In nearly three years this is only the second time I’ve reviewed an establishment with a Michelin star. Part of that is because they’re all a little way outside Reading, and part of it is that I’ve never been entirely convinced they’re my cup of tea. I’ve eaten in a fair few, here and overseas, and they’re such a mixed bag that I’m not entirely sure what a star means any more. I’ve had beautiful meals in the Cotswolds and truly ordinary meals in London in starred establishments, and I’ve had wonderful evenings in many places bafflingly untroubled by Michelin.
My opinion has also been coloured, I think, by l’Ortolan (which describes itself as “Reading’s Michelin starred restaurant”). It’s a classic example of what you used to have to do to get a star – a beautiful old building in the countryside with a mind-boggling wine list, efficient but soulless service and a fiddly, precise menu of dishes which look better than they taste and where, even if you order well, there’s always a sense that you’re left with a dent in your wallet which doesn’t quite correspond to the amount of fun you’ve had.
My favourite Michelin starred restaurant was a place called Medlar at the unfashionable end of the Kings Road in Chelsea. Three courses during the week was a crazy twenty-five pounds, the service was lovely and friendly, the wine list didn’t feel like it was packed full of booby traps… and the food? Well, the food was plain delicious. When it lost its star (and I have no idea why it did) rather than making me think any less of it it reinforced my feeling that the Michelin inspectors and I were not fated to get along. But I’ve always been on the lookout for somewhere like Medlar closer to home, and that’s why I ended up making the half hour drive to Paley Street, not far from Maidenhead, to give the Royal Oak a try.
One thing I liked about the Royal Oak from the start was that it still looked like a pub. Some pubs with aspirations aren’t really pubs, but there was still a bar and a front room and some cosy seats. I’m not sure how many people would go there just for a drink, but I appreciated the pretence – even if it was just pretence – that you could. I also liked the fact that we were seated in the pub proper, handsome high-backed chairs and a beamed ceiling, rather than in a sterile extension (I’ve been to the Hind’s Head and the Wellington Arms, similar establishments you could say, and had exactly that experience).
The menu was extensive, attractive and reasonable – two courses for twenty-five pounds or three courses for thirty. Slightly cheaper than, say, l’Ortolan, but more importantly the menu was full of good ideas and hard choices. It nodded more to being a pub than you might expect, so there were Scotch eggs and pies alongside the lobster and turbot.
The wine list was attractive, too. I have no doubt that there were plenty of eye-watering options on there but there were also wines by the 125ml glass or by the 500ml carafe, lots of easy ways to drink with your meal without being stung. By contrast, when I went to l’Ortolan I actually ordered a bottle knowing I would leave some of it because it was still a better deal than wine by the glass. At half-one on a Saturday afternoon the place was pretty full, with a varied clientele (one chap, getting ready to leave, ordered a taxi to Sunningdale which gives you a good idea that there’s money sloshing round these parts).
We started off with a couple of things from the pre-starters menu – again, I liked the more honest pricing that you pay for these if you want them rather than being given an amuse bouche and having the cost concealed elsewhere. The selection of bread was gorgeous – the highlight was a glazed brioche packed full of cheese and a flatbread with fennel and salt crystals which was deceptively light and airy (the other two, with rosemary and onion and with caraway seed, were less impressive but still very good). One pound fifty for that little lot, which puts most Reading restaurants I can think of to shame. The Scotch egg was good but not incredible – firm coarse sausagemeat wrapped round a quail’s egg for three pounds fifty. I’m probably a Philistine to say so, but Dolce Vita’s is better.
One thing these establishments always get right is timing. You’re never turned or rushed, and they have an almost intuitive grasp of when you would like your next course to turn up. When it did, it featured one of the highlights of the meal. Lobster raviolo was a stunning thing. Normally I’d potentially feel cheated by a solitary raviolo, but not here – packed all the way to the perimeter with beautiful lobster meat, the pasta just the right thickness, no padding. The small quenelle of chilli jam on top added just enough kick.
But underneath was arguably the real treasure of the dish – samphire and still slightly squeaky leeks (no fennel I could detect, despite what the menu said) in a bisque which was partway between a sauce and a somewhat knobby foam. It reminded me of that wonderful moment at the end of moules marinière when all that’s left is the sauce and a spoon and I always find myself wondering how much of it I can guzzle before I look very greedy indeed. No such problem here with this super-intense, super-concentrated sauce, so I got all of the ecstasy and none of the shame. There was a two pound supplement for this dish, which is so little that I almost didn’t bother mentioning it.
I make no apologies for ordering something as prosaic as chicken liver parfait as the other starter. I love it, and whilst I know it’s the stuff of set menus everywhere I really enjoy its earthy dirtiness. And so it was with this version – the parfait itself was rich and slightly filthy, sprinkled with the ubiquitous sea salt crystals (at last! A restaurant fashion I actually approve of). It came with a decent amount of toasted brioche – so nice, for a change, to be given enough bread rather than facing those final few mouthfuls where the only way to finish it off is to pile it an inch thick. The pear chutney added a welcome hint of sweetness, although my companion did tell me if she hadn’t been driving she’d have ordered a Sauternes with it. Quite right too.
