Thursday, 5 May 2011

Orwells: A Michelin star down, but certainly not out in Shiplake...*

Arty exterior. Thanks to Leo

It was Becca’s Mum’s birthday last week, directly after Easter, so we extended a holiday weekend visit by a day, to include the birthday itself, and take in a celebratory lunch.  A table was booked at Orwells in, or rather, near Shiplake, a small village just outside Henley, which can be reached from Becca’s parent’s house, on a Spring day that seems to think it’s summer, via an appetite sharpening walk that takes you up hill, down dale (‘drawback’ hill apparently, where the kids would go sledging of a snowy winter, and the principle drawback appeared to be the steep downslope terminating abruptly in a thick and very thorny looking hedge), across a golf course and through a spectacular bluebell wood.  I can think of few more pleasant ways to prepare for lunch.

Our destination was an 18th century country pub, previously known as the White Hart and with, according to local knowledge, and the Oxford Times, a ‘chequered past’.  The new team in charge have a chequered past of their own when it comes to country pubs, having made the national press last year by walking out en masse from their previous place of work, The Goose at the improbably named Britwell Salome, just weeks after winning it a Michelin star, on account of a difference of opinion with their employer over the poncey-ness or otherwise of their food.  Now, as regular readers will be aware, I don’t generally have much sympathy with anyone producing food that might be described as poncey, nor am I much of a fan of the Michelin star system, and all that goes along with it, but on the other hand, it does seem pretty churlish to publically slag off the chef that you have employed, and whose menus you have, presumably, sanctioned, on those grounds just a week after his efforts have earned your establishment that widely coveted accolade (a covetousness you presumably share, or was it freakish chance that your two previous head chefs earned you one too?  And then also saw fit to quit.  Hmmm. I feel my sympathies being firmly steered in directions they might otherwise not naturally go…).

Anyway, this bit of background knowledge created ambivalent, not to say contradictory feelings in anticipation of my meal at Orwells, establishing a sympathetic bond with chef Ryan Simpson and his crew, while simultaneously setting off alarm bells on my internal ponce alert.  Probably just as well, in respect of the latter that I didn’t take a look at their website in advance, featuring as it does a photo, in loving close up, of foam being spooned onto a stack of ingredients, on a rectangular plate.  That’s a three bell alarm right there…

From the outside the place still looks like a regular country pub, and at first glance the interior does too – although on a second glance the layout of the tables, and the presence of just two draught beer pumps behind the bar suggest this is not somewhere you would come just for a drink.  Still, nothing poncey or uninviting about it.  The restaurant, and its menus, are divided into two, regular gastro in ‘The Pub’ at the front, and fine dining in ‘The Room’ at the back.  ‘The Room’, presumably, is where the really poncey stuff goes on, but that’s not open for a weekday lunch, so we were restricted to ‘The Pub’, which was more than fine by me

Is this really the egg of a rabbit?
We were greeted by a jovially fresh faced young man in chef's whites (who turns out to be Simpson himself, suggesting they run a relaxed, unstressful kitchen, which is a very good sign in my book), and after being seated he brings us a couple of platters of their own home baked bread.  This gets them off to a very good start on two counts: firstly the bread itself is excellent, springy, delicious, and served with home made butter; secondly, they had been advised of Becca’s allergies the day before when she’d phoned to make the booking, and she was presented, unbidden, with her own plate of dairy and egg free wild garlic foccaccia with a dipping bowl of olive oil and balsamic.  And this foccaccia did indeed appear to be subtly different from the wild garlic foccaccia on the main bread plate, so did seem to have been specially made.  This, believe me, is the kind of thing that scores a restaurant big, big brownie points.  It makes you like them.

Other things help to make you like a place, too.  Not least the menu, obviously.  And things like a lunchtime set menu offering two courses for a tenner help a lot, particularly when the staff are totally relaxed and accommodating when it comes to adapting that set menu to allow for Becca’s allergies.  Top brownie points again.  And even more particularly when every item on that menu might itself have been the very thing you’d have taken off the main menu.  We would all have quite happily simply taken the set lunch, but more for the sake of variety than anything else we all chose to take the main (confit chicken leg) and dessert (chocolate torte – Becca was allowed a free choice of what would turn out to be many sorbets) from that, and choose a different starter, except for Becca’s brother Leo, who took the set starter of wild garlic soup, and would order a lemon tart for dessert.

