Gusto, Birmingham

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.




Fifteen Cornwall, Watergate Bay

I have a real soft spot for North Cornwall.  It’s rugged and handsome.  Where the south of the county is a refined collection of postcard perfect towns and villages which require sunshine, the north is a thing of beauty all year round.  I prefer it in winter, all windswept and daring, when the sea is vivacious and the sun occasionally beats through the clouds and transcends the vast beaches from a dull yellow to golden.  It’s less busy.  I can walk on the beach without crowds.  I can get a table at the places I want to eat at more easily.  Both of these things are important to me.

One of the places I have been keen to eat at is Fifteen Cornwall, a social enterprise from Jamie Olivier.  It’s easy to bash Olivier, others do frequently and I have in the past, yet the fact remains that his cooking has inspired a generation of home cooks, myself included once again.  I own several of his cookbooks; his onion gravy recipe is now mine.  And the restaurant serves to help those less advantage.  If it sounds like I am trying to justify eating at one of his restaurants, it’s because I did.  The reality is that we could have had lunch at Paul Ainsworth’s No. 6 restaurant for less, yet here we are, putting our empty stomachs in the hands of apprentices.


Those apprentices and this program are doing great.  At it’s best Fifteen Cornwall stands up with some of the finer Italian cooking found anywhere on this Isle.  Antipasto lives and dies and the quality of the produce and obvious care has been taken in this department.  High quality ‘Nduja thickly spread on toast is all fire and spice, arancini is an earthy mixture of al dente rice and spongey mushroom.  We go a little bit crazy over the soft Cotechino sausage with salsa verde, less so over the metallic strips of charred pepper which end up an accessory to the other dishes.  A bread basket has good sourdough and an outstanding focaccia which tastes like aerated olive oil.

Cream laden burrata is the centre point for scoops of roasted squash that are just about holding their shape.  There is a comfort about the plate, underpinned by warming leafs of crispy sage.  It’s simplistic, maybe overly so, but then the best things in life are.


Buccatini are fat ramen-noodle-like tangles of pasta, coated in a fiery tomato sauce.  The sauce was deep and rich, with plenty of chilli heat and something more sinister lurking behind (vodka, I think?! I’ve been wrong before).  Densely packed beef meatballs complete the generous portion, though these are too heavy to finish.  Compared to this a dish of pork belly is refined, the skin finely scored to fine strips of taught crackling.  The meat is unctuous and tender, the braised lentils underneath just cooked.  My scepticism towards a vivid green anchovy and herb dressing is short lived; it is clean, vibrant, and salty – the perfect foil for the fatty cut of pig.



Desserts give us less to get excited over.  A pear cake has lost the essence of the fruit in amongst the heady spices, and ricotta donuts are a little stodgy in texture.  Both have redeeming features;  the cake’s toffee sauce and the donuts chocolate dipping pot are decadent to the point of being plain naughty.  The high point is a brick of tiramisu, doused in amaretto and restrained in sweetness.  It is a grown up dessert, elegant and well balanced.

Unfortunately, if the kitchen came out with there guns blazing, front of house must have ran out of bullets.  Service was poor, bordering on abysmal at times.  We were abandoned by one server, another eventually taking over and completely forgetting to bring the wine which I specifically ordered for the pork.  I can forgive most things but please, I beg you, do not come between me and fermented grapes.  Other than that, it was bloody lovely.  Like, seriously bloody lovely.  Proper Italian, cooked with care and attention.  We need one in Birmingham, where the Italian food is generic crap and I struggle to find a carbonara that doesn’t have cream in it.  Plus we have plenty of less advantaged youngsters who would kill (not literally.  Bad choice of word.) for this type of training.  Come to Birmingham and I promise to eat there once a month.  I’ll even forgive the forgotten glass of wine. C’mon, Jamie, I can’t say fairer than that.


