Curry

Opheem, November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Opheem (curry is on evenings, Sunday-Thursday)

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Pictures by the birthday girl

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 

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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.

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Tap and Tandoor, Solihull

Very occasionally I sit somewhere and know the success is fully deserved. That they have a clear idea of what the area demands, and that those who are demanding it will leave happy. Often it is the most basic of ideas, as is the case here at Tap and Tandoor. It is as simple as location and provenance; the former will see them come in droves, the latter see them returning time over. If Solihull needed this as an area, the market it sits within needed the innovation more. The idea that the grill and curry food could be done using entirely free range meat for the same price as the competition is a genuine game changer for a sector not known for conscientious meat purchasing. And the quality of that meat shines throughout the meal. That is why Tap and Tandoor is one of the most important openings of 2018.

I thought it would be good; I know its sister venue Zindiya intimately. The menu has the infrequent nod towards that Moseley restaurant whilst managing to be an entirely different beast. Here you will find curry, breads, and mixed grills alongside the Indian street food dishes of Zindiya. It is a menu designed to be grazed over a longer period, washed down with any one of the beers that line the back wall. We order and settle in to a table under the painted mural on the back wall. It is heaving. The inhabitants of Solihull clearly have more taste that I credited them for.

From a succinct list of home style curry we have the butter chicken of all butter chickens. So good that all other versions must now feature ‘I cant believe its not butter chicken’ on the packaging. Its unashamedly rich, clogging the arteries with happiness. The poultry is firm, well cooked, and tastes of chicken; a rarity in these places. It is a stunner. We mop this up with a chilli and cheese naan that is supple and light. Exactly how it should be but rarely are.

And then there is the mixed grill. And my, what a mixed grill it is. It is the best of its kind in the city because the quality of the produce is allowed to shine. We have a regular sized one that is too much for two people, but will not stop me ordering the large next time. The chicken tikka is made to the same recipe as the sister restaurant. If anything the morsels here are larger, so whisper it, but this may be even better than the place that does the best I have eaten. There are meaty chicken wings smoky from the grill that do less for me, king prawns that linger with chilli notes for a while afterwards, and heavily spiced sheekh kebab cut to an uneven number that has us arguing over the last piece. Best of all are the lamb chops, charred so that the marinade has crusted up and left a pink centre. Once again the quality of the meat shines through; lamb chops simply don’t taste this good in places like this.

The only slip-up I can find are the beer battered onion bhajis that are a touch greasy and need a little work, but that is it. Even the one dish lifted from the Zindiya menu is an improvement; paneer tikka in an indo-Chinese style sauce. It is no longer caked in sauce, instead it happily shares its space with cooked onions and peppers, splayed out across a plate with the sweet and fiery sauce merely joining the dots. I want to stay and eat the chocolate samosa but I am defeated.

Far too much food, a beer, and a soft drink comes in at just over £40, an obscene bargain. And it is this that impresses me the most. With the premium location and free range meat costs it would have been easy to ramp up the prices, yet they have resisted this, choosing to sit at a price point below their direct competition. It’s all rather brilliant, helped by a team of staff who clearly know their stuff. If I lived closer I’d be here twice a week without fail. The people of Solihull are a lucky, lucky bunch.

9/10

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Itihaas, Birmingham

Without wishing to generalise or resort to stereotype, Indians do service better than any other country. Maybe it’s cultural, or even driven by its colonial history where their position in society meant they served as a secondary nature, but the very basic level is elevated when in, or provided by, those from the sub-continent. My girlfriend saw this first-hand in India when staying at the majestic Taj hotel in Mumbai last November. Here a five star hotel is built around amenities; valet parking, afternoon tea, and then somewhere to work it off afterwards. At the Taj they would fold and recoil phone chargers, and turn down bed sheets whilst they were out for dinner. She was even able to send the concierge out for some cheap brandy I requested that she couldn’t be arsed to look for herself. You try going into The Connaught and asking them to fetch you some cheap brandy; they’ll have you downstairs in the bar drinking the very expensive stuff as a compromise.

