An insider's restaurant guide to Birmingham with Aktar Islam

An insider's restaurant guide to Birmingham with Aktar Islam

by Lauren Fitchett25 August 2023

Chef Aktar Islam, restaurateur and owner of Michelin-starred Opheem, takes us on a tour of his favourite restaurants and bars in Birmingham.

An insider's restaurant guide to Birmingham with Aktar Islam

Chef Aktar Islam, restaurateur and owner of Michelin-starred Opheem, takes us on a tour of his favourite restaurants and bars in Birmingham.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

‘We’ve worked really hard to change the impression of the city,’ says chef Aktar Islam, as he settles into his seat. We’re at The Grand Hotel in Birmingham, the first of eight spots we’ll be visiting over the next twelve hours. Our goal is to explore the culinary scene of a city which has often been defined by its stereotypes; namely the distinctive Brummie accent and, since 2013, BBC hit Peaky Blinders. But Birmingham has much more to offer, including culinary clout in spades – there’s a thriving indie scene in both the city centre and its suburbs, as well as Michelin-starred restaurants, including Aktar’s Opheem, Glynn Purnell and Adam Stokes’ eponymous restaurants, Simpsons and Carters of Moseley. And last year, the Good Food Guide named Birmingham as its most exciting food destination in the UK.

If there's someone who doesn't need any scene-setting, it's Aktar. Born and raised in north Birmingham, he has worked in local kitchens for decades (starting at his dad's restaurant aged thirteen) and has consistently championed the city since, opening Opheem there in 2018. ‘This movement has been going on for twenty-five years – I’d like to say that me, Glynn, Brad [Carter] and all the unsung heroes in the independent scene have worked really hard to change the impression of Birmingham,’ Aktar says. ‘One thing’s for sure – we are not a desert when it comes to hospitality. If anything, we’re the polar opposite of that – we’re a very exciting city for food.’

The Grand Hotel, Colmore Row

The Madeleine Bar at The Grand Hotel in Birmingham
Chocolate and Cherry, Strawberries and Cream and Citrus Victoria pâtisserie at The Grand Hotel

We kick off at The Grand Hotel, an impressive nineteenth century building which reopened in 2021 after almost twenty years closed, having been brought back to its former glory – complete with its French Renaissance, Victorian and Art Deco features – thanks to a £50m revamp. It’s home to New York-inspired neighbourhood restaurant Isaac’s, but we head for the Madeleine Bar, a Parisian cocktail lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows and modern chandeliers. The menu – designed by culinary director Adam Bateman – is all about French classics, from pommes Anna to frogs’ legs and mushroom mille-feuille, but, aware of our morning start, we go for the pâtisserie instead, including a particularly indulgent Citrus Victoria – lemon sponge, citrus glaze and sable biscuit – concoction.

For Aktar, starting at the hotel reflects why it has made today’s list – the striking setting is a fantastic place to give people their first impression of Birmingham; he’s recently brought visiting family along for a cocktail. ‘There’s always a great atmosphere in here,’ he nods. ‘I bring people into this space to start their experience and introduce them to the city.’

Tiger Bites Pig, Stephenson Street

Red-braised pork, mustard greens, crushed peanut and coriander bao
Steamed bao at Tiger Bites Pig

Just five minutes’ away – at the back of busy New Street station, by the tram tracks – is Tiger Bites Pig. A street food concept which first opened in 2018, it's influenced by the flavours of east Asia, including Tainwanese-inspired bao buns, for which it’s become particularly popular. Founded by friends Neil McGougan and Ed Shawcross, it’s a local favourite and, though we arrive just before opening, there’s quickly a steady stream of hungry visitors.

