There's lots of reasons why Mr Underhill's is famous, but principally perhaps, because in 2010 it was named by Harden's as the No1 Best All-Round UK Restaurant, quite an accolade. In the 2012 list of the 100 Best Restaurants by The Sunday Times in association with Harden's, Mr Underhill's ranks an impressive number 10, sandwiched between Le Gavroche (No 9) and L'enclume (No 11) giving a hint perhaps that this is two star cooking. I am wary however that the Harden's list is survey based, since a public poll of 'must read' books in 2012 would have landed you with 50 Shades of Grey rather than Hamlet. Nevertheless, it's still impressive.
Four other facts to know about Mr Underhill's. First, it's run by a husband and wife team: Chris Bradley in the kitchen, and Judy Bradley running front of house. Second, Chef Chris Bradley is entirely self taught. Third, each day is a set menu, around nine courses (including coffee) with a single sitting, 7:30 for 8, based on the best of ingredients that are available that day. And fourth, Mr Underhill's has been running for 32 years now, so it is no new kid on the block. In press interviews, there has been some talk by the proprietors of retirement, and given the write ups, it does seem a 'try before you die' restaurant, hence, I was keen to make the journey sooner rather than later.
Location wise, it couldn't be bettered, the castle at Ludlow as a back drop and the River Teme at it's prettiest out front. I'm one of the first to arrive at the restaurant (never knowingly late), and am invited to take a seat at any of the tables laid for two, there's no allocation here. The wine list appears to have been a labour of love and is attractively priced, while a food menu with your name on is brought to the table for you to peruse together with selected by the glass wines that are suggested pairings for the evening's food, again, attractively priced.
Without doubt, there's excellence coming out the kitchen, and sometimes with playfulness, like the smoked salmon eclair. A white fish veloute has a lovely weight to it and gets a zing from a marmalade ice cream, while two courses on, a day boat brill would get its zing from pickled vegetables and lime, the balance on each dish well judged. Between these courses is a duck liver custard with sweetcorn cream and lemongrass & ginger glaze, offering a lovely creamy custard but here the zing from the ginger and lemongrass is perhaps too subtle. Then it's a final savoury course of slow roasted venison with a cauliflower cheese custard, everything on the plate here solid, and a big dose of cheesy comfort with another custard.
There's a choice on dessert (which can be swapped or complimented with cheese), and a cone of chocolate & blackcurrant is presented to you while you decide/wait, together with a delectable plate of 'fruit sweeties'. I eventually settle for the Highland oat praline parfait plus flapjack twist and Drambuie caramel though all of the half dozen options could have been contenders. When it comes, it's nice enough but not a showstopper.
Front of house is run with military efficiency though none of the other staff seem trusted with more important tasks beyond following orders, however for the most part, that worked quite well. Everyone starts the meal together, but a table of six older people inevitably took more time than me on my lonesome, but the pace of my meal was always appropriate allowing people to finish in their own time. Only when it came to pay the bill was a bottleneck noticeable, but an apology for that was also received, so no complaints on the service and if you are a regular, I can imagine how the experience could easily deepen as you develop a relationship with the proprietors.
Overall, this was a very good meal, with little if any you can fault. With a sense for the customer, Chef Chris noted in The Sunday Times that 'our cooking is relatively safe at the moment - when the economy is a bit like it is now, people want a bit of comfort'. Fair enough, and these people really seem to know their customers. What's more, it's good value, all of the above for £65.
Ultimately however, I felt a little underwhelmed, possibly because my expectations were too high. What it lacked for me was a single wow moment; I finished every dish thinking 'that was really very good', but I never finished a dish and went 'wow', whereas at The Square a week previously, a restaurant that is eight places behind Mr Underhill's in the Sunday Times' list, there was a whole lot of wows. At L'enclume, for us, the wows simply never stop.
But this is a great restaurant, a great British success story, a great back story and a good night out. Ludlow has perhaps, more than any other town in the UK, become synonymous with food, and Mr Underhill's is their most celebrated restaurant. So if you visit Ludlow because you love food, then Mr Underhill's is an absolute must on your Shropshire itinerary.
Previously I visited: The Checkers
Next stop: The Hardwick, Abergavenny
Location Map for Mr Underhill's