Asian

Dishoom, Birmingham

The interior of Dishoom is a throbbing hive of clinking cutlery and conversation. As I peruse the menu a waiter passes me bearing a tray full of chai, then reappears, as if by magic, from the same side bearing more. It is an atmosphere which echoes the Iranian style of cafe in Mumbai from which Dishoom is modelled, a city within a country that I have visited and love. My girlfriend knows more about the city previously known as Bombay than I do; understands it’s culture far more than I ever will. She has been to Mumbai on multiple occasions. She sponsors the education of a child she has never met at a school there, one whose grades are deteriorating by the year and who she perseveres with when I suggest otherwise. She has an internal commitment to the betterment of the area, just like Dishoom, who donate two meals (one in India, the other in the UK) for every meal purchased.

That opening paragraph was tough, but I think I’ve covered most of Foodie Boys guide to writing a food blog, and if I haven’t, then I’m sorry, I’m just really not very good at this. I went on a press trip with Dishoom in January and whilst others were asking important questions, I was doubling-up on the free drinks and standing under signs in the Kings Cross site that read ‘Simon Go Back’. What I did get was the sense of a business wanting to do things the right way; to give back to those in need, and to bring communities together over food. When Simon eventually did go back, he did so drunkenly muttering about wanting to work for such inspiring owners. Yes, I did just reference myself in third person and kiss the arse of the business I’m about to write about. I’m pathetic.

So the food. We’ve been a few times now, twice for breakfast (one time far superior to the other) and once for lunch. All three over soft launch periods with 50% discount on food that will make me overlook the bits they fell short on. At breakfast they have quite the reputation for the bacon naans and so they should, given the quality of the bacon, and the supple bread which houses cream cheese and the addictive tomato chilli jam. Don’t overlook the eggs on chilli cheese toast that is kejriwal, or the akuri scrambled eggs that punch with spice. We have the Big Bombay that has parts we love and parts we don’t. Of those we love we build our own buns of peppery sausage and more of that scrambled egg. At £12.50 I’d suggest more enjoyment would be had from two bacon naans.

Lunch brings more happiness. Murgh malai is an ode to tenderising chicken thighs over lengthy marinades, and produces a must order of soft, slightly smokey meat. Likewise the black daal must be taken; a dark and brooding affair, cooked slowly overnight until the lentils fray at the shell and offer no bite. It’s rich and addictive and worthy of the individual box on the menu. I could take you to other places in the city for better chana, but none that I’m aware have the foresight to serve it with sweetened carrot halwa and batons of pickled veg that when loaded on to the puffy fried bread add contrast and depth to the gingery chickpea curry. It’s a genuine game changer.

Back in January Naved Nassir, the group’s executive chef, spoke of the pressure of coming to a city that has curry at its very foundation. Perhaps it’s why they choose to put a curry as the Birmingham special. The base, a gravy with heady notes of clove, cinnamon, and cashew, is the vehicle for slow braised mutton that quite literally falls from the bone. To say it reminds me of a korma cooked by a very young Aktar Islam gives you an idea of how highly I regard it. The same for the technical workmanship involved with making the roomali roti that holds the chicken tikka. The detail is as impressive as the taste, which, given the size of the operation, is impressive in itself.

Three separate meals each with 50% off, the most of which is around £40 without booze. And herein lies my personal conflict; am I likely to pay the full £80 at lunch when the same sum gets me food and wine for two at the immaculate Opheem? Probably not. But I can see it being a permanent fixture for breakfast, a regular stop off for a one-dish lunch, and the occasional dinner with friends. But this isn’t about me. It’s about Birmingham finally being taken seriously by the big-hitters from the capital, how it’s still attractive in the middle of global pandemic to be here, and how the city have already repaid that faith by packing it out before they properly open the doors next week. Dishoom could have played it safe and yet they’ve gone all in. I have a feeling the hand is going to play out well.

