Rating: **** Rewind 12 months. On the increasingly-frenetic Shrewsbury dining scene, things were getting hot in the kitchen, writes Andy Richardson.
Rating: **** Rewind 12 months. On the increasingly-frenetic Shrewsbury dining scene, things were getting hot in the kitchen, writes Andy Richardson. The town had welcomed two chefs of Michelin calibre.
Ian Matfin, star of BBC TV’s Great British Menu, had taken over at The Hayward, the high-end dining establishment at The Lion Hotel, on Wyle Cop.
Less than 100 metres away, another highly rated cook was working the stove at the newly-revamped Lion + Pheasant.
Alan Dann, a chef with an impeccable pedigree, had cut his teeth at the Roux brothers’ Michelin-starred venue in Bray on Thames before working in restaurants across the UK and France, including the renowned Gloucestershire Lower Slaughter Manor House.
Fast forward to the present day and everything has changed. Matfin and Dann have both moved on to pastures new, with their places being taken by newbies.
The transition has been straightforward at The Hayward, where Matfin’s former second-in-command, Paul Maders, has stepped up to lead the kitchen. At the Lion + Pheasant, chef Matthew Strefford has brought a new style of dining.
Strefford is an interesting cook with an impressive CV. He was born in Shropshire but learned his trade in world class restaurants around the world.
His most notable stint was with chef Neil Perry – Australia’s ‘King of Modern Dining’ – at the Rockpool Bar and Grill on Sydney’s prime waterfront. He also worked at the five-star luxury castle hotel Adare Manor in County Limerick, which also has an enviable reputation.
Strefford would have happily stayed in Ireland for longer, were it not for the opportunity to return to his home county.
“I loved it in Ireland but if there was one place that would bring me back to the UK, I knew it would be Shropshire,” he explained.
I’d been urged to visit the Lion + Pheasant by a trusted friend who eats out regularly in Shropshire and works with the county’s best producers. Clare Downs had enjoyed a dinner shortly after Strefford joined the brigade and described him as a prize catch.
“If anything, I think the Lion + Pheasant has improved,” she said.
My friend and I heeded her recommendation and visited for a midweek service. Weekends are traditionally busy in the delightfully chic venue and we were hoping to relax in quiet surrounds. The Lion + Pheasant is a delightful venue. It’s a stylish boutique hotel and restaurant that deserves the numerous guide book ratings that it has received.
Its luxury dining room on the first floor is complimented by a bustling bistro-style space on the ground floor. Diners looking for gastronomic flourishes can enjoy a la carte offerings during the evening or enjoy simpler, rustic fare during lunch service.
Strefford is the perfect cook to satisfy the twin demands of diners. He and the Lion + Pheasant make for a happy marriage.
Strefford’s skill is in packing flavour into the simplest of dishes – a plate that features mushrooms on toast with a perfectly poached soft-boiled egg being a case in point. Strefford boils the egg at a precise temperature, around 60-or-so-degrees Celsius, so that the yolk and white are a perfect consistency and ooze their gooey indulgence.
It makes for delicious, flavoursome eating. Poached eggs were on the menu when my friend and I ordered, though first we opted for light starters. I selected an exceptional, rustic platter of duck confit with a delicious fruity relish while my friend opted for a savoury cheese tart.
An unctuous and savoury blue cheese filling was housed in a buttery and crisp pastry case and she purred her approval. “I love blue cheese,” she said, before pointing to her plate. . ." and this is delicious.”
I wanted to test out Strefford’s skill by selecting a vegetarian main course. I have a theory – dissenting letters to the usual address, please – that only good chefs cook vegetarian food well.
Any cook worth his salt can cook a piece of pork or sear a tuna fillet; putting flavour into humble root veg takes more skill. So I opted for a sweet potato dish with a light, fluffy gnocchi in a creamy vegetable sauce. It was delicious.
Crispy sage leaves added texture, the gnocchi was featherlike and the sugary-sweet flavours of the sweet potato had been brought to the fore by careful seasoning and roasting.
My friend, meanwhile, enjoyed an open haddock lasagne as her main, with handmade pasta and a poached egg. The flakes of haddock were translucent, the pasta was perfectly cooked and the egg was supreme. Strefford had excelled.
“We’ll skip dessert,” said my super-slim friend. And then the menu arrived. “Um, okay, I’ll go for the clotted cream rice pudding with strawberry jam.”
Our table fell silent while she polished her bowl clean and I indulged in a gingery and tart rhubarb crumble with a crème Anglaise.
The Lion + Pheasant isn’t a one-man show, however. Restaurant manager Jim Littler was busy around the venue, our maitre d, a young man with impeccable managers, was exceptionally helpful and there was standout service from an A* waitress, Terri, who was politeness personified. Her service was the equal of Strefford’s cooking – her service dazzled like sunlight on gold.
After paying the bill and making for the door I thought back to my friend’s recommendation. Clare was right: the Lion + Pheasant has raised its game. Although Strefford still has room for improvement, he’s a real class act.
Let’s hope he’s there for the long haul.
Lion + Pheasant, 50 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury SY1 1XJ
Tel: 01743 770345