It’s also one of Aktar’s go-tos – he says he vividly remembers the first bao he tried here – and he recommends we kick off with the fish-fragrant aubergines (don’t let the name fool you, they’re vegan), a classic Sichuanese dish with garlic, ginger and pickled chilli. When it comes to bao, we try the chilli and black vinegar-braised beef shin, with a cured egg yolk, as well as its most popular order; chicken, ginger, spring onion, chilli oil, sesame paste and crispy chicken skin. The ubiquity of bao buns in the UK might make it harder for independent spots to cut through, but the pillowy bao – they’re made fresh every morning on site – and creative filings make it clear why Tiger Bites Pig has.

Bonehead, Lower Severn Street

Fried chicken spot Bonehead first opened in 2018
Bourbon barbecue sauce-glazed Lizard King wings

A quick hop across the tracks and we arrive at Bonehead, a fun, edgy fried chicken joint which serves wings, piled-high burgers, chicken strips and sides like tater tots, washed down with craft beer and cocktails. It was also first opened in 2018 by Sham Marawat, who swapped a career in fashion in London for his first restaurant a bit closer to home. ‘Sham came back to the city and automatically made me want to support Bonehead and his vision for it,’ Aktar says. ‘Fried chicken is in vogue but very few places are doing it well. He did the leg work and it's one of the only ones left now of that trend. If I can’t get here then I’ll order a takeaway – who doesn’t love fried chicken?

'It’s one of those impromptu places that takes your fancy and where you dip in before going to the movies.’ Our table is soon loaded with the – hugely moreish – garlic Parmesan tater tots, tangy hothead Nashville chicken tenders and deliciously sweet-meets-savoury Lizard King wings, glazed in a bourbon barbecue sauce. 

Orelle, Colmore Row

Orelle's menu is led by executive chef Chris Emery
Roast duck breast, beetroot, maitake mushrooms, pithivier and duck jus

Every city needs a great viewpoint, and Birmingham certainly delivers. On the twenty-fourth floor of the National Westminster House is Orelle, a restaurant and cocktail bar which opened late last year and boasts 360-degree panoramic views across the city's skyline. Inside, there's a café on the ground floor, while one wall of the eight-metre-high space upstairs is taken over by a mural by a local artist, alongside drop-down lights (Aktar says it's particularly impressive at night) and greenery.

Executive chef Chris Emery – previously of Jason Atherton’s Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social – heads up the kitchen and oversees its classical French menu, which includes the likes of dressed crab with avocado, pink lady apple and sourdough, as well as a beef tartare with Marmite egg yolk jam, shimeji and Parmesan tuile to start, followed by the likes of roast duck breast, with beetroot, maitake mushrooms, pithivier and duck jus – a fantastically hearty lunch.

The Oyster Club by Adam Stokes, Temple Street

Oysters and champagne at The Oyster Club
Aktar at The Oyster Club

Fifth on our list is The Oyster Club by Adam Stokes, just a few minute's walk away from the chef’s Michelin-starred restaurant Adam’s. The oyster bar is the seafood outpost of its older brother (it also appears in the Michelin guide), and pitches itself as a more relaxed take on fine dining, serving oysters – dressed with the likes of ginger, chilli and soy or ‘nduja and lime – as well as caviar and small, largely seafood-led small plates.

We grab seats around the marble counter and order half a dozen oysters, which are sourced from all over the UK, including Poole Rock in Dorset and Maldon Rock in Essex, and dressed with soy, chilli and micro-coriander. They're plump and fresh, and it's no wonder the bar is familiar territory for Aktar, who often nips here between services at Opheem.

Plates by Purnell’s, Edmund Street

Tapas at Plates by Purnell's, including croquettes and pan con tomate
Plates by Purnell's is run by chef Glynn Purnell

The newest addition on our list, Plates by Purnell's opened in February this year, bringing a taste of Spanish tapas to the city. It's owned by Brummie chef Glynn Purnell, who's also behind the nearby Purnell's, which first earned its Michelin star in 2009. At Plates, the menu is a selection of small plates and tapas – we share pan con tomate, sea bream with paprika and ginger, lightly-fried aubergine chips, rich cheese croquettes and smokey, spicy sobrasada.

