Tapas

El Borracho De Oro, Edgbaston

As we’re waiting outside for our taxi to arrive to take us to El Borracho, it seems fitting that it is already starting to get dark at 7.15pm. Without wishing to get all Game of Thrones on yo’ ass, winter is coming and quickly, too. Soon it will be dark by the time you get home from the office, with the only salvation a duvet to hide underneath and a mug of hot tea to clasp. El B (as it is locally known and herewith referred to as) get this, changing up the menu to reflect needs of a wet and blustery day. Gone are some of the lighter dishes, in comes more wholesome stews and working muscles of animals that need time and love. This is a new take on Spanish food for me, one that you don’t see scattered around the coastal resorts us Brits hanker for in the summer months but one that reflects their cooler periods.


We order entirely from the new dishes with the exception of one. The tomato bread here is the perfect rendition of how it should be. Toasted bread with a mushy tomato mixture on top that is loaded with pungent garlic. It is a must order, the simplest of dishes with the biggest of flavour.


Almost all of the new menu shimmers with confidence. The one that falls short is due to proportions, not flavour. The scallops are accurately cooked, with a crown of crispy ham bits atop of the seared crust. These are sat on rich black pudding and a red pepper purée for which there is a little too much of both. The scallop is lost but this is easily fixable. I find no fault at all with a stuffed pepper with goats cheese and pine nuts that is all mellow sweetness and light touch, nor skewers of chicken that have been marinated in a piquant red mojo sauce. A drizzle of a garlic rich aioli is enough to provide contrast.



With our metaphorical hat and scarfs on, we embark on the properly winter dishes. There is a lamb stew which I’m sure sounds far sexier in Spanish. Everything has been cooked slowly with love so that it is denture friendly and is boldly seasoned. It is rustic in the best possible way. The same applies to a Fabada, which I now know to mean a butterbean stew. The depth of flavour is there with smoked black pudding that makes the tomato base taste almost like barbeque sauce. Fatty lardons and chunks of chorizo add a meatiness. We tip the bowl and chase the last of the juices out with the spoon.

We finish with two stunning dishes that leave no doubt that the finest Spanish food in Birmingham is to be found here. Pigs cheek are so tender we fight to get them to stick to the fork, with mashed potato that spreads like my waistline across the bowl thanks to the quantity of butter which is in it. All of this sits in a puddle of red wine sauce so rich it initially threatens to take over, before stepping aside and letting those porky flavours shine. Potato churro’s are a new idea that must rank in the top five things to eat for a fiver in Birmingham. They are salty and moreish and creamy, almost like the best duchess potatoes in a dippable form. We dunk into a blue cheese sauce that has been preciously tempered to let the potato flavour through.
 Two days later the quality of El B is driven home by a Spanish restaurant that is twice the price and half as good. It makes me hanker for long nights here, elbows on the deep wooden table, quaffing good wine and eating authentic Spanish food with friends. It’s the kind of neighbourhood restaurant that I wish I ate at far more frequently than I do. Outside the weather may be miserable and the nights dark, but inside of El Borracho is nothing but a joy. 

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the cashless app here http://www.a2bradiocars.com

El Gato Negro, Manchester


The Michelin guide in Manchester reads like an night-time astronomical report for their persistently dreary and overcast weather: No stars. It has a handful of recommendations for the city centre, though without us wishing to splash over a ton a head at Manchester House, we’re desperately short on options for a pre-gig Saturday lunch. We settle on El Gato Negro, a very popular Spanish restaurant housed in a townhouse on the nicer part of town.  We are placed on to a corner table on the 1st floor, squeezing past the wine guzzling bigot who is happy to squeeze the staff a little too much and likes to share a view on Nazi Germany that would appeal to Trump fans. He singlehandedly ruined lunch until the food arrived and took over the baton.

The dishes we ate are much like the long list of my ex girlfriends; pretty but ultimately underwhelming. It is food that has had a boob job when a heart operation was required. Baby monkfish fillets look the part on a lipstick red salsa and caper dressing, but tastes of very little. Even the quenelle of tapenade on top is flat. We reach for the salt grinder – a move that we would become familiar with over a two hour lunch.


