I write this from Amsterdam, our first foray into Europe on the Grand Tour. This will be my last post on the UK this go-around, although Steve has promised write-ups on the malts of Islay and our experiences in working at beer festivals in England. We’ll see…
I have always wanted to write a proper restaurant review. A bit of a foodie, several times in my life I have considered becoming a food critic and doing the following: discussing wine pairing with likes of Karen MacNeill and Andrea Immer, dissecting recipe components for Food & Wine magazine, writing restaurant reviews for The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. Combining two passions, writing and eating, seems ideal, a thrill even, full of whirlwind days and nights of remarkable gustatory experiences and someone else paying for the check.
We came to Ludlow, a town in Shropshire near the Welsh border, for a week, expecting such experiences for this lovely and vibrant little place of 10,000 is considered England’s gastronomic capital outside of London. There is some sort of market every day, with its famed farmers’ market held twice a month, and various festivals take place throughout the year including the ever popular Ludlow Food and Drink Festival. This town eschews big box stores and fiercely promotes its local butchers, fishmongers, bakers and cheese makers. Most extraordinary is the fact that Ludlow boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants. Two! How on earth did this happen? In many ways I am philosophically against such organizations as Michelin in their approach to food. Do fine restaurants around the world require an authoritative body to grant them ordination into a secret gastronomic cult whose methods of reviewing meals are both mysterious and starchy in order to know that their food is good? There seems to be a joylessness in Michelin’s approach, nothing hedonistic or fun in its assessment of a restaurant’s quality, chef’s mastery of technique and consistency of the food. It is by the numbers, about which we know very little. But Michelin is powerful, holds a lot of clout, and their bestowing of stars, from one to three, can make a restaurant, if it is new to the Guide, or break it if there is a demotion in stars.
One of Ludlow’s Michelin-starred restaurants is la Bécasse, which specializes in French-influenced dishes made of local seasonal ingredients, helmed by culinary wunderkind Will Holland. (Sounds like several other Michelin-starred restaurants, which seems to indicate that the reviewers have a predisposition toward anything français. It is a French organization after all.) Now I have been to many restaurants in my life and a few boasting Michelin stars (The French Laundry and Gary Danko in the San Francisco area, Per Se and Gramercy Tavern in New York, for example) so I really feel as though I have an understanding of good food and what it takes to be a high-quality restaurant. Or at least a peripheral sense. Or an idea. A general idea. Sort of. Ok, maybe I just like to eat.
La Bécasse, French for “woodcock”, located not far from Ludlow’s other Michelin-starred restaurant, Mr. Underhill’s, is situated in the former location of another Michelin-starred restaurant, Hibiscus, which moved shop to London several years ago. La Bécasse is part of the 10 in 8 Fine Dining Group and includes as partners such restaurants as L’Ortolan and Angelique. I had read a review of it in British Heritage magazine as well as The Good Food Guide and was determined to eat there during our time in Shropshire. From these reviews I learned that it is much easier to get a lunch booking rather than a dinner booking, so with this information I consulted OpenTable and had my pick of day and time for our meal about one week away.
The day finally arrived and Steve and I got properly attired (smart casual – no shorts Steve!) and took a leisurely walk to 17 Corve St. The building in which the restaurant resides is a rather nondescript three-floored rectangular structure and is painted a pale pink. Inside is much more interesting, with low ceilings, exposed beams and stone, and several rooms of varying size. Upon checking in we were asked if we wanted a drink in the bar upstairs before lunch. I had remembered reading a review suggesting to take the maître d’ up on the offer of the bar so we did. The room upstairs didn’t hide the fact that we were in an old building – uneven floor, exposed wooden beams and carefully placed wooden columns upon which a low slanted ceiling rests – but the restaurant showed its sensibility in its modern low-backed chairs and couches. We were the only ones in the bar and there was no music, so I felt as though we had to temper our conversation for the two bar staff there lest we say something inappropriate (what this could have been I have no idea.)
