Shropshire Star

Food review: Opening up to lunch heaven

After months of boxed delivered food, Andy Richardson enjoys an al fresco lunch where the level of service matches top-notch dishes.

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Little Hereford cheese souffle with red peppers

It’s the beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. Or the start of something new.

The status quo is changing. After a year of on-off lockdown/social distancing, we are gradually emerging from the strangest, most dislocating time.

Restaurants are offering al fresco dining, and while dining in April under blue, cloudless skies looks pretty, a short, sharp gust of wind provides a timely reminder that we are in the early throes of spring – a time when we’d like to be dining in centrally-heated restaurants rather than bracing the elements.

Yet there’s something undeniably exciting about the gradual re-opening of restaurants. The easterlies may blow, the swallows may be put off and the temperatures may sag, but there’s the sound of gentle chatter on terraces across the region, not to mention injudicious people-watching over pie and chips.

Not all restaurants are able to get down with the first wave of service.

Those without outdoor spaces are holding fire until May 17, at which point a flood of eating out will commence.

For now, local knowledge is all as people pick out the hardiest venues that are serving decent food while hoping it doesn’t rain. Take a rug (for your legs); it may still be cold.

A short drive from Tenbury Wells, The Baiting House has established itself as one of this supplement’s favourite restaurants.

With kitchens run by a chef who used to cook at the one Michelin star Mr Underhill’s, in Ludlow, high standards are guaranteed.

The expensively refurbished pub/restaurant has bags of character and is located in undulating countryside, amid verdant fields.

Service is ever-reliable, as a young but highly skilled team provide confident, self-assured work.

The Baiting House is offering a patio menu, providing al fresco dining with heaters, shelter, blankets and a complimentary portion of bonhomie.

My partner and I booked in for a Saturday afternoon lunch – and found a terrace that was pretty much full as people threw off the shackles of lockdown and got giddy on the simply delight of actually going out.

At some point last year, we found ourselves reviewing the lockdown standards of a number of local restaurants – whether or not they were observing the regulations became as important as the food they served and the service they provided.

Now, it’s time for the weather. And while the sun shone and there was not a cloud in the sky, the wind whipped so hard that on three occasions our pub table umbrella did a Mary Poppins, unhooking itself from its moorings and making a break for it.

Fast hands pulled the errant brolly back to earth just in the nick of time.

The Baiting House does the basics well. There were QR codes for track and trace, a huge tub of sanitising gel and a list with names and numbers, for those not equipped with smart phones.

Table service was provided for drinkers and diners alike, with staff working hard and wearing masks during the fag end of this social distancing epoch.

The menu was pared back to what guests might expect when eating inside. So complex mains were replaced by a pizza and a platter of fish and chips, the number of desserts was pared back to three.

Though it’s exciting for staff and customers alike to begin the return, it will be a while yet before kitchens are fully staffed and chefs can display their full range of talents.

We started with a side of bread and Marmite butter, which was heavenly.

As we kept warm in winter coats, the umami-rich butter was the perfect foil for malty, perfectly aerated bread that had been freshly baked that morning.

My partner started with a smoked haddock arancini with a little curry sauce. Perfectly cooked with a magnificent crunch, the gentle heat of the curry expertly complimented the smoky, tender fish.

Well balanced, beautifully presented and seasoned with considerable skill, it was a great starting point.

My twice baked cheese souffle with red peppers was similarly impressive. An unctuous cheese sauce was thrillingly light while the red peppers cut through that element.

The souffle was light like a feather; perfectly risen and caramelised by the high temperatures of the oven. It was a hug in a bowl, a dish to remind ourselves of the things that we’ve missed.

Mains were simple. My partner ate fish and chips – hake, we thought – that was tender and soft in a deeply golden batter that both of us admired. Served with a scorched lemon, mushy peas, an expert tartare sauce, mayonnaise and French fries, it made for delicious eating.

When lockdown ends, no doubt The Baiting House will revert to its triple cooked chips – probably the finest in the region.

My main was fabulous. A venison chilli was served with thinly grated cheddar and popped rice, for crispness and crunch.

A side order of cooling sour cream balanced the warming, chilli-infused heat.

The dish was filling, packed with big, ballsy flavours and reminded us of what makes us all love eating out.

The food, of course, was just part of our pleasant lunch.

Service was outstanding. The waitress was attentive, organised and efficient. She engaged in conversation, refilled empty glasses and did her best to make sure we enjoyed our afternoon – successfully, I might add, for we did.

The simple joys of eating out with others was the biggest difference after a topsy turvy year.

For once, there was no washing up, no heating at home, no plating up in the kitchen.

There was a sense of joy among other diners who were spotting friends across a crowded terrace for the first time in months.

Takeaways and box dinners have been fun, but there’s nothing like the real thing. And while the elements might challenge in the coming weeks, we are on a course for an eagerly-anticipated return.

Across the region, restaurants are selling seats quickly – help them out and book yours today.

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