I’d like to think that places like Gusto are a sign of just how far Birmingham has progressed over recent years. I don’t think it would have fitted in five years ago when the city was still finding it’s culinary feet, or even two years back when areas such as Edgbaston and Moseley were making massive indentations into antediluvian stereotype. Now, less than six months after its opening, it feels like a staple of Colmore Row – rewarded by a full dining room whose attitude towards dining out is more open. It sits underneath the Grand Hotel, right in the heart of the financial district. Inside you’ll find one of the prettier dining rooms in the city, one that nods towards the 1920’s without ever compromising the simplicity of modern interior design. Glance around and you’ll see slithers of stained glass and splashes of marble, with circular wooden tables that suit tables of four far better than just us two. It evokes the dining rooms of New York’s Nolita district, a style that matches a menu full of the bastardisation cuisine that is American-Italian.
Now, you may, or may not, be aware that Gusto is a chain. Whether that bothers you or not depends on how much time you like to spend shouting at birds in the street. Me, I couldn’t care less, it obviously works or else they wouldn’t have sloped down from the north to Birmingham. The first thing I ate happened to be very good indeed. Torn shreds of braised pork, with gnocchi and cherry bell pepper, all dressed in light rocket pesto. The gnocchi is light and lends itself well to the rest of the plate. There is heat from the peppers and plenty of robust seasoning. It quickly disappears.
Duck comes medium-rare as requested, on a warm salad of pulses and roasted winter veg. It’s succeeds in being lighter than it looks, simultaneously fresh and earthy, though we welcome additional carbs in the form of fries dusted with parmesan and truffle. Lamb Cacciatore is a traditional Italian Easter dish of slow cooked ovine, here presented as a gutsy stew rich with tomato and red wine. Like everything else we try, it’s considered and well cooked, the working muscles of the lamb cooked until they offer no resistance to fork nor teeth, with a dollop of pesto to cut through some of the richness. Portions are on the American side of large and we find no room for dessert, despite a mischievous sounding Nutella calzone. I’ll be back for that, don’t you worry. The bill, with a nice bottle of Barbera, comes to a very fair £63.00 for the two of us.
I go back a few days later whilst waiting for a phone screen to be fixed in the Apple store. There I have a pizza with cured meat and chillies that sits amongst some of the better pizza to be had in the city centre. The base is thin and crisp, the toppings generous and of a high quality. It makes for an ideal dinner for one with another glass of red wine too cheap for its quality.
Pasta, pizza and so forth; without ever mentioning the word Italian, Gusto have served up some of the better examples to have in Birmingham. Yes, I know it’s not authentic; it’s immigrant food galvanized on the East coast of America, but it happens to be a damn sight better than the generic paint-by-numbers tosh we have come to accept as a given by more established Italian restaurants. It is a welcome addition to the city; stylish, affordable and with a clear identity. If only every group had the same high standards as Gusto, I would welcome them all with open arms.