Technical brilliance is combined with top-notch local produce by head chef Karl Martin at this newly crowned, four-AA-rosette restaurant near Ludlow. Richard McComb pays a visit
Way out west, towards the Welsh Marches, the wooded hills, craggy cliffs and forests of the 5,000-acre Downton Estate scored a mention in the Domesday Book. Today, this idyllic spot outside Ludlow is home to a very modern gastronomic project, shaped by talent, sheer hard work and bags of TLC.
Karl Martin, head chef at Old Downton Lodge in Shropshire, has taken a restaurant from nowhere to critical acclaim in a little over four years. The latest accolade, an upgrade to four AA rosettes, came in January and left Martin, a confident but self-effacing chef, speechless.
"I didn't know how to feel," he says. "I Googled all the places with four rosettes and went a bit queasy. There's Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester and Alain Roux at the Waterside. It was overwhelming."
We are in Downton's dining room in a converted medieval barn, reflecting on a story that started in Coventry and led to pot-washing at a golf club when Martin was 13. He trained at Henley College, Coventry, and nearly threw it all in to become an electrician in New Zealand.
Martin is in the big league now. Fewer than 50 UK restaurants boast four rosettes. The 34-year-old chef is humble and praises formative influences such as Peter Griffiths at the Manor Hotel, Meriden, and Simon Haigh at Mallory Court in Leamington Spa. Under Haigh, he worked in the hotel's brasserie but did not make it into the flagship restaurant. Martin's explanation of why is refreshingly honest.
"I was a horrible person. I was shouty and stressy," he recalls. "Simon calmed me down. He gave me a few chats. They were fairly firm."
At Downton, there is discipline, but Martin speaks of having complete trust in his two-man team of Ben Perry and Shaefn Lawley. There are six- and nine-course tasting menus (£65 and £80) and a three-course market menu (£50). The short menu is popular with guests staying in the lodge's nine bedrooms. For Martin, hospitality is all about flexibility. "We are confident we can give someone a different meal every time they come. If you stay three nights, you get three different meals," says the chef.
Dishes are informed by produce from Downton's natural larder. Take the 70,000 pheasants and 30,000 partridges on the estate, not to mention the venison, teal, rabbit and mallard. The chefs forage in Mortimer Forest for chickweed, wood sorrel, pennywort and wild garlic. The kitchen garden provides soft fruits and vegetables, together with locally harvested Downton Pippin apples. Sometimes, the produce comes to Martin, such as heather honey provided by his kitchen porter and used for the Welsh honey bread, served with sourdough and home-cultured butter.
Dishes are technically complex but do not smack of artifice. A garden artichoke snack comprises an artichoke ‘custard' with yeast cream, sitting on a chickpea cracker, sprinkled with yeast powder, dressed with pickled pear. A cup of pear kombucha provides light acidity. A starter of ‘chicken, mushroom' has crispy chicken skin with cep powder; a rich, tannic chicken and mushroom tea; and a crispy chicken wing with a cep curd, chestnut mushroom ketchup and raw button mushrooms.
Despite the chef's inability to taste it (Martin has a severe fish and shellfish allergy), a dish of brined, hay-smoked mackerel is deftly worked, rolled in nori and plated with a vegetarian dashi jelly. There are pickled beetroots, beetroot ketchup, sea purslane, a horseradish granita and pan-fried scallops.
Wild Harbour in Cornwall supplies the fish and Shropshire-based Alternative Meats delivers Mangalitza pork and Welsh wagyu. The latest incarnation of the beef features a dish of feather blade, brined for 24 hours and cooked for three days at 56°C, and Denver steak, from the chuck, which is a revelation. The Denver is cooked sous vide for 12 hours, again at 56°C, and brushed with soy. "We take cheaper cuts and make them prime cuts. It's a win-win for us," says Martin. Oyster, kale and apple, fermented for two months in a rice cooker, complete the dish.
Vegetables play a prominent role. A beautiful plate of roasted heritage baby carrots is served with carrot jam, homemade labneh, dill mayonnaise, carrot tops and pan-roasted honey hazelnuts. "It's like spring on a plate," says restaurant manager Lidia Bolin Hydes.
Martin has no formal pastry training, which makes the desserts all the more remarkable. A dish called Welsh honey is "us on a plate," says Martin. It's a creamy, mousse-like honey parfait, a bay leaf custard, lemon gel, yogurt ‘Aero' and a fennel shard.
"If the dishes don't work, they don't go on," says Martin. "Chefs sometimes try to do such intricate dishes they forget why people go out to eat. They want something tasty, not something with a thousand techniques."
Old Downton Lodge, Downton on the Rock, Ludlow SY8 2HU www.olddowntonlodge.com
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