It's important to recognise Glynn's work promoting Birmingham, Aktar says. ‘He’s a proud Brummie,’ he nods. ‘He worked hard to put Birmingham on the map; Glynn was the first to do that and that must be respected. He’s held his star since he opened and is true testament to the fact that if you dream big you can make it happen.’

Qavali, Broad Street

Grilled meats on the Qavali grand platter
Qavali's Hyderabadi biryani

Our penultimate stop is Qavali, an Indo-Persian restaurant which takes its inspiration from the Indian subcontinent and uses spices and techniques rooted everywhere from Turkey to India. Its name is derived from a style of devotional singing which, over many centuries, travelled across the region – the aim at Qavali is to show how, like the singing, cuisines evolve as they cross borders and cultures.

Marinated meat is grilled over charcoal, and often served in richly-spiced sauces and broths – we try the stunning Hyderabadi biryani, Persian lamb shank and Qavali grand platter, a feast of Baluchi charcoal chicken, Lahori lamb chops, Sajji wings and Indo-Persian koobideh and Punjabi chicken tikka. ‘What they are trying to do is present the journey of cuisines and the connection between the cultures,’ Aktar says. ‘I’m also a meat eater, so nothing makes me happier than a big plate of grilled meat.'

Opheem, Summer Row

Aktar opened Opheem in the city's jewellery quarter in 2018
The restaurant earned its first Michelin star in 2019

There’s only one place left to visit before we wrap up our tour – Opheem. After opening in 2018, it became the first Indian restaurant outside of London to win a Michelin star one year later, which it has kept since. In the city’s jewellery quarter – and, more specifically, a former nightclub – it's home to a relaxed lounge and modern dining room (with concrete touches to reflect its city surroundings) with an impressive theatre kitchen at its centre.

Aktar speaks about progressive Indian cooking, which reimagines and refines authentic recipes and blends techniques both modern and traditional. His tasting menu takes inspiration from across India (it tells diners both the dish by which the course is inspired and where it originates), and is ultimately led, he says, by seasonality. We’re welcomed into the lounge with a selection of Opheem’s snacks, including a mango tuile with burnt lettuce purée, mango chutney, fermented coriander stem and amchoor, as well as a beautifully sweet and savoury apple macaron with date and onion purée, spiced beef tartare, duck liver parfait and nasturtium.

The snacks at Opheem
Orkney scallop, chilli, apple, mooli and rassam

It's time to move into the main restaurant for a whistle-stop tour of the tasting menu (usually diners would have ten courses, but we're sampling a handful), beginning in West Bengal with a delicate scallop dish, served with chilli, apple, mooli and rassam. After, there's aloo tuk, an elegant take on a loved street food in Delhi; at Opheem, it's pink fir achaari potato five ways, with mango and tamarind chutney – indulgent and comforting, balanced by the sharp tang of tamarind. After cleansing our palettes with a cucumber and mint sorbet, we return to West Bengal with poached cod in a fragrant fish bhuna sauce, courgette and olive broth, before finishing with Opheem’s Lucknowi chicken korma, a far cry from the creamy, heavily-sauced versions we're used to in the UK; instead, it's grilled, charred chicken, with turnip, saffron, black garlic which is finished with Opheem's korma sauce.

Pink fir achaari potato five ways, mango and tamarind chutney
Cotswold white, turnip, saffron, black garlic and korma sauce

We’ve had a taste of the thriving independent scene in Birmingham city centre and met some of the network of chefs, who are clear that if one succeeds, they all succeed. We’ve experienced a taste of the city’s finest dining at Opheem, and been given the lowdown on the suburbs (Stirchley, we're told, is fast becoming a must-visit spot for food-lovers, while the likes of Grace & Savour and Smoke at Hampton Manor, near Solihull, are also bringing visitors to the area). We’re sure we’ll be back.