“I didn’t lose my phone, I just couldn’t find it. I’ve got a very big bed.”
As chat-up lines go, thrown into the mix when you’re approaching the end game of a carefully orchestrated seduction, it’s blunt, it’s ballsy, and more than a bit twattish – to hear this in Nottingham’s most ambitious new restaurant, Alchemilla, is dissonant in the extreme. What next? Mr Lothario twitching uncomfortably at the end of the meal and kvetching about the size of the bill? Probably.
Alex Bond’s journey towards opening his own restaurant in Nottingham has been a long one, the planning having begun after finishing nineteen years working in the kitchens of 42 The Calls in Leeds, Hertfordshire’s Auberge du Lac, Turners in Birmingham, The Wild Rabbit in Kingham, and a decent amount of time at Restaurant Sat Bains up the road. I first encountered his cooking in 2010 during his stint at The Loft Project, the trailblazing supper clubs which Nuno Mendes assembled in his Dalston flat, ushering in chefs like Ollie Dabbous to showcase their cooking before moving on to their own (often dazzlingly successful) projects.
‘Alchemilla’ is a plant of a genus that includes ‘Lady’s Mantle’, the word’s root coming from the Arabic word alkemelych, based on the belief that dew from the leaves could turn base metals into gold. Alex has often mentioned that his focus is now vegetable-centric.
The building he ended up securing is an absolute belter: a former Victorian coach house that has remained unused for over a hundred years, a cavernous site which has required extensive renovation as well as having a huge space carved out of the sandstone to accommodate the open kitchen and room. Walking inside feels like entering the lair of a nefarious Bond villain, the den of Nottingham’s Dr No – amongst the vaulted stone arches, a piranha pool and a cat stroking Blofeld would look villainously at home.
There are shades of Noma, flashes of Nordic cool even before crossing the threshold – the entrance has a twang of Copenhagen’s most famous restaurant about it, a stark opening that looms suddenly into view on Derby Road, ‘alchemilla’ hewn into a metal door. I begin to get the ‘Noma Twitches’, apprehensive that the next few hours may be some kind of slavering homage to all the tropes of Scandi chic, a kow towing that has seen the style moves of Noma and friends devoured and spat out at openings from Cumbria to Kent and beyond. I enter meekly….
Eh, what’s this? Bread isn't served swaddled in hessian sacking, hoo-bloody-rah – when I saw this most modish of culinary affectations happening out in Essex, it was clear its moment had come and was now over. Yes, butter is smeared on a rock, but it's not feeling poncy and affected in here. There's no tortuous explanation of the 'concept', no high falutin' peacocking about the 'ethos'. Good.
First bite of smoked and pickled shiitake draped with diaphanous pork fat, lardo-esque. A thwack of umami, not genteel, meaty assault of mushroom and fat. Prissy this ain’t. A great start: tasting this for a good ten minutes after. A following dish of some weeny new potatoes jive against the sweetness of fermented garlic, the sour tang of buttermilk sluicing across both. Send over another bowlful, these are stonking. Bang on the money call from waitress Alex – these are just as good as she promised they would be.
“I’ve no idea what that was, but it was very nice.” Mr Lothario shimmying into gear.
White crab meat jostles alongside layers of raw rhubarb dressed with elderflower vinegar, blobs of elderflower mayonnaise turning this into some kind of turbo-charged crab mayo. Yep, the first flurry of plates are doing fine, just fine.
Cauliflower next. Am done with cauliflower, really – the current darling of chefs everywhere. Here it’s roasted in roasted yeast, topped with roasted yeast powder. I reached peak cauliflower sometime in 2016. Keep your shaved, set aside the crumbled, jettison the roasted – no more interest in cauliflower….apart from piccalilli. Bye. That’s just me, but really, bye.
“Service here is top notch, really top drawer”. Mr L, you’re really spoiling us.
There’s a dish of sunburst yellow heritage tomato, bristling with coriander, basil lemon verbena, woodruff, nasturtium, cornflowers, shizo, lovage oil….phew. And rest. Dazzling assembly.