Considering nine dishes are ordered, the pace is awkward. Everything comes in ones, with large gaps between some. Morcilla scotch eggs come as three pert bosoms, nipples and all, straight out of Total Recall. The quails eggs are runny, the blood pudding mixture smooth but bland. The mushroom duxelle base tastes of nothing, as do dots of apple puree. It is a dish conceived on appearance, not flavour. Tomato bread suffers from being ordered two days after eating a brilliant one back home. It simply pales in comparison.



They do best when stripped back and unrefined. Padron peppers are occasionally fiery and always delicious because of (hurrah!) a liberal hand of sea salt. Same goes to a whole rack of pork ribs, slowly cooked and glazed in a sticky sherry glaze. We carve and gnaw to the bone. At thirteen pound it is the only time it feels like value. Onglet beef is in a puddle of a dark and heady sauce that we love but feels like a fifteen quid jaw workout thanks to some distinctly chewy meat.




Three vegetarian dishes highlight just how inconsistent lunch has been. Sweet potato is a victory of coherency, dressed in a mango and chilli yogurt dressing that simultaneously sharpens and soothes the root veg. The sauce with the patatas bravos is allegadly spiced, which may be the case if sugar were a spice, but were at least edible. Horror dish of the day is the one that I insist on because I liked the sound of it. In principal carrots, manchego, pesto and aubergine sound delicious together, had the latters purée not been watery and the carrots boiled to the point they are falling apart. They go unfinished.





Pricing here is keen with the bill hitting over £120 for the three of us and the portions on the small side. Afterwards we put my girlfriend’s mother on a train and watch The National play a perfect set of intelligent indie. It more than makes up for an incredibly lacklustre lunch. The food of Spain is one of vibrancy, colour and boldness – here it tries too hard to be stylish with very little reward. Not that my opinion counts for anything of course; on the afternoon we dine they are turning away customers. Obviously the people of Manchester see a very different restaurant to the one that I did.

5/10

Little Borracho at 1000 Trades

A quick post on the latest wonder to reach 1000 Trades. Little Borracho is an offshoot of El Borracho de Oro, the much loved Spanish restaurant near Five Ways. Now the term offshoot may be a tad unfair given that the owner, Emma, is working the galley kitchen herself, giving a clear insight to how she intends the dishes to be.

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Put simply, the food is brilliant. Emma can really cook, I told her this, and I say that in the least condescending way possible. I am used to seeing her work the dining room with that personable charm she possesses, but it so happens that her ability in the kitchen is as good, if not better. Slices of aubergine are fried to a crisp without a hint of grease, finished with honey that clings the sesame seeds and chilli to its surface. It’s vibrant Barcelona in the industrially Jewellery Quarter. Chicken skewers have accurately cooked morsels of breast meat with petals of onion and pepper that still retain a little bite. The last dish is a new one to me, Calandracas, being a beer battered croquette of ham and cheese, with a little chorizo in the middle.  Those three little bad boys of oozy fun are my new favourite snack in town.

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And behold, my lateness / laziness brings good tidings!  Hot off the press is the news that Emma has extended her stay at 1000 Trades until the end of May, leaving absolutely no doubt that you should drag that arse of yours down to try it.  1000 Trades is a great place doing great things and with Little Borracho in the kitchen, there is no better area than the Jewellery Quarter to go for a nosh.

Little Borracho is the 1000 Trades residence until the end of May

Porta, Chester

Chester strikes me as a place not difficult to find good food. Walking inside the city walls I was struck by the amount of independent bars and restaurants, each of them seemingly thriving in this rather lovely city. Had I not been so obsessive about planning every meal one month in advance, I think we would have been fine finding our own feeds by carelessly meandering about, casually looking in windows at menu’s. But I am that obsessive and the idea of careless meandering is almost as much of nightmare to me as lunch with Piers Morgan. I dig out the Michelin guide, consult the family as to what they want, and decide that we are having tapas for our Saturday evening dinner at Porta, even if Porta don’t know it yet, because this is 2017 and they don’t take reservations.

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We arrive at the reasonable time at half six and the place is heaving.   It’s a split-level restaurant; galley kitchen and waiting area through the doorway, eating levels both above and below. Our projected waiting time of thirty minutes ends up being half of that, and we are swiftly moved to a congested area on the bottom level where lighting levels are more suited to owls than humans. We order widely across the menu and watch the frantic service from the back of the room, as dishes are weaved between tables and to our barrel table by eager staff.

