The Wilderness, Birmingham: restaurant review
Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Local reviewer Richard McComb and olive reader Jon Perks compare notes on The Wilderness, Birmingham
Richard McComb is a Birmingham-based journalist, writer and restaurant reviewer. Find him tweeting @mccomb
Jon Perks lives in Worcester, works in PR and counts the lamb shank in mustard sauce at Birmingham’s Lasan as his favourite restaurant dish.
After a successful stint running a pop-up restaurant (then called Nomad), Chef Alex Claridge decided to give his venture a permanent home – in an artfully transformed unit at the back of Birmingham’s New Street station. It is an immersive space decked in foliage, tree trunks, faux moss and leafy canopies to give diners the impression of eating in a forest; there’s even rain trickling down the windows.
Chef Alex Claridge aims to tell stories with the modern British food he serves – most ingredients have been grown and picked by the team. Choose from a six- or eight-course menu, including playful dishes such as a line of actual ants approaching a cheddar cheese custard tart. There’s also an eclectic drinks menu run by Robert Wood, of 40 St. Paul’s gin bar in Birmingham, offering cocktails such as Wild G&T, made with pea-and-mint-infused gin. wearethewilderness.co.uk
The Wilderness is an intimate restaurant festooned in faux moss, branches and leaves – a mash-up of new Nordic meets Middle Earth. Chefs with tweezers finish dishes in the dining room and smart staff kitted in black have decent product knowledge. However, a waiter’s comment that “we hate wine companies” grates. *I’m pretty certain that I’m recognised.
The staff instantly put you at ease; our two servers struck the perfect balance between always being there when you needed something and not being intrusive. Our waiter had interesting back stories for each dish, and his colleague demonstrated good knowledge of the wines when we asked for more detail.
Six- or eight-course tasting-style menus are delivered in three chapters: Beach, Forest and Picnic 2009. But, as the lamb in the ‘Forest’ is actually Welsh salt marsh-bred, shouldn’t it be in the ‘Beach’? The lamb is served with ‘green things’ including shiny broad beans, lightly pickled romanesco and wild watercress purée. The jus is lamb-packed but the loin is overcooked.
A starter of candied and purple beetroot, pickled kohlrabi, goat’s curd and clever, crisp potato pillows infused with nori powder, is balanced and beautifully plated. Visual presentation is strong throughout. However, scallops cooked under embers backfires. The under-caramelised molluscs are obliterated, ditto the cauliflower purée, while ‘embers’ turn out to be bread coloured with squid ink that just tastes, well, burnt.
The hyped ‘best part of the chicken’ is a sliver of chicken skin. The accompanying egg yolk is a 64-degrees job, water-bathed for something like 15 days, so it has a paste-like texture. A silky, runny yolk might have better helped the bitter jus.
The first of the ‘Picnic’ courses evokes the horror of ants crawling over a pudding. The petrified Kentish wood crawlers attack a sweet, pastry tart filled with a cheddar cheese custard topped with caramelised shallots and flowers. It’s a cheese course masquerading as a dessert. The ants are meant to taste lemony but provide a tongue-curling burst of formic acid. Best left to Bear Grylls.
But then there is a lavender-infused crème anglaise, where the powerful scent is restrained and counter-pointed with melty beetroot meringues and luscious late summer fruits. It’s lovely.
If you were wondering if it’s worth upgrading from six to eight courses for an extra £15 per person, do. Those two extra courses – mackerel, rhubarb and ‘little pig’; and a lavender/beetroot dessert – were among the best. Not that there are any duffers, mind. Even the Guinness and oat bread roll merits a mention. We ran out of superlatives to feed back to the kitchen each time an empty plate was cleared.
The seasonal menu – divided into chapters (Beach, Forest, Picnic 2009) – included wonderful dishes of scallop, bacon jam and ‘ashes’ (toast shavings with squid ink) and pink, tender and juicy Welsh lamb with summer greens and pearl barley. The latter sums up chef Alex Claridge’s light touch with textures and ingredients.
The beetroot meringue kisses are a good example of Claridge’s flavour-pairing skills – a mere suggestion of earthy flavour to go with floral lavender crème anglaise. Delicious.
Perhaps the most talked-about course is the cheese tart, with its trail of wood ants. Their citrus tang complementing the rich cheddar custard. Unconventional and clever, we thought. There was more humour with the final dish, ‘Oh Bollocks’, which perfectly resembled a dropped ‘99’ ice cream, cone and all. We left entertained, content and replete.
The bottom line
There’s ambition worth applauding here but the delivery can lack coherence. This sort of cooking requires exemplary skills. That said, it had only been open for four months when I ate there – and there’s enough on offer for me to want to return.
Total for one, excluding service: £60
Look beyond the unglamorous setting (inside an art gallery in the shadow of John Lewis), and The Wilderness becomes a weird and wonderful delight. A relaxed atmosphere, quirky surroundings, great staff and food you’ll be talking about for days.
Total for two, excluding service £137.50
In a restaurant where the chef, Alex Claridge, claims to have learned to cook from gardeners not chefs, it’s not surprising that foraged items feature heavily on the daily changing menu. Whether it’s meadowsweet or raspberries, a number of dishes on any given day could include foraged food. None of the food is imported and the menu relies heavily on very carefully sourced produce, like the hand-dived Scottish scallops. If it’s a steak you’re craving, then best to look elsewhere as Alex decided some time ago not to serve beef because of its hefty impact on the environment.
The same care and attention goes into the drinks craft beers are from a brewery literally down the road and Black Cow vodka made with the waste whey from cheese-making, is a key component of the cocktails.
Where Wilderness falls down slightly is back of house. There are currently no measures in place to monitor or reduce energy, water or waste.