It's hard not to have great expectations when you’re heading to review The Good Food Guide Readers’ Restaurant of the Year.
Readers of the annual guide weighed in, with more than 30,000 votes cast for favourite neighbourhood eateries across the country.
Since its launch four years ago by chef Brad Carter and his front-of-house fiancé Holly Jackson (then only aged 28 and 24), Carters has developed quite a reputation.
It’s one of a select group of restaurants in Birmingham to have won a place in the Michelin Guide – with many diners questioning why it hasn’t been awarded a star – as well as winning praise from food guide Hardens.
And it also seems to be the destination of choice for many of Birmingham’s culinary greats, with Harborne’s Michelin-starred chef Richard Turner recently selecting it as one of his favourite places to eat, suggesting Carters is a restaurateur’s restaurant.
For all the fanfare, there are no whistles and bells on this business.
It’s a small venue, off Alcester Road, tucked away from Wake Green Road in St Mary’s Row.
The frontage is dark and simple, a theme that continues inside with a black-grey colour scheme and dark banquette seating running along one side.
Muted walls are livened with the cassette art of Horace Panter (the bassist for legendary Coventry band The Specials) and an entire wall is devoted to racked wine.
Other than that, the focal point is a window at the back of the restaurant, where diners can see staff in chef whites busily working in the brightly-lit kitchen.
The focus here is on the food.
On our table a flat pebble topped with a tantalising mound of bright yellow butter glistening with sea salt teases us while we wait and a waitress explains that the five-course menu is on its way – there is no need for us to choose anything but wine.
First come a series of pre-dinner “snacks”. That’s right. Our waitress delivers not “appetisers”, nor “amuse bouche”, just “snacks”. Refreshingly unpretentious.
The first bowl placed in front of us is chicken liver cereal and looks a little like bird food. A little reticent, we tentatively taste from little teaspoons before exchanging grins of delight.
Beneath a layer of seeds is a creamy chicken liver parfait. We crunch through the topping and get sugary hits from hidden raisins and the whole bowl is a brilliant balance of crunchy and smooth, sweet and earthy, creamy and salty. It’s impressively inventive and a seriously strong start to a meal.
Next comes crispy fish skin (salmon, I think) topped with dollops of cod brandade. It’s a simple, sublime mouthful of the sea.
Finally there’s a full flavoured goat’s milk cheese rolled in ash and piled onto delicate poppy seed crackers with edible petals.
In a brown paper bag comes slices of bread made with flour ground at Moseley Bog’s Sarehole Mill. It’s deliciously dense with a biscuity base and we smear it with “pig butter”.
Made from the moreish fat of the Tamworth Pigs at Warwickshire’s Paddock farm, it has tiny hints of sea salt and onion.
I have never snacked so well.
A starting salad of heritage tomatoes with shavings of manchego and lovage leaves is perfectly complemented by a Sancerre and precedes the only dish of the night that doesn’t quite work.
The wild River Tweed salmon with peas and Indian spiced butter is too sweet and feels a little like eating fish with fudge.
But it’s quickly followed by a full flavoured roasted new season grouse, balanced with a tarty sloe jam and comforting spiced bread sauce, before the meal ends with servings of buttermilk mousse alongside whole wild damsons and giant crumbs of brown butter cake.
Everything that comes out of the kitchen feels like it has been a true labour of love. It’s inventive while staying true to an ethos of sourcing seasonally and locally, and the complex balancing of flavours and textures (I’m still thinking about that chicken liver cereal and will be for some time) is expertly executed.
Similarly, this restaurant balances a first-rate food offering with service that’s rare in its warmth.
There’s no parade of airs and graces, no glitz and glamour, and there’s no pomp, yet everything is pulled off quietly, smoothly and professionally and we’re made to feel like very welcome guests.
From the moment we walk through the door it feels like we’ve come back to a place we know and like, yet this is our first visit.
I’m not sure how a business does that but I know not nearly enough manage to pull it off like Carters has.
The decor may be plain but this restaurant basks in warmth and generosity.
In the ladies toilet stands a row of congratulations cards from friends, family and acquaintances, each with a personalised note for the couple on their recent Good Food Guide success.
I like that Brad and Holly aren’t pretending this is no big deal. This is a celebration – and one that we’re all invited to join them in.
This little suburban eatery has far exceeded expectations and we leave feeling lucky to have shared in the joy.
Announcing their win, Good Food Guide editor Elizabeth Carter (no relation) said: “I wish every town had a restaurant of this standard.”
Yours does. Make the most of it.