Cafe Opus, Birmingham: Best Value Lunch of the Year?

I need to make a public apology to the chefs of Birmingham.

It’s not easy to say this but there’s no point in beating about the bush.

I am sorry, heartily sorry, but you are wasting your time. You may as well chuck it all in.

Actually, don’t chuck all of it in, just the bit that goes into producing the Best Value Lunch of 2013 for the MADs (that’s the coveted McComb Awards for Dining – judging underway).

Because the title, unless my palate, my wallet and my heart betray me, has already gone to Café Opus.

Cafe-Opus-in-BirminghamI ate here with Jerry, my Prog Rock tutor, and enjoyed three very simple, very pleasant courses.

The bill for two, including two beers and two double espressos, was about £37. Or £18.50 a head. Less than 20 quid for a decent lunch in Birmingham.

This, my friends, is progress.

The city has deservedly made a name for itself in what people persist in calling the fine dining sector, a term that covers a multitude of sins, few of them desirable.

The restaurant business is unique in the consumer sector in its appropriation of a superlative as a descriptive term for a catch-all style of product.

Water-bathSo, if you have napkins and a water-bath and serve amuse bouches, warm jellies and foams you can call yourself a “fine dining” restaurant – even if there is nothing at all fine about the food.

Indeed, the food may be not very fine at all. It may well be rank.

In fact, the concept of rank dining could be the next big thing and I can think of several establishments that are so “on-brand” it’s frightening.

Then there’s the whole painfully snobby side of fine dining, the cheap fantasy of exclusivity, like going to a “VIP drinks reception” (it’s the summer – there will be lots of these invites on the way) and finding the star attraction is a loser from The Apprentice.

Anyway, enough already and all that. The point I am trying to make is that Birmingham has some very fine restaurants and some very poor “fine dining” restaurants. The good ones, which may be expensive (but you pay for what you get) are brilliant. It’s just that there are not enough, in terms of critical mass, of less expensive good ones.

Do not misinterpret my comments. I am one of Brum’s biggest gastronomic advocates and there are quite a few good places to dine, as my recent blog on Birmingham’s Best Restaurants makes clear.

But for a city of more than a million mouths? It’s not enough.

Where do you go for a good lunch, in pleasant surroundings, with good service, for less than 20 notes? There are some good pubs and some good Chinese cafés and cheery curry outposts, but there aren’t enough other bits.

Enter Café Opus.

It is the little sister of the independently-run Opus restaurant in Cornwall Street, a long-term personal favourite. For this reason, I was worried about eating at the new café, which opened several months ago at the Ikon Gallery in Brindleyplace. If it was a turkey, this could have been the end of a beautiful friendship. C’est la vie.

David-Colcombe-at-Cafe-OpusOne of the great things about Opus, putting aside chef-director David Colcombe’s taste in ’80s soul and jazz funk, is its commitment to giving young talent its head.

Colcombe is a one-man mentoring-machine to young chefs, particularly new recruits from University College Birmingham, where he holds a professorship.

Colcombe does this out of practical necessity – he needs hands manning the pumps in his kitchens – but he also does it because he gives a shit. There are other senior chefs in Birmingham’s restaurant community who are like-minded and they don’t get any credit either. They should do. Without them, Birmingham’s dining scene would be a poorer place. In fact, it would be like turning the clock back 10 years. Scary, isn’t it?

Café Opus, like Opus, is staffed by a young team. They are a superb advert for fresh talent in the hospitality sector. The front-of-house bunch has the customer approach pitched right – smart but informal, friendly but not cloying.

Of course, all of this counts for nothing if the cooking isn’t up to it. It is.

Gareth Wyatt was in charge of the kitchen when Jerry and I dined but I am told the dishes and the style of cooking is a collaborative effort. Don’t you hate it when people are modest?

The offer is refreshingly no-nonsense.

There is an all-day menu (and a brunch menu on Sundays). You can have mushrooms and
 tarragon on toast or corned beef hash with an egg.

There are salads, plates for sharing and more substantial main dishes, everything offered for an extremely good price.

Cafe-Opus-in-BirminghamOnce I had talked Jerry out of having a boiled egg and soldiers, which reminded him of joyful days with Nanny, we split a fish plate.

This featured a serving of light potted salmon and cucumber (which could have done with more salt), soused rollmops, crispy (yes, actually crispy, not wet) squid, and an old-school reunion of prawns and Marie Rose sauce.

Add a couple of fingers of bread (actually there were three, which is an odd number for two diners). Cost: £8.50.

The fish of the day, sent up from Brixham, was pollock, served with sauté potatoes and a herb dressing. Jerry had it, the swine. “I’ll have the bollock, please,” he told the waitress, because he’s hilarious like that.

The fish was gloriously fresh, pearly white, cooked perfectly. Yours for £7.50. Jerry thought it was 1973 again and started spouting Pink Floyd lyrics.

Eat such well-priced, tasty fish here or you could take a short walk to several places I won’t mention, pay twice the price, and get an inferior dish.

I had the day’s special: pan-roasted tenderloin of pork with boulangère potatoes (lovely slow-cooked, sweet onions), a couple of shafts of veg (carrot, asparagus) and gravy. Again: £7.50. For the price, the dish was unimpeachable.

Cafe-Opus-in-Birmingham Cafe-Opus-in-BirminghamJerry came over all girlie and said he’d duck out of dessert. Then he saw the coffee and walnut cake, thought of Nanny again and started crying. He had a slice.

I had the strawberry Eton mess – just £4 of your English monies. The pud comprised loads of vanilla-flecked thick, whippy cream, five or six crisp domes of fresh meringue, ripe fruit and a lovely strawberry purée. Flavour, flavour, flavour. That’s what it’s all about.

Cafe-Opus-in-Birmingham Cafe-Opus-in-Birmingham

This is how simple, modern British food should be done. Don’t accept imitations.

Incidentally, the Ikon Gallery must be pinching itself for landing such a great caff. Well done to them, too, for sticking an artful two fingers up to the possibility of letting another crappy coffee chain take over its ground-floor spot.

(I haven’t mentioned anything about the décor. It’s very now. Works well. Lovely terrace, too. Great for disco dancing in the sun.)

Café Opus, 1 Oozells St, Brindleyplace, Birmingham B1 2HS

T: 0121 248 3226





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