[Disclosure: I was invited to one of the several preview nights of The Table]
“We want people to leave and think, ‘shit, I haven’t had that before’,” Kristian Curtis tells us as he explains one of the many courses we’re working through. The six of us round the table nod earnestly, utterly convinced that he’ll manage this given the level of intrigue and unexpectedness he’s managed to give us already.
The Table is unlike anything any of us have been to. We’re eating dishes that have all the hallmarks of a Michelin Star restaurant, from imagination to execution. They’re paired perfectly with top-notch wines and served with precision, each with its own story and explanations in abundance for those of us asking 20 question for each morsel that passes our lips.
Yet we’re sitting in an office. A very nice office tucked away in what I think are converted farm buildings in Chadwick End, which straddles the Warwickshire-Solihull border near Knowle. But it’s an office all the same.
It’s where chef Kristian Curtis carries out his day job, cooking food for what may be some of the luckiest employees around and a boss whose love of food and fine dining has seen him essentially bankroll his own private restaurant for staff food.
It appears that nothing is off-limits, from expensive ingredients to any flight of fancy from Curtis’ imagination, creating what is essentially a playground for him to do what he wants, turning out food that any restaurateur would be proud to show off to their mates about.
Lucky really, because these pop-ups are the backdrop for what Curtis is planning. He’s no stranger to restaurant cooking, with a heavyweight CV that includes time at Simpsons in Birmingham and The Cross, as well as accolades including BCF Young Chef of the Year 2011, finalist in Craft Guild Young Chef of the Year and Best Commis Chef at the Bocuse d’Or – essentially the world culinary Olympics – in 2013.
He’s open about having moved to his current role so he could spend more time with family. And why wouldn’t you – the chance to work Monday to Friday 9-5, yet still create your own dishes, sourcing some of the best ingredients in the country. Yet there’s obviously an itch he’s keen to scratch, wanting to show off some of these dishes to members of the public as well as the people who grace those lovely offices every day.
That’s why we’re here. Eating excellent food in an office, created and served by a team of just three. As excellent champagne flows freely, it’s already a ‘restaurant’ I want to return to – a feeling that only grows through the next four hours of eating, drinking and enjoying the intrigue.
Some of the memories are vague, I’ll confess now. That’s the product of a generous wine pairing and having already had a few drinks at lunchtime. But it’s testament to Curtis’ creativity that plenty of detail shines through the booze-induced fog to stay in my memory.
We start with a chicken parfait-filled cone to whet the appetite, and then it’s straight into the wow factor. Sevruga caviar – less obvious than the more common Beluga – arranged on top of a crispy potato. It comes with a story of how it’s inspired by a memory of a moment involving caviar and pringles when he was at The Cross. It’s predictably great and sets the tone for an evening that is a kind of decadent down-to-earth hybrid.
There’s a playful riff on a Chinese takeaway made with fat Scottish langoustine. There are fat meaty chunks of the langoustine, there’s a bisque made from the heads whose flavour is as deep and earthy as the burnt-orange colour glowing at us from the cup it’s in.
But the favourite are crispy tempura bites – think a kind of marriage of posh scampi and sweet and sour chicken balls. They come with a fermented rhubarb hot sauce that has the sweet, tangy qualities of the standard sauce you get in those glorious polystyrene tubs from the takeaway, yet a million times more refined.
The bread we’re served next is made from flour milled in their own mini mill. Apparently the mother used to make it (the thing that starts off the sourdough, for those who aren’t bread-makers) has been around as long as Curtis has been here (five years), and it’s served with a cultured butter that I’m pretty sure could elevate even a Happy Shopper white loaf, let alone bread of this quality.
There’s the running theme I have noticed in several restaurants recently to serve bread and butter with custom-made wooden accessories. It’s a trend I’m very much here for and I can’t even explain why.
A seafood-themed platter is almost too pretty to eat but not quite – especially given the oysters inside have been married with chunks of Wagyu beef and blobs of an oyster emulsion. It’s all delightfully unnecessary but sometimes that’s the beauty of food of this level and we luxuriate in each and every mouthful.
There’s more. A perfectly-cooked scallop with fresh, crunchy discs of apple and a curry-like foam with a kick of ginger and lime.
A playful duck course that has us all thinking we’re just getting the glass of concentrated broth that’s put before us. Until the bird in all its glory is presented to us on a bed of hay then served in thick wedges whose vibrant pink contrast in colour and flavour with lovage puree it’s served with.
Desserts are playful, imaginative and memorable, despite the wine-induced haze. There’s what looks like a satsuma, presented on a crown of fragrant pine needles. Nothing is at it seems, but the flavours are as promised. There’s a Ferrero Rocher-inspired chocolate dessert studded in nuts and gold leaf, and we finish with coffee-laced madeleines that are unnecessary but snaffled in earnest by a somewhat inebriated audience.
Everyone leaves in high spirits, giddy on fine wine and even finer food. Booze aside (and I’m still thinking about the Gewurtztraminer that made up just one of that beautifully-chosen wine pairing), it’s clear the Midlands has got another treat on its doorstep.
Curtis’ experience speaks for itself, as does his cooking. There’s the precision, discipline and knowledge of flavours and combinations that comes with having worked in some top-notch kitchens. But there’s also the joy of someone who has been given the freedom (and financial support) to spread their wings and have some fun.
Where the expertise comes in is in balancing those two. This isn’t crazy creativity gone silly – it’s passion, imagination and innovation tempered with the knowledge of what works, how far you can push people, and an understanding of what makes great food great.
And lucky for us, all that is coming to a dining experience – in whatever form that may take – near you. It’s a bit of a mystery where The Table will take us, but it’s clear Kristian’s buzz from feeding the masses hasn’t gone anywhere and these pop-ups appear to be just the start of his next chapter.
From what I understand, there might be more events like this, and if you want him all to yourself, there’s the potential opportunity for you to book him for private dining. Will it be cheap? With ingredients, experience and hype like this, probably not. Will it be worth it? A resounding yes.
One for a special occasion maybe, or for people with a bulging wallet. But you’re going to want to keep your eye out for Kristian Curtis. Another jewel in our Midlands crown methinks, and worth saving up for.