Ain’t no business like the restaurant business. And Pensons owner Peta Darnley has faced a whirlwind year.
Having invested heavily in a beautiful restaurant on the Netherwood Estate, near Tenbury Wells, and employed the services of Tom Aikens’ protégé, Lee Westcott, she hit the jackpot when her restaurant secured a Michelin star. It was no less than it deserved.
Darnley’s work in creating a beautiful restaurant in a former agricultural building and then persuading city chef Westcott to become a country convert was magnificent. In the space of 12 months, she created the region’s best restaurant and the awards were thoroughly deserved.
And then Westcott left. No sooner had he won a star than he was moving on.
Westcott had no financial investment in the project and having helped to create a destination venue that used produce grown and foraged on Darnley’s farm, he returned to the Capital.
He’d helped Darnley to turn a derelict, disused barn into a restaurant with a flourishing kitchen garden, and was on to his next challenge.
Which left Darnley with a challenge. How to find a replacement.
She moved quickly, employing Chris Simpson, the former head chef at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw and Gidleigh Park. Simpson had cooked to two Michelin star standard over a long period of time, and though his sojourn to Gidleigh had evidently been torrid – there’s a huge difference between a restaurant kitchen and a hotel kitchen – his reputation remained in tact. Darnley wasn’t done. She also refreshed her front of house team, employing an exceptional restaurant manager and bringing in high quality waiting staff. The results are joyous.
Pensons remains the best restaurant in Shropshire, Mid-Wales and their hinterland.
There’s really nothing that comes close. Simpson and Westcott are very different chefs, of course, and the style of food has shifted. However, Simpson is a character whose dishes are riven with quality and Darnley’s precious Michelin star should be safe in his hands.
Simpson is a good catch for Pensons. A tall, lean chef with a passion for seasonal, British produce, he is in his element in a kitchen that is a stone’s throw from a stunning garden filled with fruit, herbs and vegetables.
His food is clean, flavoursome, appetising. There are no unnecessary adornments, nor fuss.
Protein, vegetable garnish, starch accompaniment and starch; he cooks with a straight bat. There’s no molecular gastronomy nor Scanid-style pickling and preserves.
Simpson is all about the simple things done well, about classic cooking with French influence and steely execution.
Pensons is located slap bang in the middle of nowhere. Actually, that’s unfair. It’s more remote than that.
Following a twisty lane out of Tenbury Wells, turn right, then left, go over a hill then down a valley, sweep past the dizzying curves and carry on until there’s absolutely nothing at all. And then, like a mirage in the desert, the restaurant rises on the horizon.
All exposed brick, stunning timbers and vast panes of glass. Decorated in dried flowers with architectural treasures placed on a number of walls, it sends a clear signal that this is a place of heritage and tradition.
The kitchen, in contrast, is sparkly and new. A small fortune was spent equipping Pensons’ ample team with the mod-cons they require to create elegantly modern food.
The restaurant was pretty much full when my friend and I arrived – and any rural restaurant that’s packing them in on a Wednesday evening is doing something right.
A well-trained and highly competent front of house team were a credit to the venue’s owner, providing engaging, knowledgeable and charming service.
Simpson is a different character to Westcott. Self-effacing and with no airs or graces, he’s a genuine team player with high levels of skill. His canapés were delicious, a small tart with acidulated onion the highlight.
The bread was good. Light as a feather with a perfectly crisp crust and served with a light, whipped butter, it was without fault.
My friend ate all of the dishes that I’d intended to select from the a la carte menu, where three courses are good value at £55. So, a mushroom dish with artichoke, hazelnuts and sour dough was an umami rich hug-on-a-plate, with earthy vegetable flavours being adroitly combined.
My scallop with apples, celeriac and a deep, satisfying truffle sauce was magnificent. The balance between umami, sweet and acid was worthy of applause.
The scallops were cooked with rare skill – those years at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw were clearly well spent – and the plate was polished clean.
My friend ate a marvellous cod dish for her main. Huge flakes of high quality fish fell away between the knife.
Expertly seasoned, cooked with respect and served on a beautiful blue plate, it was a stand-out dish.
My Herefordshire lamb with pickled red cabbage and an indulgent potato terrine was similarly delightful.
The terrine was golden, a sauce sticky and intense, the cabbage cleverly prepared and the lamb tender like a hand being held on the back row of the movies.
Desserts were great. Blood orange with shortbread and a thrillingly well-balanced rhubarb sorbet stood out. A passion fruit, mango and lime confection was light, pretty as a picture and provided a suitable end to an evening of pure enjoyment.
Very few restaurants achieve a Michelin star – and even fewer retain it. Yet at Pensons, the brilliant, capable and ambitious Darnley has assembled a team capable of the highest standards. She has found a fine leader in Simpson and the restaurant remains the best in our region.
After dinner, my friend sent a text message: “The star’s in safe hands,” it read. And she should know. Having held two herself and now editing a magazine for chefs, she’s well placed to judge.
Seven-course tasting menu
Mushroom, Jerusalem artichoke, hazelnuts
Scallops, ginger, yoghurt
Quail, parsnips, smoked onion butter
Lemon sole, mussels, spiced lemon sauce
Duck, kale, beetroot, chicory
Passionfruit, mango, lime
Spiced red wine pear, vanilla pannacotta, gingerbread
British cheese selection, crackers, chutneys (£12 supplement)
Netherwood Estate, near Tenbury Wells