Before I moved to France, I lived in Bray, a tiny village described on French television as being “in the heart of the English countryside”. This description is not really believeable, as it’s right next to an unassuming town called Maidenhead. This town looks like just about any other slightly grubby town in Britain, with its high street featuring such retail monoliths as McDonalds, Ernest Jones, and Wilkinsons (as well as a truckload of empty shopfronts).
However, there is one thing that makes this area different to others in the UK, and that’s its unusually high density of Michelin-starred restaurants. In Bray you have the Waterside Inn (owned by the Roux brothers) and The Fat Duck – and Heston Blumenthal’s other restaurant, a gastropub named The Hind’s Head, has also been awarded its first Michelin star recently. This intense concentration of high-quality restaurants, beautiful riverside location and proximity to London also ensures the presence of a number of celebrity residents, including Uri Geller and Rolf Harris – and another of those notable denizens has opened his own restaurant in a bid to match the culinary opportunities already available.
Television presenter Michael Parkinson opened The Royal Oak in 2001 with his son Nick, and it has gradually crept up the rankings to obtain a Michelin star itself. Naturally, we were keen to visit, and were lucky enough to spot the man himself during our lunch (he dines there most days, so this was likely not an improbable occurrence, but still).
So did the experience match our expectations? Traditional decor and impeccable service was combined with a whole host of tempting choices, with us both plumping for the 2 courses for £25 option (even though we probably could have stuffed more in thanks to the glittering list of temptations on offer). Having fallen in love with the humble Scotch egg, it was painful for my husband to pass up Parky’s version, and I would have loved a starter (in retrospect, I should have gone for this). However, costs here could rack up extremely quickly: 3 courses cost £30, so with wine, water and coffee, you could easily end up paying £100 for 2 people even at lunchtime.
As a starter, my better half opted for the Fried River Exe Sand Eels, which were tiny and came deep fried in batter. These were stood up vertically in a tiny dish and came with mayonnaise in a diminutive dipping bowl. Although fried, these weren’t greasy at all, proving light and delicate and making an unusual starter.
For the main course, we both chose the Devonshire duck breast, which came with caramelised endive and an impossibly creamy celeriac purée. Served with hazelnuts and the meat’s roasting juices, this was definitely a traditional roast with a twist. A range of side orders were also available, but we decided against these, and didn’t feel any the worse off: the duck was cooked to perfection, with the whole ensemble being packed with flavour and presented divinely.
We matched this with two glasses of red wine, which proved decent value for money at £7.40 for a mature Bordeaux (Château Arnauld, 2005) and a young whippersnapper from Argentina (Malbec, 2011). These delivered on flavour and had had a chance to develop before arriving at the table so that we wouldn’t miss out on their possible nuances.
The most disappointing aspect was arguably the dessert: I chose the Cambridge Burnt Cream, and it sounds naïve now, but I had been expecting something more than what was essentially just an ordinary crème brûlée. While tasty, it lacked the innovation of the previous courses, and in fact, this was true of the whole dessert menu, with perhaps the only exception being the greengage tart. From this point of view (and the fact that we did go for coffee and petits fours afterwards, which were superb), I think a starter would have been preferable – if I were to return, the wild rabbit lasagne, Cornish lobster linguine or wood pigeon salad would all be highly desirable dishes.
We would definitely return, in spite of the expense, for the mix of innovation, cosiness, tradition, quality, good service, and general Englishness – although we would advise going for the starter/main combination to profit the most from the experience, steering clear of the slightly duller desserts. However, I’d say that Heston and Michel definitely need to watch their backs.
The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3JN