It’s the most popular time of the week to eat, which often makes it the worst.
Sunday lunches are habitually over-subscribed, over-priced and over-rated. Chefs go into meltdown as they struggle to cope with too many orders in a short space of time. Harassed waiters and waitresses are unsure what to do when moody chefs and hard-to-please customers are seemingly at loggerheads.
And the food itself can be of variable quality: that nicely roasted leg of pork that was perfectly pink and tender when it came out of the oven at 12 noon might not be so appetising by the the clock strikes 2.30pm and the stragglers arrive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of restaurants get it wrong when it comes to Sunday lunch.
And yet there are diamonds in the rough: The Lion, at Leintwardine, is one of them. Located in beautiful, undulating countryside, a short drive from Ludlow and Craven Arms, it’s the archetypal country pub/restaurant that makes a journey worthwhile.
Polite and friendly staff are efficient and keen to please. They offer engaged service and are fleet of foot as they skip between tables during the busiest period of the week. The kitchen is well-drilled so that food is consistently good. It doesn’t seem to matter whether guests arrive at the start or end of service: all are treated equally, the intention is to please every guest.
In many ways, The Lion at Leintwardine offers the best of Shropshire. It was voted Best Pub in Shropshire in the National Pub and Bar Awards – and it’s among the very best when it comes to food, too.
The Lion is set in the picturesque village of Leintwardine and is a quiet country Inn with bars, restaurant and rooms. It is, as its website suggest, the perfect place to unwind, enjoy a drink or dinner – as well as being in an excellent position for exploring the delights of North Herefordshire, South Shropshire and town of Ludlow.
My partner and I joined two friends for Sunday lunch and the atmosphere was informal and convivial. Staff lived up to the venue’s mission statement of making guests feel comfortable and at home while enjoying seasonal freshly-cooked food prepared using the best local ingredients.
The Sunday lunch menu is essentially a pared back version of the restaurant’s current à la carte, with the addition of a couple of decent roasts. So, for instance, there was a late asparagus course with poached egg; lamb’s liver and sweet sherry pate and more.
We played our cards close to our chest when perusing the menu; then laid our hand on the deck – all four of us opting for the same starter. Frankly, we made the perfect choice.
A salmon and crayfish number comprising lightly smoked salmon with tender, sweet crayfish tails and a magnificently dressed salad. It was exceptional. The salmon was wonderfully tender and melted in the mouth, the crayfish were plump, juicy and bursting with flavour and the salad comprised interesting bitter leaves from a renowned supplier, rather than the normal tasteless, hothouse leaves that are a disgrace to the word ‘salad’. Four empty plates. Four satisfied customers.
Two enjoyed fillets of hake with delicious new potatoes as a main. The hake was robust and cooked with considerable skill; the fat flakes falling away under the knife.
Another ate a traditional lamb roast with plenty of mint sauce, a rich, meaty gravy, delightfully pink meat and all of the normal whistles and bells. I ate a mushroom risotto, which was a delight. It was packed with a variety of fungi, the Arborio rice remained elegantly al dente and it was dressed with a light and flavour-packed pesto that helped it to exceed expectations.
The fish and meat courses were served with generous sides of lightly cooked vegetables; traffic light green pieces of tenderstem broccoli being the pick of the bunch.
Two guests sensibly drew a line by the time the dessert menu arrived, though my partner and I continued and were glad that we did.
She ate a crème brûlée with a perfectly crisp top: it was good, not brilliant, and provided an enjoyable end to a sumptuous three-course lunch. I ate a fabulous Eton mess comprising plump, red strawberries, lightly whipped cream and outrageously mallow-ey meringue. The meringue was the star ingredient, offering nuggets of crisp, sugary outer and soft, chewy inner. Yum.
The staff were helpful and diligent throughout. They made occasional visits to the table to make sure we were happy, cleaned plates away quickly, offered words of advice on the menu and provided service with a smile. And the food was also very good. Dishes were well seasoned, beautifully presented, cooked with precision and packed with flavour.
So often Sunday lunches prove to be a disappointment. Restaurants and pubs with big reputations frequently get the simplest of things wrong as they collapse under the pressure of too many orders. The Lion, in contrast, kept its cool and delivered on all fronts. For sure, it’s a little off the beaten track and takes a while to reach. But the journey is worthwhile, particularly given that it’s in such a beautiful Shropshire village.
Ours wasn’t the only table that wore broad smiles when we called for lunch: other tables seemed to enjoy similar high levels of service and the overheard comments made it something of a chef love-in.
There’s a decent number of good-to-very-good restaurants in and around Ludlow. Mortimers offers refined dining in the town centre; Old Downton Lodge offers breathless food on the outskirts of Ludlow; Checkers offers exquisite Michelin-starred food just over the border in Montgomery while The Lion offers bistro classics and great pub bites near to the north Herefordshire border.
A great venue, good front of house staff and a professional, well-skilled kitchen team offering the best of local food – it’s a recipe that can’t fail.