Some of the very best service I think I’ve ever received in this mighty fine town was last week at Itihaas. It was hammering down outside when we pass into the entrance, the team quick to remove coats and offer towels to dry us off. And then we’re seated in chairs so deep they could be Leonard Cohen lyrics and offered champagne whilst poppadum arrive, whilst the team buzz around a dining room far too busy to be an Indian restaurant on a Monday evening. And then dishes arrive at a good pace and wine is topped up immaculately. Pitched well above casual and more towards those bestowed with accolades, they succeeded in that personal level of service that makes a diner feel special. Even when they’ve been soaked to the bone coming to eat here after an awful day in the office.

But what about the food, I don’t here you asking? It’s bloody good, probably the best of it’s too-expensive-for-a-casual-Balti-but-nice-enough-to-bring-the-parents category that it sits within. Soft shell crab pakora is the best soft shell dish I have eaten, with a crunchy spiced batter that avoids grease and never loses the flavour of the crustacean. Lamb tikka is remarkable; the quality of the fillet meat and the length of the marinade resulting in chunks of so tender they require no chewing. Both of these are outstanding but for me its the scallops that take the starters. Accurately seared to an opaque centre, the light curried dressing has bags of acidity and garlic, with whole bullet chillies for those who like a challenge. I do. Three starters of the highest order. We speak only in approving nods and doe eyes.

This being a night organised by the PR company behind the restaurant we are being fed plentifully and without choice, so the next two courses would not have been ordered by me usually on account of zero meat. Soy tikka masala is a clear riff on the nations favourite dish, the soy protein a substitute favoured by those who make their diet the first conversational piece. I love the spicy gravy but the texture of soy is one that I cannot get on board with, despite its obvious benefits. And you don’t need to because they have the Makhani Paneer, which I am calling one of the cities great vegetarian dishes. The homemade paneer is deliberately cooked without colour, allowing the creamy curry to star front of stage. It’s rich and buttery with a backnote of tang that stops it becoming too much until you soak it up with a truffle oil and poppy seed naan. This absolute genius addition of truffle oil works brilliantly when in the restrained environment of a naan, less so when applied liberally throughout the rice already laden of wild mushrooms. Too much luxury can be a bad thing occasionally. Just take the paneer curry with the truffle oil naan and order a plain pilau rice. Thank me after you’ve wiped the dish clean.

We also get a lamb shank, braised until the bone comes away from the protein with a singular tug, in a gravy style sauce that has the soul of cooking juices. Running low, I request a little more bread to protect my fingers as I tug away at the last of the meat, to which they produce a roomali roti. My favourite! It’s as if they’ve read my mind. Or this blog. The bread is perfect, almost transparent thin layers that collapse upon themselves like the English cricket team’s lower order, but this is all about the lamb which is delicate in texture and robust in flavour.

Dessert comes in the way of two courses; up first is a pistachio rasmali, a dish I tend to care little for, even with the metallic tang of saffron livening up the milk that moats around the sponge. I have a lot more time for the deep fried samosa filled with molten chocolate and coconut. Naughty, naughty, very naughty. The pastry is thin, the centre liquid. It goes very well with the almond kulfi drenched in bourbon. I don’t normally like kulfi. Maybe booze was the answer all along.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think for a second that the specially planned menu with generous amounts of wine and a brandy nightcap isn’t a conscious effort from the restaurant to show off, but frankly, it worked. And my eye was firmly on the table of city workers behind us who received the same level of brilliant service despite being heavily under the influence. Everyone gets the same brilliant service, its just that most have a bill to settle at the end. And that bill is worth it; from beginning to end it’s total class, with smart Indian cooking using some very good ingredients. As a city Birmingham does Indian food better than all others. Itihaas is right at the top of that pile.

