|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|
|Slightly poncey crab cocktail. Also thanks to Jackie|
|Confit cotswold chicken leg. As enjoyed by all. Thanks Leo.|
|Lemon tart, chocolate sorbet. Leo again.|
|Rhubarb & sorrel sorbets|
* 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.