Food review: Housmans, Church Stretton
If you’re on a quest to find the perfect chip then there’s a place that serves them and it’s not far away. Andy Richardson shares his find . . .
Let’s talk about chips. Let’s talk about big fluffy pillows of soft, floury potato encased in a crunchy crust so crisp that it shatters like a housebrick against glass.
Let’s talk about deep, golden colours reminiscent of a 9pm sunset on a hazy summer’s day. Let’s talk about crunchy edges that are jagged like a smashed bottle and rough like a newly-mined diamond.
Let us, my friends, talk about the perfect chip.
As a 12-year-old, I encountered what was then a mind-blowing fry. A chip shop at Birdcage Walk, in Dudley, served a newspaper-wrapped packet of golden deliciousness that left me in awe. I can still taste the steaming vinegar rising from the bag now; I can still detect the crunch, like car wheels on gravel. Because that’s what good food – really good food – does. It leaves a lasting memory. It doesn’t need to be fancy Dan, chuck-your-wallet-at-the-sommelier, Michelin-starred-expensive to be good. The best things are frequently the least expected.
Like a sniffer dog tracing down wildlife scat – ooh, perish the thought, I feel sorry for that dog – I can hunt down a decent chip within a 300-mile radius. Stephen Terry, at The Hardwick, in Abergavenny, does some of the best chips in the UK. He steams them first, to rough up the edges, then tripe-cooks them so that they’re golden like a sunrise and crisper than a prawn cracker that’s just left the fryer. Bryan Webb, at Tyddyn Llan, in North Wales, does twice-cooked skinny fries, which are just as delicious. Eat a side of those and you’ll never visit McNasty’s again. Rick Stein, down in Padstow, cooks his in beef dripping. No salt and vinegar is necessary as the deep, decadent flavours of beef comingle with the yielding potato. And Harbour Lights, in Falmouth, is a worthy entrant in the UK’s 2017 list of Britain’s Top Fish and Chip Shops – though, for my money, the portions are a bit stingy.
But I digress.
On the Shropshire border, Charles Bradley, at The Baiting House, near Tenbury Wells, does triple cooked chips that are to die for. And now, finally, in Shropshire, we present for your delectation a restaurant that is a match for all of those. It is Housmans, in Church Stretton, which serves – by far – the best chips in Shropshire. If I were a Sinead O’Connor song, I would take to the microphone, stand before Housmans’ finest and sing ‘Nothing Compares To You’. If I were the late and brilliant poet AE Housman, after whom the restaurant is named, I would pen an ode eulogising the miraculousness of Housman’s triple cooked, hand cut chips. If I were tiny Tina Turner in a skimpy leather mini skirt – and that might be fun, but only for an hour – I would serenade the restaurant’s crunchy, crispy, chunky chips with an impassioned version of Simply The Best. And if I were God – you know, the fella in the skies who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient (‘That’s enough words beginning with ‘Omni’, Richardson, get back to the food’ – Vernacular Editor) – I would create a day of rest so that millions around the world could flock to Housmans to experience the utter delight that is the its home-cooked fry.
Right. That’s 500 words wasted on telling you how good the chips are. Let’s get back to the start.
Housmans has been open since 2009 and serves modern European food to Church Stretton’s visitors and residents. Offering plenty of tapas and grazing options, it’s an informal kinda joint that doubles as a bar for the town’s dying breed of drinkers. There are exceptional ales, 20 gins and a selection of cocktails for them – while regular live music adds a little joie de vivre to proceedings.
It’s the sort of place that every town should have: a casual, come-as-your-are establishment that provides hospitable service and food that’s easy-on-the-palate.
I’ve visited a few times – usually to eat the tapas menu – and it’s always been decent, rather than stand-out, in terms of quality. It’s unlikely to win an AA rosette or compete with the county’s best gastro pubs, but then it’s not that sort of place. When I visited recently for an unbooked midweek supper, the range of clients was delicious. School kids sat with grandparents, overweight drinkers downed pints, young guns talking about music enjoyed real ale, well-to-do-retirees enjoyed supper – it was a pleasing mix from all walks of life and the atmosphere was a treat.
I eschewed the tapas menu this time – we’ve been there, done that and written the review a couple of years ago – instead opting for a pizza and side. The triple cooked chips – you might remember, we mentioned those earlier in passing – were spellbinding. They are worth the journey from Whitchurch, Oswestry, Bridgnorth, Clee Hill and Bishop’s Castle alone. Go NOW. Stop what you’re doing. Put the paper/tablet/PC down, book an UBER – do we have those in Shropshire? – and get yourself to Shropshire’s Little Switzerland for a £3 stack of fries.
The pizza, however, wasn’t.
The toppings weren’t at fault – cured meats are much of a muchness once they’ve been in the oven and the ones that stacked up my cured meat pizza (lomo, parma ham, chorizo and salchichon) were perfectly fine. But the base had a whiff of ‘catering supplies’ about it. It was too round, too cardboard-ey, too tastes-like-it-was-made-in-a-factory-by-a-machine-that-punched-faux-fork-wholes-onto-the-edges plain. The tomato sauce lacked anything of note – again, it didn’t taste as though the chef had put any love into it. I might be wrong, but it too had that probably-from-a-jar taste. So though the toppings were fine and the cheese bubbly and golden, it was utterly underwhelming. There are better bases from ‘Finest/Taste The Difference/Boom Shakka Lakka’ ranges at most decent supermarkets. And I can knock up a better one myself at home, when the mood takes me. If you’re charging £12.95 for cooked dough, tomato sauce, cheese and a little meat, it needs to be good. And Housmans’ wasn’t.
And yet Housmans is still a place that diners should keep in reserve. Happy-go-lucky and unintimidating; offering a selection of comely tapas and salad options, there’s much to enjoy. The service was good: a youthful, dark-haired waiter was a little nervous but entirely committed to the task. He was learning from a more experienced restaurant manager and doing a decent job.
The chips were 11/10, the pizza 3/10 – too expensive, an awful base and indifferent sauce – and the service and ambience an impressive 7/10. That’s 23/30, which gives it a creditable 7/10. Oh, and did I mention how good the chips were?