Probably the strangest moment in my meal at (to give it its full name) Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse happened quite early on. We were sitting in the bar with an aperitif having just finished what the waiting staff had described as “snacks”. Things were shaping up nicely. My fino sherry had that dry, almost salty tang that I love. The parmesan and paprika doughnut was unusual and delicious, as was the long thin rice cracker dotted with (surprisingly mild) wasabi and smoked mackerel. Then a waiter came over.
“Shaun is ready for you now, would you like to take your table?”
I wonder if this was meant to be charming, but to me it was just odd. I’m used to being asked whether I’m ready to take my table, not whether the chef is; it made me feel more like I was seeing my dentist than eating out. Still, I suppose when you put your name front and centre you are kind of saying you’re a big deal (how many restaurants can you think of with the chef’s name in the title? How many where the chef hasn’t been awarded a Michelin star? Exactly.)
And the Boathouse, although it may have been overlooked by Michelin recently, did win “Best Of Britain” at the Tatler Restaurant Awards earlier this year, so it’s obviously been noticed by someone. Anyway, this didn’t really bother me: after all, if the cooking’s good enough who cares if the chef’s name is emblazoned on the drinks coasters? He can have a passport photo on every page of the menu for all I care, so long as he sends me away evangelising about his food.
The serving staff – uniformly bright, personable, knowledgeable about the menu and genuinely charming – stood out right from the off, possibly because of the surroundings: the Boathouse is a very beige room indeed. It’s a single big beige room packed with tables with beige nondescript chairs, beige walls lined with nondescript art (all riffs on Jackson Pollock) and with beige music playing in the background. Passenger, Coldplay, the list goes on… it was what Glastonbury would sound like if the lineup was picked by Simon Mayo. A short loop, too, because within two hours we were right back to the start of their playlist (the fact that I noticed this isn’t a good advertisement for the food). The bar, also part of that dining room, is cordoned off by a white, diaphanous curtain. It feels a bit like being in Princess Diana’s boudoir – which might be good news, I suppose, if that’s always been an ambition of yours.
The menu at the Boathouse is very compact – there’s the tasting menu (£65 for seven courses, which struck me as on the steep side) or the a la carte – which I went for – which has four options for starters and mains. These are priced a stone’s throw apart which struck me as odd – either you should charge a lot less for the vegetarian starters and mains or just go the whole hog and have a single price for three courses irrespective of what you order. (Of course, I’m partly saying that because I made the mistake of ordering the vegetarian main, but we’ll get to that.)
Normally at this point I would go into exhaustive detail about everything I ate. And there was a lot – what with “snacks”, the bread, the amuse bouche, the pre-dessert and everything else. But the problem is that it was all so competent and unexciting that it’s almost like trying to remember the details of a not very interesting dream on your way to work the next day. Everything was well executed, pretty and precise, but the wow factor I associate with cooking at this price point simply wasn’t there. Perhaps “fine dining” (does anyone really use that phrase without the protection of ironic inverted commas any more?) has had its day – certainly the fact that only a handful of other tables were occupied on a Friday night suggests there might be something in that.
There were high points, but ironically many of them were the freebies: beer and onion seed bread, baked on the premises I’d guess, was stunning with a crunchy, almost flaky crust and a soft middle. The whipped caraway seed butter was good, but the simple salted butter was even better. I’m not sure I ate anything that quite lived up to that standard.
The amuse bouche, actually, was a good indicator of the kind of meal we were going to have. A little sphere of what I think was chicken rillette with Jerusalem artichoke and sorrel oil was pleasant enough, if a bit bland and clammy, but the best thing about it was an intensely savoury crumb made from potato and chicken skin, like the powder at the bottom of a packet of pork scratchings. It was lovely, but it seemed like a lot of effort to go to for a tiny component of a tiny dish – misplaced effort, perhaps, when so much of the menu was crying out for a bit more flavour.
Of the starters, pork with smoked haddock and chick peas was a misfire. The chick peas, chick pea puree, little cubes of smoked haddock and a sweet, sour curried aigre doux was absolutely gorgeous, but the cold cylinder of pressed pork in the middle was really unappealing, a star of the show far too easily upstaged. I guess I was hoping for a compact cube of perfectly cooked pork belly, but it wasn’t to be.
