Food review: The Bird's Nest Cafe, Shrewsbury
It’s not the sort of place to go for a quiet dinner a deux. The Bird’s Nest Café is loud and rumbustious; a blaring trombone of a restaurant, rather than a quiet, sedate harp. Located in Shrewsbury’s stellar market, a place crammed with good food, honest vendors and people who are eminently knowledgeable about food, it’s a bit like eating in the second lane of the M6. At rush hour. On a Friday. When there’s been a break-down. And one lane is shut.
Crowds of people stream past and the hubbub is louder than a Metallica soundcheck as shoppers race past, like ants scurrying to a colony. Somehow, the staff keep it under control. Amidst the clatter of pans, the shouts of vendors, the chatter of customers and the music blaring from speakers, a team of staff with ‘Good Vibes’ t-shirts keep tabs on who’s eating what, what’s coming from the kitchen and who’s ready to be seated. They deserve medals. And a whole load of tips.
I’ve tried to eat at the Bird’s Nest on numerous occasions and never quite managed it. It’s a place that doesn’t take bookings and while eating there during the week is a relatively straightforward pastime, getting a seat on a Saturday lunchtime is like securing a table for 2 at Ramsay’s on a Saturday night in summer. Impossible.
And yet, fortuitously, my partner and I landed on a Saturday just as another pair of diners were leaving. Like cats on lame mice, we pounced. We helped ourselves to menus – the staff were busy ferrying groaning plates of hot, tasty somethings to the sprawling morass of tables and chairs. And we tried to hear ourselves, and each other, above the down-home blare of reggae, indie, rock and whatever else featured on The Bird’s Nest’s Saturday playlist.
The menu is ostensibly healthy. There’s more vegan and vegetarian choices than at most Shrewsubry outlets, with the exception The Good Life. And though there’s a little meat; bacon and sausage sandwiches for breakfast, duck noodle salads and chicken burgers for lunch, it’s frequently conspicuous by its absence. A Mexican Buddha bowl, for instance, is meat-free, despite the café being within walking distance of a tranche of great, ethical local butchers. The food is light, fresh and uncomplicated. It’s an aria, rather than a full-blown symphony. It’s the sort of stuff shoppers can eat on the go before settling down to a full dinner later that evening. The ingredients are great: bread comes from the county’s best bakery, which is opposite the market, and other ingredients come from suppliers riven with quality and credibility.
Having bagged a seat, my partner and I made our selections: a bowl of olives to sate ravenous hunger after a morning around town followed by smoked salmon on toast for her and a cheeky chicken burger for me. Oh, yes, and two deliciously healthy smoothies made from a blend of flowers, wishes, air and pure goodness. Or something like that.
The olives were fine; nothing special, while the salmon was magnificent. Voluminous, garlanded with carefully spun ribbons of cucumber and sitting on a bed of homemade celeriac slaw and toasted sourdough from the café’s friends at Bakehouse & Co, it was finished with pink pickled onions and a wedge of lemon. Food doesn’t get any fresher. In truth, the salmon was a little lost among all the add-ons; the slaw had a little too much mustard and the plate was overwhelmed with citrus. It was a parum-pum-pum of a plate, no holds were barred as big, zingy flavours fought it out.
My chicken burger was pretty much as good as it gets, though, in keeping with the healthy theme of the Bird’s Nest, the protein was neither breadcrumbed, battered or fried. By some distance, it was the dirtiest option on the menu and featured slices of perfectly cooked streaky bacon that had been slathered in melted cheese. The chicken was tender and well-seasoned and sat on top of a bed of crunchy lettuce, a slice of vine tomato, a wonderfully acidulated gherkin and cajun mayo. It was served in a brilliant, light sesame seed bun and a side of tortilla chips and small pot of homemade slaw completed the dish.
While so many outlets mess up the humble burger, The Bird’s Nest got it spot on. It’s such a classic dish – the gastronomic equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s My Way – and everyone has their own rendition, most of them are dog-awful. This, happily, was spot on – and remarkably healthy to boot. Big on flavour but low on calories, it was light, flavoursome and decidedly satisfying.
The food, of course, is just a part of the experience when it comes to eating at The Bird’s Nest Café. The buzz, louder than a swarm of angry bees, plays an equal role. It’s a fun, life-affirming and energised environment in which to eat; the equivalent of being at a New Year Party as the clock strikes 12 – but without the champagne, lump of coal and dip in the Trafalgar Square fountain.
We ate cake when we’d finished our main. It was fine – but nothing special. Maybe our expectations were too high; either way, a lemony slice of sponge drizzled with icing and filled with a passable curd didn’t set our tastebuds zinging. It was, in truth, a little dry. A salted caramel number with peanut butter was intensely calorific – the perfect chance to undo all the good work we’d done with our lunch – but the butter, cream, sugar and eggs didn’t really translate to out-and-out enjoyment. Neither were at the same level as the burger.
There are aspects of The Bird’s Nest that are truly best-in-class; most notably the service and the ability of its staff to almost literally juggle plates. The vibes are good, the food mostly decent and it’s worth a look – providing you can get a seat.