There’s an old adage in football that managers should choose the owners, rather than the club. Yes, the fans might be amazing and yes the stadium might be a picture, but if the owners won’t let you sign your favourite players or play the beautiful game you wish, then you’re snookered.
The same is true in gastronomy. Good owners are the making of a place and if they are willing to invest in key talent, the sky is the limit. Which, you’d imagine, is why Nick Bennett chose Old Downton Lodge when looking for a place to put down some roots.
The former BBC MasterChef: The Professionals finalist had previously worked as sous chef at a one Michelin-star restaurant in Sussex before being promoted to head chef at Restaurant 56, in Oxfordshire. He’d been well trained at the exceptional Mallory Court and was looking for a place to make his mark.
Step forward Willem and Pippa Blok, the popular and supportive owners of Old Downton Lodge. The couple have been a fixture on Shropshire’s food scene for many years and are as competent and assured as any others. They bring a touch of class to everything they do and have a deserved reputation for being thoughtful, caring and supportive owners.
The former head chef of Old Downton Lodge, Karl Martin, earned four AA rosettes during his tenure and was backed all the way. His departure to relocate to New Zealand created the opportunity for Bennett to cook in Shropshire’s best kitchen.
Old Downton Lodge is a special place. Located deep in verdant countryside, it’s a magical destination that is far from the madding crowd.
Set deep on an estate, it’s reached off a long and winding road that heads deeper and deeper into woodland. There are exceptional food producers nearby while the estate yields its own exceptional bounty. Bennett is able to take his pick of great produce as he fashions modern British dishes. He’s a very different chef to his predecessor. While Martin was exemplary, his quest for an elusive Michelin star took him down an increasingly modernist route. There were moments of brilliance during his tenure, though sometimes experimentation got in the way of delivering great food for guests.
Bennett, on the other hand, seems to be entirely preoccupied with his diners. Food is sumptuous, dishes are well balanced, techniques are good. So as much as my friend and I admired Karl Martin’s food – and liked him as a thoroughly decent human being – both of us preferred the dishes cooked by Bennett. They are reassuringly familiar and, just like the venue’s owner, are both stylish and classy.
Old Downton has ridden the waves of Covid and is strongly positioned as we emerge, post-pandemic. It has been busy in recent times and is now able to open seven days a week, thanks to the way in which Bennett runs the kitchen with a very capable deputy.
The venue is magnificent, of course, with exposed brick walls, a towering ceiling, soft light and acres of space. Service is equally refined, with a front of house team dedicated to discretion, politeness and warmth.
The food, however, is the real star of the show and my friend and I were dazzled by a three-course dinner when we visited for the first time since Bennett’s appointment.
Bread was exceptional while canapes were to die for – a beetroot macaron, in particular, was breath-taking. As light as a feather and so perfectly made that it melted in a moment on the tip of our tongues, it was thrilling. The best beetroot macaron I ever ate was at a three Michelin-star restaurant off the Champs-Élysées – and please forgive the humble brag. The reason for alluding to it is that the memory of that one, magnificent moment is burned deep into my brain. I’d never eaten anything so delicate and delicious.
Bennett’s canape was just as good. Dazzling, perfectly executed and simple. It made for an auspicious start.
My friend enjoyed a starter of cod satay with pak choi, spring onion and coriander. The cod was magnificent and perfectly opalescent while the satay had just the right heat.
I opted for a magnificently cooked Herefordshire brisket served with shiitake, pickled onion and an ale sauce. It was majestic. The heavens opened and the angels sang. The meat was extraordinarily tender and moist while the balance of acidity was perfect. The sauce was deep, rich and sensationally seasoned. It was a flawless dish.
My friend opted for the Creedy carver duck with orange, chicory and walnut as her main. Again, the cooking was perfect, with the duck delightfully pink, expertly seasoned and well rested.
My loin of hogget was served with alexanders, artichoke and garlic, a mesmerising match of complementary flavours that dazzled the senses. Bennett’s menu was accessible, comforting and decidedly refined. It brought to mind the best days of Ludlow’s former Michelin-starred restaurant Mr Underhill’s, where cooking was rooted in the classics and where everything was just-so.
Dessert was a revelation. A rice pudding custard was served with Yorkshire rhubarb and pink peppercorn. The peppercorn added a gentle heat, the rhubarb was tart and firm while the custard was indulgent and joyous. Bennett proved himself a master of balance, with just the right hit of pepper, sweet and sharp.
Old Downton Lodge has enjoyed some pretty good cooks across the years. It’s earned a clutch of accolades and no doubt will receive more as Bennett has the time to make progress with a breath-taking larder.
Backed by exceptional owners, located in a position akin to heaven and with a young team that’s happy to learn, he has everything going for him. He’s clearly happy in his surroundings and it shows in the food. At present, I can say with confidence there’s not a better restaurant in Shropshire itself than Old Downton Lodge.
Our dinner was joyous and memorable. It deserves the top score.