It’s in the middle of nowhere,” said my friend. She was right.
Pensons is a recently-opened destination restaurant at the Netherwood Estate, not far from Tenbury Wells, near to the south Shropshire border.
It’s surrounded by such picturesque settlements as Stoke Bliss and Kyre and is within easy reach of Ludlow.
“But the car park’s amazing.”
Gravelled, neatly laid out and basking in mid-summer sunshine, it was a rural architect’s dream.
You can tell a lot about a place by its car park.
Have the owners ploughed every last shilling into their labour or love or are they cutting corners?
At Pensons, it’s the former.
The restaurant sits on a 1,200 acre estate run by Peta Darnley, whose background is in strategy and marketing.
She took over the running of the estate from her father-in-law, the late 11th Earl of Darnley, eight years ago and has introduced holiday lets, textile milling, game shoots and courses in flower arranging, gardening and cookery.
She has exceeded her brief: Pensons is a best-in-class sort-of place.
Pensons Restaurant is at the heart of her work and features the food of Lee Westcott.
Where heritage meets contemporary
It opened in January after Peta’s team spent 18 months transforming a range of derelict farm-buildings into a fantastic re-imagined space that retains all the heritage of its past combined with the new and contemporary.
Westcott and his team of six cook with ingredients farmed, foraged and grown on the estate, as well as showcasing the amazing produce from the local area, bringing to life his ethos of eating locally, seasonally and sustainably.
Many of you will be familiar with Westcott.
For those who aren’t, here’s a quick get-to-know-you introduction.
His formative years were spent at such illustrious London venues as the Savoy Grill, Claridge’s and Tom Aikens before he decamped to Typing Room, in Bethnal Green, with the support of Jason Atherton, where he dazzled critics with ‘bloody marvellous’ food that was a ‘triumph’.
Pensons – rather than some slick city restaurant – is his new home: lucky, lucky us.
Westcott and Peta make a formidable team.
Her renovation of once-derelict buildings has been imaginative and skilful.
The dining room is light and airy, with plenty of exposed limestone and wood alongside vast glazed walls, that flood the room with natural light.
The furnishings are exceptional; beautiful, Scandi-esque chairs and solid wood tables that sit beneath huge wicker lights in an oak-framed barn.
There are few better dining rooms in the region.
Westcott, meanwhile, probably couldn’t be happier.
He takes his pick from an impressive kitchen garden, bee hives, animals, game and endless foraging opportunities in the woods.
Seasonable and sustainable
Accordingly, menus are seasonal, local and sustainable; the brigade treats fresh produce with the respect it deserves and live out the maxim estate to plate.
Service is thoroughly impressive, too.
An experienced and charming restaurant manager was ably assisted by two younger charges when my friend and I visited.
Polite, attentive and entirely engaged, all three front of house staff were a credit to their employer; they were exceptional ambassadors for Netherwood and Pensons.
The food was exceptional.
As tempted as we were by the tasting menu, we opted for the three course a la carte, which was enhanced by delightful bread, amuse bouche and more.
Dinner started with a crisply delicious fish skin cracker – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it – and a wonderful one-bite, meltingly decadent cheese tart.
The bread was exceptional.
Westcott has a reputation for seducing sourdough lovers with dreamy, perfectly aerated loaves.
The ones that we ate were exemplars of brilliance.
Served with marmite butter that had been dusted with yeast, they released puffs of steam when we broke into them, their crusts were a work of art.
If there’s are better bakers in our region, I’ve yet to discover them. Our starters were so good we had to share them. She ordered a scallop ceviche, then changed her mind when I ordered the beef tartare with ceps.
Both were magnificent – and we ate half each.
The scallops were served with monk’s beard, which had intense mineral flavours that were perfectly allied to the sweet-salty molluscs.
Heaven on a plate.
The tartare with mushroom was equally delicious.
Small cubes of perfectly prepared beef offered savoury indulgence. It was like being hit in the mouth by a cow whose hooves had been dipped in Oxo.
The cep was multi-textured, as powder and cracker, providing exceptional seasoning for the main event.
Dish of the year?
My friend’s main was breathtaking – a contender for dish of the year.
Lamb with artichokes, crisp potatoes and a sticky, lick-smacking sauce was a work of beauty. Tender and beautiful – and served with a magnificent hand-crafted steak knife – the lamb was pink and yielding. The sauce was the stuff of dreams; complex and flavoursome, deep and rich.
The potato was golden like the sun, with exceptional crunch, while the artichoke provided balance and completed a beautiful dish.
My turbot with fresh gooseberries and pickles was sumptuous, if not quite at the same level as the eleven-out-of-ten lamb.
We stayed for dessert; a deconstructed raspberry number was summer on the plate while my apple with sheep’s milk ice cream was a stunning assemblage of complementary textures and flavours.
Sticky, thumb-sized lemon financiers finished our dinner. It was a breathless, jaw-dropping evening of the highest order.
Which brings us to the marks.
That Peta and Westcott earn 100 per cent is a foregone conclusion. The more interesting question is where do they rank against other regional restaurants.
During the past two years and excluding restaurants in Birmingham, I’ve only eaten at one new regional venue that’s been so exciting – Liam Dillon’s The Boat Inn, at Lichfield.
There has been none so good in Shropshire. I guess Shropshire’s best team would probably include Karl Martin at Old Downton Lodge, Wayne Smith at Mortimers, Ben Hall at The Walrus, Stuart Collins at Docket 33 and Joe Gould at Fishmore Hall.
Westcott has the measure of all of those.
It’s at least as good, nah, let’s be honest, it’s better than anything else in our beautiful county or its near-distant hinterland.
It’s been a while since Shropshire and its borders had a restaurant as good as Pensons. Stick it on your must-visit list. Save, plan, squirrel away money – just make sure you go. It truly is a best-in-class. You won’t be disappointed.