Spanish

Azurmendi, Bilbao

We first spotted Azurmendi perched high upon a hill as our taxi roared down the motorway. It briefly disappears as we swing left to disembark the quicker roads and then rapidly grows in size again as we go around the roundabout up a very steep hill and up to the top, where the gigantic glass building stands proudly at the top. We enter the leafy reception and are immediately given a glass each of the txakoli they grow on their own vineyards at the rear, followed by a picnic basket that contains the first four courses. It would be thirty-five minutes and ten small courses from here before we sit down in the restaurant. Azurmendi don’t do things the normal way.

That picnic basket is Chapter 1, the first of four chapters that takes four hours from start to finish. Inside is a seafood broth, a dainty brioche burger with anchovy and smoked eel, and a cider parfait with chorizo crumb. What amazes me is the intensity of the flavours; everything is ramped up to the maximum it can be, the burger having the flavour of barbequed fish despite any direct heat being applied to any of the filling. My favourite is a false peanut, with uncompromisingly rich filling of foie gras and peanut, before being finished with mushroom powder. It is very clever.

From here we are taken into the kitchen for the next instalment. A chicken consommé greets us, the strong, clean chicken flavour lifted with a little sherry. Whilst we are drinking this an egg yolk has a little removed by syringe and then replaced with a hot truffle reduction that cooks the yolk from the inside out. A truffled egg yolk. Absolute filth. I am demanding this on every breakfast from now. The third chapter takes us into the greenhouse for four more nibbles, a glass of fermented apple juice, which we know of course to be cider, then the most remarkable cornet of tomato, red pepper and garlic that nods at the strident flavours of Spain. We get alchemy in a curd that transitions from water to a yogurt-like state in front of our very eyes. The fireworks are reserved for the final nibble; a caiprinha cocktail which explodes in the mouth from the thinnest of chocolate spheres. The cachaça spirit has been replaced with local txakoli which seems to lengthen the sugar and lime notes. Talk to Claire about our meal here and this is the first thing she will mention. Had there been more attached to the miniature tree she would have picked them up and made a run for the door. It’s the Macclesfield girl in her.

After these ten pretty astounding nibbles we get led to our table. The dining room is huge, the tables well distanced from one another. The art is to the left of us; the glass wall that looks out on to the Basque countryside, serving as a constant remainder of the environment and restaurant’s attachment to it. Indeed, for all of the modernist tricks that the kitchen applies here, the overwhelming feel was that of one of community; the use of local wine, of Basque traditions such as the chicken consommé, of local ciders, and a wider appreciation of the national flavours like in that cornet. There would be many, many more references throughout the remainder of the meal.

Four more nibbles arrive together before they move on to the tasting menu. The lightest of foie gras served within a followed-out lime, topped with a syrup of the citrus that works as a brilliant foil for the rich liver. There is a beignet of spider crab, and mushrooms coated in praline that attract the mushroom and liquorice powder they lay on. Finally we get txakoli infused with sea herbs that takes on a fresh dimension. We order a bottle of txakoli. It turns out that I like txakoli.

Still with me? Good. We’ll get started properly now. The first course is the only one I didn’t love, but only because I don’t like the texture of poached oysters. The mollusc is a beast, the biggest I’ve seen, with a vibrant herb oil, herb emulsion, a little apple, and a tempura of oyster topped with oyster leaf lurking in the back. This feels wasted on me and I should have swapped out like Claire did. Loved the tempura oyster though, which is meaty and still bursting with the taste of the sea.

Following this is sea urchin in various forms. Within the ceramic shell is cooked and raw sea urchin, tasting like the most pungent of brown crab meat, topped with a foam of you guessed it, sea urchin. On the side is a tilted glass of Bloody Mar, their take on a Bloody Mary, with more sea urchin, tabasco, Worcester sauce, and tomato juice. It shouldn’t work, yet it does, the urchin flavour working perfectly in harmony with the spice which sticks around for the various layers within the pot. If sea urchin isn’t your thing this will not be for you, but I liked it, it has an elegance about it and flavours that aren’t afraid of standing up for themselves.

A little veloute of asparagus is next, the flavours clean and defined with a dice of asparagus at the base. Even better is the ‘pil-pil’ of vine asparagus it is served with, which we are told to eat with our hands. The tangle of vegetable has been cooked with garlic and ancho chilli so that the heat grabs from the second it enters the mouth. Together with the veloute this course is nothing short of exceptional. The lobster which follows is beautiful, the tail meat centre to the bowl with just a glossy sauce American and pickled onions for company. It is topped tableside with a coffee butter that adds a subtle depth and richness to a dish that riffs lightly on acidity. The lobster is the best I have ever eaten, but does that really surprise you? By now I’m sold, hook, line, and sinker.

Beans and assorted meats are a playful take on the homely cooking within the Basque region. The beans have been produced using spherification, the gel membranes each releasing a different flavour note when popped in the mouth. Also in the bowl is a rich sauce, thickened, I think, with a little pigs blood. A cube of slowly braised pork sits behind it. I have no idea what the kitchen intended with this, though in my eyes it was the taste of Morcilla when all was combined. Rich and elegant, with meat and a little spice. This was an incredible course that used modern techniques to its full advantage.

