Rating: *** How does a girlie catch-up over tasty tapas and wine sound? Er, yes please, says our Emily Bridgewater, as she takes a trip to Byzantium.
Despite my dad’s best efforts to encourage an inquisitive mind, I did not excel in school history lessons.
The fabulous books, charting the rise and fall of the Greeks or the Romans, he lovingly wrapped and put under the Christmas tree every year were often cast aside in favour of a Cadbury’s selection box and the latest Sindy doll.
I’d still flick through the pages, lingering over the fashions of the day (gladiator sandals when there were actually gladiators, and togas before they became the thing to wear at American frat parties), but dates, names and places failed to stick.
But knowing your toga from your tunic, or your brooches from your breeches rarely got me through those pesky exam papers.
I was also a fan of myths and legends; tales of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus and other long extinct lands.
Which brings me to Byzantium, once the ancient Greek city which later became Constantinople and then modern Istanbul.
Byzantium always sounded the most exotic though – a place full of mysterious men in embellished winkle picker shoes, mouth-watering mezze and sultry souks paved with bricks of gold.
Slightly less exotic is the location of Byzantium, on York Road, in Birmingham’s up-and-coming suburb of Kings Heath.
It’s the kind of ‘burb you can see Phil and Kirstie trailing around in search of an airy, renovated period property for a young couple who can’t quite afford the neighbouring suburb of Moseley.
In fact, I think I’ve just summised a recently screened episode of Location, Location, Location. As Kirstie would be quick to point out, the good thing about Kings Heath – like Moseley – is there’s a nice variety of independent restaurants and shops, something the city centre depressingly lacks.
Byzantium’s a bit of a stalwart on the KH dining scene along with the neighbouring Kitchen Garden Café. There’s also Fletchers, a newly-opened wine bar (how very Del Boy circa 1988) and the hip Hare and Hounds pub, making the street a hive of nocturnal activity – harking back to when it was once home to the famous Ritz Ballroom gig venue in the 1960s.
Byzantium has recently got new owners so I decided to make my first visit there with a group of girlfriends on a Friday night. A catch-up over tapas was the plan and this place seemed the perfect fit.
Walking straight in from the street outside through a majestic purple door is like entering a friend’s front room; it’s fairly small and cosy and there’s a buzz of happy voices. It’s pretty plain but manages to still be enticing, the air heavy with exotic fragrances.
I didn’t realise until a trip to the little girls’s room that the restaurant also extends into another room, and all of the tables – other than ours – was occupied – surely a good sign?
We were seated straight away and profered menus and wine lists. We all agreed that cocktails were the order of the day chosing peach Bellinis and spritzs. At £4.95 each, neither featured any champers, instead its cheaper and, dare I say, preferable sister, spumante. They were still delicious, particularly the spritz (despite it looking a bit like Lucozade in a flute glass) which featured the Italian apertitif Aperol, tonic water and spumante. An ideal start to our evening.
We progressed to a bottle of house white wine which, at £13.50 a bottle, did what it said on the tin. If money had been no object then I’d probably have opted for the French Sancere at £35.75 a bottle however, there are plenty of other options – predominantly Spanish, French and Italian, priced somewhere inbetween.
The waitress – a bright young woman – talked us through the specials; it was refreshing to hear her talk with such enthusiasm and knowledge. So often waiting staff – even in high-end restaurants – run off a list of specials in robotic monotone and have to dash off the kitchen should you ask any questions off script. Instead it sounded as though she’d actually tasted and enjoyed each and every dish she described.
She suggested we order some flatbreads and dips to nibble on while we considered which tapas to order. All hungry, we were easily swayed. Quick to arrive, the enormous, charred flatbreads drapped over the sides of the plates like apathetic teenagers. They glistened with melted butter and were topped with herbs and pickled peppers, and came with dishes of hommous, tzatziki and zaalook.
Like vultures we all set upon the breads, ripping them haphazidly and smearing them with the array of dips. They were exceptional taking on a pancake texture and taste. They were filling and moreish – I could have grazed on them all day.
The zaalook was packed with the taste of smoky aubergines, coriander and paprika, while the cooling tzatziki was full of crunchy cucumber and fresh mint. I found the hommous a bit rustic but that’s more down to personal taste than fault of the chef. I prefer a creamier smoother paste but this was still fairly chunky with chickpeas, but flavoursome none the less.
There’s plenty of choice on the menu, which doesn’t just focus on Spanish tapas but the wider Med and Middle East. Specials of the evening included a dinky dish of Moroccan lamb and prune tagine, or braised artichokes with onion jam.
Other tempting tapas included meatballs in spicy tomato sauce; Manchego cheese with quince paste, and Greek salad – all priced reasonably around the five pound mark. Even the sirloin steak strips with blue cheese sauce wouldn’t break the bank at £6.95.
The waitress recommended we chose two dishes each, which to me sounded a tad conservative, but she promised we could order more should we need to. There was no sense that we needed to order, eat and leave, and that helped us all relax into the evening. So we chose an array of dishes and all vowed to share; my roving fork guaranteeing that this was honoured. For me at least.
The chorizo with chickpeas was a big hit; the sausage spiced but not too spicy had been expertly cooked so that it was tender but retained its bite.
I was also impressed by the halloumi salad featuring toasted slithers of salty cheese atop chargrilled Mediterranean veg and dotted with punchy basil oil. The Cypriot cheese was also the star of some very tasty skewers at the far end of the table.
A mound of patas bravas was some of the best I’ve had. The potatoes had been roasted until really crisp, seasoned with rock salt and then topped in a piquant tomato sauce. Utterly delicious.
Sadly, I didn’t get a look in for the chicken soulvaki as it was at the other end of the table but I can only take from the empty plate that it was a success.
My only real disappointment was the aubergine parmigana, which I ordered hastily when the waitress told me they were down to the last two portions. Done well, it’s one of my favourite dishes, turning the humble aubergine into a food of the gods when combining it with tomato sauce and unctuous cheese. However, on this occasion the aubergine was a bit watery and the portion seemed mean compared to some of the others. Most significantly, it lacked the gooey, cheesiness I was so craving.
On the other hand, a dish of feta, spinach and potato tortilla seemed overly hearty, richly smothered in a creamy aioli and caramelised onion jam. Along with a green salad, it would have made a handsome meal in itself.
It was thanks to the generally abundant portions we did not need to order any more, andneither could we face dessert despite temptations including cheesecake and creme catalan – all priced at £4.95.
We finished off our wine and called time on a very pleasant evening indeed. The food tasted as though it had been cooked with love and served with real passion.
I may not have been very good at history at school but this is one place and date I am sure to remember.
Byzantium, 11 York Rd, King's Heath, Birmingham, West Midlands B14 7SA
Tel: 0121 4445444