When I think back to the three best dinners of my life, the common thread through all was that I experienced tastes and textures, levels of service and comfort that I’d never previously enjoyed. And so the three star Ledoyen, in Paris, blew me away by serving beetroot macarons and a piece of beef that tasted unlike any meat I’d previously eaten. They did so in a setting that was indubitably regal; we imagined our fellow guests might be royals, heads of states and the like. The three star Araki, in London, cast a similar spell; transporting my partner and I to new and distant lands that were joyous and memorable. The absurdly-good Ynyshir, near Machynlleth, was more front-seat-at-a-rock concert than dinner at a conventional restaurant; with a rock’n’roll soundtrack, a seat in the kitchen and food sent by the Gods.
When my partner and I visited Carter’s, the experience was similar. Flavours, textures and ingredient combinations were new and daring; I felt as though there were a party on my tongue, as if someone had organised a culinary pyrotechnic display that dazzled and enlivened. And that experience – one where both my partner and I experienced new and previously unimagined flavours – came amid the warmest, friendliest and most convivial backdrop I’ve known.
For many, many years; my favourite restaurant was Mr Underhill’s, at Ludlow. Stepping through the doors a few times each year felt like coming home. The same sensation applies at Carter’s, in Moseley, just outside Birmingham, where the sincerity of smiles and greetings makes dining the most relaxing and enjoyable experience imaginable.
The man behind the stove is used to serving dishes for a TV audience of millions. Brad Carter is at home cooking for Richard Curtis, the creator of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill and Blackadder, as he is harvesting beetroot at his local allotment or passing a particularly smooth sauce through a sieve. A bearded hipster of Birmingham stock, he’s one of the most exciting and remarkable chefs in the UK; a kid who came up from the streets and through sheer hard work, force of will, personality and determination has re-imagined his former self as a trail-blazing gourmand who can mix it at the highest level.
And while that’s deeply exciting and utterly remarkable, arguably the most interesting thing about Brad is this: you get the sense he’s still not done, as though he’s still got mountains to climb, hits to write, new ventures to conceive of. He’s a culinary alchemist, a man who takes base metal and turns it to gold. And my partner and I enjoyed one of the best evenings of recent years when we stopped off for a midweek supper for two.
Carter’s does more than deliver great food and service, it also has a unique and globally-renowned wine list. Natural wines fill a vast cabinet on the Carter’s wall, giving diners the opportunity to experience additive-free wines made as they might have been centuries ago. So my partner enjoyed clever pairings from a unique list that is one of the most remarkable and ecologically-friendly in the world.
We’ve 400 words to try to get through dinner. Here goes.
Carter’s starts with a range of snacks; a breath-taking chicken liver cereal – the chef’s playful version of chicken liver parfait – which combines a beautifully light, whipped parfait with crunchy, sweet granola. Sweet and savoury, light and clever, crunchy and smooth; it set the tone for a dinner that was subtle, sophisticated, charming and delightful.
Herring in Worcestershire sauce was a very British, one-bite sashimi while a Porthilly oyster cooked in beef fat was beguiling. The oyster had been poached and then its shell tied with a small piece of string; making it look like a surprise Christmas gift. The jewel inside was sensational; the best of the sea with the best of the land. Our snacks finished with a flavour sensation; raw kohlrabi, pine and salad burnet. Refreshing, vibrant and intense, it was a palate-cleansing coda to a remarkable beginning.
Exceptional country bread followed with a whipped Tamworth Pig fat butter before we were sent out on an eight-course voyage. Cornish mackerel with preserved British yuzu was stunning. The mackerel tasted as though it had just been landed while the citrusy yuzu was knock-your-socks-off good. Next came one of Brad’s Saturday Kitchen dishes – one he cooked to convert the non-shellfish-eating Richard Curtis back onto molluscs. Razor clams were cut into tiny pieces, almost like pieces of pasta, before being served in a broth of Old Winchester cheese and pepper dulse. The broth was magical, like a culinary hug. We’d have happily ordered another bowl or three and stopped right there. It was drop dead gougères – or at least, it had the flavour of them.
Gigha halibut with smoked roe buttermilk was electrifying. Soft beneath the fork, almost mousse-like, it had been cooked with rare skill while the smoked roe and buttermilk was intense and evocative.
A Ryeland mutton dumpling with mint sauce was the acme of comfort food. The suet dumpling was light and deeply satisfying while the mutton had an intensity and earthiness that spring lamb can never match. The main, a best end of Ryeland mutton, was served with coastal plants and seaweed, showcased the sweet meat of Herefordshire to excellent effect; with bitter, salty leaves providing perfect contrast.
A cheese course followed – roasted potato, truffle honey and meltingly flavoursome Rollright cheese. Heaven. In a bowl. I can still taste it now. And then it was onto desserts. Chefs probably know they’ve made it when they get a nut named after them, which is what happened to Brad Carter and a unique, British variant of cob nuts. We’d never tasted anything quite so sweet and, well, nutty. It was served with dreamy birchwood ice cream and a squish of better-than-maple-syrup birch sap.
The finale was a milky, barley pudding with Yorkshire rhubarb. It was transcendent. Better than Richard Corrigan’s Michelin-starred rice pudding and cut through with the sweet acidity of new season Yorkshire rhubarb, it was an exquisite end to our evening.
Service was impeccable – Holly Jackson and Alex Smith being ably assisted by a youthful and talented waiter – while the food was remarkable. We were still smiling 48 hours after leaving the restaurant and, like all of the best dinners, our evening at Carter’s will remain in our memories for some years. Restaurants that good are hard to find – we’re blessed that here in the West Midlands we can eat at a place that’s one of the most original, engaged, warm and flavoursome in Europe. Lucky us.