The Wilderness

The Wilderness, October 2018

We arrive to the opening bassline of Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’, the long galley restaurant of black floors and black walls, black tables and black chairs lining both sides of the room. At the bottom is a prep station where chefs have been freed from the confines of the kitchen to shape the tartares and tarts that would kick-off this lunch. As the final note of Kurt Cobain’s guitar fades away we are given a sparkly gold menu whilst the naughty version of ‘God Save The Queen’ rips through the speakers. It is an unconventional start, though we expect nothing less from a man whose previous incarnation had a tree in the dining room and whose forthcoming new venture features a warped afternoon tea based on the All-American harbinger of body issues, Barbie.

The last time I was here was at the old place. It got me all excited by refusing to answer to type whilst still retaining a link to the nature that sat at the forefront of Nomad, Claridge’s initial restaurant that changed it’s name when some Yanks got a little shouty with the legal notices. That link to nature is no more, replaced by a brash and louder approach; one that spanks your arse rather than wipes it with a dock leaf. Dishes are tighter in execution; presentation cleaner. Version 2.0 should not be compared to the old in the same way that way that I shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the city’s other ‘food bloggers’. It is carving its own niche, one that occasionally ends up in the newspaper for the wrong reasons. Something I know nothing about.

We get nibbles of raw wagyu bavette shaped into neat cylinders on chickpea crackers that have more than the whiff of a Big Mac about them once the crack-like gherkin ketchup kicks in, and the shortest of pastry casings holding a glorious almalgamation of pumpkin and smoked cheddar. A pumpkin pie, if you will. We take a prettily presented venison tartare where the meat fights for attention with roasted beetroot, pickled shallots, wasabi mayonaise, and can only just be heard. A quick word on the drinks pairing; if given the choice forgo the usual to take these – they stand as the most imaginative and successful pairings I have ever tried, anywhere. The plum and green chilli cocktail with this venison was not only delicious but sat perfectly with this course and the next; a crispy oyster boldly seasoned with tabasco, a punchy aioli, and puffed bits of potato seasoned with smoked paprika. The flavours in the opening two courses are massive. There is no gently easing you in here.

On paper duck teriyaki, foie gras, and pineapple left me drooling, so I was a little disappointed when it was my least favourite course of the afternoon. There was little wrong with it though it wasn’t as cohesive as the other courses, with a lengthy bitter finish I think from the powder of mustard leaf. Claire ate all of hers and half of mine so perhaps its just my jaded palate and miserable demenaour. We’re back on track with a tranche of plaice, so perfectly cooked it practically begged to reveal itself at the mere sight of a fork. What impresses me most about this is the balance; the mushrooms giving an almost surf and turf to the dish without the need for meat. The chimmichurri that coats the top of fish gives the dashi broth an extra layer of light as the flakes bob like jetsam.

The next two courses are special. First up is ‘N.A.F.B Quail’ which I understand to mean ‘Not A Fucking Balti’. Now go wash your mouth out, Alex. The quail is gently cooked with crisp skin but the real fun is elsewhere. A butter sauce that grows in stature in the mouth, puffed wild rice for texture and the samosa to end all samosas. A golden parcel of happiness, filled with braised leg meat and lentil dhaal. This is the best samosa I can recall eating, helped by a deep puree of date and tamarind. Another Fucking Samosa, Please (or A.F.S.P if we are to talk the same language). The following course of guinea fowl and celeriac is the same story: the breast is lovely, as are the various bits of celeriac, but the star sits to one side of the plate. A chou farci of forced meat wrapped in a fermented cabbage leaf, topped with hazelnut pesto and a disc of autumn truffle. It has it all. Pure heaven.

Our transition into the sweet side starts with chocolate speculoos sandwiching peanut ice cream and a centre of salted caramel. You filthy bastards, I love it. We move onto an elegant yogurt ice cream with fig leaf tuille, honey, and blueberries, paired with the most delicious take on a bellini, laced with honeysuckle and peach. Astonishingly good and our pick of the drinks. We conclude the meal with boozy ‘rummy bears’. It’s yet more playful adventure. It must be fun working here.

The bill arrives to the final crescendo of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chains’ and we note that we hardly have noticed any of the music in the last hour. And that there is the magic of The Wilderness. For all of the drama of the interiors and playlist, the attention grabbing star turns are left to the plate. The star parts of the meal – that chou farci and hazlenut pesto, the ice cream sandwich, the drinks pairings, and that samosa – are as good as anything you’ll have in the city. Sure it doesn’t always feel at complete ease with itself but that is part of the fun. It’s bold and eclectic, edge of the seat stuff that sits right on the boundary of bonkers and genius. There is nowhere in Birmingham remotely like here, and that level of bravery should be both admired and supported. This meal was even better than the last. It all sets it up rather nicely for Nocturnal Animals to open next month. I can’t wait to see how they progress.

The Wilderness

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars

Pictures by Nosh & Breks

The Wilderness, Birmingham

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

10/10

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