Review: Ludlow Kitchen, Ludlow

The Ludlow Kitchen wins at local produce, don’t even try to compete. This is because it is the new restaurant attached to the successful Ludlow Food Centre, farm shop extraordinaire. Let’s see… the beef, lamb and pork is all from their own farm and butchered on the premises, they also make their own cheeses, cream and butter on the premises from their own milk, many of the vegetables are grown in their own gardens, jams and preserves made on the premises from local fruit, honey from their own hives. Heck, they roast their own coffee. It helps that their “farm” is actually the Earl of Plymouth’s rather extensive estates. Don’t ask me why the Earl of Plymouth’s estates are in Shropshire.

So how’s the new restaurant? It’s a big barn of a room, filled with bare wood – furniture, beams, fittings – but with a strongly contemporary look. This is a bright space, and the service was also bright and friendly. Well, they’ve only been open a week so they ought to be enthusiastic.

The starters on offer were all vegetarian, except for the chicken liver parfait. I went for a salad of beetroot and Ludlow Blue cheese. The mix of three beetroots was good, sweet flavours and some crunch from raw slices of golden beet, but the piece of cheese used was a bit of a dry old specimen, more veining than paste. Maureen’s pickled mushroom salad was great; a selection of lightly pickled fungi with a salad of mixed herbs including plenty of tarragon – great idea, the aniseed flavour sang with the pickle.

I went for the onglet steak, and it was a delicious piece of meat, absolutely stuffed with flavour, aided and abetted by pan juices. Good carrots, more herb salad, and some pretty decent chips; thin, crunchy, still with skins on, they took to the pan juices very well. The accompanying bearnaise sauce was a perfect consistency, but sadly over-vinegared.

Maureen’s main was a couple of melting trout fillets with a light sauce of ramsons and lightly roasted baby onions. Onions with trout? But they were young and sweet, and along with the delicate fish and loving wild garlic the whole dish was a paean to Spring. Which I’m sure is just around the corner.

Puddings were 50/50. Almond pannacotta was brilliant, and a perfect consistency – wobbly to the point of but not quite collapsing. Why haven’t I had almond pannacotta before? Why? Roasted green rhubarb and ginger accompanied it very smartly. Maureen’s rice pudding was a good flavour, sweet and gently spiced, but it was a huge portion. The rice still had plenty of bite, like a risotto. Surely a rice pudding should be soothingly soft? My espresso at the end was very bitter, I ought to have said something.

This is only the Ludlow Kitchen’s first week, and overall I was pleased. The odd tweaks needed are just that, and shouldn’t hide some very honest and flattering cooking of excellent local produce. The starters felt pricey, and three courses ended up at about £26 before drinks. So, not a bargain, but that isn’t going to stop me returning, or indeed bringing friends here when I want to showcase to them the fine local foods that makes this region brilliant.

Review: Gamba, Glasgow

It is well known that deep-fried Mars Bar is a Glaswegian chip shop staple, which may explain why Glasgow’s favourite fish restaurant has such a free hand with the butter.

Glasgow has a few fine fish restaurants vying for the title of favourite, as it ought to: there is so much fantastic seafood along this west coast of Scotland. I remember staying on the Isle of Mull and happening on a small mussel farm. The place was deserted, but they had a big cooler box filled with 2kg nets of mussels and an honesty box. It was £2.50 per net, I think. But we’re looking at something altogether more refined today, and so to Gamba, the self-confessed Glasgow favourite…

The restaurant is a cosy basement dining room, furnished with style and comfort. Stripey chair fabrics, an A-to-Z of fish on the wall, and plenty of space. Service was good, semi-formal and friendly. The bar at the front looked particularly snappy.

My starter was their signature fish soup, a delicious specimen with plenty of shredded crab in a satisfyingly deep fish stock, warmed by lots of ginger and coriander. This was the dish of the day, for me. Maureen’s tartare of sea bass included sesame oil, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. An unusual concoction, more a cleverly forced marriage than a natural one. I would have expected the main ingredient to stand forward, but the fish was distinctly third fiddle.

For main I chose pan-fried hake with salsify, clams and toasted almonds. The whole almonds were a good addition, pebbles on my very seashore-looking plate. It was otherwise a classic, very well cooked, although I noticed belatedly that they’d left off the promised capers. A shame, as the acidity would have cut the lake of brown butter the dish swam in. I started off soaking this up with the handsome side-order of rooster chips but about half-way I could hear the faint squealing of my arteries hardening and left off.

