Review: Opheem, Birmingham

Opheem. Niiiiice

Opheem. Niiiiice

I wonder to what extent labelling a dish “Winning dish on Great British Menu” skews the punters to order it? I’m willing to bet that a lot more of them fly out of the kitchen than the other mains or starters they’re sharing the menu with. And chef Aktar Islaam has two “winner on GBM” as well as a “winner on F-Word” dishes competing on his menu at Opheem. We were typically obtuse and didn’t order any of them. Well, the whole menu just looked good.

And before I dive into the food, I have to say I liked the dining room to bits. Sleek decor, dramatic touches, but also very comfy. Open kitchen but behind a glass wall to keep the noise down. Good service too.

Oyster nibble

Oyster nibble

So. Good little nibbles to start. An oyster macaron with sweet green pearls and an oceanic oyster emulsion was very pretty and very polished. Best possible signal that this was going to be genuinely fine dining from Indian roots! I’ve moaned enough times about Indian “fine dining” restaurants that are just curry houses with fancy plating, I won’t start on that agai… oh. I just did.

My starter was abalone mushroom, hearty chunks grilled like steak, with truffle puree and a deeply satisfying mushroom broth. Little chips of rice pancake added crunch. Outstanding. Maureen’s mackerel sounded like it would be sweet/hot and punchy, but in the event the slivers of grilled mackerel were the predominant flavour (and good) with the accompanying mango salad and dressing just so-so.

Splendid fungi

Splendid fungi

Tamarind sorbet made for a funky palate cleanser. And ticks the novelty box for me, which isn’t that easy to do these days (jaded palate, moi?).

My main was gorgeous. Centred on a very juicy/fatty tranche of wild boar belly, a sturdy slice of nicely scorched carrot, and a dumpling filled with the most amazing minced boar loin. The dumpling had the texture of silky suet pudding and it’s quite beyond my skill to tell you what precise combination of spiced made the minced filling quite so wonderful. Anyway, the whole dish was finished off with a healthy pouring of beautifully deep and earthy curry gravy. Splendid.

Maureen’s goat biryani proved to be even better. A square of slow-roasted goat belly. A button of minced goat with, again, a warm and delicious mix of spices. And then an entire goat biryani under a pastry lid. Words cannot express the magical scent exhaled all around us by that dish when the lid was carved off. Black cardamom was the main aromatic, and if you know it you might be able to imagine. The dish needed a generous dollop of silky chilled yogurt, and that’s exactly what it had.

Goat biryani

Goat biryani

I honestly expected desserts to be a let-down after that. Nuh-uh. Maureen’s rice pudding was actually more akin to a pannacotta in texture; Chef Aktar Islam served our puds himself, and said he didn’t actually like the rice in rice pudding, so after cooking he takes it out! Well, it works. Paired very well with textures of rhubarb and some puffed rice too. My dessert was down on the menu as “Chai” but the chai parfait was actually entirely overwhelmed by powerful pineapple and coconut flavours. Pfff… who cares, I like pineapple and coconut, and I liked this a lot. Don’t think I’ve ever had better coconut sorbet.

We ended up around £38 for 3 courses without drinks. The wine list is fairly short, but very good prices and good quality. I’m really impressed with Opheem. It’s immediately the top bar for Indian cuisine in Birmingham, and frankly I don’t think there’s more than a couple of places in London being this inventive.

Rice pudding with a twist

Rice pudding with a twist

Review: Tierra and Mar, Cirencester

Tierra and Mar

Tierra and Mar

This little restaurant in a tucked-away corner of Cirencester is really hard to pin down. Is it fine dining or casual? Is it modern or trad Spanish? Is it brilliant value or a bit confused? Is it tapas or tasting menu? I’m not sure I can answer all these questions, but Tierra and Mar is definitely worth talking about and definitely worth a visit.

The dining room is a nice bold Mediterranean blue with seaside prints in primary colours, and comfy but terribly floral dining chairs. I like the overall effect. Service is excellent and friendly. They offer tapas at £6-8 or a 3 course menu for £22 or a tasting menu for a bit more. I think your meal will turn out pretty similar whichever variation you plump for. We went 3 course.

Rabbit terrine

Rabbit terrine

First up was a rabbit terrine, with pickled pear, macadamia nut cream and a cardamom puree. The terrine was delicate, soft and beautifully rich in bunny flavour. The accompaniments added a bright, clean zing to it. Very pretty plate, lots of technique. Seven quid? Nice! Maureen’s seared tuna sounded a bit bonkers on paper: mango, black garlic, quail egg, nasturtium pesto. WTF? And yet the whole was a balanced sour-sweet affair that complimented the sesame-crusted tuna perfectly.

