Food review: Lose yourself in The Wilderness

Andy Richardson enjoys a rock soundtrack along with exquisite yet playful dishes at a restaurant in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

milk and honey
milk and honey

Alex Claridge would be keen to deflect attention for his rock’n’roll fine dining restaurant, The Wilderness. It is, he might say, all about the team. And, indeed, The Wilderness has an exceptional group who are greater than the sum of their parts. Recognisable faces populate the front of house team, providing the highest quality service.

Guests are made to feel comfortable, front of house staff are knowledgeable, experienced and engaged; there is character and charisma by the bucketload.

The same is true of the kitchen brigade. It’s riven with quality as a well-trained and highly-skilled group create distinctive, well-balanced courses that make for delightful eating.

Hot Lips

They are well looked after, too. In an era where the number of kitchen scandals has become tedious and where some chef-patrons still employ the out-dated, out-moded alpha male tactics that send so many scurrying for cover, Claridge walks a different path.

Offering professional mental health counselling, exceptional pay and conditions; he’s an ultra-modern boss who invests in his staff, putting his money where his mouth is and setting the highest standards.

Good leadership is rare in British kitchens; Claridge has the intelligence, skills and desire to make that his priority.

And so, having assembled a team of talented individuals and having created the conditions in which they can work side-by-side, Claridge can look at the bigger picture. He can focus on the guest experience, making sure his restaurant provides a unique and memorable adventure for those who cross the threshold.

The Wilderness

The Wilderness is located in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. It’s a suitable location for a gastronomic emporium that offers the highest standards but is intrinsically raw.

The polish and high levels of production that are part of the experience at a small number of similarly exclusive restaurants in the Second City is gleefully absent at The Wilderness.

And so there’s no need to mind p’s and q’s.

The Wilderness is edgy and cool, it’s a restaurant in which guests can relax and be themselves.

Individuality is celebrated, everything is done to help guests to relax.

Graffiti on the walls

The interior is exceptional. Black walls, an exposed ceiling and large Velux windows mean the space is flooded with natural light.

There’s white graffiti on the black walls; it feels like the sort of place that Joy Division’s Ian Curtis might have created were he a restaurateur in 2021 – a leap of imagination, admittedly, though not so wide of the mark.

The dining room is open plan and the quiet efficiency of the kitchen team is striking. A head chef is calm personified, his charges working efficiently around him. There is dignity and a sense of grace.

In an age of dysfunctional kitchens and shouty chefs, it’s wonderful to see.

Elderflower with pea

The same can be said for the front of house team. Four staff were patrolling the dining room when my partner and I called for a Friday afternoon lunch.

The two lead members were remarkably knowledgeable about drinks – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic – while they received good support from young, up-coming talents.

The soundtrack was what you’d expect – and hope for – from the UK’s most rock’n’roll fine dining restaurant.

Wagyu beef with peppercorn sauce

Black Sabbath, AC/DC and assorted rock and punk tunes that were shocking in the 1970s and 1980s but which are now so much a part of our collective experience that they’re as at home on BBC Radio 2.

Still, makes a welcome change from acoustic songs from Coldplay.

Smoky new potato salad

There’s a great vibe at The Wilderness. It feels like a place to see and be seen. The region needs a diverse restaurant scene, one in which different owners can celebrate their differences and portray their own visions.

The environment was beguiling, the service celebratory and the food downright special. Dishes were both clever and memorable. There was imagination and creativity in plates that worked well on the palette and will last long in the memory.

We started with a new take on gazpacho, which used strawberries and eel.

Gazpacho with eel

Frankly, it was delicious. The sweet acidity of the strawberry gave the dish an unexpected tartness while the eel offered ballast and real punch.

The next dish, pea and elderflower, was among the best I’ve eaten in recent years. Clever, seasonal, original and subtle, it was a playful and imaginative take on two of the lightest and most fragrant ingredients presently in season. A cold, elderflower granita covered tiny, shelled peas and a little juice in a sensationally light, sweet and refreshing dish. It was a good a plate of food as you’ll find at any restaurant in Birmingham. Clever, playful, flavoursome and memorable; it was the classiest of plates – a dish that captured our attention and left us rapt.

Alex Claridge, however, has ever been capable of such moments of borderline genius. From his earliest days in the city, he’s been able to make magic with the humblest of ingredients.

Banana - paying homage to Velvet Underground

Next up was a masterclass. A fillet of cod had been beautifully poached in butter so that it was as tender as jelly. Still translucent, the flakes fell apart. Thin slithers of ham, tiny fronds of dried seaweed and an intense broth made it compelling eating.

Perfectly aligned components, stunning seasoning and exacting presentation showcased the skills of the kitchen team.

A main course of waygu beef was indulgent. Cooked on a BBQ so that it was seared and scorched but still pink within, its yielding, fat-rich flavour was cut through with a peppercorn sauce of rare distinction.

Bat - viva Ozzy Osbourne

And so to desserts. An Andy Warhol-meets-Velvet Underground banana was full of caramel and peanut butter. Delicious. Gone in three bites. An Ozzy Osbourne-esque black bat was also crammed with sweet goodness while a milk and honey dessert was at the same level as the cod and elderflower dishes.

There is exceptional cooking at The Wilderness – certainly on a par with that available at Birmingham’s Michelin-starred restaurants – while the experience is unique. For those seeking an unfussy and informal dining experience, for those who take food seriously but don’t take themselves too seriously, there’s probably no better place to eat. Spectacular. A straight 10.

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