Fifteen Cornwall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Divinis, Prague

Right now we’re in the midst of a whatsapp conversation that centrals around finding an Italian restaurant for someone’s birthday. Menus are being batted about over instant messaging, price ranges are being discussed.  All the usual suspects in Birmingham are there and all of them will undoubtedly disappoint, with their identikit dishes, dried pasta, and lack of imagination.  Hang on, Pizza Express has been mentioned.  Holy shit.  I assume this is some kind of demented joke.  Nope.  They are being serious.  I bang my head repeatedly against a table and wonder what I have done in a past life to deserve this.  My opinion is being asked for:  I want to tell them we should book a flight to Prague, to Divinis where some of the best Italian food I have tried can be had.

Go to Prague and you will find Divinis tucked away on a back street in the Jewish Quarter, far from the stags and hens and strippers which marginally taint this beautiful city. It’s a conservative space in a affluent part of town and is expensive by local standards, which means it is not expensive at all.  The interior is warm beige, bright artwork and modernist light fittings.  The staff all have strong jawlines and matching checked shirts.  Its a nice place to spend an evening by any standard.

Cold cuts of meat speak of intention, amongst them impeccably sourced mortadella and salami.  The board is dotted with salty pecorino, whilst the accompanying olives and sundried tomatoes feel like an afterthought that we are glad for.  There is homemade raviolo rolled so thinly that we can see the cheese and spinach through its opaque skin.  The thick tomato sauce which layers the plate is a testament to time and seasoning.  A blancmange coloured risotto is less about its additions of sausage and courgette and more about the rice, cooked perfectly to al dente.  Such attention to detail leads me to guess that whoever does the cooking here is either Italian or an Italian obsessive.  Either is fine with me.




We order braised ox cheeks because we are told that they are a specialist of the chef.  They do not disappoint, though portion size dictates that there is no need for them to be plural.  The marsala wine they have been cooked in has added a slight acidity which holds up against the fatty meat and sweet raisins.  Its a rich dish, as the best ones always are, and it needs the spinach to provide respite.


Veal osso buco is the kind of dish I wish we would see in every Italian restaurant but seldom do.  Here the medallions have been braised until its just holding its shape, with the cooking liquor and fine dice of vegetables clinging on for dear life.  Its good interpretation held true by a gremolata full of garlic and parsley that brings everything to life. I pile on the creamy garlic risotto that it is served with and clean the plate whilst wondering where else in the world I could find such delight for under fifteen pound.

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Dessert would be a curveball of finesse compared to the rustic fare that had previously been served to us.  A well made cherry parfait has cracks of sea salt throughout will elevate the fruit flavour, and a deconstructed Jaffa Cake – my words, not theirs – that is as good to eat as it is to look at. The sweetened cubes of bread are the textural base to provide distance between segments of orange and pipe bitter chocolate.  Just like the parfait it excels at not being overly sweet whilst still feeling like a dessert.



The meal comes at a price similar to what we would find at home with a level of cooking well above what we are used to for Italian cuisine.  Starters and desserts all under a tenner, mains not much more.  We take advice on the wine and plump for a Czech white which does little to repay my faith.  Still, as far as finding somewhere to eat in Prague I could recommend Divinis highly enough.  There is warmth and skill aplenty which I would return to in a heartbeat.



La Banca, Cotteridge

If you wanted proof of what a catch I am, let it be known that I spend a lot of time looking at menus.  Its a hobby of mine that my boss at work and a formal letter for inappropriate internet usage will testify to.  Before this restaurant blogging lark arrived, it provided inspiration for meals at home in the same way that cookbooks do.  Nowadays it is all about where I will get my next fill.  I tend to split the menu hunts between my Michelin obsession, and those that I think may be some kind of hidden gem which will blast me into the stratosphere of bloggers and have people hanging on every word like some false prophet of gastronomy.  Sorry, for a minute there I lost myself.  But it proves that despite telling myself otherwise, I am like other bloggers; mostly unable to turn down a free meal and always looking to feed my ego as much as my belly.  Which takes me back to why I keep on looking at menus for obscure places that I can break to the world and declare as magnificent, even if you and I both know that in reality if they were really that good, someone with taste would have beaten me to it along time ago.


