Food review: Zenna Chinese restaurant, Pontesbury - four stars
Food critic Andy Richardson says Shropshire needs more Chinese restaurants like Zenna in Pontesbury, which has built a reputation for decent food
The guy in the window seat stood up from his table. He walked towards the door and looked across the road at his gleaming red Jaguar. He could hear what sounded like a car alarm and was worried that someone had been tampering with his pride and joy.
I laughed. The noise was coming from the restaurant and was the sound of a telephone that had been left off the hook. The restaurant manager, Tommy, had got so busy that he’d simply taken the phone off the hook so that nobody could get through. I guess that’s one way of dealing with being too busy.
Not that his guerrilla tactics stopped ‘em coming. One woman arrived from Telford, to order a takeaway, and was profoundly apologetic that she’d not warned Tommy and co that she was on her way. She’d been trying to ring for 15 miles but, curiously, the restaurant had been engaged. Funny that. Wonder why.
Tommy was in the lurch because he’d earlier got an order wrong and so the brilliant lady who runs the restaurant had gone out on a delivery to make amends. And while she’d been taking Sunday evening containers filled with sweet and sour something to such far flung hamlets as Habberley, Tommy had been left to deal with four restaurant tables, a queue of four takeaway customers and a steady stream of phone calls. Until he got fed up with that idea and took the phone off the hook. Bless.
Zenna is far from being a Cantonese Fawlty Towers, however. It’s long had a reputation for being one of Shropshire’s best Chinese restaurants and with good reason. The food is decent, the service is good – if not, in the hands of Tommy, a little idiosyncratic – and the restaurant, while a little outdated, is clean, flooded with natural light and pleasant. In a county where decent Chinese restaurants are few and far between, Zenna is among the best.
My partner and I warmed to the eccentric Tommy during a pleasant Sunday evening. Though he occasionally gets panned on Tripadvisor by the mean-spirited and impatient, he was, in fact, calm in the eye of the storm.
With orders piling high, he focused on getting the job done until the female restaurant manager returned – much to his delight.
Zenna’s dining room is unremarkable. Beyond white wall paper and plenty of tables and chairs – and not forgetting a small marble water thingamajig on the counter – there’s little of note. It’s all about two things: good staff and good food.
So when my partner and I arrived, we were invited to choose our table and selected a spot beside the window.
She started with a nourishing bowl of chicken and mushroom soup. As she ate, the table went quiet. The soup was beautifully seasoned and thoroughly satisfying and tender pieces of chicken and thinly sliced mushrooms comingled with the umami-rich liquid. Delish.
I ate a quarter Peking duck with hoisin, pancake rolls, cucumber batons and shredded spring onion. It was similarly good. The duck had been shredded from the leg and the outer pieces were deliciously crisp and indulgently fatty. Having been cooked for ample time and basted in the duck’s own fat, the flavours were fabulous. Wrapped into dinky, steamed pancake rolls with a hearty hoisin, cooling cucumber and thin shreds of pepper spring onion; it was a terrific way to begin.
Our mains were also delightful. She’d originally opted for a king prawn dish with Zenna sauce, before spying a king prawn dish with mushroom. Which to choose? We asked the restaurant manager if the kitchen could cook a king prawn and mushroom dish with Zenna sauce and they helpfully obliged. The results were delicious. Tangy and packed with pyrotechnic flavour, the prawns had been lightly cooked while the mushrooms added pleasing earthy flavours.
My main was an unusual pear chicken dish with sesame seeds. I ate it because I’d never seen it before on any menu and was glad I did. Inevitably sweetened by the pear, the sauce was light and more-ish.
The sesame seeds added texture and a different flavour profile. The chicken was tender and delicately cooked while thin strips of spring onion provided gentle heat. The mains were eaten from hot plates and bowls with a decent egg fried rice.
Shropshire needs more restaurants like Zenna and it was heartening to see a family-run restaurant doing so well on a Sunday evening, when most are so quiet. It’s testament to the years of hard grind that the owners have put in as they’ve built a reputation for decent food that’s tasty and reliable, allied to friendly and warm service.
Cantonese food has long been the cuisine that’s most under-represented in Shropshire. While the county has more curry houses than Bangladesh, more Thai restaurants than Bangkok and as many fish and chip shops as Grimsby, it has lacked good quality Chinese restaurants for many years.
It’s too small and unpopulous a county to have the sort of brilliant and invigorating China Town that Birmingham boasts, nor does it have the numbers to make cutting-edge, post-modern restaurants viable. And so the county has a smattering of frequently undistinguished neighbourhood restaurants that seem not to have moved on since the 1970s and 1980s.
There are a few notable exceptions, thankfully, with Zenna being one and Bridgnorth’s China Diner being another. At both, the staff are friendly and engaged, the prices are decent and the food is generally consistent.
Zenna has been a part of Shropshire’s dining scene for many years and its owners and staff continue to provide good food and good service.