Restaurants: Break for the border

Caroline Stacey finds a designer transport caff in Shropshire's answer to Soho
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In one small spin of last year's merry-go-round of London restaurants, the heavily-upholstered Waltons in Chelsea was sold to Julian Metcalfe, of the Pret a Manger sandwich chain. Metcalfe then turned the site into an East-meets-West conveyor-belt sushi set-up called t'su. But what became of Norman Swallow and Roger Wren, who for nearly 25 years had kept the bain-marie simmering in Walton Street?

The birds have flown. They still own the English Garden and English House in Chelsea, but since last November have been based in Shropshire. They've hardly opted for the quiet life, though, for rather than keep their hand in with a swagged-curtain-and-foie-gras dinner venue, they and their front- of-house manager from London, Alex Grainger, are running a roadhouse on the A49 that's open every day of the year. You can't miss The Cookhouse: it's an imposing red-brick listed house just outside Ludlow, which in terms of restaurants is the Soho of the Welsh borders. Shaun Hill's Merchant House is well established in the town, and the Michelin-starred Mr Underhill's relocated from Suffolk to just below the castle at the same time as The Cookhouse opened.

The Cookhouse used to be a pub, the Clive Arms, in deference to the family that still owns it and 8,000 surrounding acres (feudalism never died out hereabouts). The estate workers, along with passing trade, still make up the bulk of the clientele.

From 7.30am, The Cookhouse serves breakfast in the cafe, which looks like a designer take on a transport caff: a very metropolitan matrix of blond wood, bare walls and matt-black table tops - with a ketchup and HP sauce bottle on each. Breakfast gives way to a cafe menu of steak-and-kidney pie, bangers and mash, croque monsieur, and puds ranging from lemon tart to knickerbocker glory; a simple selection of something for everyone which does not spread itself as far and wide as a French brasserie menu. Next door, is a buttercup-yellow restaurant with more serious intentions - more of this later. On the other side is the bar, with Tetley's beer mats on glass-topped tables - the new-look setting for the pub's dominoes team.

I first went to The Cookhouse cafe when friends from across the county converged there for a birthday party on a Sunday night. It proved how difficult it is to be a critic and a good guest at the same time. First, you're not disposed to criticise; second, even if you want to, you can't necessarily remember much about the meal (unless it's remarkably good or bad). In these circumstances, if we're not careful, we may even forget what we do and enjoy ourselves.

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and I do remember that my next-door neighbour on one side ordered a Greek salad, and found it more than he could eat (unusual for a farmer, I'd have thought), that the lamb's liver terrine was crumbly, and bread was own-baked and good. Steak chasseur satisfied those who ordered it (beef-eating is an article of faith round here, even if some people have a salad chaser), and there was more than some could eat. Thai chicken curry, faithfully made and not with a paste, pulled its punches: it was more like a finely-flavoured, lemongrassy sauce, served with plain grains of saffron rice, rather than the usual sticky white. Bread-and-butter pudding, a neat circle with apricot coulis, was just as eggy and sultana-studded as it should be; the alternative was hazelnut and chocolate roulade. Top-class dinner-party cooking, which was just what was called for on this occasion, and two courses for only pounds 9, three for pounds 11.

This didn't seem rigorous enough for a full recommendation, so I went back to The Cookhouse restaurant for an a la carte lunch, topped and tailed with canapes and petits fours, which pitches it into the eating-for-a-treat bracket.

This meal suggested the chef has rather a sweet tooth: of two well-put- together starters, red mullet on mixed leaves came with a dressing that claimed to be gazpacho, but seemed more oriental than Andalucian; asparagus - fat, juicy, grass-green spears - came sandwiched between parmesan crisps, surrounded by quails' eggs. Asparagus was the only seasonal produce (and, even so, probably from Spain); everything else could have come from anywhere at any time of year, which seems a shame when there's so much growing and grazing around here. Guinea fowl, with a crisp brown skin, was as good as it gets, though the lemon, lime and coriander sauce around it was pink and slightly jammy. Sea bream en papillote, with a medley of tomato, red pepper, black olive, almonds and pine kernels, was a little overcooked and not quite redolent enough of the Med, though the juices mingled well with dauphinoise potato.

Though The Cookhouse restaurant serves colourful and pretty dishes, with the competition it's up against in Ludlow, it's providing a more dispensable service than the smart caff next door. That, the very model of a modern English routier, knocks every Harvester into a straw hat, and is worth crossing an A-road, even a county, for

The Cookhouse, Bromfield, Ludlow, Shropshire (01584 856565). Cafe open daily from 7.30am, lunch and dinner. Restaurant lunch and dinner daily. Average cafe lunch around pounds 9, set-price dinner two courses pounds 9, three pounds 11. Restaurant: average pounds 20, three courses without wine.

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