Indian

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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Mowgli, Grand Central, Birmingham

I think it was the keema curry that sent me careering over the edge. I was sat alone, sipping on my Estrella whilst forking out huge clumps of tepid lamb mince from the silver tin. Once someone had caught wind of the sadness in my eyes they would go on to tell me that these balls are normal. They are not, I tell them, they have occurred because the meat hasn’t been broken up enough during the frying process, and anyway, it is still cold. They apologise for me not enjoying and depart to a different table. Minutes later someone else is over, probably because they’ve cottoned on to the fact that all might not be well with the guy eating alone and taking pictures of his dinner. Would I like another lamb keema curry? No. Would I like to try a different lamb curry? Okay, though I needn’t have bothered.

This all took place in Mowgli, the latest in a long list of Indian street food type places to hit Birmingham, and very possibly my least favourite of them all. I took exception from the first steps into the restaurant, where the light is set to a year-long winter with the mood to match. There are empty jars which line the walls and a row of tables visible from the outside that have swings for chairs. It is an interior where Instagram has been given as much consideration as practicality. The menu, too, has that infuriating speech of chip butties and bombs, with a tiffin that is a ‘food roulette’ of ‘meat, veg, and carb jeopardy’. I order this, hoping that one of the four dishes contains the bullet.

Brushing aside the barely warm lumps of sheep that is the returned house keema, the other three quarters of the stack contain rice, ginger chicken, and a ginger and rhubarb dhal. The roulette must love ginger and hate me. The rice and ginger chicken are okay, the latter of those warming with okay meat, and spicing that sits in the boring middle section between elegant and crude. The dhal is a horrible, acrid thing with lentils cooked to a mush normally associated with God’s waiting room, or worse, a bingo hall. Nothing has the delicate touch of someone who understands spice. I honestly prefer the food of my Indian-obsessed, cookery school taught, girlfriend.

The replacement lamb curry arrives within seconds of them taking the keema away, giving the suspicion that the food has been cooked a long time ago and kept warm in bain-maries. It has a heavy dose of anise and not much else, with lamb that would work the tightest of jawlines. The additional side of puri breads are usually one of my favourite things. Here they are greasy and heavy in texture. Much of what was ordered remains when I ask for the bill which arrives with both a service charge and charity donation. How very kind of me.

As I pay the thirty-odd quid my mind wanders out of the doors to the Indian Streatery one hundred metres away. It was here, a couple of weeks ago, that we ordered a mini-feast of smokey bhartha, a methi chicken laced with fenugreek, chicken pakora burgers, home style curries, and chaats. All of it a million miles away in class to the food served here. Mowgli may have the aura of a heavily-backed, fast expanding empire, but it is missing the beating heart. It feels contrived; a concept with the sole purpose of rolling out and selling on. I can’t be a part of that, not when there is a family doing it so much better around the corner.

5/10

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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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Zindiya, 2018

This post is the first in quite a while for no fault but my own. Dear Reader, I have been a naughty boy, shooting that hyperactive gob of mine off at the wrong irrelevant person. I am not permitted to say anything on the matter, by my girlfriend who will probably leave me if I do, and by my agent who is presently haggling with Celebrity Big Brother over my value, but it has been a tough week. I have to be careful now. There can be nothing that seeks the attention of the local paper who are clearly struggling for news; nothing for the police to look into in. I’m going to have to be nice. Nice in a way that otherwise eludes me.

In a way I am lucky, because there really is nothing bad to say about the new menu at Zindiya, a place I am vocal about my love for but was probably due an overhaul on the dishes. They still have the stuff that I always go to, taking away a few dishes and adding a lot more, along with a dedicated menu for those grass munching vegans.

We dive straight in with Raj Kachori, a kind of liquid free pani puri that has the bonus of containing three kinds of carbs (potato, chickpea, and lentils) all dressed in zingy chutneys tempered by yogurt. We have aubergine fritters in a robust batter and a loose potato curry with a puffed bread to dunk. If I’m being hyper-critical, that potato curry, as nice as it is, doesn’t quite stand up to the excellent chole bhature they do here, which shares many common qualities.