Waiting long enough for the mains to turn up meant that I saw all the dishes I nearly ordered floating past my table, a little conveyor belt of potential regrets. I had been sorely tempted to go for the rabbit and ham hock pie, but I instead chose the iberico pork chop. It was a beautiful-looking dish, but somehow it didn’t quite work for me. The pork was cooked through – too well for my liking, no pinkness at all – and completely encrusted in herbs, which felt like a needless distraction. It was a bit like it had been mugged by a jar of Schwartz. The soft caramelised apples underneath were lovely but the celeriac puree didn’t feel like it added much and the fennel looked scorched rather than braised, so the sweetness didn’t quite come out. It felt like it was crying out for greenery, and I was relieved to have ordered some chips with it (they, incidentally, were exemplary). A five pound supplement for this dish, which if anything just added to my wish that I’d gone for the pie instead.
Turbot on the other hand was a delight. It was described on the menu as “roast turbot with peas and broad beans” and was almost (not quite) as simple as that description makes it sound. A firm piece of turbot, served on a beautiful mix of peas, broad beans, parsley, cabbage and cream. Nothing mucked around with or overdressed, just the right ingredients in the right ratio. It felt like a dish halfway between spring and summer – much like most of the last month, come to think of it. I was glad they brought a spoon so I could polish off the last of the delicious sauce, although it did make me wish I’d saved some bread (a lesson I have never learned, despite eating in restaurants for years).
The dessert menu was the only place where I didn’t feel spoiled for choice. There was one standout dish, but because I wasn’t driving and had wandered more extensively round the wine list I gave way and found myself desperately looking for a Plan B. When it arrived it looked pretty and tasted pleasant, but it didn’t feel like it lived up to some of what had gone before. Crème fraiche mousse was light and clean, the strawberries were bright and sweet and the little discs of shortbread were pleasant. It was all pleasant, I suppose, but I wanted more than pleasant. I felt like I was eating a cheesecake that had been deconstructed to the point of inoffensiveness, and that wasn’t really what desserts should be about. Only the mint sorbet on top – tasting every bit as green and fresh as it looked – held my interest.
To make matters worse, while I ploughed through this I had to watch my companion eating the “Snicker”. This was not your usual Snickers bar (just look at that photo! Oh my goodness). It wasn’t straightforward working out what each layer was but it seemed to be (concentrate!) toffee sponge, peanut mousse, piped chocolate mousse, toffee sauce, peanuts and peanut ice cream, all topped off with a slightly over the top slice of tempered dark chocolate. Listing all that rather misses the main point which was that it was utterly, utterly delicious. My guest ate it with a mixture of gusto and gloating, although she helpfully allowed me a couple of spoonfuls for quality control purposes (and, quite possibly, to stop me whining). That blend of sweet and salt will stay with me for a long time, possibly even after I can no longer remember anything else about the meal. What I struggled to understand was how a half-eaten one went back from one of the tables. What kind of monster would order that and not be able to finish it?
We’ve come to the bit where I’d usually talk about the wine. Now, my knowledge of wine is pretty limited and the benefit of having a bottle is that you only have to inadequately describe one wine. Here, regrettably, I’m going to have to do that with – count them – four different wines. So, here goes: the Australian Riesling was just fruity and sweet enough to get me through the wait for my starter, and much less intimidating than its pale colour led me to fear it might be. The Chablis was crisp and clean and played a similar role, although my companion had to nurse it for longer. The New Zealand sauvignon blanc I had with my raviolo was punchier and more metallic, but still very tasty. Finally, the salice salentino I chose to go with the iberico chop was a splendid balance of fruit and smoke and did me very nicely indeed. The first two were around seven pounds for a 125ml glass, the second two closer to a fiver. Like I said, a good wine list to get lost in.
Service was actually quite reminiscent of more obviously starred establishments, to the extent that it was almost incongruous. So everyone was pleasant and efficient but ever so slightly aloof. I didn’t mind that, but it still felt the wrong side of the fine dining divide for my liking. Lunch for two – snacks, a three course meal and four glasses of wine – came to one hundred and thirteen pounds, which includes one of those optional-but-only-if-you-are-prepared-to-make-a-scene 12.5% service charges. I often read reviews saying “yes, it’s Michelin starred but it’s possible to eat cheaply”. Don’t believe those people. It’s just not. Not without going and having a miserable time.
Did I have a miserable time? No. I had a nice time. I had a nice time in a nice pub eating nice food, and maybe as so often with restaurants that do well in the guidebooks the problem is one of preconceptions. I’m reminded of Skye Gyngell, who won a Michelin star at Petersham Nurseries and wished she could give it back because it meant that punters started turning up with Expectations. If I had gone without expectations I might have really liked the Royal Oak. I managed to steer clear of having expectations with a capital E, but I still thought I’d be ever so slightly more impressed. Maybe this is just further evidence that me and Mr Michelin are never going to be bosom buddies. Still, no matter: a beautiful drive in the country, an attractive pub, a thoroughly decent meal at the end of it. If you go you’ll probably enjoy yourself. For myself, I’m just sitting here thinking about the road less travelled. The pie less ordered. So it goes.
The Royal Oak – 7.7
Paley Street, Littlefield Green, Maidenhead, SL6 3JN