Though there was every reason to eat at home, watch football, sit in front of the fire or do anything other than venture out, Lichfield Larder was half full – good work for a midweek evening at the fag end of winter.
The reason for such enthusiasm, however, soon became apparent. For Larder is one of the region’s most exciting new-ish restaurants, a creation that offers a high-end dining experience in relaxed and informal surrounds.
Inspired by the flavours of Asia but celebrating the best of British produce, Larder is the work of chef patron Ryan Shilton, an amiable and technically proficient chef who cooked to three AA rosette standard just down the road, at the ever-popular Swinfen Hall Hotel. He worked under the exceptional Chef Paul Proffitt, prior to Proffitt’s move to Denmark, and became Swinfen’s Head Chef in 2016.
After two years at the pass, where he maintained those hard-to-win rosettes, he decided it was time to move on.
But rather than seek out a cosy gig in a well-paid but creatively-unfulfilling kitchen, he took the road less travelled and decided to go it alone. Shilton secured premises in the city’s Bore Street, gave the place a delicious make-over, introduced muted, neutral tones, and established a ground floor bar, first floor restaurant and second floor kitchen table in city centre premises.
He built a team around him comprising an accomplished brigade of chefs and a keen and eager-to-please front-of-house team. Just before Christmas he opened to considerable acclaim and now looks set to build on that early promise.
Indeed, it surely won’t be long before The Good Food Guide, Harden’s, Michelin and the AA start to take an interest in his work. And though such guides rightly wait to see consistency over a period of time before conferring accolades, Shilton’s very much on the right path with interesting food, precise cooking and big, ballsy flavours.
Larder provides a pleasurable eating experience. Plate glass windows provide views from the bar onto Bore Street and a friendly team of staff are on hand to greet diners. When I visited for a solo dinner, I was offered a choice of seats in the plush bar area where I enjoyed two small snacks, the highlight being a beef carpaccio number, and considered the menu and drinks list.
There are three dining options, a £40 a la carte offering, a £50 five-course tasting menu and a seven-course taster at £60. I opted for a six-course menu – who said food critics shouldn’t be contrary – by adding one of the more intriguing dishes from the seven-course menu to the five.
The restaurant manager, a polite and deferential lady, was happy to accommodate the request. Notably, she also refused my offer to pay the extra £10 and sent out the course gratis.
And it’s such nothing’s-too-much-trouble service that will earn the restaurant the loyalty of locals and encourage people to return time and time again.
Dinner started with a hot truffled crumpet alongside cultured butter. Wow. Forget bread, that’s so 2018, and forget the crumpets or pikelets served at your local supermarket.
The Shilton version was supremely impressive. Light and filled with earthy truffle alongside creamy butter, it was demolished quicker than I could think ‘Would you sell me a packet of those so that I can score maximum brownie points by taking them home for She Who Must Be Obeyed’. It was absolutely delicious.
The first course was also sublime. A Jerusalem artichoke number featured small artichoke crisps, a filling, well-seasoned veloute, a robust disc of cheddar and fabulously fragrant thyme. The flavours were exceptional, the presentation delightful and I polished it off in under a minute.
A small blade of wagyu beef served with parsley, capers and apple was utterly magnificent. The beef was meltingly tender and the acidity of small pieces of lightly pickled onion, sharp but sweet apple, tangy, floral capers and mild parsley made for good eating. The wagyu was exceptional. It had been cooked over a period of time, so that the fat had rendered out and left the meat sufficiently soft to break beneath the fork, then seared to give it a caramelised outside. Good work chef.
Chinese chicken followed, featuring five-year-old soy, a truffled one-bit yuk sung and a tiny bowl of mushroom/noodle soup. It was a flavourbomb of maximum proportions that exploded with a mighty umami hit. The yuk sung was a clever idea and the broth was dreamy; a warm, comforting blanket of flavour that brightened a dark winter night.
Cornish mackerel with passion fruit and garlic flattered to deceive. The passion fruit teriyaki overwhelmed the fish somewhat and a simpler version – cevice, perhaps – might have worked better. It was the only underwhelming dish of the evening.
A main of venison with squash, raisin and the merest hint of chilli was sublime; the sort of dish that wins awards from guide books. A fillet was seasoned, seared, rested and served perfectly pink. Shoulder was served alongside, slow-cooked and broken down. Pumpkin seeds added crunch, raisins added sweet and the almost imperceptible hint of chilli added heat at the end of the dish. It was truly magnificent, a stand-out dish along with the wagyu and apple.
A small and unnecessary sorbet followed. Mint and buttermilk cleansed the palate, though seemed somehow superfluous. Then came a majestic pudding of Yorkshire rhubarb with a dill sorbet and white chocolate mousse. The flavours were harmonious with the aromatic dill perfectly matched with the sweet mousse and sharp early season rhubarb.
And as I settled the bill, noting that they’d not charged for the Chinese chicken, I received a final treat: a six-square bar of the kitchen’s chocolate with cumin wrapped in a small larder packet.
Service was exceptional throughout. A team of three, comprising a restaurant manager and two pleasant waiting staff, didn’t miss a beat and made all guests feel welcome.
Larder will probably rise to a 10 on our scoring system in due course and will presumably be aiming for a Good Food Guide score between four and six, over time. It is a brilliant, brilliant addition to the region’s dining scene. Our towns and cities are so much the better when they are filled with great restaurants – just look at the examples of Ludlow in Shropshire, or Birmingham – and it’s up to locals to investigate and help to make the town’s newest eaterie an unqualified success.