Food review: The Walrus, Shrewsbury – 4.5/5
It’s been open just a few weeks but Ben Hall’s restaurant, The Walrus, is already making its mark. Andy Richardson enjoys some fine dining. . .
There’s a new kid in town. Ben Hall hails from Shropshire and after more years than he cares to remember he’s returned to the county town with his partner, Carla, in tow. Lucky us.
Ben’s pedigree is first rate. He spent most of his cheffing career working under the Michelin two-star Michael Wignall, at Gidleigh Park, in Devon, as did Carla. Standards, therefore, are at the highest level. He was schooled by one of Britain’s greatest chefs and immersed himself in the importance of provenance, consistency, good seasoning and complementary flavours.
Ben and Carla’s restaurant is oddly located, on Roushill, in a relatively small premises that has full-plate glass windows – as a shop might. And while the effect is of dining in a goldfish bowl, the service and food are of such a high standard that the environment soon becomes insignificant. Indeed, the duo somehow create an intimate and warm environment as they move around quickly in their small, open-plan kitchen, which is located in the dining area. So when I called for a Friday evening supper, Ben made a number of visits to tables to welcome diners who he knew, or to ferry dishes while his restaurant manager was otherwise engaged.
The restaurant had been trading for about five weeks when I ate there – and there’s a sense of excitement that Ben and Carla have finally got a place of their own; surely every chef’s dream? So there’s a warm greeting upon arrival, constant interaction and engagement between chefs, restaurant manager and customers and a feeling of being at the start of a magnificent adventure.
The Friday evening menu provided for two courses at £29, three at £35 or a six-course taster at £45. I opted for the latter and made the right choice. Similar menus at other high-end restaurants normally come with a price tag of £65-£75 and The Walrus is nothing if not value conscious.
The restaurant manager presented menus. He was perhaps a little too stiff and formal – The Walrus may well go on to win awards and operate at a high standard but a more relaxed approach would work better for now.
The bread was good to start; nicely aerated and served with decent butter.
And then the magic began.
The first course was heritage carrot braised in Shropshire lager served with nettle pesto, beetroot textures, Shropshire blue and sesame crunch. It was utterly, utterly magnificent. If Ben was trying to make a statement, he succeeded. The dish was complex and considerable work had gone into the individual components. The balance was exceptional, with soft, yielding carrots, crunchy sesame and delicate cheese. The flavours sang as harmoniously as the City of Birmingham Choir and I cleared my plate in short order. It was a dish fit for Ben’s former gaffer, Michael Wignall, who’d no doubt have been admiring of his charge’s work.
A second starter, smoked mallard with marmite butter, celeriac remoulade and rapeseed dressing, was almost as accomplished. The mallard was tender and delicately smoked, the marmite butter provided an umami hit while celeriac remoulade is a winter classic that was well-executed by Ben. Two courses, two hits.
The third dish was the stand-out of the evening. A fillet of cod had been poached in olive oil so that it broke apart beneath the fork. Translucent – exactly as it ought to be – it had been cooked with rare precision. It was served with mussel and gnocchi fricassee, curried onion purée, crispy bhaji and chive oil and the flavours were drop dead gorgeous. The dish showed that Ben’s heritage carrot dish was no one-off or fluke. It set out his stall as the best in town, a man who’s arrived on the scene with a straight-in-at-number-one hit.
A meat course was assured, if not a little over-complicated. Great Berwick Longhorn beef, reared just across the River Severn by Sam and Clare Barker, was served with potato cream, roast onion, braised leek, broccoli crumb and charred broccoli. I got the feeling it might have been better if Ben had reined himself in a little. In the rush to impress and show just how good he is, he was perhaps offering a little too much ornamentation. Older chefs invariably settle on a style where less is more and while the beef was good, it was a little too busy.
There were two desserts; a dark chocolate ganache and crumb with vanilla pastry cream and iced lovage that was deep, intense, rich and beguiling. The other pudding was the third stand-out dish of the evening: quince with ice cider, goat’s milk sorbet, apple cake and black olive sugar. It was outstanding – as good as the cod and carrot courses.
At £45, Ben is offering the best value fine dining menu in Shropshire. Having eaten at Shrewsbury’s only serious rival recently, his food is also three steps ahead when it comes to selecting the best in town. By my reckoning, Ben is one of the top four chefs in Shropshire – the others are based in or around Ludlow – and he should be set fare.
It’s never easy opening a new restaurant. The brilliant Birmingham cook Brad Carter, for instance, struggled for around three years to establish himself before winning the Good Food Guide’s Restaurant of the Year, followed by a Michelin star. A steady stream of custom has followed since.
Ben doesn’t cook at that level – few do – but he deserves his moment of elevation sooner rather than later. And it’s to be hoped discerning diners who appreciate good food will support him so that he and Carla can continue to delight and excite. He’s a stand-out, who’s returned home because Shropshire is in his heart and who does all the right things – from sourcing great local produce to offering menus that are exceptional value. New kid on the block he may be, but Ben is a guy who’s here to stay.