Food review: Sublime steak earns its crown
As pubs and restaurants try to find their way out of the pandemic lull, Andy Richardson visits an inn with a limited but appealing menu.
It’s been a welcome sight for travellers for centuries. The Hopton Crown, at Hopton Wafers, near Cleobury Mortimer, is a centuries-old inn that’s been given a 21st century makeover.
It sits in picturesque, undulating countryside, just past Cleobury Mortimer on the main route to Ludlow.
Offering rustic chic with a touch of luxury, it’s the brainchild of a local, married couple, Andrew and Kate Lane, who brought the venue back from disrepair and insolvency around 2014.
Having undergone a complete refurbishment, The Hopton Crown is now a venue that combines good quality dining with a decent bar – the best of both worlds, if you like.
The Crown, however, is just one part of the story. It’s part of a group of four dining pubs, called The Baiting House Group. Comprising The Baiting House, near Tenbury Wells; The Stockton Cross, near Leominster; and The Admiral Rodney, near Worcester. Standards are high across the board.
Of the three that I’ve visited – sorry, Admiral Rodney, though you’re on the list – The Baiting House is arguably the best.
With an exceptional chef and great front of house staff, it’s everything a modern, dining pub should be. Offering great food, polished service and a relaxing environment, it habitually scores 10/10 from us.
The Hopton Crown is finding its way back following the pandemic and when I called in earlier this week a reduced menu was in operation.
That makes sense, of course; there’s huge instability in hospitality and business owners have to cut their cloth to suit.
The basics, however, were all in place and with a good front of house team and a chef who cooked with precision and applied seasoning accurately, it has the brightest of futures ahead.
The location is idyllic. South Shropshire is as beautiful a district as any, with glorious steepling hills and verdant meadows in which sheep graze and apples grow. Hopton Bank is a short climb from Cleobury Mortimer, en route to the majesty of Clee Hill.
The venue is well maintained, with beautiful, flower-stocked borders that are presently in full bloom. Alive with nature and buzzing with bees, it made a dreamy first impression.
The venue is Covid compliant and operates an easy-to-use online booking system – the phones tend to be permanently engaged or straight to voicemail, as I found over a period of weeks.
Online, things are easy. Find a time, find a date, click a mouse and look forward to eating.
The dining room is in fine fettle. Plush fabrics and ample room make it a pleasant space in which to eat. It’s popular with locals, golf players, dog walkers, people on walking holidays – the chat from neighbouring tables was highly entertaining when I enjoyed dinner. Who knew HS2 and proposed changes to planning laws could stir such passions among country-dwelling folk.
It’s probably best that Grant Shapps and Boris Johnson don’t visit this quiet corner of the world any time soon, lest they’re willing to stomach an ear-full.
The choices were limited, with starters a straight choice between whitebait or a mackerel scotch egg – neither, thank you – while there were decent choices for mains, including the obligatory fish and chips or steak and chips.
Following a meat-free Monday (and Tuesday), there was no contest: fire up the chargrill, chef, and make sure it’s rare.
It wasn’t rare, in fact, despite a clear request. The steak was medium done, so that little-to-no pink remained. I guess they like things cooked well in them there hills.
It was still delicious, of course. The Baiting House Group has a pretty decent sourcing policy and providing the ingredients are good, a minute or so extra doesn’t make too much difference.
The meat was meltingly tender and had been well rested before being brought to the table.
A fragrant and aromatic tarragon butter was re-basting the fillet, making it even more moist and indulgent. It had been well seasoned and was, simply, a delicious piece of meat.
It was served with chunky chips that were pleasingly golden with a few crisp edges.
Served with their skin on and with a fluffy inner, they were the perfect pairing.
A selection of vegetables provided a garnish, with wilted kale, an in-season stalk of asparagus, French beans, a fabulously tender and orange carrot and mange tout all making their way onto the plate in a vegetal-all-stars gathering.
The portion size was spot on, the service was good and it was a plate eaten with considerable gusto. The classics, done well, are classics for a reason.
Dessert was even better. The person on the pastry section at The Crown has considerable skill.
A lemon frangipane with tart, sweet raspberry sorbet was mouth-wateringly good. So moist that I thought it might simply dissolve at any moment, it was rich, buttery and had just the right hit of lemony citrus.
The raspberry sorbet was a perfect accompaniment, adding more sweet-sharp notes to a fabulous bowl of food.
Pubs have faced an horrendous time during the pandemic as beer sales have collapsed, social distancing has prevented eating out and the costs of opening/closing and re-opening have eaten into savings.
Now, thankfully, they are back – and back for good. That doesn’t mean the good times will immediately roll.
There are staffing shortages, price rises caused by Brexit and competition for leisure time from other industries and activities.
The region needs such operations as The Baiting House Group and it needs such pubs as The Hopton Castle. They stand and fall on the support of us, the consumer, and so those who can afford to support them ought to.
The number of venues operating in Shropshire at the same level as The Hopton Castle is relatively small. It’s doing a good job – more power to it.