Indian

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

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.

Opheem, January 2020

This was my eighth visit to Opheem since it opened. I am fully aware that there are other restaurants in Birmingham, but Opheem has a brilliant ability to post new dishes online which make me want to book a table to eat them, which I do, very happily. This time it was three dishes all from the new menu; a skewer of chicken tikka, a monochrome monkfish dish, and a goat biryani. I was supposed to go to Opheem with an incredibly nice man called Nick but that was overturned by my evil girlfriend after seeing the image of the chicken skewer. Nick, I’m sorry. We both know you would have made superior company.

Turns out that chicken skewer is worth the trip alone. Served as an amuse, the first bite in the restaurant after the little bits hand delivered by the chef to the bar area, it is Aktar’s homage to butter chicken. Chicken leg deboned, brined, compressed, marinated, and then cooked over fire, served with a chopstick up its proverbial arse and a coating of something buttery and nutty, crisp skin, and puffed rice. It is what you imagine chicken tikka tastes like but never does; a perfect blend of warming spices and juicy poultry. Unimprovable.

Now the boring bit. I’m going to say what I’ve said several times before and tell you that Opheem has improved yet again. The new menu has taken the kitchen to new heights. More processes (I’m told that chicken takes four days) though ultimately less components. Dishes have cut down on the ingredients and focused on ramping up the flavour. Old dishes revisited and improved. The lamb fat bun still has the lamb patè, though now that patè is inside the bun, whilst that bun can (and should) be dunked into a little bowl of spicy lamb broth. What’s left of that broth should be cupped and drank immediately. The first course of the tasting menu sticks with ovine, a mutton ‘porridge’ which is similar to daal in texture only with long braised strands of meat and a deep hit of flavour. Crispy onions and a little bhaji offer a contrast of flavour for an assured and confident start to the meal.

We have the tandoori carrot that you can read about here, followed by a langoustine, caviar, and cauliflower custard dish that I’ve been fortunate enough to try a couple of times during its development. It feels complete now; concise and higher in acidity, it works brilliantly with the tartare of langoustine wrapped up in the celeriac ‘taco’ which cradles a wooden holder to one side. Then the highlight of the meal; a take on monkfish dopiaza, a term literally translating as ‘double onion’. Dark and brooding, the fish has been cooked over charcoal and has just enough smokiness, whilst the onion is present as a sweet compote, spiced roscoff broth, charred shallots, and (I think) crispy spring onion tops. It’s a hell of a dish which could easily sit on a two star menu and not be out of place. It also defines Aktar Islam as a chef: the ability to look at dishes from his heritage and transform them into something refined and modern.

The last of the savoury courses was also the most recognisable: a goat dum biriyani, inspired by the dishes served by his Mother to his younger self, with the pastry lid cut open at the table, as all dum biriyani should. This comes one between two, to be portioned on to the plates containing a goat chop, raita and salad. It is a showstopper, familiar, with an execution of undeniable skill. The biriyani stars; the rice with just a little bite, mingled in with bits of braised goat that whack with spice until licked with the raita. Proper cooking. From the look of social media it appears to be going down a storm. Quite right too.

The first dessert celebrates forced rhubarb, and is, in all honesty, the weak point of the meal given it eats a little one dimensional compared to the vibrancy of everything else. We then move on to a dark chocolate delice with orange gel, and a sweet potato dauphine. It’s a Jaffa Cake we tell them. No it’s not they say. Yes it is: the dark chocolate, the orange, and the dauphine that has a cake-like texture thanks to the choux mixed in with the carb. We’ll agree to disagree here. It’s delicious anyway. There are petit fours because now that they have a star there should be.

The award of the Michelin Star means that prices have risen slightly, but the eight courses at £75 represents one of the best value tasting menus in the region. With this we took the wine pairing that included rose champagne and a very classy Pinot Noir that I am going to be purchasing for home. Service is superb and if they are bored of seeing my face then they haven’t let on just yet. It was as good as rainy Thursdays get. Opheem are unstoppable at present, full of creative flair and desire. Little wonder I’ve neglected most of Birmingham’s restaurants to keep on returning here. Nick, next time, I promise it will be with you.

I travel to and from the best, with the best

Pictures pilfered with permission from the restaurant due to lighting being very low

Chilli Pickle, Brighton

I’ve eaten quite a few thali in my time. Some in India, several in this country, and one in Magaluf when I was nineteen which resulted in me having sex behind the restaurant with a girl from an adjoining table. They have always interested me: the solar system of silver tins that make up the meal; the curries and the side dishes; the breads, the carbs, and the sweet. Whether sat on plastic chairs in an un-air conditioned room in Agonda or a room with broken air conditioning in Hall Green it’s always an occasion, even when they disappoint, which they mostly do. You see, getting a thali right is a skill that eludes pretty every Indian restaurant I have ever been to.

