The bread pretty much tells you everything you need to know when you dine out.
If restaurateurs don’t get the bread right, they are playing catch up before the first dish hits the table.
It matters if the loaves or rolls or swirly creations are made in-house. It is a restaurant’s way of saying: “We know what we are doing. We want you to have a good time.”
The next best option is to buy in from a baker who is skilled in his or her craft. There are enough artisan bakers springing up these days to track one down. If a restaurateur can’t be bothered (because of the cost and effort) why should a customer be bothered making the trek to the restaurant?
The act of breaking bread is symbolic; it is a gesture of trust and respect. So don’t cut corners with the bread. It makes you look mean-spirited, inhospitable, cheap.
Unfortunately, the bread at Amantia, a newish Spanish/Mediterranean restaurant on Bennett’s Hill, Birmingham, has the whiff of day-old Greggs baguette about it.
It is pallid, tasteless, tooth clogging. This is a pity because there is a lot to like about Amantia, not least of which is the fact it is independently-run and the chef/owner Andrea Retenga and Spanish wife Marta could be on to a winner. But I think they need a little help and guidance.
I applaud the couple’s work ethic and ambition and some of the cooking is good and gutsy, full of the homely charm of casual tapas. A dish of squid on fried potatoes, rich with olive oil and sprinkled with paprika, and some robust, well spiced meatballs are right up my street, a refreshing antidote to some of the navel-gazing, self-flagellating food that prowls this neighbourhood.
And yet the thing that makes food like this so enticing, namely the informality, is at odds with the rather impersonal surroundings. The space is huge and the lighting is severe. Fortunately my guest, a duchess, has an immaculate complexion but I wouldn’t fancy being in her seat looking at my mug. Whatever happened to soft lighting in restaurants? Too Seventies?
The colour scheme, with great splashes of corporate purple and unforgiving white, doesn’t help. It’s reminiscent of an airport lounge. The tables are too small, particularly for a concept like tapas, which by its nature requires lots of plates buzzing about. If it hadn’t been for some superb close fielding we could have lost the wine at second slip on several occasions.
Which is all very frustrating because Birmingham needs places like Amantia, not places that serve cocktails out of watering cans.
On the food front, we happily devour a plate of cured meats, which are of a good quality, and the tuna, lightly seared but rather incongruously plated in haute 1990s style, is buttery and flavoursome.
We also like the sautéed king prawns in a simple garlic and white wine sauce and a dousing of olive oil.
Hojaldres de Morcilla are less successful. I am not convinced Spanish black pudding and goats cheese, parcelled in puff pastry, works with apple “marmalade” (apple sauce), mainly on the basis that it doesn’t.
But those meatballs, albondigas, I could eat them till the cows come home.
I also like the decent value Spanish wine list. The Castelo de Medina Sauvignon blanc (£22.95) has a New World vivacity and prerequisite gooseberry/grassy notes. It meets with the duchess’s approval.
There are more conventional main courses in addition to the tapas, which sound fine (pork cheek stew, crispy duck and brandy sauce, cod fillet with mussels and crab bisque) and, rather confusingly, some pasta dishes (tagliatelle with wild boar ragu). Amantia pitches itself as Spanish/Mediterranean although in reality it is Spanish with a few pasta dishes. I’d ditch the pasta and go for clarity.
If they can just inject some warmth into the place (because it was actually chilly too), turn down the lights, break up the space and do something about the bread, I’d go back. This corner of the city is already busy and is about to get a hell of a lot more competitive with Nosh & Quaff and Cosy Club getting ready to launch. Then nearby there is Fumo, and Chung Ying Central and somewhere called Adam’s etc.
The team at Amantia will need nerves of steel. I genuinely wish them well.
Dinner for two was about £70-£80.
- Amantia, 9-10 Bennett’s Hill, Birmingham, B2 5RS.
- T: 0121 643 3647