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My first visit to Docket No.33 had been a long time coming. About 2 years, actually.
I met Stuart and Fran before the world turned upside down. When none of us knew what Zoom was and no one was under house arrest and playing Monopoly for kicks on a Saturday night. We got chatting during an event at a Birmingham restaurant and quickly realised we had lots in common. Despite Stu being a big time chef (with a string of famous former employers to his name) he talked animatedly about the joy of bacon sandwiches and why crisps are their own food group. His partner (in life and business) Fran told me about living and working out in Qatar and why they’d come back to the UK to start a new culinary adventure. They both smiled a lot and asked lots of questions. Sometimes you just get a really good feeling about people from the offset – I liked them both instantly.
Despite not living in Brum, this lovely husband and wife team also followed my little blog and (after saying far too many kind things about it that I’ll always be grateful for) they invited me to come to Docket No.33, their restaurant over in Shropshire. We were going to enjoy a meal and drink wine and talk more about bacon sandwiches. I couldn’t wait to go, but then… well, we all know what happened next. The strangest chapter of all our lives began and hospitality shut its doors. Weeks turned to months; months turned into DIY at-home kits, missing Christmas with our families and everyone wondering how they’d pay their bills with the doors shut. In amongst all this, I watched Stu cook on TV rather than in his restaurant and he ended up winning the Central heat of Great British Menu. Quite an achievement really considering all I managed during the first lockdown was walking the canals relentlessly and crying over Schitt’s Creek. Lockdowns came and went (and came again) and we continued chatting on Instagram about this meal we would one day have when pandemics and conflicting social schedules finally let up. And then last weekend it happened – it finally ruddy happened.
I’m well aware that opener is very long and overly detailed – but it matters. It matters because I’d been looking forward to the lunch I had in leafy Whitchurch last Saturday for about 2 years. So what’s the restaurant all about? With its bold blue frontage the restaurant stands out in the quiet market town. Inside, you’ll find dark wood lifted by rusty hues and pops of colour from eclectic art they source from local artist Sam Pooley-Stride. It’s inviting – a lot like the smells that gently waft by as dishes float past sporadically from the busy kitchen nestled out of site. Music plays softly and the room is filled with the kind of chatter and laughter you hear when people are relaxed and happy. You’ll only find one menu here, and that’s a carefully considered tasting menu at (a probably far too reasonable) £65 with or without the optional wine pairings. Have them – they’re great, treat yourself etc.
Seating us, Fran (literally the happiest human being you’ll ever meet) gleefully explains there’s a real passion for locally sourced and seasonal produce here, taking full advantage of being sat snuggly near the Welsh boarder. Most of the ingredients are hand selected by Stu himself and the small team of chefs he’s now got helping him. That extends past the pass, with the young front of house crew knowing where everything comes from and what specifically is in every dish. Quiz them if you like – they thoroughly enjoy sharing what they know and it’s lovely to see.
The tasting menu (which I’m told changes fairly often) reads like a dream to me. It’s autumnal and basically features all of my favourite things – I’m suddenly thrilled I’ve come now rather than any other time as the list of dishes couldn’t be more up my street. We start with Stu’s famous chickpea snack, proving that pulses are much better when made to look like chips, fried and covered in a moreish chicken salt. If he bottled the garlic custard they come with I’m pretty sure he’d never need to work another day.
Mussels next, served with house baked bread made with beer and enough Appleby’s whey butter to ensure your eyes roll back in your head. It’s basically perfect. The broth is a little tarty thanks to ponzu (high praise from my husband who calls it “right nice sexy soup”) and added texture comes from chunks of salsify root that I’d never even heard of until this lunch and had to Google. Every day is a school day, lads.
Next up is roasted celeriac with what I can best describe as a rustic pesto and tiny domes of tangy plum jam. It looks like autumn on a plate and the La Val Finca Arantei Albariño wine pairing with peachy notes is inspired.
We move onto the beef and Ian all but loses his mind. This sirloin is about as perfect a piece of cow as you’ll find. Finished over flames, I think, it’s tender and tasty. Herby freshness comes from coriander, while the butternut squash purée (I think with a sprinkle of cumin) delivers an earthy undertone. The mini mountain of slow cooked ox cheek might be the best mouthful of the day so far. It’s a standout dish – it’s not trying to be clever, it’s just showcasing quality ingredients properly.
At this point we’re asked if we want to the optional cheese board: of course we want the optional cheese board. Some of the five come from a little further afield; one comes from a lady who runs a tiny business down the road who the team met by accident. Ian doesn’t get a look in as I demolish the almost soupy ash coated goats cheese (the paired port had kicked in alongside my inner only child by then) and we fight over the last of the bitesize crackers.
Onto the sweeter side and it’s a playful first half. Dark chocolate ice cream on a stick with a secret raspberry layer, covering a bowl of treats below that wins me over with a malty crumb I can’t explain but love anyway. We finish with two small balls of happiness. One akin to a cinnamon donut; the other a truffle. Stu is called from the kitchen several times as we enjoy the end of our meal to meet and greet guests before they leave. They gush about their favourite dishes and the wine and the music that’s been filling the room. It’s clearly been a good lunch service.
As the restaurant eventually empties we take to the bar to share that drink (a chilled glass of the same Gusbourne Brut Reserve I’d started the meal with) we’d promised each other 2 years ago. It’s clear appearing on Great British Menu has elevated the restaurant’s popularity – you can’t get an evening reservation until May – and many come just to see Stu in his whites at the end of their meal. He’s totally self deprecating about this new fame, of course, but his humbleness simply makes me like him more.
Often waiting so long for something leads to disappointment – but not here. It was great to see my friends thriving, it was a pleasure to eat Stu’s food, and it will be a meal I’ll remember fondly for some time. Will be back in the new year for more.
Fancy a visit? Docket No.33 is Michelin recommended and open Thursday-Saturday – visit the website for opening hours and bookings.
Docket No.33, 33 High Street, Whitchurch, Shropshire, SY13 1AZ
Pssst. Need a place to stay?
During our visit we enjoyed a divine overnight stay at Combermere Abbey – ideal if you want to make your visit to Docket No33 a weekend break. Nestled between Shropshire/Cheshire, we had a room in the recently renovated North Wing with views of the mere, grounds and surrounding woodlands. It’s all about the details within. From the stunning windows and ornate doors down to the comfiest super king bed you’ll ever sleep in – it’s an absolute dream probably best described as a luxury bed and breakfast.
The estate site itself is deceptively large, with lots of beautiful outdoor space to explore – a popular wedding venue and you can see why. It’s a stunning place with lots of history; so much so it was recently named as one of ‘Britain’s Best Hotel for History’ by The Telegraph.
It actually began life as a Cistercian monastery (on-site staff will happily talk guests through its past) but over the centuries more buildings were added, although much of it has now been newly renovated. Most recently, the North Wing has had a huge makeover but it’s still got the charm you’d expect from a listed property. And the views – oh god the views.. especially from the bath. It’s like being part of a gothic romance novel.
It’s a gloriously tranquil countryside setting for a bit of R&R with a smashing breakfast the next day to boot. Couldn’t fault our stay – lovely staff (gave us a great pub recommendation for dinner nearby), beautiful accommodation and fabulously quiet countryside for miles. We had the Salamanca room (sleeps 2) in the North Wing but there’s also holiday cottages elsewhere on site if you want to make it more of a family thing.
Disclosure: I attended a press trip inc reduced/gifted parts in return for a post on some of the experiences – the views above remain entirely my own. All words and photos are mine.