It’s exciting times for the region’s dining scene if you’re fed up with bog standard pub grub. Andy Richardson discovers some interesting dishes...
In a city of cool restaurants, a scruffy little, back-street dive that puts ants on the plate, makes crème brûlée using cheese and offers craft beers from Birmingham, rather than Belgium, is positively Ice Age.
In comparison to some of the city’s best restaurants, The Wilderness is spit and sawdust. It’s got a rubbish laminate floor, the sort you’d find in cheap rented houses where the landlord is all about maximising profits and exploiting his tenants; there’s a stud wall between the restaurant and an adjacent media space that is, quite literally, an uncovered sheet of Perspex and pine batons; and there’s barely enough room to swing a cat as a small number of tables are packed closely together.
And yet The Wilderness is the most exciting, the most innovative and the most fashionable restaurant in town. For those who love the town’s best Michelin starred restaurants – Simpsons, Carter’s, Adam’s and Purnell’s – The Wilderness is a must-visit.
The prices are decent: a taster menu starts at £50, rising to £60 with the inclusion of two extra courses – and the wine flight adds either £35 or £45 to the cost, with the higher price for the longer menu.
The Wilderness describes itself as a modern British restaurant and bar, focusing on native ingredients, memory and place.
It is all of those things and more. The food is funny, inventive and irreverent. The service is warm-hearted, engaged and intelligent. The decor is unpretentious, basic like a student bedsit and as Off The Wall as a Michael Jackson record. In a pointlessly breathy, hyperbolic and schizzy-wizzy word, it’s fan-flippin’-tastic.
Right, let’s get the clichés out of the way. The Wilderness serves ants. Yes, ants. And I can almost feel 90 per cent of you shudder as you start to turn the page and read about weekend breaks in The Cotswolds, instead. Stop. Keep reading. This place rocks.
Ants are part of a dish called The Ants Got To The Tart First. It’s made with ants and a cheese crème brûlée. Sounds awful, doesn’t it; it’s not. It’s one of the best and most memorable dishes I’ve eaten in the past two years. And I am Hog McHog, the hoover of delicious food in restaurants across the UK. Believe me. Ants and Cheese are so bad they’re good. They’re so wrong they’re right. The texture and taste is thrilling. I’m hoping to be signed up for I’m A Celebrity In The Jungle, or whatever it’s called. They can stuff the £50,000 fee. I just want to eat grubs. I bet the kangaroo testicles aren’t all bad, either. But I digress. Ants. Eat them. Sit on your back step and hoover them up through a straw. They’re crunchy and they taste of lemon. It’s like eating mini black lemon pips. So there we have it, and I got through the whole paragraph without invoking the wisdom of a man who’s standing over my shoulder saying: ‘Make a joke about Alien Ant Farm.’ Won’t, won’t, won’t.
Before we plunge headlong into the food, let’s talk service. Service is magnificent. It’s superlative. It’s self-assured, confident and wonderfully informative. When my friend and I ate, three waiters took care of us and were exceptional all evening. One might have been a little bit over-excited: ‘Oooh, aren’t we clever, we’re serving ants. . .’ but with food as good as the dishes we ate, that’s entirely forgiveable.
Right, the important stuff. Dinner. We started with two courses that left us worried that the evening would end in disaster. The bread was decent but a bit squishy-where’s-the-air-in-that-bakerman? It was like an Asda loaf that’s just come out the oven on a Saturday morning: a dense, doughy guilty pleasure. The butter was bliss.
The first course was also on the edge of iffy. Beetroots with seaweed, kohlrabi, tarragon and goats curd was just a little too acid. The pickle used to preserve the purple root veg had been overdone. Acid is popular among chefs. It’s in vogue, it’s hellishly fashionable. But it’s best in moderation and the beetroot dish was a little too in-yer-face, like a banshee railing at an ex in a pub, rather than having a quiet word by email.
And then the evening went into overdrive. It went stellar. The heavens opened, the birds sang and the ants marched to the table.
Mackerel and rhubarb was spellbinding. And, in contrast to the beets, the balance was perfect. Acid, sweet and umami; beautiful colours on the plate; complementary textures and wonderful seasonings – sorrel, fennel and pork fat – made it sing. While chefs habitually blow torch mackerel skin and serve it with cucumber, The Wilderness showed delightful creativity and created a 10/10 dish.
A scallop served with bacon, cauliflower and green gimlet was stunning. It was hidden beneath a pile of tasty and edible ashes – not like the stuff from an open fire, before you get worried: there was no bitterness. The scallop was translucent and beautifully caramelised, the bacon sweet, salty and as intense as a dodgy boyfriend and the cauliflower added earthy notes. Man, it was good.
The Best Part of The Chicken was, literally, the best part of the chicken. There was no meat, just crisp, flat, salty chicken skin. It was served with salt baked celeriac, nature’s ugliest but best root vegetable, and beside a 62 degree egg yolk topped with arenkha caviar. The egg yolk was perfectly cooked; like a soft, golden orb of rich and intoxicating deliciousness. Winner winner chicken dinner.
Lamb and green things was triumphant. The jus was giddily good, the lamb tender and pink, the summer greens resplendent and light while puffed grains in vinegar gave it an acid kick – and one that was harmonious with the dish.
And then things got interesting. An intermediate course of wood ants with edible flowers and a cheddar crème brûlée was better than Paul Weller coming round to your house, sitting on your sofa and offering to play an acoustic track-by-track homage to WildWood. The pastry in which the brûlée sat was crisp and light. The brûlée had a perfect caramel top that broke with a crack while the cheesy cream was more satisfying than receiving the keys to a new Jag. The edible flowers and ants were there were for a reason – rather than being there for theatre. Flowers have the most delightful and exquisite flavours – for the uninitiated, they’re like fruit and veg but better, while the ants were lemony and crisp.
The penultimate course was lavender and fruit. It was great. But we’re running out of words and I want to tell you about the final pudding. I can’t tell you what it was called because it includes a rude word. So I’ll write around the houses and you can do the guesswork. The first word was: ‘Oh’. The second word was the thing you might say if you dropped an ice cream on the floor, or, to be more precise, it’s the fourth word of a Sex Pistols album title that starts with Never Mind The. . .
And the reason it was called that was because that’s precisely what you’d say if you had dropped an ice cream on the floor. I’m guessing the chef had done that once, as a kid: hence The Wilderness’s allusion to memory.
The dish was fluffy ice cream, a Cadbury flake, macerated strawberries and an upside-down cone. It was presented with a splat and it tasted of an idyllic childhood summer.
The fat lady started to sing and my friend and I paid the bill. We’d enjoyed creative, precise cooking; irreverent ideas and masterly service. The Wilderness is here to stay. And it’s one of the best dinners I’ve eaten for a very long time.