“Say again?" Repetition of say again at least fifteen times during the evening. Saying again for fun. “Say again?”
Peas. An almost undecipherable huddle of ingredients which reward the digging….cubes of veal tongue slyly popped in, furikake dusted (the dry Japanese seasoning of dried fish, seaweed, seeds, other jazz), faintly orange flavoured calendula petal (also known as marigold, apparently), and salted lemon in the mix. There’s perhaps some dried fried onion in there too, reminding me of the Beefeater salad bar circa 1984 (in all the good ways) – a tumble of stuff, which somehow coalesces to deliver an impressive and satisfying dish. Liked it.
Lamb saddle has been slicked with with black sesame butter (a wow, a woah, a yes), alongside pencil fillet (tender cut from underneath the saddle) which has enough honk to suggest it may be hogget, alongside a dinky wedge of belly with an outrageously flavoursome ribbon of fat. Slab of aubergine charred then baked with miso and scattered with sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, an infernal riff on a Japanese nasu dengaku, cooked until the flesh is all silk and satin and ‘f**k me’ worthy. An Iron Maiden rabble rouser of a dish.
“You know, I actually stayed in a motel once.” The chat ratcheting up. Smooth Operator.
Barbecued veal tongue with fermented onion, gremolata, smoked cream and caramelised onion purée, is an extra I ask for, totally unnecessary. The right decision.
“I’ve never eaten a whole fish”. Wow. Just wow.
Dessert usually sees me tapping out, or scouring the menu for another savoury dish, but here I’m smacked square in the chops by a wizard combination of poached apple and its purée, studded with peppery heat of horseradish granita and a dill meringue – momentous.
“I love you, and you’re absolutely beautiful. I really love you.” The chat approaching its quivering apotheosis, its twitching zenith. Gosh.
There may have been cherries marinated in stock syrup with elderflower vinegar and vodka, alongside a woodruff Chantilly; there may have been a chocolate dish with miso and lime, and a slightly oversalted chocolate sorbet; there may also have been strawberries in their fermented juice and Moscato dessert wine….but by this point I was waist deep into a German Riesling from R. Prüm, displaying the electrifying balance of the Mosel, sparking with lemon sherbet character.
An excellent, sharply priced wine list offers proper value/quality, with no need to be straitjacketed into a yawnworthy menu pairing. Good tasting notes too (‘Red cherry – dried herbs – violets’), no flim flam, no verbiage, to the point. Gin is in a straight glass (good), tonic isn’t Fevertree (great, we have fizz), and cocktail whizz Gracey Florence is an engaging presence at the bar: Silver Bullet with kummel and dried mugwort, with flavours of juniper/caraway/anise. That kind of thing. Waiter Nelson offers good advice on the drinks front.
Pricing is currently keener than you’ll find at most restaurants approaching the ambition on display here: £35/45/60 for 5/7/10 courses. Go while it’s still at this level, and leave feeling like you’ve bagged some chuffing great value. Restaurant manager Tom Shaw runs the floor with calm authority, and 80s tunes play a leading role alongside the chatter in the room. This may be an ambitous venture (on every level) but has the feeling of a local joint, not a cheffy circle jerk of a destination....a neat trick.
Bond clearly has Michelin in his sights, but everything here is pulled off without the ‘wank factor’, without starchiness of service or mood, without overweening preciousness – this may be shaping up to become Nottingham’s most exciting restaurant since Sat Bains pitched up in 2002.
“Say again? We don’t have to order a dessert, you know. We could leave now, couldn’t we?”
I leave before the tryst’s denoument, its final cut and thrust, the coup de grâce, but just caught another gem as I made my way past the vast open kitchen, and into a Nottingham evening that had decided to start pelting it down. Cold air blasts me, drizzle on the cheeks. I feel good. That was a great, great meal. I’m going back.
“That’s the most I’ve ever spent on a meal. You’re not falling asleep are you?”
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