Let’s continue the year the way we mean to go on, by focusing on great quality.
There’s real delight that most restaurants have survived the grimmest of grim years that was 2020.
Not all have, of course, and many excellent workers who once gave their talents to the hospitality industry have moved on through no fault of their own.
The landscape has changed, too. While once the focus locally was on great restaurants and takeaways, we’re now in an era where dine at home boxes from restaurants around the UK are part of the regular offer – more of which in coming weeks.
This year won’t be without challenges. Though the vaccine arrived during the second week of December, it will be some months – or more – before it is rolled out to all.
Restaurants will have to operate in unfamiliar circumstances for some time, encouraging customers to wear masks and observe the protocols and mitigations that became common place during 2020.
We are not yet out of the woods though the light at the end of the tunnel is gradually growing brighter.
Against that backdrop, it’s apposite to focus on one of the region’s absolute best.
Joe Gould moved to Fishmore Hall about four months ago and for this critic’s money he’s probably the best that Shropshire has, at present.
Though he’s not at the level of the Michelin-starred Chris Simpson, at Pensons, just over the Herefordshire border, near Tenbury Wells, he leads the chasing pack.
Gould has magnificent skills and an exceptional boss, Laura Penman, who was no slouch in the kitchen and whose decade at the helm of Fishmore Hall has been a huge success.
Penman habitually unearths excellent new talents and has transformed her business during her time in charge. She moved into Fishmore Hall during the late 2000s and transformed a derelict house into a popular hotel.
Adding an orangery and spa, she has come a long way and helped to maintain Ludlow’s reputation as a centre for excellence in the hospitality industry.
A succession of good chefs have worked for her; Gould is arguably the best.
In his own words: “We listen, we provide what our guests want, and having won their trust in our abilities and standards, we can begin to excite.”
Joe was the proud winner of Chaine des Rotisseurs UK Young Chef of the Year 2015.
His journey to Fishmore Hall is one steeped in establishments of the highest critical acclaim, including roles at one, two and three Michelin star level across the UK, Germany, Hungary, Spain and the USA. Having had three years at the pass, he’s starting to shine.
His food is light, fresh and tied to the seasons. When my friend and I called for a light lunch before lockdown, we were dazzled by his confidence, skills, presentation and flavours.
Shropshire has a number of good cooks; right now, Gould is probably the best of the lot. His food is as pretty as a picture, it’s elegant and refined, well-seasoned and well-executed.
There’s skill and guile on the plate, as well as an appreciation of terroir and flavour. He knows how best to reflect seasonality in his food and has the technical skill to achieve impressive results.
He sits at three AAA rosettes and is unstarred by Michelin; an assessment that’s fair and honest, though he’s not too far away from the little red book. His standards are good.
Penman’s front of house team is equally good. A number have worked there for some time and manage the dining room with confidence and aplomb. They are a credit to Fishmore Hall.
We started with a small selection of breads. Sourdough was light and airy, with perfect crumb and fabulous crust, while a charcoal brioche was infused with lemon and fabulously citrussy.
They were served with three butters, the best being a whipped marmite infusion that packed an umami-rich punch.
Small amuse bouche featured salt cod in a light golden crumb, a mouthful and they were gone, while a tiny pot of carrot soup was fabulous. Lunch become a sense of occasion as its rich, sweet and earthy flavours comingled with fragrant seasoning.
My friend started with an elegantly-presented cauliflower dish that had been neatly cooked and presented a taste of the seasons.
My quail starter was exceptional, with a herby crust and leek garnish making the most of winter flavours.
A rich sauce showcased Gould’s skills and the presentation was delightfully refined.
Our mains were both impressive. A cod dish with peppers was vivid in shades of red and green, while the translucent flakes of fish fell away beneath the knife.
My pork cheek was rich and sticky, served with a colourful green vegetable sauce and puffed skin. The meat was tender and well-rested.
A transition course featured a deconstructed waldorf salad, all espuma atop jelly with candied walnut garnish. Light, more-ish and unexpected, it showcased no little technical skill on Gould’s part.
Desserts concluded lunch with a bang as a busy, intricate plate of mango and chocolate was jostled out of prime position by my friend’s extraordinarily light baked Alaska, featuring the creamiest, dreamiest Italian meringue this side of Rome. It was a special way to end from a chef and a first class kitchen team.
As we look ahead to spring, it’s important to continue with renewed hope and optimism.
Laura Penman has become one of Shropshire’s most trusted and best respected restaurateurs and hoteliers and continues to invest in Fishmore Hall despite a remarkably tough economic outlook.
She has built a great team around her star player, Joe Gould, who is showing increased levels of skill and confidence as head chef.
Having settled well in the county we can expect more from him as he continues to grow into the role and as he sets the standards for others to follow.