We take A2B to get from A to B

Sabai Sabai, Harborne

“I might not make it for dinner tonight” – a text from my friend reads – “I’m in A&E after falling through a false ceiling”. And there underneath the text was a picture of the hole he had fallen through for evidence, all fourteen or so stone of him, and a second, more gruesome one, of an open gash. I won’t share it, because it’ll ruin your appetite and frankly that’s my job, but it looked nasty; like one of those fake plastic cuts you pick up at Halloween when you want to make a bit of an effort but not quite go the whole hog. Or Katie Hopkins as she prefers to be called.

As it was he does turn up, getting to the restaurant mere seconds after we arrive, followed by his less accidental wife some minutes afterwards. “I’m starving” he tells us whilst lifting his forearm to show the stitched-up skin covered by dressing. We have prawn crackers and I get sweet chilli sauce down my shirt, then more prawn crackers, then the first of three bottles of red. He orders too much food for us all; chargrilled giant prawns the length of your hand in a zingy, spicy sauce. Then a meat platter with shredded duck rolls, crispy chicken wings, spare ribs, and the kind of lamb chops I’ve been missing all lockdown. Smokey and tender and caught on the edges, served with a sweet and garlicky pineapple salsa.

Top tip for the next time you find yourself in a Thai restaurant; ask for a dipping pot of Thai soy sauce with a squeeze of lime, loads of birds eye chillis and some diced shallot. It makes everything come alive. Also top tip; don’t draw attention to yourself by pouring all of it over your food like I did with the duck laab. Laab is one of my favourite things in the world; the hot and sour salad of torn meat and the funk of toasted rice powder, now with the added fire that would make breakfast the following morning very interesting. A papaya salad was textbook in delivery, with its back note of the ocean lurking whilst the lime sits upfront.

Mains, we had too many of them. There was a massaman, sweet and sour from the tamarind, and a weeping tiger dish which showed that the chef can accurately cook a bit of rib eye to medium rare. The more familiar red curry paste made an appearance on the less familiar stir fry dish of pad pik geng and would have stolen the show had it not been for the Sabai Sabai hot platter with beef. Again the meat was good, but the spicy, umami rich sauce with whisky and holy basil had us fighting for the last of it. Sides of broccoli and pak Choi were ambitious and totally unwarranted, whereas bowls of sticky rice are essential to mop up the best bits.

The bill, with three bottles of wine from the higher end of the list and several rounds of martinis is more than you should spend on a Tuesday night, but a sensible person should allow £30-40 per head. If we got carried away it’s because the food was genuinely superb. Maybe it’s the lack of going out this year, or the quantity of booze, but this was I think the strongest meal I’ve had at any Sabai Sabai in the ten years I’ve been going. We stepped outside the usual curries, away from the pad Thai, and into the parts of the menu we don’t usually look to. And it paid off. The food at Sabai Sabai has literally gone through the ceiling.

Just because I never took an A2B doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Chung Ying, Chinatown

It’s hard to remember life before lockdown, but before we started abandoning each other, this country turned its back on the Chinese community a full eight weeks prior. Since mid-January they had to endure unforgivable xenophobia because of something that was happening 5500 miles away, with takeaways and restaurants up and down the country empty and stories of unprovoked violence towards them a regular occurrence. Here in Birmingham, where our Chinatown bleeds into our Gay Quarter and is just a stone’s throw away from our central train station, the window displays of roast ducks and slow cooked bits of pig acted as shields to hide the empty chairs which lay inside. A large proportion of this city let our fear turn into casual racism, and casual racism is still racism, whatever way you want to gloss over it. As bad as you think your three months lockdown have been for you, the Chinese community have had this for 2 months longer. Their restaurant industry was crippled when the rest was still taking body shots.

