The area around St. Paul’s Square in the Jewellery Quarter is thriving at the moment, with new places popping up pretty regularly. A long-standing member of this collection of bars and restaurants is Cucina Rustica, an independently run Italian. I will always have a soft spot for Cucina, as it was the first place Jack and I ever ate out at together in Birmingham – and since then, we’ve returned a number of times and recommended it whenever friends are searching for the perfect date-night. A couple of weeks ago I was invited down with a few other food bloggers to trial the plans for a tasting menu accompanied with a wine pairing ‘masterclass’, run by Columbier Wines. Needless to say, I was looking forward to the event – read on to find out if my expectations were met…
The interior of Cucina Rustica is traditional and romantic, with a single red rose on every table and low lighting. After a glass of fizz and some beautiful foccacia bread, the starters were brought out. Ju and Michelin from Columbier wines began with an introduction to wine tasting and the basic techniques, starting with a stunning frascati. Unfortunately, this tasting wasn’t well-timed, as our starters were in front of us going cold and we were torn between eating and joining in with the wine. This, however, was ironed out by wine number two. My veggie starters – spiced pear and goat’s cheese, mushroom and goat’s cheese in a tomato sauce and aubergine with mozzarella – were all winners. The portions were perfect sizes, and I think even some of the meat-eaters were jealous of the selection.
In between the starter and main the meat-eaters were served a gorgeous looking selection of anti-pasti – however, once again, I certainly didn’t pull the veggie short straw, as I was served insalata tri-colore. This classic combo of avocado, buffalo mozzarella and tomato was spot on, with the cheese being incredibly soft and the avo perfectly ripe. So far, so good on the veggie front. By this second course, Ju and Michelin had found their groove, and the wine tasting was going down a hit.
Unfortunately, things started to go a little down hill when the first round of mains were served. As a veggie option, my plate was mushroom risotto and vegetable tortellini. The risotto was described as being in a light cream sauce, however it was in fact incredibly thick and far too rich, even for me. The tortellini was very edible, but the filling was nondescript and it seemed a shame to use the same tomato sauce that had appeared in my starter, which, as it happens, really reminded me of Heinz tomato soup (no bad thing, perhaps?!). With two pretty stodgy, rich mains to tackle, I didn’t manage much – this, compared to the delicate and much smaller meat options, seemed a shame.
Onto round two of the mains. Again, the meat-eaters were brought out a trio of small tasting portions, that had been perfectly paired with the wines – in this instance, an incredibly crisp and delicate pinot noir. My veggie option, to my disappointment, was another round of stodge; vegetable risotto and gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce. None of the 4 veggie mains that I had sampled were particularly offensive (none excited me either), but these dishes certainly do not work on a tasting menu – by this point I could manage a mouthful of each and regretted even those.
Thank-fully, there was a bit more of a break before dessert. Ju and Michelin served the group Visanto del Chianti Classico, an Italian dessert wine that has to be one of the best dessert wines I’ve ever tried. This wine was intense and silky without being sickly (a thing which I was very glad of by this point in the evening). When the trio of desserts did arrive, I tried a little of each and can confirm they were all delicious – I only wish I’d had more room for them! The hot chocolate fondant took first prize for me, with a warm oozing centre and light sponge. The tiramisu and cheesecake were also spot on, so I’d definitely recommend ordering dessert on any visit!
Overall, since this was a ‘trial’ of the proposed tasting menu and wine pairing session, my conclusion would be that this kind of set-up certainly works in theory, but if a vegetarian version is going to be offered it needs a lot more thought! Four heavy, carb-y mains in one meal just isn’t what you want from a tasting menu, and the struggle of giving them all a go spoilt the experience – and believe me, this isn’t a small person issue here – I can definitely put it away! As a concept, however, the evening was a success, with a large group having a lot of fun and learning a lot about the wines along the way, thanks to the lovely Ju and Michelin. Thank you to everyone at Cucina for having us!