“I have no idea why I’m a chef,” says Alex Bond when asked about his earliest food memories; pans clattering in the background. “I don’t have a nanna that used to cook or a cousin that was a great chef. The nearest thing I can get to is that when I was a kid, my dad used to work away, and when he came home he’d go in the kitchen for about three hours with a bottle of wine. I always used to like watching him cook. As I got older, I realised that he was a terrible cook... but he made a kind of thing about it. My mum’s a great baker too.”
There’s something very no-nonsense about the Chef Director at Alchemilla, despite his careful considerations, and that’s reflected in the beautifully simple setting of his new restaurant: an abandoned Victorian coach house converted into a clean, rough-brick, open-kitchen gaff. “I walked away when I first saw the building. It’d been empty for so long that it was absolutely knackered, and I was like, ‘No chance,’” says Alex. ”But it’s just stunning. We started thinking that maybe we could make it work, and now here we are.”
The menu at Alchemilla has a big focus on plant-based ingredients, but without eliminating meat altogether. Alex explains: “I personally believe that we eat too much meat. I think it’s odd. The farming industry and supermarkets have made it so accessible and cheap, and everyone is busy; I understand why people do it. I did it for ages, but then I said to myself, ‘You wouldn’t serve this in a restaurant, so why eat it at home?’ I stopped there and then. Now I won’t eat meat unless it’s delicious and I know where it’s come from, so I eat very little. We don’t use a huge amount here; it’s expensive and we don’t charge that much money. Plus, I love the challenge of looking at a celeriac and being like ‘Right, what do we do to you? How do we make you delicious?’”
In September this year, French chef Sebastien Bras requested the removal of the three Michelin stars donning his restaurant La Suquet, because he said it created too much pressure. In the same breath, Don and Wendy Matheson of the Scottish hotel Boath House have chucked theirs in, saying their customers wanted a more relaxed experience than the star implies. But does Alex fancy one for himself? “Don’t get me wrong, if people want to give us one then I’ll take it,” he says. “But I’m neither actively looking for one or not looking for one. As long as I’m enjoying what I’m cooking, that’s fine. The moment we start cooking to get a star, or changing the things we do because we think we’ll get a star from it, I’ll pack up my bags and go home.”
We visited Alchemilla on a Tuesday night, and the atmosphere wasn’t exactly a classic affair, with everything from hip hop to folk music seeping out of the speakers. We walked past a wall with moss embedded into it, and sat down to a table of handmade crockery. Soon, we received a wooden paddle of a butter smearer for the most deliciously rich and dense-crusted bread.
“Everything is the best, everything is produced to a top quality,” says Alex. “We don’t have table cloths and we don’t have waiters carrying trays of food to a table to have someone else take it off that table and put it in front of you. If you want to come in here with a baseball cap and shorts, I don’t care. If somebody next to you is offended by that cap, then they’re in the wrong restaurant. Because the food, the wine, and the service is no different whether you’re wearing a baseball hat or a dicky bow.”
There are three tasting menu options at Alchemilla: five courses for £35, seven for £45, or ten for £60. We went for the seven-courser, opening with a beautifully presented dish of emerald-green, immiscible droplets in a magic potion of a cucumber-based gazpacho. There was a nigiri-sized hunk of sashimi salmon holding the fort; atop it, chopped oyster gleaming through thin cucumber slices.
The wine list favours radical growers and niche varieties often cultivated far from the lands they’re most associated with. The regularly changing list is a refreshing change from those dominated by the who’s-who of Bordeaux and eye-wateringly expensive Burgundy. If you’re drinking a bottle, ask the really helpful and keen sommelier to point out something beyond the conservative options available elsewhere. Alternatively, swing for the great value matching wine flight; the best way to get stuck into a fair tranche of one of the most exciting cellars in the city. Our introduction to the flight was a Portuguese Viognier, the gentle mint and aniseed perfume of which exaggerated the salty sea air experience of the dish.
The next course came brandishing a cluster of hen of the woods – mushrooms it turns out, after expecting chicken – hiding a little goldmine of crispy fried onions, and a streak of lardo. The lardo was a fatty base of creamy indulgence, and contrasted with the sweetness of the crispy onions, with a real punch of an autumn walk in the woods from the mushrooms.
The Hawke’s Bay, NZ Chardonnay served with this course was citrusy and unoaked, and perfectly balanced with the damp earthiness of the dish. Smuggling in some of the classic cat-piss-on-nettles note often associated with NZ Sauvignons, but well hidden among a good bash of rhubarb and pencil erasers. Definitely a funky wine. As in, it funked. And natural wine is like blue cheese; the smellier the better.
The third course came with toasted rice grains poking their torched shells out from a stack of smoked eel and seriously soft black pudding, all graced with the edge of a beetroot ketchup. It was as though a black pudding cob with ketchup from a trucker’s cafe had been turned into something magnificent; entirely familiar flavours, but from unexpected ingredients.
They were serving the Marcel Lapierre Morgon on the flight; a magnificent wine from one of the most legendary Beaujolais producers. Exploding with cooked strawberries, a complex and slightly vegetal edge betrays this wine as being far superior to the piss-poor jammy Beaujolais that got such a bad name in the seventies.
Next up, we had a rich chunk of grouse breast, plus a thin leg, both cooked perfectly. It was great to see game on a menu; more sustainable, more delicious. Individually, all the parts of this dish were executed with absolute skill, but the dark chocolate, pickled raspberries and cep puree battled with the rich meat. Vanilla is always divisive on savoury dishes too, and here made matters worse. The matched Australian shiraz-sangiovese – an unusual blend – was little antidote to a dish that was already a dark, gamey assault on your senses.
Alex and his team have created an artistic, surprise-filled menu that’s constantly changing, and with just three ingredients listed per dish, it makes for an entertaining guessing game. Pear, bay leaf and goat’s milk turned out to be bay-infused goat’s milk ice cream served with both poached and pureed pear, crowned with a sharp brandy snap. A swig of pink Moscato Italian fizz knocked over senses already tickled by snapping brandy and melting ice cream.
The sixth dish’s “chocolate” came thick and moist – somewhere between nougat and a dense mouse – with artichoke shavings and hazelnut powder dusted around the dark pools like the remnants of a squirrel’s feast. This came with an obscure French aperitif, NV Pineau des Charentes Chateau d’Orignac, made by blending unfermented grape must and cognac, giving a boozy, old-fashioned punch to the sweetest course of the evening.
But the showstopper of the desserts – and probably of the entire meal – was the raspberries with black-garlic infused mousse, thick coffee grounds sprinkled over everything and Greek basil cutting through all the sweetness to land on a smoky, earthy finish. The absolute firework finale. The natural vin doux (sweet) 2014 Rasteau – easily mistaken for port, for the uninitiated – was all too easy to miss in its loveliness amidst the booming sparks of the dish it paired.
Jaws repeatedly dropped at the attention to detail put into each bite throughout the meal; flavours had conversations with serious precision, and there was a carefully crafted narrative that made for a really special experience. We don’t have anything else like this in our cowboy-restaurant plastered streets of Nottingham – this connector-upper of truly stunning food and an unassuming attitude – and things are only just getting started.
“On one hand it feels like we’ve been here forever, one the other hand it feels like we’ve been here for twenty minutes,” says Alex. “We’ve still got loads to do, but we’re getting there. I’m never happy with anything. I’m always trying to make it better, I guess people seem to be liking it. If you’ve got an open mind and you want to try something new, then come along, everyone’s welcome. Unless you’re a dick. I don’t want dicks.”
Alchemilla, 192 Derby Road, NG7 1NF. 0115 941 3515