Three days into restaurants being allowed to reopen and Chinatown still cuts an eerily quiet scene. I get out of the taxi at the bottom of Hurst Street and walk up through its spine, passing through the Arcadian and into Chung Ying where I’m having lunch. It is here that I have my temperature checked by a remote sensor, onto a sanitiser station, before being taken to a member of staff in a face visor. The table is not in the restaurant as I know it, but in a new covered outdoor seating area which will serve as the restaurant until it is deemed safe enough by them to go inside. Two pieces of paper appear; one for my contact details to trace, the other to tick the dim sum boxes which I wish to order. It seems like they have looked at the guidance and decided to go above and beyond them to make this the safest experience it can be.

I’ve known co-owner James Wong for ten years, which is twice the length of this blog’s life. If memory serves me correctly I was the drunkest person at his stag party and I was absolutely the drunkest at his wedding when I got on stage, took the mic off the band’s singer and proceeded to rap verses from ‘Ready To Die’ over something from The Beatles back catalogue. This conflict of interest and general love for his family is the reason why I don’t write about his and brother Will’s restaurants. But this isn’t normal circumstance. For clarification, this is the final soft launch day and for the most part James is sat opposite me. I make several attempts to pay and he tells me to buy him beers in The Plough as repayment.

We eat very well. Char Sui buns are delicate, fluffy clouds bound around sweet pork filling, whilst chicken gyoza zip into life when licked with a Chinese vinegar that I’m unfamiliar with. A bean curd dish isn’t to my taste, and I once again have gelatinous chicken feet forced upon. Previous experience tells me that to get the most out of them you need to suck hard and have a bowl ready for the discarded knuckles. I like the baby octopuses in light batter, which are meaty and still tender. A lunch time trade of both Chinese and Western clientele are well catered for, but this is a restaurant that has been adapting for 39 years. This year is going be a tough one for all of the industry. Chung Ying are going to need your support to ensure they make 40 next year.

I took my first A2B in a long time and felt as safe as houses. Screens and PPE are their priority.

Eat Vietnam, Stirchley

Many, many, many years ago there was a shop in Birmingham called A Too. It was a bloody good shop, ran by a painfully hip man called Ming. I used to go to that shop a lot; I had a decent job doing shitty things for a shitty bank, lived at home with my parents, and I had many girlfriends – often at the same time – using their goodwill and natural competitiveness to full advantage in letting them pay for me. I was an original Fuckboy. And a good one at that. I used to shop in A Too because it was the coolest place to shop. I say shop; I would sit in a chair in the middle of the room making small conversation whilst Ming buzzed around collating the latest in printed t-shirts and Japanese denim, giving me just enough discount on my purchases to make me feel special. This preamble is important because Ming plays an important part of this piece, and also because I want you to understand that I have always been an arsehole with an over-sense of entitlement.

A Too came to a sad end and Ming moved on to form Eat Vietnam, first with a number of pop-ups and then with a stint at streetfood. I tried both. The food at Stirchley’s Loaf was an attack on the senses that felt like the Vietnam I loved; no Pho or Banh Mi, but grilled bits of animal and curries that have woody notes and then kick out of the three count with lots of spice. The street food I was a little less taken with, mostly because everything seemingly was drowned in fish sauce. There is a sign in the new restaurant which reads ‘fish sauce is not for everyone’ that had me worried when we sat down. I can take it, just only in tiny quantities. Like sambucca. Or the company of Luke Beardsworth.

With a permanent resturant comes the most refined of his takes on this cuisine up to this point. Pho now makes an appearance, as does Banh Mi at the weekend, joined by more familiar dishes from Vietnam; papaya salad, fried fish, chicken wings, and curries. There is little to startle the people of Stirchley. From memory the food punches less now, coaxing the flavours out slowly, with the emphasis on freshness above all else. That papaya salad has nailed the balance of salt and sugar in the dressing, with loads of fresh, crunchy notes even if it does skimp a little of the amount of poultry. A plate of pork comes as thinly sliced bits of belly; skin taut and crisp, the meat dressed in something that has chilli, vinegar, and I think a little of that fish sauce. It’s a bloody good plate of food.

