Considering I live 250m away from Carters it is more than a little pathetic that I’ve managed to get here only twice. I have no excuse; I pass the bijou restaurant on St Mary’s Row on my walk to and from work every day, at least twice a week glancing over at the yellow lettering on black frontage and telling myself that I really must return. Now here I am, driven by the need for a midweek treat and a girlfriend who has a total obsession with their staff food Instagram stories. The interior has been tweaked to a darker shade than I recall, though the layout is much the same. It has drama yet a warmth to it. The hole in the far wall means that you can look in to the chefs at work, or they can look in to you eating their work. I am never quite sure which way round it is.
We have a steady three hour dinner which is so good I have decided to put the stuff I should be writing about aside and bring you this. It is one of the very best meals I have eaten in this fine city, one full of nuance and rooted so far in it’s environment you would need a team of gardeners to pull chef Brad Carter out of its soil. Without ever resorting to screaming through the tussles of his beard, Carter has become a champion of the best produce in the central region, only looking further afield when required, such as for caviar from Exmoor, or those heady truffles from Manjimup, Western Australia.
Four nibbles get us quickly underway, the first a parfait of chicken livers with various grains and raisins that I could have eaten a far bigger bowl of, followed by a delicate tart of broad beans and Winchester cheese lifted by a little mint. There are slivers of goose ham cured in house, and kohlrabi compressed in pine oil and topped with a salad of herbs which tastes slightly reminiscent of cucumber. The latter does a great job at prepping the palate though I understand how some, including Claire, could be underwhelmed. We have bread made from flour milled a mile away at Sarehole Mill with a pig fat butter containing a dice of crackling. If that butter doesn’t get the blood flowing to the organs, nothing will. With this the chef kindly brings a little Exmoor caviar over which I never expected, and probably neither should you. Still, caviar on bread and butter is something I’ll never tire of or turn down.
Cured mackerel kicks us off properly, the thin slices layered with gooseberry, bobbing in a bowl of dashi cut with mustard oil that has us slurping the last directly from it. A dish conceived in Japan, delivered in Moseley. That eastern influence runs throughout the meal, from the simplistic presentation, to the constant use of umami, and occasional flashes of deeper knowledge, like in the fermented rice on the last dessert. After this course it is straight back to the local environment; a slice of tomato compressed in elderberry vinegar, clothed in backfat and more elderberry, with basil leaves and seeds. It is one of the evening’s strongest courses, one that turns with every mouthful. There are sweet notes, acidic notes, fatty notes, and most surprisingly, anise from the basil seeds. For something that looks simplistic, there is a lot going on under the surface. I have a lot in common with this dish. Conversely, there is a humbleness to the next course, which means I have absolutely nothing in common with it. A fillet of ray with a sauce made from potato and dots of sea truffle, a type of seaweed that shares similar qualities to the tuber. Three cheap ingredients transformed into a plate that has far more luxurious qualities.
Now when I think of the evolution of Carters cooking it is summed up by the lamb course. A loin cutlet (I think) taken off the bone, cooked and then finished on a barbeque. As good as that is (and it is very, very good) the real points of interest are to be found in the garnish. Umami rich black garlic, peas that have been podded and dressed in the faintest of vinegar, sea lettuce both powdered and gently wilted, a healthy dusting of black truffle and a dressing of lamb fat mixed with aged soy. The complexities on the plate are everywhere, gently positioned into place and allowed to mingle with one another. The result is a dish as perfectly balanced as anything I have eaten this year. I save a slice of burnt fat for last because I know this will be the best bit. It is. What follows this is the best cheese I have ever eaten. A soft cheese called Maida Vale, washed in sour beer and served with malt loaf. It is grown up and addictive, sweet and rich, the beer a genius way of introducing balance.
Desserts are bold because they follow the same ethos as the rest of the meal, meaning that they are marginally sweeter, though not by much. More traditional of the two is the grilled strawberry, a beast the size of Claire’s Beetlejuice sized bonce. It has intrinsic sweetness, cut through by the clever use of unripened green strawberry and a soured cream. The last dessert is an ice cream of fig leaf, with local raspberries and fermented rice that adds a sophisticated sour note. Even the petit four – a silky chocolate ganache with rapeseed oil and sea salt – refuses to get the sugar levels going. I admire this; it is clear that Carter is now functioning with a singular belief.
Looking back on my 2015 review I used the words ‘uncluttered’ and ‘concise’ to describe the style of cooking. Although that ethos is still very much in play, the reality is that now Carters is an entirely different beast; it has matured into a restaurant entirely comfortable in its own skin, a place that looks to the best in local produce and pays respect to them on the plate. Claire considers it to be the best meal she has eaten in Birmingham, so much so that she pays the bill in full as a treat without me seeing it, though with two bottles of wine over the two and a bit hours it would work out to be about £130 a head. The best bit? All of this is on my doorstep. Moseley is lucky to have Carters, and I for one plan on coming here as often as possible.