He’s Mr Unfussy. Mr Low Key. Mr Consistent. Mr Get The Job Done.
You’re as likely to find Wayne Smith making headlines or headlining demonstration stages at food festivals as Jacob Rees-Mogg is to speak in favour of EU membership. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things, of course – but Smith has one word running through his DNA: WORK. And he does his in the kitchen, rather than elsewhere.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the well-travelled adopted son of Shropshire has made a fist of things at Mortimers, in Corve Street. It’s the county’s most important restaurant, in many ways, having been home to Ken Adams’ Oaks Restaurant at the start of the Millennium, which earned Ludlow it’s first Michelin Bib Gourmand. Subsequently, it became home to Claude and Claire Bosi’s Hibiscus, which earned first one and then two Michelin stars. And when that team decamped to London’s Mayfair to repeat the two-star trick, it welcomed Will Holland through the doors, who scored a Michelin star for La Becasse.
Others have tried and failed to follow in those footsteps – Smith, however, has proved himself perfectly adept over the past couple of years.
Not that he should take all the credit. Though his food is what draws people to the beautiful, oak-panelled restaurant with exposed limestone walls, the wider ‘Mortimers family’ deserve credit too. Smith’s business partner and restaurant manager Andrew Brooks is a smooth operator who is personable and warm, knowledgeable and charming. Service is an underrated skill but Brooks is the consummate professional, making guests feel welcome and talking them through menus, sharing information on drinks and bringing calm, order and a sense of fun to the proceedings. He’s ably assisted by his restaurant team, including an experienced and polished waitress and newer recruits.
And yet it’s Smith’s food that has been putting bums on seats and earning Mortimers an impressive reputation during the past nearly-four years.
Smith first visited Ludlow when he was 12 and has lived in the area since 1999. He’s cooked for celebrities of the calibre of Will Smith, and more Premiership footballers than he can remember.
He’s knocked around, got drunk and fallen over with some of the most famous chefs that France and England have ever produced. And if you ask him whether he’s done a lot in his time, or got a good CV, he’ll be sufficiently modest to say: “Nah, mate, I’m just a cook.”
Wayne creates superlative food at Mortimers, in Ludlow, and has an astounding pedigree. He did a three-month stage at La Tante Claire, Pierre Koffmann’s legendary London restaurant, before travelling to Australia then returning to the UK to cook for multiple Michelin star winner David Cavalier.
From there, Wayne moved to central London and spent 18 months with the two Michelin star Tom Aitkens. And then came Ludlow, where he replaced Claude Bosi at Overton Grange, spending almost five years there.
He briefly moved away, working for the Queen of Brunei at Stapleford Park, before opening Bentleys in Dublin, for Richard Corrigan, then Mortimers.
Smith has the starriest pedigree of any chef in Shropshire. He’s a class act. And along with Brooks and, wife, Tamsin, and a trusted team, the Mortimers family is able to deliver to the highest standard.
My partner and I visited for a mid-week supper and enjoyed superlative service and breathtaking food. The dining room is conducive to the happiest of experiences, with daring, colourful art works adding vibrancy to the dark oak panels and bare brick walls. It’s the sort of place where people go for a special occasion: on the evening that we visited, a couple were celebrating their 21st wedding anniversary while another had travelled from Manchester, having heard about the restaurant’s reputation on the grapevine.
And so to dinner. We started with smoked nuts, popcorn and delicious olives – high quality, the lot – before moving onto a selection of breads, including a mini white baguette, slices of sourdough and a delightful tomato and goat’s cheese roll. Salted, unsalted and black olive butter were served alongside. It was a delightful way to begin.
And then the magic started. We’d chosen taster menus and were treated to a display of gastronomic fireworks. First up was a ham hock and piccalilli number, which was, in essence, a clever and playfully deconstructed ham sandwich. Delicious hock had been beautifully seasoned and was served with tiny pieces of acidulated piccalilli and a thin slice of brioche. It had been laid out artfully on a long, slender platter and made for an appetising first course.
Next came a tasting of duck, featuring a celeriac puree, with a cube of duck pastrami and a pressing of duck. It was thrilling. A small slither of crunchy, indulgent skin completed the dish while a cube of sweet, pistachio marshmallow lightened the dish.
Sea trout cured in beetroot with horseradish was exceptional. The sweet and earthy flavour of the beetroot had permeated the protein-rich fish while the horseradish added a little heat. A dressing of caviar and a shot of Scandinavian booze completed a delightful plate of food.
The next two courses were superlative. Scallop with truffle and squash was sensational, arguably the course of the night. It’s become something of a signature dish for Smith and featured a single scallop that had been beautifully cooked, so that it remained ever-so-slightly translucent within but beautifully seasoned and caramelised on the outside. It was served with small pieces of squash, which added sweetness to the salty mollusc dish. A slice of truffle provided an earthy finish and we both purred our approval.
The final main was a dish of cod with a crayfish and lentil curry. It was exquisite, subtle and beautifully finessed. The cod was cooked with aching precision, so that each flake fell away under the knife. It takes real skill to cook that well. The curry was light and subtle, with a gentle warmth playing on the tongue like the notes of a piano concerto. Packed with sweet crayfish and nutty lentils, it added ballast to the dish and was probably the poshest curry you’ll find this side of Chennai.
We skipped pre-dessert – an attractive blackberry and apple trifle – with bellies aching and near full as we proceeded to the dessert; a chocolate marquise with caramel ice cream and hazelnut brittle. Decorated with gold leaf and presented with jaw-dropping beauty, it was a suitable way to end a thoroughly starry evening.
Smith, Brooks and their team have worked wonders at Mortimers since opening in 2015. Running a restaurant is a mug’s game that takes hard work, skill, dedication, resilience and the ability to bounce back from unexpected and unpredictable challenges. They’ve achieved that and put Mortimers on the map. And as word spreads and such guide books as The Good Food Guide start to take notice, the restaurant can look forward to happy times ahead.
If we were to rank it among other Shropshire restaurants, it would be placed in the top two, alongside Old Downton Lodge, at Downton, near Ludlow. All credit to Smith and co, they’re cooking beautiful food, serving it in exceptional surroundings and providing first class service.