The Merchant House
Lower Corve Street
Decisions do not come easily to me. For example, I have spent most of this morning trying to select which of the many writing assignments I have allowed to pile up to address first. Having plumped for this one, I have then spent further precious minutes pondering how on earth I should start the thing. When it comes to ordering food in a restaurant, this sort of vacillation turns the process into a mild form of torture both for me and my fellow diners, whom by comparison, seem to be blessed with powers of decisiveness bordering on the superhuman.
Within moments of being handed the menu, they will have settled on the soup followed by the lamb whilst I endlessly um and ah over the salad or the shellfish : "If I have the salad then I can't have the confit pork as a main course because the salad has bacon in it. But then again, I had the shellfish last time we came here. Yes I know that was two years ago, what's your point?" .
The fact that chef Shaun Hill offers just 4 dishes at each stage of a meal at his Michelin starred Ludlow restaurant "The Merchant House" should in theory ease my usual dismay. In reality however, every item on his menu sounds so enticing that even King Solomon would run into difficulties choosing between them.
A recent dinner could have started with a whole roast quail served with a small portion of intensely flavoured parsley risotto; or a fillet of sea bass, grilled and sauced with spiced beurre blanc, accompanied by an aubergine fritter. On the other hand it could have been one of the restaurant's signature preparation's: sauteed monkfish with mustard and cucumber.
As it was, scallops with lentil and coriander sauce was available that night. Although I have dined at The Merchant House many times, I had never tried what is perhaps Shaun's most well known dish, and so thankfully it almost chose itself. A generous bowl of seven thick slices of accurately sauteed scallop sat on a sauce of brown lentils flavoured with garlic, ginger, cardamom, tomato and chicken stock, finished with butter, creme fraiche, lemon juice and fresh coriander leaves.
Simple in design, straightforward in execution (well, it has to be, Hill cooks all the savoury food for the restaurants 7 tables single-handedly and to order) but complex on the palate, the dish typifies the chef's approach to his craft.
In "Shaun Hill's Cookery Book" he describes the iterative process which led to the creation of the dish. Beginning with an initial idea of lobster and lightly curried lentil puree, Hill then added scallops, which then went on to actually replace the lobster. A tinkering with the puree followed, introducing lemon and coriander to the dish for the first time, until finally the puree became a sauce base with the addition of butter and cream whilst the amount of coriander increased to give it a co-starring role.
Having cooked professionally since the late 60's, for the most part as head chef, Shaun Hill has over time successfully extracted the one thing that most often spoils restaurant food : ego. He does not set out to impress with food, satisfy his own creative needs or professional curiosity, but as the above example serves to illustrate, is intent on pleasing his customers with the very finest ingredients prepared in the best way he can devise.
A main course of saddle of hare with sultanas and black pepper was another relatively easy choice, as I had previously sampled the delights of rack of lamb with herbs and red wine sauce and wild duck with celeriac and morel mushrooms on previous visits. I was able to discount the remaining option of
roast red mullet with shallots on the basis that I had recently eaten a similar dish at another restaurant. This is the sort of rationalisation I often resort to in these sort of high pressure situations. One day I'll be grown up enough just to order what I fancy eating.
The saddle was roasted rare, sliced and served with fried potato and green olive cakes, some simply boiled green vegetables, the exact nature of which I cannot precisely recall, and the slightly sweet, slightly hot sauce. Shaun explained after the meal that he never follows the traditional method of thickening game sauces with blood as it reminds him of the unpleasant taste you get in your mouth following a trip the dentist to have a tooth extracted.
The dish followed the format of all the meat main courses I have enjoyed at The Merchant House; a large portion of the headline ingredient, a small but rich and interesting bit of starch, a powerful sauce and the veg as described. If you order a rack of lamb, you will receive the whole rack, order the duck, it will be either a whole mallard or a breast and leg of a larger fowl and so on. You get what you ask for, and not an array of fiddley garnishes taking up space and the plate where the grub should be.
That is not to say that the food at The Merchant House lacks elegance or refinement, it certainly has all that. But it's elegance comes from the careful handling of prime produce and it's refinement lies in the understated and intelligent application of a precise technique.
As it was nearly Christmas, I treated myself to a plated selection of very fine Isle of Mull Cheddar, Gorgonzola and Coulommiers for a very reasonable £5.00 supplement to the £32.00 set menu price. Although tempted by one of the great puds of all time, the Hungarian trifle "Somloi", teased by the thought of Muscat creme caramel with prunes and flirting with the idea of the very seasonal panettonne bread and butter pudding, I made what I felt was the very mature choice of pear poached in red wine with rice pudding ice cream, in light of the fact that I had eaten a poached pear dessert at Bibendum just a few short months earlier.
It would be wrong to say that desserts are the highlight of a visit to The Merchant House, although they are bloody good, because one of the joys of the place is that the food is of a uniformly high standard throughout. Indeed, Emily Green, reviewing the restaurant when it first opened in 1994 for the Independent newspaper remarked that "even the buttery bread roll is well worth a detour". This still holds true, with perhaps the granary loaf offered as part of a warm basket of bread at the start of the meal being even better than the fantail that Ms Green referred to.
Delicious canapes came in the form of mini pizza squares topped with an olive, anchovy, tomato and cheese mixture, Roquefort biscuits and Parma ham wrapped around asparagus, whilst very high quality chocolates came with coffee at a £2.50 supplement.
I drunk a half bottle of Chablis 1999 Chateau de Maligny at £12.00 and a glass of Le Volte 1999 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia at £4.00 from a wine list of extraordinary value, the details of which you can view by clicking here. Shaun is keen that his customers, many of which are local and regulars, should be able to afford to drink wines of the appropriate quality to properly accompany their food. It's a policy that many other restaurants would do well to copy.
Although award winning, Michelin starred and featured on "worlds best" lists, The Merchant House is above all a local restaurant. You may occupy one of it's tables in the cosy dining room decorated with paintings and artifacts from the Hill's personal collection for the entire night, and then pay a bill at the end that will be small enough to allow you to return next week.
That said, unless you are lucky enough to fly upper class on BA where you will find a menu design by him, you must travel to Ludlow to eat Shaun Hill's food. He doesn't own a chain of brasseries and he doesn't consult for hotels or catering firms. What he does do every Tuesday to Saturday is source the best local ingredients available on any given day and prepare them in his own particular style.
He's not copying anyone, and although chef's travel from far and wide to eat his food, no one is copying him. In a world of lettuce fondue, foie gras veloute and tortellini of whatever, perhaps they find the food too stark to put on their own fancy pants menus. Or maybe it's just that they know that no one can cook quite like Shaun Hill.
Andy Lynes December 2002
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