It’s 2019, which is remarkable for being the highest number so far in my existence. It’s the ‘new year, new me’ time of prosperity, when we replace a deflated bank balance with false hopes and self-deceit, only to be broken when Julie from accounts offers out the dregs of her Quality Street. I don’t ‘do’ resolutions in the same way I don’t ‘do’ Broad Street’s Revolution, and for more reason than just idle illiteration. Both involve lying to myself that it will be worth it and involve me wasting money I don’t care for. Both make me feel a little bit dirty.
For this blog I can’t see much in the way of change the forthcoming year. It will continue as it has been for the last seven months: free from the mass blog-by-number press dinners, PR invites to coffee shops and salad bars. I will restrain from introducing myself to business owners as ‘the prick who writes Two Bollocks and a Meat’ in the hope of blagging a free burger, and I absolutely promise that this blog will remain ferociously against the culture of emailing begging letters. It’s not and has never been a collaboration. It’s a scam to get free dinner.
We ended the final days of last year with a trip to Ocho, a kind of pop-up that looks like sticking around. The inside is quaint and comforting, with tasteful art and low beams. The menu is tapas in notion, if not in authenticity, from a chef whose CV includes a stint at Purnell’s. In many ways it reminds me of Rico Libre when they first started, when the ties to Spain were more obvious, before the chef was let loose on a more global cuisine. Dishes are between £3.50 and £8. Everything we eat feels like value, and we eat a lot.
The chef clearly has talent and, moreover, tastebuds. Every plate is boldly seasoned with not a grain of salt or twist of pepper required. Lean and spicy merguez sausages are made onsite, simply grilled and garnished with a dice of mango and pink peppercorns that add bite, further heat, and a little sweetness. A square of pork belly is a late replacement for the cut of cheek that hasn’t arrived on the day’s delivery. The fat is rendered down, the skin delicately crisp: it takes skill to cook this part of the animal so well. The sticky beer reduction may not the be a Spaniards traditional choice of sauce but it adds a nice level of umami that we enthusiastically mop up with foccacia made here that morning. Another bowl of pork meatballs is heavy on the black pepper in a good way. The arrabbiata sauce less so; it is thin and lacking both depth and heat.
In a plot twist that neither of us saw coming the meatless dishes were the best things we ate, even forgiving that arrabbiata sauce making another appearance on the-not-quite-there-yet patatas bravas. Top billing goes to a vegetable stew that is hearty and deep in flavour which cleans the soul from the inside-out, and roast wedges of butternut squash with quinoa (it’s pronounced kin-noah) and goats cheese, that straddles the line of sweet and savoury brilliantly. Even the faux pasta dish of courgette ribbons with a refined take on red pesto works because they understand that the veg still needs to be toothsome. Desserts are a baked cheesecake that I find too sweet and a chocolate mousse with raspberry that leaves me swiping out the last with my finger. Finish off with the mousse; it’s a winner.
With the uncertainty of the next six months I don’t blame anyone for testing the market with a pop-up, but I hope that Ocho makes this a permanent fixture. With a few minor tweaks (better wines by the glass for a starter), this could be a lovely addition to an already thriving Jewellery Quarter. You could start 2019 far worse than by paying Ocho a visit to show them we want them to stay.
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