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Food review: The Raven still setting an example to others

Less can be more says food critic Andy Richardson, his only criticism of a meal at the much-loved Raven Hotel.

Corn-fed chicken was a celebration of fine ingredients
Corn-fed chicken was a celebration of fine ingredients

It’s impossible to reflect on one of Shropshire’s most respected restaurants without focusing first on the couple who have maintained it at the highest level for so many years.

Kirk Heywood and the late Lucy Heywood have fashioned Much Wenlock’s much-loved Raven into one of the region’s best and most popular hotels and restaurants.

It is located in the picturesque town that helped to spawn the Modern Day Olympics: Much Wenlock was home to Dr William Penny Brookes, whose ideas for a sporting contest inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to start the four-yearly global event.

For many years it has maintained two AA rosettes, helping to showcase rising stars of the kitchen while making the best use of local suppliers and the finest ingredients. It has paid attention to detail, focused on providing guests with comfort and been an exemplar for others to follow.

The Raven is in picturesque Much Wenlock

In a tragic incident, the late Mrs Heywood passed away earlier this year. She died from a traumatic brain injury after being kicked in the head by a horse.

And it is against that context that the ongoing work at The Raven must be considered. The venue suffered the worst kind of shock – and yet it is a testament to Mr Heywood and the team that he and Lucy built that it continues to thrill.

It’s long been one of the most consistent restaurants in the region; the result of the hard work and adherence to high standards of its owners. And while there are always areas in which improvements might be made, there has been no diminution of standards. It remains an ever-popular venue for businessmen and women who are trading in the area, for couples enjoying a special occasion dinner, for locals seeking gastronomic thrills and for the many tourists and visitors who flock to the area.

My friend and I called in for a midweek supper and enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant evening. There were two areas for improvement – the kitchen was a little slow and the chef tended to over-complicate his dishes. And yet, the food was executed with precision and flair, dishes were big on flavour and presented with style and class; the service was exceptional and the environment was warm and welcoming. There was much to admire and much to enjoy.

A beautiful, centuries-old dining room

The Raven serves two different menus; a fine dining selection in its principle restaurant and an informal menu featuring whitebait and chicken wings, Caesar salads and steak sandwiches, venison burgers and duck legs in the lounge. As my friend and I watched chunky 8oz grilled sirloin steaks filter through to a busy lounge, served with fluffy and crunchy triple cooked chips, we made a mental note to return so that we could enjoy The Raven’s informal offering.

We had, however, chosen to eat in the main restaurant and we enjoyed a small-but-perfectly-formed amuse bouche. It was a deep fried, lightly battered squid ring served with chilli jam. The texture was alluring: loud crunch followed by gentle, soft, yielding protein. The flavours were great: a sweet/salty taste of the sea married to the sweetest jam, which offered gentle heat. It set our tastebuds tingling.

My friend’s starter was a courgette flower stuffed with goat’s cheese and served with aubergine puree. It was delicious. The chalky, salty flavours of the cheese were in harmony with the earthier tastes of the aubergine while toasted hazelnut added texture and a different dimension.

Scallops were wobbingly tender and delicious

My scallop starter was served with celeriac and apple. The dish was lightly acidulated, bringing together a range of complementary flavours. The scallops had been lightly seared in the pan and were wobblingly tender. Delicious.

Our mains gave the chef the chance to show his mettle. My friend ate the cannon of lamb, which was served with a Kalamata olive crust, pepper ratatouille and pomme cocotte. The lamb was tender, beautifully seasoned and served perfectly pink. The olive crust added vigour, the ratatouille a taste of late summer while the buttery turned potatoes was a pleasing addition. It was a superbly executed dish and there were few faults.

My spring, corn-fed chicken was a celebration of fine ingredients. The chicken was perfectly tender and had been cooked with no little skill. It was generously garnished with truffle and served with scorched autumnal corn on the cob. A spelt risotto and savoury sauce completed a taste of autumn. The chef had added popcorn to the dish – it was popcorn chicken, I guess – and I’m not entirely sure why. Popcorn had its moment in the sun on fine dining menus a decade ago. And then chefs quickly realised that it added little in the way of flavour or texture and went back to eating it while watching re-runs of their favourite movies. Less is often more in decent kitchens and the popcorn was one garnish too many.

A strawberry dessert was accomplished

Our desserts were accomplished, though once more a little complex. My cherry dish featured a delightful frangipane tart with whole cherries on the base, a sorbet, mousse, pieces of almond, a purée and two additional cherries.

Again, had it been a little more refined – a better quality frangipane with buttery pastry, for instance – it would have been improved. Far better to master a smaller number of components than pass muster with more.

My friend’s strawberry dish featured pistachio sponge, a white chocolate ice cream cone filled with strawberry ice cream, puree and more. Again, it was a little larger than necessary and a little too complicated. Though the components were all pleasant, we’d have been more dazzled if the chef had had the confidence to not try and impress.

If that sounds picky, it’s not intended to be. The Raven has for many years been a feature of Shropshire’s Top Ten and it remains so. It’s easy to observe where the kitchen might push things on yet more.

Delightful frangipane tart with cherries

Service was good throughout the evening and we ate in a beautiful, centuries-old dining room that had been simply and beautifully styled during Mrs Heywood’s happy reign.

The venue continues to excel and sets an example to others. Lucy would be proud of them.

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