Moving from the rough and ready location on Dudley Street opposite a rather seedy sex shop, to a hideaway in the Jewellery Quarter, has had a refining effect not only on The Wilderness’s interior but also on the menu. Chef proprietor Alex Claridge’s food, which we’ve eaten at half a dozen venues over the past six years, matches that of the city’s other best restaurants, and still retains his rather quirky style. Teaming up now with cocktail savant James Bowker, an evening at The Wilderness is full of surprising food and drink, served by competent and friendly waiting staff.
After finding the restaurant, a Diagon alley style hideout in our historic Jewellery Quarter, we took aperitifs in the intimate lounge before dinner, having a Marketplace Negroni (less bitter and suitable for Negroni newcomers), and a Lunch Box Old Fashioned. The Old Fashioned brought to mind Willy Wonka’s three course dinner chewing gum; bourbon smokiness turned in to caramel stickiness which gave way to sea salt, and then just when you thought it had revealed all its secrets the lightest pleasant tang of malt vinegar arrives. Such a clever drink, and one that James took to Diageo World Class GB Finals 2018.
In terms of menu options, there’s a short and a long taster menu with matching short and long drinks pairings. Note the emphasis on “drinks pairing” rather than “wine”, because the interesting pairings including a couple of cocktails. We opted for the long dinner menu (£80) with the full drinks pairing (£40).
The eating marathon started with three amuse bouche (which the world has decided are now called chef’s snacks). Number one being a very clever steak tartare “Big Mac”; though unrecognisable from the golden arch’s version, the tasty tang of my favourite hangover food was definitely there, with gherkin gel, onion, and a sesame crisp base. I could’ve had a dozen of those for dinner, and as it opened the meal I had a feeling It was going to go well. Next snack was a silky smokey parmesan custard tart in a fine crispy crust. Then a final snack of quail yuk sung on crispy brioche before we were on to the main events, another ten small plates.
The first of those plates was tomato, ricotta, and elderflower. Chef Alex is a whizz with a vegetable, having run vegetarian kitchens in a couple of places before he had his own restaurant. Consequently his veggie dishes are always delicious and considered, never an afterthought. Fresh tomato was served with shards of dried tomato, ricotta,
perfumed elderflower granita, and Thai basil. Alpngside, a “Herb Garden Spritz” cocktail with Absentroux, a French ingredient new to me, a wine with absinthe flavours, great with the fresh flavours of the dish.
Then on to the duck. The plate was dramatic, covered with beetroot powder, with a glassy pool of sauce of black fruits, and tender duck with a hit of smoke. This combination was finished with the drink pairing of plum sake with the lightest touch of green chilli. The next dish was equally as pretty, a luscious deep fried oyster with tobasco, smoked sweet paprika, aioli, and crunchy puffed pork crackling, served with a viognier-traminer.
With another seven courses to go, you can see that this was quite an evening, and it’s worth noting at this point, before we go on to the final push, that we really like the restaurant interior. It’s modern but cosy, with low lighting and music that is more than just background but that adds to the experience. It certainly wasn’t loud (unlike an unruly table the waiting staff did a great job of managing) but it was enough so that intimate conversations could be had over the strains of The Cure, Guns N’ Roses, and The Cranberries.
So. Onwards, the next plate was NAFB, the B stands for Balti and I’ll leave you to guess the rest of the initialism. The quail samosa was crisp and the inside succulent. The tamarind, crunchy puffed rice, and cucumber foam and powder was a great combination and perfect with the liquorice tinted Carmenère. Next came the BBQ plaice with Manteca pig fat. Then on to the rose veal with mushroom ketchup, basil puree, and tempura courgette, while I liked the components this was the only dish that didn’t float my boat, with the presence of anchovy at odds with the overall effect.
Then on to the sweet courses, starting with a peanut butter ice cream sandwich which was adored by the other half but which I avoided as peanut butter is bleugh. Then a zero-waste blueberry dish (which I failed to take ingredient details of – the previous half dozen drinks had clearly kicked in at this point) served with the most delicious peach and honeysuckle bellini (“peach-leaf washed vermouth” is as delicious as it sounds). A penultimate chocolate course with caramel, cream, and crunch, was my kind of dinner ending. And finally……. the overproof rum gummy bear which could send a lesser man to his drunkenness. Hic.
A veritable tour de force of clever food and clever booze, and an evolution of Alex’s food and style, and one you should not miss.
Soon you’ll have more of an opportunity to see what Alex and James have to offer as they open a more affordable dining room at their new 80s style bar, Nocturnal Animals, on Bennetts Hill. They’re so passionate about their crafts, and both have such energy and excitement for their new venue it’s infectious, for me, it’s one of the most exciting venue openings in Birmingham in years.
So I guess that means my Alex fanboi status continues, get to The Wilderness ASAP, try James’ brilliant cocktails, and don’t fail to visit Nocturnal Animals when it opens.