I’ve never quite worked out what the limits of the ER catchment area are, but Jackson’s has to be right on the edge. It’s only thirty minutes out of town but somehow it feels like a longer, more circuitous drive than that, out through Shinfield and past Arborfield before the countryside gets quite beautiful and the houses start to thin out. Then you go along Nine Mile Ride, turn off into California Country Park and suddenly it’s like being in Canada (or at least Center Parcs), all tall trees and wooden signs, Lycra-clad cyclists and healthy-looking types: types, in fact, unlike me.
The sun still flecked the leaves on a July evening as I made my way to the restaurant but I could completely see what it would be like during the daytime, full of families enjoying the great outdoors and the aforementioned cyclists taking a pit stop before heading on towards somewhere suitably pastoral. Jackson’s – next to the oddly named California Lake – tries to offer something at all times, so they do breakfast (all day, apparently: worth knowing) and sandwiches, burgers and jacket potatoes for lunch before morphing into a restaurant in the evening. And a Proper Restaurant at that, if the menu is to be believed, full of little touches and hints that make you really want to turn up and order everything.
The dining room is a big space full of chunky, solid, simple wooden furniture with white and red tablecloths. I assume the only things that change from day to night are the tablecloths and the mood lighting, little lamps sitting on rough-hewn rustic tables, but I imagine the space must be lovely at any time of day. I caught sight of the wood-burning stove and, for the first time this summer, found myself wishing it was ever so slightly darker and colder. Only two other tables were occupied, which was a tad awkward; they looked delighted that somebody had joined them.
I said the menu was full of little touches. Have a look at how they described our first starter if you don’t believe me: “Nutmeg and Thyme Confit Chicken Thigh, Chicken Broth, Crisp Skin, Wild Mushrooms, Broad Beans, Charred Corn & Spinach Foam”. Sounds good, don’t you think? And generally speaking it was. The thigh meat, soaked in the broth, was like the wonderful bit at the end of a roast dinner when you get to the last shreds of chicken, falling apart, soaked in rich salty gravy. Intensely good. The wild mushrooms were served as little splodges of purée that added creaminess but were otherwise a little lost. The broad beans – very large, very green, beautifully fresh – were top-notch. Only some of the corn was actually charred, but it added a nutty, chewy texture, nonetheless. No crisp skin, either, which is a great shame as they’re always two welcome words on any menu I look at. Last of all, the spinach foam added great colour (thankfully not too reminiscent of frogspawn) but not a lot else.
So, lots going on but did it justify all that complexity? No, not really. I could admire the creativity and all those – what’s the word they use on Masterchef? – processes, but I’d have been just as happy with a big ramekin of chicken, broth and broad beans, especially as the dish was too shallow for me to scoop up the remaining broth at the end.
The other starter – “Sweet Pickled Heritage Carrots, Truffle Mayo, Poached Local Hens Egg, Summer Truffle, Parmesan & Honey Dressing” was more successful. A pretty, delicate, deceptively substantial dish it was built around those glorious spirals of sweet, crunchy pickled carrot and a mayo which managed to get those truffle notes just the right side of overpowering (although I do have a very high capacity for truffle). The parmesan shavings added grit and salt and the egg, poached just right, oozed enough golden yolk to bring everything together nicely. There were also pea shoots, which I could have done without (given the kitchen sink approach to the menu I’m surprised these weren’t mentioned) and little blobs of insubstantial dressing, also dotted with tiny pieces of truffle. Pickle, truffle, parmesan, poached egg: these are a few of my favourite things, and I loved this dish.
After two thumbs up for the starters I felt hopeful for the main event, and I was right. Well, half right: the confit duck leg was lovely. It was salty and rich with the meat falling away from the bone, exactly as it should be. The skin was perfectly crisp (nearly compensating for that chicken skin that went MIA earlier in the meal) with no flabby edges, almost how I think pork scratchings should be but so rarely are.
So far, so simple, but underneath the duck was where things got a lot more interesting; a pile of “young” peas (whatever they are, petits pois presumably) was given freshness and tang with fresh mint and crumbled feta. Some of the peas had also been puréed and served in pretty acid-green dollops which were surprisingly rich when smeared over a piece of the duck leg. The ham hock and potato terrine – a brick of potato with a layer of ham hock pressed as a seam through the middle – wasn’t such a hit. The potatoes were too hard and too lukewarm to be enjoyable and I ended up pulling out the ham hock to eat on its own; far from a punishment but probably not what the kitchen intended.
Luckily, we’d ordered truffle chips on the side and my goodness, they were cracking: thick-cut, fluffy inside, tossed in parmesan and then sprinkled with what I imagine was truffle oil. But there were also dark speckles of truffle throughout the bowl and the whole thing gave off that distinctive earthy, dirty aroma (oh to be a truffle pig!). Five pounds for these, but worth the money and possibly worth the price of admission alone. If I was being critical they could have done with being a little crispier, but at the end there was a little tangle of truffly molten cheese which I scooped up with my fork and at that point, such minor quibbles faded into the background.
