Food Review: The View at Hencote, Shrewsbury
We couldn’t see the views, which is a bit like going to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower, or visiting London and not bothering to take a trip on the London Eye.
It was late – at least that’s our excuse – and the sun had long set on the 65-acre estate owned by Andy and Dora Stevens. And that was our loss.
For Hencote offers sensational views across Shropshire, providing a 180-degree panorama from the Welsh Hills in the West to the Wrekin in the East, with Shrewsbury town centre nestled in the midst.
Not that we were too put out. For the views of the restaurant itself are absolutely stunning.
From the moment we left the road and found ourselves on an immaculately and expensively laid driveway to the moment we reached our seats we were, quite simply, blown away. About 20 minutes into our first experience of Hencote, my friend laughed.
“Your chin is still on the floor,” she said.
“And you’ve not stopped saying wow.”
Hencote is a restaurant like no other.
It is set around a private estate that specialises in English wines. In 2009 the owners of the land planted a hobby vineyard comprising 160 vines.
Within a few years, it was producing surprisingly buoyant harvests of good quality grapes. Despite a lack of encouragement and genuine skepticism from viticulturists, a subsequent and exhaustive study revealed conducive growing conditions for establishing a viable vineyard.
The owners passionately believed that the estate could be developed to support both a vineyard and also oeno-tourism.
This vision has inspired the development of the estate today.
By 2015 a new vineyard of 24,000 vines had been planted. Last year the winery building was completed and a new restaurant and wine and cocktail bar opened.
A new glamping village was also opened and a brand new road linking the estate to main vehicular routes was established.
The couple behind it are financial heavyweights Andy and Dora Stevens, who have lavished millions on the development.
Andy was the boss of one of the Middle East’s largest banks at a time when the economy was booming.
And having travelled around the world in such diverse places as Hong Kong, Uganda and Qatar, he and Dora settled at Hencote in 1997. They have lovingly redeveloped the land into the estate today and in addition to vibrant wines, Dora also has a fruit and vegetable garden.
That forms the impressive backdrop to the restaurant, which sits at the top of a small hill and provides remarkable views. But the restaurant is about more than just that.
In 20 years of eating around the county, I’ve never witnessed a new restaurant opening as spectacular.
Hencote has big city ambition. It’s on a bigger scale than Aiden Byrne’s impressive Manchester House, which helped drag that North West city into a new gastronomic era.
Vast and impressive, it has room for between 150 and 200 covers and a team geared up to deal with such numbers. Great care and thought has gone into the dining space. Upholstered in sparky colours and with vast lights to illuminate the space, Hencote is dazzling.
The food’s not bad either. And the service is blow-your-socks-off good.
When my friend and I arrived for a midweek supper, we enjoyed a small drink in part of the open plan area that is set aside as an informal lounge.
It was alongside the Hencote wine store, where the fruits of the Stevens’ labours are on display and available for sale. There, we perused the menu before being shown to our table.
Four members of staff visited our table during the evening; a bustling and efficient restaurant manager, two waitresses and one waiter.
All had remarkable skills and had clearly undergone training of the highest quality. Polite and engaged, warm and attentive; they pressed all of the right buttons at all the right times and made us feel entirely welcome. The food was magnificent, though Hencote impressed us before we’d even reached the table. A vast Italian rotary pizza oven hinted at no-expense-spared while a display fridge filled with expensive cuts of prime, aged beef meant I was salivating like a dog in a butcher’s.
We started with Bazlama Za’atar, a savoury flatbread, before enjoying two exceptional starters.
The Hencote Waldorf featured Shropshire Blue Cheese with yeast crystalised pecans, vine oil and bitter leaves. It was exceptional. With flavours that punched above their weight and were as harmonious as newlyweds, it was a light and intoxicating way to start.
A chicken satay was equally delicious.
Served with a Chinese leaf salad and lime vinaigrette, it had ample warmth, delicious texture and chicken that was meltingly tender. Whoever cooked it knew what they were doing.
We shared a platter of rare steak with triple cooked chips and a salad of rocket leaves with aged parmesan for our main. Our table fell into silence as we marvelled at the food. The steak was sensational.
Falling apart beneath the knife and with a luxurious, buttery taste, it had been scorched on the outside, giving it a delicious, well-seasoned crust, while the inside was as pink as a flamingo’s tail feather.
The triple cooked chips didn’t pass muster – a rare failing. Insufficiently crisp or crunchy and stacked like Jennifer Ellison’s chunky chips on Hell’s Kitchen circa 2004, they were one of only two disappointments during the evening.
Triple cooked chips ought to crunch like gravel on glass, these were a little soft – though the quality of the steak more than compensated.
We ate three desserts. An apple tart tatin was underwhelming. Featuring a whole apple enveloped in pastry, it was clunky and bland. Two two other desserts were knock-out.
A poached pear dish with small pieces of buttery, crunchy crumble-esque topping was dreamy while a lime and chestnut meringue was fabulous.
We relaxed a while at our table before departing with smiles as broad as the River Severn.
I counted 13 staff on duty – more than the number of diners – and the Stevens family are clearly investing to the nth degree to make Hencote a success.
No doubt it will be. It is dazzling and unique, sensational and awe-inspiring, magnificent and beguiling.
The menu is full of intrigue – I’ve already got my next two visits planned, so that I can work my way around it – the staff are first class and the produce exquisite.
Hencote is a once-in-a-generation development – and for those who’ve not been aware of it, book now and make the most of a truly dramatic addition to Shropshire’s dining scene.