Food review: The Cliffe at Dinham, Ludlow
He climbed the mountain and spent years at the highest altitude. Chef Ian Pugh was born in Shrewsbury and has lived in and around Ludlow throughout his life. In a one-trick town he backed the right horse, becoming a chef. And after falling out of love with food during secondary school, he found himself washing up at one of Ludlow’s Michelin-starred restaurants, Mr Underhill’s.
He didn’t have a clue about stars back then, nor have a concept of how good their food really was. He ascended through the ranks and spent years alongside the brilliant Chris Bradley at the pass, until that restaurant’s closure.
And when Mr Underhill’s was no more, he moved – oooh, about 800 metres – across the River Teme to The Cliffe at Dinham. All of the lessons he learned under Chef Patron Bradley were put to good use in ever-changing seasonal menus that make the best of local produce. At Mr Underhill’s, he’d learned to season accurately, to showcase great local ingredients, to offer intelligent combinations and to cook consistently and with precision and accuracy.
Little wonder, therefore, that The Cliffe has become a go-to restaurant in Ludlow since Pugh started rattling the pans. He’s a highly competent local chef who is reliably good, week in and week out. And he’s supported by owners smart enough to realise they’ve landed on their feet with a guy who knows his onions and can create stylish food that’s at a higher standard than most.
The Cliffe is beautifully located, a short walk from Dinham Bridge, in Ludlow. The River Teme crashes past when flood waters come, subsiding to a gentle murmur during summer. The restaurant is light and airy, furnished in a modern style with colourful artworks providing vibrancy and life.
The staff are good. A knowledgeable and experienced restaurant manager was on duty when my partner and I visited for a Saturday evening supper. He was ably assisted by well-drilled young waiting staff who were polite, efficient and quick around the tables. On a busy evening when a full restaurant created a lively atmosphere, they did an excellent job.
Pugh’s a rock-solid head chef. He’s also a quiet and humble man who doesn’t seek the limelight and whose social media accounts aren’t full of self-congratulation or self-promotion. Instead, he turns up on time, creates menus that people will enjoy, then lets his food do the talking. So while he’s not the highest profile chef in Ludlow, he remains avowedly one of the best. There are probably between five and seven notable chefs in the town – and Pugh, quiet though he is, is always among the leading pack.
We were dining with friends and enjoyed a pre-dinner drink before moving through to eat. We were served a single canapé alongside those aperitifs, a small piece of brittle, ultra-fine pastry topped with seasoned dry cured salmon. It was a variant of a Mr Underhill’s classic – mini salmon cones – and was every bit as enjoyable.
Our starters were good. My partner ate a smoked hake and lemon Scotch egg, with confit tomato and spinach, parsley and chive aioli. It was delightful. The egg was particularly impressive. It had been wrapped with a punchy hake coating and was still golden and runny when cut open. The flavours were harmonious, the presentation easy on the eye and the execution damn near perfect, with a delightful crunch on the outside of the egg.
My starter was light and zingy. Bitter red endive leaves were served with sharp and citrusy blood orange and deliciously intense fennel, which had hints of aniseed.
Tiny pieces of black olive added a touch of bitterness, feta provided a creamy/salty edge while an orange vinaigrette lifted the dish. It was superb. Light, intense, flavoursome and decidedly un-calorific, it provided a promising start to my dinner.
Our mains were equally good. I ate a deliciously tender Shropshire beef fillet with two small, crunchy oxtail bon bons. Alongside sat a creamy celeriac and potato dauphinoise while sweet roasted carrots, finely cut kale and a parsley and garlic jus completed an entirely satisfactory plate of food. The beef had been cooked exquisitely, so that it was still decadently rare with a beautifully seasoned and caramelised outer. The flavour pairings were spot on and the flavours and textures utterly charming.
My companion ate pan-fried sea bass with lemon and parsley orsotto, ratatouille and lemon and thyme vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was perfectly acidulated, the sea bass cooked with unerring precision and the ratatouille full of flavour. We could but marvel at Pugh’s food.
We stayed for dessert, enjoying a light, creamy and ever-so-slightly piquant lemon and feta cheesecake and a chocolate and pecan tart that was rich and intense. The latter was served with clotted cream ice cream, making for indulgent eating. Service had been impressive throughout and the bill for Pugh’s two AA rosette food was eminently reasonable.
The Cliffe wouldn’t win a competition to find the best restaurant in Shropshire. It doesn’t scale the heights of ambition, as some do, nor does it go in for showmanship or virtuoso displays of technical excellence. Because it doesn’t need to. The Cliffe has an audience that enjoys contemporary British food, with French influences, that’s light and packed full of flavour. The menus showcase peak condition local produce – on our visit, I’d have happily eaten any of the dishes that were featured.
Pugh doesn’t scale the heights of his trailblazing former chef patron – and he won’t mind reading that. Mr Underhill’s was a one-off restaurant that is fondly remembered and set standards that others still aspire to. However, there’s everything to admire and respect about his food. Technically proficient, flavoursome, expertly seasoned and confident, Pugh is one of Shropshire’s better chefs, and eating at The Cliffe remains a pleasure.
Like his old gaffer, Pugh seems to be permanently at the pass and the standards he sets are high. He’s carrying the torch for good food in Ludlow – all power to his elbow, long may he continue.