They have a new chicken tikka here, a green one to go with the more conventional red one, so we try both against each other for comparison. The newer of the two simmers with a more vibrant heat and feels fresher, though I cant choose between them; a problem that’s created problems in my personal life. Do what we did and take both. Lamb keema is properly robust and warming, needing only the soft buns for transport, whilst the chilli chicken is the same indo-Chinese brilliance as the paneer version. I’ve really come to love both versions of this dish. We finish with chocolate pani puris with strawberries and a shot of chilli-chocolate milk. I enjoyed the one third that I was allowed. Claire clearly enjoyed the rest.

We have cocktails because they have Rob Wood’s approval stamped on them and are therefore brilliant, and pay a bill that works out at about £25 a head with far too much food to eat between two. Zindiya opened up a year and a half ago now and have managed to maintain a consistently high standard of food that continues to fill out the restaurant. With the new menu they have gone above that, adding dishes that will in time become as integral to the menu as the likes of the aloo tikki chaat and the original chicken tikka. They just get better and better. And you Citizen Khan’t say fairer than that.

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Deolali, Moseley

I don’t know where to start here. I really, honestly, don’t. But let’s try at the end, when I am collecting the remains of dinner in a plastic white bag, with sweat pouring down my brow and onto my shirt. The card machine is down, along with the music and all forms of common sense. I pay with the last of the cash from my wallet, despite them offering for me to settle up next time. “Just give it a week or two and all the issues will be ironed out”, I am told. It is not exactly music to my ears; I’ve waited years for this place to reopen, another fortnight would hardly have made a difference.

Deolali is a place that holds many memories for me. Well over ten years ago when it first opened it was a place I would go on dates with girls I met in bars and had no long term plans for. The room was beautiful, arguably the best in Birmingham at that point, being all vaulted ceilings, split-level flooring, and imposing bar to the far right-hand side. The food was less of a selling point. They had a chicken curry with banana that will never leave the depths of my brain, but they did an okay tikka masala which would add a dress size just by looking at it. I don’t think that anyone came here for the food. Having returned now the doors have once again opened, that isn’t going to change any time soon.

In the grand scheme of dropped bollocks, the fact that I was turned away from my initial attempt at dinner because they weren’t ready to open is now so minute that I had almost forgotten about it. When I return an hour later there I have the great view of a builder still at work, from a table in a room so hot I could rub salt into the skin on my arms and turn it to crackling. I order food and wait. And wait. And wait. When the food finally does begin to show after 55 minutes it is clear that this is the Kelly Brook of restaurants. It still has a great front after all these years and absolutely nothing between the ears. Chicken Mo-Mo is notionally a Nepalese dumpling dish, and here we have inch-thick pale foreskins filled with a little curried chicken. They are hard work and not particularly nice to eat. I quite like the red spicy sauce it is served with, so I ask what it is. They don’t know because the chef is still ‘experimenting”. Please don’t tell me that. They come back and tell me it is tamarind and yogurt. It’s not, I tell them, that is the fickle decoration to the side of the plate. They go and ask again and tell me once more that it is tamarind and yogurt. I give in. A lamb keema scotch egg has a solid egg yolk with bland mince packed as tightly as a US child border camp which leaves as bitter a taste in the mouth. It is one of those dishes that sounds great in principle but never reaches its full potential. I imagine the Indian shepherds pie is the same, though I’m not willing to spend my money again to find out.

From the mains a chilli chicken is a kind of Chinese-Indo dish that should take you into new territory. This does nothing of the sort, just a generous amount of poultry and peppers, with a lot of garlic and no real heat at all. If it says chilli then I want sweat pouring down my face because of it; not because they have left the heating on full blast when it is twenty-six degrees outside. Yes, this really did happen, and only came to my attention after five lovely ladies were sat at a table by a radiator. I enquire if it is really true, to which I am told that if they turn the heating off they will lose hot water in the kitchen. I take a big scoop of a paneer makhani with my garlic naan – the two dishes I actually enjoyed – and ask for both the bill and for the remaining food to be packaged up.