We get the Red Mullet in three servings. The first a fritter of the fish innards which was a little too pokey in taste for even me. The second the most perfect piece of slightly smoked melt-in-the-mouth sashimi with charred edges and opaque centre. The last is a fillet, pan fried to a crisp skin on a circular of rich herb emulsion and stewed wheat. On top of the fish is a little potato soufflé filled with another puree of parsley. It is perfection in simplicity.

Our final soiree in the savoury section leaves me gobsmacked. I’ve done the three star Michelin thing before, I know how they like to flash their expensive cuts of meat, so to serve me a faggot as a main takes bigger balls than those I’m looking at on the plate. The faggots are made from the sweetbread of the pig, and are rich and delicate, glazed in a sauce so heavily reduced I could almost see my face in its sheen. With this are liquid balls of Idiazabel (a local sheeps milk cheese) that explode in the mouth, and cubes of salt baked turnip. It is one of the most remarkable dishes I have ever eaten, the cheese a brilliant partner to the sweetbread faggot. For once words fail me in giving this the culinary blowjob it deserves.

Three desserts to go. First up is avocado and mango, a dish that I most feared when looking at the menu. It is a delight; arguably the best of the trio. The success lies in the use of lime acidity and ancho chilli to sharpen the plate. Avocado puree is warming and spicy, with mango parfait and meringues. There is a lime cream and granita, and white chocolate leaf-shaped shards. It eats so well. Following this is red berries as various purees, the most decadent of sorbets, as well as fresh and frozen. A white chocolate sorbet and shards coated in basil join it along with a crème of something I cant recall. On the side is a bit of fun; a raspberry ice cream, aerated and frozen that disappears in the mouth leaving nothing but the taste of fruit. Drink was getting the better of me by this point so apologies for the hazy detail, but the overriding memory is of the unbelievable flavour of the fruit. With this we drink the most astonishing dessert wine I have ever tried; an iced cider which we dare not ask the price of such is its quality, and later appears on the bill for five euro a glass. Take that, extortionate UK wine prices. I know they said its not available on the consumer market, but if anyone is reading this that can source me the Malus Mama please hit me up. I could do without the air fares to have another glass.

The last dessert was possibly the one time the kitchen witchcraft didn’t pay off to its full potential. A forest scene has a chocolate leaf and twig protruding from black olive soil, with a sweetened ice cream of the sheep milk cheese from earlier and chocolate truffles. The flavours work great but the proportions are slightly out; there is too much of the soil which becomes claggy in the mouth without the moisture from the ice cream that soon runs out. We take coffee with the petit fours, which fold from a box that reveals eight gems including jellies, macaroons, and chocolates. We have these boxed up to take home, which make a wonderful breakfast the following morning. The red wine chocolate even helped ease my hangover.

This, of course, does not come cheap. The tasting menu comes in at 230 Euro each, and I’ll spare you the total bill that includes two good bottles of wine, and glasses of dessert wine to boot. Though to put it in perspective our total bill is well under half of a friend who ate in a Parisian three star around the same time, so I personally consider it value. It’s inevitable with longer tastings that there are going to be dishes you are less keen on, yet it was clear that the technique on show throughout was of the highest order. The four hours we enjoyed at Azurmendi are the absolute pinnacle of my culinary journey thus far, a carefully crafted experience that pulls in and out of their environment. My handful of other three star experiences were blown completely out of the water. If, like me, you enjoy the theatre of eating, modern techniques, and the most perfect of meals, Azurmendi may also be your idea of the best restaurant in the world.

10/10

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Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

We arrive early at Bar Nestor, two hours early at 11am, and yet we’re not the first in mass (this being Spain there is no such thing as a queue). That particular honour belongs to the silver haired German lady with whom we communicate via Google translate, and a newlywed Canadian couple for who such technology is not required. We are all here for one reason only; to secure one of the fabled sixteen slices of tortilla that Nestor cooks at 1pm, and then again at 6pm. We are soon joined by an elderly Spanish man, then, around 11.30am, the shutters rise to waist height and we follow the others in scooping underneath and into the bar. It looks, unsurprisingly, just like the photos I’ve seen; mahogany and small, with a bar running down the right side. To the left is a singular table and a couple of stools, whilst every panelled wall has sports memorabilia personally signed to this tiny spot in the old town. Nestor himself is late fifties, his black hair now worn only around the perimeters of his head, and the capillaries on his nose those of a man who enjoys a glass of wine or five. He has warm eyes and a mouth that speaks only the necessities. He looks straight to me, asking how many of the tortilla I want and my name. I request two, an order that will become so common he eventually knows my name without asking. He tells us to be back at 1pm sharp. We do as we are told.

