Friday, 19 April 2013

The Chocolate Theatre, Henley

Come along inside…. We'll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place
The Wind in the Willows

Growing up where I did, the river Thames meandering through local villages, blossom-edged hedgerows and striped green lawns, may sound quite idyllic - unless you happen to be a teenager who actually lives there. No fast food, no cinema, and two pubs where everyone not only knows your name, but your age, too. Luckily, the Big Smoke was only a short train journey away.

It was only when we reached our later teenage years, and learnt to drive, that the local bucolic pleasures started to be appreciated. Afternoons spent in country pub gardens and country drives before sat nav or mobiles, where half of the fun was getting horribly lost. One of our favourite trips was over to Henley, where you could hire a boat on the Thames for a few hours, take a picnic to eat on the bandstand, or go for a cream tea at the Henley Tea Rooms.

While the tea rooms are still here, they have been recently taken over and renamed the Chocolate Theatre Cafe. The Ewing's idea of heaven. Gone are the the cosy dark wooden booths (which I do miss a little), to be replaced by a far brighter colour scheme and a five metre long glass cabinet that's crammed with home made chocolates, ice cream, cakes, gateaux, biscuits and pastries. They also offer a range of home cooked breakfasts, light lunches and cream teas. And, living up to their name, a menu of 25 different types of hot chocolate, ranging from white chocolate with nougat to extra thick Italian style.

We both chose the Henley Royal Cream Tea, a choice of sandwiches; scones with cream and jam; and a pot of tea for two. The tea was fine, although, being made with finest Thames Valley tap, suffered in comparison with the sparkling clear and bright brew we had enjoyed at Bettys a week earlier. There was also only one small pot to share, with no extra hot water offered, so we were already feeling parched again before our scones had even appeared.

There's a decent selection of freshly made sandwiches to chose from, all served with crisps and, as a bonus to keep my hair curly, served with the crusts left on. Sadly my chicken with a lemon tarragon mayonnaise and dried cranberries was pretty lacklustre. The filling was almost completely devoid of flavour, and the meat had a strangely soft consistency. The Ewing's smoked salmon and cucumber was far more successful; generously stuffed with fish and served on a great malted bread.

Raisin scones were good, served warm and with generous lashings of clotted cream and strawberry jam - surely there are not many things more disappointing as not having enough cream and jam to anoint your buns. Eating these made me realise how wonderful a simple cream tea can be; the sort of food that provokes an involuntary 'mmmm' every time you take another bite.

In a moment of sheer folly, I prepared my scone 'Cornish' style (that is with the jam on the bottom, cream on top), while the Ewing stuck with my favoured 'Devonshire' style (cream first). Apart from being told off by my wife for getting jam in the cream pot, and the jam-on-top incarnation looking rather more photogenic, I can scientifically say that flavour-wise they were both as divine as each other.

Of course, we couldn't leave without trying some of their eponymous chocolate based-goods. As we were far too full to do justice to their comprehensive hot chocolate menu, we chose a couple of slices of cake to take away. While everything in the cabinets looked great, especially the key lime meringue pie, Ameretto cheesecake, and apple tart; the Ewing went for the towering chocolate fudge cake, while I had the wobbly white chocolate and raspberry mousse cake. Both very much worth the calories when devoured the following afternoon.

The best tea rooms should be a calm and civilised oasis, that appeal to every strata of society, and that was certainly true of the Chocolate cafe. On our visit we saw young men, meeting up with their mates for a catch up over ice cream; families with sticky fingered children eagerly pressing their noses against the cake cabinet; tourists who appeared at turns both bemused and enchanted by this slice of middle England; ladies who lunch, buying big boxes of cakes to take home; and couples looking for a chance to ignore each other over a quiet slice of cake and the weekend papers. A special mention, too, for the helpful service, which remained very attentive and efficient, despite the obvious popularity of the place.

Although the Thames was cloaked in foggy drizzle, the Chocolate Theatre's beautiful riverside location means there's few places nicer for a postprandial walk. And while the weather may have been more befitting the local Canada geese than us pair of intrepid adventurers, we managed to get far enough to burn off at least half a scone and a triangle of sandwich before retreating to the car. Next time I hope to walk far enough to justify a mug of their peanut butter hot chocolate.

Thanks to the Henley Standard for the exterior photo.

Chocolate Theatre Cafe on Urbanspoon

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