Thursday night. End of January. Freezing fog. Dreary like a new divorce. If ever there was a night to stay in and enjoy the great indoors, Thursday was it.
You’d imagine too, therefore, that restaurants would be suffering and wondering how to get rid of all of the ingredients in their fridge.
Star rating: 4.5/5
And yet out in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny village just beyond the back of beyond, a chef and restaurant manager were working harder than on Christmas Day.
Chef Ian Pugh, bless him, was manning a one-man kitchen while a few dozen guests filled a beautiful 16th century coaching inn that has been beautifully restored. Bliss. What fun to watch a chef live life on the veg. Or should that be edge.
The Oak, at Wigmore, is an utter delight. Fine, it’s not quite in the same league as the brilliant Pensons, which last year scored a Michelin star for a location that’s even more remote, just outside Tenbury Wells.
But it’s probably in the top five restaurants in Shropshire and Mid-Wales – and certainly a comfortable fit inside the top ten.
Ian Pugh learned his trade under the brilliant Chris Bradley, the former Ludlow-based Michelin-starred chef patron of Mr Underhill’s. And his food continues to bear all the hallmarks of that much-missed, one-off restaurant – though, as Pugh I’m sure would admit – one man alone cannot recreate the brilliance of a kitchen of four supremely-talented cooks.
It’s thrilling to see chefs when they’re up against it, facing a busy restaurant and a pass-full-of-orders.
That’s the point at which they find out whether they have what it takes. It’s when they sink or swim. And Pugh smashed through the water like Adam Peaty. Well done that man. As you’re sending out 70 or 80 plates of food, plus additional sides and bread, you find out whether you’re prep was good enough, whether you can season while under pressure, whether the stocks and sauces are spot on, whether you can still cook with precision when the heat is on. Pugh did all of that and then some, during a fabulous evening at The Oak.
He wasn’t alone in providing excellence. The venue manager was charm and efficiency personified. Elegant and witty, engaging and endearing, she managed the floor with a touch of class. A younger waitress was similarly poised and showed skills that will serve her well.
The environment dazzled too. The Oak is all centuries-old limestone coupled with oak, glass and slate. Sensitively restored in recent times and given a new lease of life, it’s been impressively renovated and with ample space between tables, dining there is a delight.
All of the ingredients, therefore, are in place, and my friend and I enjoyed a thrilling three-course supper on a busy night when we’d have reasonably expected to be the only ones eating.
The menu was simple: four starters, four mains and four desserts. I love a short menu. It means the chef is focused on his crowd-pleasing dishes and isn’t wasting ingredients by ordering in stock that’ll later go to waste. Though a simple starter of pigeon breast with wilted rocket and caramelised apple and thyme looked delicious, I started with a simple salad of Cashel blue cheese with candied walnuts, blood orange, pickled onion and bitter leaves.
It was stunning. Light but punching above its weight, the flavours and textures mingled with delicious effect. The bitterness of the leaves was counterbalanced by the sweetness of the candied walnuts. The acidity of the sweet pieces of blood orange and the thin slices of pickled onion was the perfect foil to the creamy, deeply savoury blue cheese. It was a good dish, perfectly executed.
My friend’s starter was similarly good. Three pan fried scallops sat on a bed of sweet potato puree, while a star anise infusion gave beautiful aromatic flavour. The scallops had been lovingly caramelised in a pan filled with foaming butter. They were salty sweet, deliciously tender and a perfect match to the delicate flavours with which they sat.
We ordered the same main. And why wouldn’t we. When a rare breed fillet steak is being served alongside an ox cheek mille feuille, with a chestnut mushroom and a roast garlic jus, only the world’s most philanthropic man would opt for an alternative from the menu. And we are not that man.
Oh, but I’ve forgotten something. The bread. Before it all began, beautifully, crusty rolls of sourdough were served with a bone marrow and chive butter. Yup, they were as good as that sounds. The butter melted and dribbled over the crust, the intense bone marrow gave them a whack of intoxicating umami, and little puffs of steam burst from the rolls as we tore into them like unreconstructed cavemen. Delish.
Right. Steak. The fillets were beautifully seasoned and sat atop a bed of peppery chestnut mushroom while the garlic jus added sweet/savoury notes. We ate a bowl of crispy, lemony polenta chips, which were stunning. The triple cooked chips were the best in the county. Riven with clefs of golden crunchiness, like a deep crevasse in glaciers of potato, they were sensational.
Nobody’s cooking chips better in this parish. Buttered mixed vegetables were similarly good. The carrots were cooked al dente and were deliciously sweet, while the mange tout was wonderfully crisp and packed with vibrant flavour.
We stayed for dessert. When a chef’s cooking that well you throw the diet to the wind and stick around. My friend ate a chocolate nemesis.
With a dense, rich filling and decadently more-ish, it polished him off and he fell into a diabetic coma. Ha. Or perhaps I’m exaggerating.
My rhubarb and ginger fondant was a throwback to Pugh’s Mr Underhill’s days – even the presentation was reminiscent of that stunning restaurant in Ludlow. Light, brilliantly pink and with wonderfully sharp-sweet flavour, it was a perfect end to dinner.
Ian Pugh is one of the region’s best chefs. The restaurant manager at The Oak is one of the region’s best. And The Oak is a place we can recommend with true certainty as being among Herefordshire's elite. Book now.
Warm ham hock, piccalilli purée, pickled vegetables, sourdough, £7
Thai fishcakes, lemongrass aioli, charred lime, £7
Cerney Ash goat’s cheese, pickled fennel, radicchio, caramelised walnuts, £6
Confit cod, buttered fennel, tempura vegetables, sweet potato purée, marsala & apple, £12
Guinea fowl supreme, vegetable ribbons, lemon & tarragon quinoa, £14
Braised belly pork, pak choi, apple & celeriac purée, star anise & ginger jus, £12
Pistachio parfait, chocolate, poached pear, £7
Golden beetroot rice pudding, baked plums, £6
Chocolate Nemesis, brown butter ice cream, £7.50
Ford Street, Wigmore