Aktar Islam

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)

Transport by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by the birthday girl

Opheem; August 2018

My Dad was born in Aston and he is very keen for you to know that. I think he mentioned it about about a dozen times during a two hour lunch at Opheem recently. He says it to part justify and part bemuse himself at being in such a lavish dining room; his blue floral shirt showing a hint of silver chest hair to match his grey suit jacket, the ornate lights that sit central to the dining room reflecting off his tanned bold bonce. For a sixty-six year old widowed pensioner he’s owning it on his first outing to a restaurant that very much sits in the fine dining catergory. He generally doesn’t do this kind of thing; old Dave Carlo’s experience of Michelin stops and starts with a yearly M.O.T on his car. He is an obstinate creature of habit. Same pub every Friday. Same shop with those increasingly loud shirts. Same curry house with the same dishes everytime. Change doesn’t come easy at this age. But this year I’m committed to showing him the better side of things; he deserves it. Dad is both my biggest fan and biggest critic, he is the first to pick up the phone and tell me when I’ve not treated someone with the respect they deserve; the first to congratulate me when I’ve done well (unless it involves beating him). In the increasing parody that is my life he is my biggest constant and I bloody adore him for it. No matter how many I times I fall it is Dad that picks me up, dusts me off, and pushes me back to reality.

Opheem was in my mind the perfect fit for him: Aktar’s cooking has always for me been about family and generosity. Be it the portion sizes, the unstuffy service, or the nod to his own mother’s cooking, his food is egoless; designed with the diner’s pleasure in mind and never his own. I loved Opheem first time around – it is in my eyes the best opening of the year – and I was keen to say how the kitchen is progressing. Plus we have the added bonus of a new lunch menu which is absurd value at £22 for three courses. If Dad hates it then at least it is not going to be an expensive mistake. He doesn’t, of course. He bloody loves every second of it.

First the difficult bit. Try telling a pensioner whose Indian cuisine point of reference is Moghul in Acocks Green that a sperefied ball of tamarind and chilli water is going to be nice and watch his face. He eventually goes with it and is rewarded by the explosion of flavour that lingers long after the liquid dissipates. It’s properly clever stuff. He loves the pani puri that is layer upon layer of texture and spice, and even tries squid ink cracker with smoked cods roe and garlic. He quickly realises that the gulf between here and what he is used to is a huge one. The sweet potato bread appears with the lamb patè. I wait until he swipes the last of it the bowl before telling him those creamy jewels are brain.

I have mutton kebabs which are pucks of ovine and spice so smooth it is almost patè once you’ve broken through the delicately fried coating. The accompaniments of chopped tomato salad and yogurt mixed with mint are wry nods to the humble curry house. Dad had a dish derived from one of my very favourite things I’ve eaten this year. The ham hock samosa, once an element on the pork vindaloo main, is here the star. It has the same carrots roasted in anise, the carrot puree and the vindaloo puree. It is a beautiful piece of cooking that leaves Dad still talking about it one week after eating it when we meet again for beer and pool. Great food does that; it stays forever in the mind, outliving the eating and slowly morphing into a different beast that becomes a reference point that similar dishes will forever be judged by. I’m lucky to be there when my poppa is having that very moment.

Following an intermediary course of tamarind sorbet with sev and cucumber, we both have chicken for main. Thigh meat in a marinade pungent with herb, in a tomato and fenugreek sauce reminiscent of a certain chicken tikka masala. The chicken on both plates goes in record time, and I unashamedly ask for a jug of that sauce to put the rice and naan bread to use. Stained fingers and beard, the old man calls me classless. I hate to break it to him but I’m not the one wearing a brown belt with black shoes. Dessert is a pretty spiced custard with rhubarb ice cream and a fine dice of the barely sweetened fruit. It’s the only time Dad isn’t blown away. I eat both gladly.

There is an unfair association with lunch menus that the cheaper price means less effort. Whilst that is too often the case, it couldn’t be further from the truth at Opheem. Twenty two pound buys you nibbles, bread, four courses with sundries, and a view of one of Birminghams most talented chefs working tirelessly in his shiny new kitchen. The biggest compliment is given by my dining companion, who comfortably states that if my mother were alive she would want to eat here every night. Proof that Opheem isn’t just for those well versed in these type of surroundings, but for everyone. Even the old cantankerous bastard born in Aston.