But I had high hopes for Chilli Pickle. Maybe it was the various titles they’ve picked up over the years, maybe it’s the bib from Michelin that recognises good quality cooking at fair prices, or likely it was the strong recommendation from Birmingham’s grumpiest chef (thanks Paul). Either way it seemed the right place for a late lunch.

Before we get on to that thali there are other dishes to first get through. I liked the masala poppad, though it is ultimately a very clever way of charging £2.60 for a pre-assembled poppadum with the tomato and onion salads. And then the tandoori chicken on supple naan bread that packs wave after wave of flavour. The chicken is cooked with skill, the marinade just catching in parts, all the sweetness leveled out by a salad that has been long thought out. The masala fries on the side are undercooked. It’s the only slip of the meal.

We make the upgrade to king thali and are rewarded with the best thali I have eaten outside of India. The railway chicken is packed with the heady notes of cardamon, cinnamon and garam masala, with slices of potato that have absorbed the best bits whilst slightly thickening the sauce. A tarka dhaal is restrained in spice with ideal texture. There are poppadoms and chapatis, a bright lime pickle, pickled red cabbage, sweet pear chutney, deceptively spicy beetroot chutney, the lightest of onion bhajis, too much rice, a savoury chickpea flour cake that Claire enjoyed more than I did, and gulab jaman properly soaked in maple syrup. Honestly if this was three hours closer in a car I’d gladly pay the sixteen quid to eat this once a week.

Dessert cocktails are my favourite type of dessert and here they range from a very successful cherry sour to a less than so old fashioned with dates, with a gin martini somewhere inbetween. The bill was about £70 (I was a bit pissed), a bargain given that we order too much to drink and far too much to eat, leaving us to saunter down to L’Atelier du Vin for more cocktails. Brighton is a wonderful city and our weekend had many other great highlights, though none as good as the thali here. I’d have no problem recommending Chilli Pickle to anyone. The place is a joy.

8/10

Top Ten Dishes of 2019

It’s been a huge year for the team here at MAOV HQ. Starting the year after being named Time magazine’s ‘Man of The Year’, I turned down a knighthood from the queen, Cheryl Hole. I won big at the global blogging awards, scooping the ‘Greatest Blogger Alive’, ‘Lifetime Achievement’ and ‘Most Unnecessary Wordcount’ awards, whilst narrowly missing out on the coveted ‘Best Line’ to Tom Carroll. I was immortalised in paper mache at a cafe in Huddersfield despite never have visited Huddersfield.

All of this is of course bollocks. I’ve learned this year that the ‘multi-award’ bit in my bio means absolutely nothing. If my life goal is to have my face flash up on a roundabout on the inner ring road following an award from a local panel best described as dubious, then I’ve fucked it. Properly fucked it. What matters is that this blog is still read, which it is in the largest numbers thus far, and that it is useful, which I think it is, at least 40% of the time. I’ve eaten a lot of food this year, some good, some bad, some great. Here are the ten best.

10) Tagliatelle with pepper dulse sauce and truffles. (0121) at Carters.

Do you find yourself looking at the menu for Carters and thinking it’s too expensive? Work harder, you shits. 0121 may be the answer for you. An unreserved area in the window by the bar with a small menu made up of ever-changing Carters classics. Think chicken liver cereal, oyster in beef fat, and the glorious scallop Brex-O. The pick was this, the best pasta dish I have eaten this year. Tagliatelle using ancient grains in a healthy amount of sauce that coats everything in a cheesey umami. Add truffle to the mix and you have a bowl of food well worth ruining your shirt for.

9) Tuna Ceviche. Chakana

Robert Ortiz’s plates of food are so beautiful to look at I don’t know whether to eat them or sexually harass them via text message. Go for the former and you’ll be rewarded with the complex flavours of Peru, where the quality of the fish stars alongside the sweet and the acidic. It’s finessed and fun. There is nowhere like it in Birmingham.

8) Roscoff Onion. Harborne Kitchen

I know a man called Rob who writes a thing called Foodie Boys. Rob thinks this dish is worthy of seventeen Michelin stars which demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the guide’s processes. It is, without a shadow of doubt, worth the maximum amount of nine stars that they can award a restaurant, being a comforting and well rounded homage to the humble onion. The best bit is the broth, seasoned with minus 8 vinegar for that sweet and acidic finish. Presently off the menu, I see it returning shortly in the future.