I ordered a glass of vintage Lanson, which was handed to me by an unsure young server who I thought gave me a short pour, and Steve a gin and tonic made with locally-produced gin. Both were delicious and the perfect way to start the afternoon. The second server came around with our lunch menus and expected us to order from her in the bar rather than downstairs at our table, which I thought was a bit odd but nonetheless we were willing to oblige. She handed us the slightly stained menus and this was where the first real issue (other than the short champagne pour) reared its ugly head. The menu is…complicated. The delectable-sounding dishes are listed in a myriad of possibilities: the Menu of the Day, a choice of two or three courses, with a chef’s appetizer and pre-dessert mixed in (only if you are having the three courses do you get the pre-dessert); the Taste of Bécasse, six small-portioned meals selected by the chef which comes with a wine pairing for an additional charge but the catch is the entire table must order this menu; the Sparkling Lunch Menu, a three-course menu from which you can choose one of three dishes in each course and includes the chef’s appetizer and pre-dessert but the glass of sparkling wine is extra and optional despite the title of the menu; the A la Carte menu in two or three courses which has one extra option per course but is almost double in price compared to the Menu of the Day; a Gourmand Menu which consists of six courses, plus the chef’s appetizer and pre-dessert, costing more than the three-course A la Carte and has two wine pairing options, one more expensive that the other; and a Vegetarian Menu which is like the Gourmand except the dishes are non-meat and there is only one wine pairing option with this menu.
Are you still reading this? Does your head hurt?
To keep things simple, and because we were hypoglycemic, we ordered the three-course Menu of the Day and asked if the sommelier would be so kind as to suggest some wines with the courses, even though this option was not listed on the menu. (The sommelier, a young, polite and professional Frenchman, graciously indulged us.) We were walked down to our table in the dining room passing by our fellow diners, mostly of the geriatric variety, speaking in hushed tones, and tacky lava lamp inspired art, sort of like bad 70s carpet cut up in sections, tacked on some backing and hung on the walls.
The Chef’s Appetizer was a carrot soup, the color of the lava lamp art, that was quite candied in flavor, however the texture was like silk and left me to marvel how someone could make a soup so airy and soft. Brought out a few moments before were the bread rolls in three different flavors. I remember liking the cumin roll especially.
For my first course I selected what was listed on the menu as “Tomato,” a deconstructed Greek tomato salad which came with some local goat’s cheese and a watermelon gazpacho. The server, not the person who took our order but the sommelier, poured the gazpacho onto the salad so that the veggies were bogged down in a rose-colored liquid. The presentation of the salad was underwhelming at first, but interesting when I looked closer as the olive/tapenade took the form of a skid mark, a form so sharp that it contrasted with the softer shapes of the vegetables and the pretty feminine color of the gazpacho.
I liked the flavors in the dish, especially the cold of the soup next to the warm of the cheese, and the tang of the thinly-sliced dried tomato on top – I could eat handfuls of tomatoes like that (so good.) It was difficult to eat the soup as I wasn’t given a spoon (I don’t think I was meant to have one), so I had to borrow the tiny spoon Steve got with his starter. With it the sommelier paired a fresh albariño, its spritz and zest a solid compliment to the salt and cream of the salad.
Steve’s starter was listed on the menu as Pig’s Head, not the most appetizing of names, which was jellied and served with a chickpea salsa, preserved lemon and onion hummus. Despite its name, this dish was delicious and savory, the lemon serving as a good foil for the saltiness of the terrine. For wine the sommelier recommended a flinty yet apple-y pinot gris from New Zealand, luscious and well-structured.
My main course was my favorite, but it didn’t start out that way. I ordered the sea trout which came with potato and dill gnocchi and a selection of vegetables, including peas, broad beans and lettuce (which the menu described as a lettuce “ravioli.” Uh huh.) Steve had the chicken and potatoes, a ho-hum sounding dish enlivened by a topping of wild garlic and truffle cream sauce. When my dish was served to me I was a bit aghast to see foam. Why foam? That mainstay of molecular gastronomy went out with the late 90s so why oh why are you using it here for the love of god?? Trying to hide something? And what’s all this green stuff on the plate? Did something melt or is this another attempt at skid marks?
