This week's destination was recently voted Readers' Restaurant of the Year by a popular food guide. Ah, bless, I hear you thinking. It's probably a cheerful, user-friendly sort of place, the restaurant equivalent of Cheers Bar. Sure, the food will be good, but they won't be doing anything too ambitious. None of your foams, or foraging, or tasting menus. Critics love that stuff, but actual real people would never vote for it, right?
Well forget all that. Carters of Moseley, a tiny, storefront bistro in suburban Birmingham, was recently crowned the Good Food Guide's Readers' Restaurant of the Year by doing things in its own singular way. Modestly situated in a Tudorbethan strip of shops beside an arterial road, it's a neighbourhood restaurant that seems to have beamed down from quite a different neighbourhood.
Normally, midweek dinner in your local bistro doesn't involve a £45, five-course tasting menu, plus £6 supplement if you opt to have truffle grated over your bone marrow. It's unusual, outside Soho or Hackney, to have bread brought to table in a brown paper bag and served with butter slicked over a stone. And more often than not, in a busy local, you find yourself trying in vain to catch a lone waiter's eye, rather than having to fight off visits from a succession of bright-eyed acolytes, eager to explain whatever it is you're about to eat.
It's all rather unexpected, and in other hands, it would be downright ghastly. But the young couple behind Carters – chef Brad Carter and his partner Holly Jackson – know what they are doing. He's a local lad, trained in Birmingham but with formative stints in Spain and France. She handles front of house. Four years ago, they came back to the Midlands to open a small, independent fine-dining restaurant in a city not over-blessed with them.
Fine dining is misleading, perhaps. There's nothing stiff or formal about Carters, and the non-optional five-course dinner experience feels like an adventure rather than an imposition. Conventionally, you'd call it a tasting menu, but this is unmistakeably an eating menu. The meal starts with a trio of cracking small dishes; chicken-liver parfait whipped to a shine and scattered with a savoury granola-ish sprinkle of toasted nuts and seeds; a lemon-spiked tartare of razor clam, dressed with a tracery of shaved horseradish and a poppy-seed tuille heaped with applewood-smoked ricotta and edible flowers.
Wholemeal bread, made with flour from nearby Sarehole Mill, comes with something introduced as 'pig butter' – the rendered fat of local Tamworth pig, whipped with rock salt and sweet onion.
Main courses show Carters' range. A dish of ultra-smooth mash lapped with deep, clear gravy and shimmery nuggets of bone marrow is decadently rich – comfort food you could never get tired of. Then it's all prettiness and precision – Cornish skate floating in a froth of curry-leaf foam, anchored by a dab of clean, grassy, parsley purée. Finally, grey-legged partridge – confited leg and roasted breast – given a huge whack of umami by truffled polenta striped with puréed sweetcorn. Satisfying, confident dishes from a chef who is cooking with only one colleague, as we can see in the semi-open kitchen.
The keenness of the young waitresses to sell Carters' vision leads to some unfortunate incursions. Note to waiting staff; if you find yourself having to say "Sorry to interrupt" more than once during a meal, you're doing something wrong. But that's the only bum note; otherwise, the vibe is relaxed, with breathless skip-hop on the soundtrack, bold paintings of cassette tapes on the walls (from ex-Specials bassist Horace Panter), and an all-ages crowd which includes a young family. Imagine the disappointment of those kids, on tearing open their goodie bags, to discover they contain only brown bread.
There's a diminuendo towards the end of the meal; just a relatively simple apple and caramel dessert which carries a whiff of the fairground toffee apple about it, then a few crisp bites of well-tempered cardamom chocolate – clearly not from nearby Bournville, despite the kitchen's devotion to locally sourced product.
As a model of a small, well-run restaurant, Carters absolutely convinces. And the brave decision to ditch the conventional à la carte offer in favour of a no-choice menu is obviously paying off – though it was busy, on our Thursday-night visit, rather than full, which it surely should have been, a few months after winning two major awards (The Good Food Guide also named it Midlands Restaurant of the Year). If Carters was my local – and wouldn't that be sweet? – I wouldn't want to save it up for a special occasion. I'd want to be there as often as I possibly could.
Carters of Moseley, 2c St Mary's Row, Wake Green Road, Moseley, Birmingham (0121 449 8885)
Lunch: three-course set menu £20 (£25 with carafe of wine)
Dinner: five-course set menu £45
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