Rating: ***** Great food and high standards of service are what make La Becasse such a comfortable and relaxing dining experience, writes Andy Richardson.
Shropshire chef Will Holland will publish his first book later this year.
It had better be a long one. Though still in his early 30s, the multi-award-winning cook has packed more into the past decade than most people do in their entire career.
Michelin star before the age of 30: Tick. National awards from the most respected organisations in the UK: Tick. Stages with the UK’s best chefs: Tick. Regular prime time TV appearances: Tick. Hell, he’s even got a fast car.
It’s difficult to believe that Holland has now been in Ludlow for the best part of seven years. When he arrived, he faced incredible pressure. His boss, the entrepreneurial restaurateur Alan Murchison, had bought the former Hibiscus restaurant, which had been Shropshire’s most successful ever. Holland had his work cut out to achieve the heights attained by former owner Claude Bosi.
And yet he set about his task with incredible intensity. Within months he’d attained three AA rosettes and soon after a Michelin star followed. The Good Food Guide named him as one of the best young chefs in the country and said he’d expert considerable influence over British gastronomy during the next 10 years.
The tall, lean head chef is a totemic figure in his kitchen. He leads a youthful team that is hungry for success and many among his ranks, including sous chef James Walshaw, are highly accomplished in their own right.
Impressive though it is, dining at La Becasse is not simply about great food. It’s about being made to feel special, about tasting new textures and flavour combinations and eating in one of the region’s most sumptuous and impressive dining rooms. The restaurant is set in an oak-panelled room that also has ample exposed brick work. Rich, vibrant tapestries, glasses, awards and artworks augment the soft tones of the brick and wood. It is a convivial and relaxing place.
Service is also of the highest standard. Holland’s front-of-house brigade seem to float across the floor, as though dancing two inches off the ground. There is an air of artistry about their work: dishes are presented with detailed descriptions and a theatrical flourish. Staff are attentive, making regular visits to tables and politely conversing with guests.
Holland has great plans for his restaurant. Some time ago, he successfully opened a first floor champagne bar. It is furnished with extravagant seating, including one chair that seems like a throne. More recently, he has opened his latest addition: The Vaults Private Dining Room.
The Vaults is located beside the La Becasse kitchen and large, plate glass windows provide a view of chefs as they busily chop, boil, braise, fry, roast, foam and plate. They work as though in harmony and I found it illuminating to watch. As one of my courses was served, I watched as different chefs worked assiduously on its individual elements before presenting them to Holland and Walshaw, who placed them on my plate. There were none of the theatrics or angry noises described in some of the UK’s kitchens – the La Becasse team seemed serene and unruffled.
Guests in The Vaults eat at beautifully-crafted wooden tables, which are similar to butcher’s blocks. Each one has been made by hand at great expense: They are sublime. An ever-changing degustation menu is served, with seven courses at lunchtimes and 10 at dinner. Portions are petite: they offer guests a taste of Holland’s interpretation of local, seasonal produce.
I started with a dish that Holland recently featured on BBC TV’s Great British Menu. It comprised a light and flavoursome goat’s cheese mousse with a beetroot puree and beetroot dust. It was as pretty as a picture. Four small balls of mousse had been rolled in gingerbread crumbs and dotted around the plate. Beneath them was a smear of bright red beetroot puree and baby beetroot leaves were leaned against the balls of mousse, adding height and colour to the dish.
The plate was finished with small cubes of balsamic jelly, which added piquancy, and scattered nuts, which offered contrasting texture. The flavours and textures were perfectly balanced. It was a great way to start.
The next course featured scallops with a vanilla and parsnip veloute. Three perfectly seared scallops had been laid in a triangle at the bottom of a bowl. They were placed between small balls of quince that had been poached in saffron. Tarragon puree offered colour and aromatic flavour while tiny cubes of cooking liquor had been set as jelly and delicately placed in the bowl. The creamy veloute was poured over the dish.
The complementary nature of the flavours was delightful. I’d expected the vanilla and saffron to clash, but, surprisingly, they worked beautifully. They danced on my palate, like high-kicking bridesmaids at a wedding party. The scallops were the star, offering a sweet-and-salty taste of the sea. The tarragon added depth. The dish was light and refreshing: it was superlative.
There was a welcome pause between courses, allowing me time to watch Holland and his team from my vantage point. They worked industriously, as though in perfect harmony. It seemed as though they were synchronised: like gold-medal-winning Olympians.
Course number three was my favourite. It was a crab and fruit salad. Small flakes of crabmeat had been mixed with a light, curried mayonnaise and spread across a glass plate. On top, were small curried cod fishcakes, encased in a golden brown breadcrumb. Small leaves of baby coriander adorned the plate and a papaya salsa provided a sweet-and-spicy accompaniment. The dish was stunning. It was light and elegant; simple and refined. It was a marriage of flavours, which worked together in perfect harmony. The salad felt like a symphony of flavour: there were high notes from the salsa, low notes from the mayonnaise, mid-tones from the crab. It felt as though it had a Thai-influence, with a mixture of sweet and acidity.
Further courses followed and I was particularly taken by the day’s meat course, which featured pork belly. I’ve seldom eaten such a celebration of pork before. Small cubes of pork belly, which had been salted and slow cooked, sat on beds of greens. Caramelised cauliflower puree and caramelised cauliflower slices provided hints of earthy bitterness while the dish was finished with apple, deep-fried capers, sultanas and savoury gravy. It was exquisite. My senses were utterly enthralled by the skills of Holland’s brigade.
I enjoyed two desserts. The first was a warm poached apple in blackberry stock. It came with a cinnamon panna cotta, blackberry clafoutis and a blackberry reduction. The flavours were perfectly balanced.
A sweet soufflé also hit the heights. Served in a small coffee cup, it came with toffee popcorn and toffee sauce, mini meringues and a scoop of ice cream. It was as light as a feather. No, feathers aren’t that light. It was as light as air, it felt almost dream-like. The soufflé had risen to double the size of the cup while the sweet tastes of popcorn, meringue and ice cream provided a contrast of textures.
Holland has established himself as one of the stars of Shropshire’s gastronomic scene in six-or-seven busy years. The county’s reputation for culinary excellence had been long-established by the time Holland arrived, but he’s carried the flame. It remains as much of a mystery to me as it does to his other regulars that Michelin presently overlooks the excellence of his operation – though hopefully that will change when the next round of stars are awarded this autumn.
Holland has, however, reached a stage in his career when such laurels do not define him. He’s established in his own right. People travel from across the UK to eat his food. He’s created a destination restaurant with a reputation for excellence and day-in, day-out he delivers the goods. His new Vaults Private Dining Room is an exceptional addition to his operation. Seeing Holland and his team cook and present food, before eating it, makes for an exciting experience. There are few such venues outside London – aren’t we lucky to have him right on our doorstep.
La Becasse, 17 Corve Street, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 1DA
Tel: 01584 872 325