Old Vicarage, Worfield

Reviewer's rating: *** Andy Richardson returned to see if some basic errors had been ironed out.

Reviewer's rating: ***

Andy Richardson returned to see if some basic errors had been ironed out.

The Old Vicarage, Worfield
The Old Vicarage, Worfield

old-vicarage-worfieldThere are only two restaurants in Shropshire that have three AA rosettes for dining. One is La Bécasse, the impressive Michelin-starred restaurant in Ludlow run by fast-rising chef Will Holland.

The other is The Old Vicarage, at Worfield, a venerable institution that cultivates a reputation for refinement and tradition.

That, however, tells only half the story. There are a number of organisations offering restaurant recommendations and, having pored over them for innumerable hours, I’ve come to respect the Michelin Guide, the Good Food Guide and Hardens most of all.

Others seem to throw up peculiar inconsistencies. It is, for instance, faintly ludicrous that Mr Underhill’s, in Ludlow, should be rated lower than The Old Vicarage by the AA guide. On every count – food, service, presentation, experience – the Michelin-starred south Shropshire haven for gourmands runs rings around the decorated Worfield eaterie. The lesson is plain: guides can be fallible.

A couple of years ago, I visited The Old Vicarage and endured a pretty poor evening. The service was slow and the food unremarkable. Those that run the venue were not best pleased with my review and made their opinions clear in a pointed letter, by way of reply. So I was keen to return to see whether standards had improved.

One of my major criticisms had been that the service was extraordinarily slow. Not much has changed. Diners seemed content, however, to wait 30 minutes or so in the lounge before being shown to their tables, even though the restaurant was not fully booked.

During our dinner, the two waitresses and one waiter were unfailingly polite and friendly but they lacked authority and skill. When a waitress brought our pre-dessert, she offered the following introduction: “Here’s you pre-dessert.” There wasn’t a description of what it was, we had to ask. When she later collected the small pots, she stacked them on a tray, along with those from other tables, while at the same time setting out cutlery for dessert. I admired her dexterity, not her finesse.

Later, when my wife requested a coffee served at the same time as my dessert, her drink arrived 15 minutes after my pudding, by which time I’d ungallantly finished. “We were just waiting for the coffee machine to warm up,” was the waitress’s excuse. “I was making sure my ice-cream didn’t melt,” was mine. There were other basic errors, out of keeping with a venue professing high standards and offering £100-a-pop tables for two.

The food, with one notable exception, was thankfully unrecognisable from that which had been so undistinguished some years past. The home-made breads were good with their light, spongy texture and pleasing appearance complemented by a range of butters: salted, smoked and infused with paprika with lemon.

The small cup of leek soup was exceptional. The creamy texture was seasoned with consummate skill, small flecks of cracked pepper adding warmth and chopped parsley and a soupcon of oil giving depth of flavour.

My starter of duck breast with onion marmalade and girolles was a treat. It was served in a savoury jus with a home-made ravioli, providing proof of good technical skills in the kitchen. My wife’s crab cake was similarly good, its crispy outer hiding a soft, salty inside. The presentation was flawless.

The main course was less pleasing. My wife and I both opted for the chicken with scallops and artichokes. It left us underwhelmed. The scallops were puny – why? Fat, juicy, still-in-their-shell molluscs are available at county outlets like Fish in a Box and Barkworth’s – while the chicken wasn’t the plump, tenderly cooked breast we’d anticipated. Instead, it was a long, oblong-shaped finger of shredded meat that had been seasoned and mixed with carrot before being fried. It was rather like a posh kebab and while the meat was tasty, the aftertaste was grease. There was no starch accompaniment – no rissotto, pomme purée, dauphinoise, pomme Anna or anything remotely similar – and the four-centimetre shard of chicken bone inside my wife’s chicken oblong was an inexcusable error.

The lemon posset that followed was delicate and moreish. And a chocolate-and-chilli dessert served with a coconut froth and mango was pretty good, without lighting up the night.

If the Old Vicarage was being scored for food alone, it would merit a four. There were some extremely good touches and plenty of technical skill. The kitchen punches above its weight. If it were being scored for service, however, it would be somewhere between two and three. And on value for money, it’s no more than three. When diners fork out £100, they want a memorable, float-away occasion. Our evening had none of those qualities. The portions were small and there are at least three eateries within driving distance offering food that is equally flavoursome and far better value. The dining room is, of course, a treat, with space, great upholstery and luxurious comfort.

The important question is: would I recommend it for an important celebration? I’d answer in this way: there are other Shropshire venues offering more enjoyable and refined experiences at more competitive rates.

I will, I fear, incur once more the wrath of the venue’s owners. I hope not. The Old Vicarage would match the high expectations it creates if only it improved its faltering service and ironed out the minor inconsistencies in the kitchen.

In all fairness, I can only award it the same number of stars as the AA guide.

SPRING SAMPLE DINNER MENU

Starters

Baby leek and crab salad, crisp crab cake and quail’s egg.

Pressing of foie gras and mackerel with warm brioche and pickled apples.

Main courses

Roast saddle of English lamb with carrot and rosemary purée, dauphinoise potato, buttered spinach and roast shallots.

Pan-fried sea bream on creamed potato and buttered asparagus with a champagne and Avruga caviar sauce.

Desserts

Passion fruit souffle with biscotti and pistachio ice-cream.

Price

Two courses: £38

Three courses: £45

Contact

The Old Vicarage Hotel and Restaurant, Worfield, Bridgnorth WV15 5JZ. Tel: 01746 716497