Food review: Mytton and Mermaid, Shrewsbury
Try a tasting menu with some truly fine food in an intimate and bespoke dining area. Sharon Walters headed to The Drawing Room. . .
When the Shropshire chef Chris Burt left his previous place of employment following a 20-year stint, he went out with a bang.
The former Executive Chef of The Peach Tree, Momo No Ki and Havanna Republic, in Shrewsbury, secured a superlative review from one of the UK’s most feared critics, Jay Rayner, in the months before his departure.
Jay purred about Chris’s food, eulogising to a nation the sublime qualities of his off the cuff creations.
Chris wasn’t done. Ever the maverick, the cook had dutifully avoided guide books throughout his two decades – focusing on flavour rather than playing by the rules, chasing stars or doing the sort of things that earn top marks from inspectors. Without compromising his approach, however, he earned The Peach Tree an AA Rosette, putting the restaurant among the county’s high achievers. As an exercise in going out on top, Chris’s departure was similar to that of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. He left with his head held high and his accomplishments firmly in place.
A number of suitors sought him out and headhunters asked him to run an expanding restaurant chain with outlets in Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh – not forgetting plans for a major expansion in London. He was to be the overseer, the commander-in-chief tasked with taking the group onto bigger and better things. As plum jobs go, it doesn’t get much better.
And yet his heart belongs to Shropshire – or, more accurately, his wife and son – and Chris didn’t fancy missing out on time with them so that he could catch the 5.45am train. So, instead, he agreed to run the kitchens at one of the county’s most elevated restaurants, at the Mytton and Mermaid Hotel, just outside Shrewsbury.
That meant he could retain the relationships he’d built with suppliers over a 20-year period while also continuing to be a devoted family man. Nice work, if you can get it.
Not that Chris was walking into an easy job. In the months before he took over at the kitchens, we visited the Mytton and Mermaid with the intention of reviewing. The food and service, however, were of such a poor standard that we elected not to do so. Chris was their Red Adair, tasked to troubleshoot and improve in double-quick time.
In order to succeed, he needed a trusted lieutenant and his former Peach Tree restaurant manager, Kirstie Lewis, was duly appointed to run front of house. The duo are a formidable double act and their experience and skills were put to work.
A few months on and they are exceeded the brief by delivering dreamy food to a discerning crowd. Service sparkles, the food is sensational. Though Chris ticks all of the right boxes for his pan-generational crowd of guests – the Mytton and Mermaid’s guests range from five to 90 and dishes range from a gourmet fish finger sandwich with Hastings lemon ketchup to dry-aged Shropshire Angus sirloin and Miso-butter crusted salmon – he needed to extend himself.
And so he and Kirstie opened a bespoke dining area, The Drawing Room, offering tasting menus. Like the county’s best chefs at Old Downton Lodge and Mortimers, both in Ludlow, he wanted to both showcase his skills while also creating a forum to celebrate the county’s best growers and producers.
The Drawing Room was opened with eight-course tasting menus costing £60 and proved an instant hit. Sell-out dinners in convivial surrounds outstripped supply and Chris will clearly have to arrange more gourmet evenings for Shrewsbury’s more discerning guests.
Drawing Room dinners can be arranged on an individual basis too and my friend and I booked ourselves in for a breathtaking night of autumnal flavours. There were five sensational courses of the standard that you’d normally expect from Brad Carter’s, Michelin-starred eponymous restaurant, Carter’s, of Moseley, while others were not far off. Kirstie’s silky smooth service – polite and engaging, attentive and knowledgeable, charming and informal – added to a delightfully delicious evening.
We began with a stunner: Woodruff bubbles. For her, a glass of woodruff-infused fizz and for non-drinking me, an aperitif of fragrant, aromatic sparkles – like sparkling elderflower but better. Not without reason is woodruff known as master of the woods, or, wild baby’s breath, and the chef deserved full credit for innovation. It’s not easy to find new flavours and he impressed in doing so.
An amuse bouche comprising baked crab, sardo and almond – presented rather like a tuile – made for an intoxicating start while our first proper course was among many stand-outs. Sourdough bread was served with an earthy and robust cep butter infused with a hint of Marmite. The umami flavours pounded like a bass drum. Big, bold and fearless, they punched above their weight and screamed of nature’s finest season – autumn.
Chris’s home-cured Middle Farm charcuterie followed. Rich, gelatinous and salty-sweet; it was a delight. When ingredients are as good as that, the best option is always to let them shine.
Hare Here was majestic. A locally-shot hare was served as loin and faggot, with cavolo nero, a smoky barbecued parsnip and hare ketchup. It was the sort of pared-back, elegantly-styled course that Michelin restaurants earn plaudits for. The loin was exemplary, cooked with remarkable precision and skill, while the faggot was a flavourbomb that respected one of autumn’s most beloved flavours. In a word: brilliant.
A similarly beautiful course followed. A translucent, perfectly-cooked scallop was served with crumbled, salty chicken skin and flavours of Asia, most notably kombucha. Chris’s cooking was precision-perfect. Like some Swiss engineer, he cooked the mollusc with unerring accuracy and served it with accompaniments that elevated it to a higher level.
Aged deer with pigeon, roots and pickled elderberries was a celebration of seasonal ingredients – who doesn’t love great game served with heritage carrots and creamy celeriac? Win-win.
And so to desserts. Chris’s pastry has reached new levels. Focused, disciplined and with an eye on the prize, he’s allied inventiveness and wow factor to surefire technical ability. A miniature pear meringue tart with the lightest, gossamer Italian meringue was served with a fruity and intense 72 per cent Peruvian chocolate. Heaven. In. A. Bowl.
A cheese course featuring gingerbread, crackers and a port reduction was the prettiest thing this side of a Picasso. And the final course, a fusion of hops and chocolate paired the sublime, aromatic flavours of single origin Columbian chocolate with local hops. Bravo. Chris has added new skills and evolved at a rapid pace during the past two years. He cooks with greater precision and keeps things simpler while continuing to shoot at the stars. He is without doubt the county’s most exciting and inventive chef – and, at times, he cooks better than anyone else.
Cooks like Chris don’t come around too often and his Drawing Room at Mytton and Mermaid is a remarkable addition to the county’s dining scene. He hasn’t just transformed the Mytton and Mermaid’s fortunes – he’s saved its home-cured, treacle-infused bacon. The food critic Jay Rayner isn’t always right, but, on this occasion, we couldn’t agree with him more. Chris is a stand-out chef who has put the Mytton and Mermaid back on the map.