Shropshire Star

Food review: I visited the Ugly Duckling in Telford and found a great menu and friendly service

We all know what became of the ugly duckling. The breasts were roasted, the legs were used for confit, and the excess fat made the absolute best roast potatoes. No, hang on. That’s the revisionist version.

The rare fillet steak

In the original, the ugly duckling became a swan. Except, of course, it couldn’t have done. Because baby swans are called cygnets, or flappers, and ducklings only ever turn into ducks.

But I digress. The Ugly Duckling is not merely the name of a song made popular by Walt Disney and Danny Kaye, it’s also the name of a perfectly formed pub-restaurant in Telford.

Trend and tradition meet at The Ugly Duckling

Located in Long Lane, it’s been delightfully designed and offers cocktails and botanicals, brunch and dinner, Sunday lunch and everything in between. There’s an outdoor dining space and plenty of room to relax.

Retaining the features of the original 19th Century gem, the owners have transformed the former coal yard public house into a contemporary gastro destination with a unique style. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of foodie options from the classics to sharing boards and small plates – with an excellent array of drinks to complement those choices.

There’s the opportunity to stay, too, for a relaxing drink after finishing your meal. A refurbished lounge provides a space where guests can relax in comfort with friends – enjoying a drink of choice and sampling cocktails hand-mixed by expert bar staff.

Friday and Saturday nights feature a late-night lounge experience with music and drinks available until 1am. There’s also an exciting new brunch menu served from 10am to 3pm from Tuesday to Saturday, offering waffles and pancakes, full English breakfasts, and so many ways with eggs.

Oh yes, and then there’s Afternoon Teas with fine sandwiches and cakes, not forgetting the extra fizz if required.

Sunny days mean enjoying the Duck experience al fresco, complete with an outside bar. In short, The Ugly Duckling is all things to all people. And the venue does, in fact, do a pretty good job of things. No ‘Jack of all trades but master of none’, The Ugly Duckling provides high standards, good service, an exceptional dining room, and food that punches above its weight.

The menu suits all-comers

Let’s not forget the context. Hospitality has had the worst time of it over recent years. Covid closed businesses and forced most to take on debt – well, rather that than close the doors permanently.

When we imagined restaurants would enjoy boom times, they instead found themselves on the sharp end of an exponential rise in energy bills. Electricity and gas costs soared as Putin’s Russia rampaged through neighbouring Ukraine.

That helped to precipitate a cost of living crisis, which meant we’d all got less money to spend on an Ugly Duckling bacon cheeseburger.

And just when we thought we might finally be through the worst of things, the after-shocks of Brexit left us all just a little bit poorer and made life all the more difficult for hospitality businesses.

Overseas workers were forced to abandon their posts, ingredients went up in price, and all the stuff we don’t normally see when we’re visiting restaurants – like insurance, and other overheads – soared to record highs.

It’s a wonder so many businesses have survived, against that backdrop.

The best, however, continue to forge ahead and The Ugly Duckling might reasonably be considered a part of that category.

First, there’s the space. It’s simultaneously a desirable space in which to eat, with furnishings sympathetic to its history, while also making sure plenty of people are packed in at busy times, to generate an atmosphere with more buzz than a hive of heather honey bees.

The menu ticks all bases, offering a range of classics and items from the grill, as well as introducing newcomers to more interesting ingredients.

House baked bread with salted butter

So, for instance, rather than a boring old calamari with mayo and a wedge of lemon, it offers shichimi calamari with yuzu mayo and gem lettuce.

Rather than offering BBQ ribs, it offers coffee and chipotle lamb ribs, with chermoula, blackberry BBQ sauce, and a salted peanut crumb.

Everything that can be done to elevate standards is done. The kitchen team is competent, the menu is the right side of interesting, and there are moments of exceptionalism that really cut through. That’s not to say everything runs like clockwork and when I called in there was a slight error that made the experience a bit odd.

Having ordered a starter and a main, both were delivered at the same time, with no explanation as to why. And so while one plate of food steadily went cool, the other was eaten and the lasting memory wasn’t the inventiveness of the chef, as it should have been, it was the fact that there had been a breakdown in communication between front of house and the kitchen.

Still, the food was good – even if it was served in the wrong order. House baked bread came with whipped salted butter, and olive oil, and made for a pleasant start.

The duck, which replaced the unavailable mackerel, was well executed by the chef

I’d intended to try to clever-sounding jerk mackerel, only to be told that was no longer available, and so switched to a crispy fried orange and maple duck to start.

A rare fillet steak was due to follow, but was brought to the table at the same time. Who knows why.

And so while the textures and flavours of the duck were enjoyed – a dish, I should add, that had been well executed by the chef – the steak rested just a little too much, while the confit field mushroom, roast tomato, and crispy onions all lost a little lustre.

There was a side of star anise carrots, instead of chips, and it made for good eating.

Carrots replaced chips for the steak

So, for me, the story of the Ugly Duckling was a great venue, great menu, great food, just maybe need to iron out that slight breakdown in communication.

However, all the ingredients are there for this Ugly Duckling to really fly.