That's the way: posh but not scary

Sol, in the border town of Shrewsbury, looks like an Eighties tapas bar, but the chef knows his onions, and his roots
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Sol, 82 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury, Shropshire (01743 340560)

Sol, 82 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury, Shropshire (01743 340560)

Sunshine and bright lights are not what Shropshire is known for; its qualities are more exquisite. Nor, perhaps, are the attractions of the county town Shrewsbury as widely recognised as they should be, either, with an English bridge and a Welsh bridge leading in different directions, and all the bloodthirsty history to be expected of a strategically-placed border town. Shrewsbury doesn't attract tourist hordes and, as for eating out, Ludlow, with its handful of starred restaurants, has trounced it. Still, the unsuitably named Sol is earning a reputation. A couple of years ago when the chef, John Williams, moved here from the other side of the county in which he had made his name, his restaurant appeared like a ray of light in the generally overcast prospect of dining in the town.

Since it was enthusiastically greeted by guide books, it has taken a while for news to percolate through from town to the surrounding country. Having finally got round to eating there a few weeks ago, my brother who, like most farmers, is more in the habit of eating large amounts of meat at home, was determined to show me a good time at this 10-mile distant discovery of his. On a Friday night in February, as we passed the Prince Rupert Hotel where Monica Lewinsky stayed, and improbably saw a stretch limo navigate a tight bend on one of the steep streets, anticipation was running high.

So why on earth is this place called Sol? Surrounded by fertile Severn valley farmland, Terra would be more appropriate. Is it because neither the name, nor the two-tier room with a bar in the middle, has changed since it was previously a tapas bar? In this disguise as a wine bar, John Williams is insinuating outstanding cooking on to enormous plates, which he must have brought with him from somewhere grander. It's a sort of stealthy approach: lure people into somewhere that doesn't look like a scary, stiff restaurant with a menu of unfamiliar words, give them food so good, at prices so reasonable, they cannot help but be impressed and vow to come back.

Apart from a pave here and an assiette there, most of the menu needs no translation. It excels at turning local produce into earthy but refined dishes. Meat is where its heart seems to lie, and duck, venison and lamb, beautifully cooked, served in thick but impressively tender and beautifully trimmed slices, were the raison d'etre of three out of four main courses.

Beef took the form of home-cured bresaola as a starter; pigeon breast was brilliantly matched and beautifully arranged with two neglected root vegetables - beetroot (grated and wrapped into a little pat) and thinly sliced Jerusalem artichoke.

So often this classically based style of cooking overlooks veg; here they were integral to each dish, and rendered unusually interesting. With rump of Shropshire lamb, leeks were creamily packed into a pastry case, plus there were dauphinoise potatoes and braised shallots. With venison there was a delicious tower of carrot mousse, and lentils and spinach and more braised shallots. Duck, always a hard thing to get right, was superb and came with a parcel of Savoy cabbage and a tarragon sauce. The overall effect was of skilful, English pastoral cooking: rural, in touch with its roots, with a bit of not-too-intrusive architecture - a turret here, a landscaped mound there - to raise it above the rustic. Foreign flavours ginger up ingredients, but the kitchen resisted adding more than the local produce needed to taste as good as it gets.

Service was far less professional. Is this all part of the plot, a way of making customers feel more at home? But it was not very helpful when nobody could tell us before we decided to order them what the British cheeses were. We had a plate anyway and a youth identified the perfectly conditioned selection ranging from a smoked hard cheese to Irish Cooleeney by rote. But why a slice of characterless Granny Smith and not a Cox with them?

One more cavil on the keep-it-British front (see, I've been spending too much times with farmers): why describe a selection of puddings as an assiette? Plate would do nicely. Whatever it's called, on it were three puds in a row - a lovely chocolate sorbet, a fine creme brulee with the unnecessary addition of passion fruit and a light chocolate sponge, which I suspect should have had a fondant centre. Though not the kitchen's greatest achievement, these were good. Too late, I was given good reports of the petits fours with the coffee; by then we'd peaked, and spent bang on pounds 40 a head including drinks and service. Never mind the incongruous name and setting, the cooking at Sol really does shine, though it wouldn't do any harm if the lighting were a little less bright.

Tue-Sat lunch and dinner. Lunch pounds 19.95. Dinner pounds 27.50 three courses; pounds 32 four courses. All major cards except Diners. No disabled access