Fear not, World, you can keep those spandex knickers on, La Banca is not one of those mythical gems.  I could have possibly told you this from the menu which claims to cook authentic Italian cuisine and still puts cream in their carbonara.  It takes a smart place in old bank on a high street in South Birmingham not used to smart places, making good use of a mirrored wall that makes the space look twice as large.  Its popular, mostly you feel because of the restaurant manager for glides between tables, flirting with the regulars who make up the crowd on a blustery winters evening.  The large phallic shaped pepper grinder were made for this man.


Creamed carbonara aside, they try hard to keep it as authentic as possible and for the most part it works. A nibble of bean salad with crisp breads is a merciless assault of garlic, as are the garlic bread and bruschetta that follow.  I like them all, mostly because I don’t like close social encounters, but also because they bold in taste and heavily seasoned.  The bruschetta has pronounced flavours of onion and vinegar and lots and lots of garlic, even if the rather bland tomatoes are three months out of season.


My girlfriend was having one of those vegetarian nights that she sometimes turns to.  From a good selection she opts for one that sounds most interesting; a roulade of carrot and courgette, filled with cream cheese.  Bland and under seasoned, the cheese wipes out the little flavour the vegetables have.  Its a shocker.  Far better was a bowl of linguine with pine nuts and courgettes, full of zing and heat from lemon and chilli, the nuttiness further accentuated by parmesan and brown butter.  If this is how Momma makes the pasta back home, I wonder if Momma would be interested in a younger gentleman from Birmingham.



There is a lasagne with thick tussles of braised shoulder meat and sheets of overcooked pasta, which I forgive for it being so bloody comforting.  Its all a bit mushy, though the flavour is good with whacks of tomato and cheese and yes, you’ve guessed it, garlic.  I also admire another linguine dish with a rich vegetable ragu and topped with chicken and prawns.  Nothing gets in the way of each other here, which it could have easily have done.  Everything is distinct and accurately cooked, the pasta still with the bite that was missing from the lasagne.



The desserts here are portioned ideally for sharing, so we order one each, because Simon doesn’t share food.  Tiramisu is the lasagne reinvented for the sweeter tooth; again a textural disaster of softness, packed full of heady flavours of coffee and chocolate.  The star is a lemon cake, with a sharp zabaglione cream filling encased in a lemon meringue.  The acidity and sweetness carefully balanced out.



They have a decent wine list which starts to get interesting when you stick to Italy, where good bottles can be found for under twenty quid. This matches the price of the food, which, fillet steak aside, is strictly mid-teens for mains and under a tenner for everything else.  Its all good value, it feels homely, and service is warm.  Its easy to see why it is so busy.  Its not perfect, but I would gladly return for a good feed at a modest price.


La Banca Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pizzeria Margheri, Lichfield

Today I find myself north of Birmingham in Lichfield – a phrase I haven’t been able to say too often in the past. I am here for the holy grail of good company, good beer and good food. It is the food which I find most intriguing; I have come on the lure of a family run Italian restaurant where good pizza can be had. I have often bemoaned the state of Italian found in Birmingham – it’s the most poorly represented cuisine in the city and I am yet to eat in any in my home town that I would recommend to others. In Birmingham if you want good pizza you go to The Plough in Harborne. If home made, silky pasta is your thing, then I am sorry to have to break this to you, but you are in the wrong city.


Pizzeria Margheri doesn’t look much at first. It’s a small room, with tired beige tiles on the floor and exposed brick walls. There are too many wooden tables for the cramped space and I imagine at full capacity the conversations of nearby diners become very much your business.  It is a good thing that they take the food so seriously:  They import as much as possible from their native Italy, from buffalo mozzarella through to hunks of cured meat which is sliced onsite.  Its an expense that pays off; the mozzarella is young enough to still threaten your chin with its milk, whilst the proscuitto has a depth of flavour and glistening fat that we rarely find on these shores.  With no cooking required the plate is an exercise in ingredient sourcing.  They pass the test with aplomb.


