Risk, recognition and reward are key factors in today’s restaurant industry, says Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide.com. Given that over half of all new restaurants close within their first year of trading, the dangers of heavy investment in site and staff are all too clear. Once opened, favourable reviews are essential for survival. Finally, the reward of inclusion in top restaurant guides and the ultimate accolade of Michelin stars are the prerogatives of only the best in the trade.
Alan Murchison, chef patron of the Michelin starred L’Ortolan in Shinfield, has risked his reputation by opening a second restaurant, La Becasse in Ludlow. It already has been recognised as one of the best fine dining establishment in the area, and gained, after only six months, the reward of three rosettes in the 2008 AA guide.
Inevitably, La Becasse risks comparisons with Claude Bosi’s two starred restaurant Hisbiscus, the previous occupant of the site. This has not fazed head chef Will Holland whose talents were recognized in his three years as head chef of L’ Ortolan His reward, like so many other successful protégés, was to be set up in his own restaurant
But doesn’t Will also risk comparison with his mentor Alan Murchison? Does he not want to be recognized in his own right? Here it must be stressed that Alan and Will collaborated over dishes at L’Ortolan, so Will has already made his own mark. Whilst Alan has already achieved one star, Will has the talent to match this, and both have the potential to go further.
Located at the base of the steep Corve Street, La Becasse is set in a 17thC listed building. This, fortunately, has meant that few risks could be taken with refurbishment. The original handsome oak paneling remains, with subtle wall lighting to give an intimate feel. However, the back dining room with bare stone walls decorated with contemporary paintings has been extended towards the kitchen. The bar area with window banquette has now been replaced with more dining space; not that tables are tightly packed, indeed the spacing in very generous. The brown striped carpet and velvet upholstered seating are in keeping with the more traditional features of the building.
No risks are taken with the cooking and serving of the food. A young team, with five in the kitchen and five front of house, combine forces to deliver a near perfect operation. Greg, the restaurant manager, radiates a genuine charm and warmth which puts diners at their ease, whilst Alberto, the sommelier shows extensive knowledge without being patronizing. Waiting staff are well versed, helpful but not intrusive.
The menus – du jour, carte and gourmand – change with the seasons and show a degree of local sourcing: mallard, “Springfield chicken”, Mortimer Forest venison all appear on the winter carte. However, quality is not sacrificed for locality.
The attention to detail, shown at every stage, from the freshly baked breads, amuse bouches to pre puddings and petit fours, was impressive indeed.
The kitchen has its finger on the culinary pulse, producing dishes in the modern idiom: the menu abounds with foams, purees, smears, savoury ice creams, and the pairing of fish and meat. At the same time, due respect is shown to the classics, with first class sauces, terrines, tartares, consommes and veloutes.
Will adopts a very personal style, with dishes embracing clean flavours, dramatic presentation, vibrant colours and variations in textures and temperatures. Every cooking technique is in evidence to showcase technical and creative ability. Timings in fish and meat cooking are precise, allowing their natural quality to speak for themselves
Humble ingredients are raised to new heights in a tartare of mackerel, marinated beetroot and cauliflower, horseradish ice cream, and dill dressing; with all elements working well together. Similarly, a Pig’s head terrine with crispy pig’s ear and sauce gibriche showed a rustic simplicity in contrast to the more sophisticated dishes
A crab risotto with crab bisque had a rich creaminess and great depth of flavour. This luxurious dish, was laced by a leek and truffle jelly, and topped generously with truffle shavings.
Creativity is shown in parmesan crusted scallops, with curried parsnips. The sweetness of the shellfish is balanced by the spice of the parsnips, both being enhanced a lime emulsion. Parmesan added a salty dimension and contrasting texture, but stopped short of overwhelming the dish,
The Foie gras sandwich with pain d’espices, smoked duck and rhubarb chutney, a joint creation of Will and Alan Murchison, is an indulgent but well balanced signature dish. The silky richness of the foie gras contrasts with the crispness of the gingerbread, the fragrance of which marries well with the gently acidic rhubarb.
Amongst the main courses, roasted monkfish wrapped in parma ham was perfectly timed to retain its succulence and taste. It was partnered with an unctuous oxtail crepe and red wine sauce, helping to make this a star dish, both delicate and robust.
Poaching a breast of mallard rare produced soft, delicious flesh of melting texture. Root vegetable cassoulet and wild duck and tarragon consommé completed a dish which was both earthy and refined
A beautifully presented stuffed saddle of rabbit, braised celery, prune puree, capers and lemon confit was a mixture of delicate and strong flavours, with brilliant colours and contrasting textures. As with many other main courses, this was a complex multi-layered dish, brilliantly conceived and skillfully executed.
Desserts show considerable artistry and skill in the pastry section. Dark chocolate fondant, passion fruit curd and bitter chocolate sorbet was opulent and decadent. In contrast, a seemingly modest Pain perdu, with caramelized apples and blackberries was lifted to blissful heights by a warm foamed vanilla crème anglaise. Rhubarb in a charlotte worked well with ginger ice cream and rose champagne jelly.
Some might argue that dishes in each course contain too many components, distracting from the main element. However, the combinations are generally harmonious and, most importantly, taste is not sacrificed for texture or presentation..
The euphoric effect on the diners must bring great satisfaction to the kitchen and front of house. Eating here is a highly pleasurable experience. Prices are fair, given the labour intensive, luxurious and cutting edge nature of many of the dishes. A three course lunch at £24 is a steal, whilst the carte and gourmand options are priced appropriately for restaurants at this level.
Overall, the risk has paid off and the achievement of Will Holland and his team is fully recognized by appreciative customers. Although La Becasse opened too late to be included in the Good Food Guide or receive a star from the Michelin Guide of 2008, it can confidently expect to be rewarded next year; this will attract foodies from further afield and confirm its place as a serious destination restaurant.