Monday, 25 April 2016
The Royal Oak, Paley Street
Restaurants are not like laundrettes. This may seem obvious, even if you've not ever attempted to order a beetroot salad in a Happy Clean, and you may not think the disimilarity of restaurants and laundrettes to be worthy of pointing out. But I'm trying to make a laboured and only vaguely relevant point here, so bear with me. The point is, open a laundrette too close to another laundrette and one will steal business from the other, threatening the viability of both and dividing the customer base. After all, you only need to do your laundry once (unless you've been having a lot of beetroot salads) and you're just going to pick the one laundrette. But once an area becomes known for its lively dining scene, the wider availability of dining options draws in greater numbers of potential customers and, faced with a number of good restaurants, people will just eat out more, not divide a finite number of meals amongst all available restaurants.
So when an area - in this case the stockbroker belt on the Thames near Maidenhead - becomes internationally famous thanks to the efforts of the Roux brothers (the Waterside Inn) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck), then it proves demand for that kind of thing in the area, and before you know it you have places like the Hand and Flowers (Marlow, by Tom Kerridge, where if you've ever managed to get a booking for Sunday lunch you're a better man than me) and the Royal Oak in Paley Street, where I enjoyed a near-faultless lunch on Saturday.
The attention to detail at the Royal Oak is impressive, and evident in the quality of the smallest snack right through to the most lavish of the main courses. The bread, made in house, included a wonderful fluffy bun spiked with Marmite, and some delicate flatbread that managed to pack in a huge amount of flavour as well as being as delicate and rich as filo pastry.
Spiced aubergine hummus is the kind of thing that when presented as part of a 'Middle Eastern Sharing Platter' in your local high street bar would be like eating wet cement. Here, though, it was fresh and satisfying, the spiced aubergine sitting like a kind of light jam on top of a chunky (and perfectly seasoned) hummus.
A Scotch egg was good too, perhaps a bit stingy to use a quail's instead of hen's egg but we liked the herby sausage meat and the yolk was runny so you couldn't complain about much else.
Dishes like this wild garlic soup are why I eat out. Sharply seasonal ingredients, classical techniques used to great effect, clever touches of texture from (I think) some slivers of pastry or cracker, all combining to produce a deeply satisfying and perfectly balanced starter. And isn't it just beautiful, with its little buds of wild garlic flowers peeking out like snowdrops in a Spring forest floor.
Smoked herring raviolo was also superb, a soft and springy parcel of pasta containing a moist seafood filling (strange how so many ravioli at even quite good restaurants can containg horrid mealy, dry fillings; not so here), all topped with one of those chefy frothy cream sauces and a pleasingly punchy dollop of chilli jam. It brought to mind Philip Howard's "crab lasagne with basil cappucino" at the now sadly missed Square in Mayfair; I'm sure the Royal Oak would be happy with this comparison, as indeed they should be.
Mains were every bit as enjoyable as the starters, if - if I'm being brutal - perhaps just a tad on the safer side. My own Iberico pork chop was cooked to just pink, a golden-brown, butter-basted exterior containing a soft and giving flesh. Sprouting broccoli and celeriac purée soaked up one of those glossy meaty sauces you'd be happy just drinking pints of on their own, and some sort of herb and chopped pickle dressing added notes of acidity. Just brilliant.
And this magnificent thing, a juicy fillet of the finest grass-fed beef, prepared in that classically impressive French style, with spinach and chips and a lovely tangy Béarnaise. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the meat was bullseye-accurate medium rare, or that the chips were a textbook example of how to make chips, or that another dose of a silky-smooth meat jus, studded with roast shallots and mushrooms, tied the whole thing together beautifully. It tasted every bit as good as the above photo makes it look.
Desserts were confidently uncomplicated and straightforwardly enjoyable. My treacle tart with milk ice cream was exactly that, no more and no less, but I really do not want any more than a warm treacle tart topped with an ice cream as loose as the driven snow and I loved every bit of it.
Similarly this take on the "Snicker" chocolate bar, involving caramel, chocolate and a peanut ice cream which is a list of components that will never not produce the desired effect.
I'm on slightly tricky ground when it comes to assessing the value of the Royal Oak because on this occasion we didn't pay - I tagged along with a friend who'd been invited and the bill was taken care of. But if you consider that 3 courses are £30, sides are £3-£4 and many of the wines are available by the glass and I honestly don't think the price per head would have stretched much north of £50 had we been paying. And I don't know about you, but for cooking of this standard, even factoring in the £11.50 train journey from Paddington and the £10 taxi each way from Maidenhead station, is still a pretty good deal. In a part of the country not short of excellent places to eat, the Royal Oak Paley Street holds its own and then some, a cosy and welcoming little place serving food that's impossible not to love. Yet another reason for a weekend trip west, I'd say.
We were guests of the Royal Oak Paley Street. My app doesn't stretch that far west yet, but before your next trip out of town, why not see what's a bit closer to home?