The cutting of that tortilla is something that I will remember almost as long as the taste of it. Sixteen uneven blocks, served with a solitary piece of baguette, and then passed to those who gave there morning to its making. It is still warm, dribbling egg yolk out via its sides on to the plate. In my experience very few dishes in life live up to the hype. This does. Maybe its the terroir, or the anticipation, but this is one of the very best things I have ever eaten, a shock even to me given that this is essentially made up of just eggs, potato, and onion. It is luscious and decadent, comforting and humble. We would be back many times for this, lunch and at dinner. On the last evening, when I ask Nestor what the secret is, he smiles and puts his hand over his heart. Others have said that it is the gently caramelised onion which sets it apart. I like to think there is more truth in the explanation of the old man.

They do other stuff here too. Well, three dishes precisely. Padron peppers are blistered and salty, whilst tomatoes are dressed simply in peppery olive oil, a good amount of salt, and the tiniest lick of vinegar. The latter is another dish that we would return to on other occasions, elbows resting on the bar with a glass of txakoli. They are stunning; firmly fleshed with tinges of green across the flesh, the simple accompaniment there only to enhance their flavour and then be mopped up with more of that baguette.

And then there is the steak from an eleven year old dairy cow. They don’t have many of these but ask and they will parade two raw sharing sized pieces for you to choose from. They take about an hour to arrive, my guess being a rough split of cooking and resting time, with the team making room for you at the bar to eat this. It comes smothered in salt, with ribbons of fat the colour of butter. The meat is rare, with the chew of a working beast that results in the deepest of bovine flavours. This is not for those who order a fillet on account of little jaw work, though it is essential steak eating for anyone with a remote interest in beef. The final jewels lay flat against the bone, the strips of these requiring a steady hand and sharp knife to prise away. It will ruin every steak you eat after this but it is worth it.

A similar piece of dairy cattle in a London restaurant will cost around £90, which, once service is included, will buy you two full meals at Bar Nestor. The steak above was 32 euros, the tortilla 2 euros each and the local wine less than that for a glass. It’s easy to see why Bar Nestor has garnered the mythical reputation that it has; whilst the rest of San Sebastian are exploring the culinary boundaries of pinxtos, they stick to the simple things here: the pick of the best local ingredients cooked simply with love. And whilst I am not saying that Bar Nestor is reason enough to book that flight to Bilbao and board the coach to San Sebastian, it absolutely should be a priority once you get here. You should start 11am sharp by getting in place for that tortilla.

9/10

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Don Diego, Edgbaston

I don’t write about every meal I have. Sometimes I leave the ego at home and enjoy food with the other half for exactly what it is; a meal cooked by someone else that I am paying for. Plus, nobody ever wants to read about the Pret salad I ate for lunch. Don Diego was supposed to be one of those meals. We ordered and I started drinking red wine for the two of us, whilst Claire is telling me off for staring at my phone. Out walks Alfonso the chef, a burly balding man named after my favourite mango. He outstretches his hand, I shake it saying my forename in the way that you do the first time you meet someone. “Yes, Simon Carlo” he says in a deep Spanish accent. I don’t know how he knows me, but in hindsight maybe it was the awards on the table that I take everywhere with me which gave it away. Then it clocks, this is the man who was front of house the last time I was in this building, when it was The Epicurean, a place I was less than polite about. I really should learn to be nicer. He is kind about my opinion and apologises for the chef cooking here over two years ago, which is unexpected and not at all necessary. He asks if I will be writing about our meal tonight. “Err, well… of course I am”. I am weak and pathetic.

So here is my opinion on Don Diego, a place I had no intention of writing about, but am happy to now the meal is over. It is an upgrade on Epicurean, one built around sturdy Spanish flavours and hefty portions. There is nothing nuanced about the food; it is about as subtle as my writing style and thankfully punctuated with less errors. A king prawn starter owes its success to the velvety bisque that coats everything and puddles in the bottom of the bowl. The big flavours are found in the bits that we discard, here those heads and shells are roasted and flambéed in a little booze to form the base of the bisque. A salad of mozzarella, tomato, and red onions owes its character to the lick of vinegar and garlic heat works on to every forkful. We’ll gloss over the bought in garlic bread that hasn’t sufficiently been heated through so that some of the butter remains set in the centre.

Main portions are set to massive. There is a breaded chicken main that looks massive until the even bigger pork belly arrives. The chicken is accurately cooked with a clever sauce that has plenty of chorizo running through it. The pork has not been pressed so that the layers of fat and meat are still distinguishable. It’s on a puddle of warm apple sauce, with a smaller puddle of tomato. In hindsight, a more equal ratio of the two would work better. With mains you will need a side and you should take the chips, all crispy rosemary edges and fluffy centre.

After this did we need dessert? Probably not, but I am now committed to tell you about dinner and therefore order them. A chocolate semifreddo eats better than it looks, the flavour of Baileys coming through strongly, with a berry compote to cut through the richness. A better option is the almond tart. The pastry is short and buttery, the frangipane rich. It needs the apricot purée for relief. This is a solid bit of dessert work.

And with that we’re done. An enjoyable meal, from a little place ran only by two brothers. It deserves to be busier than it is. It’s affordable and warm, offering a short menu of dishes that you want to eat. We’ll be back to explore the rest of it soon, tucked away in the corner with a nice bottle of Rioja. I might even take the night off from writing. I’ve earned it.

7/10

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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. 

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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