Birmingham: August 2021
Although restaurants like Benares, Dishoom or Gymkhana had already presented modern takes on the more traditional and well established Indian restaurants in the UK, Opheem has taken a path of its own. Head chef Aktar Islam speaks of ‘progressive Indian’ cuisine and our trip to Birmingham confirms that these are well chosen words.
Starting out early at his father’s restaurant, Aktar gained invaluable experience. By 22, he was already directing his first restaurant – Lasan. His participation in Gordon Ramsay’s 2009 series of The F Word, where Lasan was branded Best Local Indian Restaurant in the UK, would prove to be an important turning point in his career. His use of modern techniques quickly matured and his presentation evolved to a more refined and cleaner style. Gradually, Aktar would become a regular on TV and in 2011, he reached the final of the Great British Menu on his third attempt.
However, despite not being openly disclosed, we think that not owning Lasan3 eventually became a limitation to Aktar’s growingly modern style. This probably led to his departure from Lasan and the opening of Opheem in 2018, his first solo restaurant. In his own words, here he is ‘unleashed’.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, like many chefs, Aktar offered meal boxes. Our first encounter with his food was through one of these. He surprised us with a diverse selection of traditional curries, authentic renditions that took us on a culinary trip to India during the lockdown. The quality and practicality convinced us to purchase his following meal box offering – his popular Hyderabadi-style biryani, which proved to be worthy of its fame. It became clear that we had to visit Birmingham once life opened up again. So, we made the journey.
Compared to Lasan, Opheem dives deeper into the avant-garde of Indian cuisine. A quick look at the bar reveals books like El Bulli 2005-2011, Modernist Cuisine or Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. Aktar is onto something here, and his food reflects that with an abundance of avant-garde techniques, textural and temperature contrasts, deconstructions and a very stylised presentation. Still, the flavours are strongly based on Indian cuisine. The menu is structured around regional dishes in a comparable way to A. Wong’s Taste of China menu. In the summer, most dishes are inspired by South India’s lighter gastronomy, whereas during the winter, the focus shifts to the hearty food of the North. At first glance, these dishes are not instantly recognisable to someone familiar with their regions of origin, but the flavours do immediately transport you back to tradition. To truly enjoy Opheem, one must understand that authenticity is not the main goal. One must look beyond the Western-driven plating. Aktar and his team are Brummies who draw inspiration from their diverse cultural heritage to make something unique, something that expresses their own identity as Brummies.
Perhaps this more modern approach has the advantage of working better with wine too. The food presents more facets, opening up the possibility to more daring pairings. In any case, the wine list has a good selection by the glass that can deal well with intensely spiced food. Riesling, Muscat or Blaufränkisch are always great options.
Surrounded by a canal nearby, Opheem is located just off the main road in the city centre. If you haven’t been to Birmingham before, consider a walk along the canal. Starting from the Gas Street Basin and heading towards the restaurant, you’ll enjoy glimpses of the city’s industrial past. Once at the restaurant, your attention will be drawn to the design and aesthetic of the place. The venue is spacious – having once been a nightclub – and is divided into two areas: the bar and the dining room. The bar, reminiscent of an airport lounge, is adorned with abstract iron reliefs on the walls. An enormous cherry tree serves as the space’s focal point. With the tree lit with blue LEDs, one could confuse the setting for a cheaper version of Mayfair’s Sake No Hana4. It is here that the tasting menu will start and end, but worry not. If you ignore the excessive use of gold here and there, the friendly staff will certainly make you feel comfortable.
The tasting menu
The tasting menu promises ten courses, but in reality, it delivers over seventeen for £95. As illustrated in the map above, in the summer, these dishes are mostly inspired by South India’s cuisine (see Opheem’s winter dishes).
The experience starts with a set of snacks served at the bar’s lounge. The first one was a Mango tuile, chutney & burnt lettuce purée. Small yet complex, this appetiser consisted of a mango tuile, dots of coriander and burnt lettuce purée, dots of chutney, and celery brunoise in the centre. Mango powder (amchoor) is sprinkled on top. The light and crispy mango retained its fruit flavours, contrasting with the green, smoky, and cumin-spiced purée. A powerful start with acidity (from the amchoor), spice, smoke and heat (in the purée), and sweetness (chutney). It certainly opened our appetite.
Next came a set of three more snacks. On the left, the Duck liver parfait with pineapple gel is a trompe-l’œil of chili peppers. The duck liver parfait is covered by a thin and brittle layer of cocoa butter and served with a pineapple and fenugreek gel. Served cold, the cocoa breaks in shards, revealing the delicate and creamy interior of foie. The pineapple gel recreates a pairing of foie gras and Jurançon with an additional curried note of fenugreek.
The liver parfait is served alongside a Sheep’s milk yogurt with dill and spiced crackers, perhaps to use the crackers to eat the parfait. However, we were mainly drawn to the yogurt dip.Atop the rich sheep’s yogurt, dots of dill, and cucumber gels gave the dip a feel of a modern take on raitha. In the centre, as a garnish, lay a shallot and vinegar reduction that added a hint of tang. The combination with the crackers – spiced with cumin and chili – was very addictive.