The pho is the only thing that doesn’t excite me. It’s the one time that it all feels a bit safe; the stock that makes up the soup is devoid of any real flavour, lacking the zip and zing that I remember so much from a country I hold so dear to my heart. I could personally take more herbs, more lime, more fish sauce if I have to. I ask for a half portion of the vegan curry with something called banana blossom; an ingriedient that is new to me. The curry is a delight; pugent and spicy, we scrape the last of the sauce out of the bowl using the rice, leaving the blossom itself which is an acquired taste that I doubt I’ll ever aquire. We finish on the tamarind chicken wings; plump bits of bird with crisp skin, a scattering of peanuts, and a sauce full of funk and umami. Order the chicken wings, whatever happens here.

They presently don’t do booze in the week which is a downer, though my mood is in a much better place when my mate picks up the bill and takes me over the road to Wildcat to carry on the evening. The bill for the above and two soft drinks falls a quid short of £50, which feels fair. I really like Eat Vietnam with its effortlessly cool love letter to the food of its native country and I can see us going back a lot. Ming comes over to the table to say hello and I spy a branded sweater hanging on the wall from the corner of my eye. All of a sudden I feel twenty one all over again.

8/10

Know how to say ‘A2B‘ in Vietnamese? Neither do I. Just make the correct choice and order them to get you here.

Opheem, September 2019

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.

Want to mention the best taxi companies? The list has just one name. A2B.

Independent Birmingham Festival, 2019

I think this Independent Birmingham Festival was my favourite so far. It may have been the excellent company we kept, the stream of friends we bumped into continually throughout the day, or the fact that I was very tipsy by 1pm on the Saturday, but they really nailed it. Here is a super quick post on what we ate and drank at this celebration of the wonderful independents in this great city.

Buddha Belly. <

I’m mentioning this first because the sight of Momma Buddha Belly cooking with Sai melted this cold heart. A slightly different menu this time which we dived straight in to. The more familiar Southern Thai curry was ordered with salmon fish cakes and an outrageous beef noodle broth not dissimilar to a pho. Seriously classy Thai food. It’s impossible to not love Buddha Belly, even when I'm on strict instructions to not swear.

Baked in Brick.

Lee decided to spit roast an entire lamb for this event, which took me back almost twenty years to when we used to party together. We had a hybrid dish of the lamb meat with mac’n’cheese, salsa verde, crispy potatoes cooked in lamb fat, a Yorkshire pudding and gravy. The salsa verde was insane, as was the quality of the meat. Claire drank gravy from the Yorkshire pudding because that’s what Northeners do. Mental.

 18/81.

Because we have very good taste. Claire’s was a profanity laden one that tasted of pumpkin spice, I had the off-menu Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee. I lie. I had three of them. Because we have very good taste.

Loki.

A delicious fizzy pink wine which tasted of tip-tops. Drank two bottles so must have been good.

Zindiya.

You may be aware that I live very close to these guys. I may have had a Deliveroo from them the night before. Still never stopped me eating a chicken tikka kati roll and samosa chaat. Huge amounts of flavour in everything they do.

El Borracho de Oro. </

They had a very attractive looking paella on the go, though it wasn’t ready so we changed tactics and went with patatas bravas and ham croquettes. It was a good choice. Both were crazy good.

Original Patty Men.

I have mad love for the burgers from these gents. The one I had with chorizo was as good as burgers get.

Waylands Yard.

Eggy crumpets. Halloumi. Chilli sauce. Call the fire brigade; this is absolute flames.

There were also custard tarts from Salcooks, plenty of gin at Jekyl and Hyde, and cakes from Bake. There were dogs, more dogs, live music, the best in local businesses, and more dogs. I think that someone complimented me on my coat, but I was pissed by then so they could have been calling me something far less polite. Most of all it was full of Brummies celebrating the best of Brum; sticking two fingers up to anyone who says otherwise. I had the best weekend there. I can’t wait for the next one.

