Food review: An homage to skill and talent at Birmingham's Legna
It’s been a pretty good autumn for the West Midlands restaurateur Aktar Islam. He became the fifth Birmingham chef to receive a Michelin star when the brilliant modern Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant Opheem received the accolade.
His other nearly-new restaurant, the modern Italian, Legna, was also included in the Michelin Guide, though it didn’t gain a star.
For Aktar, it’s high time he received such praise. Having led from the front at Lasan, which won a coveted Gordon Ramsay award and under his stewardship was the Second City’s best, he decided to go it alone.
Opening one new restaurant – Opheem – takes considerable commitment. Opening a second, opposite, that serves a completely different style of food takes a maverick.
And yet Aktar has what it takes. A brilliant chef, an enterprising entrepreneur and a much-loved figure in the Brummigem dining scene. Opheem has already become a jewel in the crown for Birmingham and Legna may yet follow suit.
And yet while Opheem is note perfect – everything works: service, food, environment and more – Legna remains a work-in-progress. It’s like an F1 Ferrari; mostly brilliant but with issues surrounding consistency. When Aktar makes a few minor tweaks, it has the ability to outgun everything else; it’s just not quite there yet.
And yet our overriding impression was one of warmth and affection. The dining room is spectacular, the food (when they get it right) exceptional and the service (barring one error) very professional, highly polished and of a high standard. An incorrect item on our order, desserts that were as wrong as a Timmy Mallet tribute at a Benidorm Hen Do were thankfully over-shadowed by dreamy food and engaging staff.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
Aktar opened Legna shortly after hitting the jackpot with his brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed Opheem – a restaurant so good that we immediately booked a repeat table having eaten there for the first time.
Aktar has had a private passion for Italian cuisine throughout his life. He’s identified with the simple, yet skilful processes, generations of knowledge and focus on high-quality ingredients and provenance.
The smell of a slow-simmered tomato sauce on the stove, the creamy inside of a burrata, or the immediate warmth and perfume from being in the same room as a wood-fired oven have filled him with joy.
And so, having had the privilege of travelling through Italy and studying with some great Italian cooks, he opened a restaurant earlier this year that is an homage to them. It is mostly brilliant.
My partner and I booked a midweek table and were dazzled before we even arrived. The exterior walls are covered in faux greenery while the interior is decorated with endless blossom trees. There is no prettier restaurant in Brum, including the delightful Tattu.
Such beauty and romance is underscored by a vast, amber bar and decidedly pretty lights. Lovely. It’s the perfect place for couples and I’ll take bets right now that there’ll be proposals of marriage over macaroni before the year is out – if there haven’t been already.
Our waitress seemed a little stumped when we told her that we understood the menu perfectly well and were capable of working our way through it; I think she was disappointed not to be able to perform. And perhaps being thrown off her stride was the reason why she later brought us a tartare rather than the bresaola that we’d ordered. No matter. We didn’t complain; the tartare had been second on my list and was truly exceptional.
One of the key planks of Legna is the quality of the produce. At times, it’s breathtaking. Citrusy olives were plump and decadent while a basket of bread with fragrant olive oil and deliciously sweet aged balsamic was better than a first kiss.
Rather than opting for one of the menu’s larger main courses, we each chose three dishes from the antipasti and primi offerings. So, in no particular order, she ate a magnificent octopus carpaccio with pickles and rocket. Aktar has a thing about octopus – and few cook it better. He has a spectacular octopus starter next door, at Opheem, and the Meditteranean version at Legna was a winner. Arancini with wild mushroom and truffle were earthy and intoxicating while arancini with nduja were thrillingly spicy.
A fritto misto was heavenly, with batter that crunched and small pieces of fish that were delicately cooked so that they were just translucent.
A mushroom risotto was slightly overcooked; the rice was soft rather than al dente. The flavours were good, however, and it had been seasoned well. Complex and sophisticated, it had been made with no little skill. A Bolognese dish was also exquisite, showcasing the skills of Aktar and his team, though beautiful ribbons of silky pasta had been a little undercooked – the opposite of the risotto.
Dessert was dreadful. We ordered the lemon tart with white chocolate and both of us learned what it must be to suck on a lemon.
Too sharp, too acidic – even for this pH 0-7-loving eater – and way, way, way too tart; it was all wrong. We watched as our cheeks sucked into hollows, laughed, ploughed on, then gave up the game. It was clearly an aberration.
The front of house team were great. A restaurant manager formerly of Lichfield’s brilliant Boat Inn was the stand-out, providing charm and professionalism in equal measure. He was not the only one, however. Despite her error on the starters, a waitress was bustlingly efficient while a bearded waiter was dashing and debonair.
There were flaws when my partner and I visited, though ones that are easy to iron out.
And the over-riding impression is that once Aktar fine-tunes his brilliant new venture, he’ll be hitting the sort of standards achieved at the neighbouring Opheem.
A key player in Birmingham’s continued gastronomic renaissance, Aktar has created a concept with huge potential that is likely to become one of the city’s finest.