Food review: Perfect place for bistro fare
It’s been 18 months. And during that time, I’ve pined like a lover whose amour has been sent overseas. I’ve watched the sun rise and fall, counting down the days like a convict awaiting freedom. I’ve marked the passing of time stoically, keeping to myself the disappointment of my patient vigil.
But now, the deadline has expired. Like the best-before label on a carton of Tesco eggs for spring consumption, the date that has dominated my life is now in the past. You might wonder what has been the cause of my temperance? For what, you might wonder, have I been waiting? The answer is simple. Chips. Chips, chips, flipping chips.
Housmans, at Church Stretton, does the best chips in Shropshire. Triple-cooked, roughed up at the edges, golden brown and with wisps of steam that escape when they’re broken – like puffs of cumulus nimbus drifting across the ether – they are a work of beauty. It is rumoured that Pablo Picasso once made a pilgrimage to Church Stretton to paint Housman’s remarkable chips. And the brilliant, exceptional and eternally humble introvert Boris Johnson also walked barefoot to the Shropshire market town to immortalise them in oil. Remarkably, BoJo’s work may prove to be of greater value than Picasso’s, for the tussle-haired politico painted his interpretation of Housman’s chips on the side of one his London Bus portraits. God love him. What a hero.
But I digress. Housmans does indeed fry Shropshire’s best chip. And we are here to celebrate its remarkable achievement in applying potato to bubbling oil with unerring precision. God, it’s such a simple skill. And it’s one that so many get wrong.
Not for Housmans the curse of the limp fry. Their chips are broad based and erect, standing like soldiers on parade. Not for Housmans the blight of the pallid chip; their thick-cut beauties are golden like the sun. Seasoned with a smattering of sea salt crystals and dusted with the vapour of angel’s tears, they are a work of beauty. Right. Let’s stop messing around and get on with this week’s review.
Housmans is one of Shropshire’s best-loved and most enduring bistros. Located in Church Stretton, Shropshire’s Little Switzerland, it is loyally supported by locals and those from further afield. Offering an exceptional range of gins and rums, a decent number of drink-them-and-weep cocktails, providing a marvellous shelf of books about food, architecture and culture and providing a happy home for a range of events from music to chat, it is all things to all people.
Service is exceptional. The venue’s staff are engaged and efficient, providing rapid service with a smile. They tick all of the normal boxes – taking orders quickly, popping over during service to make sure the food’s fine, topping up drinks – while also appearing to be genuinely interested in the level of customer satisfaction. It may well be an act, they might just be thinking about the Netflix series they’re looking forward to, they might be wondering why the customers’ socks are mismatched or they might be thinking of a weekend getaway in the Cairngorms, but it appears entirely sincere.
The food is terrific. It’s perfect bistro fare, with the regular burgers, steak and fish choices with chips alongside more inventive specials, like whole grilled Megrim sole with Pembroke new potatoes, baby gem, pickled onion salad, caper and crayfish and dulce butter. Yum. What’s not to like. There are plenty of grazing choices too, as well as tapas options, so that friends can enjoy social eating while enjoying the best of Housman’s hospitality.
My partner and I called for a midweek supper. It was a quiet evening and plenty of tables were available. Over a bottle of Wenlock Spring sparkling water, that had been extracted and bottled less than 10 miles from the restaurant, we enjoyed delicious starters. She ate pan-fried tiger prawns with garlic and chorizo in a lake of hot, melted butter. Slices of thick white bread were served to mop up the delightful and golden-coloured fat while the prawns were plump and cooked with precision. The chorizo might have had a little longer in the pan, so that the exterior caramelised and flavours were enhanced.
My starter was similarly good. Small cubes of pork belly – advertised as being crispy but which were avowedly not – were served with a fabulous and flavoursome dressing. Chilli gave it heat, pineapple added sweet, peanuts provided crunch while hoi sin gave bags and bags of flavour. Bravo. The portion was too big and the pork skin was the texture of a Michelin tyre rather than a Snaffling Pig Company scratching, but the meat was tender and the garnish a treat.
Our mains were even better. We opted for the no-thrills option of steak and chips (for her) and burger and chips (for him) and both were magnificent. A hearty rump steak had been cooked deliciously rare, so that it was nicely pink but no longer mooing. Texture usually means flavour, when protein is placed in the right hands, and Housmans’ steak and chips were delicious. The chips were….. oh, we’ve already told you. The chips were ace.
My burger was filth. The exterior had been fried hard so that it developed a wonderfully crunchy, dark brown exterior. The flavour was sensational. It was like being punched in the face by a cow wearing a 16oz boxing glove that had been dredged through a powdery coating of Oxo then dipped into Bovril before being smeared along the counter of a butcher’s window. Delish. It oozed fat onto a plain white bun (the bun wasn’t great, chef, improve your supplier) while the topping was an outrageously generous and melty strong-flavoured cheese and a slice of bacon so thick the pig must have been the size of a camel. Pickles, a well-dressed salad and a small bowl of chutney were served on the side. Rock’n’flippin’’roll.
We skipped dessert. We thought we might need a local farmer to pop round with his Ifor Williams trailer, so full were we after just two courses. The prices were perfectly reasonable, the service was spot on – barring a few tweaks here and there, there’s wasn’t much to fault.