Before it all got hazy, on the back of several bottles of red wine and an impromptu tasting of Spanish brandy, a familiar theme cropped up.
I was sitting inside Don Diego, a Spanish restaurant in Sutton Coldfield, chatting to the owners, Alfonso and Emma Yufera-Ruiz, about their past, their present and their plans for the future. There were lots of things I wanted to know, chief among them being the question I frequently put to independent restaurateurs: why the hell do you do it?
Some background helps:
Fonzie and Emma met in 2006 when they worked at Simpsons in Birmingham. They embarked on their first restaurant venture when they launched Casa Ruiz in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, in 2009. Fonz would leave their home in Birmingham about 5.30 in the morning to go to the markets and then on to the restaurant, staying there till 1am on a busy night. Sometimes he would get the coach just so he could sleep.
The couple swapped the insanity of commuting to Shropshire for the drama of parenthood and now have two young sons. They launched a second restaurant, Casa Naranjo in Shrewsbury, in 2010 and Don Diego followed in March 2012. Then there is the sideline of the Authentic Tapas Company, their Spanish food business selling olives, cheeses, cured meats and chorizo.
Here is a couple not averse to hard-work. From the olives and almonds we nibble with some refreshingly malty Mahou beer to the Iberico pork sausages and meats, and then the cheeses that arrive many, many hours later, it is clear Fonzie and Emma know how to get their hands on good supplies. It’s a Wednesday night and the restaurant is full. We have, as they say on TV restaurant shows, a “good product.”
Now as nice as it is inside Don Diego, and there is homespun Spanish rusticity aplenty, the ring-road outside Sutton Coldfield shopping centre is an improbable location for a tapas restaurant. Why is Don Diego here and not in Birmingham city centre where there would be queues to get in?
Fonize and Emma are hugely grateful to the support of the local community and the busy, jovial atmosphere is testament to the popularity of the place. But they are an ambitious couple. They would love to have a place in the city centre too and they have looked. But the rents, oh my.
“You’re looking at more than £100,000 a year at the Mailbox,” says Fonzie. As his namesake in TV’s legendary “Happy Days” might say: “Sit on it.”
And so the corporate-backed bland continues to follow the corporate-backed bland in some of Birmingham’s most prominent locations. If I wanted to show a visitor what all the fuss is about over the city’s food reputation I wouldn’t go near the Mailbox, Brindleyplace, the Bullring or Broad Street. And that seems a bit weird. It’s all down to the astronomical rents, of course.
Which is why I was happy to pay my £4 return train fare to Sutton Coldfield, for which you get to experience the delights of the Redditch to Lichfield Trent Valley line, and pop in for dinner and a catch-up at Don Diego.
There was a seemingly endless (in a good way) procession of little dishes: asparagus a la plancha, croquetas of chicken and béchamel sauce, squid, patatas bravas, seared scallops with roasted pimento dressing, swordfish with garlic.
Tender rabbit, cooked with olives, and vibrant piquillo peppers stuffed with morcilla, deserve special note. The latter, in particularly, is great gutsy fare, the sweetness of the pepper and the soft, meaty blood sausage crying out for shameless piggery.
If you have nothing else, get a plate of carillera – a stonking slab of Iberico pig cheek cooked down into melty softness in a red wine sauce that’s so dark it’s like a black hole. The richness of the cheek is buffered by light olive oil mash potato and a sprinkle of crispy onions. A great, simple little dish.
Obviously, we hadn’t eaten enough pork so we closed off with some just sizzled chorizitos: fat, stubby “go, on – eat me” mini chorizo bangers. It would have been rude to have turned down cheese, especially as there was some red wine left: an old-school, single grape Valparaiso rouble 2012 and a groovy mix-up of garnacha tintorera, garnacha, syrah and tempranillo in an aptly named Crash 2011, Ribera del Guadiana.
I was too full to manage dessert so I selflessly left my hosts to order coffee cheesecake and hot chocolate and churros – and then in that annoying, time-honoured fashion I demolished half of their puddings.
I sometimes get asked if the restaurants I visit have veggie dishes and can rarely remember. That is because, with the noble exception of Indian restaurants, I often find the vegetarian offerings to be unremarkable. But I can report there are plenty of non-meaty options at the Don’s: crispy aubergines with black honey; broadbeans with garlic (this I did try – with ham, sorry – and liked); chickpeas with spinach, cumin and almonds, piquillo peppers stuffed with cheese…
Paellas can be ordered in advance and sound great fun for a Sunday lunch, whether your taste is seafood, meat, vegetarian or the whole lot thrown together.
Get a nominated driver, or better still take a taxi or the train, and try the Spanish brandies. We had a couple. I think it was a couple. I know I slept deeply.
- Don Diego, 5 Manor Road, Sutton Coldfield, B73 6EJ
- 0121 355 53 54
- This is not a review.