These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Following Aktar Islam’s recent triumph picking up Birmingham’s fifth Michelin star for his ground-breaking Indian restaurant, Opheem, locals have found it difficult to maintain their customary self-deprecating sense of humour when discussing their hometown. Birmingham’s transformation into a serious gastro destination has been a source of pride for the Second City and it isn’t difficult to see why.
From cosy street food joints to exceptional fine dining experiences, aromas from the far east to the best in modern British gastronomy, Birmingham has a wildly varied scene in 2020. Here are some of the best to visit right now…
Glynn Purnell’s cheery personality and thick accent have made him an entertaining part of British food television but his Michelin star restaurant on Cornwall Street reminds you again of his serious talent and creativity in the kitchen. With its chic interior and attentive service, Purnell’s has been a highlight of the Birmingham food scene since 2007. Led by young head chef Luke Butcher, Purnell’s famous 10/10/10 Burnt English Egg Surprise (as seen on The Great British Menu) is still a perennial favourite while the carpaccio of Herefordshire beef with red wine braised octopus and onions is refined and immaculately presented.
Contact: 0121 212 9799; purnellsrestaurant.com
After years of being known as one of Birmingham’s most highly regarded chefs, Opheem has finally given Aktar Islam the creative freedom he craved. And that creativity has now manifested itself into a Michelin star. Opened on Summer Row in 2018, his solo venture has a sleek grey interior with a thin sheet of glass separating the kitchen from the diners. Islam’s menu is a modern interpretation on Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine using the latest techniques to craft some wonderfully inventive dishes. The sweet and smoky monkfish dopiaza with spiced onion compote and roscoff broth is exquisite.
Contact: 0121 201 3377; opheem.com
Meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ in Japanese, a visit to Gaijin Sushi on Bristol Street makes you feel like anything but a gaijin. The name is a reference to chef Michal Kubiak’s Polish roots but watching him deftly dissect his ingredients in Gaijin’s intimate setting of a small L-shaped counter is pure theatre and everyone watches together, enthralled. The minimalist décor means you can focus on the food and the assorted nigiri set is perfect for sharing. Including deep purple tuna, soft pink salmon and silky sweet prawns wrapped around lightly vinegared rice, it’s an ideal introduction to Kubiak’s skills.
Tiger Bites Pig
Life before bao in Birmingham is something of a hazy blur. They may have existed somewhere but Tiger Bites Pig on Stephenson Street put these fluffy steamed buns into vivid technicolour when it opened in 2018. Tall windows send in plenty of natural light and though the cosy interior seats few, its intimacy is part of its charm. The beef shin bao braised with chilli, black vinegar, shiitake mushrooms and cured egg yolk is absurdly light yet chewy and packed with flavour. Made fresh every morning, they’re arguably Birmingham’s best value bites.
Reservations: Walk-ins only
The relentlessly traffic-congested Five Ways Island on the fringes of Birmingham’s city centre isn’t an obvious place to find a refined family-run Italian restaurant. However, the hum of the cars passing by Laghi’s Deli is immediately drowned out by the friendly welcome inside and the calming rustic interior. Owner Luca Laghi wanted to bring an authentic taste of his hometown of Bologna to Birmingham using the freshest ingredients from northern Italy and making homemade pasta each morning. The carbonara is happily cream-free while the jet-black ravioli stuffed with crab meat and mascarpone is bold and immediately satisfying.
The Oyster Club
An elegant colour palette of light grey, deep blue and gold blends seamlessly into the marble-finished art deco interior of The Oyster Club, comfortably Birmingham’s finest seafood restaurant. Not content with just one acclaimed restaurant in the city (his Michelin star restaurant Adam’s is only a few hundred feet away), owner Adam Stokes opened The Oyster Club in 2019 on Temple Row. Featuring a selection of delicate rock oysters from Essex, Jersey and France, the menu has a range of expertly crafted dishes but the creamy battered halibut and jenga-stacked triple-cooked chips is a supreme take on a British classic.
Contact: 0121 643 6070; the-oyster-club.co.uk
Starting life in 2012 as a popular burger stall at the Birmingham street-food institution Digbeth Dining Club, Meat Shack opened their own joint five years later. Residing opposite the Hippodrome Theatre on Thorp Street, Meat Shack’s interior features thick wooden tables, corrugated iron and offbeat street art by local artist Gent 48. Bold lettering behind the bar proclaims ‘Dripping Filthy Goodness’ and the special Sweet Chick burger certainly lives up to that lofty declaration. The sweet chilli-garlic sauce, pickled ginger, spring onion and coriander that accompany the tender chicken breast leaves a dancing taste that lingers long in mouth afterwards.
Expectations of ‘pub grub’ have come a long way since the days of greasy plates of gammon, egg and chip and, while establishments like Pint Shop aren’t reinventing the wheel, they have redefined the craftsmanship and freshness of pub food. Occupying a smart townhouse on Bennett’s Hill dating from 1860, Pint Shop’s bookshelves and furnished wood give it the air of a Victorian study. Having initially caused a stir on opening in 2018 for their intimidating beer list and a deliriously good onion bhaji scotch egg, it’s their colourful and impeccably prepared kebabs that set it apart from the crowd.
Contact: 0121 236 9039; pintshop.co.uk
If Birmingham’s sixth Michelin star is going come from anywhere, it’s likely to be away from the bright lights of the city centre and out in the leafy neighbourhood of Harborne. Opened in 2016, Harborne Kitchen’s relaxed fine-dining experience starts with its unfussy interior and smiling staff who greet you as if you’re a long-lost friend who’s stumbled across their restaurant by accident. Owner and chef Jamie Desogus has crafted a creative modern British menu featuring some unusual combinations, lead most notably by the silky chicken liver parfait, Gariguette strawberries and white chocolate.
The neighbourhood of Stirchley is gaining a reputation of being something of a craft beer nirvana but Eat Vietnam is one of the prime reasons to head to this lively area of south Birmingham. The space inside is small and narrow but the kitchen being so close to the action means you’re hit with waves of aromas on entering. Owner Ming Nham’s varied menu includes bun-cha with barbecued pork on a generous bed of vermicelli noodles that is rich in flavour while the sticky marmite and peanut butter cauliflower bites are a sweet and filling accompaniment.
Contact: 0121 433 3377; Facebook page