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The first dishes to arrive are staples of any tapas restaurant.  Tomato bread is exactly how it should be; toasted and lightly flavoured with garlic – the tomato on top a mush of natural sweetness.  It tastes even better with drapes of Iberico ham, full of depth and intensity, which dissolves slowly on the tongue.  A tortilla is one of the better examples I have had in this country – the egg mixture properly seasoned, the texture only just set and the potatoes properly cooked through.  We are divided on the pickled chillies with some of the group saying that they taste only of vinegar.  They are wrong.  The chillies have lost some of the heat during the pickling process and have picked up an acerbic quality.  I quickly finish the jar.

There were a couple of dishes that never worked as well, so I’ll mention these in the middle as part of the proverbial ‘shit sandwich’ that RBS managerial training taught me so well.  Prawns.  Fat ones that looked far juicier than in reality, marginal overcooked and bathing in a garlic butter fragrant with parsley.  They are nice but unmemorable.  Equally pleasant are croquettes that have nailed the texture but are lacking in pig flavour.  Another plate has young broccoli with a romesco sauce that bullies the veg off the plate with a whack of garlic and pimento.  As much as I love the red pepper condiment, the dish is out of sync with its components.

But then it all goes brilliantly again.  Ox cheek has been long braised, with the slices finished on the plancha so that the Malliard reaction reinforces the bovine flavour throughout the spoonable meat.  Picos de Europa is liberally topped with honey, sultanas, and caramelized walnuts, all of which gentle caress the pungent notes of the blue cheese.  Dish of the night is the shoulder cut from an Iberico pig, served medium with a little salsa verde that cuts through it all with herby acidic notes.  A confession; we shared much of the food, though I anticipated eating this alone on the grounds that pink pork would not be everyone’s taste.  I was wrong.  The plate disappears before I get to the third slice.

There is more.  Of course there is; I am a glutton and the food is too good to turn down.  We have more thinly sliced charcuterie with glistening fat, and potato bravos which would turn out to be a better home for the sauce that came with the broccoli.  Lentils with chorizo would be a fitting way to finish.  The dish was earthy and intense.  We practically lick the bowl clean.

The price for all of the above and a fair amount of booze comes in at under £125.00 – I don’t need to tell you how much of a bargain that is.  Porta is a fantastic place which highlights the best of Spanish cooking.  The very best dishes live on their simplicity; they have nowhere to hide and nor should they – this is vibrant food with soul.  I would urge you to book a table and try it for yourself.  Except you can’t book a table – this is 2017, after all.

There is a wine bar that backs on to Porta which also merits a mention.  Covino may be a month or so old, but the owner Chris exudes the sort of confidence in grape knowledge that makes you feel like your intelligence has improved just by being in his presence.  It was recommended by one of the team at Sticky Walnut and was so good we went Friday, left with some wine for back at the house, and went again after our meal at Porta.  Go grab one of those twelve seats and thank me afterwards.  The place is a wine lovers dream.

8/10

Tapas Revolution, Birmingham

I wont go into detail about my initial opinion of Tapas Revolution, but suffice to say it wasn’t particularly pleasant. It was a let down of a meal, a distance away from the food I had been told to expect from Omar Allibhoy, poster boy of Spanish cooking for a certain Gordan Ramsay.  But that was a year ago, back when Tapas Revolution joined a host of other similar sized businesses in the colossal launch that is Grand Central.  I’d heard since then that they had hit their stride, the quality of ingriedients starting to be backed-up by some consistent cooking from the open kitchen.

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I’ve been back and am pleased to say it is better, significantly so in fact.  Everything we ate was a marked step up from the early visits, more spritely and heavily punctuated with seasoning. The paella has transformed from a one note wonder into an authentic reproduction, still heavy on saffron though now deeply savoury.  Bread comes smeared with a pungent garlic sauce and draped with thin slivers of serrano ham which more than stands up for itself amongst the big flavours.  Okay, perhaps the patatas bravos could have had crisper spuds and more of the tomato sauce, but these are small pickings.

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From the new menu we try three of the five recently added dishes.  The lamb is a let down; a distance away from the pink we were promised with a spring onion, radish and pomegranate dressing that fails to add anything.  We leave half the portion untouched.  Deep fried pastries with goats cheese and spinach are moreish bites which are enhanced by a saffron marmalade that adds a nice counteractive balance, whilst a salad of butternut squash and manchego is enhanced by a raisin and pine nut vinaigrette that lifts everything around it.  Its clever touches like this that make me like a place.

