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Food review: Opheem, Birmingham - 4.5 stars

The Birmingham chef Aktar Islam made his name by winning Gordon Ramsay’s F-Word. The victory gave him standing on a national stage, catapulting him above the Second City’s also-rans and presenting him as one of the UK’s foremost exponents of cuisine from Bangladesh and India.

Aktar had grown up in Aston to parents who were humble, hard-working immigrants from Bangladesh. He’d worked for his father in his restaurant at the age of 16; distinctly remembering his dad’s pride when he introduced his son to a regular customer with the words: “This is my son. It is his duty and pleasure to serve you.”

From then on – or, perhaps, from before that day – he made it his mission to cook the food of kings and emperors. And that’s how he ended up at Opheem.

There were diversions first, of course, not least to the brilliant Lasan where Aktar carved a name for himself. He was widely recognised as Birmingham’s best curry chef – and one of the top handful in the UK – a man whose skills put him alongside those on display at such culinary institutions as Simpsons, Adam’s, Carter’s and Purnell’s.

And yet Lasan didn’t seem to give him the creative freedom that he craved. He yearned to push boundaries and showcase food that he viewed as being the most incredible food on the planet. He wanted to showcase the evolution in Bangladeshi and Indian food.

And so he decided to go it alone and launch Opheem.

Not that he’s entirely cut his ties with the past. The Opheem menu pays homage to the sort of traditional food that his mother used to cook. So there are such home cooked classics as jalfrezi, which he ate as a boy.

But the action is all on the à la carte menu, which features Aktar’s modern interpretation of Indian and Bangladeshi food. There’s no clinging to the past, no slavishly cooking kormas, baltis and biryanis. Instead there’s Fjord trout with cumin and a pomegranate crust alongside Tokyo turnip; there’s a Dorset Cross hogget cutlet with a date and sultana purée and green cardamom and his Great British Menu-winning course of soft shell crab with caraway seed, raw mango and fermented rice batter.

It’s not just about the food, however. Opheem is a sparkling destination near the bottom of Broad Street, just outside the city centre. It’s beautifully styled. Sleek, modern and lit soberly, Opheem is an intimate venue in which all manner of guests can enjoy Aktar’s gourmet offerings. Service is exemplary too. When my partner and I visited for a midweek dinner, we marvelled at the deft and charming service on offer. Two waiters visited our tables regularly; making discreet enquiries as to whether we were enjoying the food, topping up glasses and answering questions about the food. They were the best of the best; a team as good as though at some of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants.

But as pleasing as the venue is and as impressive as its staff are, the main attraction is Aktar’s food. Good as he was at Lasan, he’s taken his cooking to another level. As it says on his website, Opheem is Aktar unleashed.

My partner and I were keen to sample the different tastes, textures, flavours and spices on offer and so rather than stick to the traditional stater-main-dessert format, we ate multiple starters instead of larger main courses.

Between us, we ordered six small courses, eating them almost as though they were tapas. The kitchen impressively delivered them in one go so that the table looked like the place of a feast.

Parai Goa was a trout dish with cumin and pomegranate. Voluminously served, it was a generous fillet of tender, pink-orange fish that had been dressed in a gently warming and sweet cumin and pomegranate crust. Delicate and light, it was a delightful introduction to Aktar’s new menu.

Afghaani Champ was one of many stand-out courses. A hogget cutlet had been beautifully cooked and seasoned with a date and sultana purée and green cardamom. The spices were light and sensitively used, the cooking of the hogget exquisite.

Kukkut Punjab featured Goosnargh chicken that had been marinated in basil and coriander and was served with deliciously sweet and colourful heritage tomatoes. The chicken had been cooked quickly and at a high heat, so that the edges were beautifully caramelised and scorched.

One of the finest dishes of the evening was Samudrapheni Maharashtra, a tender octopus tentacle that had been cooked with tandoori spices, pickled mooli and citrus. It was sensational. Octopus is a delicious ingredient; though only in the hands of a skilled chef who cooks it long and slow so that it’s as tender and sweet as the finest langoustine. The version served by Aktar was virtuoso. Gently seasoned, so that the warmth of the spices felt like a velvet glove, it was a course that reminded us why Birmingham had fallen in love with Aktar’s food.

His Kekda Kerala, the award-winning soft shell crab, cooked in rice batter and served with mango and caraway seed, was beautiful. The batter was light and crunchy, the crab sweet and the mango sauce outstanding. We both ate one of them – and wished we’d ordered more.

The mains looked exceptional, with Cornish turbot served with Keralan sabji, wilted choi sum and clams and with a slow-braised ox cheek offered with millet kichdi, girole and elephant cardamom sauce.

There was an aged squab pigeon dish with black garlic purée while a pork loin with smoked hock and trotter looked sensational.

However, our smörgåsbord of starters had given us detailed insight into Aktar’s food and we purred our approval.

When the time came for desserts, I ordered a rice pudding with rhubarb. It was more panna cotta than rice pudding, with small pieces of crispy rice on top and a sharp quenelle of rhubarb sorbet to cut through the creaminess of the pudding.

My partner, however, played it smart. Not for her anything sweet – the octopus was so good that she ordered another plate.

Aktar has come of age at Opheem. Long regarded as one of the Second City’s finest chefs, he’s started to fly and express himself more than ever in his new surrounds. He remains ahead of the pack and his new restaurant will be an outstanding success.

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