Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse, Henley

N.B. From November 2019 Shaun Dickens At The Boathouse re-branded as Bistro At The Boathouse, with the same chef at the helm but a significantly different menu. I’ve left this review up for posterity but to all intents and purposes the restaurant it covers has now closed.

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.

Foie

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.

Monkfish

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.)

Gnocchi

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.

Cheese

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
01491 577937

http://www.shaundickens.co.uk/

Ruchetta, Wokingham

There are two kinds of expensive meal. There are the ones where you know in advance that they’re going to be expensive, where you look at the menu beforehand, brace yourself, tell yourself it’s a special occasion. Then there are ones where you’re taken by surprise; maybe you order the really pricey main course you weren’t expecting to, or pick a really fancy bottle of wine, or throw caution to the wind and get a second bottle of the less fancy wine. However it happens, there are some meals where you get carried away, it all adds up and you get a little shock when you take that first look at the bill.

Why am I saying this? Because, to begin at the end for once, Ruchetta is the most expensive meal I’ve reviewed so far – and I knew it was going to be costly before I even stepped through the door. And why’s that important? Because when you know a meal’s going to be expensive, lots of things happen. The anticipation is completely different – I get excited about reading the menu, start looking forward to it (something that doesn’t always happen, believe me). But also, price inevitably becomes another dimension, and each dish is assessed not only on whether it’s good, but also on whether it’s worth the money. It’s only natural that the bar is set higher: after all, you can be pleasantly surprised by a ten pound lunch in the middle of nowhere, but it’s harder to be pleasantly surprised by an expensive meal in a beautiful little house in the prosperous market town of Wokingham.

It really is a beautiful house, too. I don’t know Wokingham well but Ruchetta looks very much like the kind of restaurant it ought to have, really standing out (if you think Reading has a lot of chains, you ought to walk round Wokingham some time). It’s slightly off the main drag in a tiny, nicely jumbled building with a mosaic of little rooms. I sat in the conservatory – partly to get better light for photos – and regretted that more and more as the evening went on, feeling rueful that I hadn’t chosen one of the more snug, atmospheric sections at the front of the house. That said it was a pleasant room with crisp white linen and smart white plates, although the tables do feel a little close together; I was glad the one next to us was empty, or else I would have felt very overlooked.

The menu’s one of the most difficult I’ve had to choose from. There is something magical about good Italian food at the best of times, but the menu at Ruchetta really is the kind where you’re aggrieved that you can’t have everything. We tucked into the bread basket (white and a brown which resembled sourdough, with good salted butter) and sipped our Prosecco in the early evening sunlight, haggling and agonising until the decision could be postponed no longer. If the waiter had arrived two minutes earlier, or two minutes later, you’d probably be reading a review of four completely different dishes.

I adore truffles, and I nearly always order them when I get the chance. The distinctive aroma was noticeable the moment I entered the restaurant and I reckon it subliminally influenced both choices of starter. The first was one of the simplest things you could have, truffle ravioli in butter and sage, and it was a delight. The pasta was al dente and richly flavoured with the earthy, dirty truffles. The dish was topped with thin slivers of parmesan and a handful of young sage leaves. But most importantly a whole pencil sharpener tub of those heavenly truffle shavings had been sprinkled on the top of the dish making the flavour even more intense. Eating it was close to an ecstatic experience, the forkfuls close to the end simultaneously magnificent and agonising.

Truffle pastaThe other starter called to me because it was just so unusual that I had to try it: baked white onion in sea salt, filled with truffle fondue with pan-fried foie gras and caramel. The foie gras was just delicious – a generous piece, soft and yielding, perfect with or without the smidge of sweet caramel. The truffle fondue was less successful – it was salty and tasty and rich with truffle, but very liquid and I really had no idea how I was meant to eat it. They didn’t bring a spoon, but I ended up finding one from a neighbouring place setting and improvising. I thought the point of fondue was to dip something in it, and without that something it was more like a very cheesy soup (I briefly pondered whether I was meant to use the foie but surely not: far too expensive to use as a glorified soldier). The quail egg didn’t really add anything and the white onion had been baked just enough that it made an excellent bowl but not enough that it made a sweet and tasty way to mop up the rest of your fondue. I’m glad I can say I’d ordered it, but it felt like was two starters, neither of which quite worked, joined at the hip.

Fondue

Nearly all the mains at Ruchetta are around the twenty-five pound mark, so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to order the half lobster thermidor (twenty-eight pounds, and not even the most expensive dish on the menu). It was just lovely. The meat had been removed, cooked in the sauce, returned to the shell and topped with cheese. I loved the note of tarragon in it, which surprised me as I’m usually not a fan and didn’t realise it would be in there (like most people outside the Royal Family, I don’t eat lobster thermidor very often). It came with sauté potatoes, in thick slices rather than cubes, which were cooked well and left plain to keep the lobster as the main event. The side salad seemed lost in all of this: the tomatoes were a mixture of green and red but were pithy and lacking in flavour and was either undressed or underdressed, I’m not quite sure which.

