I don’t believe in fate, but if I did, I’d use The Wilderness as evidence as to why. The restaurant is a forced move; previously Nomad, a concise space where nature and provenance were key, short-lived when the lawyers from New York’s NoMad started stamping their feet. Nomad is now long gone, existing only as a tattoo on Chef Patron Alex Claridge’s arm. I won’t dwell on bygone times, but I enjoyed its clear linear and identity. Fortunately the new offering takes it to a higher level. It’s evocative. It’s bat-shit crazy. It’s pretty much perfect.
The association with nature is still there. Living moss pads the walls of the tiny 22 cover restaurant, whilst a tree seemingly rises from the floor to the ceiling on one side of the room. In direct juxtaposition, the floors are concrete, tables a glossy black. It is comfortable in it’s own skin. We take the Saturday lunch food and drinks flight and are asked if we would prefer to swap the duck for venison – of course we do. Snacks (2017’s amouse bouche) are a celeriac remoulade on a linseed cracker and a delicate tuile with crab meat and scorched corn. The former cleansed the palate, the latter punching it straight in the gob with a whack of the sea held in to check by the corn which had the sugars heightened by flaming the edges. There is dense sourdough with a butter seemingly lightened with crème fraiche. The two make for a good pair.
I think what set this lunch out so far apart from anything I’ve eaten in the last year is the complexity of Claridge’s cooking. We are going through a period of minimalism in cooking; two or three elements on a plate as way of showcasing an ingredient is in vogue . The cooking here could not be further from that. With every mouthful something new evolves, another flavour announces itself. A slab of trout is first, which I forget to take a picture of before dismantling it. The skin is crisp, the fish correctly medium. It is elsewhere that the fun is at – little pops of dyed herring roe for the whiff of the salty sea, a tassel of fried moss to pull it back on to land; the two flavours that echo the dashi stock which is poured tableside before we tuck in. A loin of Iberico pork is blushing pink, advertised with artichokes as discs, puree, and crisps, pickled mushrooms, and buds of wild garlic. The stuff not on the menu are the clever additions; hazelnut’s, which reinforce the nutty characteristics of the animals diet, a luxurious port sauce, and a fish sauce dressing that sends the dish spiralling out East. I told you the cooking was complex. It’s a conversation killer. A sit down, shut up, collection of things on a plate that stop you dead in your tracks.
We move on to the best venison dish I have ever eaten. The same precision cooking of protein as before, with a squash puree, broccoli and a venison jus took to the deepest of places with the addition of stout. A word on the drinks pairing for this – the old fashioned heightened with sake was the perfect counterbalance for the venison.
The first of the desserts was rhubarb sorbet, with poached strips, gels and puree’s. The only sweetness on the plate coming from Italian meringues flavoured with a little vanilla. It’s a bold plate of food that shows considerable skill in showcasing an ingredient at the height of its power. We finish on a course as detailed as any served prior. Chocolate and cherries. Oh, and that familiar dessert addition of cep mushrooms – how can I forget that? Silly me. It’s a dish I can comfortably say I wasn’t looking forward to on account of not really being a fan of chocolate desserts, and less of a fan of mushrooms in my sweets. But what do I know? Absolutely nothing, apparently. The cep powder never bothers with the front row, choosing to sit at the back and call the shots. It gives the chocolate more length, it stops the cherries from being too sweet. Throw in a chestnut puree that occasionally makes everything go a bit Mont Blanc, a splash of salted caramel which works a little too well with mushrooms, and what you have is a dessert that could have come from the mighty David Everitt-Matthias. And I mean that with the upmost of respect: When it comes to chefs I can think of none finer than the man who works the stoves at Le Champignon Sauvage. We finish with chocolate skulls, sprayed gold and filled with salted caramel, which I assume is a nod to the present menu entitled ‘Things Fall Apart’.
I liked it. You may have gathered that by now. The Wilderness put on a show over two hours of some of the best food I have eaten in a very long time. This is top-end cooking, delivered with theatre and exacting execution, undoubtedly worthy of a Michelin star come October. I haven’t given a ten since September 2015, but The Wilderness leaves me with no choice. A restaurant this exciting deserves nothing less than top marks.
The lunch tasting menu with drinks pairing should have been £70 per person, though I used the Independent Birmingham card offer to reduce this to £50. For more details on them please see http://www.independent-birmingham.co.uk