Birmingham

Purnell’s in pictures. Birmingham.

If any of the Purnell’s team are reading this, please take this as a public apology. Know that I normally behave far better and I’m not proud of my state in your restaurant. For clarification, we were celebrating Claire’s birthday a little too heavily; Opheem, Arch 13, Nocturnal Animals and Hotel du Vin until the very early hours the night prior. Back in Little Blackwood at 10am for breakfast and a birthday bottle of Nyetimber, The Edgbaston for a quick four glasses of Moët (and a couple of drams of Japanese whisky), Pint Shop, and then Purnell’s for lunch where we were kindly greeted with more of the fizzy stuff. You do the math. It was a lot of booze before we sat down for lunch.

As a result I’ve contemplated not putting this on the blog. I’ve been hazy on detail before, but that usually happens during the meal; I have never turned up for dinner drunk – I happen to think it’s fantastically poor form. I’ve decided to utilise Claire; her pictures and her memory (she skipped many of the morning’s drinks), and just write about the bits I’m certain on. What is clear is that Purnell’s delivered another brilliant lunch; one that is witty and theatrical, that still has real technique and flavour at its core. We have many brilliant Michelin starred restaurants in this fine city, yet none wear all that is brilliant about the city quite like this fine restaurant.

XEIE2000

TGAA2410

BGFG4979

KVCR9469

NEPW2560

FMKK0507

VMHB9522

KLDH2484

RYMP6889

GLMX7960

The highlights were the coal potatoes with chorizo dip that echoed the river pebbles at Mugaritz, the cheese and pineapple that remains one of my favourite dishes in Birmingham, the cod with satay, and a couple of really excellent desserts; a chocolate and mint number that worked on a multi-sensory level, and that brilliantly iconic 10/10/10 egg custard. Service was exemplary from start to finish, the chosen wines from Sonal for each course perfectly judged. It was all very, very good. I just wish I was a little less ashamed of it.

So Thank You to Sonal for looking after us so well, to Glynn and to Luke for popping out the kitchen and saying hello. Claire had an incredible birthday and the two hours at Purnell’s were a huge part of that. If you’ll have me, we’ll come back and I’ll stay sober this time. Purnell’s deserves far more than the above pictures and a few words.

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

 

 

 

 

All Greek, Birmingham

When you strip it all back, the foods that nations are built on can easily be joined together dot-to-dot. A Lancashire hotpot isn’t really all that different to the tagines of North Africa, and whether that dough of egg and flour is pasta or noodles really comes down to the continent on which you were born. The notion of coating fowl in starch and then deep frying might be karaage in one country, chikin in another, or just plain KFC in the U S of A. As much as we cling on the idealism of certain foods being owned by countries, it is much like religion; a singular narrative that has become jumbled, bastardised, reimagined and re-homed over centuries.

YFUT9914

VSSL3964

I was thinking about this in All Greek. I was chowing down on the most Greek of dishes; souvlaki, gift wrapped in a bouncy pitta bread that contained tomatoes, raw onion, mustard, ketchup, a feta based cheese sauce with plenty of heat, and chips (chips!), amongst lots of meat. Ignoring the protein for a second, the sauces had amalgamated into something familiar, there was the bite of salad, cheesy notes, salty fries, and bread that worked as the perfect mode of transportation to the mouth. The Greeks are going to hate me for saying this, but this is their Big Mac and fries, albeit a much more healthy version. It turns out they have much more in common with the yanks than Brad Pitt playing Achilles. Either way I quite enjoyed it all, with the exception of the bag-to-fryer fries.

IKIE9983

Claire had a similar one of chicken souvlaki that skipped out the mustard, ketchup and the chips, instead choosing to focus on the ‘cleaner’ elements of the wrap with the addition of a spritely tzatiki. She loved it. No complaints. I wish I was that wrap.

PZGC0929

I wasn’t planning on writing this, but there is an honesty to the offering here that warrants it. Everything is fresh bar those chips, the service is charming, and, with every wrap nudging the fiver mark, it is cheap. Get those sauces, kick back with a glass of something and enjoy real Greek food, whatever the roots of that may be.

