The closure of Mr Underhill’s, in Ludlow, brought down the curtain on a Golden Age of Gastronomy for Shropshire.
When the much-loved and still-missed Chris and Judy Bradley bade farewell to their weir-side eaterie, they brought to an end a 15-year-run of excellence in the county.
During that time, Ludlow boasted a continuous run in the Michelin Guide with three restaurants earning single stars and one earning two. In all likelihood, Shropshire will never again know such riches.
And yet two of the cooks who once worked the kitchens at Mr Underhill’s have continued to blaze a trail. Charles Bradley and his sous chef, Scott, decamped to the North Herefordshire border, near Tenbury Wells, when Mr Underhill’s closed. They took up the challenge of running the kitchens at The Baiting House, at Upper Sappey, and have turned the venue into one of the region’s must-visit, destination restaurants.
Without question, The Baiting House is the best pub-diner in the region. Nothing else comes close. And if you’re looking for a true run race to find the region’s very best, it would comfortably earn a place in the top three; alongside Stephane Borie’s Michelin-starred Checkers, at Montgomery, in mid Wales, and Karl Martin’s three AA rosette Old Downton Lodge, on the outskirts of Ludlow. Though The Baiting House is less formal and less fussy than either; serving food redolent of the great dishes of Mr Underhill’s in relaxed and friendly surrounds.
The Baiting House is a devil to get to. A winding road from Tenbury Wells heads deep into undulating countryside before it appears, as if out of nowhere, on the brow of a bend.
But it’s worth the journey as great flavours and pretty dishes celebrate the best of good local ingredients. Bradley and co have inherited the flame that burned so brightly in Ludlow, following the principles of their former employers in serving spellbinding dishes that make for memorable eating.
Service is pretty good too. A cool, sassy and efficient front of house team are straight from the pages of a dressed-down fashion shoot. Charming – and we’ll forgive our waiter his one error of taking our order too slowly – the team at The Baiting House are knowledgeable, polite and engaged.
The dining area is enjoyable. A local businessman who did well is behind The Baiting House and has poured considerable funds into the venture. Plenty of solid wood, quirky touches and in-jokes make it a place that puts humour on the menu: cardboard antlers, rather than the real thing, adorn the walls.
The star ingredient is the food, however, and the skills of Charles and Scott are luminescent. Our dinner was a tour de force: even at this early stage of the year, it will undoubtedly feature on a Best of 2018 list, come December.
We began with a sweet and sticky raisin bread alongside a yielding and unctuous parmesan arancini. The arancini featured al dente risotto grains and small, melting cubes of strong, salty cheese. It sent our tastebuds into overdrive. I’d have happily eaten half a dozen.
I started with a venison carpaccio served with Parmesan crisps, egg yolk and green shoots. It was thrilling. The venison was majestic and its tenderness was a perfect counterpoint to the crisp pieces of baked-then-dried Parmesan. The golden egg yolk provided richness while the shoots offered colour and balance. Win-win.
My partner ate a dish that might best be described as a haddock scotch egg. Featuring flakes of haddock, rather than the traditional sausage meat, it was encased by a crunchy, golden crumb and deep within was a tiny, still-runny quail’s egg. A seafood bisque provided additional flavour and our table fell silent as we purred our way through the starters.
The mains were similarly good. She enjoyed a magnificent and impressive breaded turbot dish while I feasted on beef. A rare-cooked rump, caramlised on the outside and still pink within, had bags of flavour. It was served with an oxtail sausage roll in the flakiest, butteriest, scrummiest homemade pastry. Crunchy, bitter green leaves were coated in a blue cheese dressing while a sticky beef and onion jus was heavenly. Scorched onion shells and mushroom ketchup completed the dish, providing a perfect marriage of flavours. The skills of Charles and co were evident throughout – nice ideas, good combinations, exquisite cooking and exemplary provenance. It was a star-worthy dish.
Desserts weren’t necessary. Two courses were more than enough. But we ate them anyway. When in Rome, and all that.
She enjoyed a beautiful crème brûlée with a blackcurrant sorbet that cut through the creaminess of her dessert and added a thrilling zing zang. I ate a lemon posset served with gently poached rhubarb that will live long in the memory. As the clock struck 9, the fat lady (or, is that the fat critic), was singing and it was time to go.
Charles is a man whose skills shine brightly. He operates at a level that few others can match, serving sensational dishes that are full of flavour and look as pretty as a picture. The talent that was honed in the crucible of Ludlow’s best-loved restaurant are being given their chance to shine. And Charles has taken to his new, leading role like a duck to water.
Selecting from his six starters, six mains menu was the toughest of tasks. It offered good fish and vegetarian options in addition to celebrating fine local meat.
In Shropshire’s new, non-Michelin era, diners have to work a little harder when they’re looking for something special.
Yes, there are still good chefs in our county who have considerable skills. But none could argue against the era recently passed, when Shropshire was a higher quality destination than anywhere in the UK other than London. Those days have now gone, which is why the talents of Stephane, Karl, Charles et al are ones that we should celebrate.
At the Baiting House, Charles has found his mojo – and the owner has unearthed a Lionel Messi-style player who exhibits considerable skill. Enjoy it while you can.