A Star Trek in England
Long Drive, Good Grub: Ludlow's Michelin-Rated Eats
By Jane Black
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page P01
Cue to a car driving up a country road. Ahead: the quintessential English country village. As the camera sweeps the horizon, we see a ruined castle with crenelated walls and a round tower, sitting atop a hill. Spread out below, a winding river and endless green pastures dotted with sheep.
The car enters the town and travels over a stone bridge, past half-timbered houses and a country antiques shop. It stops in front of an ornate wood door. Inside, a waiter smoothly guides a handsome couple to the last available table. They open their menus and we see the day's offerings: fois gras ice cream with a warm emulsion of brioche and balsamic vinegar caramel to start, Dover sole stuffed with leeks and pear in a glazed cucumber puree and black pepper oil, then wild strawberry soup with hibiscus sorbet.
Fabulous food in the English countryside? Something is wrong with this picture.
Yes, British food is improving. London now offers a slew of internationally renowned restaurants, and anyone with a little get-up-and-go will discover gastronomic heaven when eating clotted cream in Devon, sausages in Lincolnshire or fish and chips on the south coast. But for all its enticements, the English countryside is not known for its food.
Except Ludlow. This Shropshire town, previously best known for administering the unruly Welsh border provinces in the Middle Ages, has transformed itself from sleepy village into culinary mecca. Today, Ludlow has three Michelin-starred restaurants: Hibiscus, which won its second Michelin star in January, the Merchant House and Mr. Underhill's at Dinham Weir. That's the most of any town in England outside London. The wait for a weekend dinner reservation can be up to six months.
Such feasts don't come cheap, especially with the weak dollar: A prix-fixe lunch runs about $50 per person, dinner $60 and up. But that's actually quite reasonable compared with London prices. A no-big-deal Sunday pub lunch with a pint of ale or a glass of wine can cost $45 per person; dinner at Gordon Ramsey's critically acclaimed restaurant 68 Royal Hospital Road runs $115.
This spring, my boyfriend, Matt, and I set out on a pilgrimage to Ludlow. At exactly 1 p.m., after a four-hour drive northwest from London, we arrived for our prized reservation at Hibiscus. The restaurant is run by 32-year-old rising star Claude Bosi, a Frenchman trained first by his mother, who ran a bistro in Lyon, and later by culinary legends Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard. Like his mentors, Bosi's food is stylish. Thankfully, however, he rarely gives in to the temptation of making dishes too precious. The emphasis is on simple, fresh flavors paired in inventive, occasionally uncanny, ways.
It was hard to choose but eventually I settled on crab and pear ravioli, roasted monkfish with a confit of new-season carrots, broccoli and grapefruit puree -- and an exquisitely gooey caramelized lemon tart. With coffee, we sampled white chocolate and olive truffles, then three kinds of madeleines -- pistachio, almond and vanilla -- that would have inspired Proust to scribble another chapter.
Our only complaint? The reverent hush that fell over the diners while eating Bosi's food. The dining room was so quiet it was impossible for most diners to carry on a conversation. Matt and I stayed mostly silent throughout the two-hour lunch, whispering only subdued murmurs of appreciation.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A shopkeeper in Ludlow, England, prepares for business at the Mousetrap, which sells a variety of local cheeses.