Volkswagening our way down the middle lane of the M40, your correspondent and his accomplices were torn about the restaurant in Shrewsbury that most warranted your – and by extension their – attention. Several candidates presented themselves, but ultimately all roads – Google, expert local opinion, the A458 – led to The Peach Tree, a kind of forbidding elder uncle among the eateries of this not-quite-Welsh dwelling.
The early signs are not promising. A vermillion exterior adjacent to the Abbey of this sleepy country market town gives no indication, it's true, of the experience within; but by the time we are settled at the table, Charlotte notices it looks like the victim of a particularly schizophrenic Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen makeover. Everything is jumbled. I think we are in a Tudor barn with low-hanging roof beams; but then the giant speakers, craning their necks over us and working in satanic tandem with vertical heating coils, convince me that, for all the elderly dears here – is Shropshire the oldest of the shires, people-wise? – we have been teleported to Ayia Napa.
So far, then: a sub-medieval dance festival attended by dystopian technology. No wonder the website boasts: "Some interesting historic features and some cosmopolitan twists."
But wait! What's this? Frances emerges from the loo to be confronted by a mid-forties creature covered in curlers. A cosmopolitan twist too far? This mesmerising Medusa begs the question of whether there is a hair salon upstairs. Above the restaurant. The one with the old people and the Tudor roof beams and the raving equipment.
I must say all of this has rather discombobulated the four of us, and when presented with a menu it is a blessed relief. But the incoherence of the interior is reflected in the food.
The ham hock with mustard and parsley terrine (£4.95) is a false dawn, because it is reasonable. Opinion is split, but I don't at all mind this gentle, pungent chew. What troubles me slightly is the piccalilli with which it is delivered, which tastes like a bland vegetable curry. But even bad curries boast seasoning. Things you might put in piccalilli to make it delicious include cider vinegar, mustard seeds, nutmeg, ginger, cumin and cayenne. Yet this peculiar jar of blameless vegetables is devoid of any flavour at all.
Frances braves another first course: crayfish cocktail with Bloody Mary mayo and confit tomato. Confit bloody tomato! This utterly unrewarding assortment is delivered on a soppy, wet, silly foundation of peeled, boiled, unseasoned tomato – at £6.50. A roasted chicken breast (£13.95) tastes of pallid civility, a bit like John Major before the Currie-added spice. It comes with purée and an excellent crispy gnocchi and chorizo mixture, the chief pleasantry of the meal. The Greek salad comes as a main for £7.95 and is balanced; the side Caesar (£2.50) is fine.
There is a final insult, however, in the crab thermidor, one of the worst plates of food I have ever had in a restaurant. Where to start? With appearances? With the aroma? With what my companions had to say about it, which is unfit to print?
The smell really is overwhelming, and this pitiful, mustard-grey dish is delivered on a bed of rock salt, from which, in my case, it has momentarily taken flight. Yet the fact that different parts of this plate are having a barely disguised domestic is only the start of our troubles. It is cold. I should say: it is £14.95 worth of cold.
Nor does the grimace on Matt's face convince me that heat will be any kind of remedy, but we think it's worth a try. By the time it has returned it is indeed piping hot, albeit so over-salted and deficient in crabness as to be unpalatable.
Of the rest, the crème caramel (£5.50) is an overcooked omelette, the wine list is good, with reasonable bottles under £18, and the service is convivial.
There is a strong chance that this particular Friday afternoon is the worst gastronomic off-day Shropshire, or just The Peach Tree, has ever had. Maybe the chef called in sick. Perhaps there were other mitigating circumstances. One can only hope so, because the only thing The Peach Tree did for these four tourists was to almost convince us that the spectacular Abbey alongside should also be avoided at all costs.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
The Peach Tree, 18-21 Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, tel: 01743 355 055. Lunch and dinner daily. £150 for four with two bottles of wine
Dinham Weir, Ludlow, tel: 01584 874 431
Chris and Judy Bradley's restaurant-with-rooms, beautifully located by a weir, offers outstanding food and an interesting, well-priced wine list.
17 Corve Street, Ludlow, tel: 01584 872 325
The genius of Will Holland's cuisine – creative, yet comfortingly classic – wins the highest praise for the stylish panelled dining-room of this northerly offshoot of L'Ortolan at Shinfield.
The Jolly Frog
The Todden, Leintwardine, tel: 01547 540 298
A good fish-based bistro – the worst criticism anyone could have is that it's shockingly French for a place deep in the British countryside.
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com