I have a friend called Phil. He’s a good bloke. Imagine Kevin Bacon drunkenly doing The Robot in Footloose and that’s him. He’s knowledgeable on football, beer and who killed Lucy Beale. Y’know, all the important things that men respect other men for. He’s laid back to the point that you could use him as a ruler. Phil doesn’t care much for arguing the small things in life, he’s a listener, not a talker. You’re not likely to hear Phil sing the praises of many things. Its just not his style. Except Byzantium. He bloody loves Byzantium, especially the pork belly. I have become accustomed to those who know I do this blog telling me where to eat. All of them I ignore, except Phil, for him giving a recommendation to anything is akin to receiving prayer instructions from the Pope. So Byzantium it was.
I choose not to tell Phil I’m going. I figure he could reel off all the best dishes and I am unsure he would survive the excitement of it all. I know I will eat the pork belly, for if not I fear that our friendship will be on the line, but the rest I will leave to learn from my own mistakes. I flick through a menu whose shear size puts fear in my heart. One page for the menu, another for the specials. There are more specials written in white on the mirror. Lots of options generally result in inconsistent standards. The charismatic American lady dressed in black talks us through it and puts me at ease. Her personality owns the room and all of its ten or so tables, its bleached walls and North African low lighting.
We start with flat bread more supple than a yoga teacher. Its size takes over the table, forcing the wine glasses to the edge of the table, though it quickly disappears. We have it with hummus that smacks of lemon and tahini. Its the second best hummus in Birmingham. It just so happens that the best can be found a mile down the road at Damascana.
A chicken and apricot tagine arrives, its size more appropriate to a main course rather than the tapas dish it claims to be. The chicken is moist though the apricot flavour is muted, with a sauce that works its way on to the couscous below. The best tagines have oomph; this one is too polite to sit in their company. A dish appears with potato where we work our way to the home-made sausage of lamb breast underneath. The meat is pink with the spicy topping making us sit up and take notice. Its accomplished cooking with big flavours balanced carefully.
Pork belly up next. I am expecting it to alter my world in the same way getting off with a girl did when I was thirteen. It disappoints. The meat has been shown too much heat too quickly and has firmed up. The crackling borders on burnt. It is generous in size and flavour but it is not enough. Skewers with halloumi and veg are far better, the onion nicely caramelised and offering good contrast to the salty cheese. I like the tzatziki it comes with more with the lamb dish.
A magazine article written by some one who lives locally recently listed Byzantium as one of the cities best. On this visit I would say that is far-fetched. Its broad stroke across the world of tapas and mezze means they have lots of flavours to play with, with some handled better than others. My good friend Phil thinks Byzantium is great, whereas I thought it should be classified under “good”. Maybe I caught them on a bad day. Yes, maybe that its it. Believe Phil and try it for yourself, I mean, what do I know?