Food review: The Olive Tree, Shrewsbury
Restaurants come and go quicker than the nation’s obsession with Love Island. I mean, what was that? What was Love Island for?
And what’s happened to Amber Davies and Kem Cetinay. Hell, while we’re on it, why on earth did the House of Lords end up debating smoking on Love Island when they’d got important stuff to deal with like, you know, a crumbling NHS, euthanasia, terrorism, Brexit and whether England will make it past the first round of Russia’s World Cup. But I digress.
Restaurants come and go quickly, is what I’d intended to say. The good ones stick around. The bad ones sometimes stick around too. Sometimes life’s not fair. And sometimes you can make a living by selling rubbish food to people who don’t know any better.
The Olive Tree is one of the good ones, thankfully. It’s among the best in Shrewsbury and is worth a night out if you live elsewhere and don’t mind travelling. It’s not very, very, very good – like a select few in Shrewsbury and a similarly small number in Ludlow – but it’s rock solid and reliable, like a Ford Focus or a Renault Megane. And hell, you can’t go wrong with either of those motors, as Honest Colin The Car Dealer frequently tells us.
The Olive Tree has made a pretty good fist of things since opening a few years back and diners can generally expect decent food and warm, engaging service – though the latter is sometimes a little too slow.
Husband-and-wife team Sam and Becky Bevan settled on a pretty simple formula when they launched – easy-on-the-palate food with no fuss and no pretence. They’re not selling wild boar macarons or, metaphorically, getting dogs to balance chews on the end of their noses before flipping them up and catching them as they come down. Instead, Sam and Becky’s menu is familiar and comfortable – there’s nothing too challenging or worrisome. You can eat halloumi and prawns, meatballs and chorizo – the Spanish staples that you’ll find in downtown San Sebastian seven days a week.
The Olive Tree serves food in convivial surrounds at affordable prices and employs friendly staff. It’s a formula Sam and Becky have stuck to and it’s proved successful. The couple are now firmly established on the county’s dining scene. Their tapas, pizza and pasta menus provide people with the opportunity to dine informally while socialising with friends, colleagues and more. A takeaway pizza menu has added to their offering – and given stay-at-home-diners the opportunity to eat pretty good Italian food that isn’t too greasy or too sweet, as are the offerings of some purveyors.
The dining scene in Shrewsbury is fiercely competitive. It doesn’t have the high-end, fine-dining, Michelin wannabes of other towns: 2 AA rosette level is the upper limit. Yet just below that, there’s a glut of better-than-decent independent restaurants who are fighting it out for trade. Cuisines from around the world are represented, prices tend to be realistic and there’s more than one option for most types of food. The gourmet burger market is hopelessly saturated, while the town also has more than its fair share of Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants. Though the Olive Tree is competing in the same broad group as those – decent food at reasonable prices – it’s doing something a little different. And the we-could-be-in-Spain décor – lots of pottery and sunshine colours – make it stand out.
The food’s decent, rather than spellbinding. A social dining menu offers three small tapas plates for £10 at certain times of the day, with the usual mix of salads and charcuterie, cheeses and vegetables. There’s a wide selection of meat tapas, from Moroccan lamb to Hairssa spiced chicken wings and from pork belly bites with smoked sweet chilli to pan-fried steak strips with peppers, onions, bacon and red wine. Veggie tapas provide a good choice from butternut squash tagine and sweetcorn and chickpea fritters to patatas bravas or chicory, blue cheese and walnuts with a pear dressing. I’ve eaten the tapas a few times and they’ve always been perfectly palatable. The heavens don’t open, the angels don’t sing and Albondigas el Diablo don’t stay in the memory until the end of forever – but there’s nothing to offend. It’s not going to go up against Bristol’s Michelin-starred Paco Tapas, nor, for that matter, Birmingham’s delightful El Borracho de Oro, but it’s pleasant all the same.
On this occasion, I started with a plate of Manchego cheese and Serano ham, with a few lettuce leaves and half a dozen cubes of tomato. It was a thrown-together dish, that might have been more expertly dressed and prepared, but that offered big, ballsy flavours. The ham was decent, the cheese delightful. It was a pleasant way to start.
My main was a diavola pizza, comprising spicy tomato sauce and double pepperoni. The crust rippled like a relief map of somewhere craggy. It was proper, handmade, knocked-back, spun-in-the-air dough that was deliciously light and crisp. Good work, Mr Pastry Chef. The cheese was generously applied, the sauce lacked the advertised punch and the pepperoni had been baked until it was as crisp as a packet of Walkers. The plentiful supply of cheese and pepperoni made it ever-so-slightly greasy, but who’s complaining when there’s a super-stacked pizza to tackle. It was a good effort.
Service was pretty good. The staff were pretty busy, which accounted for them being a little slow, though less time chatting at the bar and more time waiting tables would have been welcome. They were friendly enough – they just needed a little more focus.
And so to the scores on the doors. Sam and Becky have created a business that employs plenty of local staff and that provides an hospitable and reasonably-priced place for informal eating. They’ve gone from strength to strength since opening and are worth supporting. Don’t expect to be knocked off your feet by never-tasted-before flavours – but do expect consistency, reliability and a smile from the pleasant staff.