Food review: Amantia, Bennetts Hill, Birmingham – 4/5 stars
Serving up traditional Spanish food in stylish surroundings, Amantia is just the spot for a romantic meal, James Driver-Fisher finds out more. . .
It was quite strange being sat at a window table in Birmingham city centre just as the evening was getting into full swing, and the pubs and bars were filling up.
We tend to go to the pub on the rare Saturday evening we’re child-free, but on this occasion my wife and I were about to enjoy a romantic meal together.
Amantia Spanish restaurant in Bennetts Hill is a queit spot on a lively drag of pubs and eateries. It’s still busy and was almost full when we arrived at around 7pm, but as soon as you walk through the doors there’s a gentle, calm atmosphere.
You know it’ll be a place where you can have a relaxed conversation over a meal, taking your time – eating the Mediterranean way.
And when you think of Spanish cuisine, you immediately think of paella or tapas. Well, I do anyway. The problem, however, always lies in which one to choose.
The paella is served for a minimum of two people, so it meant we’d both have to make the same choice. Types of paella included ones with chicken and rabbit, fish and seafood, the black rice version with squid ink – which sounded very interesting – or the vegetarian option.
On most days, any of these would have been a perfect main course but seeing as my wife, Kelly and I were out on our own for the first time in months – with our daughter, Annabelle enjoying a sleepover at her aunt’s – we decided to push the boat out and get a bit adventurous with the tapas options. But where to start? There was so much choice it was almost mind blowing, but in a good way.
After ordering lovely bottle of Rioja to share, we set about forming an action plan on what to eat. The suggestion was five or six tapas dishes to share between two, so we went for five but with a couple of side dishes from the starter menu too.
The simplicity of the Catalan-style bread, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil caught the eye, and we added some sautéed potatoes for good measure.
Other appealing starters included manzanilla olives from Seville, toasted bread with chorizo spread from Guijueio, fried broad beans, corn or almonds, or marinated anchovies in olive oil, vinegar, garlic and parsley.
There were around 10-12 options in three categories – meat, fish and vegetarian – to choose from.
Acorn-fed lberian ham, chorizo, salchichon, venison and wild boar cured meats sounded tempting, while the creamy chicken puff pastry empanadas and Cordoba signature dish of bread, garlic, vinegar, tomato purée served with Serrano ham and a boiled egg were intriguing to say the least.
But in the end we went for Conejo a la Jardinera – slow-roasted rabbit in vegetable gravy, and Carrillada Iberica – and Iberian pork cheek stew slow-cooked in red wine sauce and homemade vegetable gravy, from the meat section.
First things first, the rabbit was one of the nicest dishes we’ve ever tasted. It was one of those mouthfuls where you have to pause to allow your tastebuds to catch up with your brain.
Rabbit, I’ve been told, can be an easy dish to get wrong; the animal is so muscular, it takes a while for the meat to break down. Get it wrong, and it’s like chewing leather. But get it right and you’ve got arguably the tastiest meat going.
Chefs at Amantia have got it nailed. The soft meat was doused in lashing of the vegetable gravy, which had a wonderful flavour on its own. I used the sauce to cover some of the other dishes, it was that good.
The slow-cooked pork cheek was also tasty but the gravy was more bland. The meat was well cooked but there was a lot of bone too. I elected to get stuck in with my hands and tear the meat off, while Kelly was more reserved and used a knife and fork. Each to their own.
If you’re a fan of exotic cheeses, the vegetarian tapas selection is certainly worth a browse. The manchego, sujaria, picos blue and Idiazabal cheeseboard is one option, along with fried potatoes in spicy sauce, sheep’s cheese, oven-baked aubergines in layers of aromatic tomato and herb sauce, cold green vegetables – aubergines, courgettes and mixed peppers – mixed and marinated in Mediterranean herbs, and chickpeas, kidney and butter bean salad, chopped tomatoes and onions, served in a lemon and coriander dressing.
We went for Tortilla de Patata – a traditional Spanish potato, egg and onion omelette, which is always a lovely accompaniment to any meal.
Cutting off a wedge of the tortilla and then drizzling some of the leftover rabbit-infused vegetable gravy worked beautifully.
The waiter delivered our tapas in sections, so we had the meat and vegetable dishes followed by the fish and potatoes. We could have had them all at once but we decided having two meals would be quite interesting.
There was lots of weird and wonderful dishes to choose from in the fish and seafood options too, which included green lip mussels topped with fresh chopped tomatoes, onions, coriander and homemade vinaigrette; and octopus, baby spinach, sundried tomatoes, red onion and walnut salad.
There were also more ‘ordinary’ dishes, such as fishcakes, king prawns in tempura butter and salmon steak. Kelly loves sea bass, so lubina en papillote – sea bass fillet oven-baked in foil with olive oil and herbs – was a must and we followed that up with Cazon en Adobo, which was fried, marinated rock salmon dumplings served with alioli.
The sea bass was great. It was a whole piece of fish that had been cooked to give it a crispy, garlic flavour but there was no need for too many herbs because underneath the flesh tasted superb on its own. Meaty and springy, with the crispy coating, it was a lovely dish.
The dumplings were pretty much posh scampi but I didn’t get much of a look in with the alioli, which is hands down Kel’s favourite sauce.
Whatever they’d been marinated in worked really well and there was also a hint of lemon that helped to bring through more of fish’s flavour.
It dawned on me, with the fish dishes and sautéed potatoes being served at the same time, we were eating a Spanish equivalent of fish and chips.
It made for a lovely second half of the meal, but the rabbit was still by far the best dish of the night.
For those who fancy ordering just a main course meal, the venue also has a main menu serving the likes of Solomillo al Queso, a 9oz beef fillet in Picos de Europa cheese; Carrillada Ibérica, Iberian pork cheek stew cooked in red wine and homemade vegetable gravy; Lubina en Papillote, seabass fillet oven baked in foil with olive oil and herbs; or Salmon a la Romesco, salmon steak in Romesco sauce – a typical Catalonian red pepper and nut sauce.
They are bit more pricey but I’m sure very tasty, if the tapas dishes were anything to go by.
And for those who really want to make a night of it, the restaurant also hosts flamenco nights, where professional dancers put on an evening show.
So if you fancy something a bit different next time you’re going out, it would be worth trying Amantia.