In keeping with the Best of Brum, A2B got us there and back.

Asia Asia, Birmingham

Of all the many, many, many restaurants I write about, none conflict me more than those originating from Asia. Asia is my favourite continent by a distance. I love how it’s the Western world with the lid off, a place that is growing too fast for itself to handle in every sense. I get hypnotised by the bright colours and vivid smells, the lack of health and safety assesments, and the cheap beer. Every time I fall in love with the people that greed is yet to taint, the young who still dream in technicolour, and who would rather feed you than themselves. Let me choose where I want to go on holiday and it’s Asia (Sri Lanka next if any Sri Lankan PR companies are reading this and want to comp this multi-award winning arsehole a 50p hopper). Ask me where I’ll be living next and it’s either Singapore, Saigon, or Mumbai. But here is the bit I struggle with: for a food blog I know fuck-all about the food. Nowhere near enough. I lived on banana and nutella pancakes for two weeks in Cambodia, for Christ’s sake. So I am warning you in advance the next few paragraphs on an Asian food court in Birmingham might not be great. Now, if you are an actual expert on this matter you may want to stop reading here. It will hurt your eyes and I will give zero fucks on your opinion.

So Asia Asia, a continent so good they named it twice. Also the name of a food court on the peripherals of Brum’s very own China Town. It takes up the first and second floors of a space above another restaurant. Units are small and go from the familiar to stuff I’d not seen before like chicken chow mein and green curry. I jest. Payment is made via a pre-topped-up card which is irritating and presumably only in place to allow management to deduct the commission without that old British virtue of trust. On the night we are there was an arrest made on an old gentlemen. I’ll avoid the big trouble in little china town pun.

Now on to the food, which I was expecting to be universally brilliant, occasionally was, and often fell well short of expectation; though I should make it clear now that we hardly scratched the surface of potential dishes. We started on the top floor at Afandim, with skewers of lamb that taste faintly middle-eastern and another of thinly-sliced potato dusted with spice. Food nearly as intriguing as the less-talked-about Uyghur region of China it hails from – we’ll be back for more. We also really enjoyed the Pad Kaprow from Bangkok Kitchen that brims with fire and almost medicinal herbs, with rice and a fried egg I dont eat because of my awful morals with caged birds. We try the triple roast from Phat Duck which is not phat at all. The pork belly and char sui are good, though the duck is full of bone and sinew, with soggy, unappealing, skin. There are way better triple roasts in the city. Someone in the know really needs to do a definitive roast battle of them all. I’m on the case.

Down a level we visit a Japanese unit to try yakitori. I love yakitori; the hint of smokiness, those slightly charred bits where the marinade catches. This wasn’t very good. My first mouthful is full of cartiledge and sinew from a spongey bird. Two of these skewers are £6.80, one gets left unfinished. We use up the last of the £40 credit I have put on the card on seasame pancakes. Never again. The filling is claggy and bitter, leaving an unpleasant taste that lingers in the mouth for far too long.

And for all of this I’m not willing to write off Asia Asia just yet. I’ll go back and give it another thirty or forty quid of my wages and try something different. I’ll try the congee and the ramen, maybe the teppanyaki, and absolutely return to Afandim for those hand-spun noodles. There is too much potential here to not find brilliance. The key is to know what is good, and that is where us first-timers failed. Asian food; it’s clear that I still know nothing.

6/10

A2B ferried my phat ass about as ever

Ngopi, Birmingham

Remember Modu? You are lucky if you do. The slow burn restaurant on the edge of town slowly gathered a reputation for uncompromising authentic Korean food from an ageing lady who spoke little English and her daughter. Everything was made in house; fermentation was used to full effect, sweet potato transformed into transparent noodles, chicken wings painstakingly deboned and rolled. It was unlike anything else in the city. Word slowly got around and they got busy. Opening hours extended and just as the success they deserved started to come, Mother Modu fell ill. The heartbeat of the restaurant was unable to cook and they never reopened. Modu is one of the saddest stories of recent years for the hospitality in this city. They deserved far more.

