Tapas

Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

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

Black Lab, Via Deliveroo

This could potentially get me I trouble, but the pubs of Moseley don’t do food. Some try to, in the same half-arsed way that I try to do modesty, but it’s not there. I live next to one that I would love to tell you were brilliant, but the reality is it’s dismal; an embarrassment to the grand building and plush interiors it houses. Still, I like to have a pint in there occasionally and I’m not about to ruin that by calling them out publically. Others don’t even try; at present both The Prince of Wales and Patrick Kavanaghs are open to folk taking in their own food, on account of them not having a functioning kitchen in which to sell their own food. I prefer this, as I can control exactly what I want to eat. So, on a bitter January Saturday evening, we descend on Patrick Kavanagh’s for beer, football, and a takeaway courtesy of Deliveroo. That sentence was so masculine it should come with a beard and a pipe.

I’d never heard of Black Lab before we placed our order with them, though Google Maps tells me that it is on Kings Heath High St.  The menu reads well; some sandwiches, some tapas, mostly with a Mediterranean slant.  Food is ordered from phones, pints obtained from the bar.

Food arrives half an hour later.  Whitebait is crisp and lightly fried, exuding a whiff of ammonia throughout the bar that upsets a few nostrils.  Camembert has an equally strong aroma, baked with a little onion that has sunk into the skin.  The inside is molten and smeared thickly onto chunks of baguette.  We round up the food with a chicken quesadilla, cheesy and not exactly brimming with meat.  It all serves a purpose.

My biggest issue is the price.  The cheapest of those three items was £8.00, the other two a tenner each – this is when I could have ordered a Cafephilia from Deliveroo for about half the price.  Will I be hunting Black Lab down in Kings Heath?  Probably not.  Will I order them again on Deliveroo?  I doubt it.  But the experience has opened up a new way of dining that I’d probably not considered before.  Take one pub that doesn’t serve food, log on to phone and order what you like.  I’m eying up The Wellington in the city centre next, already dreaming of a pint of real ale, a game of darts and a Byron burger.  Now try telling me that doesn’t sound like a plan.

The credit for this meal was provided by Deliveroo. For £5.00 credit on your first meal use the code roo.it/simonc3898

 

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