By now I am expecting Manuel to fall through the double doors with my food and say “Mr Fawlty, I no want to work here anymore”, but is it not to be and I pay with cash after the card system eludes them further. Back at my naturally heated home I quite enjoy the makhani dish which is rich and luscious, and improve the chicken by adding fresh chilli. Who would have thought it. Deolali’s attempt at digging out a corpse and giving it mouth-to-mouth has failed miserably, delivering very average food with inept service in exactly the same environment as it used to. Maybe they will be better in time, though I happen to be of the mind-set that if they are taking money from customers then they should be at full pelt from the get-go. I love the building and a great restaurant is there somewhere. I just really don’t think it is going to be Deolali.

4/10

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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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Ruchie, Shirley

In a change from the norm, lets begin this post with a quick geography lesson. The length of India, from the Himalayan mountains to the beaches of Kanyakumari, sits around 3500km. Pretty big, right? To put that into perspective it is approximately the same distance from Birmingham to Istanbul. Draw a straight line between the two to drive it and you’ll enter Belgium, graze France, pass through the south of Germany and into Austria, hit Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, have a hefty time in Bulgaria and finally reach Turkey. From a culinary perspective there’ll be moules frites, quenelle de brochet, sauerkraut, schnitzels, goulash, and tarator, the latter presumably all down the white Levis and Kenwood jackets of those oh so trendy Bulgarians. Now you can make a half decent sausage and mash, right? In which case I can only assume your tarator has perfect acidity, and your quenelles are as light as your wallet now is. I assume all of this because this is the exact approach we take to Indian food in this country. We assume that every chef grew up perfecting the Balti and Tikki Masala, which is casual racism given that the Tikki Masala was invented on these shores as a way of appeasing the spice loathing palette of the average Brit, and the Balti originated from Pakistan. India is rich in regional variety from the vegetable dominated diets of the Gujarati, to the more identifiable dishes taken from the snack culture in Punjab. So if you are the type to go to your local Indian and order a Balti know that I am judging you. And I am blaming you for Brexit.

My borderline obsession with this meant that my ears pricked up when I heard that regional Indian cooking had found its way to Shirley. Ruchie promises to stick to the south of India, namely the regions of Kerala and Chettinad that lean on less heavy styles of curry, of fish and dosa. It is a region that I know a bit about because my other half has spent time there. From the opening gambit I know they take it seriously: deep fried banana chips join the usual poppadoms, with a spritely lemon chutney in amongst the more conventional dips and pickles. For starters we take two types of dosa; one with paneer, the other with potato. Both are excellent with vibrant spicing and a healthy kick of heat, the batter that encases them light and delicate. They even succeed in making me like sambar, the light vegetable curry that here tastes of something. We also try Kathrikka, a new dish for the both of us. The aubergines are deep fried in a batter and served with a tomato chutney. It could almost be a tapas dish in Spain had it not been for the cumin that runs through the batter. Maybe the position so close to the Portuguese influenced cooking of Sri Lanka has more of an effect that I credited it.

For mains we look to both sides of the southern peninsular. A Meen Kuzhambu gets ordered for direct reference point. Claire thinks it is better than the one she had on a boat in Kerala. The kingfish is beautifully cooked, the tamarind sauce sweet and sour without ever overpowering the fish. And then there is the Chettinad chicken curry, a gravy base more silkier than the usual robust identikit sauces. The overriding flavour is black pepper, though there are plenty of chilli and aniseed notes lurking behind. Without either of us visiting Chettinad before it feels authentic; unfamiliar and cooked with love. I like it here.  Pulao rice is good, a paratha better. The layers distinct, the rich butter flavour distributed expertly throughout.

Given that we take some of the curry home for later, we skip dessert, though Claire is vowing to return for Semiya Payasam, a lesser known Indian dessert that happens to be her favourite and yours for £3.50. Ruchie is a bold move and one that I hope is embraced by the local community, though whether or not Shirley is ready for an Indian restaurant that doesn’t serve Baltis remains to be seen. I think it will be fine; the service is excellent, the bill very good value and we try a couple of very nice cocktails. For me it moves straight into my top five Indian restaurants in the city and somewhere I can see myself returning to frequently. There is so much to learn about the regional cooking of India and Ruchie is the ideal first chapter to start with.

