It seems almost impossible that a meal of such epic proportions, dexterity, creativity, imagination, ambition, generosity, playfulness and food born of passion, could have transpired on an ordinary Friday lunchtime.
It’s an 11 course menu but throw in two amuse bouche dishes, bread, cheese and petit fours and you get to 16
But that’s Orwells for you, lulling you into a false sense of security as you pull into the car park of the 18th century Shiplake pub near Henley. Yet within seconds of opening the heavy door, the signs were there – the thick velvet curtains and dark lighting heralding a grand reveal – the charmingly decorated, contemporary, bright, intimate, panelled interior enticing you in.
Our waitress Millie Kelly, explained all the options and ascertained that we’d prefer the tasting menu rather than the a la carte, before presenting us with October 6th’s offering – which was tantalisingly nondescript in its one word titillaters, considering the attention to detail that goes into each and every course.
Orwells’ field to plate ethos is evident in each mouthful
Where to begin? How to do it all justice? For those who haven’t met Liam and Ryan Simpson-Trotman who run Orwells, suffice to say, it’s all about love.
The chef patron/owner/partner relationship manifests itself into one of absolute devotion to the cause – the pride they take, the thinking that goes into each and every component – the provenance of the ingredients, the produce grown on their small-holding down the road, is all evident on the plate.
Throw in the fun element such as the OFC (Orwells Fried chicken), or their four AA rosettes and their mission is complete.
you might think 16 courses is impossible, but it was actually an incredibly thrilling experience
There are only, I say only with a wry laugh, 11 courses listed on the two menus (one veggie, one normal), but then throw in the two amuse bouche courses, bread, an optional cheese platter and some petit fours to enjoy, and you get to a staggering 16 courses.
Which you might think impossible, but was actually an incredibly thrilling experience; the tiny dishes appearing in quick succession, each one specific, unique and different enough to keep you interested.
Let’s start with the two amuse bouche dishes – the first – a cheddar curd croquette- crispy, oozing, naughty and set on a wasabi dip, alongside a dehydrated curry sponge topped with kaffir lime emulsion
But it was the famous cheese ploughman’s soup that really set the scene, a tiny steaming iron pot which, when you lift the lid, revealed a warm cheese mousse, with tiny cubes of pickle, celery and apple at the bottom of the dish. Delectable.
The bread – homemade of course served with homemade butter and honey, like the queen in Sing a Song of Sixpence – with that superb crunch of the bitter crust, salty butter and then sweet honey.
Then the full English – an empty egg shell filled with tiny cubes of diced egg in a home-made mayonnaise with bacon bits and a topping of black pudding. Hard to ever get over.
The crispy potato with Exmoor Ocietra Caviar was another revelation – the potato peeled and rolled tight, like a triple cooked chip, crispy within each layer
The crispy potato with Exmoor Ocietra Caviar was another revelation – the potato peeled and rolled tight, like a triple cooked chip, crispy within each layer, and then topped with sour cream and proper caviare. More than that, the taste of the potato shone through in each and every bite.
The modern British menu continued with Scottish glirolles, a take on a mushroom risotto with tiny cubes of apricot to sweeten it and cut through the earthiness of the fungi.
The sea fennel was an entirely new revelation, like samphire doused in coals and peat
Then the Isle of Skye lobster served with sea fennel – an entirely new revelation, like samphire doused in coals and peat, which we literally couldn’t get enough of – enhancing the lobster magnificently, the veggie version with beetroot and silky smooth haricot beans, quite sensational.
Onwards we rode, next a huge Orkney scallop with pea shoots and a dazzling sauce vierge, vibrant with fresh herbs and golden reasons which tasted like floral grapes, yet both pungent and delicate.
The jaw-dropper was the OFC – arriving on a huge smoking plate of limes and ice majestically carried to our table, the batter so light and crispy, like tempura, the chicken infused with Thai style flavours.
The veggie alternative was a carrot which sounds almost risible in comparison, but again its infusion was so heady and pronounced, its delivery so clever, that it deserved its place.
the Shiplake squash tasted like a roast dinner – a Willy Wonka-esque moment of wonder
As for the Shiplake squash, it was similarly marinaded, this time so that it tasted like a roast dinner, in a Willy Wonka-esque style moment of wonder.
The pink duck breast came with a curry emulsion, very colonial, a tantalising Indian nod, whilst the Wootton Bassett Lamb dish, again tiny and pink, was the best lamb we’ve ever eaten.
the Wootton Bassett Lamb was the best we’ve ever eaten
How we managed the cheese course I’ll never know, opting for three cheeses rather than the six, accompanied by thin crisp biscuits, grapes, pickles, oat biscuits with raisins, and lots of other goodies which we were incapable of resisting.
Luckily, the palate cleanser hailed soon afterwards – From The Garden – essentially a zinging green apple sorbet with homemade granola and blackberries, before Chocolate arrived – a raspberry macaroon which then revealed layers of different chocolate mousses and crunch inside, pistachios topped with and aerated chocolate, which kept on giving.
After that it’s a blur – some petit fours and a wonderful passion fruit jelly. It was late afternoon when we were aroused from our dining reverie.
yet that stolen time, that lost afternoon, bore witness to one of the most memorable meals we’ve ever had
And yet that stolen time, that lost afternoon, bore witness to one of the most memorable meals we’ve ever had.
So there we have it. Suffice to say Orwells’ field to plate ethos is evident in each mouthful, nothing is left to languish or waste. Instead the ingredients are revered which when combined with Lee and Ryan’s fearfully creative bent, can only produce some really magical food, all based on the fact that they care deeply about their food.
Orwells Restaurant, Shiplake Row, Binfield Heath, Henley on Thames is open from Wednesday-Sunday. The taster menu is £150 a head. Wine flights cost £110-£150 a head.