Arriving at Carters for the first time what strikes you first is how small the space is; without a bar to speak of at which to sit for a drink, a friendly staff member greets you and whisks you to your spartan table, one of perhaps ten or so in the restaurant and the only one that is empty. At the back is the kitchen where an opening half the length of the wall offers a a look into the inner workings of the place. Without a bar, the server provides a drinks menu at our table where we peruse an extensive choice of organic and biodynamic wines and several beers. It’s part of the ethos of the restaurant to showcase indigenous varietals wherever possible, providing a better representation of the regions they come from and as such many are unfiltered and very different from what you can find on wine lists elsewhere in town. Two of our party of four, those that had strong opinions on wine, tried six different reds in total searching for something I disparaging called ‘familiar’ while I admired the side plates that had been handmade in St Ives and made sure that the cutlery had been made in Birmingham (always a positive). Despite the restaurant’s website advertising a vacancy for a sommelier, several of the team were incredibly knowledgeable on the selection, generously guiding the two of our number to a bottle they were particularly taken with. I plumped for a craft beer which arrived in a delicate stemmed glass until I was ready to join them on the wine.
The same team member who greeted us at the outset approached with our menus, double checked that we were aware that tonight there was just the set menu and asked if we had any allergies before playfully asking if we wanted to see the menu before the first dishes arrived. It hadn’t occurred to me that not browsing the menu wasn’t essential and to be honest I liked the idea that there wasn’t a choice to make and we’d be getting everything on offer. Along with the menu however we were presented with a chunk of raw steak, about two inches thick and no larger than an iPhone on a small silver tray. We had the option of substituting the belted galloway beef in a main course for a seldom available (and beautifully marbled it has to be said) wagyu at a £20 supplement per head. We thought it was worth two of us making the substitute so we could each try some and with that we eagerly awaited the first surprise.
The first of what would be 4 snacks was a rich, pink chicken liver mousse sprinkled with a proportionate serving of cereal grains. The dish was simple and satisfying, a solid opener and it would be possibly my ideal breakfast both for taste and its subversive nature; no yoghurt and dry granola for me. The second was a small portion of herring milts topped with shiitake mushrooms and for me a little ammoniacal, admittedly not helped by the knowledge of what milts are. This was followed by a redemptive oyster cooked in beef. Fat and tender, the oyster was presented in its shell, wrapped in a fine manila rope bow atop rock salt in another piece of grey Cornish pottery. After the unwrapping and unveiling, the oyster was firm with a luscious umami taste and in a thin, salty and meaty sauce that could be knocked back afterwards to recreate the more traditional oyster eating experience. This was followed by a final fourth snack; a refreshing, cucumbery and slightly bitter slice of raw Kohlrabi served upright on ice with pine and salad burnet.
Before the start of the meal proper we were treated to some freshly baked country loaf, finally proving a use for the little St Ives side plates that has sat idle up to the point. I didn’t try the home whipped butter in protest because the butter knife was made in Sheffield.
Next was a delightful, juicy and raw Brixham Bay scallop wrapped in a sea lettuce parcel with Exmoor caviar and a sweet, salty, possibly soy sauce. Partly because cultural-historical relevance is integral to the philosophy of the restaurant but mainly because I had to check where the vibrantly decorated, brilliant blue plate underneath the scallop was from, I flipped it over to discover ‘Churchills China, made in Stoke-on-Trent’ on the bottom. The crockery returned toSt Ives crockery for what followed; meaty razor clams in an old Winchester and pepper dulse sauce that was both wonderfully cheesy but with a subtly nascent spice heat that didn’t overpower the taste of the clams. It is worth mentioning that two of our group nominated this as their favourite course at the end of the meal for outstanding taste, inventiveness and sheer ‘you wouldn't have put those together’ factor.
The Monkfish and liver provided an interesting and welcome combination, a delicate and balanced dish that also guided our meal gently in the direction of something a whole lot meatier. It was time for the belted galloway mentioned earlier which came in two serves. The first was a hearty and, for some of our group, nostalgia-inducing single dumpling filled with slow cooked beef which slowly soaked up a generous jus as it was eaten. The second serve provided an elegant juxtaposition to wholesome and interpretation of the belted galloway that had come before. The ordered and delicate assembly consisted of three slices of beef, cooked rare of course, laid out with turnip and genuine, sharp and warming wasabi. Some of you will remember that two of our number had substituted a wagyu beef for the belted galloway. My view would be that the dish as conceived originally was the better of the two; though so tender it could be tackled with a spoon, the wagyu lacked the depth of flavour of the belted galloway sirloin and seemed to loose some of its taste for texture.
