If it’s Man Vs Food size portions of top-quality, locally-sourced nosh you’re after then look no further than The Hundred House
With early evening light flitting through their stained glass frame, the words couldn’t have been spelled out any clearer; Temperance Hall.
Gulp. A quick double take. Are we in the right place?
The Temperance Movement, you see, promoted the complete abstinence of alcohol and was a big deal back in the 19th century.
Thankfully, the polished pumps hove into view and a grand selection of beers is spied.
And breathe. All is well in the world.
Quite why the colourful words should welcome visitors to The Hundred House, nestled between Wolverhampton and Telford isn’t clear, but they somehow set the abstract tone just right as you step into the dark wood surroundings.
A friendly welcome from behind the bar and we were shown to a quiet window table, private enough for a chat, but not so isolated to feel out of things.
Because, despite this being early evening on a weekday night, there was a real buzz about the restaurant and hotel, which has carved out a reputation as one of Shropshire’s finest over many years.
It has received two rosettes for food in the AA Restaurant Guide for 16 years running now and the chatty clientele was clearly a mix of residents and locals savouring some of the county’s finest produce.
Previously, the hotel has been awarded a Cesar, the Oscars of the hotel industry, in the “utterly enjoyable mild eccentricity” category. Casting an eye around the restaurant, that sounds about right.
The word ‘quirky’ has been hijacked in recent years to excuse all sorts of things that are generally ‘annoying’, in my mind’s thesaurus.
So, better to describe the surroundings as full of character, off-the-wall taste and Pop Larkin charm.
There’s the multi-coloured glass ceiling lamps, with multi-coloured seating to match, copperware and old barrels lining the room, swing doors and pictures from the past, which make it feel like a country gent’s welcoming dining room rather than an upmarket restaurant – and all the better for it.
(Our table had little fuzzy animals perched alongside, frogs and the like. Which was, err, random.)
The effect is to put visitors at ease from the start and the quick and efficient waiting on staff add to the many pluses.
But we weren’t there for the decor, nice as it was.
The menus promptly arrived and gave us our first glimpse at the real reason the Hundred House has established such an enviable reputation.
With more than 100 herbs growing in the garden outside, it was clear Head Chef Stuart Phillips knew how to put them to good use.
The a la carte offerings included such gems as rich chicken liver pate with warm brioche and onion chutney, while the black pudding, apple and chorizo stack with smoked cheese sauce and crispy onion rings were difficult for a native northern lad like me to turn down.
In the end however, it was the daily specials that won the day; just edging out the smoked pigeon with wild mushroom risotto and juniper sauce was the more sedate choice of bruschetta of tomatoes and tapenade served with pesto and parmesan.
All too easy to overcook, the bruschetta blended perfectly with the fresh tomatoes, which gave a rich deep flavour, topped off by the tapenade.
Sometimes used as a stuffing, the Provençal mix of olives, capers and anchovies gave an uplifting contrast and gave the dish some real kick.
The food was off to a good start. But something was amiss.
Over the table, my dining partner had started talking to herself.
“This is amazing,” she mouthed, wide-eyed, taking in first sight of her chosen starter, a seafood platter of smoked trout, garlic mussels, smoked salmon and crab with fennel salad.
It looked incredible and, from the Black Country mumbles of appreciation I could pick out, she was impressed. Very impressed.
“I can’t get over how generous they are with everything,” she smiled between mouthfuls.
“There are so many high quality ingredients, a lot of places would merely give a small taste, but this . . .”
And with that. I lost her again for a few minutes of peace and quiet while we awaited the main course.
Again, this had been a tough decision.
The baked breast of chicken stuffed with ricotta, spinach and pine nuts, all served with a red pepper and basil sauce had been calling me.
But then I spied the roast rack of Shropshire lamb, seared on a bed of creamed garlic mash with braised shank in red wine, tomato and olive sauce.
I’m always a sucker for the local ingredients the Hundred House thrives on and eventually I plumped (and plump being the operative word there) for my own Man Versus Food challenge; ten ounces of prime Bridgnorth sirloin steak with chips, herb grilled tomato, mushroom and salad garnish, with the added bonus of a peppercorn sauce.
Arriving with a smile a reasonable time later, the plate almost challenged me to a duel; “See these chips, the biggest, crispiest chips you’ve ever seen? You’ll never get through them will you? Eyes bigger, etc.”
Pah. Challenge accepted, I tucked in to the enormous chips and carved out a succulent slice of fine Shropshire sirloin.
Let the tabletop battle commence – and my smile grew wider with each tasty bite.
The peppercorn sauce was just the right consistency, flowing over the fine food with a light taste that added to the flavours on offer, rather than overshadow them.
It also helped me finish off those pesky chips, which filled me to the brim with crispy coating and fluffy filling, justifying the visit alone.
The only downside was the salad which seemed a little limp and, among the other big tastes fighting for attention, became something of an after thought.
While I manfully tucked in, my little pal was delicately eyeing her main as if it was a work of art.
Understandably. The pan fried Monkfish with saute prawns, served with a lobster bisque (a sauce to you and I) looked as good as it sounds.
So good in fact, I thought she might stare it out all night, rather than enjoy eating it.
Presentation is clearly a key ingredient in the kitchen and it was as picture perfect a dish as you could ever imagine.
One quick bite later, followed by intense eye contact and slow nodding of the head told me it taste as good as it looked.
“Perfect,” was the verdict after a few minutes passed by, as the generous portion slowly but surely started to disappear.
“Really high quality ingredients – you can taste the difference.”
So there we were, both filled to the brim with great starters and mains, among pleasant surroundings and the gentle hubbub of a roomful of happy fellow diners.
Room for pudding? I think not.
But what’s this?
My oppo is eyeing the menu yet again and – before I can shout ‘the calories!’ – orders sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream and toffee sauce.
As if. The very thought of it.
Such bare-faced decisiveness calls for immediate action.
Two spoons please.
Predictably by this point, the dessert lived up to expectations and we were left wondering whether we would need to eat at all for the rest of the week.
Just what the Temperance Movement would have wanted.