8/10

I was invited to dine here on a complimentary basis

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Gymkhana, London

The last day of our London blowout saw the bluster of snow quickly gather around our ankles as The Beast rolled onto our shores from the east. We find solace in Mayfair, firstly with the perfect martini in The Connaught, thereafter in the plush leather booths of Gymkhana. The dark panelled upstairs of the restaurant feels like a plush gentleman’s club, with low lighting that that doesn’t bode well for cameras and therefore ideal for one of the most famous men on the planet to enjoy lunch. No, its not me. Mid-lunch I send a picture to my best friend with said superstar accidentally in the background, stating the inevitable of who it is. “Are you eating curry at 2.30pm?” is his response. Yes Nathan, I am. I am in Mayfair, there are no rules here.

Not just any curry though. Curry bestowed with a star by a tyre company and uniformly loved by the denizens of the capital. The service here is slick and discreet, polished more frequently than the table we sit at. Greeting us are three types of popadom; lentil, potato, and tapioca, with three types of chutney. A sweet mango one, another of mint and coriander with a verdant kick, and a feisty dried shrimp one that starts spicy and finishes with the crash of the ocean.

A large plate of potato and chickpea chaat marks the first course. It’s generous as a dish for two to share, though we make a good go at working through the beguiling mix of textures; the snap of wafer, the crunch of sev and little fried bits of potato that have soaked up the tamarind chutney that have kissed everything. Another sharer plate follows of tandoori cauliflower, the florets wearing a cap of thick yogurt. Two very good plates of food that showcase how Indians manage to extract more flavour from vegetables than any other cuisine.

The curry course is less main and more banquet. We don’t even get close to finishing it. There is decadent butter chicken masala that adds weight just by looking at it, and a more a dry spinach and paneer curry that pops with flavour with every mouthful. There is a smoky dal maharani that we mop up with the lightest of naans, and we take a supple roti to spicy potatoes coated in a thick gravy that has us instantly googling the recipe. It is called Dum Aloo Banarasi if you’re interested. And rice. Cant forget the rice. It’s mammoth in portion and obscenely good. Some of the best curry I can recall eating anywhere, and I have eaten a lot of curry as my ghee filled arteries will testify.

Desserts are a bit lost on me in comparison on account of teeth generally not being required to eat them with. Rasmalai is a very good rendition of gloppy cheese balls in milky custard, shown a little bit of wit with the addition of popping candy. Also being eaten by my other half was kheer, a rice pudding, with slices of Seville orange that bring a bright acidity. She loves them both, but then that’s understandable given that she was chowing down on baby food just a few years ago. I can appreciate them, which is an upgrade on my usual stance.

All of this is more remarkable given that eating here can be affordable. The above is all from a £35 four course set menu, to which we add a very good value pinot noir, and some superb cocktails that are worthy of the splurge. It seems remarkably fair given the Mayfair address. I’m late to this particular club as Gymkhana has been sweeping up the awards for several years now, but do I care? Do I heck. I am an instant fan, one that looks forward to future visits. They can give me Indian food this good anytime they like. Yes Nathan, even at 2.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.

8/10

Raja Monkey, Hall Green

I’ll keep this post nice and short, just like Paul, my dining companion on this evening. Just last week, Michelin starred chef and fellow Moseleyite, Brad Carter, was interviewed by the Good Food Guide about his favourite places to eat in Birmingham, whereupon he stated that Raja Monkey was his ‘best place for dinner’. I’m going to stop there and call it quits. Brad has the palate of a fine artist, making mine look like etch-a-sketch in comparison. I’ll be honest, given the choice of Brad’s recommendation or reading my badly put together, slightly angry, and marginally tainted opinion, you should 100% switch off this crap, Google the piece I’m talking about and take his word about going. Do as he says. The End. It was a pleasure knowing you.

Still there? WHY?! Can you not take instruction? You are worse than my hamster. Should you want my opinion, I am going to echo that of Mr Moseley Michelin Man. Raja Monkey is a brilliant little place in a spot worth travelling to, occupying a little crevice in the Indian dining scene quite unlike anywhere else. They do curries and dosa, and all encompassing thali. It’s the spirit of roadside India, those cheap dinner stop-off joints filled with locals and stale, humid air. Here we are in Hall Green, opposite Waitrose, sat in deep leather booths whilst others wait for spaces to come available in a packed dining room. I’d much rather be here, if only for the air conditioning.

