OrwellsShiplake Row, Binfield Heath, Oxon, RG9 4DP
Contact: 01189 403673; orwellsatshiplake.co.uk
Price: lunch for two £90
Since Boris Johnson chose to become Mayor rather than Remain as MP for Henley-on-Thames, I confess I’ve not been able to name its Member. However, Google is my friend (if not the EU’s): it is, of course, John Howell, OBE, FSA, FRGS, maj 16,500, who I discover is, unsurprisingly, a Remainer (his OBE is “for services to export in central and eastern Europe”).
I am unsurprised, too, to discover that life in and around H-o-T, with its cheery upper-middle riverside frolics and abundance of very large, very expensive motor cars, plays like a particularly exciting chapter of The Wind in the Willows, and is, therefore, at the heart of all that is most English – especially if you are either American or Jeremy Clarkson.
Thus, on a lovely Wednesday morning in June, my partner and I tootled up the A21, round the M25 and along the M4 to see how the other half – pah! Two per cent? – dines.
Our destination: the Oxfordshire village of Shiplake, a five-minute drive from Henley Central, 10 from Reading and mildly famous for being the childhood home of Eric Arthur Blair, after whose pen name the restaurant Orwells (awol apostrophe notwithstanding) is named.
Eric, I suspect, would have had no truck with the EU’s dreary jargon and 1984-ish mission statements (“To promote and facilitate cooperation between Europeans, at individual, local, regional and national level, and in both the public and private sectors”). But having got his hands dirty in the Spanish Civil War, he would almost certainly have considered himself “European” – whatever that means this week.
However, let us not get bogged down in questions of national identity but hunker down instead at the side of a quiet rural road, inside the attractively white-painted brickwork of the Eric-eponymous restaurant. Here, a placid interior – high-backed upholstered dining chairs and much white napery – is overlooked by a portly bar, and the effect is a paean to slightly retro (circa Nineties) non-taste.
Heading outdoors to the garden, we lasted a mere couple of minutes listening to the hoped-for rural hums and tweets being drowned out by the kitchen extractor’s full-throated roar. Relocated to the conservatory, door open, we had the best of both In and Out. Whatever happened next wouldn’t be in any way horrible, we felt, but neither would it be particularly memorable.
How wrong I was. The set lunch menu offers three courses at £25 and, frankly, if you’re within 100 miles of Orwell-on-Thames, the sun is shining and you’re at a loose-ish end, drop everything and go now. (Though do call; they get pretty busy at weekends.)
From an unfussy short menu of quiet temptations, I veered towards the red mullet with tomato and pearl barley to start, and my chap chose the asparagus soup with goat’s curd and pine nuts. After that, it was, respectively, lamb neck fillet with tomato, asparagus, puy lentil and artichoke; and turbot with samphire, peas and radish.
Red mullet habitually munches on crustacea and I like it when you can actually taste that, while the tomato and pearl barley (I can never have enough pearl barley) cleverly brought out the best of it. Meanwhile, my chap declared his cool green pond of asparagus soup to be “perfect”; but to be on the safe side, critically speaking, I double-checked. He was right, it tasted exactly of June in Oxfordshire in the Year of Our Lord 2016.
The lamb was the best I’ve had in years. It came from Wiltshire, conceivably of its own volition, and respectfully attended by seasonal veg (Orwells is very big on “provenance” and “sustainable”, with en suite smallholding and apiary).
My man was mad for his (exceptionally pretty) turbot, laid to rest on a bed of a fat, crunchy peas, garlanded with shavings of radish and twiglets of salty samphire.
For dessert we both had the no-less-than triumphant vanilla pannacotta with alcohol-soused syrupy rhubarb and honeycomb bloblets – as perfect a Europud as you could imagine. It was with not a little greed, therefore, that I added cheese (Somerset Caerphilly, Nottinghamshire stilton, Devonshire goat’s cheese), moreish homemade crackers and various sweet-and-tart chutneys-of-the-gods. By the time we got to the coffee and petit fours, I was that far from Googling local house prices.
Some provenance is called for. Orwells opened in 2010 when chef/proprietors Ryan Simpson and Liam Trotman, partners both in and out of the kitchen, and then in their late 20s, left their previous employ, the Goose in nearby Britwell Salome, just three weeks after earning their first Michelin star (FYI, the former Goose is now a perfectly decent pub-with-food, The Red Lion).
Ryan and Liam were joined by restaurant manager Arnaud (via Normandy), and (via Liverpool) Liam’s brother Kurt as maître d’. They are running as welcoming, professionally sophisticated and on-point a modern rural British restaurant as it has been my pleasure to visit, apostrophe be damned.
At 3pm, after a lunch of near-faultless (albeit Michelin-starless, bafflingly) modern cooking and longing to Remain, we reluctantly made our Flexit. Orwells does assured, grown-up, imaginative (without being tediously hip – a compliment) modern British cooking. Indeed, it’s almost enough to make me want to return to Henley and watch that thing they do with the boats. Toot-toot!