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Opheem, Birmingham

Such was the brilliance of Opheem that we found ourselves arguing about the best bits for hours after our meal. Was it the deboned, rolled and stuffed trotter on the pork main course? Or the subtle use of jaggery to add a treacle flavour on the lamb dish? Maybe it was the acidity of the raw mango with the softshell crab? I always think that it says a lot about a place if you remember the garnish as much as the protein, and here we are, two blokes sat in a boozer discussing the finer merits of what my mate Jim thinks it is the best meal he’s eaten in Birmingham and me adamant is the finest Indian food I’ve ever had. We go over the small elements over and over, where on the plate every ingredient matters. It is a meal of outstanding taste, that much we can both agree on.

IMG_3649

This will come as less of a shock when you learn that Opheem is the new restaurant of Aktar Islam, long servant to the city from his time at Lasan where he won The F Word’s best local restaurant, and TV chef from Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen. Aktar has gone it alone now, with a large dining room and bar where a notorious nightclub once stood. The space has an industrial feel with lots of brushed concrete effects, whilst tables are spaced far enough apart to upset an accountant. A glass partition separates the dining room from the open kitchen. Aktar is present at the pass, tasting and casting his eye over every dish. There is fire in those eyes.

I’ve been eating his food for years now, and this feels like him cooking without fear or constraint. The flavours are familiar, though there is a lighter touch to the spice in general, and more purpose in the complex techniques. Of the three snacks that launch our dinner the clearest example of this is the use of sphererification, the gel membrane releasing a spicy tamarind water when popped whole in the mouth. It is pani puri reimagined via molecular gastronomy that has more in common with Indian Accent and Gaggan than the Ladypool Rd. And then there is a tempura oyster with spiced batter and puree that tastes cleanly of tomato chutney. Only a onion bhaji style fritter is instantly recognisable and even then it’s greaseless and a world away from the norm.

IMG_3653

There are nods to his previous accolades on the menu and from this we take the soft shell crab dish that pays homage to his winning fish course on Great British Menu. The batter on the crustacean is delicate, the crab itself tender. A silky puree of raw mango has all the acidity and sweetness it needs, whilst the fermented rice batter bowl it comes in at first feels superfluous until you realise it adds a nuttiness and additional texture that enhances the dish. Everything has a purpose.

IMG_3658

Chicken comes smothered in a moss green mass of herbs, the marinade breaking down the protein in the meat so that it is implausibly tender. A simple salad of heritage tomatoes is all it requires, along with a little more of the same diced fruit and a yogurt dressing. It is fresh and clean in taste, with a predominant flavour of herb over spice. There is an intermittent course of sweet potato and cumin bread with a lamb brain pate; a nod to him smearing his mothers cooking on to crusty white bread as a youngster. The delicate jewels of offal still pronounced in amongst the robust spices. His mother clearly taught him well.

IMG_3660

IMG_3661

Mains show the concept of Opheem in full force; one that takes the traditions of India and recreates them. Traditionally a spicy mutton curry, Laal Maans is reimagined with slices of pink lamb loin and crisp beignets of tongue joining pearls of smokey aubergine and barley. The gravy style sauce pulls it back towards its roots though there is obvious alchemy involved with the liberal use of chilli and silky bone marrow. Pork is given a similar treatment with pink cuts of loin, a pastilla of smoked ham hock, and the rolled trotter that I am still dreaming of. There is so much to get excited about on the plate, like the carrots cooked with star anise and another killer sauce, but the genius element is the puree of vindaloo that is ferociously hot with chilli and soured with vinegar, just how you’d find it in the beach shacks of Goa. It is this that is the highlight of the meal. It takes everything it touches and throws it into the clouds.

IMG_3664

IMG_3662

IMG_3665

Dessert is a fragrant rice pudding panacotta served with various preparations of rhubarb, which include more molecular dots of jammy fruit and a sorbet of astonishing depth of flavour. Indian desserts are often the weak link, yet here he is proving that a little classic European cooking technique can go a long way at rectifying that. It is a smart move and one that guarantees I go home happy. It is is well balanced and pretty impeccable in delivery; Oh boy, does this man do flavour.

IMG_3666

And that concludes a truly superb meal. One that isn’t just a coup for the city of Birmingham, but is important to Indian cooking in this country. I’ve seen what the best in this cuisine has to offer and in my eyes Opheem already stands up to them, even surpassing them in places. Aktar Islam has been long touted as a standout talent, yet Opheem feels bolder than ever before; the product of a man cooking without shackle and allowing that creative stream to run riot. It is fresh yet relatable, distinctive cooking from a man clearly in tune with his craft. We are lucky to have Opheem in this city, but we must share far and wide. Food as good as this deserves celebrating.