I was in love from the first mouthful. It was the lime pickle which got me, blood red and aggressive. It has acidity at the front, lingering heat at the back. It takes considerable effort and skill to make pickle this good, not buy it in a jar like ever other Indian restaurant in the city. The mango chutney, too, with a back note of clove and onion seed, was impressive. I use this to spoon into a dosa filled with potato, mustard seed and curry leaf. The savoury pancake is delicate, the filling generous. I really like the punchy tomato chutney, less so the coconut one. It is as good a dosa as I have eaten anywhere, India included. Opposite me Paul is destroying a mixed fish starter. I don’t try it so we’ll have to take his past career as Birmingham Mail’s food critic as word that it is good. If you’ve read his previous work I’ll leave that decision up to you.

I do get to try his Chicken Bhuna and when I say ‘try’ I really mean finish off the third that he has left and work the last of the sauce out of the crevices with a roti. The curry is drier in style than I expect, fragrant with garam masala, and rich with the base of onions took well past the point of colouring. It is special but nothing compared to my thali. Thali, for those who have fell upon this blog by mistake and still order chicken tikka masala, is a complete meal on a tray. The components within the little pots is changeable, but this has paratha for bread, rice, an onion and tomato salad that zings with light pickling liquor, a dhal, vegetable dish, and curry. My curry is a chicken korma, a dish that Brits have destroyed by labelling it as the not spicy option in the post-pub curry houses. This is how it should be; a gravy base not destroyed by coconut, comforting and perfumed by cardamom. The meat has taken on the curry flavour, a hard boiled egg adding further richness. I like it, but it is the vegetable dish that amazes me. Whoever can take red kidney beans and elevate them to a rich, smoky dish is a magician. I bet they have beanstalks in their back garden. I’d gladly sell my cow to get my hands on them.

We skip dessert because there is no room at the inn for any more. Paul picks up the bill and we finish off our beers and idle gossip. My dining companion is clearly a huge fan, but let’s be real about it, he has skin in the game. Me, I owe it nothing other than more frequent visits to eat all of the menu. And I will. Raja Monkey is but three miles from our home, conveniently over the road from where we like to shop. It’s too good to ignore, a true taste of the no-frills dining in India. It shakes its thang better than any of its kind in Birmingham. That bloke from Carters is right, but then I did tell you that right at the beginning.

9/10

I did not see the bill on this occasion.

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Sabai Sabai, Birmingham City Centre

Sabai Sabai seem to be spreading faster than Australian Flu. First Moseley, then Harborne and Stratford-Upon-Avon, now the city centre, on Waterloo Street in the bustling business district. The new building is beautiful, an old bank that lends itself to sturdy square proportions with a smart interior of neutral colours and geometric light fittings. It’s sultry and smart, ideal for the targeted clientele of dates and business accounts. It’s a very nice place to have dinner which explains why it is full a couple of weeks after opening.

This is an organised outing with other bloggers who all seem to be practicing the fake smiles they will wear when I win Best Food Blog again in June. We are given food and lots of it, too. Some I am familiar with from my local Sabai Sabai in Moseley and some I am not. It’s a larger menu here from a larger kitchen. This surprises me little as the kitchen in Moseley is so small you couldn’t swing a cat in there. Not that they would ever allow cats in the kitchen. That’s for a dubious takeaway around the corner to do.

From a platter of starters a few dishes stand out. Chicken wings come from a well reared bird, just like my girlfriend, softly braised until the bone slips out cleaner than the gnasher’s of a dental hygienist. It is a side to Thai cooking I’m not au fait with, a delicate cook over a punchy one pan blast and I like it. The flakes of meat and subtle spicing could easily be mistaken for French bistro cooking. A jaunty cut of duck spring roll is better for the proportion. Spring rolls are too often all pastry – here the casing serves as nothing more as a vehicle for a mass of soft duck meat with the occasional bite of al dente veg. Lamb chops have good quality ovine correctly pink whilst pork spare ribs are too saccharine. In every case the spicing whispers rather than shouts. The taste of the protein is king.

