Food review: The Loopy Shrew, Shrewsbury
There’s something for everyone at a family-run gastro-pub in town but would it measure up to its competition? Andy Richardson finds out. . .
Let’s start with the positives. The Loopy Shrew, in Shrewsbury, is a family-run business that provides independent dining throughout the day.
From breakfast meetings to coffee and cake, from after-work drinks to a roast rack of local pork, it aims to be all things to all people with its gastro-pub-plus offering.
It’s been elegantly styled with easy-on-the-eye fabrics, a nice combination of chess-board black-and-white tiles and plenty of stripped wood and neutral tones. There are comfortable seats, tall stools and a light, airy space in which to chat, drink and eat.
The front of house staff are pretty good, too. When I popped in for a midweek supper, a young, slim waiter was particularly good; offering engaging and efficient service at my table and others. While his colleague didn’t have the same level of skill or experience, she worked hard, was committed to the cause and gave her level best.
The kitchen has an impressive sourcing policy, favouring the best of local producers. So chickens come from a free-range supplier at Whitchurch, Shrewsbury’s Old Market Hall provides a wide range of fresh and organic produce and other producers include such respected companies as Hallowdene Eggs, Wenlock Edge Farm and such breweries as Joules and Salopian.
So far so funky.
In fact, all The Loopy Shrew has to do to secure an impressive review is meet the brief when it comes to the menu. With a good dining environment in place and pretty good service, the chefs simply have to deliver for the restaurant to be among the town’s best.
I’ve visited twice in recent weeks and while on the first visit the food was so-so, on the second it was impressive. I’m inclined to think the first visit was just a glitch – a Karius banging his head in the Champions League Final but playing on – on the second occasion, dinner was a blast. That, I’ve no doubt, represented a truer summation of where the venue is at.
For quite apart from the above, it also has an exceptional owner in Danielle DiTella, who has extensive experience in hospitality, in addition to the best consultant chef in Shrewsbury, Adrian Badland, whose food has helped to launch and make a success of other restaurants and whose skills – both as a cook and also as a manager – make him one of the county’s true standouts. DiTella has got the best in the business working for her; the Ronaldo of local cuisine who has cooked exquisite food for many, many years.
On my first visit, there were basic mistakes: all things that are easily rectified when the chefs are paying attention, taking a pride in their work, respecting the boss and putting in a decent shift. On the second, the food sang. Front of house was equally exceptional on both occasions – on the second visit, a peroxide blonde waiter was 10-10 exceptional. Engaged, attentive, efficient and utterly charming, he was the perfect ambassador for DiTella and co.
So let’s stick with the positives and feast on three courses that were thoroughly enjoyable during the second visit. They were big on flavour, made good use of seasonal produce and showed considerable skill on behalf of the chef. There were but minor errors – so we’ll settle on a score of 8-10 and offer a deserving recommendation based on great service, good cooking, pleasant flavours and a very relaxed dining room.
I started with one of the chef’s specials; a crispy beef salad with honey and sesame dressing. It was a delight. The beef was tender and slightly pink, though had been well-rested. An outer batter was light and had been doused in an Asian marinade which was simultaneously sweet and savoury. An accompanying Asian salad was a delight, all exotic leaves and shredded vegetables with thin slices of red chilli. It had just the right warmth, like a hot water on an autumn day. First course down: back of the net.
The main was similarly accomplished. I ate from the regular menu, choosing a delightful belly pork dish. Sticky Bundaberg belly pork was served with potato dauphinoise, braised spring cabbage, a ham hock chou farci and orange glazed carrot. There were dots of pea purée, which were cold, unnecessary and slightly odd. And though the chef had made the effort with the crackling, removing it from the belly so as to make crisp before replacing it atop the meat, it hadn’t quite worked. No matter; the rest was utterly delicious.
The pork had been cooked long and slow, so that the connecting fat between each layer of meat had almost completely melted, rendering through the sticky meat and imparting bags of flavour.
The chou farci – a ball of ham hock wrapped in a cabbage leaf – was brilliant seasoned with fresh herbs and offered a double dose of Wow. The dauphinoise was exceptional: garlicky, creamy and a little al dente so that there was ‘bite’ rather than ‘mush’. The greens were lightly done and a jus was delightfully savoury and rich. Well. Done. Chef. And let’s forget about the pea purée.
And so to dessert. I ordered another special: a warm apricot frangipane tart. It had sold out. The apologetic waiter told me that another table had just ordered the last two slices. A venue knows it’s onto something good when its menus sell out and so I settled for the next dish on my list: a vanilla panna cotta with pickled berries and fresh mint. It was 9-10 good.
Curiously, the vanilla had been whisked into a sweet syrup and poured over the top – the sugar pretty much nullifying its flavour.
It would have been better simply to incorporate the small black beans into the cooked cream. The panna cotta itself was marvellous: it wobbled like a plus size model’s bum, it was light and dreamy and the sweet-sharp pickled fruits with a garden of edible flowers made it look and taste heavenly. It was summer on a plate. Shortbreads were light and crisp. It was a good job all round.
The fat lady was singing – and so was the fat restaurant writer – and it was time to leave. The Loopy Shrew is in a competitive trading environment. Shrewsbury has plenty of mid-range independent restaurants offering well-sourced food, classic, easy-on-the-palate dishes as well as those offering more complex dishes of a higher quality.
Those restaurants that don’t raise their game find themselves struggling for custom on quiet midweek nights when they might instead be welcoming far more guests.
The second sitting showed that the restaurant is doing precisely that. One imagines managers are having the right word in the right ear, that consultant chefs are imparting their wisdom, that young and inexperienced staff are learning the benefits of learning from those who’ve been there, seen it and done it and that there’s a sense of #Team among the different elements; pushing together for the greater good.
Shrewsbury needs restaurants like The Loopy Shrew to provide variety and choice for local diners. The dining room and front of house were pretty much spot on – and the kitchen’s ambition, drive and precision were welcome during our second visit.