Have you ever wondered what it would be like if punk rock met fine dining? Then you may want to take a trip to The Wilderness. We went along to try out the city’s hottest restaurant and catch up with head chef Alex Claridge.
Words: Becky Weaver
There’s no denying that this city isn’t short of choice of spectacular places to eat, we’ve tried and tested quite a few of them, but The Wilderness seemed a cut above the rest.
Dudley Street isn’t the most attractive part of Birmingham to walk through, so you wouldn’t expect one of the most intriguing restaurants to be housed there. We arrive outside The Wilderness on a rather wet Thursday afternoon and within seconds we were eager to get inside. The concealed entrance is covered in black tree branches and doesn’t give too much away; straight away we know that we’re about to embark on a dining experience like no other.
If you’ve heard of The Wilderness, you probably know it as the outlandish restaurant that serves ants – it does and they’re delicious – but it’s also so much more than that. Ants aside, it’s a creative space that is pushing the culinary experience of fine dining to a whole new level; trust us when we say you won’t have come across anything like it before.
Owned by Head Chef Alex Claridge, who’s passion for food is so inspiring it’s almost infectious – which probably explains why our brief chat with him lasts over an hour – The Wilderness is rapidly making a name for itself and attracting diners from across the country.
The reason why people are flocking here comes as no surprise to us, our entire dining experience from beginning to end is a triumph. The lunch menu named ‘Things Fall Apart’ is £35 for five courses and an additional £25 if you want to include drinks – which we completely recommend if you want to get the most out of your experience. It’s worth every penny you pay, honestly.
The staff are knowledgeable and informative, whilst maintaining a welcoming personality and take the time to actually get to know you and your story, whether you’re there for a special occasion or simply because you’re intrigued by what The Wilderness has to offer.
The dining space, which holds 24, is kitted out like a forest – even the white tiles that cover the walls expose hints of moss – never has fine dining been so immersive. It’s a relaxed environment to sit in, at no point do you ever feel like you shouldn’t belong here, yet the restaurant still manages to effortlessly ooze luxury.
Having relaunched earlier in the year, Alex and his team are planning to expand in January. “It’s still quite young for us, we don’t want to go massive,” he says. “I want to keep the restaurant small so that I can continue to have a dialogue with diners. We’re going to create more space to make people feel as comfortable as they can. We want to have this theatrical space that people can really appreciate.
“We’re always looking at more intriguing ways of engaging people and ways to share a piece of us with them because that’s what life’s all about. I want people to understand that we’re trying to create something that goes beyond food.”
For Alex making sure that his guests enjoy every element of their experience is crucial, and to us, he seems incredibly humbled by the response The Wilderness has received. “People travel from all over the country to come and visit little old us, which is really lovely but it actually terrifies me slightly,” he says. “On a Saturday we have a full restaurant with around 40 to 50 people on a waiting list who want to come and spend time with us and that’s so cool for me, it’s something that continues to give me goosebumps.”
Now, the food; each plate is so picturesque that part of you doesn’t want to destroy it, yet when you do it speaks to you in ways that you never imagined. We laughed, we cried, we smiled – never had eating lunch felt like such an emotional roller coaster that you normally experience in a long-term relationship.
“We’re trying to cook the best food that we can, a lot of our kitchen is Michelin background, and people want to work at that level, but we’re not trying to do exclusive, it’s not for me. We want it to be an inclusive luxury. The restaurant is built on classic foundations and our cooking isn’t actually as mad as people think it is.
“We treat all of our ingredients with respect, the only difference is that we’re trying to present classical things in a nostalgic way where we look back on the past and respect and love our food for what it is, but in a hyper-modern sense where you can also make people look at food in a new way with a broader context.”
Each menu is all about evoking memories, the food takes you to places you forgot about and introduces you to new ways of living in the moment that you never thought were possible. “The Wilderness is always evolving depending on how I feel, but it has got a vague sense of what we’re trying to articulate creatively, which I think stems from the fact that there is food and drink which I find personally deeply evocative,” Alex says.
The dishes have quirky names that reflect the personality of the restaurant and are inspired by everything from Brexit to the destruction of the city’s beloved old library. “We’ve taken an approach to having dishes that are expressive,” Alex adds. “It all collides in this mishmash which fortunately people seem to support and understand. The more challenging things we create tend to be what diners seem most drawn to.”
And the dishes are certainly challenging; the tastes, textures and smells make you really question the meaning behind the dish, they toy with your emotions in ways that you can’t imagine. “The idea of playing with memories and manipulating the senses to look at elements of the dish and how they appear to other people is a great way to stir something within them and bring them back to a social environment.
“We want the food to be delicious, but we also want it to have a context or purpose because otherwise it’s just cooking.”
Creating dishes that hold a context is something that’s really important to Alex and his team, and in our opinion, it’s what makes The Wilderness thrive. “Our Christmas menu is called ‘Terrible Lies We Tell Small Children’ and it’s a really cool menu; the final course looks like a piece of coal served in a cracker.
“We’re taking all these traditional things and we want to present them in delicious ways and make them a little bit different. We need to stop following these traditional myths and create our own.
“I think it’s going to be a long process but we see everything as a collaboration with our guests, we’re not suddenly going to go super-abstract and I believe that people will continue to follow us and see that we’re not complete nut jobs, we’re doing things because we think that it’s the right thing for us to do.”
To book a table at The Wilderness visit wearethewilderness.co.uk or call 0121 643 2673