There are few places in the Midlands that have come with as much hype as Aktar Islam’s solo venture, Opheem. You may have spotted him on Saturday Kitchen, know him for his role in the almighty Lasan Group, or perhaps have witnessed his award-winning performances on Gordon Ramsay’s ‘F Word’ or Great British Menu. Well now he’s back in the limelight, doing his own thing, and right there in the kitchen.
Opheem has had nothing but rave reviews since it opened, and from people far more educated in the intricacies of food than me. Its strapline is ‘Indian Food Unleashed’, with the quote: “Opheem is just me. Unleashed”. It’s clear this is Islam returning to his calling and reminding exactly who the person is who has repeatedly knocked people’s socks off throughout his career.
The interior is classy, chic, modern, graceful, opulent. You get the picture. Pick an adjective that says money, time, effort and love and it’ll probably work here. And then for the piece de resistance – the welcome. Within a few minutes of being seated, restaurant manager Tan politely mentioned to my mum that he’d noticed her feet didn’t quite touch the floor on the seat she was on and offered her a different one.
Might sound like nothing, but in my view it takes skill, experience and general flair of service to effectively tell someone they’re a short-arse, yet do it in such a way that they’re eternally grateful and thank you for ensuring their meal isn’t dogged by small-child syndrome (you know, when your legs are left dangling off the edge of a chair until your feet start tingling).
Already buoyed by such levels of detail in the service, we moved on to the food. According to Islam’s introduction, the menu is an ‘insight into the inner workings of his mind’ – an effort to push the boundaries of Indian cooking, using cooking techniques from across the world and mixing traditional and modern.
Our amuse bouche prove that these aren’t just words. I try ‘Sabudana’, a subtle Tapioca cracker with pickled garlic and smoked roe, followed by ‘Rawas’, a miniature ice cream cone of distinctive cured sea trout with ‘petit pois ice cream’ and black sesame seed sprinkles on top. But it was the ‘Imli Pani’ that stole the show. Under Tan’s advice we saved it until last. Good job too, as I certainly wouldn’t have predicted the spicy sour tamarind shot nestled nonchalantly on the spoon. But the explosion was pitched just right – a burst of flavour designed to whet your appetite, get those tastebuds going, and give you a little hint of the excitement to come.
Aktar Islam might be pushing the boundaries, but like most top chefs (and rockstars, actually) he’s smart enough to know that the chart-topping hits should always be rolled out again. That’s why Kekda Kerala, his Great British Menu-winning soft shell crab dish, is on the menu. I tried to resist, really I did, but couldn’t manage it.
Lightly spiced, lightly textured batter, a slight liquorice tang from the caraway seed and a freshness from the mango. I’ve been to Kerala (though I was chronically ill so can’t confidently say I remember loads of it) but this dish smacks of me the combination of Indian spice and seaside seafood freshness that people love about its cuisine.
Mum won though, with her Kukkut Punjab, tender Goosnargh chicken fragrant with basil coriander sat on top of a bed of marinated heritage tomato. A kind of India meets Italy meets British summertime dish. Fresh, fragrant, simple.
The starter was followed by a complimentary course from the kitchen. Snacks of chunks of sweet potato bread with a rich, creamy lamb pate, as well as a palate cleanser of tamarind sorbet served with the contrasting crunch of puffed lentils (think a posh take on bombay mix).
For main course I chose the Hyderabadi Biryani – an impressive ball of bread, cut open at the table to reveal a steaming mixture of basmati rice and Boer goat. I may have said this before after a trip to Lasan but if your idea of biryani is white rice adorned with red and green food colouring and a wishy-washy bowl of vegetable curry you need to go to a decent Indian restaurant and have one.
In fact, go to Opheem and have this. If you ever wondered how rice and goat could be interesting, lip-smacking and downright delicious, then this is the answer. Layers of delicate flavour – saffron, yoghurt, cardamom – all piled on top of each other and allowed to slightly merge while still retaining their individual character.
As I shovelled my biryani down my throat, Mum went for Aktar’s famed ‘Laal Maans’, a Herdwick lamb loin inspired by his winning course on the F Word. The lamb was cooked just right, while a lightly battered tongue beignet was a melt-in-the-mouth delight, while the Punjabi aubergine caviar and barley different dimensions of texture to the dish. But it was the smoked Mathania chilli & bone marrow sauce that won for me, packing a punch of richness and spice to an already delicious dish.
As we’re both gluttons for side dishes, we couldn’t resist slightly sweet stir-fried beetroot in south Indian spice, topped with slightly crunchy grated coconut, as well as a smoky Hyderabadi-style daal that I could happily have drunk a vat of that night. And probably more for breakfast.
Giddy with excellent food, the joy of a new experience and a bottle of rather nice wine, we decided to round the evening off with dessert. Chocolate for mum and pineapple for me. Both were beautiful to look at, as you’d expect, and both hit the exact spot they were meant to for each of us.
For mum, the bitter sphere of dark chocolate full of smooth mousse would have been enough, but the scoop of blood orange sorbet, the crunchy shards of bitter chocolate and the slight hint of liquorice from the addition of fennel made it, in her words, a wonderfully intense experience.
For me, a sweet, fresh pineapple parfait reminiscent of holiday along with textures of the fruit and a creamy coconut sorbet. Palate cleansing yet sweet enough to satisfy that end-of-meal craving most of us get.
We ended with cocktails at the table and a trip to the impressive loos (see below, I love a great toilet) before we headed home. With the rest of the world telling you that Aktar Islam’s latest creation is a coup for Birmingham, you don’t really need me to say the same. But I will. Because it’s true. Not only is the food bang on, but the attention to detail in every single part of the operation proves what a labour of love Opheem has been.
There’s the decor in the restaurant, bar and swanky toilets and the glass-fronted kitchen allowing us star-struck diners to catch a peep of the man himself. There’s the expertly-drilled, knowledgeable staff who have the balance of friendly and formal just right. And thanks to both of those there’s an ambience that combines special with relaxed. And then, of course, the food. Precise and expertly-executed, yet with a simplicity that comes with the confidence of someone who’s doing what they love.
It’s exactly the reason people are flocking to Opheem. And the same reason I’ll be going back and taking Mr M with me. Long may it last.
I paid in full at Opheem. We were given a complimentary glass of wine – a discretionary gesture I’m told is often extended to guests of the restaurant regardless of who they are.