Second course for Maureen was grilled octopus with squid ink tapioca, samphire and chorizo, draped with wafer-thin tocino (pork fat). The slippery-salty tapioca was a magic texture alongside the meaty octopus and the pork fat just inspired. This was almost divine. The chorizo was an unnecessary distraction. Without it this dish would have been absolutely divine. Hey, still… seven quid!!! My blow-torched mackerel and pineapple with a citrusy & chilli salad was light and tasty, but simply beaten into second place by that octopus. Definitely dish of the day.

Mackerel and pineapple

Mackerel and pineapple

Now, for full disclosure: our third courses, both rice dishes, were badly over-salted. Something had gone oops. But when we raised it, they replaced without complaint, and once the kitchen realised their goof they couldn’t offer us enough in free wine, dessert and coffee by way of apology – very sweet. I always say that mistakes occasionally happen, and the mark of good service is how you react to them. So: super-massive thumbs up for service here.

The replacement was good, tender lamb with a fine jus, smoked garlic puree, and a selection of veg, although it’s going to be forgettable compared with the first two splendid courses.

So, yeah. Presentation-wise they’re going for a fine dining vibe, but the experience is actually more informal than that, and of course three courses for £22 is seriously – seriously – good value. The combinations are modern and inventive, certainly not solidly Spanish. And it’s either tapas, tasting or 3 course depending on your fancy! Tierra and Mar would be my first pick if I found myself needed dinner in Cirencester.

That octopus

That octopus

Review: The Coach House, Exmoor

Sweetbread ravioli

Sweetbread ravioli

Or to give it its proper title: “The Coach House by Michael Caines“. In the interest of full disclosure, this kind of thing really gets on my wick so I was likely to be skeptical going into this meal! Is it really necessary to suck people in with a name? All I can find on the website about Michael’s involvement is this: “Everything is created from scratch by our talented kitchen team, who were hand-picked by Michelin starred chef Michael Caines.” Pfff!

Och, I know, it’s just business. And the chic folk adorning the tables tonight were no doubt drawn down to Exmoor by the name. In a difficult economy and a crowded market it’s every country house hotel for themselves and thinking caps on for the marketing and PR agencies.

John Dory

John Dory

We were drawn down to Exmoor for a weekend of hiking, and bloody lovely it was too, but I can’t leave home without looking for an excuse to try a new restaurant, so here we are and my expectations are firmly in check. When I asked our waiter what the selection of local cheeses were, he replied “it’s a goat cheese, a brie, a blue one and a cheddar”. That’s the level we’re pitching at. So I certainly wasn’t after the tasting menu.

There’s an amuse of a decent gazpacho and then we’re onto starters. Mine is a ravioli of sweetbread with a sweet and rich sherry sauce, nice bit of braised lettuce on the side. Whaddya know? Really very, very good. Dish of the evening. Maureen’s lobster dish, strewn in bits over the plate, is just okay. Turns out mango and lobster aren’t the most brilliant of bedfellows and the “curried” lobster mayonnaise isn’t really.

Beef fillet

Beef fillet

You can’t go wrong with a nice bit of local beef fillet, and mine was perfectly good. Crispy little shallot rings, roast silverskins, bits of mushroom that I’m not certain deserve the “wild mushroom” label they wore on the menu, and some grainy watercress puree. All good, if absolutely 100% predictable. Special bonus marks for an accompaniment of ox heart tartare! This was ace. Maureen’s John Dory was a decent bit of fish, though the black garlic sauce was heavy on the soy and as a whole the plate was unbalanced.

Having determined that the cheese option is probably crap, I pick a banana parfait. I’m not sure why. But it certainly is a banana parfait covered in bits of candied peanut with a lime sorbet. The parfait is already melting when it reaches me, which isn’t so great. Maureen’s passionfruit souffle is much better. Nice souffle, good flavour.

So we had a decent enough meal in the end. But at £50 for three courses I can’t help thinking of all the wonderful dining pubs around Devon where you can outdo these three courses for fifteen quid less. “The Coach House by Michael Caines, is a culinary experience that will change the way you think about restaurant dining” …yeeeeeeeah, no.

Exmoor

Exmoor

Review: Jamavar, London

Jamavar

Jamavar

Jamavar has recently had a change of chef at the top. I hadn’t realised, but it’s actually the first UK outpost of a small group of exclusive Indian hotels. The interior is very clubby, all mirrors and dark wood and little brass lamps. Comfy too. Service was decent and friendly.

We went all-in for the tasting menu, and two of us headed for the vegetarian version of it while two went meat n’ fish. I’ve gotta say, we were all underwhelmed. So… why?

