And yet, bless her, she can’t resist a pudding. So rather than do the sensible thing – call for the check and call it a night – she started limbering up at the table, lifting her arms above her head, shaking her sides and trying, she told me, to ‘make more room in my stomach’, as though she could somehow defeat gravity and the digestive process by throwing a few yogic shapes. Madness. Sheer madness.
So when the front of house manager at The Coach House, in Norbury, arrived to take our dessert order, asking us to select from a choice of three, she proudly replied: “We’d like all of them.” Bonkers. And beautiful. All in the same moment.
She is, however, in danger of stealing the thunder of The Coach House’s savvy owners and it’s exceptional young chef, Harry Bullock, who’ll still be rattling the pans 40-odd years from now. He’s that good. Cooking is in his blood.
So we’ll go back to the start – revisiting the Queen of Puds along the way, for light relief – and provide our critical assessment for this week’s restaurant, The Coach House, at Norbury.
The award-winning restaurant with rooms is located out in the sticks, slap bang in the middle of nowhere. Bishop’s Castle is the nearest town and its location within the South Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty means it is utterly beguiling. The Coach House is a unique country inn, mixing modernity with rustic style. It’s set back from the road, beyond a tumbledown dry stone wall and there’s a log burner in the dining room to keep the place warm and give it a welcoming amber glow on dark winter nights.
We were greeted by the restaurant manager upon arrival, an ebullient fellow whose enthusiasm for all things Coach House bordered on the rhapsodic. Experienced and in command of his dining room, he was efficient, warm and engaged through a long and pleasant evening, earning top marks from our table of two.
The Coach House cuts its cloth to suit, serving simple food during the week with more sophisticated dishes when the weekend comes. That’s probably the joint and sensible decision of the venue’s owners and its youthful head chef, Harry. Harry is a rare talent. A kid who attended after school cooking classes at Ludlow School before washing the pans for Will Holland at La Becasse then cutting his teeth at the much-loved and now-lamented former Pound Inn at Leebotwood, he’s in his first head chef role and has already secured two AA rosettes. And while it’s difficult to gauge the extent of his ambition, there’s no denying his talent. Harry has an eye for presentation, seasons his food well, cooks with precision, uses cracking in-season ingredients and puts together dishes featuring pleasant combinations.
My friend started with crab atop a saffron risotto. It was delicious. The crab was salty-sweet, the saffron risotto fragrant and with plenty of al dente bite. There was nothing not to like about it and she polished her bowl clean. I opted for a main as my starter, a delicious artichoke soufflé which was encircled by an artichoke purée and was served with scattered hazelnuts and winter greens. The soufflé might have been a little taller, steepling like a church tower, but the flavours and textures were magnificent.
The mains were equally good. She opted for steak and triple cooked chips with a side salad. The steak was gorgeous. Tender, beautifully caramelised and scorched and nicely rested so that it was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, it was served with exceptional, crunchy, I’m-still-so-excited-about-them-that-I-might-explode chips. Triple cooked to the point of crinkly crunchiness, they exploded with small puffs of steam as we bit into them. I’d like to think I’m a reasonably good judge of chips – I’ve had 40 years and 13 stone of practice – and the Harry variants were brilliant. There is literally no one cooking better in Shropshire. Boom.
I ate a venison Wellington which was beautifully pink and well rested. The mushroom duxelle was intensely savoury, the pastry light and buttery and a garnish of whinberries and winter greens was excellent. A delightful sauce was gleefully mopped up as I polished the plate clean before reaching in to, erm, ‘help’ with the steak and chips. Two-and-a-half mains is going some – but Harry’s food is worth the calories and the subsequent pain of dieting.
And now, ladies and gentlepeople, it’s time to hand over to the Queen of Puds, who ordered every dessert on the menu.
First up was a deconstructed Snickers bar, comprising vanilla parfait with hot chocolate sauce, salted caramel ice cream and peanuts. Light, dreamy and every-so-slightly wicked, it lasted less than a minute.
An apple dessert featuring garden apples poached in cinnamon and served with a light fromage frais and thin pieces of meringue, it was light, zingy, bang-in-season and absolutely delightful.
The final pudding was Harry’s take on sticky toffee pudding, which omitted the toffee in favour of ginger. Warming, satisfying and filthily indulgent, it was a wonderful end to a gorgeous night of laughs, great food and brilliant service.
The Coach House isn’t the best restaurant in Shropshire. It’s probably near the top 10 or 15, but there are better places to go for fine dining. And yet our scores aren’t like those from Michelin or The Good Food Guides. We’re all about who is the best in their respective class. So just as Ludlow’s brilliant Green Café and The Smokehouse BBQ near Shrewsbury habitually score top marks for doing what they do brilliantly, so we have to recognise the fact that country pubs with restaurant menus don’t come any better than The Coach House, in Norbury. Great service, stylish food and a warm welcome mean it’s firing on all cylinders. In the circumstances, there’s no other score to give it. It’s got to be top marks, five out of five.
Oh and before we go, Harry even makes his own sourdough, which he serves with miso butter. Delish. Epic and Yummy. Every last mouthful.