Fennels, Market Place, Shifnal
Rating: **** Behind an unassuming façade Fennels is a hidden gem of a restaurant serving up top-notch food in relaxed surroundings.
Sometimes it's the most unprepossessing of places that can give you the biggest surprises.
Not that Fennels is in any way unattractive, it's just that it's tucked away off the main drag of the little town of Shifnal, almost hiding behind net curtains, which in turn sit behind a fairly nondescript façade.
You need to take a step back to realise that the restaurant is actually part of a row of rather quaint Tudor properties.
But the advice is not to spend too long hanging around on the pavement because it's behind the little black door that you experience the real beauty of Fennels.
The word 'intimate' might have been invented for the sight that greets you as you walk straight into the restaurant which has space for around 30 covers.
It is a beautiful room, complete with plenty of old beams and a full compliment of nooks and crannies.
Of course, that's not necessarily everyone's cup of tea and, in truth, Fennels is very, very different from some of the high-end dining experiences which win bucketloads of Michelin stars and AA red rosettes.
But the real experience of Fennels is, as it should be, in the food.
Frankly there are only so many 'starched within an inch of their lives' tablecloths or waiters who make you feel that you are in some way infecting their hallowed domain that you can take.
Let's say now that Fennels is about excellent food, served in what might be termed 'homely' surroundings at prices that don't break the bank. I think it's fair to say that if I had the skill, the wherewithal and the money to open my own little restaurant then Fennels is about as close to what I'd hope to achieve as I've come across in my pursuit of foodie satisfaction.
It's not cheap, but it's certainly not hugely expensive either. At around £30 a head for three courses with wine I'd say that's a little bit of an indulgence that can certainly be enjoyed from time to time.
At this juncture I'll come clean – this is not the first time that we've eaten at Fennels so we pretty much knew what was coming.
The service is friendly. No actually that's not right. It's better described as being 'happy' and is always 'happy' whether it's on a quiet Tuesday night or on a rather busier Saturday evening. And, at all times it blends that happiness with the professionalism that you'd expect.
Chef/patron Richard Brooks has clearly decided what he wants the dining experience to be and it's in evidence from the moment you walk through the aforementioned black door to the time that you exit, perhaps wishing that you hadn't felt brave enough to try to prove that you wouldn't be beaten by pudding.
Richard's little restaurant has been a fixture in Shifnal now for nearly eight years. He came on the back of years of experience at The Savoy and cooking on private yachts, it's clearly given him a pretty clear idea of what gets the taste buds tingling.
The wine list is uncomplicated with a couple of nice touches, but like so many restaurants these days does seem to think that it's OK to add on a pretty hefty mark-up. That's not such a problem when there's two of you sharing a bottle but it does start to get expensive if you decide – on a non-school night – to go to town, as it were.
But we weren't here for the wine – a restaurant review has to about the food. So onto the menu, but where to start?
I've always been a bit of a sucker for cheaper cuts of meat, especially when eating out as I think it shows that the chef has plenty of confidence in his own ability.
After all, most of us could probably pan fry a bit of fillet steak and make a decent fist of it.
But I'm pretty sure that I'd struggle to combine the intense flavour and saltiness of a ham hock with the pepperiness of parsley into a terrine while knocking up my own piccalilli. It was, as I'd expected, an absolute belter and has gone just a little way to persuading me that piccalilli might not be the spawn of the devil, as I'd always assumed.
Mrs W opted for a lighter starter, only to be assaulted by a full-on plate of tomato, basil and mozerella with heaps of rocket on a bed of crostini. It was, she assured me, light, zingy and perfectly prepared her tastebuds for what was to follow.
In the interests of research she decided that she would make sure that Richard's fillet would be up to scratch. She used to be a bit of a well-done sort of a girl but has gradually worked her way down through the lengths of cooking time. Her rare fillet was spot on accompanied by a top notch jus, fresh spinach and gratin dauphinoise (ever so slightly dry, but with shedloads of flavour).
With my love of cheaper cuts I probably should have gone for the pan fried Shropshire Rose calves liver, but decided that roast pork fillet with chorizo, spinach and cheese would fit better into the mood of an evening on which the weather couldn't really decide whether or not it was going to give us a glimpse of a long hot summer.
The fillet came generously stuffed and, as expected the intense flavour of chorizo worked really well with the pork and the generous jus that it was served with. The mains came with a little eclectic mix of vegetables.
And so to puds – but before we got to the always tricky test of facing up to the dessert menu, the chef appeared.
Richard made his way round the tables, eager to learn what diners had made of their individual meals. In other walks of life it's called fronting up and again shows a degree of confidence that his restaurant does exactly what it says on the tin (although obviously not in this case) and something that I wish more chefs would do. It was from this table tour that I found that the pork had only just made it onto the menu and that I was sitting in a room of contented diners.
For pudding I plumped for the dark chocolate torte which came with a cappucino ice cream and a Baileys sauce. Realistically it would probably be amiss of me to make any comment because if you've got that list of ingredients it's pretty certain it's going to be a winner.
Showing her innate sweet tooth Mrs W ignored the raspberry crème brulee and raspberry sorbet and plumped for a rocky road cheesecake with toffee sauce. Mrs W is a woman who takes puddings seriously so when she said 'I could eat that again – now' I knew that her choice had been correct.
It's all very well going out for a decent meal, really enjoying it , but then finding that you've actually eaten too much, getting home to lie on your bed clutching your belly and vowing to be a bit more mature next time around.
I think Fennels gets it just about spot on in this regard. We both had a nice contented feeling without an impending sense of nausea.
So, where does it rate among places to eat? Difficult this. Over the last few weeks I've been reading the views of my fellow reviewers. But how can you really compare Glynn Purnell's place in Birmingham with this more humble abode in sleepy Shropshire.
Well I saw that my colleague Keith Harrison gave The Hundred House at Norton four stars a couple of weeks ago. We have a bit of a soft spot for that particular eaterie having had our wedding reception there and been frequent visitors over the years.
But I reckon that, on a regular basis Fennels is just about its match – albeit on a smaller scale. So four stars it is.
One test of a good restaurant is the ease with which you can book a table. Fennels is undoubtedly small but it's worth recording that this was our fourth attempt at getting a reservation – the advice must be to plan and book well ahead.
8 Market Place, Shifnal, Shifnal, TF11 9AZ
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