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Food review: Mortimers, Ludlow

It may be missing from any food guidebooks but there’s one restaurant which will certainly tickle the tastebuds. Andy Richardson eats out. . .

When Michelin held their recent awards to hand out stars to the great and good, Mortimers didn’t get a look in.

And when the AA were awarding rosettes to restaurants – including a number of indeterminate quality – the Ludlow fine dining restaurant was also notable by its absence.

If you look in The Good Food Guide, Hardens or others, you’ll see a number of Shropshire restaurants – but you won’t find Mortimers.

Which is odd. Because, unquestionably, Mortimers is one the best fine dining restaurants in Shropshire. Along with Old Downton Lodge, on the outskirts of Ludlow, it sets the pace. Serving modern classics, the emphasis is on quality food, interesting textures and winning combinations. It eschews modernity for modernity’s sake; it avoids smoke and mirrors; it is no hostage to fashion and it pays no mind to foodie fads. Lord only knows why the guide books haven’t included it in their annual lists. It’s head and shoulders above the one and two rosette restaurants listed in Shropshire, with exceptional service and dreamy food.

Only Old Downton Lodge matches the standards on offer. And beyond that, you’d have to travel to The Checkers, at Montgomery, in Mid-Wales, or one of Birmingham’s four Michelin-starred restaurants to enjoy a better dinner.

Mortimers opened a couple of years ago and has gone from strength to strength. Word of mouth – rather than hype or restaurant guide books – has helped it to build a loyal following and numbers are continuing to rise. The premises were the former home of three restaurants that earned ratings from Michelin – and with that weight of history, my guess is that the guide books are intimidated by what’s gone before.

Initially, it was The Oaks, run by Ken Adams, who earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand when the town became an overnight sensation by earning three stars and one gourmand in a single year. Thereafter, the brilliant Claude Bosi opened Hibiscus at the site, winning one and then two Michelin stars. Will Holland followed, winning and then losing a star. And thereafter a number of chefs tried their luck but ran aground.

And so the arrival of Wayne Smith – a popular, no-nonsense, straight-talking type – has brought joy to Ludlow’s discerning customers. There’s little fanfare with the bluff northerner – just an abundance of talent. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in the business, cooked for A-listers and knows his way around food like a Black Cab driver knows his way around London.

His restaurant was opened with business partner and restaurant manager Andrew Brookes, a man with a similar pedigree and sublime hosting skills. Together, they’ve gradually built an impressive small business and Ludlovians – plus those from further afield – can once more enjoy decent dinners and starry lunches.

The layout of Mortimers has reverted to its Hibiscus era design. So diners are no longer shown to an upstairs bar: these days, there’s a ground floor bar for drinks and appetisers – in our case, vegetable crisps, nuts and olives. It’s a beautiful space in which to eat and relax. Extensive oak panelling and exposed limestone walls and paired with delightful artworks and a carpet that’s about three feet thick. There are two menus during evening service: a traditional three course à la carte and a seven-course tasting menu, which my friend and I ate.

We started with a delightful and pretty first course of goat’s cheese mousse with baby beets. The cheese was seasoned with herbs, the pretty, multi-coloured beets offered sweetness and earthy richness – as well as a little acid from those that were pickled. Delicious.

A hand-dived scallop with truffle was exceptional. Light, delicate and perfectly cooked, it was one of two stand-out courses during the evening. The other was a complimentary course – lucky us, Chef Wayne had developed a new dish that day and was trying it out on customers. It comprised slow-braised oxtail encased around boudin blanc, creating the appearance of an oxtail with marrow bone. A little foie gras gave the boudin blanc richness while a truffled mash and exquisite and intense jus completed a starry bowl of food.

A duck pressing with duck pastrami came next. The pressing was flavoursome and well-seasoned – again, a little liver had been run through to add flavour and decadence. The pastrami was thrilling.

Next came sea trout with a small, crunchy crab bonbon, cucumber and crème fraîche. The balance of flavours was magnificent. Cooling cucumber and crème fraîche were the perfect counterpoint to the sea trout while a small spoon of caviar finished the plate. It was delightful.

Our main was a strip of Hereford beef sirloin served with roasted shallots and baby leeks. The sweetness of the leeks provided a perfect marriage with intoxicating, meltingly tender beef while small mushrooms added an autumnal twist.

We skipped cheese – le grand fromage seems a little unnecessary when you’re staring down the barrel of eight courses – and enjoyed a light and refreshing pre-dessert of poached Herefordshire strawberries with slithers of panna cotta, strawberry sorbet and meringue. It was Wayne’s intelligent take on an Eton mess and made for delightful eating.

A dark chocolate marquise with hazelnut brittle and caramel ice cream completed a delightful evening, made all the more enjoyable for my friend with a wine flight from maître d’ Brookes. Service was magnificent throughout: reasonably formal but never stuffy or stiff.

I’m at a loss to understand the absence of Mortimers in any of the principle guide books. At times, it seems like this newspaper has been the only source of regular fair, balanced critiques for one of the county’s very best restaurants.

Perhaps Ludlow is old news, perhaps the guides are looking at the next best thing – rather than the reinvigoration of Shropshire’s spectacular market town – or maybe they sometimes just make mistakes. Either way, that seems not to matter to Wayne or Andrew. A hard-working and humble pair, they seem content to let their food and service do the talking. And success, for them, is measured in the smiles and compliments of an ever-growing number of discerning and knowledgeable diners who are enthralled by Mortimers’ many pleasures.

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