Those days are clearly gone and the privately owned and managed hotel in the heart of the countryside, on the Wolverhampton and Shropshire border, now offers a very different culinary experience.
The pomp and ceremony are gone and in their place is simpler, less pretentious food that hits the spot more readily. In truth, though the race for guide book recognition appears to have gone, I’d say the new era is altogether more satisfying.
That’s not to say there’s not still room for improvements. When my partner and I called for a Tuesday evening supper, we were alone in the dining room.
The lounge was a bit of a mish mash – contemporary lighting above the bar, ye olde worlde touches elsewhere. There’s more than a hint of faded grandeur and a modernising revamp would not go amiss. Such things cost money, of course, and when you start the week with only two covers it’s no doubt hard to find.
Front of house was run by an impressive one-woman team; a waitress called Caitlin. And what a find she must have been for the owners of The Old Vicarage. Warm and welcoming, engaged and efficient, polite and eager to please; she was the acme of professionalism and made our visit all the more enjoyable.
She knew when to engage in conversation and when not to interrupt, she went about her business with bustling efficiency and she ensured that we could relax as we enjoyed our three-course dinner. She was the sort of youthful and diligent dynamo that many more venues would wish to have on board.
On previous dinners at The Old Vicarage, I’d eaten in an orangery; a light and airy space with pleasing views.
On damp, windy Tuesday evenings, when only two guests are in for dinner, we were instead placed in a small room to the side, where a tired grandfather clock stood sadly against a wall papered to look as though it was filled with books.
A few of the chairs had fabric that was coming undone; the need for a refresh was obvious.
Thankfully, Caitlin’s good work was matched by that of the venue’s chef, who showed an assured hand. Confident, precise and with obvious skill, the food that he or she sent from the kitchen was of a good standard – again, I’d say better than in the days of three rosettes and the race to the top.
The only rum note was a bowl of spiced nuts, to snack on over drinks. Slightly bitter and brutishly crude, they’d been poorly seasoned with a spice mix that did little to please. That aberration aside, the evening went swimmingly.
Bread was served warm with a small side of hummus and butter before we entered the dining room.
Our starters were well presented and showcased the chef’s attention to detail. She ate a beautifully plated potted prawn dish with small triangles of toast and a light salad.
There’s a lot to be said for chefs who can make the simple things look easy and her dish seemed entirely effortless. It was an eminently pleasing way to start.
My starter, a vegan dish comprising sweetcorn fritters with a homemade sweet chilli dip and an Asian slaw, was delightful. Light and fizzing with flavour, the textures were memorable, the flavours ripped and snorted like a bull racing at a matador and the presentation was once more delightful.
Both starters confirmed our view that the chef knew precisely what he/she was doing.
Our mains were decent. She ate a seafood pot au feu in a light sauce. It was garnished with plenty of samphire and while ever-so-slightly overcooked, it was a warming and satisfying autumnal dish.
My scampi and chips was deliciously disruptive. The scampi was, in fact, small pieces of luxuriant monkfish that had been coated in crumbs from a battered packet of scampi fries.
They were light and refreshingly moreish; it was an excellent way to crumb a fish. As I tucked into scampi number eight, I resolved to always carry a box of scampi fries in the storecupboard, lest I needed to batter a dish.
And while not wishing to labour a point, there’s a lot to be said for chefs who put their own mark on tried and tested dishes. Yes, it was essentially fish and chips – a side of buttered peas and tartare sauce was on hand – but the chef had made the effort by giving the dish a new spin.
The chips, incidentally, were absolutely filthy. Triple cooked so that they were golden and almost glass-like on the outside, they were as good as a chip gets – or, at least, almost (let’s not forget the beef dripping triple cooked option).
Crunchy and roughed up so that each edge broke with a snap, light and fluffy in the middle as though they’d been sent by the makers of Canada Goose fluffy coats; they were pretty much perfect. Well done chef. And please send another plate.
Desserts were magnificent.
She ate a beautiful bakewell tart with delightfully rich, crisp pastry that was sweet and came with a small quenelle of ice cream.
I ate a brilliant jam roly poly with a crème Anglaise that was just about the only cheffy dish on display.
Small pieces of freeze dried strawberry were served along with fresh ones and while I’m unsure how seasonal November strawberries really are; the roly poly and Anglaise were brilliant.
The Old Vicarage website advertises the venue as being one full of charm and character. And when we visited on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday evening, the charm was supplied by Caitlin and the character by the chef.
Yes, the interiors need a little more TLC, but that aside, it was a thoroughly pleasing evening.
Staff all too often have a tendency to switch off when the big numbers are absent. The fact that The Old Vicarage team put went the extra mile on an unremarkable evening is a great credit both to them and the venue’s owners.