7) McYard. Backyard Cafe

The sausage and egg McMuffin of your dreams. One that runs with the basics of sausage patty and muffin, swapping the weird microwaved egg out for one that has been fried and oozes yolk, they’ve also upgraded the slice of a plastic cheese to a rarebit. And crispy onions, got to have those crispy onions. This could only have come from the filthiest of minds. Little wonder Rich’s partner always looks so happy when I see her.

6) Turbot chop. Riley’s Fish Shack

When I look back at the year one of my very favourite days was in Tynemouth. The sun was shining, we drank wine on the beach, and went to Riley’s. There is something beautiful about eating the produce of the sea whilst the waves break metres from your very eyes. That turbot was sublime; swimming in a garlic butter, the fat flakes collapsed at the nudge of a fork.

5) Bakewell tart soufflé. Craft Dining Rooms

Craft have had an interesting opening six months, changing Head Chef and key front of house on a number of occasions, but one consistent has remained; in Howing they have a pastry chef of serious talent. It’s practically impossible to choose a bad dessert here, but given the choice take the soufflé. Our first visit back in August featured this perfectly risen souffle, almond flavoured with a cherry compote at the bottom, just like a Bakewell tart. One of the very best soufflés I’ve ever eaten and I’ve eaten a lot of the fuckers. With Aktar Islam’s involvement and the arrival of Andrew Sheridan as Exec Chef it’s shaping up to be a very big 2020 for Craft.

4) Chicken Katsu. Ynyshir

The difficulty of Ynyshir featuring in a list of best dishes is that every dish potentially could be included. I’m going for Katsu chicken this year, an obscene mix of meat and compressed skin, coated in breadcrumbs and finished with Gareth’s version of a Katsu sauce which is way better than anything Wagamama have ever produced. Like everything they do here it’s direct and straight-to-the-point; a flavour-bomb of umami and acidity. February’s visit can’t come soon enough.

3) Langoustine. The Ritz

The highlight of my birthday lunch at The Ritz was this dish. So precise in delivery, the lightly cooked langoustines and buttery nage compliment each other perfectly. In a meal I have mixed emotions over, this was a three star moment that will live long in memory.

2) Patè en Croute. Carters and Calum Franklin

So good I almost cried, though with this taking place on a Sunday afternoon it might have been a comedown talking. A patè en croute of rabbit, pistachio, and bacon that revealed an acid smiley face throughout the centre when carved. Brad’s elated face when showing it off to the dining room was enough to make it a highlight of the year, though the flavour catapults it towards the top of the list. Incredible stuff. Holborn Dining Rooms is happening in 2020 because of this faultless meal.

1) Chicken Jalfrezi. Opheem.

When drawing up this list I had to ask myself what was the most important factor. I decided on a simple answer; what was the one dish I wanted to eat over and over again. Given that a battered sausage and chips from George and Helen’s lacks the finesse required to top such an elite list, I decided on the Chicken Jalfrezi from Opheem. It’s a dish that showcases exactly what Opheem is about: that marriage between French technique and Indian flavours; how the breast has the skin removed and is cooked sous vide, whilst the aforementioned skin is blitzed-up and reapplied to the meat to form a cripsy coating to the top of the meat. The picked leg meat turned into a spicy keema. The garnishes of different textures of onion, and the little blobs of naga and red pepper puree to be treated like English Mustard to give bright hits of heat. That sauce, gravy-like, which keeps growing in the mouth. It’s delicious. Like really fucking delicious. So delicious that I have phoned up on more than one occasion this year and asked (mid-week of course) if I can go and eat it as one course. I think it’s thirty quid if they say yes, but they might not, as I imagine that you are not Birmingham’s finest restaurant blog. In a world where I barely have time to visit anywhere twice, I have eaten this five times this year. It’s special. The best dish of 2019.

Top one taxi firm for the year goes to A2B Radio Cars

Indico Street Kitchen, Birmingham

Seconds after walking through the doors of the latest branch of Indico Street Kitchen I am greeted by the General Manager

“Hello Simon”

“Hello, have we met?”

“No, we have a picture of you out back. We thought you might be paying us a visit”.

WHAT. (this word never looks correct in capitals).

It’s a bizarre admission and one that immediately puts me on the backfoot. If it is true, what is the purpose of telling me? To knock me off guard, perhaps, or to let me know that they know why I am here? Have they done it so that I am hesitant to write anything negative, given that they know my face and name, because that is never going to work. Sure I’ve been to Indico in Shirley, but as far as I can recall I’ve not met this chap. And anyway that was under totally different circumstance, one which was back when I went under a PR invite, whereas this involves a table for one straight after work, along with a bill of £33 for my dinner. I’m introduced to the entire team and taken to the table. Would I like papadum? Of course, and lovely they are too. Would I also like some Far Far? Actually given how this secret visit has panned out, I’d like to be far far away from here, please. Whilst the papad’s (or poppadum; same thing) are worth the £3 I wouldn’t bother with the multicoloured far far which taste of nothing other than cooking oil. I barely touch them. They appear on the bill at £2.45.

