Does a regular diner reach the same conclusion about a restaurant as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Mark Taylor and olive reader Kathryn Buck compare notes on this new Indian restaurant in the West Midlands
Chef Aktar Islam will be a familiar face to those in the West Midlands. Originally from Aston, North Birmingham (check out our best Birmingham restaurants here), with Bangladeshi parents, Aktar has made a name for himself as one of the city’s leading chefs. After appearances on Saturday Kitchen, Great British Menu and Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word (Lasan, where Aktar was chef director, won Best Local Restaurant on the Channel 4 show), he’s something of a TV personality, too.
Opheem is Aktar’s first solo restaurant and ambitious in scale, with 70 covers. Focussing on Indian culinary traditions married with modern techniques, this is fine dining with dialled-up flavour. Choose from Herdwick lamb loin with tongue beignet and bone marrow sauce, or tandoori cauliflower with lentil bhaji and coconut milk, and curd dumpling with milk sorbet and finger lime.
The room is dark with a large twinkly-light chandelier dominating the dramatic space, with brown leather chairs, clothless dark wooden tables and grey walls. There’s also a private dining room, and a bar, where you can have small plates and snacks.
Journalist and restaurant reviewer Mark Taylor has written for a number of newspapers and magazines for the past 20 years. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @MarkTaylorFood.
The punter restaurant reviewer
Brum-based Kathryn Buck works at a secondary school in Sandwell, eats out once a week and her favourite type of food is Indian. Her best dining experience was the duck liver parfait at L’Ortolan in Reading – but she is also partial to a crisp sandwich.
In Birmingham’s city centre, Opheem occupies the site of a former bar overlooking the traffic-choked Great Charles Street Queensway. It’s not the prettiest location. Through the floaty net curtains, the view from my table was a steady stream of number 87 buses heading to Dudley.
Thankfully, there was more captivating theatre unfolding inside the airy dining room, which has a glass wall allowing you to look into the open kitchen. Aktar Islam is no stranger to being observed at close quarters, though. Through his high-profile TV appearances, he’s become a local celebrity. *I wasn’t recognised.
Staff have clearly been told to up-sell at every opportunity. At the table, I asked the waiter for a wine recommendation for the octopus and his response was the £13.95 glass of champagne, rather than the white wine I chose for half the price and which took a finger drumming ten minutes to arrive. Service was patchy throughout.
A starter of samudrapheni (from the Maharashtra region of India) comprised of a long octopus tentacle dusted with tongue-tingling spices and cooked in the searing heat of the tandoor oven. Aromatic, smoky and impressively tender, it was served with cool, crunchy pickled mooli and segments of orange and pink grapefruit.
The culinary backpacking around India then moved on to Rajasthan for the main course of laal maans. Lozenges of Herdwick lamb loin were fractionally overcooked, but the crisp batter-encased tongue beignet tasted more like hogget (a good thing). Also in the mix was a creamy Punjabi aubergine caviar, a couple of wilted wild garlic leaves and chewy grains of barley. But, it was the pan of smoked mathania red chilli and bone marrow sauce that took the dish to another level. Dark, fiery and rich, it was seriously addictive.
A Bengal-inspired dessert of chai parfait with various treatments of pineapple (roasted, dehydrated, jelly) teamed with silky coconut sorbet provided a fruity but refreshing finale.
Service was as uneven as the concrete walls, but Opheem is all about the food, which takes the diner on a gastronomic adventure through India. Vibrant presentation, punchy flavours and delicate spicing, this is Indian cooking of a very high level.
Following a warm welcome, we enjoyed drinks in the bar to start. Due to “technical difficulties”, cocktails were not yet available, instead the bartender recommended a lassi gin and tonic with cardamom bitters and fresh lime – a refreshing way to begin.
Drink recommendations continued throughout the meal. What seemed at first an up-sell, the chilled Veuve Clicquot’s bubbles actually accompanied the starter beautifully. Later, the maître d’ recommended an off-menu sweet American riesling – fresh and fruity, it paired superbly with the main course.
The décor, while industrial in colour, is softened by luxurious velvet furnishings. The open-plan kitchen makes it feel like everyone is sitting at Aktar’s table.
Before the starters we enjoyed a selection of ‘snacks’ – the highlight being a crispy lamb bonbon complemented by a cooling coriander purée. After this, kekda – a dish our waiter was keen to inform us had been a winning course on Great British Menu – was a delicate, crispy battered soft-shell crab (check out our best deep-fried recipes here). Served in a crunchy fermented rice batter basket, for added theatre, it came with a side of zingy, moreish mango sauce.
Before the main course there were more dramatics: a wooden box which, when opened, unveiled sweet-potato-infused bread wedges accompanied by mini bowls of ‘lamb butter’. While delicious, this was perhaps unnecessary considering the large portion sizes.
After being happily coerced into a dessert, the tokaji wine was a perfect match for the chai, which turned out to be a pineapple parfait. The roasted pineapple alongside the smooth creaminess of the coconut sorbet blew me away.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A few elements need ironing out, including availability of items and staff knowledge of the menu. However, expect fantastic food with welcoming and friendly service.