Waking up one fine Saturday morning, it seemed too nice to confine oneself to the grey vistas and sloughs of despond to be found in London. With this in mind, I called up She Who Must Be Delayed and asked, perkily, if she could be persuaded to accompany me on a jaunt out of town. I had a certain place in mind, the much-heralded restaurant Artichoke, in Amersham. She Who Must Be Delayed soon perked up when I mentioned that not only was it hotly tipped for Michelin glory, being labelled a Rising Star in the most recent guide, but that it was especially notable for having risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of a terrible fire in 2008. Lesser lights might have been dimmed forever, but chef-patron Laurie Gear and his wife Jacqueline were made of sterner stuff. Not only did the restaurant eventually reopen in 2009, 18 months after the Amersham inferno, but it’s expanded into the next door building, giving the rooms more space and allowing them to more than double the number of guests they serve.
She Who Must Be Delayed and I reached Artichoke after a pleasant downhill walk from Amersham station into Old Amersham, the sort of red brick fantasy of a town that adorns picture postcards the world over. Wandering inside, the first thing that one notices about Artichoke is that it pulls off the incredibly rare feat of being stylish without being over-formal or stuffy. We are greeted warmly (but not over-familiarly, which pleases She Who Must Be Delayed, for whom the world’s greatest sin of manners is to be ‘fresh’, in her charmingly antiquated parlance) and ushered to a pleasant table in sight of the kitchen. The unspoken subtext is that everything’s on show here, with nothing to hide. Apart, perhaps, from the culinary alchemy, which becomes quite clear very suddenly.
After a sublime piece of bacon bread for me, and sourdough for She Who Must Be Delayed, and a light palate-cleanser of a cucumber amuse bouche, the meal proper began. I’d had my eye on the fabulously named ‘snail bonbons’, which proved a stirring hors d’oeuvre. Coupled with a perfectly cooked piece of red wine glazed pig’s tail and grelot onions, the ‘bonbons’ themselves were small, chewy mini-croquettes with meaty Hereford snails inside. They were about as good a dish as I’ve eaten all year, and came superbly paired with a glass of New Zealand Riesling. She Who Must Be Delayed had rich, juicy scallops that were lightly curried and served with pickled carrot and coriander; the combination was quite perfect and nearly made me very envious indeed.
At this point, the ever-charming Laurie Gear stepped out of the kitchen and introduced himself. He proved a most convivial and interesting host, having spent time in the supposed ‘best restaurant of the world’, Noma, and was admirably level-headed about the no doubt horrendous process of rebuilding his restaurant from the ground up, quite literally. Jacqueline, meanwhile, was the perfect hostess, offering bon mots along with the snail bonbons and generally making everyone’s lunchtime that much more pleasant as an experience. It’s a far cry from the stilted, dry and impersonal service in many of London’s Michelin-starred dining establishments.
A main course of Oxfordshire pork fillet and belly with tagliatelle – an unexpected but successful touch – and kalamata olive was an innovative and interesting meld of influences and flavours, helped by a superb glass of Pinot Noir from Burgundy (replaced without fuss when the Checkpoint Charlie-esque handover process of exchanging morsels of food resulted in the wine being besmirched). She Who Must Be Delayed ordered the hop smoked sea trout with cucumber panna cotta; I accused her of being particularly keen on the idea of it being served ‘ambient’, but rather than this being some sort of Brian Eno-esque mystic warbling, it merely meant room temperature. It was impeccably good and I was very grateful for this.
Desserts maintained the impeccable quality of the meal – my blackcurrant crumble soufflé was really quite exceptional, and the sort of thing that Poet Laureates ought to be penning verses to – and, after the final flurry of petit fours (best of which was ice cream wrapped in white chocolate, a sort of upmarket spin on things you see in supermarket freezers in garish packaging) we bid Artichoke a sad but fond farewell, hatching plans to return imminently for the full experience of the seven-course tasting menu in the evening, a repast which by all accounts is a thing of beauty, joy and wonder.
As we trudged up the hill back to Amersham station and a return to the metropolis, She Who Must Be Delayed took a momentary break from trying to stop me getting killed by passing traffic and said, pensively, ‘I really enjoyed every aspect of that. The food, the service, the wine, all brilliant. Just one thing…’
‘What?’ I said, fearful that the idyll was about to break.
‘Doesn’t it seem a bit weird to go to a restaurant called Artichoke and not eat any artichoke?’
Answers on a postcard, please.
The Artichoke, 9 Market Square, Old Amersham, Buckinghamshire HP7 ODF. Tel: 01494 726611. Website.