8/10 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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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Niraj’s Kitchen, Dudley

I’m not good with dinner parties. And when I say I’m not good, what I really mean is I’m dreadful at them. I never get invited to them, maybe because I’m overly opinionated, a little arrogant, and drink too much. Maybe it’s because the last one I went to I asked for salt and pepper to make a truly horrific chilli con carne marginally better, or maybe it is because the time prior to that I criticised the technique in making an frittata. For some reason, and I have every idea why, people do not want to cook for me in their own home. And I totally understand that. I don’t want to cook for me in my own home. I just chastise myself continually until I’m told to shut up for talking over Don’t Tell The Bride.

So it’s a good thing that neither Niraj and Leena had no preconceptions of who I was prior to their supper club. Had they known in advance what a horrendous human being I am they may not have greeted us so warmly at their doorstep, taken our jackets and wine away and sat us down in their living room with a mocktail whilst we awaited the other guests. Then, when they arrive, they may not have been so eager to sit us in the large kitchen diner and serve up some of the very best Indian food I have ever had the privilege of eating anywhere. So good that on the drive back to Birmingham we contact them about coming back again. So good that I would gladly travel back to Dudley to eat. It’s that good.

This event, as part of WeFiFo’s supper clubs, is a showcase for the cooking of Niraj, a local government employee whose passion lies elsewhere; a sentiment that I can very much relate to. Over the space of an hour and forty five we get food cleverly layered with spice from a chef with serious talent. Even the homemade chutneys that get served with poppadum’s are great; a sweet and sour date and tamarind puree, a more conventional mint yogurt, and a vivid green one that has coriander at the front and the blast of green chilli at the rear. This is just a prequel to the knockout starter. Chicken wings, deboned just like those legendary morsels at the greatly missed Modu, with a Manchurian sauce. The wings have been cooked twice, my guess being first sous-vide and then pan fried to crisp up and render down the fatty skin. The sauce is an Indo-Chinese one I’m not familiar with that has bags of chilli heat and vinegar acidity. The two together are incredible; put these in Digbeth Dining Club and you have an instant street food classic, stick them on a restaurant menu and people will be asking for an extra portion to take and eat at home the following day. For the only time in the evening there is total silence at the table. Not a scrap is left by anyone.

Mains are communal and generous. There is a warming karai ghost with slow cooked lamb that breaks down at the slightest suggestion, and a butter chicken that is complex and rich. A chickpea and spinach curry that we cook at home shows just how rubbish we are in comparison to Niraj and an aubergine curry is everything you want a vegetarian curry to be; smoky with plenty of spice, yet still putting the aubergine as the star. All of it is absolutely brilliant and if it sounds like I am gushing it is because I genuinely am. This is the very reason I started this blog, to find food of this standard in places I never thought to look, and to hopefully encourage others to then seek it out. Even the naans are brilliant, light and pliable, as we get plain ones and garlic ones and ones flavoured with plenty of chilli. My partner spent much of November in India. She elbows me to whisper that this is better than anything she ate there.

Dessert is the ultra traditional chocolate and ginger fondant, with Chantilly cream hiding a pond of raspberry gel. It’s a crowd pleaser executed with precision, the oozy centre with a hint of spice and a huge whack of chocolate. It’s rich and unexpected given the food served prior, but I would personally take this over kulfi every day.

I was sceptical before going: After all there are a lot of variables involved. Will the food be any good? Will I like the hosts? Will I like the other people who are here? The truth is this was one of the best Saturday evenings that I can recall having, with lovely company, hosts who care and a meal that will linger far longer in the memory than most restaurants. An evening at Niraj’s Kitchen will be one of the best ways you will ever spend £30, that much I can guarantee.

I was invited by WeFiFo. Book Niraj’s Kitchen here; https://www.wefifo.com/event/212770520476624/5-course-indian-feast