7/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Birmingham’s Top 5 Cocktails

I went and saw my doctor the other day. He asked me how much I’ve been drinking, to which I glanced away nervously into the sterile corner of the room and shook internally, incurring further damage to the organs which I am worried about. I reluctantly told him the truth. He wanted more detail on the type of booze; I said the expensive stuff, mostly blended into expertly crafted drinks. My doctor leans forward, the smell of stale coffee filling the decreasing void between his face and mine. “Sounds fucking fantastic” he says, “You must utilise your multi-award winning blog to write about these, because I need to try them pronto. But heed this warning, young Simon: do not get caught-up in the in the grandeur of awards; even Adolf Hitler won Time Magazine Man of The Year in 1938”. What a wise doctor he is, even if he is the last remaining man alive to use the word ‘pronto’.

So here is a list of the best Birmingham drinks, which, after multiple trips to some place called Londium, really do stand-up to anything in the country. We’re so blessed with what we have here in Brum, which is a small group of hugely talented people bringing the best out of one another. No Pornstar Martinis have been harmed in the making of this list. Give them a go and tell them Ol’ Meaty from the Interweb sent you. You’ll get nothing, but I might get a free drink out of it somewhere down the line.

5) FKD, £7, Nocturnal Animals

The name might be a giveaway, but this is a witty take on teenage boys’ favourite fingering juice. It’s neon blue in colour, bloody lovely in flavour, and rather brilliantly poured on draft straight out of the tap. Nocturnal Animals is too new for me to remotely consider myself an expert on their drinks program, but this is already a highlight for a venue not afraid to take the piss out of fickle aspects of modern life.

4) Negroni, £10, Legna

Ordering a Negroni is like watching Babestation drunk; rarely satisfying. Everywhere in Birmingham has them, very few do them well. For me the best is at Legna where the gin has been steeped in parmesan to give the drink added length and umami. It is up there with the negroni at Bar Termini, which, if drinks is your thang, is the ultimate in Negroni-based compliments.

3) Champion Cobbler, £12, 40 St Pauls

All hail the greatest gin bar in the universe. I’m not making that up, they really are. Right now I’d say get down there for the salted caramel gin hot chocolate, but otherwise take the Gin Cobbler; a fruity little number that comes in a trophy. Because you, Dear Reader, are a deserving champion.

4987AA7C-7C8F-454A-810E-3023724C7CF02) Hit The Rum Jack, £12, The Edgbaston

Simply my favourite place in the city. Indulgent, luxurious, with perfect service, it is everything the bar of a luxury boutique hotel should be. Settle in for the night and work towards this drink; a short, boozy, and complex rum based drink that works on nutty flavours. The truth is you’ll be hard pushed here to find a drink that you didn’t like.

1) Amber Nectar, £10, 18/81

Honestly, the reason I knocked this list up. I was a bit taken aback when I recently tried it; it’s not just one of the best drinks I’ve had in Birmingham, but one of the best drinks I can remember ever having. For what is essentially a double measure of a single malt whisky, they have managed to add a dashes of maple, pecan, and tonka bean to draw out the flavour profile of the whisky. A world class drink that converted Claire to the joys of the fire water.

8057EA13-A94D-43AB-9322-778B3EA07CB2Don’t drink and drive, kids. Take an A2B Radio Car like I do.

 

 

 

 

Buonissimo, Harborne

With all the new openings, burger bars, street kitchens, and trendy Asian joints, it is easy to forget about those neighbourhood restaurants that have seemingly kept areas full on food forever. I’m guilty of this more than most: my diary is an endless list of tasting menus, of baos and ramen, masala chaat, and burrata, all in the name of telling you what is good and what is Deolali. I had almost forgotten that Buonissimo existed, despite the fact that I lived in Harborne for six years, with a proportion of those a twenty second walk away from this quaint spot just off the high street. Before this blog I used to eat there relatively frequently; I’ve spent Valentines evenings there, I’d gone for the cheaper evening meals, and memorably on one evening watched a drunk man topple backwards down the stairs whilst I grazed on a whole baked garlic and sipped on a just warm glass of Appassimento. He lived. I think.

It hasn’t changed much in the two or so years since I last visited. It’s still warm and homely; almost affectionate in service. The heavy wooden tables and chairs more comfortable than they look, with only plants disturbing the blue and white colour scheme. The menu is still concise and changes with the seasons, whilst they still proudly list their suppliers on the reverse. And what a list of suppliers. Meat from my favourite butcher, Roger Brown, bread from Peel and Stone. We work through the bread whilst taking in our options; it is all very good, more so with the peppery olive oil and almost sweet balsamic vinegar.

We take two pasta dishes for starters. Orecchiette has mortadella sausage, peas, and pistachio for company, with the little indentations of the pasta catching the silky tomato sauce enriched with lots of cream. It is elegant and seriously tasty. A ravioli of ‘nduja and pecorino takes the opposite approach, boasting lots of chilli and garlic in amongst the olive oil dressing. This is rustic and big-hitting. Both are winners for which we will return for larger sized portions.

