We start this piece on Opheem right at the start of the meal. It is where all of my pieces should probably start but never do, given my tendency to try to hook your attention with a story about my upbringing, my alive parent, my dead parent, or that one time I went to bandcamp. Right now we have food to talk about – a lot of food – so we’ll jump straight in at the start; us sat on one of the large circular tables, peering through the large letter ‘O’ which frames the open kitchen where chef Aktar Islam and his brigade are hard at work. Aktar is hunched over the pass, the quiff of his thick black hair fallen forward like a curtain between his face and the dining room. We on the other hand are a glass of champagne down, happily watching this in serenity under the slowly fading light. The first canapes arrive; duck ham with orange is wrapped around a feather, compressed cucumber with a little spice, a tart with the lightest of cheese mousse inside. A cube of toasted bread is next, the inside filled with bone marrow, the top with fig and onion. The flavour is huge. Then the lamb paté, though now the bread has changed to a brioche made with lamb fat and topped with crispy onions. If the kitchen look like they are hard at work it’s because we haven’t got to the first course yet. The generosity towards diners often talked about At Opheem has never been more noticeable.
What is just as noticeable is how far this restaurant has come in a short amount of time. The swagger is there, rippling from the kitchen to the front of house, each knowing that Opheem has gone from a restaurant with a serious amount of potential to one that is fully realising it. It appears to this untrained eye that every detail has been readdressed and improved where needed; that bread and pate course probably didn’t need changing from the sweet potato bread, but they’ve gone and bettered it with the lamb-fat-brioche-thingy. It takes bollocks to do that. Massive bollocks the size of the ‘O’ on the pass window, and the slightly bigger ‘O’ outside on the wall. One is always bigger than the other; they’ve even got that bit of detail right.
Now before we get on to real food I will offer an apology of sorts: when the outside gets dark, so does the inside of here. What started off as great lighting for a food blog quickly turned into my phone not knowing whether to flash or not, a problem I constantly have to fight with myself. So sorry if the food doesn’t look as good as it should. The first course is tandoori carrot, with pickled carrot, carrot puree, spiced carrot soup, carrot tuile, and lentil pakora, because everyone knows you don’t put carrot in a pakora (I have no idea). The dish shimmers with vibrancy; undeniably carrot, it zips between the light acidic notes, the sweeter ones, and the gentle hum of cumin. The tuile at first seemed superflous, though the charcoal in it worked at accentuating the notes from the tandoor, which is why they are top chefs and I’m a prick with a keyboard. The soft shell crab follows; it’s a bonafide classic which made my top five dishes of last year and if anything has only got better.
We move onto a scallop the size of a babies fist, cooked one side only to a crust and drapped in lardo that slowly spoons the side of the shellfish as the fat warms through. It sits in a broth made from the off-cuts off the kitchen; the vegetable waste, prawn heads, gnarly bits of back bacon, spiced and then sharpened with a variety of lime I’ve never heard of so that it has a smokey hot and sour soup vibe to it. Thinking about it now it was probably my favourite course. I liked it a lot more than the cornet of red pepper ice cream dotted with green strawberry that follows, mostly because it reminded me of sucking on a paper cut, a reference that my other half described as ridiculous. Stone Bass is next, the fillet cooked accurately and the head meat a rillette underneath cut with lots of garlic. The courgette puree and pieces of baby veg, along with the potato fondant could have been classically french until the sauce of raw mango and coconut is poured tableside. This brings everything to life, adding a fragrant and perfumed quality to an already stellar dish.
Then there are the two main meat courses. First up is chicken jalfrezi which is about as traditional as I am modest. The Cotswold breast meat has been cooked sous vide and then finished off under the salamander with a topping of the chicken skin, a little fat (I think) and a little spice. This sits on a ‘keema’ of the pulled bits of the bird, heavily spiced and very possibly in my list of favourite things I’ve ever eaten. If Claire wants the broth for lunch everyday then I want a vat of this. A keema this spicy and tasty doesn’t just make your day, it makes your hole weak. The rest of the plate pays homage to the traditions of the dish without needing to go down the route of cast iron bowls and menus under glass tables for authenticity; a red pepper and naga chilli puree, shallots pickled and then charred, spring onion, one of those complex sauces which Aktar has rightly built his career (and previous tenures) upon. By now I’m praying to the food god to offer some relief, though he doesn’t exist so it’s on to the lamb. Barbecued loin, bread filled wih confit shoulder meat, the most morish of ‘kebabs’ rolled-up and coated in crispy onions, courgette, and a bone marrow sauce cut with enough herb oil to give it the acidity it needs. I was going to avoid mentioning the M word in this piece, but this is one star cooking, absolutely no questions about it.
Aktar comes to the table. He’s got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, he’s got whozits and whatzits galore. The trick of poaching the chai flavoured mousse in nitrous oxide might be straight out of The Fat Duck, but it works; the meringue-like structure dissapates on the tongue, leaving nothing but the notes of cinnamon and cardamon. From there we have the highest quality of cherries with sweet cheese that has been quickly frozen to an ice cream-like state, a riff on a Feast ice lolly filled with mango and coconut, and finish off with a rich ball of chocolate and raspberry. Yes, they are showing off but they have every right to; the quality of desserts here has increased dramatically of late.
The sum of this is what Claire would describe as the second best meal she’s eaten in her four years in Birmingham. It’s not difficult to see why; the cooking has gone up a notch in a short time, with those premium ingredients treated with the respect they warrant. Birmingham has a plethora of brilliant restaurants, each doing their own thing, carving their own path. Based on what we ate over this glorious evening Opheem has to be mentioned with the very best of them.
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