There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Ludlow and La Bécasse

[Most of this post is about dinner at La Bécasse, which closed as the Murchison empire foundered. There is currently (Jan 2016) a restaurant called Mortimer's on the same site, which aims to be a fine dining restaurant. I have not been there, so cannot comment.]

Deep in the Shropshire countryside with a fine medieval castle and over 500 listed buildings, Ludlow has no difficulty attracting tourists. This was our second visit in recent years and, like the first, we were lured there not by history or architecture, but by food.

Ludlow Castle
Ludlow’s foody credentials go back a couple of decades. It has a fine market, two real butchers and the cheese shop where God would buy his cheese if he bought cheese (and for all I know, maybe He does).

Ludlow has also had far more than its fair share of Michelin starred restaurants, but when Sean Hill retired and closed The Merchant House (only to re-appear at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny) and Claude Bosi moved his two-starred Hibiscus to Mayfair, that left only Mr Underhill’s.

One Michelin starred restaurant for 10 000 people might be considered a superfluity -London has 55, roughly one to every 150 000 citizens - but Ludlow is special.

The departure of Hibiscus in 2007 seemed a particular betrayal to us, as it was there we had our first fine dining experience. However, the restaurant-shaped hole that was left in Corve Street was soon filled by Alan Murchison, owner of the Michelin-starred L’Ortolan in Reading. L’Ortolan's head chef Will Holland moved to take charge in Ludlow and Hibiscus re-emerged as La Bécasse (une bécasse is a woodcock).

[The Murchison venture failed in 2013. La Bécasse is closed]
La Bécasse soon won its own Michelin star [see update at end] and it was there we chose to celebrate our thirty-sixth wedding anniversary. We did so with trepidation. Our dinner at Hibiscus was extraordinary, the ability of Claude Bosi is internationally recognised, could La Bécasse possibly complete?

Last time we stayed in the Feathers Hotel, ‘The Most Handsome Inn in the World’ as the New York Times once called it (and the Feathers frequently points out). However, the glories of its 17th century architect can be adequately appreciated from the outside so this time we stayed at a very comfortable, but much cheaper B & B a little down the road at 130 Corve Street. The vagaries of local numbering are such that it turned out to be almost directly opposite La Bécasse, despite that being number 17.

The Feathers Hotel

At the appointed time we strolled across the road and were greeted by a rather nervous young man. He led us upstairs to the newly refurbished lounge where we sat in the window observing the customers in the kebab shop across the street. Lynne ordered a gin and tonic and I asked for a dry martini, which was exactly what I got. ‘Where’s the gin?’ I complained. The young man apologised, went away and fetched somebody slightly more senior but hardly any older. A book was surreptitiously produced at the far end of the room, lemon peel was subjected to some fancy knife work and a few moments later my dry martini arrived; still, in my opinion, with too much vermouth and too little gin, but at least it was the drink I had expected.

We studied the menus and nibbled the offered olives, nuts and, believe it or not, curried popcorn. At this point I was in danger of losing faith in La Bécasse. I should say now (because, amazingly, not everybody reads to the end of these posts) that I need not have worried. Front of house were willing enough but a little short of training. The same did not apply to the sommelier, waiting staff or, most importantly, the kitchen. Our meal was superb – and the curried pop corn? That was Will Holland’s little joke. It was a mark of supreme confidence (or perhaps over-confidence) to produce it at that stage of the evening.

We eschewed the tasting menu and the menu gourmand – we just cannot manage ten courses any more. The à la carte had the usual four starters, four mains and four desserts, each with a lengthy list of ingredients. To make ordering easier each dish had a one - or sometimes two - word title in shouty capitals. Choosing was difficult and required much discussion but eventually we settled on RABBIT and SUCKLING PIG for the mains. The extensive wine list offered few less expensive options – or defined ‘less expensive’ in a sense I had hitherto not encountered. A light red seemed appropriate, a Beaujolais say. I chose a Morgon for £45, which is one hell of a price for a Beaujolais.

Drinks drained, we decamped downstairs to the dining room. Long, or rather deep, and narrow with protruding walls forming alcoves it was much the same as in Claude Bosi’s day, providing privacy without a feeling of isolation.

Camembert risotto balls were crunchy outside, soft inside and richly savoury throughout. A tiny bowl of strongly flavoured tomato soup followed with freshly baked fennel, cumin and olive breads. Then we were ready for our starters.

SNAILS looked disappointing when it arrived with only two shells on the plate. I need not have fretted, six plump snails had already been rendered homeless and scattered about the plate while the shells contained wild garlic pannacotta. Accompanied by croutons, bone marrow beignet (a small but intensely satisfying mouthful) and sorrel, the dish provided a variety of intense yet complimentary flavours. Being unable to extract the last smear of pannacotta from round the corner of the snail shells was frustrating, but such are life’s small difficulties and they must be faced philosophically.