The menu is huge. In my eyes too big, though possibly perfectly pitched at the type of person who would be eating after a day shopping within The Mailbox, where Indico now replaces the truly awful Gourmet Burger Kitchen. And before I move on to my opinion on the food, it is without question a welcome addition to a bit of Birmingham that needs better places to eat. I’m given the full spiel on how to order: three of the chaat dishes, or a chaat dish and a main, or a thali and nothing else, or one tandoor and two chaat, or a lunch dish and a chaat if I’m not that hungry. I order a thali. Would I like to order a chaat dish with that? But you said… oh, of course I will, I’ll take the chilli chicken 65 you mentioned, presumably named after the minimum spend they aim for with every diner.

The food is nice. Just nice. Inoffensive anglicised Indian for tame English palates. The chilli chicken tingles rather than threatens, the sauce cloying like sweet and sour chicken from the local takeaway. It’s nothing in comparison to the similar version at Zindiya. The thali has a glorious dry spinach dish cut with loads of garlic, which is the undoubted highlight of the afternoon, along with a good naan, and a papadum which could have saved me three quid fifteen minutes ago. Dhaal is the Kate Moss variety; rich, smokey, and addictive, whilst of the two curries the creamy paneer one is better than the taka tak chicken, mostly because the quality of the meat isn’t that great. I don’t like the stodgy potato pakoras that would have bounced back had they fallen off the table, and should be slamdunked into the nearest bin. It’s a lot of food for £17 and something I’d consider ordering again. It certainly doesn’t need the extra dishes.

I’m asked if I want dessert to finish. And then asked again. And then asked again on the way out after I’ve paid my bill. At one point I almost say yes, mostly because they keep on using my name and I get confused and think I’m at the in-laws. It’s a difficult meal to think about in hindsight; I didn’t really enjoy it, but that was more to do with the constant overtly personal attention I received, over the food that was mostly pleasant in a mostly inoffensive fashion. They’ve gone from a space behind the ASDA in Shirley to a prime location in Brum’s most elite shopping centre and that takes balls way bigger than I’ve got. I’m sure that in time they’ll iron out the inconsistencies and have a restaurant worthy of its grand location. They’ll be pleased to see your face should you visit. They may even know the name of it.

6/10

A2B know my face and I am 100% okay with this

Diwan, Moseley

The choice of where to go for a Balti was once so easy. It used to be the answer to ‘where is the best place to eat a balti?’ and then that’s where we’d go. Now it has other factors to include. Have I written about it before? Do people want to read about it? What’s my angle? All these things that you couldn’t care less for and that keep me awake at night, sweating like I’ve just double-dropped in Miss Moneypenny’s circa 2001. We considered Kabbabish as it’s consistent, a couple on Ladypool Rd, and the one my Mom and Dad went to every week which I kind of like keeping to myself. In the end we opt for Diwan, because the people on the Everything Moseley Facebook page seem to like it and because David Cameron once ate there. It was literally for those reasons. Want my angle? I’ve got two: one is phallic-shaped and the other has a snout.

Because that is how pathetic I’ve become. Give me a cheap shot and I’ll neck it and then order another tray. By the time we pull up outside I have an idea for a piece laden with innuendo and profanity; one that would write itself regardless of what the cooking is like. Except it doesn’t work out that way. I ended up having far too much respect for them to do that. The decor might be on the tired side but they are proud to be here; the service is quiet and efficient, the team more in sync than far flashier kitchens in Birmingham. I request lime pickle for the poppadoms that arrive in less than a minute, the same with drinks, whilst our table is cleaned and reset in the time it takes Claire to go to the ladies and back. They are polite and quiet. We are paying guests in their little world and for that I’ll lay off the cheap tricks for once.

During our meal someone I haven’t seen in ages comes over to the table. “Bloody lovely, isn’t it? We come here at least at week”. Whilst I doubt I’ll ever make it weekly, I can see what she means. The casing for the samosa might be too thick but the inside is accurately spiced, whilst under the canopy of salad is an addictive chicken chaat with rich notes of fenugreek and curry leaf. The three curries we try (well one and two further half-portions) are a little too similar in make-up, though that make-up has a good foundation and is evenly applied. The meat is nicely cooked. It’s a bloody good Balti, better than the vast majority in the neighbouring Balti belt. The rice is good and the garlic naan is more than competent. I’d come back. The bill is under £40 including a couple of soft drinks apiece. It appears that our ex Prime Minister was capable of making at least one decent decision during goverment.