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Chorizo braised in cider reaches us so hot that the ceramic bowl is cracking in front of us.  We take this as a cue to pile it on to bread, steeping it with the thickened sauce.  It’s a wise move.  The chorizo is properly meaty, the cider sauce an almost British choice of accompaniment that cuts through the sausage.  Best of all is cod, baked until the flesh is just cooked and the peppers and olives underneath are blistered and charred.  Its a super bit of cooking, the tang and metallic notes of the veg working well with the fish.

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We finish with churros and a chocolate dipping sauce, where the deep fried and sugared pastry hit a higher note than the slightly thin sauce.  The service, much like the food, was charming and warm.  Overall I was quite impressed with Tapas Revolution, initially leaving me to think that I had possibly been over harsh on my first visit.  Talking to others I don’t think that I have; I am not alone with my assessment that it has improved, and that itself is an achievement for a group which continues to grow.  For those looking for a feed in the centre of Birmingham you could do far worse than eat here.  Its certainly the best cooking to be found in Grand Central

7/10

Tapas Revolution Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 I was invited to eat at Tapas Revolution

El Borracho De Oro, Edgbaston

I used to work in an office at Five Ways.  Back then it was a depressing place to be; the trashy Broad St in one direction, Edgbaston’s elitist housing to the other.  Lunch time was equally lack lustre.  You would, if you were lucky, get to see a riddled prostitute on the way to picking up a jacket potato from a man in a van who wished he’d stayed on at school.  Or even worse, a Boots sandwich meal deal.  But that was then, and Birmingham is a changed place after those many years, with few areas more transformed than this meeting point of Edgbaston and the city centre.  Many of the office blocks still remain but the area has become a culinary corner with Rofuto peering down over The Highfield, Simpsons and Blue Piano.  Its become one of my favourite places in the city to be.

To this list of great places to eat please add El Borracho De Oro, found directly opposite Blue Piano on Harborne Road.  I’d known about the place for some time; my girlfriend had been on a couple of occasions and had raved about the tapas here, to which I had promised to take her and never got round to.  Its my loss.  The dining room feels like a pintxos bar in San Sebastian, albeit with food tucked safely away in the kitchen, decorated with splashes of colours on the wall and patterned tiles across the floor and bar front. Hard wooden tables take up the main seating area whilst seating gets gradually more comfortable the closer to the rooms peripherals you get. The menu is a list of things that you want to eat; the land, sea, and vegetables all equally represented along with cured meats and eggs.

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We order widely from the options and are impressed from the off.  A plate of cured meats are the very essence of a Spanish pintxos, from top quality lomo and chorizo to dried beef the colour of a bruise.  Best are wafer thin slices of jamon with ribbons of fat that dissolve on the tongue and leave a memory of flavour in the mouth.  Crisp croquettes give way to a creamy béchamel full of ham which are as good as I can recall ever eating.  A fried egg with soft chorizo and crisp potato becomes self saucing when the yolk is let loose.  Its at these moments that I remember why Spanish food is one of my favourites when done properly.

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Pan con Tomato is correctly served with the mushed tomato on top of lightly charred bread rubbed with just enough garlic to create interest.  I often hanker for this style of cooking without ever finding success (yes, I’m looking at you, Tapas Revolution. Best Spanish restaurant my arse).  Here it feeds the soul.  Padron peppers are also they should be; blistered and well salted to create that bitter, savoury and slightly fiery taste.  Give me these two dishes and a glass of sherry and I am yours.  Please don’t give me the tortilla which was not loose enough in the centre to have me ordering it again.

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But then we move up a gear.  Octopus, dusted with paprika and served with slithers of potato, is cooked to retain a little bite with none of the chewiness that you would usually associate with this cephalopod.  We finish the savoury courses with the ox cheek, a dish that could easily be served with just a dessert spoon.  The slow cooked meat collapsing upon itself easier than a post Brexit Tory government, served simply with the onions and cooking liqueur it has been braised with.  Its a stunning plate of food, deserving alone of regular revisits.

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For desserts we take churro’s with a dark chocolate sauce and a crème brulee made with Tonka beans.  The churro’s are good freshly piped lengths of deep fried choux, though the brulee wins for being lusciously addictive.  Tonka can easily overpower other ingredient’s, though here it benefits from standing alone centre stage.

