Food review: Lion + Pheasant, Shrewsbury, SY1 1XJ – 4/5
Transforming a restaurant and making it a success is a tall order but one couple have done just that. Andy Richardson finds out for himself. . .
It’s been a while since Jim Littler and Rachel Chidlow breathed new life into the Lion + Pheasant, in Shrewsbury.
When they took control, the property was decidedly down at heel. Rachel’s mother, Dorothy, had formerly owned the 16th-century inn, buying it in the 1970s.
The one-time stop-off on the coach route from London to Ireland, was so run down that all operations in the hospitality trade had ceased and it was being used as a depot for a car parts dealer. Dorothy and her husband saw potential in the higgledy-piggledy collection of eight historic houses and, after several years of renovation work, it reopened as a hotel in 1984.
The premises were leased but fell into disrepair until Dorothy took ownership in 2009 and asked her daughter, Rachel, a Dublin-based interior designer, to give it new life once more.
The resulting hotel, bar and restaurant opened in November 2010 and quickly became Shrewsbury’s finest restaurant and hotel. Rachel’s design, a mix of Scandanavian and French, combined a light paint scheme, lots of wood and a roaring open fire, making it the perfect place for drinks or dinner.
A number of chefs have plied their trade in the intervening eight years though the present head chef, Paul Downes, is making a good impression. He’s helped the venue to retain its two AA rosettes with attractive cooking that is beautifully presented and matches the best seasonal produce.
It’s not just the kitchen that runs efficiently at the Lion + Pheasant. The restaurant manager has been in situ for some years and is a pleasant, professional sort who provides polished service for all. He’s ably assisted by a young and enthusiastic team whose engagement and willingness to give of their best is their defining characteristic.
When it comes to really good eating, Shrewsbury has improved beyond recognition in the past decade. And while the smart money remains in Ludlow – Mortimers, Old Downton Lodge and Fishmore Hall take some beating – Lion + Pheasant is Shrewsbury’s best and is comfortably among Shropshire’s top 10 restaurants. There are still areas where small improvements could be made, but it does an exceptional job and is deliciously consistent – or consistently delicious, whichever you prefer.
Running a decent restaurant is no easy task and Jim Littler has remained at the helm since the Lion + Pheasant’s relaunched. A thoroughly experienced operator, Jim has been around the block so many times that he’s probably become dizzy. And his success at the Lion + Pheasant has led to other ventures; most notably his excellent revitalisation of Shrewsbury’s Boathouse and more recently his equally impressive work at The Wild Pig, a once-dingy pub that’s now cosy and offers decent cooked food for all.
The Lion + Pheasant is a different kettle of fish and premium food is its USP. Paul’s culinary skills are given an opportunity to shine in relaxed and sophisticated surrounds.
My partner and I visited for a midweek supper and enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant evening during which the restaurant manager and his team offered good service and Paul’s food provided plenty of highlights.
We sat in front of an open wood fire, enjoying the gentle warmth on a cool autumnal evening, and started with warm bread rolls and whipped butter. The bread was decent – and full marks for making it fresh – if not a little dense.
Our starters were good. My chicken liver mousse was the pick of the bunch; deliciously light and beautifully flavoured, it was served with a little salad, red onion marmalade and fabulously buttery brioche that had been lightly toasted. Thin shards of chicory adding texture and cooling flavour while dots of sharp plum purée might have been more generously applied. It was an excellent start, with the parfait and brioche dreamy. The plate was cleared and it was a memorable dish.
My partner’s gin cured salmon wasn’t quite so stand-out. The texture of the salmon was a little tough though the flavours of tonic compressed cucumber, citrus purée and coriander were beautifully well balanced. It was decent, though probably a dish that wouldn’t be chosen again.
Our mains were both good. My pork fillet with a beer glazed pig’s cheek, goat’s cheese polenta, apricot and pork jus was thoroughly pleasant. Two rounds of fillet were outrageously tender and pink – just the way they ought to be. The apricots had been scorched with a blow torch, adding sweet and bitter flavours, while the jus was intense and savoury. The polenta was exceptional; crunchy on the outside and offering earthy goat’s cheese flavours within. The pig’s cheek and a small cube of pork belly were both tender and appetising. It was a good dish and though it was perhaps a little under-seasoned, it demonstrated good ideas, good technique and impressively precise execution by Paul and his team.
My partner’s main was a little better. A wonderfully moist fillet of stonebass was served with almonds and a brown shrimp butter; offering a delicious combination of flavours and textures. The shrimps added sweetness to the dish while the almonds provided balance. There were few faults.
We stayed for desserts and enjoyed impressive puds from a good pastry chef. Lemon curd featured a light quenelle of sharp/sweet lemon with a quenelle of Chantilly cream and raspberry sorbet. Small meringues added sweetness to balance the acidulated curd. The presentation was as pretty as a picture.
My passion fruit panna cotta was decent, if not a little confusing. The panna cotta had been well cooked, losing a little of its wobble. Curiously, it was served with blackberry sorbet, which overpowered the passion fruit juice that had been poured on top. Less is sometimes more and chefs with greater experience learn to showcase fewer flavours and let each one shine, rather than creating needless competition in a bowl or on a plate.
Notwithstanding minor flaws, the Lion + Pheasant remains one of Shropshire’s go-to restaurants – and remains among the best five for fine dining. Jim runs a tight ship, employs skilled staff and encourages newcomers to move slowly through the ranks, building their skills as they go.
Running restaurants is never easy and remaining consistently high standards takes skill, commitment and dedication. Jim and co deserve all credit for having done so for the best part of a decade.