A quiet drip, drip, drip of rain, mottled sunlight streaming through a leafy canopy… you’d be forgiven for forgetting the proximity of Birmingham’s new shopping/transport colossus, Grand Central, just a mossy stone’s throw away.
And I glean that’s exactly what head chef Alex Claridge had hoped from The Wilderness – not only an immersive dining experience but a playful exploration of escapism, a mid-ground between childlike wonder and grown up tastebuds, a paradoxical space, opposite Adultworld and parallel to the markets, that captures Birmingham, celebrates it, then rejects it; instead pulling diners back into a hobbit-holed countryside through a blackened “forest”.
All that from a restaurant? Honestly, yes. I dare you to find another place where a dessert compels you to snapchat “same” this badly. At just £75 for the ‘Full Story’ menu (6 courses) plus matched drinks – the clue is in the name, with plenty of scope for witty captions ahead.
So here’s what to expect, though fit with a *spoiler alert* as the wow factor when your dish hits the table is something I don’t want to deprive you from. Think Netflix series Chef’s Table’s Massimo Bottura episode, and you’ll get what I mean.
The food began with the obligatory Bread & Butter as fortunately The Wilderness isn’t one of those establishments that scrimps you out of this dining out staple (because who does warm bread at home that isn’t toast?). B #1 was a lovely warm home-baked nutty brown roll topped with oats and B #2 a healthy quenelle of butter topped with salt flakes.
At £3 a pop the “snacks” on offer were practically unavoidable and we succumbed to the large canapés of crisp cod skin topped with creamy fresh crab, apple puree and dainty garlic flowers atop impossibly quaint pine cone adorned “moss”.
The main menu is split into 3 “chapters” and I’m pleased to confirm each chapter brought with it an additional dish ie., Chapter 1 = 1 dish, Chapter 2 = 2 dishes… you get the drift.
“Dusk falling on a Northern beach”
Raw Scallop – Cooked Scallop
Embers, Cauliflower, Apple, Sea Herbs.
The scene is set with my favourite drink of the evening, the Green Gimlet encompassing Slingsby gin, cold brew green tea & gooseberry. I picture a boat trip, culminating in barbeques atop rolling sand dunes. A raw scallop tartar muddled with caviar is paired with a golden-crusted fried scallop – still tender inside – modestly seasoned with “Embers from the fire” alongside kohlrabi, shallots, cauliflower x apple puree, squid ink, stonecrop sprayed with a silver sheen & a frond of seaweed.
“Into the Woods”
Barely cooked Asparagus, Wood Sorrel, Burford Brown Yolk
Fellow Bab-maggers at the Issue #1 launch at Boxxed may remember this course’s paired drink – those precious little black cans that had even midnight owls ready to grab a cold, refreshing worm when doors opened that night. And understandably! Not usually a beer drinker myself, Birmingham Lager is nonetheless light, not over carbonated and exactly the beverage any lumbersexual worth his mettle would accompany to a trip to the woods.
But it’s the egg that steals the show here. Conjuring a setting sun with it’s dark, famously orange yolk and almost gelatinous after two hours cooking sous vide at 64°. A texture between custard and butter, this left an incredibly tender yolk that would never succumb to a chin drip, going from over-liquid to a dried crust in the blink of an eye. This firmer incarnation of a confit yolk also served well as a ‘glue’ keeping the beetroot-dusted pearl barley, crunchy asparagus and clover-like wood sorrel together for perfect mini canapés with each forkful.
When reading goat, put thoughts of stew and curried out of your mind immediately. This delicate, pan-fried rendition uses Kid loin – more akin to pork, in both colour and texture. The meat is tender and slightly earthy keeping this as a surprisingly subtle dish, not requiring masses of spice and add-ons; just a light jus leaving space to appreciate the heritage carrot ribbons & puree, very lightly pickled radish and wasabi-hinted dittander leaves. A dish perhaps not too difficult to imagine being recreated over a portable stove following some casual foraging.
NV Reserve Brut Cava
The Ants got to the Tart First
Cava was a befitting choice for the most photogenic, and possibly my favourite course of the evening. Playfully served in wide necked glasses rather than flutes, like a precursor for the strangeness of the first of our three “desserts”.
Dessert or cheese course? A cheddar crust housing a custard-like tart, topped with lightly brûléed brown sugar and edible flowers could have opened the sweet/savoury debate for the transition. But it didn’t, the garnish (?) took care of that. Wood ants. But this infamous diner divider is much more than a novelty. The ants marching up to the pastry are also the resolution between the sweet and salt of the dish, adding a sharp, citrusy zing in place of lemon, rhubarb or apple – as so frequently seen in tarts – rendering the clever insect addition a picnic triumph rather than a blanket disguise.
A worrying name and probably an equally worrying description to come… But don’t let that put you off! This beer could only be described as where lager meets white wine but in a totally. albeit oddly, acceptable way. The tart, refreshing bite marries well with the jammy dodger’s apple reincarnation. Crumbling apple shortbread, sandwiched around a smooth crème and a blob of appley curd in the center of the ring was the most grown up biscuit I’ve ever had, without any plasticky jam in sight.
If “Oh Bollocks” is an ice cream then the Aleatico Dolce acts as a very adult raspberry sauce – sticky, like a rosé port but more summery, adding a richness to the deceivingly delicate-tasting dessert. My adult brain also thought the dish reminded me of a more relatable version of “Oops! I’ve dropped the lemon tart!” (that infamous Massimo Bottura dish) once my initial regression rescinded, along with the childish giggle that I had failed to suppress when the dish was presented.
Because in Alex’s own words “We’ve all been there” – whether it’s at age eight, or eighty eight the combination of sunny whims, often by a blustery sea creates the perfect environment for that “bollocks” moment with your unfortunate 99, but at the Wilderness; it’s positive bollocks. The ice cream is a silken mousse, so it doesn’t melt while you’re snapping away for the perfect insta, the cone a crisp yet smooth biscuit that laughs in the face of sogginess, while the light strawberry compote splats and seeps out around it like delicious fake blood, topped with freeze dried strawberries and the ubiquitous flake.
I’m sure I’m not alone in the feeling that every new restaurant these days claims to channel a “new concept of dining”. Whether it’s the viral @WeWantPlates phenomena chronologising the worst of “creative” tableware including iPads, shovels and dustbin lids or the explosion of deliveroo & the demand for your favourite restaurant dishes enjoyed “in situ” at your office desk – it’s hard for diners to draw the line between unusual, gimmicky and plain trend-riding.
But Nomad’s latest evolution “The Wilderness” finds itself firmly on the right side of that line. With this much drink mixing, the environment is jolly enough to forgive laughing, dropping and licking the plate, and the only blurred lines here are between what constitutes food, what constitutes art and when can we finally call one the other?
The Wilderness says, soon.
Photos Inès Elsa Dalal