Food review: The Haughmond, Upton Magna, Shropshire
As autumn is upon us it marks a new season, of produce and chefs making good use of different flavours. Andy Richardson enjoys some fine dining...
The seasons are changing. Leaves have fallen from the trees, nature's larder is rich with promise and the region's best chefs are drawing up new menus that celebrate the seasonal harvest.
Rich flavours, earthy tastes and fruit and vegetables that are ripe and plump give chefs new possibilities.
The Haughmond, not far from Shrewsbury's Attingham Park Estate, offers plenty of seasonal flavours on its autumn menu. Dishes created by recently-appointed head chef Liam Tinsley predominate. They make for happy eating.
The Haughmond has set high standards since launching two or three years ago. It's achieved two AA rosettes, which is usually one of the marks of a half decent restaurant, and its front of house and kitchen staff work hard to maintain that level. They do a pretty good job. Barring a few tweaks here and there, they're on top of their game and their restaurant is one that most discerning diners should have on their list of places to visit.
Liam is a good practitioner and The Haughmond have done well to appoint him. A former sous chef at Shrewsbury's Peach Tree, he's worked in creative kitchens and among highly-skilled cooks. He's taken the opportunity to make his mark as a leader and will do well. Composed, technically adept and with a pleasant disposition, he creates dishes that are packed with flavour and are easy on the eye. There's still room for improvement, of course – there always is – but Liam and The Haughmond make for a good pairing. It's a case of right time, right place for both.
The Haughmond is bucking a trend among rural pubs. While others are closing at a rapid rate of knots, The Haughmond continues to thrive. It tries to be all things to all people. Usually, that works. There's a bar for locals who want to tell the barmaid what their dog's have been up to that day while supping a pint of something frothy, there's a restaurant that provides well-cooked plates and there are rooms for passing businessmen and holidaying guests who are making the most of picturesque Shropshire.
That can create some conflicts, however. The playlist that was turned up too high when I arrived for a midweek dinner was too head-bangey for dinner time; a fact acknowledged by one member of the front of house team who aped a Green Day headshake while encouraging her co-worker to choose something more suitable. Happily, she did.
Aside from the bam-bam tunes, service was pretty good. Two women were manning the tables and though they didn't face the toughest assignment of the evening during a reasonably quiet time, both were polished, professional and engaging. Pleasant but unobtrusive, efficient but never pushy, they were impressive and self-assured.
The food was similarly enjoyable, though – as with the music – needed a little fine-tuning. I started with mushrooms on toast. It was a variation of a dish made popular at Liam's former gaff, where four slices of white truffle garnish rich and earthy ceps and pieces of Mr Moyden's blue thunder cheese are perched on a small square of sourdough.
Liam's re-interpretation was pretty good, comprising field mushrooms, shimeji, seasoned butter, grated black truffle and the like though the absence of killer ingredients – no ceps nor white truffle – meant the flavours were a little muted. It's his misfortune that this reviewer has eaten a similar dish elsewhere – for take away the comparison and judge it as a stand-alone and it was pretty good. And, let's face it, white truffle costs a fortune and ceps aren't always easy to come by.
The main was the most pleasant course of the evening. A tender and flavoursome breast of chicken was served with gnocchi, courgettes and a lemon and mushroom sauce. The flavours were well-suited, Liam was spot-on with his combinations. The gnocchi were light and flavoursome, if not a little large, and the swish of sauce lifted the dish. It could have been seasoned a little more – salt and pepper are the kitchen's best friends – but I enjoyed it and my plate went back clean.
The pastry chef missed a trick with the dessert. A banana soufflé with salted caramel sauce and yoghurt sorbet was good but no cigar. The sauce was thrilling; while some chefs kill their caramel with too much salt, so that it tastes like the stuff thrown onto roads when there's the threat of ice, the Haughmond version was rich, buttery and had an almost imperceptible salty edge. It was exceptional. The yoghurt sorbet was similarly good: slightly sour, beautifully churned and providing a cold contrast to the hot soufflé and sauce, it was a delight.
But – schoolboy error time – the soufflé was underdone. It had risen magnificently to the edges, puffing up fluffily while developing a chewy-caramelised topping. But once my spoon had penetrated beyond that, the centre was still liquid. Another minute in the oven, or minute-and-a-half, and it would have been exceptional.
The bill was perfectly reasonable – seven quid each for the starter and dessert and £14 for the main – and it had been an enjoyable evening. Service and food were both to a high standard and with both it was easy to identify what minor revisions might be made to improve. The dining room was delightful; earthy greens, brilliant fabrics and plenty of tasteful artworks. And the mix of diners and drinkers made for a happy atmosphere.
Like the proverbial happily married couple, The Haughmond is in a good place. It has a first class team who punch above their weight and deliver high standards. They operate at a higher level than all-but-the-best restaurants in the county and while their restaurant is still a work in progress, they're already operating with greater skill and finesse than most.
It's not quite at the top spot in terms of restaurants but it's only just below the county's poppermost toppermost and among a thoroughly impressive group.