Food review: Darwin’s Kitchen, Shrewsbury
With so many good restaurants in the region, Andy Richardson pays a visit to one that’s undergone a rebrand that’s worthy of high praise. . .
There have been many notable restaurant openings in Shropshire during the past five or six years. Arguably the best was Shrewsbury’s House of the Rising Sun.
A formidable menu, talented chef, capable owner and exceptional staff earned a 10/10 review when they created a sumptuous club-style restaurant offering world-fusion food on tapas-style plates.
Chris Burt’s Momo No Ki was a game-changing restaurant that brought middle-class, middle-aged, predominantly-white Shropshire kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Offering Ramen noodles – and becoming one of the first restaurants to do so outside London, Birmingham and Manchester – it shook up the local dining scene and paved the way for other pan-Asian restaurants in the region.
SmokeStop BBQ was at the forefront of a wave of American-style burger joints that offered super ribs, wings, burnt ends and more – and there’s been a huge influx since its successful opening.
While more recently, Dough & Oil showed us how it should be done when it comes to great pizza. Offering beautiful sourdough bases and interesting toppings, it was jazzy, funky and cool – the equivalent of a Lenny Kravitz party in your own bedroom, but tastier.
Csons in Shrewsbury, Mortimers in Ludlow and Docket 33 in Whitchurch have been others that have given diners something to think about – and it’s no surprise that all of the above continue to thrive in a competitive trading environment while others have long since gone to the wall.
Darwin’s Kitchen, in Shrewsbury, isn’t a new restaurant, as such. It’s essentially a rebrand for the former Porterhouse Restaurant, in St Mary’s Street, which, in turn, was a rebrand for something else that I’ve long since forgotten.
It does, however, deserve to be mentioned in the same breathless tones as the aforementioned restaurants. The concept is spot on, the execution is exceptional, the staff are first rate and the food is utterly, utterly delicious.
There’s a golden thread linking Darwin’s to one of the successful new restaurants. Chef Adrian Badland was at the pass when the House of the Rising Sun was launched and he’s the brains behind the revamp at Darwin’s Kitchen. Brought in by the venues owners to re-imagine the menu and oversee the kitchen, he’s hit the ball straight out of the park.
Adrian’s fingerprints are all over the new menu and, in some ways, there are echoes of what went before at House of the Rising Sun. He’s the culinary equivalent of Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher, who, having had success with Blur and Oasis respectively, has gone on to create a gastronomic Gorillaz or High Flying Birds to satisfy his creative needs.
Darwin’s shouldn’t be confused for House of the Rising Sun, the flavours are very different with more European influence than the pan-Pacific Rim flavours of its competitor. But the concept is very similar, with small, tapas-style plates that suit grazers and social eating, complementary by a robust set of conventional mains for those who like a decent steak, duck breast or roast loin or cod.
I called for a midweek supper and there was if already a number of guests eating at the unmercifully early hour of 6pm, which is always a good sign.
I ordered four small plates, which was at least one too many, so as to graze my way around the world. They were delivered as and when, rather than all together, so that I could eat a little, pause a little, recover and go again. Which is the only way to eat.
The first dish out of the kitchen was salt and pepper squid with crispy gnocchi and wild garlic and lemon aioli. It was exquisite.The squid as absurdly soft and tender, giving it a delicate texture that only comes from good cooking and using fresh ingredients. Beautifully seasoned with freshly ground pepper, it was charmingly light – like a ballerina dancing on my tastebuds. The aioli added body and depth while the gnocchi gave ballast and wild garlic a touch of earthiness. It was wonderfully palatable.
The next dish was cooler than a Frank Sinatra trilby. Three Shropshire lamb and lentil samosas were served with a coriander and chilli dipping sauce, offering an Asia-meets-The-Shire twist.
The samosas were golden and the pastry was still bubbling, indicating that they’d just come out of the fryer. Wonderfully unhealthy and ever-so-slightly dirty, they were crisp on the outside and released puffs of steam when cut into. The dipping sauce tempered the heat of the dish, while offering a chilli kick of its own. Three of them were served and, on another day, they’d have made a dinner on their own. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve eaten in the past year – not quite as good as The Ivy’s Cottage Pie (and if you’ve not yet eaten that, then get on a train now to Birmingham and order yourself one), but pretty close.
Yum flippin’ yum.
Fried ham hock with pickled peppered pineapple and smoked Cheddar, dressed with pea shoots, didn’t quite hit the mark. It was a twist on ham and cheese, or maybe ham and pineapple, or maybe ham and peas. . . I couldn’t work it out. The ingredients were all pleasant and the ham was brilliantly seasoned, but the pineapple was a little too acidulated; there’s no need to pickle a fruit that’s as naturally sharp.
A final course of slow roasted beef ragout with fresh tagliatelle and Winchester hard cheese was another scorchio plate. The cheese was as salty and strong as Parmesan, the ragout was seductively tasty while the pasta was fantastic; seasoned with herbs, smooth and silky and with a firm al dente bite. Though I just ate a small bowl – a bargain at £7 – as with the samosas, it would have made a perfect lunch on a different day.
I skipped dessert – no kidding, Bunter, after chowing down on those four courses – and went home to marvel at my new double chin. I was disappointed not to sample the lemon meringue porn star pie, but there’s always another time. And no, that’s not a spelling mistake. I guess the chef has put real oooh and aaah into that dessert.
Darwin’s offers all-day eating, from coffee and cake through to cocktails and steak, and standards are high. I realise I’ve been so excited that I’ve almost forgotten to mention service or the dining room. The dining room is ace: contemporary, light and airy, well-furnished, comfortable and with pictures of apes-becoming-men on the walls, in tribute to the town’s famous evolutionary biologist.
The service was first class. A slim, ginger waiter in a smart blue waistcoat was five out of five good. More power to his elbow – and his wonderful red hair. It needs a new domain name for its website – using the old website address, or getting browsers to navigate through different linked pages that are part of a larger group is never a good idea. But there were few other faults.
So, to the marks. Four out of five says ‘go there now’ while still leaving the venue room to tweak and refine. So four-and-a-half out of five it is.