It’s all change for one pub. After an amazing revamp which has given it the ‘wow’ factor, will the food match up? Andy Richardson finds out...
From the outside, it’s almost unrecognisable. The Woodberry, in Bridgnorth, has been given more TLC than a 1990s hip hop band featuring Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes.
A snazzy paint scheme, an impressive, country-themed rural logo – give that designer a pat on the back, it looks great – and a delightful beer garden have freshened up a pub-restaurant that once looked more tired than a worker after a 4am shift. It’s now up-and-at-‘em, rather than down-at-heel. It’s inviting rather than dowdy.
The interior is similarly impressive. The Woodberry owners appear to have harvested a forest’s worth of beautiful oak to fashion a handsome and classy dining area. Plenty of inexpensive-but-just-about-right fixtures and fittings – including photographs of Bridgnorth – have completed the stylish and contemporary refit.
It’s not just the venue that’s changed. The staff have brought a new, can-do attitude to the venue too. They’re bright and preppy, attentive and charming.
Two youthful, red-headed waitresses were particularly impressive when my friend and I called in for a midweek supper. They made regular visits to our table and their enthusiasm shone through. A restaurant manager was accomplished, too, keeping a keen eye on proceedings and making sure everything was shipshape and Bristol fashion.
The owner was nowhere to be seen – and that’s fair enough. The Woodberry was recently bought by the town’s star butcher, Keith Alderson, whose popular shop is just along the road. Keith is an important part of the town’s fabric and has been serving discerning customers for more than 40 years.
He is a passionate advocate of local produce, sourcing his lamb and pork from Bridgnorth and his hinterland. His beef is sourced from even closer to home – literally, from his doorstep. Keith is an accomplished farmer with a herd of Hereford Cross and Aberdeen Angus. He hangs cuts for around five weeks, ensuring a fuller, mature and deeper flavour. In the simplest terms: he knows his onions. And his cows.
To a certain extent, The Woodberry is a vehicle for his exceptional produce. There’s a great selection of locally-sourced meat on his chargrill, with sirloin and rump steaks cut from 5oz to 10oz, depending on how hungry customers are. Burgers, pies and other pub staples also feature; there’s a hand battered fresh haddock with chips – and it’s off-the-scale size-wise.
A diner on a neighbouring table ordered fish’n’chips and we thought she might need a forklift to prize it from the table. As vast as the Titanic, as golden as the Monarch’s crown and – here’s the clever bit – as light as helium, she trilled like a budgie with a new spray of millet when it arrived.
There’s something remarkably clever about not trying to be too clever. And that’s what The Woodberry has learned. While other pubs undo their good work by offering a swish of this, a garland of that and a nougatine basket of that, The Woodberry sticks to one thing and does it reasonably well.
You fancy a slow-cooked steak pie with mushrooms, Shropshire blue and golden shortcrust pasty? Bosh. There you go. Cheshire Oak gammon steak with a golden fried egg and a wedge of fresh grilled pineapple. Bosh. Sorted. Happy days.
Shropshire has more than its fair share of superlative and interesting restaurants, though not so many brilliant pubs.
The latter usually fall down for two reasons. Either, a) they buy in frozen stuff, reheat it and sell it cheap, so that their work is all about assembly rather than cooking. Their food might be cheap, but what’s the point of buying grub if it’s got no taste?
Others fall down because, b) they try too hard and imagine customers want panko-bread-crumb goujons of smoked haddock with pea purée and seven-times-cooked King Edwards fries. They don’t. They want fish’n’chips. Get over it, chef, and cook what the punters want.
And so to dinner. My friend started with a homemade Scotch egg on a black pudding crumb with dressed leaves and tomato, red pepper and lime chutney. It was delicious. The egg had a yolk that was runny and golden, the black pudding was intense and flavoursome, the sausage and breadcrumb coating was savoury and gelatinous. It was wonderfully seasoned and deliciously accompanied by the piquant chutney and easy peasey leaves.
My peppered flatbreads were less appealing. Doughy flatbreads had been adorned with small cubes of melted goats cheese, parsley and garlic oil and strips of sautéed red and yellow pepper. Peppery, undressed rocket leaves were to the side. It was underwhelming and too heavy. The bread was a little claggy and there was nothing to inspire.
Our mains were good. My friend opted for a slow-cooked beef pie, which she adored. It was served with chips, seasonal vegetables and a pot of gravy. And she’d have had to have had the appetite of a rugby team following a 24-hour-fast to finish it. The meat was meltingly tender, Shropshire Blue cheese added astringency, mushrooms added earthiness and the pastry was pretty good. The accompanying chips were tasty – and it’s rare to find decent chips, in truth – while the salad was fine.
My burger was a blockbuster. A beef patty the size of a raincloud was squished between a light, fluffy roll and served with quality bacon and cheese. The burger was particularly good: no doubt having found its way from the Hereford Cross and Aberdeen Angus herd on Alderson’s farm. Chips and salad also found their way onto the plate – though didn’t last long.
Ridiculously, like gannets by a sea bass shoal, we plunged in.
Actually, we didn’t. She thought better of it, I decided to add another notch on my belt, ordering a rhubarb and raspberry crumble. The fruit was good, if a little sweet, though the crumble needed oats, nuts and more crunch. The flavour was fine, the texture needed more bite. A pot of vanilla custard was served alongside, which tasted pleasant but was too thin. Leave it on the stove a little longer, chef. Let it reduce and thicken.
Our bill was ridiculously good value and we used the fish’n’chip forklift to hoist us back to the car.
The Woodberry isn’t yet the finished article. Nor would one expect it to be; it’s only been up and running for a short time. But it’s made an impressive start.
The food is honest and reliable. It’s cooked decently, while lacking a little finesse.
Service is good, the ingredients are great – and not many pubs in this category can honestly say that – while the atmosphere was buzzy and polite throughout the evening.
When Keith Alderson started his butchers, he came in at the ground floor and built things steadily over a period of years. It appears he’ll do the same at The Woodberry. And if first impressions are anything to go by, he’ll be just as successful.