7/10

Taxis are a far easier choice than Balti’s. Take A2B

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.

Asha’s, Solihul

The night we book in to eat at Asha’s is unknowingly the festival of Eid. Inside the restaurant is heaving and celebrations are in full swing. It is everything that makes Birmingham so special: there are families here, but there are also friends and colleagues; communal tables hosted by those who do not need to be here, but choose to in support of those who have passed through the hours of sunlight without food or water for 28 days. It is wonderful to see those who have entered Ramadan for Islam are joined by non-muslims in the breaking of the fast; food is being shared, traditions respected. Everyone is joyous. In a period of history where the parties of the right are trying so hard to segregate and divide, Birmingham (and in particular on this evening’s dinner, Solihull) stands united in solidarity. It is a message more powerful than any written on the side of a bus, or placard wielding rally. In this city We Are One.

I’ll be honest, it is not how I envisaged the start of this piece to go. I expected it would be based around how much I’ve enjoyed Asha’s in Birmingham for almost a decade, and how my initial reactions to them opening another branch in a bland shopping centre in Solihull not known for good food was one of surprise. Both of these facts are true and probably don’t require dwelling on. Instead we’ll talk about the new site, tucked away at the back-end, sandwiched between the chains at the top of the escalator. It doesn’t seem the obvious place to pay £21 for a prawn bhuna, but then Solihull happens to be a place desperately short of options for good food considering how affulent this end of the city is. And it’s a beauty of restaurant; low slung ornate lighting penetrates the twilight, with booths cleverly concealed down one side and an endless bar running the length of the other. Tables and chairs are every colour you can think of, just as long as the only colour you can think of is black. It’s the most romantic setting to come to Touchwood since the back row of the Cineworld opposite.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the food is that it is entirely reminiscent of the central Birmingham location, which, having never written about, I will now have to breakdown. It’s premium curry house fare; the wheel hasn’t been reinvented, but it has been given new tyres and shiny spokes. Sometimes it’s subtle, like the tray of chutneys that accompany the poppodums. You probably won’t notice the difference with the green sauce that is now synonymous with the giant crisps, but the mango chutney is refined and has balanced acidity, whilst a papaya chutney is a classy affair with sultanas and nigella seeds that you’ll not see too often. It’s when they wield out the big guns that you know you are somewhere which wants to be taken seriously. We’ll overlook the etch-a-sketch dribble of sauces on the tandoori platter we started with and instead look at the quality of the produce: curls of king prawns, blistered and juicy, two pieces of chicken tikka, another two chicken malai; each huge poultry piece marinated until the proteins soften and the yogurt catches on the edges for that slight smokiness. The cooking of the meat so accurate that I swear a sous-vide machine must of been used, even if the flavour tells me otherwise. And then there are the seekh kebabs, as good as any I’ve had. Soft meat that threatens to fall apart on the lightest of pressure, loads of lamb flavour despite the obvious presence of ginger, chilli, garlic, and cumin. We finish this and know that the curries that are to follow are going to be good.

And they are. They really are. It’s obvious that each sauce is made only for that one mention on the menu, over the base sauces that plague cheaper establishments. The prawn bhuna is an exercise in this; the tomato rich sauce tastes strongly of the sea. Like the girls I used to take to the cinema here, it is thick and luscious, with a good amount of ginger thrown in to the mix. Twenty one pounds for this is punchy, but then it happens to be a very lovely curry. A chicken tikka masala has a generous amount of poultry, as one would expect for £15, in a more generic sauce thickened with lots of double cream. In all honesty it lacks the whack of flavour that the bhuna has, but it is still a very strong rendition of the most British of curries. Both get saffron rice piled in, mixed about and scooped on to naan bread fragrant with lots of garlic.

Portions are very generous, leaving no room for dessert and the remnants of the curries in a brown bag for lunch the following day. I really enjoyed this new Asha’s; the food was consistent, the quality of the produce high, and the staff really superb. In reality Indian food in this city has never been more prevalent: we have the balti houses, the street food places, those like Opheem pushing the boundaries for progressive Indian, and places like here who do the more familiar dishes in luxurious surroundings to high standards. I have no problem in saying that in my mind Asha’s is the best place in the city to splash a small chunk of cash on those more conventional curries. Everything about it screams class.

8/10

A2B are based in Solihull. Let them take you for a tour of their manor.

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.