Food review: The Lunch Box, Shrewsbury Market Hall - four stars
We’d hatched a great plan. It went something like this. Shrewsbury Market has improved beyond recognition in recent years. Not only does it have great butchers, a brilliant fishmonger – step forward Ian Cornall – fine fruit and veg stands, and a fabulous deli, in recent times it’s also embraced the need to provide brilliant food stalls.
These days, there’s more to the market than a curled up cheese sandwich and over-priced crisps. Discerning diners can enjoy tapas or the flavours of North Africa, a nice plate of curry or brilliant street food from Thailand.
So our plan was this: We’d nip to the market, buy beautiful stuff for the weekend then enjoy a main course at one venue and a cake at another before providing you, dear reader, with an honest reflections. Except things didn’t pan out. The stall we’d intended to visit was pretty much full and when we asked for a table the service from three staff was chaotic at best. No names, no pack drill. Though I’ve got half a joke written based on the experience: “How many waitresses does it take to . . ?”
So we went to the place that we’d intended to write about for dessert. And while the cakes looked delicious, that too was pretty much full and the mains didn’t pass muster. Gah. Defeated by the market on a measly Saturday lunchtime. Disconsolate, we left . . .
And then the magic began. We walked by the deli and along a row of brilliant butchers before spying a guy who can reasonably lay claim to being the most technically proficient chef in town. Adrian Badland, formerly of the House of the Rising Sun, Mytton & Mermaid, Albrighton Hall and a few more besides was serving sandwiches; which is a bit like seeing Paul Weller busking an acoustic set when you’re catching the Tube from Euston.
Adrian has enjoyed a peripatetic career, frequently trying to meet the unrealistic expectations of owners who don’t know an iron bark pumpkin from an iron handled pan. For many chefs, that’s the norm. A lucky few alight upon a good owner who gives them their head and are smart enough to realise that it’s the only way to keep a good cook. And an even smaller group end up with a place of their own and are savvy enough to make that work. For the majority, however, it’s about baby-minding another’s business and dealing with owners with little interest in their employee’s ideas or skills.
Adrian, I assume, has had his fill of such privations and decided to go it alone. Well, sort of. In the absence of a Lottery win or bottomless pit of money, he’s taken the only option available to him: hired a market stall and set up shop. I’ve no doubt it won’t last. Before long, a better option will emerge and one of Shropshire’s most brilliant chefs will be dazzling customers with more sophisticated fare. For now, however, those of us who love good food can enjoy simple nosh from a stellar cook.
Adrian does everything by the book at his market stall. Meat comes from Dodds, veg from stalls that are fewer than 10-metres from his own pitch, cakes from the WI stand. Delish. And then he sprinkles them with fairydust and knocks out sandwiches, toasts that are piled high with deliciousness and potatoes stuffed with rare delight. Yum.
My partner and I enjoyed two courses as our day came full circle and became better than we’d imagined. She ate a plate of salmon and poached eggs on sourdough toast. The bread came from Shropshire’s best baker – a small shop opposite the market – and salmon was unctuous and divine, the eggs poached with rare precision so that they dribbled molten gold when cut in two. I opted for pulled pork and pickled pineapple on toast – and was reasonably sure Adrian was the only chef anywhere in the county offering that winning combo.
The pork was divine. Umami-rich, tender and indulgent, it was perfectly paired with the sweet-sour flavour of freshly-cut pineapple. The toast was crunchy with a brilliant crust, slices of decent tomato and leaves of rocket completed the dish. In Adrian’s hands, the most humble of dishes can rise to new highs.
We went to pay the bill and spied a host of cakes on the counter. So we sat back down and indulged in slices of brilliantly light, buttery Victoria sponge made by the local WI. “We can’t take credit for that,” said Adrian’s partner, who doubles as market stall manager. “It’s from the WI, we like to support them, so it would have been made by a lady in a country kitchen.” Whoever that lady might be, she deserves a medal. Feather-like and dreamy, the jam was almost certainly homemade too.
Our bill was next to nothing and we felt like we’d lucked out.
Shrewsbury Market is truly exceptional. Aside from the stalls selling curios and interesting knick knacks, it offers really, really good food. There are people offering organic fruit and greens from their own vegetable patch; experts selling great cheeses from around the world; families with beautiful, well-aged meat from their own farms and a guy whose fish comes from day boats from both north and south.
And there are food stalls offering street bites from around the world. Then, tucked away in a corner, is the self-effacing and unshowy Adrian, knocking out lunches for a fiver that are packed with favour and seasoned with his customary brilliance. Lord only knows why a restaurant owner hasn’t snapped him up – but their loss is our gain and for a while at least, we can enjoy simple lunches, occasional specials like steaks from the neighbouring butcher’s stall and more besides. People pay a small fortune to have chefs come into their homes and cook for them – and at Shrewsbury Market you can achieve something similar for pennies. My guess is that the next time we review Adrian, he’ll be back behind the pass of another restaurant knocking out two-AA rosette food – but for now, get ye to Shrewsbury Market. It’s time to make hay while the sun shines.