Well, all four of us are serious afficienadoes of modern Indian cuisine as the best UK restaurants have been interpreting it. The Chilli Pickle down in Brighton, the Painted Heron in

Aloo Tikki

Aloo Tikki

Chelsea, the Cinnamon Club, Lasan in Birmingham. And all the street food places offering up big spices and lively chat bombs on the cheap. So while this was a very pleasant Indian meal stretched out over seven courses, there was absolutely nothing that really stood out.

The main courses in particular left us very meh. Butter chicken was… a good butter chicken. The prawn moilee was way too nervous, with none of the depth and punch a great moilee can have. The vegetarian mains, starring morel mushrooms and baby aubergines respectively, were no less meh. The tomatoey sauce with the aubergine was joylessly free of any clear spice, the morels were lost and wasted in a creamy sauce, bizarrely stuffed with peas.

Paneer

Paneer

Some of the earlier dishes were better. I enjoyed a really beautiful disk of paneer tikka, the cheese softer and silkier than I’m used to, surely homemade. There was a very good chicken tikka across the table, soft and succulent with sweet green flavours. Soft shell crab to start was crisp and oceanic, but the lobster idli wasn’t a great use of shellfish and the idli themselves were an uninteresting and starchy addition – it felt like they were there to lend a name to the dish rather than add anything useful to it.

Nice rasmalai to finish, sticky and soft and fragrant. I shouldn’t be over-critical. This was solid, classic Indian cooking, with dishes from across the country prepared with care, although perhaps a little too cautious in their spices. But I can’t call the £75 tasting menu good value on those grounds, not by a long chalk. I can’t see any reason to visit Jamavar when you can enjoy better for half as much. I wonder if they’ll keep the Michelin star with this chef?

Curry, innit?

Curry, innit?

Review: Moksh, Cardiff

Spherification

Spherification

If you are an Indian restaurant with pretensions of fine dining, please learn this lesson first: portion sizes should be smaller on tasting menus. When a full sized curry with a complete portion of rice and naan rocks up after I’ve already eaten 3 amuse bouches and 4 starters, I just know I’m going to be spending the rest of the day in an uncomfortable, bloated, semi-insensible heap.

Moksh has been down in the middle of Cardiff’s smart dockland area for a few years now, and the dining room is looking very tired. Though I’m told they’re in the process of moving so it’ll be interesting to see the upgrade. Having come all this way, we went for the tasting menu. Ordered a couple of cocktails while we waited – they were inelegant and over-sweet.

Street(lamp) food

Street(lamp) food

First amuse was a big ruby red spherification filled with a gentle cranberry and star anise yogurt. It was a bit surreal to have the chef explain to us that “we use chemicals here, to enhance the presentation and flavour”. Please, for your own sake, don’t say chemicals! We know how molecular gastronomy works, we’re cool. But I don’t think most diners are very comfortable associating the word “chemicals” with food. : )

The stand-out amuse bouche was a lentil soup. It had a fantastic clean, hot, green spiced flavour. But this was a whole bowl of soup. Not an amuse bouche. There was also one knock-out starter: a prawn with lemon moilee, a south Indian seafood sauce with a slick, rich, tangy flavour that I could have eaten a bucket of. My main course was probably the best laal maas I’ve had, with an earthy hot sauce of a rich burgundy colour over chunks of slow-cooked lamb and good rice. Maureen’s crispy battered tilapia with a tangy Goan curry was also excellent.

Laal maas - great

Laal maas – great

But most of the other amuse bouches and starters were just hey-ho. Huge chunk of dry tandoori chicken breast smothered in a flavoursome green yogurt paste. Typical street food dish of vada and chickpeas that could have been had at the dozen or so Indian street food places in Cardiff. Poppadoms with an admittedly bright mint dip. Puddings – which we tried really hard to shove into some remaining gaps – were not impressive. Macaroon with sweet hummus was pleasant, date meringue just sticky, pistachio mousse way too subtle to be worth eating, curry ice cream was at least flavourful although the flavour chosen was staunchly yellow curry powder.

Don’t get me started on the gimmicks. Chef Gomes has got hold of the idea that innovative fine dining = gimmicks. The street food dish had a teeny-tiny street lamp attached. Clove-scented dry ice appeared twice. The tandoori came in a glass jar filled with eye-watering hickory smoke. The lamb chop came with candy floss. “Why candy floss?” “It’s gastronomic.” : )

There were three excellent dishes at Moksh; the lentil soup, the moilee and the main curries. I think if you treat Moksh as a top-notch curry house and order any two dishes that don’t sound very experimental, you could well be onto a real winner; there’s a deft touch here with authentic Indian cooking. But the attempt to elevate into tasting menu territory isn’t working at all, it’s all gimmick and no thought. I waddled out with very mixed feelings.

Dessert in the smoke

Dessert in the smoke

Page 1 of 5312345...102030...Last »