The Custard Factory, Birmingham, UK

Best Tapas in Brum? Rico Libre Birmingham Review

Tapas, the favourite of sociable diners, has as many origin stories as it has small plates. One of the most popular tales of its invention claims that all the way back in the thirteenth century, King Alfonso X of Castille found that while he was recuperating from an illness, he could only eat and drink in small amounts. Upon his recovery, Alfonso lived up to his nickname of The Wise King of Spain and decreed that no wine should be served without food. This resulted in one of the first forms of tapas. 

Another common story harks back to the original meaning of the word "tapa" in Spanish, meaning “a cover” or “a lid”. Since tapas bars used to be standing-only affairs, people who ordered a snack had nowhere to put their plate but on top of their glass - their plate acted as a cover or lid for their drink. This didn't just free up one of your hands for eating, it also prevented fruit flies from hovering over the tipple of choice in such bars, which was a sweet sherry. Originally, ham or chorizo were the most popular tapas choices, a sneaky choice by barmen as they are both very salty (just like the peanuts you often get in pubs and chop houses these days). They activated the thirst of the punters and encouraged them to drink more, meaning more sales and higher profits for the tapas bars. Eventually, the tapas became just as important as the sherry and the sophisticated cuisine that we know and love today was born. 

For those of you wanting to eat your fill of tapas in Leicester can easily head to The Cosy Club for a small plate fix, but if you're in Birmingham, there's an independent restaurant guaranteed to tickle your fancy...

Rico Libre tapas Custard Factory Birmingham review

Welcome to Rico Libre

Billing themselves as offering "tapas with a twist", Rico Libre are an established Brummie institution, and they have recently relocated from Barn Street to The Custard Factory in Digbeth. The Custard Factory gets its name from its location - the old Bird's custard factory was originally located at the site. This is now a really up and coming area, it is home to an endless variety of creative hubs, cool cafes, independent shopping retailers, and even a hairdressers-cum-bar! During my visit The Custard Factory, we stumbled across an indie art market selling everything from prints to handmade fudge. There really is something for everyone! We were similarly impressed by the relaxed and friendly surroundings of the Rico Libre restaurant itself. As part of their move from Barn Street, Rico Libre teamed up with existing Digbeth giant Kanteen to host pop-up restaurants in their Custard Factory venue from Wednesday to Sunday. The venue is an ideal place for gatherings - a large group also dining during our visit seemed to be having a great time. But what did we have to eat? Keep scrolling to find out.

Custard Factory Birmingham Digbeth review
Birmingham's Custard Factory venue, located in Digbeth
Kanteen Custard Factory Digbeth Birmingham review
Rico Libre in its new home at Kanteen

At the Starting Line

We kicked off our Rico Libre experience with a couple of dishes from the starters menu. First came Pan de Barra (£3.80) which comprised freshly baked bread with Kalamata & Halkidiki olives and balsamic oil. Full marks have to be given for the freshness and lightness of the bread, it was absolutely delicious and certainly the highlight of the plate. The light, seedy loaf had clearly been made that day and it was served warm, which made dipping it into the sweet yet tart balsamic even more enjoyable. The portion of olives and oil provided certainly couldn't be sniffed at but just three small pieces of the bread seemed a little meagre. You can order additional bread to come with your starter to bulk it out a little but this would've set you back a further £1.50. The quality of this dish was truly excellent, it was just a shame about the quantity.

Being the cheese-aholic that I am, I just couldn't resist choosing Baked Camembert (£7.50) from the menu! And I couldn't have made a better selection. The cheese was served at the perfect consistency for dipping and it was seasoned with just the right amount of herbs and garlic. The smell of the seasonings filled the entire restaurant as the cheese was cooking - I'm sure I wasn't the only person dining that night whose mouth started watering before the cheese even made it to our table! The delectable smell of the dish definitely raised my expectations sky high and the taste sure didn't disappoint. The quality of the cheese was second to none and I enjoyed every bite. I have just one complaint about the dish: £7.50 isn't the cheapest price for a starter, so I expected the cheese to be served with enough bread or crudités to mop it all up. However, the four slithers of garlic toast that came with our Camembert barely touched the sides - we had to scoop up most of the cheese with a knife and fork. There were a few thin carrot sticks and lettuce leaves on the side but these weren't ideal for dipping, they were much too thin. Some more substantial carrot or celery sticks would have been preferable. With a little more thought going into the accompaniments, this dish would be a total knockout.

