[Disclosure: We paid in full at the White Swan at Shawell – this wasn’t an invite]
It’s been six-and-a-half years since I’ve written about the White Swan at Shawell on this blog. Back in January 2017 I waxed lyrical about a memorable Christmas Eve meal my mum and I enjoyed a few weeks prior. A lot has happened since that meal, including an experience with the same venue that was memorable for the wrong reasons. But if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that life is too short to hold grudges or deny places a second chance. Or, indeed, to miss out on going back for potentially great food.
A lot has happened for the White Swan since 2017 too. I’ve watched from afar as they tried varying approaches, appearing to focus on fine dining for a while with a clear Michelin star ambition, to a return to less high falutin feel, playing on the pub location and the appetites of a local audience that appears to love. Nowadays there’s the chance to try both – with tasting menus and a chef’s table on offer, but also a bistro menu and Sunday lunch.
There are also some great deals, including a ‘Wednesday Wine + Dine’ menu offering a three-course meal for £29.50, or £39.50 with wine, and a Friday and Saturday lunch menu that I’ll confess is what tempted me back, with an eminently affordable two courses for £21.50 or three for £26.50.
It’s a lovely building, and the restaurant area is somehow lighter and brighter than I remember from all those years ago, with a breezy, bistro feel that suits an approach that seems to be focused on quality without fuss.
The set price menu has a decent selection of four starters and four mains, and any specials as well as the choice of market steak for that day is up on the wall on a casual parchment display. There’s a decent wine menu too, with a refreshing list available by the glass as well as bottle – perfect for calm lunches (yes, I do occasionally do those).
The homemade bread and flavoured butter is an unnecessary addition that we vow not to order, then promptly change our mind when we hear that the flavours today are mushroom bread with truffle butter. It’s a decision well made and worth the £3.50 charge per person. A vein of earthy mushroom swirls through the warm, light dough that would be perfect as it is, but is even better thanks to a dusting of grated parmesan on top. Its playmate is a smooth, rich butter speckled with truffle to make for an opener that has your tastebuds doing a little jig in anticipation of what’s to come.
For me, that’s a simple summery starter of tomatoes from the nearby Cotesbach estate, arranged underneath a hefty dollop of burrata – the whole dish lifted by a brilliantly beautiful basil pesto. It’s everything a dish like this should be. Ingredient-focused, simple, and a reflection of the season in which it’s being served.
Mum chooses pork bonbons. An innocuous looking dish compared to the vibrant colours of my starter, but a lesson in balance of flavour and texture. The spiced pork balanced by sweet pineapple and the combination of crispy, crunchy, tender and moist showing that this dish has thought behind it.
Mum’s main is a braised beef cheek that some might argue belongs more on an autumn or winter menu, but given the fact the sunny day we visit is one of only a handful during summer, it seems to me to be a wise chef who includes dishes for the many rainy, cold grey days the UK offers.
It’s a crowd-pleasing, belly-filling dish. The cheek cooked down until it yields to the lightest tug of a fork, sitting on a squishy, buttery mound of horseradish mash. Crispy kale on top adds colour and crunch, and while generous in size, the portion isn’t unmanageable, reminding us that this isn’t a ‘serve ’em loads and serve it cheap’ kind of establishment, but somewhere with aspiration beyond basic pub grub.
My pork special is the winner of the day for me. The loin rolled, porchetta-style, with a seam of fragrant herbs dominated by fennel in just the right measure. It’s tender and juicy, the fat equally crispy and melt-in-the-mouth in all the right places when it’s cooked by someone who knows what they’re doing.
It’s a dish that bridges the gap of Mum’s more wintry beef and my super summery tomato – the pork might be a hearty main player, but the tomato orzo it comes with brings Mediterranean vibes to the plate, and more of that herb-laced pesto gives fragrance and a pleasant zing. It’s a dish well done and I’m glad the White Swan feels relaxed enough these days that when my knife can’t cut through the generous chunk of crackling, I have no qualms in picking it up with my fingers rather than missing out.
Never one to miss out on dessert, Mum goes for the White Swan’s riff on a school dinner classic – chocolate sponge and chocolate sauce served with a custard that’s about as far from Bird’s as you can get. The whole thing is rich and sweet, as all good school dinner puddings should be, yet light and airy and oozing in quality, from the bitter notes to the chocolate to the specks of black from the vanilla in the custard.
We leave happy that we’ve made it back, and linger more than a few minutes looking at the tasting menus and other offerings to plan our return trip. Throughout our meal service is efficient and friendly, without too much of an over-the-top sense of ceremony. Like everything else at the White Swan, it’s well-balanced and a reflection of where this longstanding venue finds itself in 2023. Which is a place serving decent food, at reasonable prices, with enough ambition to make it great but not too much that it alienates its humble punters. A great place to be, if you ask me.