I lived in Birmingham for about 15 years in the 80s and 90s. You tend to love the place you live in just as much as you love your home town. My experiences of the City from a food perspective were very much those of someone with not enough money. I had my first balti, and some of my first fast food experiences there. I ate Caribbean and Austrian food but they were novelties rather than part of the food fabric.
Things have changed enormously. There is now a healthy collection of Michelin-starred restaurants, a great street food culture and the ethnic diversity shines through. The skyline itself is changing year on year. The development from the Town Hall through to the new Symphony Hall was a catalyst which brought attention to the grubby buildings which had previously been hidden. Broad Street was redeveleloped with bars and restaurants. The canals became part of the tourist destination rather than a hidden dimension. The Bull Ring, the Station, the Mailbox, the Chinese Quarter: one by one the modernisation has sculpted a new Birmingham with a cafe culture and interesting food.
On a recent cold Spring Sunday we took a trip into Brindley Place – the area around the canal, Symphony Hall, and the NIA. It is full of chains – there is a Cafe Rouge, Carluccios, Mission Burrito and a couple of burger brands. There is also the Ikon Gallery.
Museums, theatres and Galleries often have surprises in their cafes. It tends to be interesting food, well made which can be quite expensive. The Opus Cafe at the Ikon Gallery certainly fits the profile. The building itself is an old-style property surrounded by the glass skyscrapers of modern Birmingham.
The gallery has a range of exhibitions from contemporary artists and some attractive monochrome prints were on the wall of the cafe. On a sunnier day it would be nice to sit on the tables outside and watch the world go by (another feature of modern Brum that didn’t exist in my youth).
The cafe is bright and clean with very friendly youthful staff and we soon had some drinks on the table. The coffee was OK but the White chocolate with raspberry cream was lovely. The food on the menu was a limited but interesting range of paninis, eggs Benedict/Florentine/Royale. The Eggs Benedict was perfectly cooked with nicely toasted muffins, well-poached eggs which held together but ran when cut. The Hollandaise Sauce was fresh and the ham was meaty and flavourful.
A good test was the Fish Finger sandwich with a side of ‘Fat Chips’. The sandwich had nice crunchy fish fingers. The crunch is crucial to the sandwich. The bread was tasty focaccia with a hint of salad and some tartare sauce. It could have done with one more fish finger to reach to the edge of the bread but the flavour and texture combination was excellent. The chips were sensational. They were piping hot out of the fryer and were crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside.
What I also liked was that, for a restaurant in the heart of a City, they still have a heart of their own. The claim behind the bar is that 90% of ingredients are locally sourced and that they try to visit all the farms supplying. It’s not cheap (at least not by rural standards). Our meal for three cost £35 but it was excellent and worthy. I’d rather pay that for an independent restaurant supporting local growers than pay the same to any of the surrounding chains.