Now let’s talk beef short rib. Fat, unctuous short rib cooked so softly that the meat can be spooned cleanly away from the bone, in a mellow masaman curry rich with coconut milk. This is show stealer. The must order. It has contrast with every mouthful, real depth and fragrant high points. It is one of the finest main courses to be found within the city centre.

We look to other dishes once the bone has been scraped clean on the short rib. Pad Thai is all too familiar; silky noodles, soft chicken, the bite of peanuts and raw chilli heat. It’s a classic for a reason. Monkfish and aubergine comes in the most textbook of green curry sauces. All the fundamentals of Thai cooking are present; salty, spicy, sweet and sour, which happen to also be my four favourite Spice Girls. It has bags of personality.

We have Weeping Tiger, which contains zero tiger and serves only as a metaphor because it will leave you crying for more. The beef sirloin is accurately cooked to medium rare, coated in a toasted rice powder that punches with umami. I took to Twitter to say it was the best beef since Biggie and Tupac. I will never better that. It goes fantastically well with sprouting broccoli in a puddle of something bright and acidic.

This quantity of food leaves no room and we settle for a well made espresso martini to send us on our way. Sabai Sabai being good is of no surprise, both Harborne and Moseley cook to a very good standard, but this was perhaps the strongest meal yet. The decision to put both North and South Thai chefs in the kitchen has paid off: There are no dud dishes here, the Northern dishes kick with more fire, those from the South fresher. The latest instalment of Sabai Sabai is a brilliant addition to the city.

The meal was complimentary as part of an event organised by Delicious PR.

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Lasan, St Pauls Square, Birmingham

It is impossible to mention the new Lasan without referring to the old. It is a restaurant that I am very familiar with, one widely regarded as the best of it’s kind in this city, thanks in part to it’s association with TV food mahatma, Aktar Islam. Aktar has now parted with the group and the restaurant has had a well needed spruce. Gone are the hard wooden lines and non-existent lighting, in comes a softer, more approachable look of pastels and patterns. It’s almost colonial in feel, like they play fine jazz to those awaiting food on the curved bar that sits adjacent to the dining room. And they do play jazz. I’m a massive fan of the refit.



Without wishing to play down the offering, you get the feel that the chase of a Michelin star has gone, replaced with a desire to feed with more traditional methods whilst still keeping to the refined style that has made it so popular. This is reflected with an ease to the service; staff are happy to chat, some dishes are rustic in their presentation. It’s less stuffy and more congenial – a place to return to time over rather than just special occasions. Accolades are excellent, but it’s paying customers that pay the bills.


It starts as it always has, with umami bombs of pani puri, filled to the brim with a pungent tamarind water and as good as they ever get. These come with greaseless poppadoms and dips to range from a familiar made from mango to a pineapple one that’s new to me. We try samosas made with the lightest of filo pastry, the filling of minced venison more than capable of standing up to the spicing.



Another starter of chicken is a solid piece of  workmanship. From the kebab made with coarsely ground mince, to the paté patty with the background funk of offal, and precisely trimmed drumstick, it sings with deft spices and well judged heat. Soft shell crab has the lightest of chilli batter that packs the biggest of flavour, with a crab cake packed with brown meat that reinforces the crustacean flavour. It’s hard to pick fault with any of the starters. Looking back, I can think of no fault at all. 


The biriyani that follows has cubes of goat at the base, braised so that they collapse under the interagation of the fork, with a dry curry that packs real power and crowned with a flurry of rice, crisp shallots, and herbs. I wish that the dish arrived wearing a pastry cap so that the aromas are released tableside, but this is a small detail given the quality of it all. We scoop on to excellent garlic naan, and, even better, roomali roti that is so thin it could be parchment paper. It’s great to see this bread, the most tricky to make, being properly showcased.