The seemingly sloppy presentation belied the most extraordinary flavors and textures. Buttery fish, fresh wilted sweet lettuce, firm grassy broad beans, peas tasting like honeycomb, encompassed by a mushroomy net-like foam, tasting of sea salt and earth, with dill from the airy gnocchi peeking through. A really wonderful dish. Thank goodness Steve doesn’t eat fish because I was not at all prepared to share with him. The wine for this dish was from France, a Macon Villages, nicely round to match the fleshiness of the fish but with a racy acidity and solid backbone to cut through the softness of the ingredients.
Steve’s dish was almost as good (my opinion only), the foamed garlic and truffle cream sauce rendering the chicken meatier and the potatoes more flavorful. Truffles are a tricky thing as a little goes a long way but it is easy to use too much, however the truffle flavor was subtle. Alongside the meat was a little bundle of French beans which were tied up with a long thin bean and tasted fresh, firm and alive. For wine, Steve had a spicy red blend from Chateau Musar, a winery located in the Bekka Valley of Lebanon that held up to the overall earthiness of the dish.
There was a lemony sorbet of some kind for the pre-dessert, but we neglected to take a photo and neither of us really remember it. At least we can say it was inoffensive!
Strawberry was the star of my dessert and came in the form of fresh strawberries and strawberry sorbet, accompanied by a warm lemon curd crepe, olive oil and basil salad dotted with black pepper caramel. The photo doesn’t do the presentation of the dish justice as Steve took it after I had already tucked into the dessert, so the arrangement is not as pleasing to the eye. The olive oil came in the form of little green blobs resembling kiwi fruit, olive oil suspended in gelatin, another nod to molecular gastronomy. The flavors are meant to be combined in one mouthful, so I took a bit each of olive oil, strawberry sorbet and lemon curd crepe and experienced a flavor explosion – cool and warm, tangy and sweet.
It was no surprise that Steve opted for cheese for dessert. The cheese cart was wheeled out by yet a different server, another Frenchman, who selected four different cheeses – one soft, one stinky, one sharp and one blue – and some house made chutney to accompany them. Steve was in heaven! How can you really go wrong with cheese?
Feeling pleasantly full, we asked a young server for the check, or the bill as it is called in these parts. The restaurant had almost cleared out – the two poncy English couples sharing a table had left, as did the two skinny women who miraculously seemed to have eaten every course on the menu but had physically nothing to show for it – and our familiar servers and sommelier had disappeared. After about ten minutes, Steve asked the young server for the check again, to which he replied “They are still adding it up for you.” What? Did we eat that much? Did we SPEND that much? Eventually we received the bill which came to us itemized and in a pretty folder. The restaurant adds a discretionary service charge of 12.5%, which was certainly deserved as the service was swift and professional, but much less than the standard 20% it would have received if this restaurant were located in the United States.
Overall the afternoon was pleasant, the food delicious, and the pace leisurely but not slow. I would go back to la Bécasse, but not before I tried Mr. Underhill’s, and can recommend it to anyone visiting Ludlow. You will have a good experience, eat a well-crafted meal made from local ingredients and be served by a professional staff who can speak to every dish and each bottle of wine. Will it blow your mind? No, it won’t, especially if you have been to any of the restaurants I mentioned above, but you are assured of a lovely time in a historic building in a charming town deemed by poet John Betjeman as “the loveliest little town in England.”
So I suppose la Bécasse deserves the accolades it has received, and that single Michelin star. It will be interesting to see if Will Holland stays here, or leaves for greener pastures in London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Chicago or Las Vegas, or if little Ludlow continues to add more famed restaurants to its already impressive list.
More pics of the loveliest little town in England: