But would this rural, village eatery live up to the anticipation its online teasers had evoked?
Breath bated. Let’s open the door and begin.
Since 2011, The Shropshire Inn at Haughton has been run by owners Stuart and Janet Blackley, and has been awarded Taste of Staffordshire awards every year since they first wedged its doors ajar.
With an almost Scandic feel, its decor is both modern and homely; stylish and grounded; touching on opulent, but invitingly honest; down to earth, yet bang on trend.
Upon entering, the sight of the artistically-distorted but usable high-backed chair that met my eyes should have served as a clue to what the evening would bring. This place valued function, but was far from afraid of fashion; taking a classic and practical piece of furniture and pushing its boundaries to turn the ordinary into something truly special.
As a metaphor for the food that myself and the Queen of Hearts were to be served, this extraordinary chair was perfect.
At prime time on a Friday night, we were greeted promptly by a smiley waitress, Lydia, who would look after us for the evening. The place was quiet for a non-school night, but in the early weeks of the year this is to be expected.
We were shown to a lovely window table – perfectly lit – and given a few minutes to peruse the drinks menu before our waitress returned to take our beverage order. After our tipples of choice had arrived, we dived into the menu that two days before had set my appetite alive. Unsurprisingly, the effect was the same, and only heightened by my proximity to what everything indicated would be a satisfied palate and a full belly.
Keeping a watchful but un-intrusive eye over the floor, Lydia returned at exactly the right moment to take our order – the noted mark of a good waitress, and indeed one who all evening would use timing and judgment as well as pleasantries and a bright smile, in delivering a strong service experience to her customers. A big well done.Having been tempted by almost every starter available, I opted for an appetiser of roast figs, cambozola cheese, prosciutto ham, grapes, pear and balsamic nuts. It was a great choice – possibly the highlight of the meal.
The figs had been roasted beautifully, and their sweetness was perfectly off set by the bitter creaminess of the cheese, and the wonderfully salty prosciutto. The combination of the pear and grapes acted as a lovely partial palate cleanser, and the presentation of the dish was elegant without being overly contrived.
The Queen of Hearts had opted for The Shropshire Inn’s signature fried chicken starter, which was served with smokey paprika baked beans, aioli and piquillo pepper.
Presentation of the dish was once again excellent – certainly the most delicately arranged fried chicken dish I had ever seen – and the combination of the aioli and the paprika beans was reportedly a superb complement to a chicken appetiser that had been cooked just right.
With the bar well set, we eagerly awaited the arrival of our main courses.
Again, while torn over a number of inviting offerings, I had opted for rolled pheasant breast served with cranberry and thyme farce, smoked bacon, and piccolo parsnips.
The Queen of Hearts meanwhile had elected to go for a pan-fried chicken supreme served with spring onion, pea and pancetta, sauté mushroom, fondant potato, and black garlic emulsion. The pheasant was superb. Pink in the middle and decadently juicy, its gamey flavour was enhanced rather than eclipsed by the moreish cranberry and thyme farce, and the smoked bacon that wrapped both of them in a wonderful post-Christmas present.
The piccolo parsnips were the star of the show, their sweetness a perfect accompaniment to a rich and indulgent dish that served as a wonderful winter-warmer and brought a mighty smile to this writer’s face.
Insisting on a bite of the Queen of Hearts’s chicken supreme (a slight I will surely pay for), I was impressed with how carefully the chicken had been cooked, retaining plenty of flavour and moisture, and the garlic emulsion was fabulous. More of this please.
Our dishes were served with an accompanying bowl of steamed veg-for-two. While for us, the shared portion size was fine, I suspect other diners may have appreciated a larger offering. That said, it was beautifully prepared, flavoursome, and complemented our chosen mains well.
While not known for my sweet tooth, there are certain buzz words on any dessert menu that I find irresistible, and the Shropshire Inn’s black cherry cheesecake with rice crispy cake and amaretto featured far too many of them to be ignored.
What was was served was a delightfully disassembled sweet, that, despite its blend of sugary flavours was neither overpowering or unbalanced. And above everything else, it was fun.
The cheesecake had a beautifully creamy flavour, with the rich black cherry cutting through to give it just the right bite. It was presented without any base attached, though the adjacent rice crispy cake was clearly intended to fulfil this function.
Chocolatey, decadent, and with just the right crunch, this element of the dish was almost the greatest testament to The Shropshire Inn that I experienced that night – a childhood favourite, world-renowned for its simplicity, yet taken to an entirely new ballpark in terms of execution and presentation.
The almond flavour of the amaretto worked wonderfully with the black cherry and chocolate blend, and completed the dish perfectly.
The Queen of Hearts chose to go for a peanut butter mille feuille with raspberry gel, caramelised puff pastry, and raspberry sorbet. Sneaking a cheeky bite, I was delighted with how the rich peanut butter flavour was offset against the bountiful notes of raspberry, in this tried and tested flavour combination from across the pond.
It was a beautifully presented dessert, and I have to admit to a lot of food envy in that its place was not on my plate.
The Shropshire Inn at Haughton holds a strong reputation in its local area, and it is easy to see why.
Its food is refined without being pretentious; inventive without being over the top; and familiar while also exciting.
From its ambience to its menu, this eatery excels at drawing its guests in with the comfortable and then surprising them with the sublime.
In a well-rounded evening of great food and strong service, a high score is well-deserved for a restaurant whose star continues to ascend and puts its village on the culinary map.