A steel tray comes bearing a shank of lamb, coated in marinade and slowly cooked. It’s an accurate bit of cooking; the meat coming away from the bone with ease. Pickled onions have enough astringency to cut through the chilli heat, with pots of raita and dhal for light and shade. That dhal returns in a larger pot – it has to, it’s glorious. As good as any dhal I’ve eaten anywhere. The lentils slow cooked and as smokey as a jazz club. 


Dessert course defeats us, and I sense a dissapointment from the waitress that we are really missing out on something. It’s okay, we’ll be back. Soon. This was my most consistent meal here to date, wholesome and confident in it’s new identity on the plate and in it’s space. I have no doubt at all that Lasan is currently the best Indian we have in Birmingham. 

9/10

I was invited to dine at Lasan

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Tamatanga, Birmingham

Another week, another opening of somewhere hyperactive on colour offering Indian street food. We’ve a lot of these in Birmingham now, with even more to come. Latest addition to the chaat show is Tamatanga, a bright and loud space that has blasted down the M42 from Nottingham. It’s a try hard kind of place, where lights dangle from the ceilings and illuminated slogans fight for space on walls. They have cocktails with chillies in and things they call ‘Eating Kits’ – cutlery to you and I – a phrase that makes me want to remove the pointy one of the three and stab myself repeatedly in the eye. I personally don’t like the room, it’s too busy and my mind cannot settle. But what for me is a migraine in waiting will be to others their ideal dining room, even if that audience is half my age and twice as optimistic.



Before I go on the type of bashing spree not seen since Negan started waving Lucile around on Walking Dead, let me tell you about the positives. The staff are brilliant; warm and well trained, they are a credit to the business. And the paneer was as good as any I have ever eaten anywhere. Large cubes of the bland cheese marinated and blasted with heat, these are well balanced in flavour and texture thanks to petals of pepper that still have bite and substance. I would say that I would order these again and again, but that would be a lie as I have no intention of ever going back.


The rest of it can be imagined in your heads if you take a Turtle Bay and replace their mediocre take on Caribbean food with equally mediocre Indian. It’s food without complexity, all one-level blasts of flavour. A garlic and chilli curry has plenty of moist pieces of chicken thigh but the sauce is nothing but tomato and chilli flakes. It feels half-arsed. It is served with two peshwari naans which is two too many, being heavy and sickly sweet. The menu tells me that the Tamatanga fries are ‘legendary’.  This is a lie. They are about as legendary as I am marriage material.



When done properly, I love thali. Meaning that on this occasion I have fallen out of love with thali. It’s a fifteen pound tray of pots with very little to admire. Once again we’re back on the familiar ground a chicken curry with good meat and an unremarkable sauce, only this time its joined by a lamb curry with not very good meat and an unremarkable sauce. Throw in to this tragically overcooked green beans, a tasteless vegetable curry and a dhal even thinner than my hair. It’s a post-Brexit dinner; deflated, with an air of disappointment. Lovely poppadums, though.

We finish with a sugar concoction that shut down my pancreatic gland which you may know as a cheesecake. It’s a dessert that will appeal to their target market; sweet base, sweet cheese mixture, sweet topping.  I am twenty years too old to be put through this. We take one between the two of us and manage a spoonful each. Stick to the chai which is a milky kiss of warming spices.

I hate comparisons but there is a direct one that I feel is necessary to mention here. For me, Zindiya is the present leader of this type of restaurant in our city. I understand that they are looking to expand and roll-out to other cities, which was never in their initial plans, but one that has happened organically based on the success of the business. Tamatanga gave the impression that has been designed to be rolled-out from the start. It’s brash and heavily marketed – the Indian Turtle Bay that I mentioned earlier on. It’s just not very good, and I hate to break this to them, but that should be the starting block for anything. Others will no doubt lap it up, but it is never going to be for me.

5/10

I was the guest of someone invited and therefore did not see a bill.

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