Having grown up a stone’s throw from the pretty market town of Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire, I can vouch for the enthusiastic response from locals when husband and wife team Laurie and Jacqueline Gear opened The Artichoke in 2002. Understated pioneers of small independent fine dining outside London, the Gears are a couple who have nonetheless always had their sights on Michelin glory and whom many regulars feel have been robbed of the accolades they deserve; a loyalty which has contributed to the restaurant’s maturity and a reservations book that is full regardless of the elusive stars.
Far enough from the big smoke so as to make sense of the regularly changing a la carte and tasting menus celebrating organic and free range ingredients from the finest producers around the UK, The Artichoke equally benefits from being located within the commuter-zone and being accessible to many city foodies willing to take advantage of the direct 35 minute Metropolitan/Chiltern Railways line and a unique lunch-time experience that is surprisingly affordable (just £28 for the set three course menu). I say lunch time as I am not convinced I would want to clock-watch whilst enjoying an evening here. That said, there are many good inns in Old Amersham. For my own part I had long ago moved away from the family fold and was intrigued to take a step down memory lane and see how the restaurant had evolved since last I visited, just prior to the catastrophic fire which tore through the interior of the characterful 16th century premises and saw its doors close for eighteen months.
Whilst it was impossible to see the silver lining of this tragedy at the time, the new restaurant turned out to be a huge improvement in terms of décor and ambiance; expanding the dining area by taking over the adjoining property, they not only doubled their covers but created a private dining room ideal for corporate parties and celebrations. More dramatically still, chef-proprietor Laurie, who is a largely self-taught chef, decided to use the renovation period to work for Rene Redzepi at the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen. And the influence of the culinary Dane is clear today almost a decade later.
The restaurant, designed in a contemporary Scandinavian style, feels more inviting and comfortable than I remember it, the staff are attentive without being unduly formal, and there’s a striking open-plan kitchen giving diners an immediate sense of excitement on being able to view the constant flurry of the pass, presided over not by Laurie tonight but his Head Chef Ben Jenkins who hails from the 2 Michelin star Whatley Manor.
A glass of the restaurant’s house champagne Charles Heidsieck, Brut Réserve was a welcome opener and turned out to be a good friend to the amuse-bouche of sweet, acidic and frothy white onion and cider soup with watercress pesto which captured all the flavours of autumn whilst being extremely light and enlivening on the palate; a comforting harmony when paired with the exquisitely smoky bacon bread. Yes, the artisan bread here is dangerously good.
The first starter featured a single plump Isle of Skye scallop, temptingly caramelised and succulent whilst being partially draped by Wee Three Pigs air dried ham, the fat of which had just enough warmth from the scallop to begin melting. Meanwhile, the neatly turned heritage carrots offered both sweetness and texture and the pork and shellfish tarragon dressing lent aniseed notes that were enhanced by the accompanying Australian Semillion 2014 which also featured strong notes of oak, apple and liquorice.
This was followed by a just-warm and translucent home-smoked haddock presented on a shiny glass plate, designed to mirror the sleek look of the fish and partnered with a pretty pick and mix of wafer-thin radishes, earthy beetroot and a punchy horseradish cream which immediately made the dish pop whilst drawing on classical flavour pairings and the refreshingly pure, almost glacial qualities sought by the sommelier in the accompanying German Weiler Gutedel 2015.
Despite the main course selection offering the finest turbot, Dingley Dell pork and Oxfordshire lamb, for me it had to be the dry aged Angus beef fillet with sticky Perthshire short rib, beef dripping roast salsify, chard, girolles and a vibrant parsley purée; the soft fillet holding its own against the intensely smoky slow cooked rib thanks to the freshness of the herbs and the mulled wine and port qualities of the Cótes-du-Rhóne, ‘La Sagesse’ 2014. Quite simply sublime.
But just when I was about to wring my hands and declare the Michelin inspectors idiots, the lights in the kitchen dimmed and a pot washer could be seen scrubbing pans, while the chef upstairs, whom we could no longer see, prepared our desserts. It was rather like the prima ballerina going off to catch a bus before the final pas de deux, for surely the theatrics of the open kitchen should extend to dessert? It was rather a disappointing finale.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded quite as much had it not been for the sliding front of house service, and the fact that the staff were too occupied with talking in a corner to notice that I disliked my dessert of chocolate mousse, fresh mint ice cream and coffee – a combination which in my opinion didn’t work, not least when matched with a Pedro Ximenez cream sherry reminiscent of prune juice. It was the only pairing of the night that wasn’t on the nose for my part, however, as Marina Berardo is a brilliant talent with an intuitive love of wine you don’t often see.
My companion on the other hand, had an impeccable experience from start to finish, having ordered the glorious signature dessert of caramelised pineapple with sweet chilli, pistachio cream and Szechuan pepper ice cream, and luckily she was generous enough to share it with me. Not only was the bric pastry a masterly example of something notoriously challenging to make, but the pineapple was just the right texture and sweetness; any tropicality then cleverly enhanced with the warming pepper ice cream and the “Cordon Cut” Riesling, Mt. Horrocks, Clare Valley, Australia 2014, tasted rather like freshly made lemon curd or juicy lemons baking in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Knowing that top restaurants are ranked utterly upon consistency, both kitchen and front of house, it is my rekindled love for The Artichoke and my appreciation of their food – which in my view can easily bear close comparison to a certain high street dining room in Bray – that prompts me to shake them up a bit and make them realise that a show is only over when the curtain comes down. If they fix that (an ultimately minor point) there is no knowing what bouquets will fall at their feet. I nonetheless applaud them for making me delight in returning to my homeland – with a restaurant this good I can’t think why I ever left.
The Artichoke, Old Amersham, Buckinghamshire. For more information and reservations please visit the website.