The other starter, foie gras served two different ways, was really tasty – although the composite parts didn’t quite gel. The foie itself, served mi cuit, was nicely done with what I think were crumbled pistachios on top. There was also a separate foie gras terrine, looking like a little savoury cheesecake, which I thought was rather witty. As for the other things on the plate, the quince puree was nice and the cranberry chutney was a little too tart. This all came with a slice of toasted brioche, served separately so it didn’t interfere with all the prettiness on the plate, like an ugly relative kept out of wedding photos. Overall it was a bit quixotic, if beautiful to look at, but if you like foie gras (as I do) then it wasn’t going to disappoint. Probably the best value dish on the menu, too.
Mains continued the trend of style over substance. Monkfish with farro, preserved lemon and charred aubergine was similarly frustrating. The farro was like a pearl barley risotto and very nice it was too. The charred aubergine was, well, a single piece of charred aubergine. And the monkfish? Cooked absolutely spot on, so firm, almost like sashimi in texture, a big generous piece (resting on a totally pointless bed of spinach – why do restaurants do this?) but unseasoned and not really going at all with the farro. Eating that dish was a bit like listening to an epic fiddly guitar solo: there’s clearly lots of skill involved, but the only person really enjoying themselves is the person playing the guitar.
Roasted garlic gnocchi, girolle, confit turnip and tops with pecorino crisps promised to be a really interesting dish but turned out to be a huge disappointment. The gnocchi were about an inch high and slightly less across and there were, count them, three. They came with a small pile of slightly gritty mushrooms, another pile of pointless steamed spinach and some pretty little discs of turnip. Overall it was fine. Not exciting, not bursting with flavour, not substantial enough to remain in the memory. Worst of all, this dish cost twenty two pounds which struck me as rich. Richer than the food itself, in fact. Many restaurants do a three course set menu for less than this dish and I can’t think of an occasion when I would pick this over them. (The Boathouse does a separate vegetarian tasting menu, which I think is laudable, but it costs the same as the other tasting menu, which strikes me as cheeky.)
By this stage, in the meal as in this review, I was pretty much going on because I felt I should rather than because I much wanted to. Also, I was still hungry, because three gnocchi isn’t going to bring on a Mister Creosote moment for anyone. Things didn’t improve. The cheeseboard should have been a high point – eight carefully selected British cheeses, including many I’ve not heard of before. And yet even these were pastel shades of cheese rather than bright primary colours; only the Admiral Collingwood (a punchy number washed in Newcastle Brown) and the Dunsyre Blue stood out. Eight rather stingy pieces to share cost eighteen pounds, and I couldn’t help but compare it with the cheeseboard just down the road at the Three Tuns, where for half the price you get three far more sensibly sized pieces of well selected cheese: a soft, a hard and a blue, all you really need.
Things rallied slightly for the desserts. A pre-dessert of maple espuma with poached pear, thyme, thyme oil and candied nuts was probably the tastiest, cleverest thing I ate all evening. But by then knowing the kitchen could produce something like that just made me even more frustrated about what had gone before. Finally, the white chocolate parfait, topped with torched orange, studded with sweet crumbly pieces of tablet and served with a very fine salt caramel ice cream did its best to redeem matters, but by then it was too late.
I should also mention drinks, because they were all good, from that initial sherry to the Sauternes with the foie gras and the Tokaji with the dessert. The red, a Uruguayan Petit Verdot, was especially good – dark and inky with a rich whiff of pencil shavings about it. If they ran a wine bar, I’d definitely go (as long as they sorted out that infernal soundtrack), but as a restaurant my feelings are far more mixed. A lot of that comes down to the bill: one hundred and eighty-three pounds, not including tip. Obviously you could pay a lot less if you missed out the cheese, the aperitifs and the dessert wines but this is never going to be a cheap meal. That’s not the problem. The problem is that this is cerebral, clinical cooking, and for that money I wanted a lot more.
The best meal I’ve ever had was in a little restaurant in Barcelona which didn’t have a Michelin star but has picked one up since. I can still remember several of the things I ate that night, even though it was seven years ago. And for me, at the very top end of the spectrum that’s what I’m looking for when I go to a restaurant: flavours and combinations I’ll never forget, dishes I would rave about to friends, contenders for that hypothetical death row feast. Did the Boathouse come close to that? Not remotely. I might be able to forgive their food for being small, I could even overlook it being expensive, but on the train home I thought about whether I would sing the praises of anything I’d eaten and realised that none of it inspired any passion. The next day I had hot buttered toast with a nice thick layer of Marmite. Unpretentious, powerful, delicious: it was the best thing I ate all weekend.
Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse – 6.9
The Boathouse, Station Road, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1AZ