Rico Libre tapas baked camembert Pan de Barra
Baked Camembert (left) and Pan de Barra (centre)

The Main Event

After loading up on starters, we were more than ready to dive into mains. As a vegetarian, I was delighted to see numerous veggie options on the standard menu at Rico Libre, as well as a vegetarian item on the specials board. From the main menu, I chose Pisto (£5.50). This Spanish ratatouille, which hails from the region of Murcia, is a popular traditional side dish containing tomatoes, onions, aubergine, courgettes, peppers and olive oil. Rico Libre's pisto was lightly flavoured with cumin and chilli flakes. There was enough of a kick of spice for it to be noticeable but it was not overpowering - the chef receives high praise from me for this! The vegetables were delicately cooked to a tender consistency without being mushy. The pisto was especially delicious when combined with the milder flavours of the Tortilla de Patatas (£7.50) which I ordered alongside it. If you opt for this dish, don't expect a Mexican style tortilla taking the form of a flatbread. A Spanish Tortilla de Patatas is a thick omelette made with eggs and potatoes. This was another cheesy option as it was served with grilled Brie on the top. If eaten alone, I think this dish may have been a little bland but it provided the perfect base for other items with stronger flavours. I would still recommend it because after all, the beauty of tapas is found in combining dishes in this way!

My boyfriend, who does eat meat and fish, was also spoiled for choice with the Rico Libre menu. His first choice was Mussels in White Wine Cream (£8.50), flavoured with garlic and served with crusty bread. My boyfriend commented that the mussels were served in a thicker sauce than he has experienced in restaurants before and he felt that the dish was enhanced because of it. The mussels were tenderly chewy and salty and received a glowing review. Next he selected the Grilled Lamb Chops (£8.50) from the specials menu, which were served with a pesto mint sauce. These were excellently cooked to a medium-well consistency and the quality of the meat was praised, but the smoky seasoning may have been added a little heavy handedly. It was laid quite thickly onto the meat, meaning that the texture was slightly powdery on the top. The flavour of the seasoning overpowered the much more delicate mint of the accompanying sauce - my boyfriend commented that he simply couldn't taste it. Nevertheless, he did enjoy both dishes and said that he'd definitely return to try more from the Rico Libre menu.

Rico Libre tapas Birmingham review Pisto tortilla de patatas
Pisto (left) and Tortilla de Patatas (right)

Something sweet

Our time at Rico Libre definitely ended on a high note with the dessert menu. Only two dishes were on offer during our visit so we opted to try both. The Crème Catalan (£5.00), the Spanish version of France's famous creme brûlée, was my firm favourite. I'm not usually the biggest creme brûlée fan as the texture often puts me off, but the thick, creamy custard filling of this dish really hit the spot. The creaminess of the interior contrasted perfectly with the thin crust of caramelized sugar added to the top. This provided the perfect crunch and was extremely moreish. The portion size again was small, served in a dinky ramekin, but as the dessert was rich, you wouldn't want much more than this. I'd return to Rico Libre for their Crème Catalan alone! The Mousse de Maracuya (£5.00), a passionfruit mousse in a chocolate cup, was very pleasant with a luxuriously velvety texture. Like all of Rico Libre's dishes, our desserts were attractively presented - the chefs clearly took pride in what they were sending out to diners which was great to see.

Kanteen Rico Libre tapas Brum review
Rico Libre's quirky, chilled decor
Rico Libre tapas grilled lamb chops
Grilled Lamb Chops

Dining at Rico Libre: What you need to know

Food comes out as and when it's ready, in a similar way to Leicester's Tamatanga restaurant. This meant that all of the food arrived at our table piping hot and fresh from the kitchen. Happily, we didn't experience any issues with waiting around for certain dishes, as can happen with this kind of set up. Everything was served very promptly.

Three main dishes per person are recommended, which is advice that I would definitely follow. Because my boyfriend and I both had starters and desserts, two main dishes per person more than satisfied us, but if you are only ordering mains, three per person would certainly be the right number. 

You cannot purchase alcohol at Rico Libre as they do not have a license to serve it, but diners are welcome to bring their own along. The only requirement is that you spend £17 per person, which is perfectly reasonable. Since neither my boyfriend nor I are big drinkers, we opted to enjoy a couple of soft drinks during our visit and found plenty of options on the menu to satisfy us. 

Staff are really friendly and helpful, we felt well looked after during our time at Rico Libre. I had a few questions about the food and the waiting staff were only to happy too chat to me about what was on offer. They couldn't do enough for us. The only issue that we experienced was that our soft drink order was forgotten and we had to ask twice for it to be brought to our table. However, this certainly didn't spoil our experience and I would visit Rico Libre again.

You can find Rico Libre at The Custard Factory, Unit 17, Gibb St, Birmingham, B4 9AA.

*My meal at Rico Libre was complimentary in exchange for an Instagram post. I was not required to produce this blog post on the experience.