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An Astonishment of Riches in a Tiny English Town
   by Marion Burros

LUDLOW, England - ONLY 9,000 people live in this charming market town near the Welsh border, surrounded by lush and rolling hills. Just 9,000, but Ludlow has no fewer than three Michelin-starred restaurants — the greatest concentration anywhere in Britain outside London.

  Seats in these celebrated but tiny establishments — the Merchant House, Hibiscus and Mr. Underhill's at Dinham Weir — are hard to come by. Together, they have only 21 tables, and their fame is growing. Culinary tourists from Birmingham and Oxford think nothing of spending hours in the car to make a 7 p.m. reservation during the week. And those from London, 140 miles away, are descending on the village in increasing numbers every weekend. Not to eat in just one of the places, but in all of them, over two days: two dinners and lunch, say. (I did it at a more leisurely pace, in three days.)

  For a country that has not entirely shaken a reputation, now undeserved, for dreadful food, the cluster of stars in Ludlow is a phenomenon worth exploring. They define a hub of culinary excellence of the sort one might expect to discover in France but surely not in a nation where sweets are called puddings and bubble and squeak is the name of a national dish.

  As in real estate, let alone prospecting for gastronomic gold, a large part of the reason for Ludlow's success is location. Nothing in this Shropshire village costs as much as it does closer to London or in the far tonier precincts of Surrey or the Cotswolds. Everything is within the financial reach of a budding restaurateur — the land, the housing, the help.

  "It's not like the Cotswolds, which is all done up in aspic," said Shaun Hill, the chef and owner of the Merchant House. Mr. Hill arrived in Ludlow from Devon, where he ran the kitchen at the highly regarded Gidleigh Park. "If you disturb a flower there," he said, "a man comes out and glares at you."

  But not even one Michelin-starred restaurant — much less three — can survive in a vacuum, and the food served in Ludlow's constellation isn't exactly cheap. (It starts at roughly $30 for lunch, rising to as much as $70 for dinner, both prix fixe.)

  Shropshire may not be Surrey, but there is still plenty of money around, and Ludlow is at its center. Most of it is hidden in the countryside just outside town, up winding roads, where the local squirearchy hunts and shoots, and where Londoners are increasingly buying weekend homes. "There's established money here," Mr. Hill said. "So it's inflation-proof."

  Chris Bradley, the chef and owner of Mr. Underhill's, said he was attracted to Ludlow by the low price of real estate, adding that he could pass his saving along to his customers. "It seemed like a good idea to have a Michelin-starred place to go to that doesn't cost $300," he said.

  Mr. Bradley said that when he and his wife, Judy Bradley, bought the spot, it looked like Fawlty Towers, the threadbare inn in the popular British television series. Mr. Underhill's is now a small, charming inn with eight perfectly appointed rooms and a dining room just large enough to seat those staying there. It lies beneath the brooding ruins of an 11th-century castle and overlooks a splendid English garden above a dam on the Teme River.

  The third star in Ludlow is owned by Claude Bosi, 30, an ambitious disciple of Alain Ducasse, and his wife, Claire Crosby. Their restaurant, Hibiscus, is in a half-timbered 17th-century building that would seem remarkable in most English towns. Here, it is but one architectural gem amid dozens of other half-timbered and Georgian facades. The restaurant is spare, elegant, almost formal, with oaken raised-panel walls and a beamed ceiling.

  The service is absolutely correct, but not at all stuffy — Ms. Crosby's warm manner allows her guests to feel at home and welcome.

  The dining room at Hibiscus on an early spring night displayed a perfect cross section of Ludlow's three-star clientele, from old guard to nouveau riche, with members of a faded Gosford Park gentry dining alongside a professional woman whose cellphone rang at dinner. (She had the grace to answer in the anteroom.) An assortment of sparkling amuse-bouches — tiny but sublime potato croquettes scented with vanilla, and a single bite of creamy onion quiche — perfectly fulfilled their function.

  They set the scene for a lovely meal: snails coated in a lively garlic-lime foam, followed by succulent baby lamb and a dessert of strawberries with celeriac jelly and whipped cream scented with Sichuan peppercorns, a brilliant combination of wildly unexpected flavors.

  "I think Claude will have two stars before too long," said Mr. Hill, of the Merchant House, exhibiting the generosity that is typical of the three chefs here but would be an anomaly elsewhere.

  "It's quite odd," said Mr. Bradley, of Underhill's. "We all socialize. It's rare in England. In Suffolk, where we were before, it was tremendously cutthroat. This is a rare opportunity to walk over to another Michelin-starred restaurant." And so they do, eating at one another's places several times a year.

  If Hibiscus offers Parisian haute couture, both the Merchant House and Mr. Underhill's are Savile Row, serving the chefs' interpretations of modern British cooking.

  A meal at Mr. Underhill's is like a glorious dinner party: the guests eat what the chef cooks, though his wife is careful to ask about any likes and dislikes at check-in. (In warm weather, the party moves to the garden on the riverbank. Inside the inn, fashionable Tuscan colors warm the gray stone floor and provide a cheery setting.)

  Mr. Bradley describes his cooking as modern Scottish, Anglo-Mediterranean and modern British. Despite the adjectives, he said, "we are ingredient-driven — and nothing too radical."

  Our meal began with Champagne and hors d'oeuvres in the little sitting room off the dining room: buttery, crisp cheese strips; tarts of Brie, chives and tomatoes, suffused with flavor; tiny sushi. Anyone would have to be careful not to make a meal of the sourdough and its accompanying butter.

  The cooking here is very straightforward, so the ingredients must be impeccable, and they are: a perfectly cooked piece of brill (a sort of English turbot, with spots) with a touch of lime and cardamom delights, while the silky dauphinois potatoes and creamed celeriac are habit-forming. Offered a choice of desserts, my dining companion heard Highland parfait and said she could not live without it. It is ice cream with praline oatmeal, a tribute to Mr. Bradley's place of birth, Scotland. It pleases some.

  We had our final one-star meal at Mr. Hill's six-table Merchant House, which he runs with the assistance of a part-time dishwasher and his wife, Anja Hill, who makes the bread and most of the puddings.

  Mr. Hill said he used his credit card to make the down payment on the half-timbered house that is now the restaurant. For four months, there was no sign in front; he couldn't afford one. There are no frills here, just polished wooden tables, dark wide-board floors and unostentatious cutlery and crockery that seem wonderfully suited to the deceptively simple cooking.

  Mr. Hill is a master cook who doesn't have to prove anything — rereading my notes from the meal I see the word "perfect" scattered generously. There was a perfect and subtle sauce for the lamb; delicate, perfectly cooked sole; perfectly cooked asparagus, artichokes and morels with a hollandaise sauce light as foam.

  And Mrs. Hill's cardamom ice cream with apple tart is a stunningly spicy harmony of flavors, while her crθme caramel received its own superlative in my book — the creamiest ever made.

  As in all such constellations, it is unclear how long Ludlow will keep its three stars. Mr. Bosi has professed an interest in moving on. Mr. Bradley would like a larger place. And Mr. Hill said he has no grand plan to stay. Wise diners will book accordingly, before the night sky changes once again.

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