Old Downton Lodge
Em Marshall-Luck enjoys a meal worthy of a Michelin star
Old Downton Lodge is a remarkable place. Set amidst Shropshire’s rolling hills (despite the establishment itself being in a tongue of Herefordshire, poking rudely into Shropshire) it was originally a farm and is formed of a series of very old buildings, with the oldest part – the dining room – dating back to the eleventh century. The present owners have been here six years, and have gradually converted it from a B&B to a spectacularly sophisticated restaurant, with the assistance of head chef Karl Martin, who has been with them for three years.
There are also 10 individually decorated bedrooms; I was pleased to hear that these are dog-friendly, although children under the age of 12 are not allowed in the restaurant, due to the length and intensity of the meals.
From the car park, one makes one’s way through a brick archway and then a series of garden rooms, surrounded by mediaeval and half-timbered buildings, to the sitting room. This is sited in the old milking dairy, and retains its original roof and roof trusses. There are lovely old oak floor boards and comfortable seating on tartan-check-style sofas and banquettes, the backs of which are formed by the original stalls. A fire blazes in an impressive wood-burning stove, while other features of interest include what appears to be a very old tapestry, and a Broadwood piano with its characteristic marquetry. On sale are items of jewellery and carved walking sticks – both of these made by members of the staff (all of whom, with the sole exception of chef Karl and the front of house manager, are local). The bar is at one end – a low, informal wooden bar sporting a large collection of bottles. Black and white historical photos add extra interest and also give a pleasing insight into the history of the building. To my pleasure, the music playing wasn’t, for once, intrusive popular music, but was Count Basie – at discreet enough a volume to enable one to talk over, but loud enough to enable one to relax to it.
One is beautifully looked after by Alexios, who combines the roles of head of house and sommelier, who offers menus and drinks – bringing me a delicious refreshing Ayala Brut Majeur champagne and freshly squeezed orange juice for my husband, with a bowl of freshly prepared nuts.
Once happily relaxed, one is shown through into the dining room, greeted with the heady scent of lilies as one reaches this imposing and impressive room. This previous barn is of double-storey height, with exposed oak beams and rafters and the original greyish stone of the walls also exposed. A particular feature is the small triangular windows: originally for ventilation, they have been glassed over to provide a focal point to the room, and are spectacular from the outside, when gazing in at the lit barn in the evenings. There is a gorgeous flagstone floor with wonderfully large and smooth stones, with a single runner at the entrance.
Perhaps the admirable feature is the magnificent sideboard that runs almost the full width of the room – if this isn’t Jacobean, it is certainly plentifully adorned with Jacobean motifs. There is a tapestry hanging above this, the chivalric tone of which is echoed in the coats of arms embroidered on the backs of the chairs (gold on raspberry). As much as possible is wood, leather and slate – all warm, natural, materials, with metal kept to a minimum: where this is necessary (in the floor-standing candle sconce, for instance), dull metals have been chosen so as not to detract from the atmosphere conveyed by the other materials. There are no tablecloths – but the characterful nature of the old, dark-oak tables renders these unnecessary. Wooden candle scones on each table, and on the table by the entrance, lend a warm air with their substantial pillar candles – the slightly bronzed colour of the sconce tying in well with the other colours used in the room. The cutlery is plain but elegantly shaped and proportioned; and we were immensely impressed that the crockery was ever so carefully chosen and tailored to each course.
The ethos of Old Downton Lodge is very much about an involving and protracted dining experience, rather than just a meal, and for this reason they don’t turn tables, rather encouraging diners to remain in the intimate, 20 cover restaurant as long as they wish; and they only offer tasting menus (of six or nine courses), rather than an a la carte menu.
Honey bread was brought first of all. This was absolutely delicious and dangerously moreish, with a wonderful sweetness and a delicately light crumb. It was accompanied by home-made butter which had a slightly whipped texture, so was light enough not to overpower the flavour of the bread.
We started with celeriac with parmesan and egg yolk. I don’t actually like celeriac, but the mark of a superbly talented chef is to make an ingredient that one wouldn’t normally like not just acceptable, but actually truly pleasant, and such was the case here. The elements of parmesan shaving, egg yolk in a strangely creamy format, and a regular block of slightly (but not unpleasantly) sharp tasting celeriac, presented on a circular marble slab, worked perfectly together and was just extremely impressive indeed. This agreeable experience was increased further by the exquisite, biodynamic Chardonnay – Novas, from the Casablanca Valley in Chile – chosen to complement the dish, which was beautifully creamy, amazingly smooth and with an incredibly strong mineral element – a wonderful hit of chalk and rock.
The second course was rose veal with walnut, beetroot and goats’ milk. The latter added a very earthy, yet creamy, element that was reflected in the wine, a dark, earthy Chinon 2009 from the Loire, with a just slightly bitter and granulated element to it. Sweetness in the dish was provided in the format of tiny pieces of raw red onions, as well as in the walnut, while the also very sweet beetroot married the two elements of sweetness and earthiness together. The roast veal itself was surprisingly strong-flavour but also beautifully tender. Thought had been given to the bowl in which this was served – a very rough glazed bowl, reminiscent of old-fashioned earthenware.
