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Food and Drink

The bread roll alone is worth the detour : FOOD & DRINK

Shaun Hill, late of Gidleigh Park, has set up on his own in order to sp end more time cooking - deliciously, says Jim Ainsworth
When Shaun Hill decided to quit the stoves of Gidleigh Park in Devon about a year ago, it was the gastronomic equivalent of the Foreign Secretary resigning. What's happened? Is there a scandal? Are we about to leave the EC?

All that had happened was that, after nine years, it was time to move on. Where, everybody wondered, would he fetch up? Just before Christmas he opened the doors of The Merchant House in Ludlow.

"Why Ludlow?" was my first question, too. OK, it has some wonderful buildings, including a chapel and a castle dating back to Norman times, overlooking a bend in the River Corve, and it has magnificent countryside all around; all delightful, but hardly enough to build a restaurant on. Hill must have answered the question a dozen times before because he came straight out with his reasons.

"One, I like Ludlow." Fair enough. Although not a Shropshire lad, he is fond of A E Housman, and had explored the Marches years ago. Two, except for fish, the produce is good and local markets are lively: lamb, game, vegetables and cheese all abound. Three, any half-timbered building from Malvern to Church Stratton might have done, but The Merchant House was what he wanted, sharing a quiet street with the Spicer's House and Tanners' Cottages, not far from the Glovemaker's House, among Ludlow's pre-industrial cottage industries.

It is difficult enough to spot in the daytime, let alone at night, with no sign to catch the passing trade's attention. Bang on the big wooden door then, when no one comes to answer it, slip through a tradesman's entrance, straight into a sparse dining room with old wooden pillars and modern paintings and crockery.

Shaun and Anja Hill do everything themselves, from shopping to book-keeping, from peeling veg to answering the phone. Quite a change from a big brigade with someone to make the sauces, another to bake bread, others still to chop, skivvy, fetch and carry.It is deliberately so. With no backers, just a bank loan, there are no shareholders to answer to, and no middle management to get in the way. With only one girl to help with service, there are relatively few overheads. He can concentrate on what he enjoys doing: cooking.

This means dishes are tailored to what one man can comfortably manage, hence his food is less elaborate than it once was. Vegetables are all cooked to order, Hill explained, but are now strewn over the plates instead of being carefully arranged, which seems no great loss. Apart from celeriac mash and roasted strips of parsnip, served with steamed and then crisp-fried Aylesbury duckling, they were mostly ahead of the season: sugar-snap peas, green beans, courgettes and thin asparagus.

The food is shopping-based. On the night we went, an old Gidleigh favourite appeared - scallops with lentils and coriander - because Birmingham market had a supply of scallops that morning. His butcher and game dealer came up with a few hares, so the eyeof the saddle was briefly and simply roasted, served rare, properly rested, wonderfully tender and tasty. It came with tiny pieces of chopped leg and liver and a dab of horseradish.

The appeal of The Merchant House is in the combination of first-class ingredients and utterly sound techniques. Here is an accomplished chef divesting himself of frills, working within his own limits (which are considerable) and producing food that is well worth travelling for, and is probably putting the wind up most other restaurants within 50 miles. Even the buttery bread roll is well worth a detour. Flaps of dough made with skimmed milk are slapped together so they peel away easily: a masterful combination of lightness and richness.

There is much to revel in, including just-cooked strips of chicken breast lurking in the depths of a smooth, rich, sand-coloured soup made from chick peas; small spears of asparagus bask, half-submerged, like green crocodiles. A sense of balance and judgement prevails, in both tastes and textures.

Pink calf kidney and fat sweetbreads come with a crisp-fried potato cake studded with olives, and a moistening puddle of lightly creamy, stock-based sauce with a welcome bite of sharpness from capers. Rice pudding has a crunchy, caramelised topping and arefreshing "salad" of orange and grapefruit segments. Puddings are not too rich, so the balance extends to the menu as a whole.

Wines are good, although there are few half-bottles and nothing at all by the glass, a peculiar omission. Hill says he is working towards an extensive list of half-bottles, and that you only have to ask and he will open anything within reason and pour a glass. We asked the waitress, but were told there was nothing available. However, after a half-bottle of Zind-Humbrecht's Riesling Herrenweg, and a bottle of Graillot's superior La Guiraude cuvee of Crozes-Hermitage, both 1991, it did not seem to matter much.

Lunches are a bit stop-and-go at present - telephone to see if they are open - but the three-course dinner is £25 (including a plate of savoury nibbles) with coffee at £2.50 (including sweet nibbles).

"Shaun Hill has put Ludlow on the map," confided one local, and that is after only a few weeks. Hill himself claims that his near-decade stay at Gidleigh Park was meant to be temporary: "Ludlow is permanent." Lucky Ludlow.

The Merchant House, Lower Corve Street, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 1DU. Telephone and fax: 0584 875438. Open dinner Tues-Sat. Ring to enquire about lunch.