Carters Of Moseley, 2c Wake Green Road, Moseley, Birmingham B13 9EZ. Tel: 0121 449 8885
Why, really, do people go to restaurants?
You would hope the answer would include the phrase “good food” but this is by no means a given. Priorities vary, especially the priorities of silly people. There are, as there always have been, places that people go to just to be seen. The quality of the custard isn’t what counts.
The historic problem with Birmingham’s restaurant scene is that there have been far too many showboaters, where the bill for soft furnishings and wallpaper has outstripped the budget for the kitchen fit out and the appointment of the chef’s brigade. Unless you can sell cheap food at a significantly higher price than you bought it – to a lot of customers – this is an unsustainable business model.
Independent restaurants, which fall into the hospitality category known as “endangered species,” are on a hiding to nothing if they pursue such a policy. They simply cannot compete with the buying power and taxpayer-underwritten bank loans of the big name brands and the chains. In a sense, this makes the indies’ task clearer, if not easier: they know that they will live or die on the quality of the chef’s cooking. Pimped up surroundings help, but it’s really not necessary to call in a feng shui consultant because the food’s the thing. Get it right and diners will make the effort to grace your door, pretty much wherever that happens to be. Even Moseley.
The last time I tried to eat in Moseley it was full, so I gave up and fled before the smell of scented candles permeated the car’s upholstery. Have you noticed that in Moseley? The air is thick with the essence of patchouli, lemongrass and cedarwood. It’s a little known fact that Moseley has the highest consumption of essential oils – and joss sticks – of any suburb in Birmingham.
The time before the time Moseley was full, I went to Carters and had an enjoyable set lunch. This was about a year ago. The restaurant, which opened in November 2010, is run by chef/patron Brad Carter and partner Holly Jackson, who should run classes in helpful, non-cloying front of house service. She’s a breath of fresh air.
Carter, 29, who learnt his craft at the former Birmingham College of Food and has cooked in France and Spain, has a growing reputation and is well regarded by that most hard-to-please crowd: Birmingham’s own chefs. Some of them have even eaten at his restaurant in Wake Green Road. Praise indeed.
I was keen to return to Carters and prayed it would be good because Birmingham is crying out for good neighbourhood restaurants. The momentum behind the city’s rising culinary profile will rapidly run out of puff if the top end restaurants continue to stand so perilously unsupported by a critical mass of sparkling independents. The balance is fragile but there is hope for the future, thanks to places like Carters.
Team Carter’s methodology is perhaps surprising. Rather than positioning the restaurant at a lower price point than the big hitters, Carters pretty well fights them toe to toe. A lamb dish is £24, without carbohydrate. That matches institutions like Simpsons, more or less pound for pound.
In value-for-money terms, this puts big pressure on the kitchen to deliver and to do so at a high level. I admire such a ballsy attitude, as long as it is matched by talent, delivery and constituency. Too many restaurant customers – and the industry itself – have adopted a jaded, safe and exclusive (as in excluding people) view of self-congratulatory “fine dining” and I like it when someone says: “Stuff it, I’m not playing the game that way.”
So, does Carters pull it off? Yes, and a bit no. But there’s far more “yes” than “no” and this is arguably the most interesting place to eat within the city limits in this sense: the skill levels and cooking at Brum’s most lauded establishments are, thankfully, a given and Brad Carter still has a way to go to match them. But this is a developing talent, not the finished article, and there is no one else of this chef’s age, running his own restaurant, quite like him in Birmingham.Carter’s time in Spain shines through in a nicely textured pre-starter of chilled almond and garlic soup – a gazpacho by any other name. Boy, there’s garlic here. You won’t see a vampire near this place. Sally has a small glass bowl of a pretty chilled cucumber soup with sheep’s curd, black pepper oil, borage and borage flowers. There was also a two-bite miniature Scotch egg, redolent of family picnics. The quail’s egg was perfectly cooked. Several women on a table of what appeared to be Cadbury executives handed back their eggs untouched. Crazy. Maybe they only eat chocolate eggs.
Sally landed arguably the dish of the day with a starter of “flamed mackerel” with a delicious tartare of the fish, avocado and frozen horseradish. Scooped up and eaten together it was totally delicious.
In comparison, my scallop ceviche was delicate to the point of anonymity. Like all the food, it was well presented although it looked a tad anaemic on a white plate. (The grey, dimpled ceramic bowl for the mackerel won hands down.) Maybe I’m not a ceviche kind a guy because for what it was, this was probably pretty good. For me, it just lacked a smack in the mouth and I need one of those. The dish was flavoured with vanilla, which I hate except in ice cream and puds, and there were some toasted peanuts, which for my money are a bar snack.