We joined the dots. It wasn’t hard. As sleuthing goes, we’d award ourselves three out of ten, if that. There were two reasons for reviewing The Stockton Cross. The first was what we like to call The Holmes Effect – Sherlock, that is, not Dame Kelly.
A recent review of a superlative pub – The Baiting House, near Tenbury Wells – led to random internet browsing and the discovery that it was part of a group comprising four pub-restaurants.
Two others fall within our area; those being The Hopton Crown, at Cleobury Mortimer, and The Stockton Cross, south of Ludlow, but not quite as far as Leominster.
The Baiting House is everything that a good pub should be – great food, rock solid chef, charming service and fair prices.
For the beer drinkers among you, there’s also a selection of decent ales.
We assumed, not unreasonably, that decent food would also be on offer at its stable mates.
We tried The Hopton Crown, phoning to book a table. The line went through to an answer machine that told us to book on line, rather than over the phone. So we went to the online booking site. It was broke.
‘Apologies, there’s a fault,’ it told us. Which meant we couldn’t book.
With no phone connection and no online booking service, The Hopton Crown lost a booking from two hungry eaters.
Happily – and this brings us onto the second reason for today’s review – The Stockton Cross was easier to reach and so we found ourselves booking a last-minute table for two.
The Stockton Cross is south of Ludlow and, while we’ve covered most restaurants in that town, we’ve seldom gone further south. It was time to explore Ludlow’s hinterland – and we were glad to have done so.
Located out in the sticks, in verdant countryside, The Stockton Cross is a gorgeous pub. All whitewashed walls and black beams, it oozes character and tradition.
As summer fades, drinkers were making the most of the final days of warm weather by enjoying pints and foods on a well-kept lawn to the front.
Covid-regulations were expertly obeyed, both by diners, drinkers and staff.
The exceptional restaurant manager – Chelsea – and her able assistant were quick to proffer sanitising gel, the floor was marked with social distancing tape, so that we didn’t encroach on any other tables, while staff made a point of taking our names, addresses and phone numbers so as to enable track and trace.
They were polite, courteous and reassuring without killing our fun. If only all venues were so diligent and so respectful both of the need to factor in legitimate public health concerns without turning the evening into an approximation of a hospital visit.
The balance was spot on.
The menu was equally impressive. A small number of starters, mains and desserts provided ample variety and allowed the chef to get on with things, without creating needless extra work or waste.
We started with home-baked sourdough, which was decent, with salted butter and a small pot of beef dripping.
The dripping was extravagant and utterly, utterly divine. With the taste of roast dinners on a nicely aerated slice of sourdough, it was an auspicious way to start.
Fabulous flavours, a daring ingredient and exceptional tastes won us over before the starters had arrived.
My partner began with a sumptuous rarebit, topped with bacon jam. It was similarly good. Served with an unexciting side salad, the rarebit was robustly flavoured and avoided the usual trap of being too wet. The jam was sweet, salty and savoury and forks flew across the table as an invitation to try it was gleefully accepted.
My starter was equally good. A small ball of goat’s cheese was encased in a perfectly crunchy breadcrumb coating and served atop a small, sweet red pepper garnish. The pepper was exceptional, cutting through the chalky goat’s cheese and adding a delightful accompaniment. It made for an impressive start.
The mains were of a high standard.
My partner ate coley with celeriac and a cream sauce. The fish had been beautifully cooked, deftly caramelised on the outside and with chunks that fell away under the knife.
Coley is an under-used fish and in an era where sustainability is more important than ever, it made for a pleasing change. The cream sauce was indulgently good and the celeriac well matched.
I choose the beef, with a thick slice of tender, perfectly cooked sirloin being paired with chargrilled onions, spring onions and more.
An additional piece of brisket was added to the plate, and while it was delicious it was also unnecessary. One great piece of meat is more than enough for a single course.
The garnishes included thinly sliced, seasonal courgettes and mange tout, cooked lightly in butter.
There was also a side of triple-cooked chips that were golden brown, crunchy around the edges and greedily dispatched.
We shared a dessert: a lemon and raspberry frangipane with raspberry sorbet.
The sorbet was perfectly balanced, neither too sweet nor too sharp, while a thin raspberry puree that lay atop the frangipane was one of the highlights of the evening.
With fresh raspberries and almonds adorning a super-lemony frangipane, it was an excellent way to end.
Service was exemplary throughout.
The restaurant manager was confident, hard-working, efficient and thoroughly engaging.
Chatty, without being intrusive; charming, without being over the top, she added a personal touch to a thoroughly pleasant evening and made the experience all the more enjoyable. Her employers have a real asset on their hands.
Like its stable mate, The Baiting House, The Stockton Cross scores a comfortable nine out of ten.
The food is very, very good, without being exceptional; the service is high class and the prices more than fair.
Pubs are up against it as people stay at home and as they continue to endure the worst effects of Covid-19.
The Stockton Cross, however, offers high value, a secure eating environment and the warmest of welcomes – making a visit entirely worthwhile.
Coated Cornish whitebait, paprika aioli, £6.50
Baked camembert, mixed nuts, toasted ciabatta, £8.00
Potted salmon, pickled cucumber, toasted sourdough, £6.50
8oz Herefordshire fillet steak, chunky chips, garlic and herb butter, £24.50
Pan seared bream, crushed potatoes, seared scallop, langoustine bisque, £19.50
Slow cooked brisket of beef, truffled mash, bourguignon sauce, £15.50
Baked maple syrup cheesecake, roasted fig and sour cream sorbet, £7.50
70 per cent dark Belgium chocolate brownie, Baileys ice cream, £6.50
The Stockton Cross
Kimbolton, between Ludlow and Leominster, HR6 0HD