Mains stay on that rustic route. This is Italian home cooking, a kind of meat and two veg (which would make a fantastic name for a foodblog) approach that fills the plate to all edges and dares you to try and finish. There is nothing pretty about either dish, but the flavour is there. I have a duck leg that has been confited and then blasted over heat so that the skin breaks into crisp shards, with a sticky and rich sauce dotted with prunes. Opposite me is chicken breast wearing a winter jacket of courgette and melted cheese. The quality of the meat is obvious, as is the skill in handling the protein. The cavalo nero is nice, as are the garlic potatoes served with the duck, though we’ll gloss over the wedges with the chicken that suspiciously look and taste like they have come from a bag.

By now we’re full. Super full. We have no room for dessert but the menu leads us into first agreeing to share one, before ordering two. It’s the right move. A crepe containing stewed apple and mascapone is good, though is overshadowed by an excellent take on bread and butter pudding using panetone that should come accessorised with a pillow and duvet. We wash it down with a chocolate hazelnut liquor and leave very happy.

Stay away from the fillet steak here and nothing will break the bank. Starters are all under ten, mains around £15, and wine that starts late teens. Exactly how a neighbourhood restaurant should be. There is nothing finessed about Bounissmo, it channels a completely different type of restaurant built around the principals of family cooking. By the time we’ve drank up on the wine we feel almost sad about leaving. The world needs more places like this; we won’t be leaving it so long next time.

8/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Burger Theory at Kongs, Birmingham

One of my pet peeves when reading other blogs is the endless comparisons. Apart from being very rude, it also isn’t particularly helpful. There are so many variables it is almost impossible to do fairly: were the dishes identical? Are they the same price? Did said bloggers pay for both meals? (the last one is unlikely). I don’t see what anyone gains from saying ‘this is better than this…’ other than undermining the establishment you are supposed to be concentrating on. But, and this is a but bigger than my rapidly increasing butt, it is going to be nigh on impossible to get through the next five hundred words without comparing Burger Theory to the big guns of this city. We do burgers very well in this town, so you’ll need to do something remarkable to step into the (bull)ring. I offer no apologies for that appalling regional pun.

Burger Theory operate to one side of Kongs, in the building that used to be Chameleon. That place was awful; a mating pen to the sound of commercial house, where wedding rings would be stowed in trouser pockets in the vague hope that two pissed people may horizontally align between the hours of midnight and 3am. Gone is the shiny wood, replaced with sparse seating, neon lights, and concrete. They have managed to erase the smell of regret that used to haunt the dancefloor and replace that area with wiff-waff tables, whilst vintage arcade games line the walls. I like what they have done with the place, mostly because it is no longer Chameleon.

I’ve been twice now because I want to give it a fair crack. The first time was a fleeting solo visit on a weekday night. It was empty. I have a korean chicken burger and a pint of Gamma Ray. The burger is served on paper napkins so that the leaking sweet chilli sauce is a irretrievable bed of red squelch that infuriates me. The burger itself is pretty good; high on salt, crispy batter and chicken that has survived the frying with some of its juices. It works, even if I hanker for a drink after every mouthful. I finish my pint, waste six quid on Donkey Kong and leave.

The second time saw me taking a severe beating at the car game they have before ordering a more substantial meal. Beef this time; on two burgers and one loaded fries. Those fries are not good: supposedly a chilli, the beef is tough and stringy, the promised sauces nowhere near enough in quantity to stop it all being too dry. The burgers are good, maybe not good enough to choose over OPM or Meatshack, but certainly good enough to eat should we happen to be playing wiff-waff in Kongs. The meat is good quality, accurately seared and cooked. The Down and Dirty is better than the one with blue cheese because the latter is out of proportion and only tastes of cheese. As far as burgers go, these would stand up to most competition. Most.

And then there is the issue of the size of the room. On that Saturday lunch there is maybe 60 in Kongs and it still feels empty. Maybe it will be different in the evening when they have a DJ, though they are going to need to put a lot more through the door to make this a viable business. Have they bitten off more than they can chew? Possibly. Still, Burger Theory bring more good food to the city, which can only be a positive.

