After all, the notion of good dinners in Whitchurch is a bit like suggesting a paddle on the beach in Craven Arms. The word synonymous doesn’t apply. Such towns as Ludlow and Shrewsbury have for two decades been at the centre of Shropshire’s gastronomic blossoming. Whitchurch has been left on the sidelines; a bystander not invited to the race. Expectations, therefore, were low when we arrived at the town’s High Street for dinner at Docket No 33.
And yet – as is often the case – the experiences far exceeded our hopes. Docket No 33 proved itself to be a delightful addition to Shropshire’s dining scene; a restaurant with a good atmosphere and pleasant dining room offering food of a high standard and supremely good service. For my money, it’s the best new restaurant opening in Shropshire since Shrewsbury’s delicious CSons; a high quality-but-unpretentious dining space that’s just at home providing special occasion dining and it is informal dinners for regulars and locals.
Across the border, in Chester, there’s a brilliant restaurant called Sticky Walnut and many discerning diners will be aware of its reputation. It’s located in an unprepossessing street, like Docket No 33, and doesn’t look like much from the outside. But step inside and you enter a gastronome’s paradise where staff are passionate and highly skilled, where the chefs offer finesse and good technique as well as intelligent combinations and desirable presentation and where British cuisine with local and international influences is readily available. Such qualities are also present at the delightful Docket No 33 and it may not be too long before people are starting to talk about Whitchurch in the same revered tones as Ludlow and Shrewsbury.
The restaurant was opened last year by a husband-and-wife team who’d spent five years cooking and working at a high level in Qatar before returning home to open their first restaurant. Restaurant openings are fraught with difficulty and few make it past the first year. Chef Stuart Collins, one imagines, will not simply be looking to achieve that – he’ll probably already have his eyes on opening a second restaurant, just like the team from Sticky Walnut, such are the standards and qualities of his debut.
Docket No 33 offers two menus: a four-course taster, with cheese as an additional course, or a traditional, three-course à la carte. We opted for the former, giving Collins the opportunity to dazzle us with his gastronomic prowess. It was an opportunity he didn’t waste.
We started with three amuse-bouche; a small, thumbnail-sized cracker topped with an intense, umami-rich parmesan cream; a delicious soft taco with Mr Moyden’s cheese and small flecks of ham and a fingertip-sized mini baba ganoush, which was the highlight of the lot. All were one-bite-big and all were packed with delicious flavour. They suggested a skilful chef with high levels of talent and a command of seasoning and flavour.
The first course was beetroot with pickled carrot, walnut and dill. It was delightful. Cooked until just-tender and contrasting the sweet earth notes of beetroot with a lightly acidulated sweet carrot, it was as pretty as it was tasteful. And while it could be finessed even further – peeled strips of carrot rather than a whole root, for instance – it was a good way to begin.
The next course was breathtaking. Crab was served beneath circles of kohlrabi, so that it looked like two tiny ravioli. The crab sweet and salty, the kohlrabi added crunch while small pieces of apple and coriander offered sweet acidity and fragrance. The flavours were perfectly compatible: a world class orchestra being led by a great composer so as to play in harmonious unison. It was a spellbinding dish, the sort diners happily eat at a one-star restaurant.
The main was similarly accomplished. Two small pieces of medium rare rose veal fillet were served with a perfect quenelle of watercress purée, a single piece of brilliantly cooked confit potato and finely diced smoked mushrooms. Once more, the flavours sang in unison. The veal was deliciously tender with a hard, caramelised crust while the mushroom was intoxicating and smoky.
We opted for the cheese course and were glad that we had. Three cheeses from Mr Moyden – Ironbridge, Wrekin white and Wrekin blue – were served with a sticky, sweet/bitter kumquat marmalade, a candied walnut and perfect homemade biscuits, the highlights of which were a beautiful, oaty digestive and a fragrant, herby cracker. There’s a lot to be said for letting great local ingredients be the star of the show and this Stuart’s cheese course did just that.
We had an enjoyable pre-dessert comprising light apple foam with a blackberry and Champagne granite. It was pointlessly topped with popping candy – we all got over that in 2013, and it doesn’t work on top of granite because the crystals become wet – but aside from that trying-too-hard-to-please touch, it was a treat. Light, flavoursome and appetising, it provided a good transition from savoury to sweet.
The dessert was pretty thought might have had flavours that were sharper and more clearly defined. Small pieces of rhubarb were placed around a slightly-sour yoghurt panna cotta, an exceptional rhubarb sorbet and dots of vanilla cream. It was delightful enough to put on display and though the pieces of rhubarb might have been more intense and tart, it was a pretty good dessert.
Service throughout was first class and there was an impressive level of attention to detail. The pre-dinner beer bread, for instance, was hoppy and moist; Appleby’s butter, served alongside, was a thrill in itself. The interior décor was also pleasing; unfussy with nice touches – a church pew, a step covered in one pence pieces that spelled No 33 – and the lighting soft. In truth, there was nothing not to enjoy.
Docket No 33 smashes perceptions of Whitchurch and is a stunning new addition to the county’s dining scene. Offering fine food that is beautifully presented and seasoned and cooked with rare skill, it’s a showcase for brilliant local ingredients that are intelligently paired.
I suspect Docket No 33 has been a best-kept secret for local diners since being launched at the end of 2017. Well, it’s time to spoil their fun and spread the word. For Docket No 33 is a restaurant that we can unequivocally recommend. It’s deserving of a bigger stage and larger crowd.