The last snack in the bar area of the restaurant was Smoked eel cannoli with pomme purée. More than cannoli, we could refer to them as ‘cannolini’. The filling of smoked eel, potato purée, and a vinegary tomato sauce with chives was similar to a Bombay Jeera Aloo. The thin waffle cigar gave a textural contrast to the acidic, spicy, and curried interior. The roe on the sides only added a pretentious touch.
With the cannoli cleared from the table, the guests are shown to the dining room to continue the meal. The short walk felt almost as if we were invited to a theatre. Indeed, the spacious dining area presents an open plan kitchen as a stage. The Master Chef inspired design of the kitchen, with its distinctive black background, intensifies this impression of watching a show. Is this intentional? Perhaps.
The use of large tables was refreshing. One is finally allowed to arrange all the dishes freely without the awkward tetris-like arrangement that we usually experience in the ever-shrinking tables of London. This also gives more space for the chefs de partie to introduce and finish the plating of their signature dishes in front of you.
The first starter was Bhutta (Mumbai), grilled corn-on-the-cob with lime powder and chili butter. Smoky, citrous and spicy, this is a comforting street food snack. It probably had some citric acid rubbed on it to achieve that intense tang. The modern twist comes in the form of a cone of sweet corn ice cream on the side. The temperature contrast against the grilled corn is very successful. Hidden inside the waffle cone, a mix of fresh red chili, coriander, corn kernels appears as a deconstructed rendition of the grilled bhutta we just had. Garnishing our small ice cream, coriander micro-leaves give a very aromatic note.
As a second starter, Aktar serves Rassam (Andrha), humbly described as ‘tomato, coriander and basil’. Traditionally, rassam is a tomato-based broth, which is usually eaten during winter. It is typically spiced with cumin, tamarind, curry leaves, chili, and mustard seeds. Trying to get the most of the tomato season, Aktar transforms the aromatic rassam into a summery celebration of flavour in a form of tomato textures. Pickled, fermented, dehydrated, charred, puréed and jellied. All these textures of tomato reveal aromatic rassam spices. The broth is garnished with a pungent nasturtium and basil oil, which provides herbalfreshness to the dish. The vibrant colours of the dish are contrasted with a charcoal tuile, adding a layer of crunch.
Continuing the exploration of the West coast, the next course drew inspiration from a West Bengal dish – Tisria. However, guessing the ties to the original dish was challenging. Traditionally, Tisria is a clam curry with masala-like spices. Here on the other hand, Aktar proposes a dish of Orkney scallop with tandoor spices and charcoal. We are not sure where the reference to Tisria lies, but the dish was absolutely delicious. One of our favourites that evening. The scallop itself was very sweet and tender, with one of its sides chargrilled with tandoori spices. That contrast between textures of soft flesh and the crispy, caramelised layer worked splendidly. Even better was the temperature contrast of the warm scallop against a charcoal snow or granita, showcasing modernist techniques used with purpose, not as a gimmick. To balance the smoky flavours, an apple and cucumber jam provided a final touch of extra freshness. Hats off to Aktar.
After a set of summer starters from the seashore regions of India, our tour continued back to the North. Aloo Tuk, a popular street food in Delhi, which Aktar reinterpreted in a modern fashion. The essence of the dish is potato, more precisely the Pink Fir Apple variety. Known since the mid 19th century, this long, knobbly shaped potato is valued for its waxy texture and nutty taste. Analogously to the tomato dish, here the main theme was also textures. The first bite of the dish is quite mellow in flavour. Potato puffs and crisps of violet potato are atop an aerated potato espuma. Yet, under this top layer, a bomb of flavour awaits. A dollop of yogurt, mango, and tamarind chutney; deep-fried mashed potato croutons; and sous-vide-then-chargrilled Pink Firs were accompanied by a myriad of spices. Fortunately, we saw a video in which Aktar prepares this dish, otherwise it would be impossible for us to distinguish the spices. The main flavour of the dish seems to emerge from an Achaari mix, which primarily consists of mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, dry mango powder, nigella seeds and chili. Aktar seasons the components of the dish with the spices in different proportions or in certain stages. Such an approach allows him to achieve a unique depth of flavour. Salty, sweet, sour, and spicy, his potato dish is certainly the most complex and indeed, the most interesting that we have tried so far. No surprise that it is his signature dish.
A small palate cleanser separated the starters from the mains. Here, a lime and mint sorbet enclosed in a spherical cocoa butter shell provided a small explosion of citrous freshness. A dollop of green apple ketchup rounded it off with a sweet but still sharp touch.
