Shropshire Star

Food review: The Crown Country Inn, Nr Craven Arms, Shropshire

Serving dishes with seasonal ingredients, there’s a right royal feast to be had at one country inn. Andy Richardson dines out in style. . .

Fish in a dish – griddled sea bass on herby mashPictures by Russell Davies

If ever a restaurant deserved a collective vote of thanks, it’s The Crown Country Inn. Like Pen-y-Dyffryn, near Oswestry; The Cliffe, at Dinham; The Raven, at Much Wenlock; The Hand, at Llanarmon; and Sebastians, at Oswestry, it’s part of the furniture.

It proudly holds two AA rosettes and has done so for some years, denoting good levels of skill, an emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients and warm service.

And though it’s not in the county’s elite band of restaurants – it doesn’t match the standards of, say, Mortimers, in Ludlow; Old Downton Lodge, near Ludlow; or The Lion + Pheasant, at Shrewsbury – we can count ourselves fortunate that it’s here.

Warm welcome – The Crown Country Inn

The Crown Country Inn is owned and run by a delightful couple, Richard and Jane Arnold, who took over the venue in 2001 and have been responsible for sterling work since.

Richard, a MasterChef of Great Britain, has received numerous awards for the quality of his food while they have continually invested in their business, keeping it fresh and relevant as times change.

The venue is a delight. Set back from the Ludlow-to-Bridgnorth road, in south Shropshire, the Grade II listed building that has been lovingly converted into a cosy, comfortable bed and breakfast with restaurant. It has many original features in place, including an inglenook fire places, flagstone floors and carvings in wooden beams.

Olde worlde – inside is cosy and snug

The Crown was first licensed in 1790 and is still a central meeting point in the Shropshire countryside, providing a base from which to explore Wenlock Edge, the Clee Hills, Much Wenlock, Ludlow, Ironbridge Gorge and the Long Mynd. The Arnolds and their team are both knowledgeable and hospitable, offering overnight guests and diners a home-from-home and a friendly welcome.

Decent food has been at the heart of the venue since it opened. While the Arnolds might not have pushed onto the starry heights, they have been utterly, utterly consistent for nigh on two decades; a remarkable achievement in a precarious industry. Their venue is a much-loved favourite among locals and visitors from afar and Chef Richard’s food is the primary reason for that.

Filling and fine – the black pudding dish

Robust, generously portioned and full of flavour, his menus offer hearty, modern British classics with a minimum of fuss. There’s no particular concession to modernity, Chef Richard offers tried and tested classics for a generation that knows what it likes and likes what it knows.

My partner and I visited for a Saturday evening dinner and enjoyed decent service and pleasing food. We started with a basket of breads that were fine, though unexceptional. A white baton was served with Great Taste Award-winning, local rapeseed oil and balsamic, as well as pot of fondue tomatoes and butter. The bread was reasonable, not special, while accompanying homemade grissini were a bit of a cheat – they were thin slices of crispy bread rather than the traditional sticks.

My starter was reasonable though lost something in the execution. Black pudding croquettes were earthy and rich while the accompanying bacon was of high quality, though the chewy rind had been left on. Boston beans were but two steps removed from Baked Beans and lacked the carnival of flavour that I might have expected. It was a nice idea that utilised good quality ingredients but the end result was somehow lacking.

Look at the chook – smoked chicken main

My partner’s open ravioli of creamed leeks and smoked haddock with a carrot and ginger dressing was more impressive. The sauce was thick and intensely flavoured while the tender flakes of haddock had been cooked with precision. It was a fearless, bold dish comprising big, heavyweight ingredients that were well-matched and left a good impression.

Our mains were both pretty decent. I opted for a delightful, tender and moist home smoked chicken that was imbued with delightful flavours. Served with a roasted cauliflower purée that provided a taste of winter and wild mushrooms that were earthy and enjoyable, it was a high quality dish.

Potato skins had been crisped – they were somewhere between chips and a baked potato – and provided sufficient starch to complete a winning plate of food. My partner’s griddled sea bass fillet was also enjoyable. The fish was tender and delicate, having been cooked with considerable skill. It was served atop a herby mash and with a prawn and flame-roasted-pepper sauce. The prawns were plump and yielding, the sauce a delight. Empty plates were returned by us both.

Inside out – the open ravioli starter

Service was pretty good, though lacked finesse. A pleasant and engaging restaurant manager was friendly and warm though at times seemed a little forgetful and we were left with empty plates on the table for too long. Her staff were also helpful and polite if not a little unconfident at times.

Yet the quality that all three had which stood out most was honesty. All were genuinely engaged in their work, seeking to provide service to the best of their abilities. And while a little more experience and efficiency would elevate the experience of guests, all gave of their best and sought to make our evening pleasurable. Their efforts were graciously received and did not go unnoticed.

Fish in a dish – griddled sea bass on herby mashPictures by Russell Davies

We stayed for desserts. She ate a light and dreamy lemon curd crème brûlée that was served with a dense and creamy honeycomb ice cream and an innovative chocolate and rye cookie. The brûlée was the star with Chef Richard creating a surprisingly light and elegant dish.

My treacle tart was a little overpowering. Served in a voluminous portion with a giant scoop of clotted cream, the advertised vanilla sauce failed to materialise and the pastry was a little claggy and doughy, rather than light with a snap. It was grow-hairs-on-your-chest food that might be perfect for ramblers after a climb on the Long Mynd but lacked the delicacy or sophistication that one might expect.

Sweet on it – treacle tart with vanilla sauce

And so to the scores. The Crown Country Inn is a nailed-on four-out-of-five restaurant. Run by two experienced and respected campaigners, it offers great consistency, good value for money, a delightful environment and service that does all it can to please. With too many restaurants cutting corners and offering second best, Richard and Jane Arnold put their heart and soul into their work and deserve recommendation.