7/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

The Greenhouse, Sutton Coldfield

Sutton Coldfield has never struck me as an area to get excited about. I know it exists, like third world poverty and Mrs Brown’s Boys, but I have little desire to seek it out and experience it for myself.  On the rare occasion I do venture north of the wall it nearly always disappoints; there is good stuff happening beyond here, like the excellent The Boat in Lichfield, but Sutton feels timid in comparasion. It’s too genteel, too middle class to have anything edgy going on. It is the land of the company car and fillet steak, which seems perfectly fine for its inhabitants.

My mate Jacob gets excited about Sutton, mostly as he was born there. A car journey with Jacob around the area is a rapid verbal account of very colourful teenage years. It is great fun; kissed a girl here; ran away from the police in that place; had a scrap with a man thirty years my senior in there. I never realised Sutton could be so fun. Anyway, he’s a drinks rep now and he told me about a pub near his parents home that has had a refurbishment that looks great. So we do what thirty-somethings do and arrange to go on a double dinner date which stays civilised until we pick him and his fiancé up and see that they have a small bottle of whisky with them for the car journey.

The pub is smart; tables are spaced far enough apart for the young team to buzz around and handle every table in a warm and professional manner. It is a big menu, one that takes up both sides of an A4 sheet of paper. From the starters the lamb koftas go down well in a kind of DIY flatbread, as does a doorstop wedge of brie crumbed and then deepfried to a gooey consistency. Chicken karage is good when dunked into a katsu sauce that tastes remarkably like the curry sauce from my local chippy. The Asian inspired salad it comes with needs work; nothing tastes of anything.

Out of the four mains we have there is one dud: a dried-out chicken breast stuffed with a little chorizo, in an alleged buttermilk batter that has caught and burnt in parts. That aside, the rest is pretty good gastro-grub. Battered halloumi is precisely cooked with decent chips, mushy peas, and a very good tartare sauce, whilst a rib-eye is correctly cooked, if a little under-rested. Best is the fillet steak, with a little shallot tatin topped with cheese. Again the meat is cooked well, but it’s the accompaniment that makes it shine; adding umami and depth to the lump of cow.

Dessert is a melting chocolate bomb that is super sweet but also super good. Okay, I’ve been eating melting bombs for over a decade, but it’s great to see it somewhere more accessible than starred restaurants. And it works; the salted caramel sauce melts the chocolate and leaves a puddle of happiness around the revealed sticky toffee pudding.

We drink two bottles of decent Rioja and leave replete for the journey back to southern Brum. Is The Greenhouse good enough for me to make a frequent trek back to Sutton? Probably not. Though I do have a sister who lives nearby and I could certainly see myself having a bite to eat with her here. There is a lot to like about The Greenhouse, which delivers good quality food at a fair price.

7/10

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

Grace + James / The Juke, Kings Heath

I fucking love wine. Like really love the stuff. I do crushed grapes as well as the next man, unless that man knows more about the crushing of grapes than I do, which would be bad luck on my part. At present I am part of two wine clubs. I spend too much on wine and drink far too much. I hope the crash victim who is looking after my next liver likes crushed grapes less than I do. I’m hardly an expert on the stuff, though – if I am being honest now – have won stuff at blind tastings before. And let me tell you, the blind don’t taste that different. They just smell a bit mustier. I enjoy the process of learning whilst getting drunk; of new and old world styles; of grape varieties. Wine is a complex thing that turns most of us into far simpler humans.

I’ll admit to knowing nothing about natural wine. Nada. Zilch. Zero. I know that it’s supposed to be better for the enviroment and for our body, and I also know that the lack of sulphites is supposed to give a lighter hangover. The latter was a bit of information passed on to me by the somme-liar at Carters and proved to be total nonsense after the individual consumption of over two bottles. On the palate it is wild and funky like Rick James, occasionally being so fruit led it can taste like cider or perry. But these are just my observations from the last sixteen months when a dimunitive blonde turned up at my flat with several carloads of possesions and a five litre box of organic white from Wine Freedom. More recently we’ve had the opening of Grace + James up the road from us in Kings Heath. It is a genuine game-changer; one of our absolute favourite openings of the year. Part deli, part natural wine bar, they have succeeded in opening my eyes to natural wine. And it’s gorgeous inside, the neutral shop front giving way to a room of blush pink and tasteful additions. They do cheese, bloody good cheese at that, drafted in from the best in Europe. It is the only place in Birmingham I have seen a Saint Marcelin, which is a must-order should you find yourself in a similar position.

