Food review: The Pheasant at Neenton - 4.5/5
It must be the worst service of the week if you’re a chef. Sunday. You’re still tired from a busy Friday and Saturday night.
But you’ve got to pull one more rabbit out of the hat and dazzle customers with high levels of expectation for a spectacular end to the week.
It’s not just that you’re tired and the guests are restless, of course. Preparing a Sunday lunch is also a devil of a job where you need to pull together eight hours’ worth of cooking in a moment of dizzying brilliance.
The roast potatoes must be crisp, the meat beautifully tender and well rested, the Yorkshire Puddings risen higher than a tower block, the gravy piping hot and the vegetables still a little al dente. Get any element wrong and you can expect a shrug of indifference, or worse.
Oh, and then there’s the issue that diners will be coming in over a three-hour period. So that gargantuan joint of 28-day rested local beef needs to be kept perfectly pink for longer than it would take a home cook to roast the damn thing. Sunday lunch, eh. Who’d bother.
Perhaps that’s why so many pubs and restaurants across Shropshire get it wrong.
Meat is tired, spuds are lukewarm, gravy is straight from a packet and lunches have as much life as the manager of a kids’ football team who’s just seen his charges lose 9-0 to their local rivals.
And yet there are diamonds in the rough. And The Pheasant Inn, at Neenton, is one of them.
Good Shropshire food cooked by a chef who knows his onions and front of house staff who are happy to please makes Sunday lunches a thing of beauty.
But before we eulogise fantastic pork crackling, dripping-basting roast potatoes, the creamiest-dreamiest cauliflower cheese and a red win jus that wouldn’t be out of place at an AA-rosette restaurant, let’s rewind and celebrate the fact that The Pheasant even exists at all.
Neenton is one of the smallest hamlets in Shropshire. It has a population of 142 people – one of whom is responsible for an absurdly ostentatious Christmas lights display each December – and is slap bang in the heart of rural Shropshire.
There are farmer’s fields, grazing cattle, rolling hills and perfect peace but 142 people of all ages isn’t enough to sustain an electricity supply, let alone a pub. And yet somehow, remarkably, the villagers of Neenton have brought The Pheasant to life.
Having closed in 2006, The Pheasant seemed to be at the end of the road – quite literally. Without a local boozer, members of the community were left with nowhere to socialise, celebrate or commiserate.
Step forward the brave-and-slightly-foolhardy Neenton Community Society, which purchased the pub just before Christmas 2013.
With a vision to create a thriving and classic country inn with a soupcon of style, locals invested their own money on in a business that was doomed to fail. Except it didn’t. It flourished. It won awards and drew praise from others around the region as the exemplar that others might follow.
If ickle wickle Neenton and its 142 residents could do it, so could just about every other hamlet, village and town across Shropshire. All they needed were goodwill, a shared vision and hours and hours of hard work.
With front of house manager Sarah Cowley and venue manager/head chef Mark Harris at the helm, the venue has prospered.
Farmers in wellies rub shoulders with affluent retirees, kids with dogs on leads crack jokes with real ale enthusiasts. It’s warm, it’s welcoming and the standards are high.
When my partner and I arrived for a Sunday lunch, we were the first diners to sit. Great. The food should still be at its best. It didn’t take long, however, for the restaurant to fill – and, after the publication of this review, the chef will probably be rushed off his feet as a flood of impromptu diners do the smart thing and book in for lunch. Ha. Poor chef.
My partner started with a small plate of whitebait while I ate a bowl of roasted root veg with melted perl wen cheese. The dishes were so-so. The bowl for my root veg was still cool – cardinal sin: c’mon chef, heat the plates – while the whitebait was pleasant but unmemorable.
And then the magic began.
My partner had a vegetarian main – more fool her – comprising a selection of mushrooms and peas with tagliatelle. It was decent-ish, if nothing to write home about.
My roast, however, set the stars ablaze. Brilliant, tender pork belly that had been cooked for eight hours was sensational.
Beautifully seasoned and cooked long and slow, the fat had rendered beneath layers of lip-smacking meat to create a party on a plate. The underside of the belly had sat for eight hours on the roasting rack, so that it sort-of-fried until crisp in its own fat.
The crackling, incidentally, was out of this world. Crisp, brittle and with a dirty layer of cooked fat just beneath, it was 11/10 good.
The Yorkshire puddings were equally impressive. Golden brown and crisp on the outside and golden yellow inside – the product, I suspect, of using really good eggs – they were light and fluffy. We fought over ours. I won. Ninja with a fork, 1 – girlfriend, 0.
The cauliflower cheese was melt-in-the-mouth delicious and the roast potatoes were sent by the Gods: crunchy, full-flavoured from their beef dripping coats and light and fluffy within, they were fit for a King (Edwards – probably).
A red wine jus was 15 times better than the normal wan gravy that pubs serve and six hours after lunch I was still licking my lips. Seriously.
By 10pm, I was suggesting we return to see if the kitchen was still open so that I could eat it all again. I’ll be back – and so, I’m sure, will people who’ve hitherto not discovered the joys of The Neenton Roast.
Crème brûlées with homemade shortbread, a thin and crispy caramel top and a side of acidulated berries were knock out and service was a treat – hard-working, unpretentious staff who were rushed off their feet and among friends at the village local.
It’s the best Sunday roast I’ve had the joy of eating in Shropshire and it’s served in a pub that’s arguably the county’s most commendable. The chef misses out on a 10-10 for allowing the Yorkshire’s to go warm, not hot, and for not warming his starter plates. But, minor glitches aside, it was genuinely fabulous.