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Service was knowledgeable and efficient, with a well constructed wine list that hardly ever peeks above the twenties for a bottle.  El Borracho is as unashamedly a Spanish experience as you will find in the city, and for that I thank them.  Its the kind of place I expect I will gladly return to time and time again.

8/10

El Borracho de Oro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My meal here was complimentary

 

 

 

 

 

Rico Libre, Birmingham

 

I’ve waxed lyrical about my love of Rico Libre before. Putting aside the emotional connection I have to the building, for me it’s one of the first places I recommend to anyone who asks where they should eat in Birmingham.  Its uncomplicated and unpretentious, astoundingly cheap, and always welcoming.  Most importantly they know flavour.  There is no room for daintiness here, everything is boldly seasoned and spiced, the pepper grinder on a constant rotation.  Its authentic in the way that Spanish food does not pull any punches.

This was, I think, my sixth visit to the old Barn Street dinner since I first ate here, the food  evolving slowly and consistently. With a relatively compact menu we look to much of the same parts for comfort.  The chicken and chorizo dish has become a different beast, more pronounced in taste, more saucy, both literally and metaphorically.  The halloumi dish working even more flavour on to the bland cheese with the help of blistered peppers and gently caramelised onion.  I often think some of the strongest work is done here without meat; the bravas a simple yet staggering ode to tomato, garlic and paprika over crisped cubes of potato.   My favourite is the aubergine, long slices salted and then griddled, folded over a rustic salsa and topped with the fieriest of red mojo sauces. The sauce is native to the canary islands where I have since learned the chef here honed his skills.  The locals taught him well.

It’s not all perfect. A special of pork belly is a hearty slice of softly braised meat let down by a overly sweet reduction of red wine and coca cola, whilst I forgive the queenie scallops for having the roe attached because the mango salsa brings everything together with its sweetness, acidity and heat.  We’re quickly back on track with the meatballs, compact and err… meaty, in a smoky sauce that begs to have the bowl wiped clean with flat breads smothered in garlic.  Come to think of it, all of the sauces have the same effect. Greaseless deep fried fillets of cod in a seasoned batter finish us off with their generosity.

All of this comes at a price almost incomparable with anywhere else in the city. Dishes range generally from £3.50 to just over a fiver, throw in its BYOB policy and you’ll struggle to spend twenty quid a head before they roll you out of the door.  It’s crazy value.  I would be here every week if I wasn’t eating in mediocre restaurants elsewhere to keep this blog content afloat.  Others are far more wise.  On the night we visited we were surrounded by regular customers, all known individually by the chef who pops out occasionally, or the owner constantly doing the rounds to check that everything is okay.  Of course it is.  Its way better than ‘okay’.  It’s a city gem, nestled in the back streets of Digbeth with no care other than to feed people well.  And my favourite part of Rico Libre?  They have no idea just how good they really are.

Rico Libre Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Tapas Revolution, Birmingham

For those familiar with the old New Street Station and Pallasades shopping centre, the new look station and Grand Central are a breath of fresh air. What was once a concrete block of misery is now a spacious white dome straight out of a Stanley Kubrick dream.  Its detractors may complain about the lack of independent business within the curved walls and they are right in doing so, but I remember just how shit the shops were in the Pallasades. Call me whatever you want, but I will gladly now take Cath Kidston over Gimme Gizmo, and John Lewis over Poundland.

The same argument appears to have been rolled out for the restaurants here.  Walking around the open plan floor it does feel a little predictable with the usual suspects of nationwide brands and a smattering of smaller groups still trying to find their feet outside the stampede that is London.  It is one of these smaller brands, Tapas Revolution, that would feed us tonight.  I am sorry if you have come here looking for your corporate fix, though if you want to read someone trying to ascertain just how cheeky a Nando’s really is, please do me a favour and never visit this page again.

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Tapas Revolution already feels polished enough to be in every city.  They have a glossy brand, modern interior and counter seats.  More importantly they have a menu that screams ‘EAT ME’ in every possible way at a price that wont break the bank.  There is proper hams from the correct pigs, regional dishes such a Asturian sausage and the promise of a lot of garlic.  I want to love it but I cant.  Everything we try was flat in flavour and lacking in love.