In a way Ngopi reminded me of Modu. Of how the Saturday lunch was mostly full of those familiar with the cuisine, and how the majority of westerners would pop in to look at the menu and then leave. The food is Indonesian, a cuisine I know little about other than rendang and nasi lemak, neither of which feature on the menu. Prices are kind; twelve dishes with nothing over a fiver.

Lets get the big one out of the way first. The reason I’ll be coming back is for the Batagor, a dish that could easily become a cult classic. Fried prawn wontons mingle with fried tofu and meatballs under a blanket of peanut sauce. Every forkful is a lottery; one where it could be bland tofu, dense beef, or sweet prawn meat, all in a satay-style sauce that grows in prowess. On the side is treacle-like ketcap manis and an umami fueled sambal, both of which get thrown in to the mix. The result is a plate of food unlike any other I have tried before. It is worth a visit for this alone.

I probably won’t order the Indomie again, but I think my girlfriend may. The combination of noodles, grated cheese, poached egg, crispy onions, and corned beef is a bit student dinner for my liking, and melted cheese on noodles is something I’ll never fully get on board with. Instead I’ll take more of the Martabak, which is essentially a Findus crispy pancake, and really gets going with a lick of the chilli sauce. Likewise I’ll gladly have more of the Bakwan, which is kind of rosti/bhajii hybrid of vegetables. It’s greaseless and bright in both colour and flavour. We order prawn and chicken dumpling that get eaten before I take a picture. They are good as far as dim sum go.

The bill for all of this is £30, including two very nice cups of Indonesian coffee. Look, I have never been to Indonesia and I know very little about the cuisine. I can’t tell you that it is the greatest of it’s kind because I don’t know that. But what I can tell you is that for the first time since Modu I felt fully immersed in a style of food that was both new to me and extremely tasty. It might not all be as great as the Batagor, though at fifteen quid a head anyone with an interest in food should be paying it a visit to see for themselves.

8/10

A2B got me here, just like they always do

Ngopi don’t have a website per se, though you can find them on Dale End

Tiger Bites Pig, Birmingham

Without wishing to be too hyperbolic, I had decided that Tiger Bites Pig was a new favourite of mine from the very first mouthful. It was a bao with fragrant poached chicken, a thick and pungent chilli oil, spring onions, ginger, and a shard of chicken skin roasted with sesame seeds. It was pleasingly salty with a little heat and acidity; the work of a kitchen that understands how to pack flavour into three mouthfuls whilst still retaining the dominant flavour of the chicken. The bao was textbook in flavour; light and fluffy, with any inherent doughiness left long ago during the proving and subsequent steaming. It was absolute delight. I swivel around from the stool in the window and eye up the tiny room for which the open kitchen takes up almost half. They have more chicken skins on the prep counter, sitting there like pork scratchings in a pub. It makes me long for more of them to smear inch-thick with the chilli sauce.

The menu is concise and inviting from which we order three more baos and a rice bowl. Pork belly bao has deep fatty notes, loads of umami and the pleasing crunch of peanuts, which makes the one with duck breast and XO sauce look way too polite in comparasion. A bao with braised short rib and cured egg yolk draws smiles all around. It is reminiscent of scooping up the bottom of a casserole with shit white bread. The tangles of meat dissipate in the mouth, whilst the bottom half of the bun becomes saturated with cooking juices lifted with a little vinegar. The addition of the jammy yolk only adds to the fun.

Despite being less than a month old it appears that some have questioned the value of baos at the price of between £4.50-£5.50 each. I can’t get on board with that, though those looking for more bao for their buck should ditch the buns and have a rice bowl. At seven quid it is a colossus. We have more of the pork belly, greens, hot and cold pickles, aubergine, and another of those absolute filth egg yolks, all on more rice than is sensible for two people, never mind one. This is the not the order for the carb-considerate. We take the leftovers home and still don’t finish it.

