Thursday, 11 July 2019

l'Ortolan, Reading

There are some restaurants that exist outside of the usual fads and trends of modern dining, that confidently serve the same food, to the same guests (if not at the same price), that they've done for generations. The most famous examples are places like Rules, or Simpson's on the Strand, where you've been able to sit down to a roast grouse or beef Wellington since shortly before the Napoleonic Wars kicked off; both come recommended (particularly Rules, which has a lovely bar). But there are other time-capsule delights dotted around the capital if you're prepared to look for them - any number of jellied eel emporiums whose signature offering boasts a recipe stretching back to the 19th century, or the pink palace Oslo Court which as far as anyone can tell hasn't changed its menu since the early 70s ("Pink grapefruit segments" / "Coquille St. Jacques" / "Steak Diane"). Sniff at these joints as anachronisms at your peril - once they're gone, that's another priceless piece of London food history lost forever.

L'Ortolan, tucked into the Berkshire countryside somewhere outside Reading, has an equally distinguished background and solemn abiding respect for its chosen period in the gastronomic timeline - namely, the early 90s. It's a fascinating period in the UK's culinary history, where Jamie Oliver's rustic Italian revolution was barely a glint in a TV producer's eye, most top restaurants cooked French haute cuisine (with only a passing nod to the seasons, and with most ingredients flown across the channel), and Gary Rhodes, Marco Pierre White etc. had just kicked off the age of the celebrity chef. Skills acquired in the grand dining institutions of France were in the next few years to transform the British dining scene into something recognisably of our shores, but not quite yet. For now, posh food was French and French alone. At l'Ortolan, the mercurial John Burton Race was in charge, and the odd touch of nasturtium or wasabi aside I'm sure would recognise a lot of what's still served today. Steak tartare, lamb rump with rosemary jus, strawberry and vanilla parfait - this is a menu that knows its audience, and is proud of its place in history.

As well it should be, because the food, though admittedly no longer cutting edge, satisfies and delights when it needs to, and is still worth the effort. We had snacks and cocktails in the garden, little crackers topped with cream cheese, pickled cucumber and salmon roe which had a lovely freshness of texture and taste, and mushroom arancini balls, greaseless and comforting. Cocktails were a bit on the warm side, and the martini in particular had a strange artificial lemony taste (?) but thanks to a nice sunny day and a very pleasant garden, were still enjoyed.

Inside, l'Ortolan impressed further with a nice plush (and very 90s) dining room, and their house bread - particularly an extremely edible sourdough with a parmesan crust. I'm not entirely convinced of the wisdom of serving a pre-starter consisting of 90% of the same ingredients as the salmon roe snack from the garden, but hey, their place their rules, and the puffed fish skin was fun.

First course proper was a colourful gazpacho, poured over a goat's cheese mousse and studded with basil leaves, olive crumb and that 90s classic, sun-dried tomatoes. It was very good - gently hot with garlic and using quality tomatoes - and felt perfect for such a sunny day, even eaten inside.

Steak tartare, neatly arranged on an oblong piece of toast and presented alongside confit yolk, was similarly enjoyable, if not exactly earth-shatteringly brilliant. I'm very sorry to all you beef tartare fans out there, but I've rarely discovered an example of this dish that was any better than "good". Now, the Bob Bob Cité version topped with caviar, on the other hand...

I just adored this lamb main course. If there's one reason you'd head to a place like this to see how people did fine dining 25 years ago it's to revel in things like perfectly-pink lamb chops, ultra-smooth pea purées and geometrically neat confit potatoes, all draped in a glossy, salty, herb-infused jus. There's much of what restaurants did in the 90s I don't miss, but it takes a lot of very specific skills to turn out a plate of food like this, and it's a real shame such technique and stubbornly silver-service presentation is as rare as it is. This lamb was worth the journey alone.

I didn't hear quite so many expressions of rapture coming out of my friend who'd ordered the pea risotto, but I blame her for ordering the pea risotto. I mean, how good can a pea risotto really be? How good could any risotto really be? There, that's the Italians annoyed again.

l'Ortolan boast a proper old-school cheese trolley, with some fine examples of British (mainly) and French (a couple) cheeses. Here, at least, is one example of modernity - I imagine the idea of serving British cheese back in the early 90s would have been given very short shrift. All in great condition and generously portioned out, that very lively looking washed-rind orange one in the middle was our favourite, tasting quite like an Epoisses. Sorry, I didn't write down the name, but hopefully someone can ID it.

Pre-dessert was a pleasant but largely unremarkable chocolate cake with ice cream, which we happily ate and then completely forgot about. If I didn't have photographic evidence of its existence I would have forgotten to mention it at all, in fact, but then maybe that's the point of pre-desserts.

My own dessert proper, various different ways with strawberry including a neat cube of vanilla parfait coated in dried strawberry powder, had a lot going on but all of it good, from the smooth and powerfully-flavoured sorbet to the jewel-like slices of compressed fruit. I enjoyed every bit of it, particularly the flourish of a bright-green spun-sugar "stalk" making the parfait look like part of a surrealist fruit salad.

Sadly raspberry parfait, despite looking the part, suffered from a very crumbly, crystalline inside from being (presumably) kept too cold for too long. If there's one thing that's improved the lot of the pastry chef since the 90s, it's the invention of the Pacojet, which would have been very usefully employed here.

But you know what, such slips were hardly about to spoil our lunch, and I still left the place very happy that l'Ortolan exists and is still doing its thing far its rapt local (and, er somewhat senior - we were the youngest people in the room by about 30 years) audience, informality and rustic stoneware and foraged apple marigold be damned. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not a phrase you often hear about the restaurant industry, with its constant reinventions and relaunches designed to keep your business featured on Instagram feeds (or if you prefer the 90s equivalent, the papers). But l'Ortolan hit upon a successful formula 25 years ago and see no good reason to change it. And neither, for that matter, do I. Let's hope in another quarter century, Brexit and global climate catastrophe allowing, I can make a return trip as one of the oldest people in that dining room, and enjoy those wonderful lamb chops all over again.


I was invited to l'Ortolan to try their weekend lunch menu, so only paid for cocktails and calvados.


Alex C said...

I was taken to L'Ortolan as a very special treat in approx 1990 in celebration of a religious confirmation (rescinded a matter of weeks later...)
I remember the food being wonderful and very similar to what you describe, with lovely sticky reductions. I also remember the dining room being quite shockingly pink - with a bit of luck they've toned it down since then.

I also remember discovering that a L'Ortolan was a little bird that had been drowned in Calvados and then roasted. Now illegal due to the barbaric death. The idea was to eat the whole thing in one bones and all with your napkin over your head so you didn't offend other diners with what must have been a pretty horrible thing to witness. I gather it's still legal to serve in France but you're not allowed to sell it.

What a happy plast from the past - thanks.

Janine said...

I would have tried the pea risotto too.