The Riverside Inn, Aymestrey, Leominster - food review
Times have changed when it comes to eating out and now it's all about creating dishes with seasonal food. Andy Richardson has found a gem...
The dining scene is changing. Ten years ago, people wanted to eat out at fine dining restaurants. Celebrations were held at special occasion venues and restaurants with Michelin stars and several AA rosettes flourished. Things are different now.
There's a smaller number of such restaurants and the gap has been filled by a wellspring of bistro-style independents.
Restaurants that offer informal dining at affordable prices are more fashionable than ever. They tend to offer standards higher than traditional pubs but that don't match the level of fine dining restaurants. They focus on locally-sourced ingredients that are in peak condition and their menus change with the seasons. The Riverside Inn, at Aymestrey, not far from the south Shropshire border, is the perfect example.
Run by chef patron Andy Link, the Riverside Inn combines traditional British flavours with a modern influence. Dinners are served in olde worlde surroundings: the venue oozes history with old wooden beams and tiled floors.
It is located in the heart of a thriving farming area and consistently promotes local produce from specialist producers and farms in north Herefordshire, the Welsh Marches and south Shropshire.
Farm-to-fork eating is a reality, rather than a trendy marketing slogan, and at any time Andy and his team can point out ingredients on plates that were harvested from their own gardens and orchards, just 60 steps from the kitchen door.
On a daily basis, Andy along with his kitchen staff will pick, dig or pluck what's in peak condition as well as forage in the hedgerows and along the nearby riverbank for wild garlic, elderflower, nettles and more, cleverly using what is naturally available.
It's an intelligent way to go about business. The Riverside Inn is off the beaten track, beside the River Lugg, near Ludlow and Leominster. It's a destination restaurant that services the hinterland of both towns. Andy has to get it right to stay in business. And, happily, he does.
I visited with two friends for a midweek supper and by the time we arrived the restaurant was already full. There are few clearer signs of a successful restaurant than a full car park and booked tables when it's the middle of the week.
The menu was that rarest of creatures: it was one where we could happily have eaten any dish from it. Rather than being the sort of menu that features half a dozen unfit kids who are always the last pick for the school football team – you know, the sort that feature dull, eaten-them-before dishes or that make such a fuss and engage in absurd smoke-and-mirrors-eating that you want to flee to the nearest chip shop – it was packed with stone dead classics. It was a beauty parade of attractive dishes, a Champions League Last 16 gathering of the finest ingredients and combinations.
Three of us were eating – more than enough to work our way around the menu – and the highlights of our starters were a plate of pan-fried chicken livers served with fennel, apple and mustard. It was crackerjack cooking. The livers had been rigorously cleaned and were deliciously tender and pink. They quivered beneath the fork while the aniseed-ey fennel and crisp, sharp apple provided balance to their delicately savoury flavour.
My other companion enjoyed smoked haddock, which she described as faultless. Really moist flakes were paired with sweetcorn purée that had amazing texture and intensity
My cauliflower and cheese soufflé was triumphant. Creamy, mellow and earthy, it was a neat twist on one of nature's greatest gastronomic pairings. Winter flavours roared like blaring trumpets. The soufflé was light and delicate, the accompanying sauce intoxicating and rich.
Mains were similarly good. We ate our way around the menu with one friend opting for the 12-hour braised ox tail with smoked mash and kale. The beef fell apart under the fork, tenderly offering deep, rich flavours and deliciously enjoyable comfort eating. The mash was creamy and light, the kale added irony ballast. It was a big warm hug of a main, a tender embrace from a friendly dish that was greater than the sum of its parts.
My other friend's choice, pork loin with black pudding, was magnificent. The black pudding had been made by Andy from locally-sourced ingredients and was absurdly good. With finely diced pieces of fat giving it maximum flavour and a delightful texture, it was well-seasoned and as easy-on-the-palate as a Monet is on the eye. He described it as 'probably the best outside Stornaway', The pork was tender and sweet.
My guineafowl breast was tender and moist. It came with a selection of mushrooms, swishes of butternut squash purée and a selection of greens and heritage carrots. Superlative combinations paired sweet and earthy, savoury and salty. The textures were complimentary; it was a terrific autumn-winter dish.
The restaurant manager was thoroughly accomplished, discussing wines and dishes with our party throughout the evening with knowledge and charm. Well-steeped in the restaurant's offering, he was insightful, polite and warmly engaged. When he asked whether we'd like to view the dessert menu, we took all of 0.2 seconds to answer in the affirmative.
An orange cake with yoghurt was moist and sweet. It was served with Earl Grey ice cream that had a good texture and was not too strong. The Hereford yoghurt cut through to make it a not-too-sweet sweet.
A chocolate delice with poached pear was indulgent, rich and compellingly bitter while my bread and butter pudding was so light that it was soufflé-like. The attendant crème Anglaise was creamy-dreamy, titillatingly terrific.
After dinner coffees hit the spot and were served with buttery, sweet fudge, bringing the end to a exceptional dinner that was big on flavour, served in style and made the most of seasonal ingredients.
Restaurants like Andy Link's have become increasingly popular for one simple reason: they're so damn good. While people still enjoy fine dining, the masses head for something that's a little less fussy and where the food isn't served with whistles and bells.
They are, however, increasingly discerning and want to know that game will be served in winter, asparagus will feature in spring, soft fruits will feature in summer and mushrooms will be harvested in autumn.
They want winter menus teaming with beetroot and butternut squash, with cauliflower, celery, chicory and celeriac, with beef, duck, grouse, pheasant and venison. Andy's restaurant does all of those things. His cooking is skilful and intelligent, his flavour pairings are classic and traditional and his execution is sublime. Like a Strictly-winning-dancer, he does all the right things in precisely the right order and makes it all seem easy.
Simplicity is the hardest gig to master but Andy is doing a pretty good job. And there's every reason for discerning diners to seek out his restaurant for the best of local, seasonal food. Bravo, sir.
By Andy Richardson