It was in the days when I sold my soul for a tiny stake in a Scottish bank that is now funded from the tax I pay. Oh The Irony. Cielo was the place the bank would take us to reward our deception. Mis-sold PPI? Great, have a lasagne on us before joining the queue for the gates of hell. I gladly enjoyed several lasagne here, which tells you all you need to know about my moral compass. I needed to – those pin stripe suits wasn’t going to pay for themselves.

A decade on and little had changed there, perhaps for the cliental. Gone, one would hope, is the culture of expenses that once dominated the Brindley Place area that Cielo sits in and in its place a new breed of customer, one focused on eating well in the pretty square adjacent to the bustle of Broad Street. Certainly little had changed to the decor; it’s the same smart thorn and beige composition built around a waterfall feature central to the back wall. Little too had changed about the menu, which is still a cluster of Italian dishes with the occasional nod to the rest of the Mediterranean.

I’m going to leave yesteryear alone now and concentrate on the Cielo of today. The food was consistent, if a little uninspiring at times. A duck starter had good confit duck at its core – the meat moist with properly crisped up skin. Sadly, that was all that was good about it. Alongside this was a bon bon that should have buttery from the ducks liver but was instead an underseasoned mush of more duck meat. The reduction of orange liqueur would have been great with a dessert. Not so much here. The idea was right, but the dish needed more fat and more sharpness to give it proper contrast.


A starter of tiger prawn sat prettily in a bowl with a vivid garlic and chilli sauce. The same sauce appeared on a main course of monkfish tail with dauphinoise potatoes. Now I cant bemoan either dish, which were accurately cooked and nicely presented, but it did seem a little lazy. Maybe the sauce was the perfect foil for both dishes? I mean, what do I know? Maybe the same could be said about the calves liver and steak dishes that had identical thick red wine sauces, so glossy you could almost catch your reflection in them. Maybe I’m just being picky, but if I spent £12 on a prawn starter and £21 on the monkfish main I’d fully expect to see a different sauce on the dish.

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A large bowl of penne came with chorizo and a pomodoro sauce laden with heavy garlic and chilli flavour. The pasta, still retaining some bite, sat nicely in the background whilst its Mediterranean compatriots took over. It was a good, hearty bowl of food, which for £16 for a bowl of dried pasta and a sauce you knock up with one saucepan and an hour to kill, it bloody well should be.


Maybe I’ve been a bit harsh on Cielo. It cooks food of a solid standard in a nice environment. Portions were large to the extent that no-one had room for dessert. It just doesn’t come cheap. With a decent bottle of wine and service, two courses apiece here comes in at around a ton and for that amount I shouldn’t be whining about the a starter being unbalanced, or the same sauce showing up on different plates. I used to really enjoy coming here on someone else’s wallet, now its my own the pleasure just isn’t the same


Cielo on Urbanspoon

The Hand and Flowers, Marlow

Two years ago The Hand and Flowers was cast into the national spotlight when a French tyre maker decided to endow it with the pressure of being the only two star pub in the world. I remember trawling across the internet reading up on it and coming across an article in The Daily Mail with a typically bashful comments section: “It’s not a pub, it’s a restaurant with a bar” some UKIP follower shouted, whilst a lady with a particular affliction to Princess Diana said something about them probably not selling pork scratching, which of course is the litmus test for any public house. It seemed tragic that the majority was more interested in the argument of whether or not it was a pub, rather than embrace the accolade that goes with cooking that is deemed worthy of “a detour”


Two years on and the two stars is still going strong. The chef here, Tom Kerridge, is everywhere; you can’t flick on BBC without seeing his ever decreasing frame and wonderful range of checked shirts. He has become the nations favourite chef through cooking gutsy, flavoursome food that you know will taste good. All very well, but I’ve eaten in enough of these places to know that gutsy doesn’t translate well in the world of Michelin. How wrong I was.


There is still finesse here, though it has to find its own place in amongst the big tastes, which is what Kerridge and his team do with ease. A starter of truffle demi en-croute may look sophisticated and sound posh, though really is all about the bold flavours. The whole truffle wrapped in sausage meat, itself encased in a hot water pastry that enhanced the meatiness of the pork. The jug of port sauce that came with it was a stunning thing, all glossy and deep, that highlighted at the core of Kerridge’s cooking is classic French cuisine. It wasn’t the easiest thing to eat elegantly, but Oh My, it was divine.


