'Ingredients whisper evocatively of regions of India': Opheem, Birmingham, restaurant review

Agilely balanced between cheffy and technical, the cooking offers our critic something a little more homely, too

Opheem, run by Aktar Islam in Birmingham, UK
Opheem, a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant, run by Aktar Islam in Birmingham, UK Credit: Nick Maslen

The shadowy praesidium responsible for the annual Michelin guide has just announced that despite all the closures and constraints that have afflicted the UK’s restaurants this year, the show must go on.

In January, a little later than usual, there will be a glitzy and no doubt interminable ceremony, at which a new guide will emerge (online only, at first). New stars will presumably be dished out, and old ones taken away.

Do we care? A little bit. Michelin’s many foibles could fill a page like this at the best of times: two not unrelated ones are that excellence in fine dining isn’t at all the same as excellence in general; and that the guide favours European cuisines at the ­expense of others.

But it’s handy enough as a vade mecum for curious hacks and hungry travellers – and if you’re more focused on value, innovation and diversity then other resources exist, though they’re heavily concentrated on London.

Opheem in Birmingham bagged a star last year, making it the only South Asian restaurant outside the Smoke to hold one at the moment.

Or I think that’s the case, anyway – Michelin’s website is idiosyncratic, though they may be planning to tighten it up if they’re holding off on print publication for a while; and my hard copy of the 2020 guide is quarantined at the office, undergoing regular deep cleans and, one hopes, inspiring The Telegraph’s cohort of Brexit-ready and Covid-compliant mice to make ever bolder restaurant choices.

The star tells you relatively little about the food you can expect to eat at Opheem. Other than promising certain levels of comfort, it doesn’t tell you much about what it’s going to look like, either (a spacious corner site, big pubby windows, the bar contemporary, plush and neutral, with lots of fashionable plants and a nebula of on-trend lighting fixtures overhead; the dining room slightly tougher, with a faint backroom vibe, all rough plaster finishes and dark ­metallic colours).

But it does tell you that there will be a lot of staff milling about the place; that you’ll be getting at least one and probably two amuse-bouches; that the napkins will be of a rare and almost pharaonic luxury; that a little brush or miniature vac will, at some point, be whipped out and used to tidy the crumbs off your table. And, if you use your loaf – there will be more about loaves later – you will realise that none of these elaborations is (nor should it be) free of charge.

Opheem’s chef Aktar Islam has had some local success, and done some TV. There’s something deeply satisfying about his story arc. Waiting on tables as a teenager in his Bangladeshi father’s restaurant in Solihull, he remembers being introduced to diners with the words: “This is my son, and it is his duty and pleasure to serve you.” 

'A genius with onions': Chef and restaurateur Aktar Islam of Opheem Credit: Stuart Manley

The quote seems to have stuck: it appears on Opheem’s website, along with a ­decidedly ambivalent reference to the “familiarity and comfort” of migrant cuisines. We won’t be getting any of that now that Aktar’s at the controls, is the message: “My mission from a young age was to cook the food of Kings and Emperors.”

And yet one of the many pleasures of our 10-course tasting menu was that there was at least a trace element of British curry-house DNA in the mix, from the spiced butter smothering a small and outright fantastic dish of bhutta, roasted corn, soured with (we thought – the menu is pretty laconic) amchoor, to a nearly fantastic but fractionally overcooked monkfish “dopiaza”.

So the cooking, which was consistently refined and never less than artfully presented, still relied on a base note of familiarity, a palette of remembered flavours: on our knowing the theme on which Islam was practising his variations.

Course number four was “pao”, an impossibly cute miniloaf accompanied by a purée of spiced roasted onion (Islam is a bit of a genius with onions) and meat juices. This, we learnt, was a family recipe. Other dishes were more street-foody, or derived from ancient courtly banqueting traditions, or felt like distilled versions of something you’d get in a seaside shack.

Ingredients whispered evocatively of regions of India and Bangladesh (Bengali limes, oily and sour-sweet; astringent coconut vinegar from Goa) or Europe (Orkney scallops, Roscoff onions). Cooking processes were agilely balanced between cheffy and technical (sous-vide, spherification, dry ice) and something a little more homely, with grilling and hot tandoor-style roasting a feature of several dishes.

If there has to be such a thing as fine dining – and at a testing time for the hospitality trade, Opheem looked to be doing pretty well, as full as you could image it lawfully being with punters willing to spend upwards of £100 a head – then it’s surely absolutely right that the children of mid-20th-century migrants should have a seat at that table, if that’s where the muse takes them.

It’s interesting, though, that the first wave of attempts to gentrify British ­Indian food, the “brasserie-style” mid-market restaurants that sprang up in the 1980s and 1990s, never quite took root – maybe they didn’t do enough to distinguish their food from the more mainstream competition, other than bespoke crockery and Gary Rhodes-style crisscrossed chives on top of every dish.

But Islam’s more ambitious approach, with its feel for narrative, its harmonious variety and its breadth of scope, just seems to make more sense – more sense, indeed, than a lot of “modern European” cooking, which doesn’t have particularly sturdy cultural foundations, unless you count nouvelle cuisine or Heston’s Feasts.

As for the star, I hope and trust Opheem will retain it, whatever that means for Islam, and for us.