Shropshire Star

Food review: The Castle Hotel, Bishops Castle, Shropshire

We hadn’t booked a table. I’m sure my friend had agreed to do it – there’s a text message to that effect – but when we arrived at the Castle Hotel it turned out she’d forgotten, or imagined I was booking it, or just got too busy running a business, family and a million other things.

Sticky toffee pudding, vanilla ice cream

The waitress soothed our troubled minds, finding us a table without delay and starting a pleasant evening where the service was impeccable throughout.

The Castle Hotel introduces itself in can’t-argue-with-that terms on its website; making no false promises, offering no unsupported boasts and keeping its feet on the ground.

Here’s what it says – and well done to whoever wrote it: “If you want to eat out in Bishop’s Castle look no further – Shropshire has a long history of culinary excellence. Shrewsbury has a plethora of good restaurants and Ludlow is just down the road, which for a time boasted more Michelin starred restaurants than London itself. (That bit’s wrong, but we won’t hold it against them).

“We don’t do Michelin at The Castle but we certainly use many of the same local suppliers. We’re spoilt for them actually. What we aim to produce is modern, good pub food that is healthy, hearty, flavoursome and fresh. And great value of course.”

Can’t say fairer than that. Box ticked.

There’s more to the Castle Hotel than just decent value pub grub – not least its immaculate garden. Bishop’s Castle is one of Shropshire’s most beautiful, interesting and arty towns and it provides exceptional views across the south of the county from its raised vantage. The Castle Hotel sits at the top of the town and an immaculately maintained garden offers a wonderful viewpoint. It’s the perfect space to eat, drink or meet friends; it really is a treat.

The dining room is similarly enjoyable. Light, airy and wearing its historic connections on its sleeve, it’s been well maintained. Fashionable upholstery and interesting artefacts make for a pleasant space in which to dine: one particular knick-knack looks like a giant hazelnut, or perhaps a giant cacao pod, or perhaps something entirely different.

My friend and I were in a giddy mood and the staff were on top form, joining in our harmless fun and seeming to enjoy our good-natured banter. As importantly, they were efficient, quick, polite and engaged throughout the evening. Full marks go to them; despite the relative youth of many of them, they did a good job. The food wasn’t bad, either – though we oughtn’t to get too carried away: it was decent pub grub and no more. We were in the mood for sharing and so dishes were placed in the middle of the table, then eaten on two small side plates.

We began with a goat’s cheese and sun blushed tomato salad, which was thoroughly enjoyable. Well dressed and with sun-blushed tomatoes that had been warmed and were served in generous quantity, it made for pleasant eating. It featured ingredients that were pretty good, rather than exceptional. A Spanish tapas board was also enjoyable, with artichoke, balsamic onions, stuffed peppers and the like providing food to pick at as we talked. It was a deli platter, in essence, with pleasant components.

Good dinners are all about timing and the staff at the Castle Hotel had mastered that noble art. They were neither too slow nor too quick; giving us plenty of time to eat, thereafter allowing time for our food to digest before bringing the next course.

It created the conditions for a convivial evening where we were able to enjoy our food and one another’s company rather than feeling rushed, or underwhelmed by too-long-a-wait.

The mains were okay: a burger being the best of the two selections we made. Served in a doughy pretzel bap, it was thick, meaty and mis-shaped – a sure sign it had been made by a chef’s, or butcher’s, hand. A little overcooked – they missed a trick by not serving it a little pink – it came with a chilli dip, delightful salad and magnificent Green Thunder cheese, which knocks the spots off regulation Cheddar. The smoked bacon was a little undercooked and fatty but the onion rings and sweet potato fries were heaven itself, wonderfully crisp and deliciously caramelised.

We talked about Ann Widdicombe fist bumps, trying to decide whether the former Shadow Home Secretary ever fist-bumped a dancer on Strictly; face recognition emojis, they’re a thing, and foxes that mimic your own face’s mannerisms are hilarious and a new Shropshire organisation called Think Tank, which encourages blue sky thinking by local businesses and is probably the best thing since sliced bread. Or an Ann Widdicombe fist bump.

The other main wasn’t as good. A slightly-overcooked chicken breast was served with a pleasantly aromatic and fruity coriander and apricot sauce and clumpy cous cous, which needed a little more water and a good fork through it.

We were caught between two minds – actually, between three minds – when it came to desserts. So we ordered all three, put them in the middle of the table and tucked in. Our expectations were greater than the quality of the food and a whinberry fool was poor. Featuring foraged berries from the nearby Long Mynd, it was simply whipped cream and berries – no purée, nothing. Disappointing. A mango cheesecake was a little claggy and heavy, with a biscuit base that lacked sufficient butter and fell apart. The sticky toffee pudding was good and light, however, with a terrific sauce and good ice cream, which melted into the hot dessert.

The bill was reasonable – the website brag about offering good value was true enough – and we’d had a decent evening out. The food wasn’t good enough for us to add it to our list of must-return venues: if you’re looking for comparisons it’s a bit like The Hundred House, at Norton, but not quite as good. The service and venue, however, were delightful and as a place for informal dining on away-days to one of Shropshire’s more intriguing hotels, the Castle Hotel is worth a visit.