The other side dish, a “fennel and orange salad”, was a disappointing mixed-leaf salad with unappealing vinaigrette and a few bits of fennel and orange. I’m not going mad. In this century the term “salad” doesn’t have to imply the inclusion of two handfuls assorted rabbit food, does it?

Maureen’s halibut was also swimming, and its ocean of cream and butter was even richer than mine. Beautiful piece of fish, again, and generous. The pieces of peat-smoked haddock with it were powerful good, presumably added to give some flavour punch although nothing was going to lighten the richness of the cream.

Although we both felt heavy with butter I tried a toasted caramel mousse for pud. The slight bitterness of the blow-torched surface was the only interesting taste in what was otherwise a butterscotch angel delight.

Gamba is for fish-lovers, and more particularly lovers of classic fish cuisine. These are generous portions of top-quality seafood, although some of the combinations on the plate seemed a little forced. I suppose we may have chosen the two richest dishes on the menu, but that isn’t how they read and I have to review what I ate. Prices are good for a high-end seafood restaurant, perhaps £38 per person for three courses without drinks. I wouldn’t argue for a special trip to Glasgow on the grounds of Gamba alone, but if you are staying in the city and wanting some classic seafood cooking then I’d point you here.

Review: Stravaigin, Glasgow

Sassenach bloggers and critics seem to only cross the border with their sights on Edinburgh, drawn by the passel of well known chefs doing their thing in Scotland’s capital. So in the spirit of adventure I thought I’d look for good eats in Scotland’s second city.

Stravaigin is a bar and restaurant rambling over several rooms, outfitted in gnarly eccentricity: it’s a hipster highland lodge on a high street in a handsome and bohemian patch of Glasgow. I like it immediately, even before being handed a menu that has me praying the food is as good as it reads. Local produce, unusual elements, powerful flavours, plenty of spice, it might have been written for me.

Stravaigin like to challenge with their food. Shortly after the horsemeat scandal broke into a canter they put their own (quite deliberate) horsemeat lasagne on the menu. They half-feared animal rights activists would picket the door, but on the night all 120 portions sold out within ninety minutes of opening.

Alas, it was a one-off. Instead I start with poached monkfish liver and a preserved lemon relish. See? This was unashamedly powerful, beautifully poached too. And I can report that eight hours later the taste is still with me. Maureen’s ox tongue was even better. The tongue was delicious on its own, but the pairing with a vividly amber puree of carrot and liquorice was brilliant. And the liquorice was not a subtle nudge, it was a bang of liquorice on top of the melting tongue.

Mains. Pan-roasted coley on a smoked haddock risotto on a cauliflower puree. The accompaniments were smashing, but the powerfully good chunk of coley was the star. Slivers of raw red chillies might have been nudged to one side by some, but for me they added star-bursts of excitement to a cosy dish. Maureen’s massaman curry duck leg was very good, with glutinous rice and a Thai salad. It told a story of someone who has actually been to Thailand and understood how this food should be done, rather than just read about it.

My pudding was a sharply squishy baked lemon curd with bright marscapone ice cream and lemon dust; refreshing finish, prettily plated. Maureen’s ginger parfait and prune ice cream were two great components that didn’t really share one plate very well, though a red wine reduction was a surprising pudding element that went beautifully with the parfait.

And we’re done. Three courses of exciting food, very well cooked and presented, for around £24. Better yet, my own choices were off the three course lunch menu – a stunning £15 bargain. Look, if you’re off on that long weekend break to the Highlands you have to drive past Glasgow anyway*. Stravaigin is just off the motorway and adds barely ten minutes to the journey time. Do yourself a favour, aye?

* – and I should hasten to add that Glasgow could occupy a perfectly good weekend break on its own, as I’ve stopped a couple of times before now

Review: The Pound, Leebotwood

I’ve driven past The Pound dozens of times without looking twice. Oh, it’s a decent enough looking pub, but it’s right on the busy A49, the main trunk road for the Marches. Both the pub and the little village of Leebotwood that the A-road grinds its way through pass by in a grimy haze without much notice whenever I’m off to Shrewbury, Chester or any points north in Shropshire.

So now I’m left to wonder how many other hidden gems lurk by the side of our busy A-roads, because I just had a really great lunch there at the hands of chef John Williams.

