Restaurateurs imagine we’re the devil. No, that’s not fair. Restaurateurs BELIEVE we’re that. We’re out to get them, to make things personal, to shoot them down in a ball of flames and watch gleefully as they fall to earth.
At least that’s what they think. The truth, of course, is something quite different. We’re avowedly pro-business. We go out of our way to find decent independent restaurants. And while they’re right that we won’t flinch from fair criticism when we find things awry – we owe it to you to be truthful and credible, dear reader – we also understand how tough things are for restaurateurs.
The market is saturated, there are numerous business failures, independents and multiples don’t play on a level playing field. . . in short, the odds are stacked against success in the restaurant trade and only the fittest survive.
So, from time to time, we adopt a policy that discretion is the better part of valour. When we find a stinker of a restaurant and realise that neither you, nor they, will be well served by a supremely negative review, we write off the cost of our dinner and forget all about it.
In the past year or two, three restaurants have fallen in that category. One went under within a month of our visit, which came as no surprise. It had served us still-frozen starters – straight from the freezer to the fryer, though not for long enough, so the outside was crisp and the inside was hard, chalky and frozen.
Another, one of the county’s more reputable venues, was in something of a meltdown and standards were at a low ebb. Again, we chose not to run a review and within a short time they’d got rid of their chef and replaced him with a man who knows his way around the kitchen and has set about making quantum improvements.
The third that we decided not to report on was The Malthouse, at Ironbridge, where a friend and I endured a sub-standard lunch. And, just like the others, it soon enough found itself under new ownership.
And so, happily, now seems a fitting time to return. For The Malthouse, at Ironbridge, is in one of the county’s more desirable venues, on the Wharfage, beside the winding River Severn.
It’s changed on countless decades over the past decade. A venue where local bands once found a haven, it’s been up and it’s been down. New owners have taken it by the scruff of the neck, given it a good shake and turned it back into something half-decent.
It’s been given a lick of paint, fitted with new tables and chairs and repositioned as a restaurant that serves beer, rather than a pub that serves food. And it works a treat. Like Jim Littler’s excellent Wild Pig, at Shrewsbury, it has a menu that’s on point, service that impresses and a decent range of beers, gins and ales for those who fancy a tipple.
My friend and I called in for a Monday evening dinner, expecting it to be empty, and found a thronging venue that was three-quarters full and filled with a Friday night atmosphere. Service was spot on. Two waiters were working a busy room and both were thoroughly engaged and utterly charming.
We changed our seat at one point – the table-neighbours, a foursome in their 50s or 60s, were as loud as teenagers at a rave and we couldn’t hear ourselves talk – and the waiters were entirely accommodating.
The menu was great, a modern selection of tapas-sized portions, small plates, mains, steaks and sides that provided the best of British alongside flavours of the world.
So, in our case, we decided to mix and match. We began with three tapas plates: baked chorizo in honey glaze, Iberico ham croquette with mustard mayo and Parmesan fries. The chorizo was delicious. The honey had reduced to a sticky, sweet-as-molasses shimmer – like glue made by aristocratic bees – and provided a perfect match to the spicy Spanish sausage. The croquettes were decent: logs of fluffy, breadcrumb-encased potato with small flecks of ham and a piquant grain mustard dipping mayonnaise to add body and flavour. The Parmesan fries were sweet potato fries – I think the waiter must have misheard our order – though we were entirely satisfied with them; it was a fortuitous mistake. Crisp, sweet and devilishly more-ish, they were nicely seasoned and soon gone.
We shared two starters and one main between us. The main was a beef shin chilli with beans and rice, salsa and guacamole.
The chilli was nicely spiced though the shin might have been cooked with a little more skill and the salsa wasn’t much to write home about. The sides were better: pulled pork tacos with green chillies, avocado, tomato salsa, shredded lettuce and cheese and three cubes of pork belly with a sticky ginger, soy and sesame dressing. The pulled pork was a little light on the main ingredient and the accompaniments were again just fine, rather than impressive. The pork belly was insanely tasty and the glaze added interest.
We ordered desserts; scoops of an outrageously creamy raspberry panna cotta ice cream and a sweet and nutty maple and walnut number. Both were better-than-average, without scoring full marks. A plate of churros were decent, an accompanying swirl of salted dulce du leche being the high point, while a ricotta cheesecake with blueberries was also pretty good, though would have been better with more cheese and less biscuit base.
Our bill, including drinks, was less than £60 and the two waiters shone throughout, being entirely engaged and authentic with us. The food was fair-to-middling. The menu was good but some of the dishes lacked seasoning and finesse.
A little more skill from the kitchen would have elevated them. But while the kitchen would have scored a good-but-could-do-better seven, the overall score was elevated by exemplary service.
The new owners of The Malthouse deserve every credit and encouragement for an impressive turn-around. They’ve dragged the venue up to date, employed a decent team of staff and are looking to go places with their elegantly-designed venue.