Situated on Derby Road in Nottingham, the restaurant has an almost secret, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it façade (look out for the wall of greenery next to the front door)
Alex kindly agreed to show me around his restaurant and kitchen a couple of mornings ago before service, which allowed me to see behind the scenes of what goes on there and spend some time with the man himself
When you enter the restaurant you are met straight away with the impressive open kitchen and even at 9:30am on a Tuesday (the restaurant only serves dinner from 7:00pm on Tuesdays) the kitchen was buzzing as chefs prepared the ingredients for the evening ahead. Tables and chairs had also been placed to one side when I visited so that a thorough clean could be carried out
The restaurant opened on 1st August (only 10 working days before my visit) and already business has been busier than expected with most days being fully booked – reservations for dinner on a weekend are already full until November!
The building was a former coach house and was bought as part of the townhouse above it. Alex was introduced to the owner by a mutual friend and on first visit wasn’t convinced it was the right venue for a restaurant, mainly due to the huge amount of work that was required. He was eventually swayed though, and work began to transform it from dark, dusty cavern to bright airy restaurant
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of what you see though – the restaurant has a minimal look and feel which is exactly what Alex wanted to achieve, letting the beautiful building take centre stage, but a LOT of work has gone on behind closed doors and builders were working right up until opening day. Walls have been sand blasted back to their original state – some repairs were necessary but instead of trying to match bricks and make them look ‘old’ the decision was made to use polished concrete blocks as a contrast which really works. The entire roof was removed to allow excavations to be carried out, but this also enabled wiring for the lighting and speaker systems to be concealed and the huge roof lights to be installed, filling the space with the most amazing natural light. Under floor air conditioning also means there are no bulky units to be seen, keeping things streamlined
The bar area and space at the back of the kitchen didn’t previously exist and were dug out of solid sandstone to make the space much larger
Directional spotlights can be adjusted so suit the ever changing table layout, focusing light onto your table, but also creating shadows between tables making the whole dining experience feel a little more private. The building’s natural accoustics mean that you can hold a conversation at a normal level, without feeling the need to whisper or shout – something that Alex is very pleased with and diners have already commented on
Glass block windows obscure the sights and sounds of the street outside and give you the feeling that you could be anywhere
Living walls add colour and softness, and are the perfect contrast to the brick and concrete that make up the space. They are also something that will evolve and flourish over time
There’s a small bar area to one side of the restaurant which you can also visit as a non-diner for a glass of wine or a cocktail, however if you are wanting a drink before your meal you’re best advised to arrive early so as not to encroach on your reservation time – getting a 10 course tasting menu with drinks pairings out at the exact same moment needs timing to perfection, and being punctual helps them to maintain the level of service you expect
Produce is something that is clearly very important to Alex, sourcing the best possible ingredients and not just buying local for locals sake – as he put it “just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s the best” which I definitely agree with
The passion with which he talks about his food is exciting, especially the use of vegetables which are often the star of the show. Also, the complexities of the ingredients is something that he has great knowledge of – for example Alex spoke of how he buys his shitake mushrooms from a specialist and how they can go from soft, to having a slight firmness (which he quite enjoys), to leathery and useless very quickly. Catching them at the right moment is crucial. Meat is always high welfare – for example the sheep used for meat at the restaurant will spend the first few days of their life inside, and then will be free to roam from that day on until slaughter, spending the next 15 months just eating grass and allowing a nice layer of fat to develop. The meat from these sheep is called hogget (slightly older than a lamb but younger than mutton) and having longer to mature brings more flavour to a dish. Alex also has his own allotment, so is used to growing his own produce, but this is labour intensive so not always the easiest or most economical option
When I asked Alex about his favourite cooking methods, he much prefers traditional pots and pans, and techniques such as salt baking instead of sous vide machines. He lit up however when talking about preserving – drying, fermenting and pickling – not only so he can use these ingredients now, but so he can use them in different seasons, bringing an unexpected ‘summer’ twist to a ‘winter’ dish. He is careful about what he uses for this though, and advises that there are some things that may be edible, but should really just be avoided! He especially favours chamomile, elderflower, meadowsweet and pineapple weed, wild cherries and blackberries are also good, and elderberries, when green, can be salted and brined to make ‘capers’ – something that intrigues me greatly
The restaurant has 40 covers, with an additional 10 seated at the impressive polished concrete chef’s table nestled at the back of the kitchen. Keeping to these numbers means that not only do you feel you have space around you when you dine but the pressure on the kitchen is also controlled – potentially co-ordinating 50 ten course tasting menus with matching drinks pairings is enough in itself!