The aforementioned pizza is made with a sour dough base which we try in a couple of forms.  First up is dough balls which are world away from the spongy tripe that they serve at Pizza Express.  Here the dough is deep fried and non-uniform in size.  There is a pleasingly high salt content and a chunky tomato salsa which pays thanks to the quality shopping again.  Think savoury donuts for grown ups and you’re just about there.  The pizza was a delight.  Everything above board was well sourced, from more of the mozzarella to the discs of salami, but it was below decks where the hard work was done.  The dough had been treated to a blitz through an oven which rendered leopard spots of char on the base.  The crust was chewy, the centre correctly soupy.  It is up there with a certain Franca Manca in London as the best pizza in the country.  And all of this on a side street in a city that only qualifies as one because of a cathedral.  The thirty thousand residents of Lichfield don’t know how lucky they are.



Did I mention that they have a constantly changing pasta menu which I’ll be going back to try?  Or that it is seriously cheap? Throw in a starter, main course and a few beers apiece and you’ll struggle to reach the dizzying heights of twenty-five quid a head.  All of which makes the fact that we dined in a half empty restaurant on a Saturday evening all the more shocking.  Maybe they need a fully-functioning website, or maybe they just need to relocate to my street so I can single-handily keep them ticking over.  In a country full of chains serving faux-Italian, independents such as Margheri deserve to thrive for serving authentic food at a fair price.   At last I have an Italian which I can recommend.  Go try it for yourself, even if like me it is forty minutes on a train away.


Margheri Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Jamie’s Italian, Birmingham

Jamie Oliver: Charitable cockney. Motor-mouthed savour of obese school children. Destroyer of the English tongue. Some people – food writers mostly, professional or otherwise – see him as the culinary Anti-Christ. A condescending mass of checked shirts and hypocrisy, who started off a man of the people with the non-profitable Fifteen group and ended up bringing that tired lingo of his to every city with the very much profitable Jamie’s Italian.  Personally, I have a degree of empathy for him.  He has bills to pay and kids to feed.  His charity work is still in full working order.  I don’t have a problem with him lining the pockets of his distressed denim if the food is worthy of my money leaving the pockets of mine.

The Jamie’s Italian in Birmingham is a big place.  It looks how someone who has never been to the city might think that a Jewellery Quarter workshop looks like.  And that is not a compliment.  Its a mismatched collection of steel girders, mesh, and industrial sized wooden planks.  Nothing feels natural; everything is forced.  The menu is appealing, save for the dreadful adjectives that too often haunt them.  I like the tapenade that comes with the basket of bread, its deep with olive and tomato notes, but “fantastic” it is not.  I find few things in life fantastic; Match of The Day, a well made Old Fashioned, or a Russell Brand movie that flops at the box office.  This tapenade is good at best, even with it rescuing a focaccia which dried out yesterday.  We’ve only been here fifteen minutes and already I am reaching for another glass of wine.



Fortunately, things improved.  A summer truffle risotto needed the flavoured oil to give flavour to the Tubers that were limited in flavour.  At the root was a good stock and well cooked rice which was almost loose enough.  Mollica – fried breadcrumbs – gave it a pleasant texture.  At £6.50 no one in their right mind could accuse this of being poor value.  A crab arancini with plenty of crustacean hit the right spot, thanks to a yoghurt dressing that shimmered with the most Italian of citrus’, yuzu.



Pappardelle, made fresh that day, was applaudable in effort, if a little thick.  The ragu of sausage a fraction under-seasoned, with the advertised chianti flavour barely present.  More of the mollica was there for substance and crunch.  It was home cooking, executed well.  Come to my house and the other half will cook you something very similar which is far better. A leg of duck on a carpaccio of orange was given further lightness with lentils, pomegranate, and a fennel salad. Slightly overdone meat aside, it was a dish that danced with citrus and aniseed. Everything in sync and not one ingredient too many. Chips with roasted garlic were unwarranted though quickly eaten.





We finish with a pavlova full of macerated raspberries and chewy honeycomb, before settling up on a bill that works out at a shade over twenty-five quid a head.  It seems a fair price to pay for the quality served.  Would I go out of my way to recommend Jamie’s Italian?  No, but the reality is Italian food in Birmingham is woefully represented and I would find it difficult to recommend anywhere for that cuisine.  Here is a large operation (probably too large to control high standards), where, yuzu aside, quality and provenance is key.  Its time to take the personal vendetta towards Oliver away and access the restaurant for exactly what it is.  Pukka it is not.  Satisfactory it certainly is.


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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


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