The origin of The Butchers Social can be traced some fifteen miles north of it’s present home in Henley-In-Arden, back to the suburban site that is now Harborne Kitchen. Back then it is was a pop-up in the old Walter Smith’s butchers that overstayed it’s intended tenancy by well over a year. We went occasionally and liked it, even if we failed to see where the local hysteria stemmed from. The chicken wings were good, the brunch dishes a little more erratic. Others liked it a lot more than we did, clearly. Chef Jamie stayed put and is making a big impression with Harborne Kitchen (I still haven’t been), whilst Chef Mike took the name and moved to a pretty spot opposite Cheal’s (I am going very soon).
We’ve had a couple of fleeting visits prior to our first proper meal on Mothering Sunday. The building is split in two; up front is a bar and small dining room, with a galley leading through to a larger area overlooking the garden. It’s muted and comfortable, with splashes of burgundy and turquoise to add interest and warmth. The menu is short and concise, today priced at two courses for twenty pound, or three for thirty. There is a starter of artichoke soup that packs an earthy punch, topped with crisps of the same root vegetable for crunch and texture. Another has thin roundels of salami that pop with aniseed, compressed lettuce and blood orange. It needs more acidity and doesn’t ever really come together, which may be down to the dish featuring slithers of brie instead of the advertised fat-heavy burrata. Pick of the starters is a venison croquette that is gamey and dense, with an earthy celeriac puree and dots of astringent beetroot seemingly heightened with a little vinegar.
I’ll start the mains with the flawless one and let it slip from there. A supreme of chicken with gilded skin is as good as gets. It is a lesson in understanding ingredients and textures, of how to prise the best from the seasons. The entire dish is underpinned by the flavour of malt from the barley the bird is rested on and a yeasted gravy that speaks of long roasted carcass. A smear of butternut squash puree and slightly charred parsnips are enough to add a vegetal sweetness to the plate, with blanched kale stopping it from all getting a bit too rich. I stopped ordering chicken in restaurants a while back because it nearly always disappoints. This was good enough to convert me back.
Other mains, well, they didn’t go so well. We’re told that the sirloin comes either rare or well done. Fair enough. When it arrives they are actually neither, though the medium one ends up in front of my sister-in-law who requested well done, and the medium-well in front of my future mother-in-law who takes hers as rare as it gets. The meat is okay, both overcooked and a little on the chewy side, the accompaniments much the same as the chicken, save for a decent Yorkshire pudding. The same applies to the lamb, which we are told comes pink and arrives closer to grey. Add deep fried sweetbreads that needed a tad longer in the fryer to stop them being slimey and its all a bit miserable. It’s a shame given that the broccoli and creamed beans were lovely.
Fortunately the pastry section is producing some seriously top work. Both desserts were classical in approach and restrained in sweetness. A custard tart has fine pastry and a dusting of earthy nutmeg. The figs are an obvious pairing, the subtle saltiness of the goats curd less so, but it works purely for being perfectly balanced. A banana and white chocolate delice is much of the same thanks to a dark chocolate cremeux that has enough bitter to hold everything down. Top work on both accounts.
Given the inconsistent nature of the mains, the food here was around the 7/10 mark, but I feel the need to pull that down by one. Service was considerate but slow, and there were oddities with the bill that I only noticed when I got home. When the soup arrived we asked for bread to accompany it, which took almost twenty five minutes to arrive and appeared on the bill at £6 – a number bearing no resemblance to the £3.75 charge on the menu. A similar story with an extra Yorkshire pudding that arrived after we’d finished and was charged £1 for. Indeed, as I look at the bill now, I appear to have been charged for a more expensive red than I actually drank. Now, perhaps I should have been more thorough with checking this, but we had a car quickly running out of time; hence why I paid the bill and ran. And I expect it to be correct, anyhow. The bill here actually works out at about £40 per person with a modest amount to drink; fine if you ordered the chicken, less so if you got the overcooked beef. We left with the feeling that they have the bones for a very good restaurant here, though with several creases to iron out first.