I asked Alex if it ws an obvious decision to just offer tasting menus, when restaurants such as Turners at 69 in Birmingham have purposefully moved away from this concept – the immediate answer was yes, there was no question over just offering tasting menus, as first and foremost this is how Alex prefers to cook. I must say that as a diner I do enjoy a tasting menu, as you feel as if the chef is taking you on a journey
Alex explained to me how his tasting menus ‘flow’ – you’ll receive their homemade bread and butter and then rather than starting your meal with snacks, your first dish will be a really bold, impactful dish that will hopefully get your attention and make you really excited for the meal to come. The menu will then continue with alternating lighter and heavier dishes, always making sure the next dish is a contrast to the last. For example, on the current menu, a fresh tomato dish is followed by barbecued veal with smoked cream
There are 3 tasting menus to choose from – 5, 7 or 10 courses. Alex advises that so far, most people go for the 7 or 10 courses (these are the only options available Friday & Saturday dinner) At lunch time small tapas style dishes are also on offer – about 14 in total. Alex prefers this approach to a set lunch menu as it is far more economical and allows people to mix and match and have as much or as little as they want. This also gives flexibility over what can be served as everything is individually priced, and would make for a great business lunch option
Onto drinks and Alchemilla offers an optional pairing which interestingly isn’t just wine. Alex believes that although there is a wine to match everything, it’s not always the perfect choice for his dishes. For example the cauliflower dish is paired with a beer (both the dish and (obviously) the beer contain yeast which ties the two together), and some desserts are paired with cocktails. Wine lovers needn’t worry though, the pairing also includes white, red, sweet & sparkling wines. I asked whether non-alcoholic pairings were an option – at present no, however this is something that may be introduced in the future, after the initial opening rush. As with many elements of the restaurant, Alex is very much focused on getting the fundamentals right and will then build from there, walking before he runs so to speak
Crockery has been designed and handmade especially for the restaurant by two different potters, one in Sheffield and one in Gloucester. It has been kept quite neutral for now so that it suits all dishes, and Alex entrusted the designs to the potters themselves, happy to leave it – quite literally – in the hands of the experts. As it happens both potter’s work is quite similar and they sit alongside eachother beautifully. Over 600 pieces have been made for the restaurant with more to follow – that’s a lot of washing up to do!
Table tops have been handmade by a joiner, along with the vanity units and huge bespoke doors in the bathrooms. Chairs have been customised to tie the colours together (very comfortable chairs too – I can vouch for that as I did keep Alex talking for quite some time!)
Alex is currently sourcing artwork to complete the bar area but apart from that, the decor is minimal and the building is left to it’s beautiful simplicity
One element that is the backbone to every restaurant is the staff – Alex told me that although there have been a few hiccups, and the popularity of the restaurant in it’s opening couple of weeks has put the pressure on, his staff have really pulled together and every day is better than the last. They are constantly training and learning how to work together as a brand new team, in a brand new space that was never originally intended to be a restaurant. Alex’s sous chef Liam Sweeney – who he has known for a number of years after working together at Auberge du Lac – has returned to the UK from a stint in Paris, and pastry chef Adam has come all the way from Australia to join the Alchemilla team! Add to that Roberto who has come from The Wild Rabbit in Kingham, Tom from Nottingham restaurant Harts, restaurant manager Tom who used to manage Alex’s local pub, Rebecca looking after wine, Grace who I hear is a whizz at cocktails, as well as everyone else in the kitchen and front of house, and you have a really exciting team to take the restaurant forward
When I asked if he’s set himself a timescale for achieving a Michelin star, Alex said he’s more interested in creating a restaurant full of happy diners – he is striving for one of the best restaurants in the country, somewhere that locals want to return to again and again, but also a destination restaurant with people travelling from all around the country to dine and be wowed – if that then leads to a star then great, but he doesn’t want it to be the be-all and end-all
I then asked Alex two final questions – if you could recommend just one restaurant that I must visit (apart from Alchemilla of course!) where would it be, and what would you say has been your favourite ever dining experience (not just the food)? The answer to both was the same – Ynyshir in Wales. At the helm of Ynyshir is Alex’s best friend Gareth Ward (Gareth was Alex’s sous chef at Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham) and who Alex tips as being Britains next 2 Michelin star chef – I feel a trip coming on!
There are plans to add a roof terrace in the new year which I think will be a lovely addition to the restaurant, and after visiting Alchemilla I can’t wait to see how the terrace space is designed
All that’s left for me to do now is book my table! Have you dined at Alchemilla yet?
View opening times, contact information, sample menus or make a table reservation on the Alchemilla website, here