You would never have guessed from the lockdown meals. Whilst most were busy trying to replicate their restaurants in a boxed-up form, minus the service and the professionals cooking the food but with the same lofty price tag, Carter’s were making kebabs. Berlin style kebabs using impeccable carcasses, fermented salads, hot sauces, and pillowy flatbreads, but kebabs all the same; stuck on a spit and spun repeatedly like the Tory policy on recreational castle visits. We had them almost every week. It was some of the best food of the lockdown and Brad Carter looked like he was in his element, so much so that I wondered if Carter’s as we know it had gone forever in place of something different. It’s kind of true. The room is now black, there is a new frontage, and the wall which separated the kitchen and dining room is gone, replaced with the chef’s pass table which we are sat on. And the food. The food feels different.
Over lockdown Carter’s has gone from sitting comfortably at one star, to one that has Michelin firmly in its sight for a promotion. It’s smartened up; the uneven edges dictated by nature trimmed and decorated with pretty ornate tuilles so pretty you don’t know whether to eat or hang from your ears. From the off there’s glazed domes of trout with a lei of edible flowers, glossy oyster pebble skimmed over a pond of something green and grassy, and tartare of dairy cow neatly packaged between two crisps. There’s twice fried chicken oysters – a cut of the bird that can easily be overcooked by a lesser chef – that almost brings me to tears. And these are just the snacks.
Brad’s skill has always been in enhancing the star of the plate in unexpected ways and here tomatoes from Eversham come bathed in a light shrimp broth studded with caviar. It’s a clever way of bringing salinity and umami to the tomatoes, in turn taking the star of the bowl up a notch or four. A scallop barely cooked over embers until the shell opened, with a decadent butter sauce, then his take on cacio e pepe with razor clams, old Winchester, and dulse standing in for pasta, Parmesan and pepper. It’s been on the menu for a while and I used to think it’s one of the more complete courses in the city. Make that the country. There’s bread for which I think the crust has improved. Lockdown has been kind to Carter’s. It’s focused. Lean.
I doubt I’ll be served a prettier dish than ‘Birmingham soup’. An old recipe, we’re told, dusted off from bygone cookbooks, it’s basically a beef consommé jewelled with beef fat, a tartare of ox heart, and some veg. It’s topped with a tuile shaped to resemble the central library. It’s unmistakable Carter’s. Unmistakable Birmingham. Halibut, ornate and precise, with an acidulated butter sauce flecked with herb oil and seaweed tapenade follows, rife with umami and what might be my favourite course.
Quail is the only slight technical slip of the night. Similar to the Hunter’s chicken at the departed Greenhouse restaurant, the griddled mousseline around the meat is silkier than your mother’s underwear draw, though the breast underneath has dried out a fraction also like, no, I won’t go there. We finish off the savoury dishes with Holstein beef that had a pleasing chew, and a sauce made from the grass they graze on. Cheffy, it is, but the green acidic notes of the grass work in a way not dissimilar to bearnaise. On the side is braised barley, meaty and nutty, cooked with, if memory serves me correctly, bone marrow. Spectacular.
There are two desserts; the buxom wobble of a saffron set yogurt with honey, and a chocolate, cobnut, and sherry concoction that disappeared too quickly for any of us to snap. I didn’t see a bill because that was settled between two of the party, but with dinner, drinks pairing, extra bottles, and pre-drinks, it would have added up. Many years ago when Carter’s first opened you could see where Brad and Holly had been eating by looking at what was on their menu. Now it’s theirs, driven by the seasons and the terroir, delivered in a totally unique style. This was a special dinner, and one that firmly puts Carters in the mix for Birmingham’s first two star. A meal out rarely is more thrilling.