Home cured salmon, pickled veg. Thanks to Jackie for the photo
We ended up with five different starters then, and I would say all were good.  Leo’s soup, off the set menu, was vividly, almost luridly green, and as brightly, freshly flavoured; Becca’s home cured salmon was lightly cured, allowing the flavour and the texture of the raw fish to express itself.  The only disappointing thing about my scotch egg was that it turned out not to be, as the menu hinted, a rabbit’s egg (which seemed specially, magically, appropriate for the Easter holiday), but a quails egg wrapped in rabbit meat, but was nevertheless deeply delicious in a slightly naughty way – very high quality food that still managed to remind you why junk food can be so compulsive.  Wicked Uncle Robert’s asparagus and poached egg (slightly oddly, to my mind, billed on the menu as Slow Poached Yattendon Hen’s Egg, with asparagus only getting a mention as an accompanying ingredient) was as good, fresh and seasonal as you’d expect, and a fine example of that pairing made in food heaven, but suffered perhaps, not by being disappointing, but exactly by being just what you’d expect – and I would also ask, respectfully, if you really need a poached egg and hollandaise with your asparagus. I’d be inclined to think that an either/or.  But never mind.  The one slight disappointment among the starters was, I fear, the birthday girl’s crab cocktail with avocado and mango, which was perfectly nice, but just a little bland (and also, it might be pointed out, distinctly the ponciest dish of the course).

Slightly poncey crab cocktail.  Also thanks to Jackie
A main course of confit chicken, on a bargain set menu, might make you think the chicken just a poor man’s duck, a budget option.  If that was indeed the case, it turned out to be money very well saved.  Not only was the sweet, rich, concentrated chickeny flavour at least as good as any confit duck I’ve ever had, it was also rather lighter, and far better suited to lunch on an unseasonably hot and sunny spring Tuesday.  It came with intriguing and unexpected hints of oriental spicing, and on a bed of bulgar wheat salad that placed the dish somewhere vaguely, but very pleasantly, in the middle east.  We drank with it a Domaine Coste 50/50 blend of Grenache and Viognier which had enough body, and just enough of a hint of floral peachiness about it to stand up to the richness and delicate spice of the chicken.  It was a memorably good main course, by any standards, for which you would happily have paid more for than the tenner of the whole set menu, and not for a moment would you wish it were duck.

Confit cotswold chicken leg. As enjoyed by all. Thanks Leo.
Come dessert, and the chocolate tortes and lemon tart looked beautiful, and tasted as good, and perhaps, like Robert’s asparagus, suffered slightly from being just exactly what you would have wanted and expected them to be.  The star here was undoubtedly Becca’s sorbets, selected from a bewilderingly long list, from which she chose sorrel, at our (young and even more fresh faced than the chef) waiter’s keen suggestion, and because it seemed so unusual, and rhubarb, possibly because it was the only other one from the list she could remember under pressure.  As it turned out it was an excellent choice, both aesthetically, the bright pink and the rather daringly drab green setting each other off very elegantly, and flavour wise, the sweet sharpness of the rhubarb contrasting nicely with the intriguing savouriness of the sorrel.

Lemon tart, chocolate sorbet. Leo again.
All in all, it was a very fine lunch, and coming in at scarcely over thirty quid each for four people splitting a five person bill, including wine, coffees, a pint of ale to start, a birthday bottle of prosecco, and the tip, it was almost too much of a bargain to be true.  Which it turned out to be: they’d accidentally left the prosecco off the bill.  There are times when you notice an item, particularly when it’s the biggest single item, has been left off the bill and you are inclined to keep schtum, particularly if you’ve had poor service (it will, after all, be your waiter who gets it in the neck), but also if you’ve been served rubbish food, or feel you’re being ripped off.  It says more about how Orwells delivered in each of those areas than it does about my honesty when I say that once I’d noticed their error it didn’t cross my mind for a moment to do anything other than point it out to them.  And even then, including the errant prosecco, the total still only just about topped thirty quid a head for all five of us.

Rhubarb & sorrel sorbets
And was it poncey?  Well maybe a little, with its variety of differently shaped plates (and a board for the salmon), it’s stacked crab cocktail and its tendency towards miniature salad leaves.  But on the whole no, not so much as it’d bother you.  I guess if you do want to be bothered by ponceyness then you could always try ‘The Room’ for dinner, but if you’re looking for lunch at a level a notch or two above good standard gastro, for a really good price, then the set menu in ‘The Pub’, will see you right any time you happen to be in the Shiplake area. Or even if you’re a walk up hill, down dale across a golf course and through a bluebell wood away…

* Apologies for the laboured pun, but I can at least plead relevance - Simpson renamed the former White Hart in honour of George, who, apparently, lived in Shiplake as a boy, where he would have been known as Eric Blair. 


  1. 3 weeks after I posted this review, Orwells were announced as winners of best South East restaurant in the Good Food Guide awards. I very much doubt the judges were swayed by my opinion, but it's nice to think I might have played a part in their triumph. I'm happy to take credit wherever I can find it...

  2. Not only that, Orwells have now been selected as overall national winners of the GFG awards, so are now OFFICIALLY the best restaurant in the UK this year.

    Well done Orwells

    I just hope they keep on doing those £10 set lunches...