This was followed by sea trout with fermented chicory; also a rather earthy dish – the fish being quite gamey but moist and with a well-focused flavour. The dill complemented it beautifully and the hint of seaweed added an extra lift. My husband thought that the fermented chicory worked well but, although even cooked by Karl, this didn’t manage to convince me of the merits of the new fermented trend. The wine, however, brought tears to my eyes – the most beautifully mineral-y white – Lugana, Vigne Alta from Italy, reminiscent of Gewürztraminer, and with a warm glow in the aftertaste.
The fourth course was pork with onion, miso and several different types of mushroom. It was paired with another biodynamic wine, this time Gisele Pinot Noir from the Willakenzie Estate in Oregon – another very earthy wine with slight element of bitterness which complemented the dish well. The pork loin itself was most tender and fairly delicately flavoured; yet with fat that was bursting with flavour, while miso and mushrooms lent additional dimensions of flavour to the dish. The truffle was the only slightly disappointing element, which I found just slightly too papery and lacking in flavour.
A wonderful palate-cleanser, a concoction of gin, grapefruit and tarragon followed, the tarragon lending a strong reminiscence of aniseed and the sharpness of the grapefruit cutting through the texture to cleanse most perfectly. Meulenhof’s Riesling Spätlese, from Mosel in Germany, has a sweeter nose than comes through on the palate; full of sweet honeysuckle and apple blossom, it is almost more of a Muscat on the nose than Riesling. But on the palate it is much more citrusy than one would expect from the nose – there is masses of grapefruit and lemon, which makes it such a good fit for this pre-dessert: tart, refreshing, and quite floral, but the predominance being those citrussy flavours.
We were given a break from wines with the next stage of the meal (a nice touch, showing a priority with aesthetics and the importance of taste), being presented instead with fermented tea with added carrot and ginger. Gently sparkling, it was fragrant and refreshing – a very apt placement for this stage of the meal, and one which complemented the food – carrot and molasses with yoghurt – beautifully.
Dessert was as impressive as could only be expected from the meal thus far. A well-considered and executive combination of chocolate, malt and caramel flavours, it included a chocolatey-caramel-y creamy and fluffy mousse, a malty chocolatey cream, vanilla ice-cream and, my favourite element, the crumbly, gritty, salty dark chocolate soil – which I could have sat and eaten all evening, with a particularly black, earthy element to it. (I believe the words “Can I just have a plate of chocolate soil please?” did actually pass my lips; they were disregarded as a joke, although not necessarily meant as such!) The accompanying wine was Moscatel de Setúbal Colheita, a fortified wine from Portugal with a dark burnt caramel appearance and a nose of pure honey. On the palate it has intense raisin flavours, with the tiniest hint of plum – quite fresh with pine forests; and not quite as sweet as the nose would imply, but more herby and interesting.
With the cheese course I eschewed ruby port, so we were brought, to my delight and enthusiasm, a darker Marsala Superiore from Italy, and ten-year-old Sercial, a Portuguese madeira made from white grapes, which had an immensely white grape-flavoured nose and was much drier on the palate than the nose indicated, with an almost chalky shortness but nevertheless lots of golden, sun-soaked raisins. We were also brought – unasked for, but very welcome indeed – our third bottle of mineral water.
The cheese board featured a selection of British cheeses, with some very sweet celery, the honey-bread, and home-made slightly salty and very crisp crackers – these included ones with whole caraway and cumin seeds on a wholemeal flour base, as well as ones with black poppy seeds on a white cracker base. The cheeses included the Cheese With No Name from the Ludlow Food Centre: quite crumbly, dry and curd-tasting; a cheddar with a slight edge to the flavour, although still mild: it had a little more presence when matched with the crackers; a slightly acidic and lemony goats’ cheese with creamy, chalky and salty elements; and a pleasantly (although not overpoweringly) strong blue cheese, which worked very well with the honey bread, as the flavoursand textures complemented each other so well.
Everything about our meal impressed us. The fact that so much is local: Welsh whisky, local spirits, craft beers from Bishops Castle and Ludlow, Herefordshire cider, Wenlock Spring water; the fact that the vegetables are mostly grown on site; the fact that they work with local butchers and with the Ludlow Food Centre; and the fact that they even use Tanners wines of Shrewsbury to enable diners to purchase the wines they had at dinner direct if they like them. Food was of the highest quality – there’s that remarkable ability of Karl’s to make diners enjoy eating ingredients or dishes that they wouldn’t normally try, let alone like – and wines were stunning and so incredibly well-chosen to complement. The ambience, atmosphere, surroundings and décor were splendid – where better to eat than a mediaeval-type barn, surrounded by Jacobean furniture, pillar lamps, sumptuous furnishings and flagstone floors? And the service also was so
me of the finest to be found – our waitress polite and extremely professional; while Alexios is a real treasure – describing the wines beautifully and with a simmering enthusiasm as he presented each one with the course, after examining each glass to within an inch of its life before proffering it to the dinner. This is Michelin-starred stuff if ever I’ve encountered it: so, come on, where’s that star?
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic