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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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

 

 

 

 

 

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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Rico Libre, Birmingham

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It was through idle conversation that I found out that Rico Libre sits on the site that once was Barn St Diner. Now I’m sure that some greasy spoon on the back streets on Digbeth has little relevance to most, but it does to me. I was born from that cafe. Well, kind of. My teenage mother worked in there as a waitress when she met her future husband, who had happened to pop in for some breakfast. Some bizarre courtship started that involved my dad going there frequently to see mom, who occasionally put Smarties in to his sausage and egg sandwich, just to let him know that she cared. Amazingly from this sprung the bastard offspring of my younger brother and I, as well as a 30 year marriage year that is still going strong. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye and I haven’t even got to the food yet.

Inside the vivid green frontage of Rico Libre still lies the skeleton of a greasy spoon. The square building has a dining area which takes over half of the space, with simple cotton sheet splayed tables, the menu on a chalk board and a painting of a bull on the walls that not only echo’s the Spanish food served here, but also Birmingham’s only Bullring which is just up the road. There is a large kitchen space, once where my mother ruined many a breakfast, and a passageway to the toilet where my father did not play the dusty old piano. You get the feeling they are going to need this area for more tables very soon.

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What they still share with a greasy spoon is the desire to feed people well and at a reasonable price. They concentrate on the staples of Spain, the sort of food you find if you veered away from Sticky Vicky and into the side streets. Grilled halloumi had a bitter twang from a rustic salsa of tomato and basil, whereas more of the salsa came with grilled aubergine. The aubergine, properly salted to retain some bite, was given life by a red mojo sauce full of garlic and chilli heat. It’s difficult to find a good mojo sauce outside of its home in the Canary Isles. This one is worth a journey all on its own.

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Plump king prawns came drenched in a spicy oil with more garlic and chilli, whereas chicken “Marbella” nearly never got ordered on the chance it would be served by the cast of TOWIE. Thankfully the thighs were fantastic things, all moist in a sauce of reduced white wine, littered with peppers and chorizo. Another chicken dish paid homage to the north African influence in Spanish cuisine with more of the thighs in a intense sauce of cinnamon, cumin, and, I think, preserved lemon. The dish given richness by the pellets of soft boiled quails eggs. We further pile the plates high with garlic heavy mushrooms and crisped up fried potatoes in a sauce galvanized by lots of hot and spicy paprika.

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Dessert options are limited, but with three tapas dishes for twelve quid, most will be too full to make it to this stage. As greedy as I am, I worked my way through a huge portion of rum and pineapple granita which was in essence a frozen Pina Colada. There was also a light passion fruit mousse in a chocolate cup – both are refreshing ways to finish, given the punchy flavours on every dish previously served. There is nothing delicate or refined about the cooking here; its bold and in your face, exactly how good Spanish food should be. Everything served has the sole purpose of tasting good, which should the goal of every restaurant, regardless of the cuisine. Mom and Dad found happiness in this little old building on Barn Street, now thanks to Rico Libre they wont be the only ones.

8/10

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