Food review: Casa Ruiz, Bridgnorth
For a taste of Spain head to a town with a restaurant serving up tasty tapas. Andy Richardson enjoyed a night out with flavours of the Med. . .
The floor runs south like ley lines squiggling their way to the Antarctic. A rickety old building, off Bridgnorth’s High Street, that was probably built around the time that witches were tied to chairs and soaked in rivers, houses the town’s delightfully friendly tapas bar.
It’s stood the test of time. Casa Ruiz has seen off young pretenders and remains a perennial favourite among Bridgnorth’s gourmandising cognoscenti. It’s a delightful little space: all low ceilings, mind-your-head-on-the-staircase and frilly little drapes that cover the windows as though you’re in some seedy, backstreet Bilbao diner. All it needed was a pair of Vincent-and-Flavia lookalikes to dance a steamy Argentine tango and it would have scored a 10-10 for authenticity.
The county is well served by tapas bars – there’s a decent one in Shrewsbury, too – and the point of any such bar isn’t simply food. As the burghers of San Sebastian know only too well, good tapas is as much about atmosphere as it is about albodingas. And the vibes were bang on when my friend and I visited Casa Ruiz for a midweek supper.
Three tables were full of chat and bonhomie. Friends were telling tall stories as patatas bravas and generous glasses of Spanish red were ferried to the table by an exquisite and accomplished restaurant manager. It was a back-slapping, high-fivin’, belly-laughing, good-timing, two-drinks-away-from-turning-into-a-party emporium.
The restaurant manager was fantastic. Though she’d got a good crowd in, the odds were stacked against her. An ordering issue meant half of the menus on the item – including most of the ones that we were going to choose – were off the menu. In such circumstances, you’d reasonably imagine the scores on the doors would start to plummet from a solid eight to a miserable four.
After all, what’s the point of a restaurant if you can’t eat what you fancy? It’s like going to a football match and being told you can watch the groundsman mow the grass instead and maybe if you’re lucky, he’ll also mark out the white lines.
Mrs Brilliant, however, was having none of that. She came to our table and revealed her inadequacy. Apologising profusely – to the point where I thought ‘hang on, it’s just a chorizo, don’t sweat it’ – she told us the dishes that were off because of an unexpectedly busy start to the week and an ordering policy that clearly didn’t involve the participation of an efficient delivery man.
And so we ate food that we didn’t expect to eat: pulled chicken and chorizo tacos instead of shells stuffed with pork and beef, mushrooms instead of little baby squid, you know the drill.
My friend was pleased that the squid weren’t in the house. They were baby squid and she got mildly squeamish about that. “But they haven’t lived a life yet,” she said, like a no-good vegetarian ignoring the complex food chain and the fact that sharks and whales feast on squid like drunk pigs eat windfall apples in cider orchards. But I digress.
The food was decent. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t stand out, like the service. And it won’t leave any lasting impression or store itself in my memory banks like a first kiss with Helen Williams, buying New Order’s Substance in 1987 or telling my infant school teacher that while the other kids thought Kenny Dalglish was a hero, my old man was worth two of him. But it was okay.
I started with jamon iberico, cured ham produced in Spain from pigs that feasted on acorns. Lucky pigs. Lucky me. The ham was tender and sweet. Dressed lightly with olive oil and a scattering of chopped herbs, it was as succulent as the inside of a de-seeded pumpkin; as gelatinous and more-ish as the pan drippings from a slow-roasted shoulder of something meaty. Deep russet in colour, like autumn leaves in New England, it was delicious. When ingredients are that good, there’s no need to do anything to them. Serve them on a wooden board and let the diners enjoy.
Deep fried battered balls of cheese, ham and chorizo were less impressive. The ham wasn’t great. It had the same unappealing texture as the sliced stuff in supermarkets. There wasn’t much chorizo either, though the cheese had melted and oozed until it formed a small yellow-orange slick of salty outrageousness.
My tacos were reasonable. The Great Bridgnorth Beef and Pork Famine of 2017 – which is ironic, given that Casa Ruiz is situated above a butcher’s shop. . . Where’s common sense and a quick visit to the shops when you need it? – meant a new version was making its debut. The chef had knocked up a pulled chicken and chorizo stew with a few beans and veg, then stuffed them into some of El Paso’s finest shells. Pots of salsa and cheese with a few strategically placed corn chips were served alongside it. It was fine, the sort of thing people whip up at home. Finesse was on a night off – I think she’d pulled a sickie – but the flavours weren’t bad.
My friend’s plan to order a smorgasbord of fish dishes was scuppered by The Great Bridgnorth Fish Famine of 2017 – yeah, yeah, yeah, which is odd because. . . – but she soldiered on.
Prawns were plump like a fat man’s fingers, mushrooms were earthy like an autumn wood and her bowl of patatas bravas was towering. Fuller than a student’s washing up bowl after a heavy night on the sauce, she gamely ploughed half way through the most generous portion of potatoes and spicy tomato sauce before juddering to a halt, like a vintage Jaguar whose cam belt has given up the ghost.
We stayed for pud. A baked strawberry cheesecake was light, fruity and sweet. Good work, chef. And an almond tart was equally delicious. Moist with just the right degree of wobble, it was heaven-sent. The restaurant manager, bless her, told me it didn’t matter if I left it – because she’d finish the lot. No chance. A clean plate was returned to the kitchen and my friend and I left with smiles on our faces and full tummies.
Great service elevates Casa Ruiz’s score from a six to an eight – the restaurant manager was THAT good. When service is that warm, that engaged and that sincere, it doesn’t really matter if the kitchen and the delivery man can’t quite get it together.