I woke up to a message from a friend a couple of nights back.
“How can anyone cook food like that? It makes me angry that I have to eat other food”
Sure, the bloke in question doesn’t get out much, and he was likely drunk, but he was right. He and his far nicer girlfriend had been to Opheem.
We were there four weeks prior so I know what he is talking about. We got there early and left late on a busy Friday night. Did the negronis and the champagne in the bar whilst internally ranking the nibbles; the crunchy pickled cucumber with raita and elderflower jelly, then the delicate sweet and sour mango tuile with raw mango powder and mango gel. Best is a toss-up between the faux chilli pepper, innards of duck liver, a little chilli kick and a pineapple purée, or the crackers from which to work a cream cheese ensemble from the pot.
The dining room has that buzz of a place where people are enjoying themselves. I think they’ve lost a few covers for the new kitchen that extends fully into the dining room. The first course is a stunner; sweetcorn steeped in spiced butter and cooked over the coals, with a little cornet of sweetcorn ice cream on the side. It’s a hands-on affair, deceptively complex and up there with the very best of the courses that evening. Then a tomato salad with a delicately spiced broth and charcoal tuile. Intricate, nuanced, sophisticated. The tandoori trout is the only course that feels out of place; it’s almost too simple, too stripped back to sit amongst the rest of the menu.
What follows is a run of courses as memorable as I can recall in any restaurant. The aloo tuk, a potatoey jumble heightened with a little tamarind, as seen on Masterchef, and, far more importantly, my 2020 top dishes list. Then, when you think that couldn’t be topped, the most perfect halibut, asparagus rolled in spice and a spiced gravy of raw mango and coconut. It’s the best dish I’ve eaten this year, one that has the ease of a restaurant with more stars than then its present one star level. The milk bread with lamb pâté, before lamb, prime cut all crispy fat and yielding meat, a tangle braised shoulder and peas full of spice and brightness, and another killer sauce. I comment on the cuisson of the lamb to be told that they’ve rid the kitchen of the water baths. It’s all cooked old school now, meat over flame, which says everything about the texture and depth of flavour.
There’s a pre-dessert I don’t really remember because, surprise surprise, the negroni and the champagne and the paired drinks have kicked in. I do remember the excellent carrot cake with the clever use of crystallised ginger and a knock out brown butter full of hazelnut notes. The last dessert is a tempered dome of white chocolate with passion fruit and coconut. It’s light and impeccably executed, a sign of how far the pastry section has come. We take the petit fours home, with the exception of an Madeleine that they insist we eat straight from the oven. It’s worth finding the room for.
I read Nico Landis’s legendary book ‘My Gastronomy’ over lockdown and found more interest in the period of the ascent from one star to three, than the containment afterwards. It seems to me at least that this is where the most interesting cooking happens, where the restaurant finds its styles and every day is a push to improve on that. This is where Opheem is right now. The food scene in Birmingham has never been more exciting; rich with restaurants watching each other and trying to go the level above, and to me, it feels like Aktar and the team are at the top right now. Opheem is ready to take the step up to two stars. I get the feeling they won’t be content with that. This was the best meal so far at a very special restaurant.
- Aktar Islam,
- Birmingham jewellery quarter,
- Fine Dining,
- one star,