lifestyleopinion

When chips are down, Opus steps up to plate

In her search for a top quality, reasonably priced lunch, Mary Griffin finds potato perfection in this Brindleyplace gem.

Cold poached salmon on Cos lettuce, green bean and radish salad, topped with sauce gribiche.

Cafe Opus, Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, B1 2HS. Tel: 0121 248 3226. www.opusrestaurant.co.uk/cafe-opus

If you've ever gone in search of a city centre lunch that doesn’t require a reservation, won’t break the bank but will serve a decent meal you’ll know it’s a tougher challenge than it first appears.

While Birmingham’s suburbs have their share of independents serving nicely priced lunches with as much emphasis on customer satisfaction as turning a profit, the city centre remains a slave to the chains.

Thankfully there are renegades, such as Newhall Street’s Yorks Bakery Cafe and Corporation Street’s Boston Tea Party, but the focus is on coffee and cake while the very good savoury fodder remains an added bonus.

Happily, when a last-minute restaurant cancellation left us looking for lunch near the Gas Street Basin, we found an independent that’s bucking the trend.

Having made a name for themselves with one of Birmingham’s most highly-rated restaurants (with two AA rosettes and praise from both the Michelin and the Good Food Guides), the team behind Opus in Cornwall Street decided eight years after its launch to branch out with a second venue.

Last February Cafe Opus was born, aiming to bring “relaxed all-day dining” and “unfussy British classics” to a diverse crowd at contemporary art venue the Ikon Gallery.

Cafe Opus sits among vibrant surroundings at the Ikon Gallery.
 

Arriving in the deliciously named Oozells Square, Cafe Opus looks full of promise.

On its south-facing terrace the bold, modern mix of blue blocks, square grey umbrellas and yellow metal chairs (a work of art themselves) are juxtaposed with the traditional angles, curves and arches of the red brick Ikon Gallery.

The old school building dates back to 1870, its 1997 gallery conversion erecting modern glass and steel structures against the red brick interior.

It’s a stunner.

My pal Josie and I, ladies what lunch, sit outside in the sun with a Dunkerton’s cider and a Warsteiner (God knows why the beer choice is between Budweiser and a German pilsner when Opus champions quality local produce and has a wealth of brilliant brewers on its doorstep).

We shuffle inside when the rain starts up but find it almost as chilly indoors as out.

The all day menu has three “Plates” which make a good starter shared between two and the mixed plate (£10.50) feels a bit like tucking into a picnic indoors on a rainy day.

The "Mixed Plate" includes picnic fayre: sausage rolls, pasties, quiches and pork with piccalilli from Cafe Opus.
 

There are two homemade sausage rolls which are liberally peppered, two mini meaty beef and onion pasties, two little leek and ricotta quiches and a side helping of sliced free range ham. Mammoth chunks of pickled onion and crunchy courgette in the accompanying piccalilli seal the deal.

It’s testament to a good menu – as well as our own obsessive compulsive rule against ordering the same as whoever we’re eating with – that we struggle to choose between three favourites on the all day menu: pan roasted Brixham market fish of the day with crushed parsley new potatoes and Nicoise dressing, Paddock Farm pork ‘hot dog’ with caramelised onions and apple compote, or slow braised belly of Cornish lamb with spiced cous cous and a mint yoghurt dressing (all £9.50).

So to save a fall-out we both go for a wild card, Josie picking one of the four options on the specials board: crispy chicken thigh, sautéed chorizo and peas (£7.50), while I go for the cold poached fillet of Scottish salmon, Cos lettuce, green bean and radish salad with sauce gribiche (£8.50).

My dish continues the picnic theme, transporting me back to childhood when on a hot day mum would dish up the most simple and fresh summer salad, always with an unbeatable serving of poached salmon.

Crispy chicken thigh, sautéed chorizo and peas from Cafe Opus.
 

The chicken dish is an Iberian cousin of Glynn Purnell’s recipe for chicken thighs with pea custard and pea salad. But the mains are almost eclipsed by a simple side dish of hand cut chips (£2.50).

I’ll happily nail my colours to the mast and say these are the best chips in Birmingham.

They’re golden, gorgeous looking and generously cut so each chip makes a proper mouthful with that perfect contrast of outer crunchiness and inner fluffiness.

With both the chips and the buttered new potatoes you can tell someone in the kitchen has put serious thought into which potato variety to use and when you’re eating it you can taste that this carefully selected spud has been peeled, cut and fried freshly today, with love.

Don’t think about the calorie content. When something tastes this good, who cares?

I’m tempted to order a second portion of chips for pudding but instead sample the sublime honey creme brulee (£4.25), while Josie is pleased as punch with the Eton Mess (£4.50) bringing our bill for a three-course meal with soft drinks and booze to £25 each.

The creme brulee of the day, with honey from Cafe Opus.
 

For me the joy of Cafe Opus – other than the chips, did I mention them? – is in its vibrant surroundings. During our lunch there’s a boat race on the canal around the corner, there’s a group performing a Chinese dragon dance at the far end of the square and right in front of the cafe there’s a constant stream of passers-by picking up ping pong bats for a spot of spontaneous table tennis (part of a lottery funded public engagement project).

As well as being a pre-show option for the NIA, The Rep and Symphony Hall, the cafe hosts Meat Free Mondays and on Fridays tempts the Brindleyplace after work crowd with live music and a two-for-one steak night.

It’s an inclusive approach. Nothing costs more than £10.50 and while it has the prices, atmosphere and moniker of a cafe, the service and main courses are restaurant standard.

It’s good food at the right price at a moment’s notice in the heart of the city.

Go for all those reasons. Or just for the chips.

Food: 8/10

Service: 7/10

Atmosphere: 7/10

View full mobile page