LA BECASSE: A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN
If word on the street is to be believed, then Ludlow’s days as the food capital of England are well and truly behind it. Claude is in that there London, Shaun is across the border in Wales and, if what I heard was true then Mr Underhill will soon be putting up his feet and taking it easy.
No one, however, seems to have told Alan Murchison or his 29 year old protégé, Will Holland that the Shropshire town’s better days are in the rear view mirror, because since they took over the space previously occupied by Hibiscus, they have managed to not only gather some rave reviews for the cooking and service at La Becasse, but also a coveted Michelin star.
Slightly less coveted was the big thumbs up received from the younger, cuter half of DH after a lunch there in May. I had not felt able to discuss it in depth on the relevant post because my companion, James Day from Eating The Midlands, and I had been Will Holland’s guests. But, I was impressed enough to make sure that, as soon as Sybil confirmed her dates for a round Britain tour, a visit to La Becasse was the first to be pencilled in.
The set lunch menu is rapidly becoming the only sensible way to experience fine dining in the UK and although the offering at La Becasse has risen from £26 to £29 (two courses for £25) in the last six months it still represents very decent value for the experience provided. Unfortunately, the word does not yet seem to have got out as there were only a handful of other couples dining during our visit and most of the restaurant remained unoccupied.
The first thing we noticed as our meal began was the quality of the bread. In marked contrast to that served during our excellent meal at The Kitchin, this was warm and delicious comprising three different types of rolls baked together and served in a mini loaf tin.
The Chef’s amuse was a mushroom veloute. It would have left me cold but for the interesting addition of squid and prunes at the bottom of the cup. It reminded me of my previous visit when I was impressed that Will’s use of interesting ingredients did not overshadow his technique. Here the added sweet note at the end of the dish did not overpower the soup and the few mouthfuls made a decent start to the meal.
I should mention here that, as he remembered me from my previous visit, Will sent out a couple of extra dishes for us to try. We paid for our meal, but I can’t guarantee that everyone would receive the same treatment. However, if you do visit and see a dish of foie gras on the menu, order it. The amuse sized serving placed in front of us, came with dainty blocks of passion fruit jelly, a blob of remoulade and strips of deep fried celeriac. It was one of the highlights of the meal.
Less successful was the next dish, a small square of perfectly cooked halibut, which came topped with thin slivers of cauliflower and a sauce which had taken flavour from the gentle use of curry spices. Little nuggets of honeycomb were the one step too far for me and seemed a little misjudged in a dish that would have been fine without them. Fish and Space Dust, maybe it will catch on.
We were back on form however with the first dishes to arrive from our selection from the set menu. For Sybil, an elegant plate of beetroot cured smoke salmon served with horseradish ice cream and more beetroot, this time in Spaghetti form. Sybil adored it and declared it one of her dishes of the whole trip so far. On the little she allowed me to sample, she was not wrong. Quite how you can cure something with the strong taste of beets and not lose all the flavour, I have no idea, but this dish managed it. My own starter was a slightly more standard take on a salad of duck leg and Puy lentils, which might have been dismissed as prosaic but for the addition of a confit duck egg yolk and a Mohawk of superb duck skin crackling.
I got my own back when the main courses arrived, not that you would know it by the sounds emanating from my bride to be. They were of the sort I had hoped would only happen during our wedding night. It was her second dish of razor clams in as many meals and they kindly allowed her to choose it from the tasting menu. Although she had immensely enjoyed the The Kitchin’s take, she declared La Becasse’s version in every way its superior. The clam had been coated in a light but delicious seafood sabayon and was accompanied by as good a piece of pan fried plaice as you could hope to try.
A quite lovely dish, but it did not close to my own stunningly good main course, which unsurprisingly came in pie form. This time, a hot water pastry shell cracked to release a meaty aroma as shreds of slow cooked roe deer fell onto the plate and into a sharp sauce of cassis and blackberries. Chestnuts added texture and honey glazed parsnips a little sweetness. Will told me later that he added this dish to the lunch menu when he realised that the venison stew he was serving for staff meals was a tasty source of possible profit. Their loss was my gain and reminded me why when such dishes are well made with great ingredients they deserve their place on fine dining menus.
After a main course like that, desserts were always going to struggle for attention and, although I nodded politely when Sybil said she loved her Dark Chocolate and Smoked Tea Fondant, I did have to balance that with the fact that she would eat her own foot if it were covered in 70% cocoa solids. As she watched entranced as brown liquid flowed from the centre of her pudding, I worked on my own dessert a caramel parfait served with a sage granita and “boulangere” apples. Honeycomb made its right and proper appearance here and although the end of any meal is rarely the most exciting time for me, the only real criticisms I can raise at my pudding was the fact that it lacked a certain elegance compared to the plating of the other dishes and there was an infuriating skid mark of sauce on the plate.
The front of house guided by Restaurant manager, Nico was excellent throughout and the pleasingly unhurried service meant that our lunch lasted a leisurely two and a half hours, just leaving us time to catch a few quick glimpses of Ludlow before the daylight began to fade. Our bill, including bottles of mineral water and a well deserved tip came to £89, which even taking our complimentary dishes out of the equation still strikes me as a good cost to enjoyment ratio particularly when pitted against the restaurant’s rivals in the capital.
Ludlow may not be quite the hotspot of its glory days, but with the cooking of Will Holland at La Becasse and the backing of Alan Murchison, it might just be witnessing the dawning of a new era.