It started badly. And then it got worse.
Chaotic, disorganised and lacking any sort of atmosphere; dinner at Craft Dining Rooms was an experience it’s best to forget.
The ambience was poor, the lighting awful, the service chaotic – with one notable exception – and the food less than underwhelming – again, with one notable exception.
The bill was steep, our expectations fell short. Man, in a city that’s the culinary equivalent of Barcelona, Craft Dining Rooms is looking to get a place on the subs bench for Dudley Town FC.
The restaurant opened in a cavernous space in the ICC, just a few doors down from the beautiful Symphony Hall, in a unit formerly occupied by the now-defunct Strada. Perhaps it was a bad night. Perhaps we – and other diners that evening – were just unlucky. Who can say? Though on the evidence of our dinner a deux, if it’s to last the course it needs to make improvements, and soon.
We booked via OpenTable – though other apps are available – after a last-minute decision to eat out. There were plenty of tables available, though we were sat in a dim-lit corner surrounded by grey walls and to the rear of furniture.
Another couple were placed at an adjacent table shortly after. Unlike us, they had the foresight to ask to be moved to a different part of the dining room, which they duly were.
The tables at the rear were clearly the worst – grey, lifeless, like eating inside a fridge – and when we left, three other tables in the main part of the dining room remained not-in-use. A smarter restaurant would sit people at tables that don’t appear to be an afterthought.
Having sat down, two different waitresses visited our table in the space of a minute to tell us that they were our waitress for the evening and would be looking after us. Clearly, one of them wouldn’t be.
We were handed the set menu, which had minimal choice and was decidedly unexciting. We made our selections, and, having done, so scoured the rest of the restaurant to see people selecting from more extensive menus. We asked for similar, which we received, and replaced our order – trying to play ball by sticking to some of the selections we’d previously ordered.
We were told that customers booking by phone automatically got the short, set menu; though there seemed to be no reason for that. The diners at the adjacent table – the smart ones, who asked to be moved – were treated similarly. Again, they turned down the short menu and asked for something more interesting.
We’d imagined the food would make up for the lack of organisation and awful atmosphere. It didn’t. Our snacks and starters were served at the same time; so we found ourselves faced with four plates of food, rather than two.
The quality was poor. A ham and cheese croquette was disastrously over-seasoned so that the dominant taste was of salt. A buttermilk, fried chicken with mango chutney was pleasant, if not particularly innovative or rewarding. Quail Scotch eggs were good, the meat full of flavour and the yolk still runny. BBQ prawns were decent, lovingly scorched and served with a swish of avocado.
The mains were the acme of mediocrity. She ate a lamb rump with sauce and veg. The lamb was fine, the veg wasn’t and a couple of pieces of greenery were still hard and raw.
My beef wellington was the evening’s greatest disappointment. A tender fillet was deliciously cooked but the mushroom duxelles was woefully underseasoned. A layer of flaccid, uncooked pastry acted as the middleman between the meat and the outer pastry; it was the sort of execution that the judges on MasterChef would have sneered at.
On a forgettable evening, there were two high points. One was a slim, youthful European waitress who was charming, engaging, polite and eager to please. Showing passion and determination to get it right, she led where others fell.
The desserts were also utterly magnificent. Craft has taken on a pastry chef who cut his teeth at the Michelin-starred Adam’s – and his work showed others what they might one day aspire to.
A carrot cake trifle was a carnival in a glass; each element had been re-imagined and re-thought, making the dish better than the original. The dish was a little like Johnny Cash’s Hurt, against the version by Nine Inch Nails; or The Beatles’ Twist And Shout, against the original by The Isley Brothers. For the first time that evening, our senses were enlivened, our interest piqued.
My partner’s dish, a blackberry slice, was similarly delicious. A blackberry gel that topped the dish was intense and bursting with flavour, the presentation was as pretty as a picture on a plate, and the flavours sang in perfect harmony.
Craft Dining Rooms will soon welcome a shiny new chef – the former four AA rosette-awarded Karl Martin, from Ludlow. He has his work cut out.
At present, Craft Dining Rooms has the whiff of a restaurant that doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Martin will need to improve both the menu and the standard of food; for presently it simply doesn’t pass muster.
The good quality waitress and brilliant pastry chef help Craft Dining Rooms to avoid an ignominious mark, but there is a huge amount of work to be done.
The interior is suggestive of fine dining – and the desserts are certainly that. Yet the menu is mostly funked-up versions of bistro classics. It’s a mish-mash, a hotch-potch, a venue that doesn’t have a clearly defined direction.
Restaurants are up against it as Brexit brings huge uncertainty and a period of change, and Craft Dining Rooms needs to provide a clearer offering and offer food that is consistent and appealing.
One can only guess at the investment that has been poured into the building, while wondering at the grey interior and awful, awful lighting and the unimaginative, poorly seasoned food.
Birmingham has a dazzling collection of brilliant restaurants. Craft Dining Rooms isn’t one of them.