When the great Michel Roux OBE was asked to name the 10 best chefs he’d worked with at his three Michelin star restaurant, The Waterside, he had no hesitation in choosing Stephane Borie among them.
Stephane had impressed after moving to the UK from his native France, earning the trust of a deified chef who, along with his brother, changed the face of British gastronomy and became the most influential cook of all time.
Stephane and his partner, Sarah Francis, both worked for Monsieur Roux, achieving the exacting standards required of Britain’s most iconic restaurant.
When they decided to move on, they enjoyed brief interludes elsewhere, with Stephane cooking for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir for a while before becoming the private chef of Lord and Lady Bamford, the billionaire owners of the award-winning Daylesford Organics.
And then, after a few short stops elsewhere, they happened upon Shropshire and Mid-Wales. Lucky us. Running a pub left Stephane wondering why he’d traded a job at a three-star restaurant for one where the locals wanted to play darts and sing karaoke. So he moved upmarket, buying the Checkers with Sarah and her sister, Kathryn. Within seven months, the trio had won a Michelin star. Remarkable.
They’ve kept it ever since, in recent years, giving Shropshire and Mid-Wales its only accreditation in the foodies’ bible. And that’s no surprise. For Stephane’s breathless cooking is a thing of beauty; Sarah’s pastry is dreamy and precise, Kathryn’s front of house management is charming and personable. As a trio, they are truly formidable.
Stephane’s food takes star billing, of course, giving local diners the chance to eat as though they were at The Waterside, or some similar temple to classic gastronomy. Unashamedly French in its key influences, it utilises the best of Welsh produce and is as pretty on the plate as it is appetising on the palate.
The Checkers has a sophisticated and enjoyable dining room. Over recent years, the former pub has been remodelled and its present incarnation is just about right. What was once a dining area to the rear of the building has been converted to a lounge while the present dining area is heavenly. Coloured in netural tones with unobtrustive artworks on the walls, exposed wooden beams hint at the venue’s impressive history.
Service is led by Kathryn and her long-serving colleague, Leanne, who both lead from the front. When my partner and I visited for a Saturday evening dinner, they were ably assisted by three young and impressively well-mannered staff whose qualities shone through.
Stephane once ran an a la carte menu but switched some time ago to a tasting menu, allowing him to cut down on food waste while giving customers the highest quality. Dinner costs an entirely reasonable £65 per person for a seven-course dinner with bread and ours were a delight.
We started with canapés, a duck cracker being savoury, rich and playful, while a beetroot macaron with goat’s cheese mousse was exquisite. Sweet-and-earthy and melt-in-the-mouth light, it was gone in a moment – but left a lasting impression.
The first course was one of the best. A sweet garden pea velouté had a small quenelle of mint cream on the top, which melted luxuriantly into the soup. Scatterings of crushed, smoked bacon completed the pairing of classic flavours and complementary textures.
The fish course was a mousse of scallop and smoked haddock in the lightest, thinnest, silkiest pasta imaginable. Topped with a poached hen’s egg and served with a curry nage that elevated the flavours and added welcome warth, it showcased Stephane’s skills and classical influences.
A passion fruit and lime granite was tart and sweet; the passion fruit foam being almost magical. The small portion cleansed the palate before our main; a stunning and stand-out beef Wellington with a marvellous sweet potato purée, purple sprouting, roasted hazelnut and a red wine jus. The Wellington featured a perfectly seasoned and rested rare fillet of Celtic Pride beef surrounded by an intensely flavoured mushroom duxelle and rich, buttery pastry. It was magnificent; breath-taking and sublime. A red wine jus was equally impressive while the sweet potato purée was truly impressive. Perfectly smooth and imbued with delightful flavour, it was a winning accompaniment to the starry Wellington. The roasted hazlenuts were a nice touch, adding texture and creamy flavour.
A selection of Kathryn’s lemon and ginger desserts followed. They were majestic. A lemon posset was topped with small pieces of blood orange and their sweet/acid flavours cut through the rich creaminess of the sweet dessert.
A small pastry with a frangipane-like filling and pieces of candied zest was exceptional. The final dessert, a ball of ginger ice cream in a light and snappy brandy basket was wonderful.
Checkers serves a selection of cheeses at the conclusion of dinner before coffee and Valrhona chocolates, though on this occasion we were replete.
Oh, and I almost forgot the breads. A selection of four different breads had been served at the start of the dinner; the highlight being a mustard and cheese roll, which was savoury and had a gentle heat. Wonderful.
Kathryn had visited our table throughout the evening, making sure we were enjoying dinner, engaging in polite conversation and being the personification of bonhomie.
Borie is moving into the peak of his career. Energetic, precise and with exemplary skills, the world is very much his oyster. He has a remarkable pedigree, boasting a CV that other chef’s would sell their best knife for. And with the support of his partner and her sister, he has in recent years proved himself to be an exemplary restaurateur.
History teaches us that gifted chefs stay for a while before moving on – four Michelin-starred chefs in Ludlow have done precisely that over the past 10 years or so. For that reason, we ought to enjoy Checkers while it’s there.
Sarah, Kathryn and Stephane have bought considerable talent and skill to the Shropshire and Mid-Wales dining scene over the years, providing great pleasure to diners. They are first among equals.