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Food review: The Pound Inn, Leebotwood, Church Stretton

It serves marvellous meals and splendid service but its location is far from ideal. Andy Richardson heads out to the sticks to enjoy dinner. . .

If running a great restaurant were simply about great food and service, then Neil and Sarah McCann would be full from dawn until dusk.

The likeable Shropshire couple offer big flavours and charming service at their 15th century country pub and restaurant, which is located in the heart of picturesque Shropshire.

And yet restaurants are always about more than a brilliant chef and a fantastic restaurant manager. They’re also about location, location, location – and there must be times when the McCann’s feel as though they’re pushing treacle up the steepest side of The Alps. For their restaurant is located in Leebotwood, one of Shropshire’s smallest parishes, with a population of around 230.

Sustaining a restaurant in an area which has so few people is unsustainable and so they rely on passing trade along the busy A49. Which is all well and good, until the road occasionally closes, or there are 60-mile diversions to avoid work, or people don’t want to drive because they fancy a drink.

So while the McCann’s are among the top dozen operators in Shropshire, they don’t have the benefits that similar venues have in neighbouring towns. There’s no population of 10,000 or 50,000 upon which to draw. Instead they have to hope that people don’t mind taking the car and skipping wine or catching a taxi so that they can enjoy a great lunch or dinner.

And that might explain why at weekends The Pound Inn is decidedly busy as people from across the county head out west to enjoy superlative food and engaged service. And yet on week nights, it’s frequently quiet as people are reluctant to push the boat out on a school night.

The McCann’s have worked wonders with the venue since taking it on a couple of years ago.

As its website says, The Pound has a fresh, contemporary feel and offers a spacious and stylish dining area while maintaining much of its traditional character. There is also a fabulous garden and outside patio area to the rear of the pub where people can enjoy the very best in al fresco drinking and dining.

Neil has his own garden, which provides the freshest produce for the kitchen. He pops out to pick herbs or harvest vegetables before service while enjoying exceptional relationships with local farmers, who grow soft fruits and summer vegetables. The quality of ingredients is second to none and Neil is a chef who maximises flavour.

He has more than 20 years’ experience, having trained in his home coastal town of Bangor, County Down, and worked in award-winning seafood restaurants before bringing his skills to Shropshire. His wife, Sarah, is a local girl, who was born and raised in Leebotwood. Both have been working together for the last 12 years, opening and running pubs and restaurants in the corporate world and for independents.

They moved back to Sarah’s home county of Shropshire to settle down, and after working locally for the last few years, they took the opportunity to take The Pound Inn over. Their passion for the best of Shropshire is evident and menus change with the seasons.

I visited for a midweek supper and the restaurant was a third full. It was easy to have sympathy for the McCanns – they were working their socks off and providing starry service and delicious food yet their location meant it was to the few, rather than the many.

I started with a satisfying wild boar pâté, with toast, apple sauce, apple matchsticks and homemade chutney. Dressed with pea shoots, it was a delightful start to the evening. The wild boar was deep, rich and thoroughly gamey. The acid of the apple and chutney cut through the main component while the toast added texture – as well as providing a vessel on which to scoop up the pâté. Well-seasoned, delightfully-presented, inventive and combining complimentary tastes and textures, it made for pleasant eating and showcased Neil’s skills.

My main was equally enjoyable. A strip of belly pork was served with the last of the season’s broad beans, a baby beetroot, heritage carrot, carrot purée, potato fondant, sliced baby turnips and a complex and appetising gravy. A small black pudding beignet completed the dish, while a side of shredded cabbage was well-seasoned and expertly cooked, retaining both flavour and crunch. The rare breed belly had been delightfully cooked, so that the fat had melted through the soft, sweet and tender meat. The skin had been crisped and the sweet and savoury vegetable accompaniments were entirely fitting. It was a superlative dish.

I saved room for dessert, opting for the rhubarb and cherry frangipane tart with a blackcurrant sorbet. It was a hit. The frangipane was remarkably light with good pastry and plenty of sweet-and-tart fruit while the sorbet added zing-zang to a fabulously enjoyable dish.

Service was good throughout the evening. Sarah made frequent visits to the table, taking orders, ferrying drinks, making sure food was enjoyable and providing light conversation and information about the dishes. Her youthful waitress offered good support.

The bill for three courses plus two drinks was an utterly reasonable £35 and it made for an enjoyable evening.

The Pound is one of Shropshire’s better venues. It compares favourably with tried and tested classics like Sebastians, at Oswestry; The Hundred House, at Norton, near Bridgnorth; and The Crown and Country Inn, in the Corvedale, near Craven Arms.

Prices are fair, ingredients are in peak condition and local where possible, service is polished and Neil has more than a touch of class in the kitchen.

It’s a wonder, therefore, that The Pound isn’t busier. For its hard-working owners tick pretty much every box when it comes to running a successful restaurant. Welcoming and professional, they provided home-from-home dining with dishes that are big on flavour and beautifully presented.

A couple of years into their homecoming, Neil and Sarah McCann remain the best of Shropshire – it’s just a pity their restaurant is situated on the side of one of Shropshire’s most notorious roads.

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