Some dinners are like a pop single: wham, then bam. A brief moment of gratifying yet empty pleasure, eaten then forgotten – move on people, it’s all over. Other meals are more like the concept album; a carefully curated story, told – not via twenty minutes of synthesiser noodling – but through food. Enjoyed in the order the chef intended, ingredients composed artfully on the plate. A plate that itself is part of the concept.
And so it was that we found ourselves analysing dinner at Birmingham’s The Wilderness. There was none of your three minute knee-trembler street food here, this was an evening’s carefully orchestrated love-making. Setting the scene with a cheeky howd’ya-do consisting of an edible wasteland, we ended the dinner with a squelchy sticky exclamation. What can it all mean?
Visiting from way down south, we weren’t party to the goings on with erstwhile Nomad chef Alex Claridge (no, not that one). What was clear is that this spanking new restaurant was making all the right noises; it was recommended to us as a must-visit venue and who are we to argue?
There’s also pretty much no debate about the choice of food either. A set menu is what’s on offer, with perhaps a few concessions to dietary needs if indicated at the time of booking – and booking is very much a necessity here. No such requirements from us two omnivores, recklessly declaring that we’d eat anything.
Wandering uncertainly down a grimy underpass behind the railway station, we dubiously pushed at what appeared to be the door to an office block and were welcomed into another world. Pillows of moss clung to the walls, tangled birch branches formed a canopy over our heads and there was even a suggestion of rain (although the rain-maker wasn’t working the night we visited). It really was like being the audience in a theatre; a feeling reinforced when we discovered that the moss and branches had been installed by a local set designer.
We found it unusual to dine in a place almost defiantly un-hipster. They had proper lighting, not that dingy filament glow so popular right now – a novelty we surreptitious table-photographers appreciated. No jam jars or upcycled pallets, and beard-free waiters with their sleeves rolled down. The knowledgeable waiting staff were happy to describe the dishes – nay the entire concept – which, we learned in remarkable detail, centred around the chef’s summer of 2009 when he was in and out of love. Pretentious? Undoubtedly. A return to the nouvelle/locavore/art-on-a-plate movement that burnt like a brief flame way back in, oh about ten minutes ago.
9 course menu, per head £50
Total: £100 (plus drinks)
There may have been no sign of this season’s ‘dirty’ food here, but our amuse-bouche was designed to look like filthy rubbish. At first glance it appeared that we’d been served some sweepings from a wasteland: a couple of dusty stones, some gritty soil and a bit of litter. Which was, of course, the joke. This witty dish represented the scruffy decay around the team’s allotment. The pebbles were tiny potatoes and the tin foil was edible. It was funny and delicious.
We were excited to see what came next. The team cleared plates, renewed our black steel cutlery and delivered ‘Fish, Chips and a Coastal Breeze’, the first plate of ‘Chapter One: The Shoreline – Evening to Dusk’.
So, fish and chips, eh? A fillet of meltingly-soft seabass tartare was served with puffed potato and pickled onion – but not as you’d recognise. This was followed by a beach bonfire scallop: the soft mollusc shied under a sprinkling of embers – crunchy pastry blackened with squid ink. The burnt flavour was perfectly tempered with apple and cauliflower purée and a curious silver-coated leaf which tasted astonishingly of oysters and the far-away sea. We were sitting comfortably and the story had well and truly begun.
To fully describe each plate of our nine-course gastronomic symphony would probably overwhelm. The highlights of ‘Chapter Two: The Forest and the Fields’ included soft golden yolk, cooked for an hour at sixty-four degrees to create a texture we had never before known. Brittle seasoned chicken skin, baked into a crispy flange. A delicious dark chocolate skull dusted with red glitter, encasing aromatic duck liver parfait and beetroot.
We turned the metaphoric page to the next chapter: ‘The Picnic 2009’. The first dish was ‘The ants got to the tart first’. Ants. ANTS. Yes, ants. We had a dish with ants. The real ants trouped their way from the edge of the plate to the rim of a sweet cheddar and onion brûlée topped with allotment flowers. Hilarious! Genius! Or possibly nonsense. This was a dish designed for social media instant karma – yet maybe there was more to it. The test would be what it tasted like. Part of the waiting staff’s preamble was about how the kitchen used local and foraged products where possible. The ants were sourced from Canterbury (or ‘Anterbury, as we waggishly refer to it now). But why ants, apart from the visual trick? Apparently, because British lemons are hard to source, the acidic ants were chosen to replicate that citrus kick. And, boy, did it work! The ants were very acidic, almost lemony for sure – and incredibly, it actually worked and made culinary sense. Without the ants, the rich, smooth brûlée was understated and buttery; with the ants the combined taste and texture was an unexpected hit. This clever dish epitomises why The Wilderness is so good. If the ants had added nothing, the whole thing would have been laughably daft. But every time, there’s a reason.
The sweet and savoury tart led us to desserts. Firstly ‘Jammy Dodgers’ a brace of familiar-looking biscuits which tasted not of chewy raspberry jam but exactly like apple crumble and custard. To finish we were presented with a sight familiar to us seaside dwellers: an ice cream cornet business end down with the inevitable caption of ‘Oh Bollocks’. Of course this wasn’t just any old generic Mr Whippy squirted with ‘monkey’s blood’. No, sweet strawberries three-ways (jus, macerated and freeze-dried) were scattered about the brittle cone and its fluffy meadowsweet-flavoured crème anglaise. And so, as the waiter announced with a flourish, we had come to the end of the story.
As we pondered our dinner over hot drinks (the tea came with an egg timer, natch, for that perfect infusion), we considered not just what we had eaten but what this might mean for restaurant trends.
Dinner at The Wilderness was a grand concept, in which diners must play along to enjoy to the full. The attention to detail was remarkable and the thoroughness in sourcing ingredients was part of the story. The waiting staff must have been rehearsing for hours, because they all were entirely on board and delivered both food and epistles perfectly. Obviously the pretentiousness dial was cranked right round to eleven. It was a curious distraction in these times of roughly-handwritten menus and food delivered on lo-fi tin foil trays (yes, OPM we’re talking about you). As soon as we realised that all this was going to lead to some great food as well, it was a delight, and almost a relief, to be able to sink into a stage-managed experience so thoroughly, and accept The Wilderness for what it so proudly is.
Having recently dipped our toes into London’s street food scene we were intrigued by Birmingham’s general lack of hipsterness. It was refreshing to see that there is another way, and that the march of the pre-industrial grunge-chef isn’t inevitable. Artsy cocktails and artisanal breads don’t seem to have inched their way up England’s spine to Britain’s second city. And perhaps they don’t need to. We found hints of Birmingham’s alternative food culture among the chain-eateries and China Town’s Asian-influenced restaurants. And beyond even that, in the shadow of New Street Station nestles The Wilderness, telling its strangely engaging story through a concept meal worth crossing the country to receive.
- Delicious food
- Intriguing, yet accessible, concept
- Excellent value
- Booking required