THE ROYAL OAK: A BIT PARKY
I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than standing outside Maidenhead station freezing my nads off, needing a wazz, and waiting for a taxi in a long queue of people dressed in funny hats and speaking like Lord Snooty. How was I to know that Maidenhead was near Ascot? All I wanted was a decent bit of scoff for my Saturday lunch. Still, schlepping out to the sticks for a meal is the path I’ve chosen in this odd thing I call a life.
The Royal Oak pub lies just outside Maidenhead in an area of improbably large and expensive looking houses. It’s the sort of area where people play golf, wear cashmere sweaters and drink G&Ts. Jags come as his ‘n’ hers with personalised numberplates. You could count the number of people who read The Guardian on one finger of one hand. Still, Torygraph tendencies aside, they’re obviously a discerning bunch in these parts. They must be to support a terrific gaff like The Royal Oak.
Although it’s called a pub, The Roayl Oak is more of a restaurant with a small bar area. Chef Dominic Chapman has a pretty impressive CV and this shows through in nearly every course and which is why it’s now the holder of a Michelin star. And if you were in any doubt just one look at the menu which screams of generosity and good things to eat would disabuse you of any lingering apprehension.
The Scotch Egg has become a bit of a menu staple in gastropubs but in many places the execution is slapdash and the result no better than an industrial supermarket variety. Not here though where a miniature version was cooked to order. Notably good porky meat encasing a soft quail's egg. Perfectly executed - a starred egg if there ever was one.
Beautifully cured Rollmops were stuffed with sour cream and were a delightful fishy (in a good way) mouthful. Rabbit Rillettes came on toast and were cleverly paired with some pickles. A little underseasoned for my taste but possessed of great texture.
I’d last eaten Sand Eels at Hereford Road several years ago. Traditionally they’re used for bait but in my view they are much better off taking a trip down my throat. Here, they’d been carefully tossed in harina para freír before cooking. The result: wonderfully crisp little fish with a taste not obscured by the frying. They would kill for these in Spain. There was a pot of good mayonnaise on the side but all they really needed was a twist of lemon.
Relishing these dishes came from a combination of top ingredients and the kitchen adding that extra bit of refinement. This really came together in my main course.
A big tranche of incredibly fresh and meaty Turbot, the flesh cooked until just opaque, came with some Samphire in a little puddle of beurre blanc. Dotted around were small, sweet cockles and mussels and a concasse of tomatoes which added the balancing acidity. Technically, very impressive. Hugely enjoyable.
Mr Chapman’s last gig before this one was as head chef of Heston “I Heart TV” Blumenthal’s über gastropub The Hinds Head. No surprising then, that a bowl of chips, rather prosaically described as “Chips” on the menu, were actually of the triple-cooked variety. But not just triple-cooked as in we thought this would look cool on the menu triple-cooked, but triple-cooked as in the original, the standard that all other triple-cooked tubers should aspire to. In other words the best triple-cooked chips you could have. Ever.
It wasn’t all perfect. My Baked Alaska tasted more like an afterthought than a signature dish. If it’s typical of the puds then they could do with adding a pastry chef to the brigade. The whole point of the pud is the contrast between the hot meringue and the cold ice cream within. In my case the covering was lukewarm and (dare I say it?) a little tough with very hard ice cream inside. Given the high standard of the rest of the meal I’m happy to think it was an aberration.
I’m not sure what it was like before Mr Michelin came a’visiting but I also found the atmosphere at a little cold although the service was willing and friendly enough. Possibly, me being extra curmudgeonly because it was freezing and my table was hidden from the action. In fact, strike possibly and make it probably. Very easily forgiven, however, once you taste the fantstic food. A worthwhile schlep I think.