I still know nothing about natural wine, but I’m trying. We’ll sit and work through the bottles on the shelf, we’ll take advice from Henry and Sophie (who are presumably keeping Grace and James hostage), and we’ll make an evening of it listening to great music. Life is easy when it is this good. Grace + James is really rather marvellous.

I also fucking love beer. Like really love the stuff. I do hops as good as the next man, unless the next man is dressed as a rabbit in which case… oh, I give up. I also love music and the nostalgia attached to the dive bars of Americana when the brief pause between tracks was caused by one vinyl spinning back to its home and the next being flipped into place. It is this reason why I love The Juke, which convienently happens to be opposite Grace + James.

The Juke is a small but perfectly formed bar, ideal for those winter days and nights when the sight of outside would cause anxiety. They have a concise bar stocked with interesting spirits and craft beer takeovers on constant cycle. They have kitchen pop-ups and a small team for whom nothing is ever too much. What distinguishes here from all other places of similar ilk is the original 50’s Jukebox that sits to one side of the bar. It’s what the bar is named after. The options cover all decades and styles and is free, though this does leave it open for continous repetitive plays of Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ on a recent visit. I think you can learn a lot from other peoples taste in music: fans of Beirut come paired with works of JD Sallinger, whilst the Oasis fans can usually be found outside pissing up the front door. Me, I fill my time listening to Bon Iver and The National. Feel free to revert to whatever stereotype you want about that.

These two don’t share much in common other than an address and a passion to do the best they can. In that respect they have nailed it. Together they are part of a huge reason why York Rd is one of the best in Birmingham. It’s almost enough to make us want to move from Moseley to Kings Heath. Almost.

Transport by A2B Radio Cars

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

The Summerhouse, Hall Green

The Shaftmoor is a pub which has inadvertently shaped part of my upbringing. I never entered until my early thirties, when I would join my brother and dad for beers following my mother’s untimely passing. Prior to that it was the pub I was scared of; the one on the end of nan’s road, opposite the chippy on the wrong side of the area in which I grew up. There would be stories of fights which would spill out on to the carpark and locals you should avoid to the point that even in my late teens I would jog nervously past on the way to my friend Alasdair’s house. Nobody I knew went to The Shaftmoor and neither could I, especially with my supercilious wardrobe of moleskine and pastels in an area where the tracksuit is staff uniform. It’s nonsense of course. The pub would transpire to be a little ragged around the peripherals but inside was a homely space where no one judged three blokes quietly sobbing over a game of pool and drinking cheap lager. I liked it. I liked it’s soul and it’s honesty. They even had a shack outside cooking up seekh kebabs and chicken tikka on weekends, which I swore I would eat and review but never did. Me and my stomach have a bad relationship at the best of times. I’m not prepared to call it completely off by eating from a smoking shed.

That pub is now The Summerhouse. It looks far more inviting from the outside than it used to, with not much of a makeover inside, but enough to add a quid to most of the drinks. Aside from the lick of paint, new chairs, and bizarre Irish wall murals, the majority of the cost appears to have been spent on the kitchen. Gone is the shack, replaced with a glossy new area from which the latest of the city’s Indian Desi pubs will serve vast amounts of meat on sizzling black plates. I should probably take this oppurtunity to moan about yet another one of these opening, but I won’t: they are great at breathing new life into pubs on the way out, and anything that saves a pub from shutting down is fine with me. Plus they have the credentials of being from the previous owner of The Horseshoe. If the food is up to the standard of there, I’ll be running through the doors as opposed to past them.

The good news is it is pretty good. A chicken madras may have had the whiff of jarred sauce but the spicing was rich and fruity, the lumps of poultry only just drying out. I’ve had far worse at places charging twice the price. The mixed grill also impresses, with chunks of fat chicken tikka where the marinade has worked into the centre of the meat, and chicken wings that offer plenty of spiced flesh. The chicken seekh is missing in action, and I’m non-plussed about the lamb seekh which is underwhelming and overworked. Chips are straight out of a bag, into a fryer and dusted with some generic spice. Exactly what we anticipated.

The wait of 50 minutes for the food is passed on the pool table, meaning that I am late back to work and unable to finish the food, or query the missing chicken seekh from the grill. I’m conflicted about the score which sits around the seven mark before the missing bits of food and the lengthy wait. Look, it’s good if you happen to be in the area, which I will be several times a year, though in the grand scheme of desi pubs it’s not going to top my list at present. Given that Dad lives ten minutes walk away and my brother likes to drink here, I’ll be eating here often enough. I sincerely hope that I’ll be reporting an improvement here somepoint in the future.

6/10 

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars