We review anonymously. It’s the only way.
Though there are frequent emails urging us to go here, there and everywhere, we habitually say no. The reason for that is simple. If restaurateurs knew we were coming, they’d treat us differently to you – the very people who rely on credible reviews when you’re deciding who deserves your hard-earned cash.
So we arrive without fanfare, we pay our own bills, we don’t offer egregious feedback when the waiter asked if we enjoyed our meal and then we pour it all out on the page.
Sometimes we’re rumbled, of course. The region’s biggest newspaper can’t leave the office without someone getting a sniff. And when we visited Ruga, in Birmingham’s China Town, we were caught out halfway through. Thankfully, by that time, we’d already formed our opinion.
Service was spectacular. A female restaurant manager had been politeness and efficiency itself, talking us through the menu, engaging in conversation and congratulating my partner when she’d opted for an authentic dish of frog’s legs – they eat them in China more often than France – rather than some faux, Westernised dish.
We’d also ordered and eaten our food, more to the point, as well as paying the bill, so there was no opportunity for them to influence.
And that’s just as well, because Ruga is a surefire standout. Chinese New Year kicks in today when more than a billion will celebrate the Year of the Rat.
In the West Midlands, a huge Chinese population will do that at Birmingham’s China Town, arguably Britain’s best outside London. It’s a thrilling area, just five minutes’ walk from New Street Station and adjacent to the Bullring. Local landmarks include a stone pagoda, donated by a prominent local Chinese business as well as Chinese architectural flourishes around the Arcadian and surrounding area.
Restaurants are multifarious and diverse. There’s a huge number offering high quality, authentic food dishes at remarkably low prices. So Chung Ying Garden does great dim sum, Café Soya is popular with vegetarians, Kyoto Sushi and Grill does great sushi and Toppoki pushes the envelope witih great Korean dishes. There are great desserts – check out Wah Kee Bakery and China Court Bakery – while Happy Lemon is as good as anywhere for drinks.
Ruga Bistro is among the contenders. It appears not to have a website – or, at least, there’s nothing on the first two pages of a popular search engine that begins with G, ends in E and has an oogl in the middle of it. It’s more a word-of-mouth place, a restaurant where those in the know gather for authentic dishes that are served with minimal fuss and maximum flavour.
I’ve only visited China once and restaurants could crudely be divided into those for namby pamby Westerners and those for locals.
The Westernised variety, in both Beijing and Shanghai, were predicated on sweet and sour, black bean sauce, chicken fillets and king prawns. Interior design was over-the-top and riddled with clichéd interpretations of the way the West sees China.
The restaurants for locals were far more interesting. Rather than fillet of this and fillet of that, they used every part of the animal. So dishes featured trotters and tripe, offal and gizzards, feet and tails; in short, every part of the animal was used except for the moo, oink and cock-a-doodle-doo.
Ruga Bistro owes more to those local restaurants than it does to the Westernised variety. Sure, there’s plenty of dishes that you’d recognise from your local takeaway, with the aforementioned sweet and sour, black bean sauce and other dishes that cater to our unadventurous palates.
But there’s also an extensive section that features what butchers like to call The Fifth Quarter – those flavoursome, rarely used parts of animals that tend to be thrown away despite being full of punch.
The provenance for those ingredients is great. Lest we forget, Chinatown has its own fish market, with a huge number of tanks teaming with live crustacean and plenty of yesterday-caught fish hunkered down on ice, while there’s a still-brilliant market within walking distance that offers everything from sheep’s heads to calves’ feet.
So at Ruga Bistro, you can enjoy trad dishes if you’re not feeling too adventurous, or you can eat like the Chinese by embracing the diversity and egalitarianism of their national cuisine.
We decided to do both.
I started with Chinese coconut milk, deliciously sweet and imported from China, before moving onto a plate of pork yuk sung.
Mince had been cooked quickly in the wok until tender, without being caramelised. I wasn’t sure why it was served with peas and sweetcorn – damn us foolish Westerners, we persuade chefs to pander too much to our tastes and end up losing stuff like water chestnuts, bok choy and white radish along the way.
My partner enjoyed a nourishing and simple bowl of crab and sweetcorn soup. Dense, starchy and wholesome, it was a deliciously satisfying culinary hug.
We moved onto mains. She ate frog’s legs that were served with chilli and a side of noodles that were as thin and delicate as angel hair. The legs were terrific. Plenty of work goes into extracting the meat but it was worth it.
I went Western, enjoying a plate of honey/chilli chicken with egg fried rice. The heat was gentle, the honey equally so. Thinly sliced vegetables completed the dish and the thin strands of chicken, coated in a crunchy batter, soaked up the red, sticky sauce. Lip-smackingly good.
We stuck around for dessert, eating a plate of rice balls with caramel sauce and a bowl of mango and grapefruit with sago and rice. The textures were glutinous and the flavours sweet.
Service was exceptional, the décor simple and even our modest three-course order created so much leftover food that we enjoyed a takeaway the following day.
In the Year of the Rat, there are plenty of great Chinese restaurants to enjoy. None are better in our region than those in China Town.
And Ruga Bistro is among the best in that exceptional part of Brum.
10 Pershore Street
0121 692 1928
Prawn cutlets, £8.80
Vegetable spring rolls, £4.80
Fried seaweed, £4.20
Duck in black pepper sauce, £9.90
Honey and chilli chicken, £9.30
Kung pao chicken, £9.30
Sesame balls, £4.90
Mango pomelo sago, £4.20
Coconut tapioca pudding, £3.80