If they were the kitchen at its best the other main was the biggest dud of the visit. I wanted to try something more straightforward to test the range of the menu so I went for the chicken breast burger and here’s where things went awry. It was described as coming with parmesan, truffle mayo and double smoked bacon. Well, the bacon may have been smoked twice but it was put on my burger zero times, something I didn’t realise until it was too late to send it back. The chicken itself was lovely, slightly flattened and breaded, almost like a chicken Milanese, but the outside – bit of a theme here – wasn’t crunchy and crispy as it should have been. The Parmesan was a thin layer, almost more like a sauce than a discernible slice of cheese and that was good, although it made things rather soggy. No truffle mayo that I detected either, unless my tastebuds had been numbed to truffle by then. I suppose it’s possible. Nice brioche though, and the usual suspects – tomato, iceberg, right ahead, red onion – were joined by a row of little crunchy cornichons which almost redeemed matters. But really, this burger cost fourteen pounds and it just wasn’t worth that.
I do need to single out the triple cooked chips which came with the burger for two reasons. One is that they came in a Jenga stack. Now, some of you may not remember this but Jenga chips were the “food on slates” of their day. Everyone hated them, everyone railed against them and as a result I thought they had become extinct. I was so surprised to see them on a plate in a restaurant like this that I wanted to check the date on my phone to see if some kind of Quantum Leap oddness had gone on. But that aside, they were a sad and flabby bunch. Maybe it was the time taken painstakingly arranging them in a tower, maybe they just weren’t very good to start with, but they weren’t triple cooked. They were somewhere between once and twice cooked, I decided, before eating a couple which I would describe as barely cooked chips.
The dessert menu was full of interesting things but only one of us fancied one (that chicken burger had somewhat dampened enthusiasm). The first item on there really intrigued me, and when I asked for advice it was also the one recommended by the serving staff and that, in restaurant terms, is kismet, right there. Liquorice panna cotta with rhubarb and stem ginger might have been the dish of the whole meal. Yes, liquorice panna cotta. If you’ve ever tried the basil and balsamic panna cotta at Pepe Sale you’ll know that it’s worth taking a risk sometimes with flavours that don’t obviously go and this was definitely true here, especially after some of the inventive touches in the previous courses.
The panna cotta itself was dreamy – super thick, well set and extremely creamy. It had most delicate liquorice flavour to it, almost metallic in the mouth, nearly an aftertaste, the hint of something. I’m lost in a reverie remembering it, and clearly struggling to adequately describe even if you don’t like liquorice – and I’m not a massive fan – I’d still thoroughly recommend it. It came with an embarrassment of riches: dots of ginger and rhubarb purée; sweet, intense pieces of cooked rhubarb, crumbled stem ginger cookie and a scoop of rhubarb ice which somehow managed to be halfway between a sorbet (fresh and bright) and an ice cream (smooth and creamy). I don’t know how the chef came up with the idea to put those flavours together and I’m not sure I care. It doesn’t really matter: I just loved it.
Sadly I was driving so I only got to try one glass of wine; the carignan was a nice, rich red (good enough for my companion to have it as their second glass). I’m told that the Riesling was nice, fresh and not as good as the carignan. That was after some grumbling about the chicken burger, so I managed to be on the receiving end of both food envy and wine envy. Oh, and I had a diet Coke because after the glass of wine I wasn’t feeling particularly imaginative. Still, it came in a glass bottle rather than out of a syphon, and somehow that always feels like proper Coke to me.
Service was pretty good; the maitre d’ was charming and effusive and the other, younger staff, although not quite so engaging, also did a good job. Everything was nicely timed, too, which could so easily not have been the case on such a quiet weekday night: nothing came too quickly or too slowly, plates were cleared away when they should be and so on. Two starters, two mains and one dessert plus three glasses of wine and a soft drink came to seventy-three pounds, excluding tip. The starters hover around the eight pound mark and most of the mains are under fifteen quid. For food this imaginative, that’s pretty impressive.
What makes this gig, for me, is when I discover a gem. Ideally somewhere in the centre of town, although that gets increasingly difficult, but in any case somewhere wonderful – preferably independent – that you won’t have heard of, offering imaginative, fairly priced food. Jackson’s should be that, and it so nearly is. So why isn’t it? The food, by and large, and the service do indeed say that you’re in a Proper Restaurant. But the elephant in the room is the room itself: the owners have tried to make a step change from day to night but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having dinner in a café.
I know this shouldn’t matter: I’ve always said that if the food is good none of the rest matters, so I’m troubled that in this case I find it does. Perhaps it’s because of the half hour drive. Perhaps it’s because the room was empty and lacked ambience. Maybe I would have felt differently if it had been full, on a cold winter night with the woodburning stove glowing and the table lamps shining, having dinner with other happy strangers in this little cabin in the woods. So a qualified recommendation from me: if none of that bothers you please go, fill up the restaurant, enjoy some really clever food at simple prices and keep them busy. Personally, I’ll go back when the clocks do.
Jackson’s – 7.3
California Country Park, Nine Mile Ride, Finchampstead, RG40 4HT