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Take the paella.  At best it is a textural delight of rice – some bits crispy, others tender – heavy on the flavours of chicken stock and saffron.  Here it was one level of overcooked rice and metalic saffron, with meagre pieces of chicken and green beans.  It is under seasoned to the point that I fail to detect any salt at all – a problem which would repeat itself nearly as much as the alioli the following day.

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The disappointments never stopped there.  Pisto should have been the Murcia version of caponata; a punchy salty, sweet and sour display of mediterranean veg at their best.  Nothing.  If my doctor ever tells me to cut salt out of my diet I will show him this dish and load the revolver for him.  We make the most out of a bad situation by piling it on to bread smeared with alioli overloaded with intense garlic.  A tortilla with potato and onion suffered similar levels of blandness.

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Perhaps the best thing we ate was hot croquettes, big on ham flavour and deep fried to a crisp exterior.  These and a potato, chorizo and egg dish indicated that there was a degree of skill in the kitchen, though just how much is debatable.  The bill at £35 with a couple of beers puts it in the same bracket as the brilliant Rico Libre.  I know which one I would choose.  If convenience is your thing, please head to the domed roofs of New Street Station.  If its big, gutsy Spanish cooking is what you are looking for take a left at the stairs of the station and keep walking until you hit Digbeth.

5/10

Tapas Revolution Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

 

Amantia, Birmingham

The first thing I notice about Amantia is the dining room. The bright and airy space. The clean lines. The palette of maroon, pale grey, and black. From our circular table near the window looking out on to Bennetts Hill, I can see every corner and every polished surface of this smart newcomer just off New Street. I can see all of this because at half three on a Sunday afternoon the place is empty, save for the waiting staff outnumbering us three-to-one. I hate seeing restaurants empty, it is a waste of produce and wages. I comment that everything appears in working order; they have an appealing menu of Mediterranean dishes leaning heavily on Spain, keen pricing and smartly turned out staff. There must be an underlying problem. Perhaps the PR company hasn’t worked hard enough at making them known. Perhaps they aren’t just very good.

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It turns out that the food is generally of a good standard. Habas Fritas are a moreish bar snack, the broad beans finely sliced, deep fried and then salted, with the final product having an almost meaty flavour: Think pork scratching for the veggie generation. Berenjenas con Miel – deep fried aubergine chips to you and I – were the best things we tried all day, the batons deep fried to a crisp exterior and drizzled with honey to interplay the sweet and the savoury. Another dish using the same ingredient would be a let-down in comparison. A crepe savoury with aubergine, mascarpone and sun-dried tomato would have a soggy texture throughout and very little flavour. It would be the only time we reached for the salt shaker in the centre of the table.

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King prawns in white wine with chilli and garlic sings of summers abroad, the dish surprisingly spicy with a cooking liqueur that demands mopping up with the complimentary sun-dried tomato bread baked in-house. More of the bread is called into action with chorizo in red wine. The quality of the sausage is not up there with others in the city, though the sauce is a majestic thing I would swear had been thickened with blood had the menu not said otherwise.

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It was at this point the restaurant filled.  Two large parties from Spain, who happen to take their Sunday lunch a little later than their English counterparts, sit down and order sangria by the jug load.  Service went from slow to almost non-existent as we waited for the rest of our dinner to appear.  Luckily the Croquettes were worth the wait with a good creamy filling of Picos de Europa and spinach.  They were clean tasting with a strong flavour imparted from the blue cheese.  A similar success was had with filled filo pastries.  The slightly greasy outer casing containing a chorizo paste and goats cheese that was both gutsy and flavoursome; the smoky meat counteracting the soapy cheese nicely.  Triangular slices of Manchego finishes the meal off.  The nutty sheep’s cheese contrasting against a red pepper jam that bordered on too sweet and fried almonds.

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It is always going to be hard for a sharp dining room in Birmingham’s business quarter to fully evoke the sensations of good Spanish food, though Amantia try their best, and for that we should be grateful.  Service is slow and at times it takes itself too seriously, but this will, we hope, improve with time as they find their feet in a city not short of culinary options.  For a family business they have aimed high and for that I wish them well.  The dining room is a place that came alive as it swelled with people, only time will tell if they can maintain that level of business.

7/10

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Byzantium, Kings Heath

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.

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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.

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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.

008

007

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?

7/10

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