Reviewer's rating: **** Andy Richardson finds a Shropshire bistro to match his Lakeland and Sardinian favourites.
Reviewer's rating: **** Huddle up close, writes Andy Richardson. That's it, right beside me. Don't worry, my gent's fragrance is reassuringly expensive. Now, lend me your ear; a little close, that's it. Don't worry, I won't nibble, it's not yet dinner time.
Good. Now, I want to tell you a secret, as long as you promise not to tell. On Wednesday, when the Good Food Guide 2011 is published, there'll be a new inclusion: The Green Cafe, at Dinham Weir, in Ludlow.
Shhhssssh. Don't tell anyone, you're not supposed to know. Sandwiched between the sensationally creative Will Holland, at La Becasse, in Ludlow's Corve Street; and the luxuriously indulgent Chris and Judy Bradley, at Mr Underhills, also on Dinham Weir, will be Clive Davis and Laura Bolt, of The Green Cafe.
They may not twinkle quite as brightly as their Michelin-starred contemporaries, but make no mistake; their's is a triumph.
Their inclusion in the Good Food Guide 2011 is deserved, every last word of it. The Green Cafe is the finest eaterie of its kind in Shropshire. No contest. Low prices; a passion for big, ballsy flavours; ingredients of the highest provenance; an idyllic setting; great service and compassion for the environment: honestly, if you were creating a concept for the perfect restaurant, it'd tick every last box.
I visited this week, having been told by a reckless scamp with an illicit should've-been-embargoed-copy-of-said-guide to get in quick, before the crowds descend next week, when The GFG 2011 is published.
Before we get going on the food I'd like to offer you a few short tales for your delectation.
One of the UK's finest cafe-style eateries is to be found in The Lake District, in Ambleside, on the shores of Windermere, where Lucy's On A Plate serves good food and joie de vivre. The eaterie has non-pretentious food and a winning ambience. Each year, it wins plaudits from visitors and critics alike, who marvel at its goose fat chips, pasta feasts or miraculous puds.
Earlier this year, I enjoyed a four-night break in Sardinia, one of my favourite Euro destinations. Ostensibly, I went there to eat. I ate pasta made that morning, fish caught that day, meat cured in the chef's cellars and similar epicurean treats. The flavours were unspoiled, unfussy, harked back to an earlier, simpler time and sated the senses.
So what connection do these two tales have with The Green Cafe? Simple. The Green Cafe is a temple to the sort of down-home, mouth-watering, timeless flavours that never go out of fashion.
The waitresses are charming, denim-wearing, knowledgeable, nothing's-too-much-trouble-types who serve with a smile and make polite enquiries during service.
The kitchen makes the best of local produce, creating opportunities for local ingredients to shine.
It's suppliers' list reads like a who's who of local and/or high quality organic food: James Gourmet Coffe, Prices, Myriad Organics, Mousetrap, Harlington Wine, The Olive Press, Mawley Milk, Bredon Hill Foods, Jus, Walls, Teme Weirs Trust, Ludlow Produce Market, Ludlow Brewing Company, Survival Wholefoods and more besides. Head chef Clive is even accredited by Slow Food, the torch holders for honest, fair and unadulterated food.
The restaurant's chefs makes everything themselves, apart from the bread and jam, though, having previously sampled the sourdough loaves made by sous chef Laura Bolt, I'm not entirely sure why it doesn't make those too. They're a treat.
It recycles its glass, paper, cardboard and food waste and its takeaway containers are biodegradeable. So far, so goody two shoes.
The Green Cafe also has a location to die for. On the banks of the River Teme, slap bang on Dinham Weir, it offers diners vistas across flowing water where salmon leap in autumn.
The Green Cafe knocks Ludlow's existing bistros and cafes into a cocked hat. For all Dean Banner's talented cheffery at Parkway, the only two venues that are better are those with Michelin stars.
The menu is short, a little too short; during my visit the pig's head pie was sadly off the menu. In its place, was a homemade gnocchi with a pork faggot ragout. It was divine, taking me back to the simple, consistently-brilliant flavours of Sardinia. The gnocchi was light and unfilling, rather than the usual dour stodge that most chefs offer, while the sauce was intelligently flavoured with carroway seed, giving it a real edge.
The puds are all of the cake variety, with brownies, carrot cake, shortbreads and more besides. I opted for fragrant lemon poltena cake with a wonderously sour lemon yoghurt. It had a squishy texture, slightly tart taste and was the perfect bookend to a seriously good lunch.
Great cooking, great ingredients, an enviable location, sassy staff and a brilliant head-and-sous chef combo; what's not to like?
The Green Cafe has great potential to improve; extended opening hours, hoards of customers and a reputation to match Lucy's surely beckon. But, remember, don't tell anyone. Not until Wednesday, at least.
The Green Café at the Mill on the Green, Dinham Bridge, Ludlow SY8 1EG
Telephone 01584 879872
Sweetcorn soup with mushrooms and sourdough bread (£4.50); Chicken liver pate with fig chutney and toast (£5)
Pig's head pie, beetroot and caper salad (£7.50); Homemade tagliolini with courgette, tomato and anchovy (£8.50)
Vanilla panna cotta with raspberries (£3.75); Bilberries with organic ice cream (£3.75)
First class. Unhurried, unfussy and unpretentious. Very relaxed and convivial.
Exemplary. Very friendly, polite and well-informed.
Disabled toilet and easy access