So I liked Tiger Bites Pig. I liked it a lot. It takes skill to create bao this good, skill that has thus far eluded anyone in this city, including the substitute teacher in Stirchley. Our bill hits thirty quid for the above with two soft drinks, though you can add a bit on to this is you indulge in the Japanese spirits or beer. Either way it is a bargain that I will indulge in as often as possible. Tiger Bites Pig is another quality addition to an already bulging independent scene, which in time could prove to be the best one so far.

9/10

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Opheem, November 2018

Let’s cut straight to the chase: last week I had the best curry I’ve ever eaten. Better than the original Balti houses found within our once revered triangle. Better than the Michelin starred Indian restaurants of London. Better than anything I ate in Goa, and better – her words, not mine – than anything Claire has eaten in her multiple trips to Indian, including the Taj Mumbai. You want to know the place? Good, because I want to tell you. It’s Opheem.

These curries only exist away from the weekend, found in a little insert in the centre of the menu marked ‘traditional’. It is within this short list that Aktar Islam steps away from his more contemporary style and looks back to the very dishes that shaped him as a chef. We have slow cooked bits of mutton barely coated in a thick tomato gravy studded with cardamom, and a take on the ubiquitous Chicken Tikka Masala that draws groans of When Harry Met Sally pleasure. Both are decadent and original interpretations with not a stock sauce in sight. Both are so big and rich they demand a lie-down. I’m pretty sure that neither is very good for you, but frankly, that is the last of my concerns. Arteries? Who needs them. With this we order potato wedges tossed in toasted cumin seeds, rice which separates as easy as a Hollywood marriage, a daal, and the lightest of garlic naan breads. It is all mind-blowing good. The marker for all other curries from now on.

There was stuff before this, and I apologise for the effort you’ll need to make in casting your imagination back to before the curry, but this is my narrative and if you don’t like it then go read the other shit available. We start off with spoons of spicy beef tartare and spheres of spicy tamarind water which sit either side of a ball of sesame seed and dehydrated strawberry. It was this last item that evokes most conversation; the sweetness quickly giving way to a long nuttiness that evokes the sweet and savoury style of Indo-Chinese cuisine. We get the bread and paté course that has shrunk a little in size yet still packs a huge punch in flavour.

And then there were two courses to precede the mains; a mutton chop marinated in hung yogurt and then blasted through the tandoor so that the crust gives way to pink meat. It comes with a pumpkin thrice; a soft julienne, little balls and a puree, each showing that despite Aktar’s roots in the food of India, he understands the importance of texture and layered flavour. The soft shell crab dish has become less cluttered on the plate, the main attraction now carved in half and sharing a space with a crab cake and loose pate. The crab is still the star though this now fresher with more natural acidity. Without wishing to dive into names, Claire compares this to another local Indian that may have some association with the chef here. They also do a soft shell crab, though this makes theirs look like a ‘child’s rendition of the Mona Lisa’. She can be so cruel. There is an intermediary course of rosehip and beetroot that is too sweet to sit where it does. It is the only thing we aren’t crazy about.

After the curry there is no room for dessert, but plenty of room for more gin in the bar area. The bill for the above and a good bottle of wine comes in at around a £100 per head, though this is on the greedy side of both food and drink. You could, and likely will, do it for far less. This is my third time at Opheem, following the first in late spring when I came home and told Claire that it would be the most important Indian restaurant in the UK within two years. She didn’t see it, given that her only experience had been on the first night of a soft launch in an unfinished dining room. We hadnt made it through the starters when she conceeded that I was right, which I am. Opheem is a shining light in the Birmingham food scene that not only reinvents the way we see Indian food but also pays homage to its roots. Simply unrivalled in this city.

Opheem (curry is on evenings, Sunday-Thursday)

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Pictures by the birthday girl