Shropshire Star

Food review: The Hand at Llanarmon, Ceiriog Valley - 5 stars

Continual improvement is the holy grail for any restaurant. Restaurateurs who care and who have ability seek a steady increase in trade while continuing to raise standards by offering better food and service.

The Hand at Llanarmon

At The Hand at Llanarmon, owners Jonathan and Jackie Greatorex, supported by chef Grant Mullholland and his team, are achieving just that. They bought their business four years ago and since then have overseen a gradual improvement in the 17th century property.

The local couple – Mrs Greatorex was formerly headmistress of Bellan House prep, in Oswestry – have backed their chefs and front of house team, bringing the best out of a talented bunch who are loyal to the cause.

Their management and charming front of house demeanour has helped The Hand to become progressively busier while the food offering has also seen substantial improvement. Mullholland and co have worked with quality local suppliers to offer an ever-changing menu that focuses on the sort of food that people like to eat. So while they might be capable of culinary fireworks and pulling off a Ramsay, they instead do a brilliant Sunday lunch with crunchy roast potatoes and fluffy Yorkshire puddings alongside beautifully tender roast meat; there are such classics as burgers and chips and an a la carte offering refined dishes that have earned the restaurant two AA rosettes and a rating in the Michelin Guide.

It’s no less than The Hand deserves. For it’s a pub-restaurant-hotel that’s firing on all cylinders. Jonathan and Jackie are hands-on owners; they’re there for service, carrying plates, pulling pints and making sure their team is functioning properly. Committed and hard-working, they are the antithesis of workshy, stay-away owners who appoint a team and spend most of their time dealing with the accountant, rather than putting in a shift.

Their relationship with chef Mullholland is key. Mullholland has considerable skill though it’s clear he’s benefited dramatically from the support of his owners. Their backing has given him the platform to achieve his potential. His food has moved up a level in recent years as he’s been given the creative freedom to create new dishes and hone a style that’s uniquely his. It’s easy to imagine the Greatorex Management Dictum as being something along the lines of this: Appoint the best people for the job, support them 100% and then let them get on with it.

We’ve visited on a number of occasions in recent years and enjoyed a range of different dishes. The one aspect of the menu that I’ve not previously encountered is the Hand Classics. So while we’ve been able to recommend Mullholland’s refined a la carte offering, we’ve never tested out whether he’s as adept at the basics. Until now.

There’s a restaurant owner in Ludlow – Cedric Bosi, at The Charlton Arms – who makes a simple request of all his chefs. It’s this: Give of your best. So while they’re given the opportunity to cook fancy dan food every now and then, Bosi also asks that when they cook something that they might find boring – like fish and chips – that they maintain the standard they’ve set on the a la carte offering. Their fish and chips ought to be better than any other chef’s. It’s a simple philosophy and it’s earned Bosi a Bib Gourmand from Michelin.

One senses it’s a philosophy to which Mullholland also subscribes. For when my partner and I visited to enjoy simple starters, burgers and regulation puddings, they were absolutely delicious.

We were shown into the dining area of the historic pub by Mrs Greatorex, whose efficient and charming manner was no doubt honed while leading an important prep school. She was assisted by two youthful waiting staff, both of whom were excellent. A young lady was polite and diligent while a young man with a pudding bowl haircut was 10-out-of-10 good. Confident, knowledgeable, engaged and efficient, he didn’t miss a trick. Front of house staff are as rare as rocking horse dung but The Hand have found a smooth operator who impressed from start to finish.

And so to the food. My partner started with a salad of smoked salmon, which was delicious. There’s a lot to be said about sourcing good ingredients and letting them do the talking. And delicious, fresh salmon with a subtle oaky taste was wonderfully accompanied by a lightly dressed salad. It’s surprising how many chefs get such basics wrong: Mullholland, happily, is not one of them. My liver parfait starter was similarly pleasing. Served with a lightly acidulated chutney and a small circle of ham hock terrine, it was light, savoury and intensely flavourful. Both our plates were cleared and the waiter quickly returned to see whether we’d like a short break or were happy to wait for our mains.

When the mains came, we were knocked over. My burger was a thing of beauty. A grilled 8oz Welsh beef burger was served on a Pretzel bun with two slices of proper butcher’s bacon, molten Per-Las cheese, crunchy golden chips and salad. The burger was deliciously seasoned and still juicy, the pretzel well aerated and perfectly soft while the bacon and cheese made a pairing as formidable as left hook and right upper cut. Ker-pow. It was a stunning plate that was generously served and I congratulated myself on almost finishing it.

My partner’s halloumi burger with a Portobello mushroom and sticky peppers was similarly pleasing. The sweetness of the peppers comingled with the savoury umami mushroom and nicely cooked cheese. It was veggie heaven on a plate.

We stayed for dessert – though lord knows who we found room. She had a perfectly serviceable crème brulee while I had a baked brown sugar cheesecake. Both were served with creamy vanilla ice cream and made for a perfect full stop to one of the most enjoyable lunches we’ve had in recent times.

The Hand is a wonderful place to visit. Staff are happy in their work and their bosses give them the room to express their considerable talents. The last time we reviewed The Hand, it scored a commendable 9/10. Given the improvement since then, we can but score it with a rare-as-hens’-teeth 10.