Lynne’s PIGEON involved two small, dark strips of carpaccio-ed breast. The nibble I was allowed was magical; rich and gamey, it lingered long in the mouth without feeling tough or chewy. I left the foie gras terrine, mango salsa and sesame cheese (not sure what that was) to Lynne. I had enough beautiful, elegant additions on my plate without plundering hers.

The Morgon was excellent. If I had bought it in Tescos for £15 – still a hell of a price for a Beaujolais – I would have been well pleased. That still leaves plenty of scope for a mark up.

My main course, Bryn Derw Farm SUCKLING PIG, involved several small pieces of piglet. The tiny slices of lean loin and fatty belly, the blob of sausage meat and the rectangle of crackling were all perfect. Confit potato, spring cabbage, sage, amaretti and a slice of char-grilled nectarine each added their own interest. The spring cabbage looked the weak link on paper, but on the plate, cooked in a heavily reduced stock, even that became sublime.

Lynne’s RABBIT consisted of a boned and rolled saddle wrapped in smoked bacon. The caramelised celery, raisins, capers and citrus marmalade, each in tiny quantities, added their own voices to the dish, but here Lynne felt that perhaps the balance was not quite right; the smoky flavour of the bacon being too dominant against the rabbit.

Before dessert we were presented with a small cup of Pimm’s jelly with gooseberries, strawberry parfait and cucumber foam topped with freeze dried strawberries. It was a fine palate freshener and a testament to Will Holland’s restraint that he made us wait so long before encountering a foam.

For dessert I had CARROT CAKE while Lynne chose RED WINE. Carrot cake sounds ordinary, but it looked anything but. A cuboid of cake was balanced on its narrow side like a section of wall with a peg of orange and honey parfait driven through it. It was moist, meltingly beautiful and helped along by a carrot, orange and vanilla puré. The ‘carrot spaghetti’ and coriander cress contributed more to the presentation rather than the flavour. The Tokay recommended as accompaniment was both subtle and intensely sweet, not an easy combination to pull off.

Lynne’s red-wine soufflé was as fine a soufflé as has ever existed, though the wine seemed to contribute little beyond giving it an unappealing greyish colour. A small spoonful of the accompanying berry and mint salad with yoghurt sorbet sent a dozen clean, fresh flavours whizzing happily round the palate.

Red wine soufflé, berry and mint salad with
yoghurt sorbet
Before coffee, we asked for the menu back to remind us exactly what we had eaten. Remembering the finer points was still beyond us: we had to return in the morning, notebook in hand, and copy down the complete descriptions from the menu outside. Perhaps we are a bit sad.

As money had by now ceased to have any meaning we each had a glass of 10-year-old Lheraud petit-champagne Cognac with our coffee and petit fours. ‘Happy Anniversary’ was written in chocolate on the dish, which was a nice touch. The powerful Cognac aroma reminded me that I have wasted too much of my life drinking cheap brandy. I had forgotten just how delightful the best can be. 

Happy Anniversary written in chocolate

After that it was out into the still warm evening for the short walk back, though we did not take the direct route, strolling up and down Corve Street to enjoy the fresh air and the feeling of complete internal satisfaction.

After mentally constructing Hibiscus into a legend we had gone almost hoping, in some perverse way, to be disappointed. Will Holland, we discovered, is no Claude Bosi, but then he does not need to be, he has his own style. We were repeatedly taken aback by the intensity of flavour packed into minuscule quantities, constantly wondering how he managed to do what he did, occasionally we were in awe. The dinner was not absolute perfection, but it was a damn good try and I suspect a second Michelin star cannot be far away [see update at end]. There remains, however, that small front of house problem. It is not the people that are wrong, it is the training they have had – or rather not had.

Happy punters
It was, it is fair to say, one of the finest meals of our lives and I would not have expected it to be cheap; top class ingredients and culinary artistry come at a price. Even so, at £250 for two, it was an expensive evening. We did not help ourselves with our choice of wine and Cognac, but we ate for almost  £100 less at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny last year and at the two-starred Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham before that. I know I would have paid more if I had visited Claude Bosi in the new Hibiscus, but that is in central London, La Bécasse is in central Ludlow, am I unreasonable in expecting the price to reflect that a little more.

Update (Oct 2011) The new edition of the Michelin guide came out in October 2011. Far from winning a second star, La Bécasse lost the one it had. I am gobsmacked.
(Jan 2016) The restaurant is now closed.
'Fine Dining' posts

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