Food review: Docket 33, Whitchurch - 4.5 stars
Food critic Andy Richardson discovers a couple of gastromonic geniuses who have raised the restaurant game in Whitchurch.
The county’s restaurant scene is ever-changing.
At the turn of the millennium, it was populated by a handful of high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants. Those inspired other independents to give things a go, and led to a gradual increase of standards.
In more recent times, a number of chains have moved into the region, piling it high and selling it cheap, and the dash to maintain the highest of standards has diminished. The county no longer has Michelin stars – the best restaurant in the area, and the only one to hold a star, is Pensons, just over the border, in Tenbury Wells. These days, Birmingham and The Lake District – rather than Ludlow – are the go-to places for the nation’s gourmands.
And yet there are a few local restaurants that buck the trend. The Walrus, in Shrewsbury, is an exceptional independent restaurant that suits for special occasions and features a small-but-brilliant brigade of chefs cooking with exceptional produce. Docket 33, at Whitchurch, is another run by a young(ish) husband-and-wife team, who elevate standards in a town not known for gastronomic excellence.
The last time we reviewed Docket 33, we provoked an outbreak of anger among locals by daring to say Whitchurch didn’t cut the mustard when it came to great food. And re-entering the lion’s den, I half expected an effigy to be dangling from a makeshift hangman’s noose- similar to the one David Beckham endured when he became public enemy number one after being sent off in France ’98. There was no such reception. Whitchurch was as quiet as the proverbial church mouse on a dank, rainy Thursday evening, when my partner and I booked a last minute table for Docket 33.
There were two other parties eating – one group of four locals and another soloist who visited a good-to-brilliant restaurant every two weeks; what a wonderful hobby to have. From the Michelin restaurants of Birmingham and the aforementioned Pensons, to the decent-ish eateries of Shrewsbury; he was a walking, talking guidebook. He’d been impressed by his experience of Docket 33 to such an extent that he was already planning a 2020 return. As well he might. For Docket 33 is comfortably in the county’s top 10 restaurants and its prowess was rewarded earlier this autumn with a Michelin plate – which, though not as illustrious as a Bib Gourmand or Star – denotes high quality and puts it among the UK’s top 1,500.
In recent times, Docket switched to a seven-course taster menu – dropping the former a la carte offering that had been in place when it opened. It was a sensible decision, cutting down waste and giving chef-patron Stuart Collins the opportunity to perfect fewer dishes and staying in tune with the seasons.
I’m not sure about the venue’s pricing policy, however. While most customers bemoan high prices – in the case of Docket, it’s the reverse. The prices are too low. A seven-course tasting menu at £45 means Collins is taking £6.50 per course. Frankly, that’s absurd. Stick another tenner on it, Stuart; people will still pay. And if he doesn’t, book a table at Docket today. At £45 for seven courses, it offers the best value dining in the region. Bar none.
The snacks were great. We started with a triumvirate of one-bite snacks, showing Collins’ obvious skills. The highlight was a crispy piece of cod skin dotted with purees; though delicious chick pea chips with a garlic mayo side were sublime. I’d have happily eaten a plate full.
The bread was the only discordant note of the evening. Laudably made using Freedom Four beer from the much-loved craft brewery, it was a little too heavy and stodgy, though the local Appleby’s butter was exceptional.
A swordfish ceviche followed, which was magnificent. Slices of glass-thin swordfish – I’m reasonably sure Collins must have Samuri Warrior skills to get his ceviche so thin – were served prettily with shallot and chilli, coriander and citrus zest. It was an inventive dish, where Collins had re-imagined the humble ceviche and turned it into a work of art. Pretty on the plate and pleasing on the palate, it was the first sign of excellence.
A refined dish of autumnal rainbow carrots with an almond puree and lemon infusion was similarly impressive. Lord knows why veg are often seen as an afterthought, when they’re bursting with flavour. Let’s face it, we have five months of root veg to get through before spring comes, and it was therefore heartening to see Collins elevate a humble ingredient to star status.
The evening’s highlight followed. Another on-point autumn dish, a Highbury chicken with sweet corn, sweetcorn cream and braised turnip, was exquisite. It was served with a tender piece of plump breast, encased in crisp skin, alongside a similarly endearing round of thigh, stuffed with herby mousse. The sweetcorn cream was a stand-out, encasing golden pieces of corn and providing a taste of the seasons. Delicious.
We opted into the additional cheese course, which featured three perfectly ripe and mature cheeses alongside tomato jam, pickled pear and delicious homemade biscuits. The cheese was magnificent, though Collins’ biscuits were better. The lightly acidulated pear made it a marriage made in heaven.
A brilliant apple trifle followed in which Collins stacked layers of caramel custard, cider granite and Calvados cream. Light, refreshing and distinctly more-ish, it was followed by a sweet treat and that was it. Service was from Collins’ brilliant wife, the expert, experienced and brilliant Frances, who was engaging and charming throughout.
Stuart and Frances are working hard to create a business that will last the course. Their elegant neighbourhood bistro has echoes of Shaun Hill’s brilliant Merchant House, with the minimum of fuss and food that’s allowed to do the talking. There is no better-value food anywhere in Shropshire – nor is there much food of that quality, either.
The county has a dearth of independent neighbourhood restaurants of that standard, and we should cherish those that we have. With VAT, Brexit, rising energy prices, rising staff costs and all manner of other challenges for restaurateurs to endure, the least we can do is support those who invest time, money and energy into getting things right – which is precisely what Stuart and Frances do.
Tasting menu: £45 a head
Paired drinks: £25 per person
Freedom flour bread
Appleby’s butter & tapenade
Swordfish ceviche, shallot & chilli, coriander citrus zest
Rainbow carrots, almond purée, melon infusion
Highbury chicken breast and leg, sweetcorn, braised turnip
Local cheese, condiments, biscuits and crackers. Supplement £7.50
Apple trifle with caramel custard, cider granite, Calvados cream
33, High Street, Whitchurch, SY13 1AZ