It was BBC2’s Great British Menu that cast Tom into the public eye, so 2011’s winning main course of slow cooked duck was an easy choice. The breast, as tender as it was, was overshadowed the other elements of the animal; a shard of crispy skin, a smear of liver parfait and a sausage with a tang of offal. Served alongside this was another stunning sauce, savoy cabbage with confit duck and the best chips I have ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a fitting tribute to a animal that had died with the sole purpose of being eaten, with every part of bird used to its full effect. Another poultry main saw half a chicken served alongside autumnal squash glazed with maple and malt. The chicken moist from the brining process, had a subtle beer flavour at its core and extra earthiness from a dusting of truffle at the table. The Hand and Flowers do protein well, but then again, maybe it was expected. The chef does look like a man that enjoys a good slab of meat.



The vegetarian main wasn’t listed on the menu, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be a bit of an oversight here. Wrong again. It was tart, with a pastry akin to filo containing flecks of onion. Sitting prettily on top of this were various veg, all cooked accurately. A serious amount of work went into assuring The Veggie was pleased, if a little overly full.


Desserts were truly top class. A perfectly risen blueberry souffle was given balance by an ice cream that tasted exactly as the childhood favourite, parma violets. I tried them both with a drizzle from the small jug of lemon verbena it came with and decided the dish didn’t need it. An apple tart had a bramley sorbet so good that we asked for the recipe and a chocolate and ale cake left us all speechless. It was of perfect balance – just sweet enough with a lingering savoury note from the ale. The salted caramel pool it was sat in and the muscovado ice cream it cradled adding moisture and further contrast.


Apple Tart

Choc and ale

I could go on and on about the well priced wine list and the charming service, but I’ll save you the time. All that you need to know is that The Hand and Flowers is an establishment of exceptional quality. The nayslayers who say that it doesn’t have the cooking precision or the service of other two starred restaurants should really consider their argument. You cant compare here to The Square any more than you could compare Sat Bains to Helen Darroze or L’Enclume to La Gavroche. What they all have in common (okay, maybe not Darroze) is food that makes you sit up and take notice, and the food here certainly does that. I left thinking it was as a nine out of ten meal, though having brewed over it for a few days, I realise it was the most I’ve enjoyed myself since I sat down to twenty-odd courses in Cumbria a couple of years ago. It’s proper food, just how the chef intends it.


Hand & Flowers on Urbanspoon

The Highfield, Edgbaston


Upon entering The Highfield I was greeted four times, which is four more times than I am usually greeted going about my everyday life. I have lived with a women long enough to take false sentiments wherever I can get them, and although it’s nice to imagine each of these polite and smartly turned-out folk actually care for my well being, it’s more than likely this has been ingrained into their psyche. It is this absurdly polished service that typifies The Highfield. It offered immediate reassurance that food was going to be good before I looked at the menu. I knew that I could trust them. Not with my life, mind, but to cook a piece of meat correctly. And last Sunday that was good enough for me.

It takes time to be become this polished, time that The Highfield hasn’t had. It’s a new pub in a new development in Edgbaston that will in time see the cities wealth gravitate towards it. The owners are seasoned professionals when it comes to this type of client, as they already have similar set ups dotted around in nice places just outside of Birmingham. The building is faux Georgian, befitting its neighbours, with the interiors channelling the pizazz of the 1920’s. It’s all monochrome and glass chandlers. Calling it a nice place to visit would be doing it a injustice.

The menu is an appealing mix of pub staples and the more adventurous. A salad starter saw some lovely Serrano ham paired with creamy goats curd and slightly under ripe figs. Unfortunately it was all a bit sweet, even more so with the addition of truffle honey. Still, it was a worthy attempt at offering a cut above the norm. The following slab of gammon was a mighty success. The meat still slightly pink and with the depth of flavour only obtained from a lengthy cure. The poached egg provided richness and the chips were proper things; crispy on the outside and fluffy in the centre. It’s pub grub on steroids.

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The weekend roasts are a further example of how well they understand customers here. The plate contains the main element, a measly two roast potatoes, a Yorkshire pudding and a small jug of gravy. Alongside of this is large bowl of accurately cooked greens. Throughout the meal they visit the table to offer additional spuds and puddings for free, like a U2 album, only wanted. The roast this time being a hefty slice of a vegetarian Wellington, the filling of squash and blue cheese, with the pastry avoiding any sogginess. It was all very good, the spuds in particular excellent specimens.

Roast greens

In comparison to the mains, desserts were a bit of let down. A hazelnut parfait lacked flavour and any real texture, whilst a chocolate tart, as tasty as it was, was dense and more of a brownie than anything else. Yet, despite the dip at the end, we left full and satisfied. The Highfield isn’t going to rewrite any books, nor are people going to travel far and wide for its food.  What it will do is slot into the area nicely and feed its patrons well, which is I assume is its intent. It brings a little more glamour and class to an area that already has it in abundance. The food is good and the service slick. What’s not to like about that?


035Chocolate tart

Highfield on Urbanspoon