Inside, the pub is much larger and more smartly decorated than its location would ever let you believe. Although there’s plenty of bare wood in evidence, they’ve gone for bright and contemporary rather than ye olde country pubbe. There’s plenty of space, too – I don’t imagine a table with kids would be as disruptive as it can be in some of the cheek-by-jowl gastropubs I’ve been shoe-horned into. On a mid-week lunchtime service was entirely by the lady of the house, quite capable of keeping a half-dozen tables ticking over with a friendly smile.

My starter was a classic chicken liver parfait with crisp toasts and caramelised onion relish. It was a very good specimen, the parfait particularly creamy and rich. Maureen’s starter was even better: a slab of delicious house-smoked salmon with a gingerbread crumb and wasabi mayonnaise. Gingerbread and smoked salmon work beautifully, who knew? It helps that the salmon was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. This dish could have sat comfortably on white linen in most fine dining restaurants.

Not feeling meaty, I picked a twice-baked cheese souffle for main. It was plump, cheesy and very satisfying, intelligently served with a warm ratatouille. Maureen’s burger was a really serious bit of beef, charred outside and pink inside, very hefty. The chilli relish and crisp bacon were good, the accompanying chips were fat and crispy – essentially perfect. Best of all was the bun, a firm brioche with a fine texture, light and soft with a wonderful shining crust. Seems silly to rave about a bun, but there you go.

My moist ginger cake was fully gingery, with rum and raisin ice cream and a puddle of caramel sauce. Unlike a typical pub sticky-toffee-pud, this cake would have been utterly delicious without any accompaniment. Maureen’s apple crumble was great too, just the right balance of sharp/sweet with a generous amount of apple.

I couldn’t want a better pub lunch. At about £23 for three courses without drinks The Pound undercuts every cardboard-cutout gastropub in the shires and offers up better food than most to boot. Wine by the glass is only £3-£4 though admittedly our choices were ho-hum. Now, if only they could be pursuaded to inch a few miles closer to Ludlow for me…?

Finally, the burger (because I liked the photo)…

Review: The Dysart Arms, Bunbury

The Dysart Arms is part of the Brunning & Price chain of pubs, one of those groups that has worked out the gastropub formula and is busily replicating it in 30+ places across the country. Normally I’d pick an independent instead, but Harden’s gave it a thumbs up and we were winding our way home after a long day so picking somewhere with some confidence of success seemed good.

Of course, and feel free to call me a snob, if I’d known that Brunning & Price were owned by The Restaurant Group, who also run Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquitos and Garfunkels, I might have been more tempted to pick a local indie. Hey-ho, we learn as we go. At least I can say that I ate and reviewed before finding out.

The ambiance is one thing they’ve got right, a handful of linked rooms kept cosy and characterful with plenty of original looking features and a grand library giving the main dining room style. This is not the identikit decor of a Garfunkels. The service is friendly, generally good. The menu had me worried even before ordering: sixteen mains? That’s not usually a good sign.

My starter, a pigeon breast salad, was well done. The pigeon was raw cured and ate beautifully. The stickily dressed salad added good flavours of chestnut and cranberry. Maureen’s “crab bon-bons” were dense and the crab uncrabby, with a zingy Thai-style sauce from the bottle-of-sweet-chilli-sauce school of UK Thai cooking.

My pork main was a big plate of pig. The belly was okay, a big confit slab with too much unrendered fat left. Pig cheek was a good texture but under-seasoned, and the “black pudding croquette” was soggy sage stuffing in breadcrumbs with the odd crumb of black pudding to show willing. Maureen’s salt-and-pepper squid salad was four big rubber rings coated in a powerful spicy pepper, tossed into a mixed salad with some bits of grapefruit. It was definitely ho-hum.

Gastropub puds ought to have fixed things, but their sticky toffee pudding was unloving with not enough sauce and the bread-and-butter pudding had absolutely no colour on top, it was just a hefty lump with a sticky apricot sauce that looked like… well, I’ll leave it to the photo.

None of our meal at The Dysart was inedible, but none of it was very good either (pigeon excepted). I’ve had better specimens of every other dish within the last six months. There’s a place for chain pubs, I’ve got no problem with Wetherspoons and co. turning out microwaved Brake Bros grub for those who only have a tenner to spend on a meal out. But if Brunning & Price want to charge the same as good independent gastropubs (£24 three courses without drinks) for what is generally very dull fodder, then I’ve got no time for them.

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