Opheem, July 2020

Almost six years ago to the day I was sat in the Eiffel Tower, eating a wild strawberry vacherin dessert, in the Ducasse restaurant which once occupied the central section of the iconic landmark. That dessert was arguably the highlight of a very expensive lunch; a Ducasse signature, less well known than the baba, the vacherin is a tidier sibling of the pavlova or the Eton mess, with fruit and meringue and cream. The reason it dazzled was the gariguettes, my first experience of those prized wild strawberries that are vibrant and intensely sweet. I said it was the best strawberry dessert I’d ever eaten, which was likely true at the time, but certainly isn’t now. On my subsequent travels I’ve eaten far better strawberry desserts several times over. I ate better strawberries at Opheem last weekend.

But it’s relative, isn’t it? Six years ago, I had been to less than 10 Michelin starred restaurants, wasn’t on that much money, and was recovering from a severe road accident where I thought I may never walk properly again. We’d saved hard to go, dropping in our change into a box designed to save up for special occasions like eating in the bloody Eiffel bloody tower. Everything tastes better when it’s hard earned. I used to spend hours sat at my desk scouring menus on the internet for value in places to eat, then we had a good joint income and it became more about where we wanted to go and less to do with how much the these things actually cost. How very privileged. Now value is a factor again; as of last week I’m redundant. Until work comes my way I’m going to have to consider the final bill whilst the sum for twelve years service heading towards my bank slowly dwindles down.

The lunch menu at Opheem is value. £40 for three courses, with the nibbles in the bar, and the bread would be value by itself. Add half a bottle of wine per person and it’s up there for best value Michelin starred lunch in the country. I know, I check these things. We start in the bar area, gently throbbing with pre-lunch energy, with a bone dry negroni and canapés. An oyster emulsion with jalapeño juice and pickled onions, then a kind of caponata in a pastry case with just enough warming spice to remind you that this is an Indian restaurant at its core. A shard of flaxseed cracker dotted with gels of vinegar and mustard complete the opening scene. Claire remarks that it tastes like a burger, but I can’t be sure as I’ve lost my sense of taste and smell. This is a joke. I’ve just had a negroni; I feel great.

The dining room has always been spacious and here it proves no problem to socially distance, as staff on both floor and kitchen deliver dishes in a uniform which now includes branded face masks. We have milk bread with an onion butter studded with lamb offal. Then starters; one a zingy tartare of aged friesian beef which requires a little jaw work to get the best of the flavour out, the other bowl of pink fir potatoes, I think pickled then barbecued, with a puddle of tamarind purée and a foam of potato. We both agree we could eat a mixing bowl sized portion in front of the telly and be gladly content. It’s comfort food of the highest order.

We both take chicken for the mains because it closely resembles the jalfrezi dish which I had as my top dish of 2019, if not quite as magical; chicken breast cooked in a water bath them finished under the salamander to crisp up the crumb of reapplied skin. Charred spring onion, a baby onion stuffed with keema, a vivid green purée that tastes faintly of (I think) coriander and could be bumped up a little. On the side is a jug of makhani sauce which is the best makhani sauce you’ll ever try, anywhere, from any man, women, or child to make makhani sauce. The key to Aktar’s talent is to make the most familiar of flavours feel uniquely special.

In a callback from the first paragraph that only the most talented of unemployed writers looking for work can manage, you will now recall I had a strawberry dessert. It’s based on a lassi, but really it could have been a vacherin. The meringue is crisp, the strawberries with a deep hit of flavour and the faintest note of vinegar in the background. Take that Ducasse, you big old Frenchy. The other dessert was better. Pear and ginger and pandan, each a clear and distinct flavour which layers up and sings in harmony. It gets real murmurs of happiness as opposed to the fake ones I’m used to hearing. I try it. The murmurs for once are justified.

The wine is lovely. A buttery white and a red that is a true expression of what Tempranillo should be, leaving a bill for £110 for two that includes the negronis and service. Now, I have no idea what your financial situation is, but that sum of money is a relative bargain. To be sat in one of Birmingham’s six starred restaurants – in what I think is the best of the restaurants across the country in the Indian category – and have a meal of that standard is a steal. I’ve already agreed to come back twice in August with friends so that they too can experience it.

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