10/10

https://opheem.com

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

 

 

Nosh & Quaff, Birmingham

Way before I started eating and writing about the nicer places around Birmingham, I used to read about them and not eat at them. I would buy the Birmingham (then Evening) Mail on a Friday only, moving just past halfway to Paul Fulford’s weekly piece. There you would have found a small picture of his small and shiny head in the upper left and two hundred words or so of Paul’s concise writing below. His occasionally acerbic, always honest writing style was an early favourite of mine, more so on the occasions he slipped in a subtle knob innuendo. He’s my neighbour now, which I still find bizarre, and occasionally I get to spend time over dinner with him, taking in his stories and counting the wrinkles on his face.  A couple of nights back I met him at 7pm sharp at Nosh & Quaff where in the deep red leather booths you would have found the unlikely combination of a Birmingham food legend and Paul Fulford, the ex restaurant critic for the Birmingham Mail.

There is a valid reason for us being here.  Back when I first wrote about Nosh & Quaff the menu was even shorter than Paul; lobster, burgers, some ribs.  I liked it, others less so, finding the options too limiting and the pricing aggressive.  Two years and a little introspection later, we have a full page of options and a considerable decrease in the pricing.  I think it needs it.  Downstairs is still a beautiful space of marble and deep red leather with ceilings high enough to fit my ego without the need to crouch, it just now has the kind of pricing and options to fill it more frequently.  There is a large industrial room  of bare brick and wood upstairs that they should turn into the city centre location of Fiesta Del Asado, a stablemate of the same group.


The hotdog is one of those items that has fallen in price.  Impeccably sourced from the Big Apple Hotdog company it is now half the price of the fifteen quid it used to be, with only fries losing their tray gig.  It showcases what N&Q is all about; quality produce, generous portions, and an underlying guilt that you probably will need to run your dinner off the following morning. It is worth the run. The dog snaps, the bun is sturdy enough to hold everything else in place. Order this and ask for a bib to come with it.  


From the newer items are rib tips that really transpire to be precise cubes of unctuous pork, slowly cooked and glazed in a funky BBQ sauce.  This is a lot of pig for £4.50.  Chick Norris may be a dreadful name for a burger but is a hefty bit of dinner.  Two hulks of free range thigh meat in one of those thick American buttermilk batters with bacon and processed cheese. Heat lurks in the background with enough tang in the ‘slaw to cut through the richness of it all. As far as the composition of a burger goes this has it all.



American portions mean only real Americans will have room for desserts.  For the rest of us it’s a small dent in the wallet and a lie down.  I still really like Nosh & Quaff, they’re not pushing boundaries but they are taking a familiar cuisine and applying quality ingredients with precise cooking.  It’s managed to improve what it previously was, now with a menu with enough scope to warrant repeat visits.  And all in the company of a man who definitely makes the list of my top 172 food writers.  Life really doesn’t get much better. 

Mr Fulford picked up the bill, I got the Uber home.  I guess that makes us quits.    

Nosh & Quaff, Birmingham

This wasn’t supposed to be the plan. I was going to let the hype die down and give Nosh & Quaff the once over when the kitchen has settled. I was expecting the launch party to be the usual mix of free booze and gift bags; we were not expecting to be sat down, fed and watered. Even so, as I am seated upstairs amongst the well-heeled I vow to come back try more of the menu on my own steed before delivering my true opinion.

And then The Pig happened.  Four bone-in ribs from an animal who’s diet I would probably envy, coated in a spice rub full of gentle aromatics and heat.  The thick ribbons of fat had broken down from its slow cook in the sous-vide, the outside charred from its blitz through the high oven heat.  The result is a meat that falls apart at the mere suggestion of pressure.  Its the best piece of animal I have eaten for over a year.  Only when I finish gnawing away at the bones do I notice that there is well-made fries and a coleslaw also on the tray.  I consider for a second how the sharp and piquant ‘slaw would have worked well with the pork, before going back to searching for any meat I may have missed.

052

The menu is a concise offering; a whole lobster for twenty quid, ribs of cow and pig, a hotdog from the wonderful Big Apple company in East London, a burger, and some wings.  The sole vegetarian main is a mac and cheese burger, formed ,bread-crumbed, then deep fried.  It oozes creamed cheese flavoured lightly with truffle oil, whilst the pasta still retains its bite.  What makes the dish is the bread crumbs, heavily seasoned so that every bite draws the maximum in flavour.  There is a slice of abalone mushroom and pickled shallots for contrast.  Eating this is not good for your health, but the best things never are.  We order the blooming onion – seasoned and deep fried slithers still bound together at its core – and douse it with a house sauce full of pepper and mustard.  It feels like an instant classic, but then so does everything else. We share the N&Q take on Rocky Road for dessert.  Its good, even if the silky chocolate sauce that covers it is a little heavy-handed on the sugar.  Not that we mind, as we quickly fight over the nut brittle pieces and dabs of marshmallow we later find out are made in house.

