Thursday, 2 June 2011

Orwells, Shiplake, Oxfordshire

Bank holiday weekend.  What could be nicer than a carefree jaunt through the Oxfordshire countryside with the promise of a pint at the end of it?  After sitting stock still in a traffic jam somewhere outside Henley our well deserved drink seemed very far away.  A quick call to the pub to advise them of our hold up, and a circuitous 'shortcut' through Reading, and we pulled in to the car park hungry and grumpy and nearly an hour late.

Despite our delay I was much looking forward to our visit. Rather famously current chef and co owner Ryan Simpson had previously headed up the kitchen at the Goose in Britwell Salome.  Just weeks after regaining their  Michelin star a row with the owner over 'poncey food' saw Simpson quitting and eventually setting up Orwells (named for the author George, who grew up in the village) with his sous chef, Liam Trotman. Orwells promises to deliver 'rural, local food' in the pub and fine dining in 'The Room' which is open in the evenings.  All very promising.

We were warmly welcomed on our slightly flustered entry, and shown to our table in the almost empty pub.  Even on a holiday Saturday only two other tables were occupied, and there was no one drinking at the bar.  A strange sight as Orwell's has recently been awarded 2AA rosettes and has been named as  Restaurant Of The Year for the South East by The Good Food Guide.  While gongs count for very little unless people want to eat and drink here looking around at the homely, traditional surroundings and decently priced food I was surprised it wasn't busier.

Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the menu contained a good looking selection of 'posh' pub grub, including a lovely looking spinach soup with leaves fresh from the garden, a special of half a lobster and chips and their famed muntjac and hazelnut burger.


Looking forward to a pint to slake my thirst I was disappointed all hand pumped ale was off.  We settled for a couple of bottles of the ever reliable Oxford Gold, and a couple of 'bar snacks', fearing starters might dent our appetites for the main event.

These were no lightweight nibbles.  Two big kilner jars filled with crispy pork scratchings and marinaded olives soon arrived, followed by a plate of warm, complimentary bread with home churned butter and smoked sea salt.  The Ewing set to work spearing olives like a underwater hunter while I tucked into the pot of porcine goodies .  The scratchings, odd black bristle and all, were truly brilliant.  Nearly in the league of the Sportsman, and far more of them to crunch through.


The muntjac and hazelnut cheese burger.  This was also available sans cheese, but I was determined to cram in as many calories as possible after the trauma of getting there.  It was a good call; although it wasn't the peerless, luminous American variety (far too low brow for a burger of this stature) it was nicely melted and added an extra level of tangy nuttiness.

The burger was great.  It looked the part, and cooked slightly pink this notoriously lean meat was oozing juice.  Luckily the glazed brioche bun more than contained its cargo.  If I had a small criticism then the bun was slightly too well done on top, but there was no disintegration as I munched my way through it.  Bonus points for the construction; shredded lettuce on the bottom and tomatoes and plenty of, the all important, pickles on top.

Full marks too for the triple cooked chips.  By far the best fries I have had for a long while.  The mustard mayo accompanying them was nice, but with all the cheese and grease I could have done with some good old Tommy K to cut through the richness.


The Ewing's monkfish with spring vegetables, clams, cockles, samphire Jersey potatoes and pea broth.  Spring on a plate.  I can't vouch for this one as I had both hands full and juices dribbling down my chin.   It seemed to go down pretty well though, the Ewing complementing the lightness of touch and the fresh and delicate flavours.

The baked Alaska was as pretty as a picture with the carapace of tarragon meringue concealing a tangy raspberry yogurt ice cream.  I really enjoyed the aniseedy flavour of the accompanying tarragon puree, and the great ice cream, but wasn't as enamoured with the meringue. To be fair I think this is a problem with the dish rather than the cooking.  Meringue that is neither crunchy or chewy seems slightly redundant other than as an insulator for the frozen centre.

Despite some pressure to pick the coconut creme brulee the Ewing plumped for the chocolate tart.  This came with a great Frangelico and coffee ice cream, candied walnuts and cornflake crisp.  The tart filling was wickedly rich and smooth, but I found the pastry a touch tough.  No complaints from the Ewing though, and, even after all those olives, there was little evidence left on the plate.

Overall this was a lovely, laid back meal in bright and welcoming surroundings.  Although a couple more tables filled up the pub remained very quiet through our visit, a huge surprise considering the great food and charming setting.  I'm not sure if it's busier in the evenings, when the Room is also open, or for their Sunday roast, but they certainly deserve to be.

Despite almost having to roll out the pub, groaning after such a feast, and getting horribly lost again on the way home, I'll be back for the scratchings and the fries.  This time with the sat nav.

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