Reading isn’t famous for much besides having boasted the first ever Little Chef and being the birthplace of the Duchess of Cambridge, but she’s long since fled for Kensington Palace and the town isn’t likely to be your number one choice for a romantic weekend break. There is one destination however, that might just persuade you to visit, and that’s L’Ortolan, Reading’s only Michelin starred restaurant.
Located in the picturesque village of Shinfield, just 20 minutes from the town centre but far enough away for diners to feel fully immersed in the Berkshire countryside, the handsome red brick manor which the restaurant calls home makes all the right first impressions, and the sports cars indicate that this isn’t your average mid-week dining experience. L’Ortolan is the obvious venue for a millionaire to wine and dine a date, a popular ‘ladies who lunch’ haunt, and no doubt a favourite with the Middletons, who live in nearby Bucklebury.
Having heard our footsteps on the gravel, the impressive oak front door was opened to us before we had a chance to ring the bell and we were swiftly ushered to the conservatory for a glass of the finest and a chance to peruse the menus. L’Ortolan takes its name from an illegal dish in France; a small bird drowned in Armagnac, roasted in the oven, and then consumed whole (bones and all), under the veil of a napkin. Not being convinced by this illicit pleasure, however, I was somewhat relieved to find this item conspicuously absent from the menu.
L’Ortolan boasts an impressive culinary history, having been home to six Michelin-starred chefs since the property first opened as a restaurant almost forty years ago; Richard Sanford, Nico Ladenis, John Burton Race, Daniel Galmiche and more recently Alan Murchison who resigned last year. Current head chef Tom Clarke, who replaced Murchison in January 2015, has retained the Michelin star and is clearly confident in the driving seat.
With a CV which includes Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Clarke joined L’Ortolan as a Chef de Partie in 2009 and quickly worked his way up to Sous Chef, with his time at the 2 Michelin starred Le Strato hotel in Courchevel and L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence clearly invaluable in refining both his culinary technique and creative flair. Clarke was appointed Acting Head Chef on returning to L’Ortolan in August 2012 and today, far from being in Murchison’s shadow, he is making his own mark with exciting and modern French dishes that ensure you keep going back for more.
Whilst formal, thanks to a strong front of house team who anticipate your every need, the dining room has a surprisingly relaxed and romantic ambiance and the piped-in jazz and purchasable art lining the walls makes for a far less severe environment than you typically find with restaurants of this standard; where diners are expected to behave as though seated in church, with pew-like chairs encouraging them to remain bolt upright and almost fearful of the waiting staff who painfully whisper the catalogue of ingredients contained in the dish solemnly placed before them.
After the maître d’ made several (slightly embarrassing) enquiries as to the nature of my guest’s dietary requirements, no doubt fearing that she would have some sort of convulsion, head sommelier Guillaume Kaczmar, teased us by declaring that we would not experience ‘what we like’, after we expressed our general abhorrence of organic wines, something he happened to be especially passionate about due to having been raised on a strictly organic diet.
Kaczmar was determined to introduce us to less familiar wines, and whilst I admit that this turned out to be more interesting for him and more memorable for us, wine pairings remain a gamble if you happen to have rigid preferences. It leads me to question how much a sommelier should challenge his diners or simply attempt to please or guide them. Would you be taken aback if a chef asked you to name all the things you loathed only to trot off to the kitchen in order to attempt to change your opinion?
Having said that, the crisp Leirana from Spain with notes of apple was a perfect match for the first course; a beautifully tender chicken and leek terrine, with the sweetness of the leek countered by a heady truffle mayonnaise, a single charred leek, parsley purée and the textural delight of crispy chicken skin. The wine also worked well with the next dish; delicate scallops with a shockingly black squid paint that almost certainly made me look less attractive (temporarily at least), a squid tapioca crisp, compressed apple, dill and apple mayonnaise.
At this point we knew we were in for an evening of first class cooking and exemplary dishes just kept coming; beef tartare with finely sliced radish, Enochi mushroom, tiny capers, and instead of the classic raw egg, an egg emulsion, (a fancy term for mayo that sounds like paint but tastes much better) all topped with a crunchy sourdough crumb. Served with an acidic Zweigelt Austrian red 2011 with warm spicy notes.
The fish course was exactly the kind of dish I would like to be able to serve at home for a dinner party, and can’t; flaking stone bass with silky pomme puree, salty samphire, bitter orange purée, charred white chicory and sautéed spinach, all bathed in a glorious star anise flavoured jus made with a base stone bass stock which had a gloriously rich and glossy caramel colour. How does Clarke do it? My guest literally raved about the accompanying 2012 biodynamic Sancerre.
The Provence-inspired main of lamb fillet featured succulent sweetbread popcorn, an intense pepper and tomato purée, spinach, turned courgette rounds and a fragrant lamb and rosemary jus. Where was I going to find room for dessert? Thankfully the pre-dessert of fennel granola and liquorice cheesecake mouse was cleansing enough to prepare me for the seriously complex and indulgent finale; caramel parfait, caramel jelly, honeycomb, Muscovado sponge, a chocolate ball filled with salted caramel, lime ice cream and honey cress. It was a dish reminiscent of sticky toffee pudding, but the textures were like seeing a 3D film (whilst eating sweets) for the first time – in a good way.
Far from being the experience of eating a tiny hedgerow bird veiled in a napkin, L’Ortolan is an impressive and sumptuous dining experience, with Clarke continuing to fly the flag of culinary excellence in the footsteps of his esteemed predecessors. Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if he overtakes them entirely. Love Reading or not, I’ll be heading there again soon – Tom Clarke being made Head Chef could possibly be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened there.
L’Ortolan, Church Lane, Shinfield, Reading, West Berkshire RG2 9BY. For more information visit the website.