Those fresh flavours were a great preface to the cuisine of coastal South India that we would find in the Allepy. Allepy is traditionally a type of fish curry from Kerala, based on rich tomato sauce with raw mango or tamarind, and coconut. Here, Opheem reduces the traditional side of the dish to a sauce, which accompanies a fillet of halibut and a piece of kohlrabi. It essentially makes it look like a modern Western dish if it were not for the vibrant colours of the plate and the sauce. The fillet was probably cooked slightly over our preferred temperature of 50C, but it was still delicious. The kohlrabi was soft and tender and provided a perfect vehicle to collect that amazing curry sauce. The raw mango makes it fresh and fruit-forward, whereas the coconut milk renders the sauce lusciously creamy.
From Kerala we returned to the streets of Mumbai with a Pau (milk loaf). This bread bun is typically filled with a deep fried potato dumpling and served with a selection of chutneys. In this reinterpretation, the pau is a textbook brioche bun brushed with lamb’s fat and dusted with cumin. Buttery yet meaty, this is one of the best brioche we have had in a restaurant in the last years. A lamb paté sprinkled with crispy lamb skin is served on the side to spread on the bread.
Continuing our trip north, we headed to Karachi with a Bandgobhi Gosht made with aged sirloin. It’s worth noting that ‘Bandgobhi’ refers to ‘a stir fried cabbage’, while ‘gosht’ means ‘slowly braised meat’. Upon reading this, one would hope that they didn’t stew aged sirloin for a long time… We were lucky. In fact, as a developing theme in the tasting menu, there were two variations of the same dish on one plate. First, a traditional bandgobhi gosht with cabbage, leeks and beef cheek that was hiding under a leaf of hispi cabbage. It was a rich and flavoursome curry, lifted up by many layers of spices. Exactly as we would like to enjoy it in our neighbourhood Indian restaurant. The second variation consisted of the aforementioned aged sirloin with chargrilled hispi cabbage and a luxurious sauce of bone marrow featuring a similar blend of spices. The intention to homage tradition in a modern presentation could not have been clearer.
The introduction to the sweet dishes comes as a pre-dessert. A panna cotta covered with strawberries in different forms. Freeze-dried strawberries, fresh slices and pearls of sorbet. Mint and cornflowers decorate the dish. This was a well set panna cotta, using a high fat cream given the dense – yet tender – texture. Fresh and seasonal, the small dish played with crunch and smooth textures as well as temperatures. It worked well as a transition to desserts.
Being unfamiliar with Indian pastry tradition, we weren’t sure what to expect at Opheem. In fact, I’m not sure if we have ever had any Indian desserts before. Both of the desserts originate in Maharashtra’s culinary tradition, in the west coast of Indian peninsula. The first one to arrive was Shrikhand, or rather Aktar’s interpretation of it. This dessert is usually prepared with sweetened strained yogurt, and flavoured with cardamom or saffron. Here, by contrast, the chef suggests a sheep’s yogurt ice cream with blackberry and raspberry coulis, topped with a raspberry tuile and some crumble on the side. A simple and tasty dessert, but it had very little in common with the original version.
The tasting menu closes with Chikki. Probably every food culture has developed this kind of sugar candy with embedded nuts or seeds in it in different variations. We were very curious about this one as the menu described it as ‘Valrhona andoa chocolate, cumin, lime, peanut’. It arrived as an interpretation of a chocolate cake with textures of chocolate. The cake itself was decent, with a crunchy, yet chewy bottom layer, and a chocolate mousse covered with a mirror glaze. However, the flavour of the Peruvian chocolate got lost somewhere. On the side, a quenelle of milk ice cream complemented well the richness of the cake, but it felt like an unnecessary repetition. A trompe-l’œil of a peanut with some dots of lime gel added some refreshing touches. Both desserts were aesthetically pleasing, showcasing the chef’s skills, but we probably expected something different. The experience could have been better if the emphasis was put more on flavour, rather than the range of techniques.
As one finishes the desserts, the table is invited back to the bar area. The change of setting serves its purpose as an epilogue to the experience. A reminder that the end is near. Here one is served some petits fours.
A couple of warm madeleines are always a good closure to a meal. These, with inclusions of sour cherries and a glaze of sour cherry vinegar did not disappoint. But the real closure came with an assortment of bites consisting of fudge with cardamom, strawberry pâte de fruits, and chocolates with passion fruit. Overall, the desserts were tasty and the flavours were well harmonised. Aktar has adapted Indian spices and flavour combinations into French pastry techniques to impart a modern take on traditional recipes.
In fact, his modern approach was consistently apparent all throughout the evening from the snacks to the petits fours, with a flawless execution of the dishes. These modern techniques shine in Aktar’s food not for their novelty but for their purposeful use under the umbrella of Indian cuisine. The last three decades of avant-garde gastronomy have opened worldwide access to an immense set of tools to boost creativity in the kitchen. Opheem is the perfect example of this in a setting that exploits its Brummie and Indian roots.
Some points that need more attention are found in the pastry section. As much as the savoury part of the dinner was very interesting and remarkable, the pastry was rather characterless with generic presentation. Still within the boundaries of the expectations of a one Michelin star establishment though.