Food review: The Punch Bowl, Bridgnorth
The staff were brilliant. The chef at the carvery was cracking jokes about venison and Bambi.
The guy at the bar was having a meltdown within 10 minutes of opening and the front of house staff were directing customers like traffic cops at a particularly busy road junction. Earn their money? They did that day. And then some.
The Punch Bowl Inn, at Bridgnorth, offers a multi-award-winning AGA Carvery, decent value for money and delightful local ales. It’s steeped in tradition, serves quality traditional food and drink and has been recognised by the local Camra branch for real ale, receiving further awards for cellar management and pulling the perfect pint.
And while it offers function rooms, a venue for weddings, guest rooms, a la carte menus and more, it’s best known for its Sunday lunches.
Try calling on a Sunday morning and you’re likely to be told: ‘Sorry, we’re full’. I know. I’ve tried. And on this occasion, I took the sensible option and booked well in advance.
When my friend and I arrived for a Sunday service, a queue had formed outside the door shortly before the venue’s 12 noon opening. Like drunks gathering at a distillery before the night watchman has stood down, the old faithful were chomping at the bit to get their helping of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. On a cool, crisp winter’s morning, they hovered near to the Punch Bowl’s garden, which provides magnificent views across undulating countryside. The scene is Shropshire at its best, a pristine vista of an unspoiled county detached from the hurly burly of modern life.
As the clock struck 12, a click of the latch signalled the start of service and the early bird arrivals shuffled inside, not quite frothing at the mouth.
All of which meant the bar resembled the check-in desk for a Ryanair flight to Alicante during mid-Summer. A bottleneck formed at the bar and the guy at the till, bless him, was overwhelmed. “I haven’t even got my float in the till yet,” he said. And maybe next time he’ll get into work ten minutes earlier and avoid the needless stress. And then we won’t have to queue for quite so long.
Lunch at the Punch Bowl isn’t quite a bun fight. It’s far too civilised for that. But there’s something curious about going out to eat then forming an orderly queue, like Soviet-era Russians waiting for bread. The serving area is a vast, heated pass, behind which stands an AGA. Vast joints of roasted meat waiting for customers while large bowls of vegetables and sides offer further sustenance.
Our options were beef, turkey, pork, ham and venison, sliced by a cheerful chef with Shropshire’s sharpest knife – and tongue. When my friend asked for venison, he quipped: “Nice, eating a bit of Bambi, are we?”
He garlanded my plate with a slice of beef, a deliciously tender piece of sweet, pink ham and a less-than-impressive piece of pork, which was much too fatty.
And then we strolled past the Punch Bowl serving bowls, garnishing our plates with roast potatoes, parsnips, peas, carrots, garlic potatoes, Yorkshire puddings and more.
The roast potatoes were good, though they’d lost a little of their crunch by standing on the pass. The parsnips were a treat; nicely caramelised and pleasingly sweet. The peas and carrots were a little too watery; they’d lost a little of their flavour after dying a watery death. The garlicky potatoes and cauliflower cheese were great – particularly as we were among the first in line and were able to hive off the crunchiest toppings from the top. The Yorkshire puddings were nicely risen while a range of sauces – cranberry, apple, gravy et al – were suited to all-comers.
But – and here’s the rub – it wasn’t as enjoyable as it ought to have been. Somehow, it was less than the sum of its parts. The gravy, advertised as being made from all of the pan juices, didn’t pack a punch. The apple sauce wasn’t particularly sharp. And though the garlic potatoes and cauliflower cheese were pleasant, other bits and pieces were bland.
The biggest problem was that the food – with the exception of the meat – was all a little tepid. It was luke warm, not piping hot, and lost a little along the way. So instead of the Yorkshire puddings being triumphant, crispy around the fat-scorched sides and bursting with puffs of steam, they were all a little flabby and unappealing, like a poolside tourist at Benidorm on the first day of a package holiday. The same was true of the other vegetables and garnishes: there was nothing particularly wrong with them per se, but they all had a whiff of mediocrity, of being no better than average.
Service was hard to judge. The staff’s main task was to direct and provide instructions: ‘Take your ticket to the counter, then pile your plate high. . .’ or words to that effect. And so while we ate, we were left to get on with it.
We skipped desserts. We felt like we’d been the participants in some form of Food Olympics and there was insufficient room for a round of sweetened carbs. And as the other guests continued to tuck into their carvery dinners while the staff prepared for the 2pm sitting, we made our exit.
It had been an interesting experience: fun for all the right reasons and with just a soupcon of mild chaos and anarchy about the whole thing. It felt like box ticked for my friend and I: we almost wanted to buy a ‘band t-shirt’ to commemorate our visit, though we felt no impetus to return.
The food ought to have been the star of the show, but somehow it wasn’t. It lacked a little flavour, was too tepid to enjoy and took the failed to put the concluding adjective into Sunday best.