And, in truth, the county’s dining scene has seemed at times to have lost a little of its lustre since then.
The remarkable days of Ludlow’s four Michelin stars – Hibiscus, The Merchant House, La Becasse and Mr Underhill’s – seem an age away.
And while there are still exceptional restaurants locally – Mortimers, in Ludlow; and Fishmore Hall, nearby – none have matched the remarkable feats that Claude Bosi, Shaun Hill, Will Holland and Chris and Judy Bradley achieved.
One man, however, has continued to push. Slowly, quietly, while making the minimum of fuss, Old Downton Lodge head chef Karl Martin has sought out better ingredients, tested dreamy combinations and improved his technical skills.
And though there is still a distance to go if he is to match the likes of Claude, Shaun and Chris, he’s on their tails.
I last ate at Old Downton Lodge eight months ago. I was surprised by how much it had improved. It had undoubtedly become the best restaurant in Shropshire, with clear water between it and others. When my friend and I visited for a midweek supper, it had made further improvement. It is now head and shoulders ahead of the competition; service, ambience and Karl Martin’s exquisite food are truly exceptional. If we were able to award five-and-half out of five we would.
A number of dishes – most notably a bass fillet with lardo and brown shrimps – were exquisite. They could easily have found a place on the menus of such superlative, innovative Michelin star restaurants as Simpsons, in Birmingham; Carter’s, in Moseley; The Whitebrook, near Abergavenny; or Restaurant James Sommerin, near Cardiff.
Karl has made a quantum leap. An unshowy chef who is quiet and humble, who avoids the noise that surrounds other cooks and their notions of celebrity; his food is all about balance and flavour, finesse and sophistication, artistry and texture. It is, in a word, thrilling.
Of course, a good chef is but one component of a successful restaurant. To achieve the highest standards, there must be great service and a pleasing ambience in the dining room. Old Downton Lodge achieves both.
Sommelier Alexios Stasinopoulos, previously of Michelin starred Northcote Manor, in Lancashire, has selected a stellar wine list and offers the smoothest of service. Owner, Willem Volk is also a class act. Making guests feel as though Old Downton Lodge is their home from home, he is a larger than life personality; warm and welcoming, friendly and engaging.
The venue itself is remarkable. Old Downton Lodge is centuries old. It is a mixture of buildings – medieval, half timbered and Georgian – that surround a herb and flower bedecked courtyard that looks out towards the Hereford hills. It offers guests pure escapism, a chance to immerse themselves in history and enjoy an experience that lives long in the memory.
And yet it is Karl’s elegant food that elevates it to the highest standard. He combines cutting edge techniques with products that are older than the hills. So frozen crumbs of sorrel and rhubarb are served with a creamy milk foam; pickled mushrooms and tenderloin of pork and plated with miso. It’s avant garde and alluring. There’s excitement on every plate.
We started with a delicious and warm honey bread with creamy, cultured butter before small crackers were served with a smoked cheese with blonde spheres of balsamic and wild garlic flowers. It was utterly delicious.
Karl serves taster menus running to five, seven or nine courses that are based on what’s in season and peak condition. We ate a seven-course taster which was well judged and well portioned. With few carbohydrates, we were able to graze our way through the evening, eating delicious meat and fish that was served with clever and complementary garnishes.
The first course was a lobster claw which had been elegantly cooked so that it was sweet and tender with a hint of the sea. It was gorgeous A three-day cooked piece of wagyu beef followed, with a vegetable purée and small pieces of blue cheese. The deep, rich flavour of the tender meat stood up to the robust and creamy cheese. It was like Ali and Frazer in the ring, both were evenly matched. A fillet of bass topped with lardo and brown shrimps was the best course of the evening. Cooked with the highest degree of skill, it was sensational and would happily have sat on any one Michelin star menu. Delicate and expertly seasoned, the bass was tender and bursting with flavour. The best food is all about creating memories: whether that’s an ice cream as a kid, a brilliant barbecue on the sunniest day or a magnificent dinner at a fine dining restaurant. Karl achieved just that. My friend and I purred our way through the bass, relishing each mouthful and locking its taste and texture in our memory bank.
“I’d like that again,” said my friend. “Three times.”
Pork with pickled mushrooms, three slices of black truffle and miso was equally delicious. The umami-laden hit of mushrooms and miso was balanced by a gentle acid hit from the pickle while the pork was moist and succulent.
There were three desserts, a small transition course featuring a milk foam topped with iced crumbs of sorrel and rhubarb, beneath which sat tiny pieces of the poached fruit. Sharp and floral, it was refreshing and invigorating; another stellar dish. A caramel basted pineapple that had been roasted for an hour and was served with a pineapple crisp, coconut ice cream and pieces of coconut was divine while the final course, a white chocolate and passion fruit dish with crumbs and roasted shards of artichoke, was the sort of thing that Claude Bosi used to do when he pioneered the use of vegetables in desserts.
Karl is a remarkable cook. He has the same culinary skills as the one star boys – his pork, rhubarb and bass dishes would easily have transferred to restaurants with big reputations. His hunger to improve, allied to the exceptional support he receives from his owner and front of house team, mean he’s continuing to make strides.
There is no question that Old Downton Lodge is presently the best restaurant in Shropshire – you have to travel to Montgomery, Birmingham, Abergavenny, Chester or further afield to find the same quality. And there’s every reason to believe that he’s not done yet. Karl is a work in a progress, a curious and determined character with a thirst for self-improvement. His food is remarkable. It’s the very best in Shropshire.