They’ve had a little more time to prepare, this time. While chefs who quickly devised at-home services in spring were at the vanguard of a new way of serving and delivering food, this time it’s different.
They witnessed the success of those who did it well during April and May, while also learning from the failings of those who fared badly – don’t send BBQ’ed lettuce through the post, was probably the lesson for one Midlands chef of that episode.
Now then, as we find ourselves in a different sort of lockdown, the infrastructure is in place. The logistics have been tried and tested. Chefs who are smart, hard-working and determined to survive are already rolling out exceptional at-home dinners for consumers to enjoy.
Price points have been tested, packaging resolved, delivery services procured and diners can make the most of eating their favourite chef’s food from the comfort of their own home.
There’s more to at-home eating than that, however. While there are those of us who continue to eat out, safely, by observing restrictions, and while we see that as an act of solidarity and support for a wide range of businesses who will struggle through the coming three- to six-months. Buying food keeps people in jobs. Those who can afford to should continue to do it.
There are plenty of people, however, particularly the elderly, who might not wish to expose themselves to any form of risk. That is their prerogative. People from mixed households might not get the chance to socialise, couples might miss out on date nights and those with underlying health conditions simply shouldn’t make the journey out.
Everything that we do through this pandemic involves an element of risk; a nicely caramelised crème brulee isn’t a price worth paying for those who are ill.
Aktar Islam may well be the most exciting chef in the West Midlands, right now. He’s recently joined the Michelin Club in Birmingham, elevating his stunning, debut restaurant, Opheem, to the same ranks of Carter’s, Simpson’s, Purnell’s and Adam’s.
It’s no less than he deserves. There are those who’d considered him the first among equals in that brigade. His food is exotic and intoxicating. He takes humble ingredients and transforms them into masterworks. A man capable of transmuting base metal to gold, Aktar has rare skills. He’s also one of the most industrious, risk-taking and entrepreneurial restaurateurs in the region.
The launch of Opheem was not sufficient to satisfy him and he quickly went on to launch a stunning Italian restaurant, Legna, while also opening a brilliant Argentinian outlet and more. All have been at the highest level – his Italian was the best outside London, while it was trading – and he habitually sources exceptional produce, provides decent value for money and packs more flavour into his dishes than many others could conjure. A rare and brilliant craftsman, Aktar Islam’s food is exciting, high class and worth eating.
It’s no surprise that he’s moved quickly into the at-home market. He ran a delivery service from his Argentinian restaurant in spring – to my mind, it was the best one from a host of impressive contenders in our region – and since then he’s refined his offering based on a box of traditional curries.
Each week, Aktar creates a new menu of 10 curries which are lovingly boxed with rotis and naans and dispatched for £60 – yes, that’s £6 per dish, delivered UK wide. Ridiculous, isn’t it? His curries are comfortably the best in their class for the UK and are much loved by some of the nation’s most renowned chefs. His curries are from all parts of India and new menus are published each week. The box makes a very generous banquet for four or six, or serves a whole meal of dinners for one or two. I guess it depends how greedy you are.
As we head into a challenging autumn, his offer is simple. Great food from a Michelin-starred chef with authentic dishes at a price point lower than your local curry house. You don’t have to leave your home, you can stay as safe as houses – though you do have to do the washing up, afterwards. Brilliant.
My partner and I ordered a box and were thrilled. Truly, there was nothing not to enjoy. Well packaged, promptly delivered, with brilliant customer service and a bargain price, it made for happy eating that was kind on the wallet. While some at Aktar’s level have over-priced their offerings – more of which in coming weeks – he’s kept his feet on the ground and kept it simple while keeping it classy.
Our box contained pakora and samosa in addition to curries, and both were quickly heated and eaten. The pakora sizzled after 10 minutes in the oven while the samosas were light and crispy after being popped into hot oil and deep fried. The curries ran the gamut of flavours and Indian regions. A Lucknowi murgh korma was rich and featured tender chicken alongside roasted onion and clove masala. Finished with green cardamom and rose, it was aromatic and thrilling.
A mutton rarha was a North Indian favourite featuring tender cubes of mutton stewed with minced mutton and spiced with Kashmiri chilli and cracked coriander.
A dalcha gosht was a Hyderabadi-style beef dish stewed with chana dhal and a spiced stock, smoked with black cardamom. Delicious.
A kokum fish curry was the star of the show. The South Indian dish came in two parts, with two cod fillets in one bag and a kusum-soured sauce in the other. A Lahsuni dhal was a classic Bengali style red lentil curry with tomato tempered with garlic and black mustard seeds. Warming and with bags of flavour, it was another stand out dish.
Restaurants are having the hardest time of it at the moment. There are a small number, however, who are stepping up to the plate to rise above the chaos of Covid. Aktar Islam is first among those. It’s a privilege to recommend him to you.
Aktar Islam at Home
UK-wide delivery service every Thursday and Friday, based in Birmingham