Wednesday 29 May 2024

Restaurant Dominic Chapman, Henley-on-Thames

This isn't going to be a very long post because, well, it wasn't a very long lunch. Sometimes you want to spend all day cooing over a tasting menu, getting through way too many bottles of wine and ending up leaving just as the next set of guests are arriving for dinner. Sometimes - quite often, in fact, in my case - that is very much what you want.

But then some other times, you want one or two courses, a glass of well-chosen fizz, and to then head off for a day in the sun. That's not to say Restaurant Dominic Chapman isn't a lovely place to hang around - it's the flagship restaurant of the very smart Relais Henley-on-Thames, which can boast some buildings dating back to the 14th century, and has for the best part of the last 300 years been a hotel right on the banks of the river. There's a plush dining room with conservatory opening on to an expansive, sun-drenched (at least on this day it was) courtyard, but I recommend you get the best of both worlds by sitting on the soft furniture just by the open doors, which still feels quite al-fresco.

As I said, we skipped starters and dove straight into mains. House burger was very nicely done, with a huge lump of lovely crumbly beef and what felt very much like a kind of custom house dressing somewhere between mayonnaise and a Caesar dressing. Fries were perfect - crunchy and golden and moreish, and were very swiftly all hoovered up. They make their own actual mayonnaise, too, which as any Belgian will tell you is the best thing to dip chips into.

I've been served enough dry, mealy, overcooked duck in my time to know that to get it as good as this - tender as you like, pink in the middle, with just a touch of crunch on the skin and a good thick, salty, rich sauce - requires proper kitchen skills. And this might be a good idea to talk about the titular Dominic Chapman, who I first bumped into cooking at the (now sadly departed) Royal Oak Paley Street. He then spent a good few years touring round some of the best kitchens in east Berkshire - the Beehive in White Waltham, the Crown at Burchett's Green - before finally opening this, his own place, with his own name above the door. His is a well-practiced and classically trained kitchen, and the years of experience shines through in every dish.

We were so impressed, in fact, that we decided to stick around for desserts. Both were basically fautless in that English country gastropub style, a sticky toffee pudding all gooey and syrupy, and a superb treacle tart, each served with lovely soft house ice cream. I perhaps would have liked to detect a bit more (in fact, any) advertised honeycomb in the treacle tart ice cream as it's one of my favourite things in the world, but maybe they forgot. Anyway, no real harm done.

The bill came to £94.60, which I realise isn't super cheap but then this is Henley, in rather plush surroundings, and did include a very nice glass of Rathfinny fizz (Sussex). I also notice that their website lists a £20 for two courses (£25 for three) lunch menu which we weren't offered, so this might just be weekdays. Either way, it is possible to eat here on more of a budget, just as it's equally possible to have four full courses, go HAM on the wine list and spend all day here. All approaches are valid.

However you approach your time at the Relais though - and plenty of people were just doing drinks and snacks in the courtyard, which also seemed positively encouraged - I can't imagine you're likely to come away disappointed. A kitchen as accomplished as this can, I imagine, turn their hand to more or less anything and make a success of it, but serving crowd-pleasing Fresh-British classics in lovely surroundings for a decent amount of money is a surefire way to win yourself fans, just just from the lucky residents of Henley but much further afield. They've certainly made one of me.



Alex C said...

Looks very nice, but £35+service for the duck really is hard to justify surely.
I know there's inflation to consider but that does seem a lot.

Chris Pople said...

Alex C: I suppose it is a bit punchy, but this is Henley and quite a fancy hotel - the surprise really was that the burger was so cheap given the surroundings.