049

050

053

I would forgive you for thinking that this sounds a little familiar.  The name, the lobster for twenty notes, the plastic bib that I am yet to mention.  Its obvious that part of the inspiration is Burger & Lobster, the branch which started in London and is now appearing everywhere, including my beloved Birmingham this Autumn.  When I first saw the menu I thought it was plagiarism; now I think it to be evolution.  Where Burger & Lobster limits itself to two items, Nosh & Quaff takes those boundaries and runs with them, never flinching in the quest for perfection from the ingredient sourcing to the delivery on the table.  Its barely even open and already it feels vital to the city.  Believe the hype.  Every single word of it.  Nosh & Quaff is the real deal.

9/10

As you have probably already established, the food I ate at the launch party was complimentary.

Click to add a blog post for Nosh and Quaff on Zomato

 

 

Lasan, Birmingham

Few restaurants garner local adoration like Lasan. Since a young and ambitious Aktar Islam swept to glory on Ramsay’s F Word five years ago, we have seen his elaborate cooking style develop and timekeeping skills worsen over two series of Great British Menu, amongst many other cooking programmes. Lasan has become synonymous with transporting the curry away from the Balti Triangle and in to more refined parts of the city, taking with it a fresh approach to the cuisine, from improved ingredient quality to elegant presentation.  Ask anyone local for a recommendation of where to eat and Lasan will inevitably come up, regardless whether or not they have actually been there.  The city of Birmingham likes to claim the curry as our own; its only natural we want one of our local stars to sit amongst the higher echelons.

002 001

The cavernous space Lasan operates in is a muted wash of Farrow and Ball neutrals. The heavy wooden tables are bare, the chairs ornate and comfortable. Everything functions, though, in all honesty, it is a little tired looking. From our elevated seat on the balcony we agree that it is nothing that a lick of paint here and there wouldn’t solve. Pani puri arrives, the crisp spheres filled with vegetables and a piquant water.  Its Indian street food spun through the fingers of a spice wizard; chilli heat, sweat and sour notes from tamarind, crunch and earthiness from the chickpeas and potato.  It is about as good as one mouthful gets.

009

A tasting of quail showed Islam’s long term vision for Lasan is rooted firmly in fine dining territory.  A marinated supreme which still retained its delicate meatiness was only overshadowed by a beautifully poised quail egg kofta . It was an ambitious plate worth commending with only a roast leg failing to delivery. The little amount of meat lost in the sweet molasses.  Salmon Tikka was faultless, the fish more than standing up to the marinade of tomato and red pepper that grew and on the palate whilst being tempered by lime acidity.

016

 

013

 

 
A duck main had perfectly pink breast atop of braised cabbage and lentils.  The meat was well timed, though it needed the killer south Indian style sauce to bring everything together.  The coconut bringing a subtle sweetness against the bell peppers.  Another sauce, this time a Rajastani style gravy, would fight for star billing on a lamb main that nod towards Lasan’s Achilles Heel.  Whilst the aubergine and shoulder rilllette had more flavour levels than Tetris, the coriander crusted rack was undercooked.  The meat, cooked sous-vide and then roasted, had spent too long in the water bath and not long enough in the oven, resulting in a rare rack with fat that had not rendered down.  It highlighted that the modern cooking techniques had not been mastered as well as the primitive tandoor cooking in complete juxtaposition.  Much safer ground was a chicken tikka masala, of course not referred to here by its common name.  The large chunks of poultry were charred and flavoursome, the creamy sauce complex with a restrained hand on the heat.

018

 

022

Breads were predictably brilliant, as was a dhal which ranks as the best I have eaten.  And then the price.  With mains hovering around twenty quid, a share of the sides and bread that is insisted on as required (its not), a meal here can reach the same dizzying heights as its Michelin contemporaries.  Is it value for money?  I would say so.  Its occasionally brilliant, consistently entertaining and infrequently frustrating, though never through lack of trying.  A bit like the Aktar Islam I watched on telly.  This is his show; a study of taking a cuisine that we expect to be rustic and refining it to something far more beautiful whilst still retaining the soul of the cooking.  And a bit like the Aktar Islam I watched on telly, it’s a fascinating bit of viewing.

8/10

Click to add a blog post for Lasan Restaurant on Zomato