Lobster

The other main, roasted saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach and garlic with lamb sauce and vignole (peas, artichokes, broad beans in mint and pancetta – no, I didn’t know either) was the most disappointing dish of the night. This is going to sound like a stupid thing to say, but the lamb was, well, too lamby. The taste of it was almost overripe, verging on agricultural, and drowned out the lighter flavours of the rest of the dish. It appeared to be stuffed just with spinach, which made for a soggy slog, and if there was any garlic in there I didn’t get it. The peas, artichokes and broad beans, potentially a symphony of spring flavours, were pleasant but bland because there wasn’t enough mint to lift them. Most damningly, it wasn’t particularly hot: the lamb, in particular, felt a bit lukewarm. Also, I know this was a light dish but it felt like it needed carbs of some kind. Not everybody who orders it is going to be lucky enough to be able to pinch some sauté potatoes from another plate, as I was.

Ruchetta is one of very few restaurants that offers wine in carafes; a terrific idea for when it’s hard to decide what wine to pick or if you don’t fancy a whole bottle of something. There are a few affordable wines on the list but nothing under the twenty pound mark, so the carafes aren’t as tempting as they normally would be (they’re also 425ml rather than the regulation 500ml, which somehow seems a little stingy). Because of this we ordered a bottle of Italian viognier (much crisper with more citrus than the French ones I have experienced) and a carafe of Barbera d’Alba which was red, robust and unremarkable. I knew we’d struggle to drink both but a carafe of the Gavi I had my eye on was the same price as the bottle of viognier which made me object to buying it (just because you know the restaurant is going to be expensive doesn’t mean you lose all concept of value, after all).

In the end we finished the red and with only half the white drunk the staff offered to cork it so we could take it home – a nice gesture, I thought. That was fairly typical, as service was excellent throughout. All the waiting staff had that charm which just stays on the right side of over-familiarity, something I associate with good Italian restaurants (and I think all of them were actually Italian, though I may be wrong) and they made sure we never felt hurried. In that respect, it definitely felt like a special occasion – nobody wants to be turned when they’re spending this kind of money.

Desserts, like the mains, were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Lemon posset was a glorious thing, wobbly and zingy, topped with cooked rhubarb and dangerously easy to devour. Everything in it should have been tart and sharp and yet it wasn’t (the grilled figs and little pearls of what looked like fruit caviar on the top did their bit to balance it out). The moist orange cake with citrus mascarpone was more prosaic. It was tasty enough and I was happy to eat it all but compared to the complexity of the lemon posset it seemed a bit basic. All the desserts cost seven pounds – an amount I was happy to pay for the posset but much more grudging to part with for the cake. Funny the calculations you make in your head when you know a restaurant is expensive. We also had a couple of dessert wines with these – a Labrandi and a moscato – and both were beautiful choices.

PossetI said at the start that there were two types of expensive meal. Well, as it turns out Ruchetta is both: the total bill for two people – three courses each, two glasses of prosecco, one bottle of white, a carafe of red, two glasses of dessert wine – was £160. This is the bit where I usually say “but it’s possible to eat far more cheaply”, but I’m not sure it’s entirely true of Ruchetta. Their set lunch during the week is a cheaper, but it’s still £19 for two courses. Sunday lunch is £32.50 for two courses. You could spend less, but I still think it’s the kind of restaurant where the size of your bill is always going to take you somewhat by surprise.

I also said at the start that when a restaurant is expensive the bar is set higher, and that’s why I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Ruchetta. There’s a lot to like: the service is terrific, produce and seasonality is clearly important to them (when I went there were lot of asparagus specials on offer. A lot) and the menu is a tempting, readable mix of classic Italian cooking and more creative, inventive dishes. But I’m not sure which restaurant Ruchetta is meant to be: the unpretentious neighbourhood Italian or the high-end destination restaurant. The pricing suggests the latter, but the execution of some of the dishes (the fondue dish, the lamb) and the way the tables are squeezed together feel more like the former. I was left wondering if someone had got carried away with the calculator when pricing the menu. I went expecting something really special and whilst I really enjoyed it wasn’t quite special enough. If these dishes were priced at the twenty pound mark and there was good wine for, say, eighteen pounds a bottle, I would be making my way to Wokingham again and again. As it is, it will have to wait for the next special occasion and hope that, in the meantime, I don’t find somewhere a little more consistent.

Ruchetta – 7.5
6 Rose Street, Wokingham, RG40 1XU
0118 9788025

http://www.ruchetta.com/