In a restaurant proud of showcasing British produce continued to do so, this time however with a nod to our European neighbours as ‘cheese course’ arrived before our puddings. A flax coloured heaped spoonful of Rollright (a washed rind cow’s milk cheese made in Oxfordshire) was unloaded onto a single hasselback potato from its camembert shaped housing and finished with a delightfully sticky truffle honey. The potatoes hailed from Yelthom in Scotland, the truffles from Wiltshire and the honey from King’s Heath, about a mile away down the A435. An inveterate cheese fiend, this was my favourite dish of the evening.
A highly perfumed and floral cherry blossom mousse garnished with petals cleansed our palette of the delightful cheese which I was for one was sorry to say goodbye to. Quite a dense mousse and bright white, it was shaped like a flower and pleasing to both the eye and the tastebuds. Our final course, enjoyed in a now empty restaurant consisted of an indulgent cider soaked Tamworth fat cake. Juicier and denser than a doughnut but not quite as juicy or dense as a gulab jamun, the course was accompanied with cream cheese which cut through the sweet, sickliness of the cake to create a final pud that was neither too heavy nor anti-climactic.
There may have been petit fours but I have to confess that as I write this I cannot remember as I had done more than my fair share with the second bottle of wine and had also accompanied the final course with an Imperial Vanilla Stout (Burning Soul Brewery in the Jewellery Quarter) that was pleasantly reminiscent of Viennetta.
We departed at about midnight and were, as usual whenever I seem to go out for dinner, the last people to leave. We thanked the team on our way out as they informed us that they had made a note of our wine choice and the styles and grapes my companions liked for our next visit. The service was friendly and faultless from start to finish.
Carter’s website succinctly outlines the restaurant’s food philosophy as a ‘true expression of British terroir’ with menus that are ‘developed by following the natural rhythms of the season; led by the ingredients available to us and inspired by the producers who work our British landscape.’ Many restaurants out there will promise the very best ingredients from around the world, as if the number of air miles racked up provides an assurance of quality. Carters promotes a more sustainable style of cooking that can seem restrained compared to other showier establishments whose gimmicks seek to distract you from what you’re there for; the food.
Paying particular attention to seasonal wild and foraged fauna native to the UK and ensuring that the vast majority of their ingredients are native to the British Isles might seem like a self-imposed limitation in a world where you can quite easily get anything from anywhere at any time, but instead creates a more ethical gastronomic workspace where quality and provenance are certain. You get the impression that Brad knows each and every supplier personally. Carters’ focus on seasonal and geographical availability necessarily means that there is not a world of ingredients to work with, but painting from a limited palette does not restrain the creativity of the chef, if anything it enhances it. This focused approach yields a more experimental one; it is true that there are ingredients you’ll never see on a menu here but there are also those you’d struggle to find anywhere else. Where elsewhere paralysing abundance and all year round availability might descend into cliched flavour combinations, Brad creates new ones; entirely new experiences made from that what is in season right here and right now. Simple and unpretentious there is an essentialist aspect to the food here which put me in mind of a de Saint-Exupéry quote; ‘perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away’.
It is refreshing to see an approach to food that implicitly rejects a damaging aspect of modern life that was not too long ago hailed as a revolution in convenience. Unsustainable consumerism and the Amazon-ification of existence means we can have whatever we want delivered to our door without human interaction but also that we might have only 12 years left to avoid climate catastrophe. Planetary ecosystem collapse will make it difficult to have food on the table let alone the latest voice activated speaker system.
Carter’s sustainable cooking focusing on nature’s natural rhythms, provides a joyous alternative to how things have gone before, connecting us with our environment through a menu that evolves with the seasons and is renewed and reinvented harmoniously. It is for this reason that the dishes you eat here feel very grounded and makes what Brad Carter and his team accomplish all the more special.
Author's Note: Sorry I didn't take any pictures.