Restaurant Review: The Royal Oak Paley Street, Maidenhead Saturday, Nov 10 2012 

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.

http://www.theroyaloakpaleystreet.com/

The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3JN

01628 620541

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The Hind’s Head (2) Monday, Jul 25 2011 

I have reviewed the Hind’s Head before, so to do so again arguably seems like a bit of a cheat, especially given that this area of Britain is truly a culinary epicentre (why review the same place again when there is so much more left to visit?). But I review again not without good reason. On my last visit, it was lunchtime and the service seemed haphazard despite there only being 3 of us. On this occasion we were a party of 8, and it was evening, so I was expecting a different experience all round (except, hopefully, for the quality of the food).

Thankfully there was not a shade of disappointment, the whole thing going off without a hitch (well, apart from the triple-fried chips not being available due to something about the quality or type of the potatoes at this time of year not being suitable).

The traditional British pies and puddings (steak and kidney; chicken and mushroom) served went down a treat all round the table, and the wine chosen to go with it all (a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile) was equally agreeable, although your best bet off the list is probably any Old World wine under £35. But the star of the show on this occasion was the desserts. Faced with a choice from the set menu of Banana Eton Mess versus the mysterious Quaking Pudding, the French contingent went for the latter. This mediaeval confection is best described as being like an English pannacotta, although perhaps not as firm. It’s called a “quaking pudding”, according to the information card that was brought with it, due to the fact that it “quakes and shakes like a jelly when it is served”. An unusual end to any meal!

However, as someone who ordered off the à la carte menu, I went for, on the recommendation of my sister, who had had it before, the equally intriguing Chocolate Wine Slush, and then proceeded to make myself look like a total piglet as I vacuumed it up. While my sister continued to poke daintily at its yumminess with a spoon, I had time to read the information that came with it. Chocolate wine was considered an aphrodisiac in the 18th century, and the chef has put his own modern twist on this by turning it into a shot glass of red wine slushy (the earliest recipe dates from 1694, and is a mousse-like granita known as scomigilia di ciocolatte, FYI). It came with the finest, most delicate slice of millionaire’s shortbread you have ever seen, topped with a flake of gold leaf.

My relationship with millionaire’s shortbread is a bit of a love-hate one; I see it and think “ooh, that looks nice” and then eat it and feel sick. This, however, has a level of refinement previously unknown to this humble dish, being thin and with an intensely concentrated flavour, rather than being over-sickly slabs. Truly, this, combined with the Chocolate Wine Slush, could be my Last Supper dessert and I would die HAPPY.

But perhaps more valuable to the Hind’s Head than my own assessment is the impression made on our French guests (of which two had never been abroad, let alone to England, and of which one could count the number of her UK visits on one hand). The two UK ‘virgins’ happily enjoyed every aspect of the British foodie experience, from the Hind’s Head food to the full English breakfast served at our home the morning after; my sister-in-law went one better, though, and claimed that the food at the Hind’s Head had ‘restored her faith in British cuisine’. CASE. CLOSED.

http://www.hindsheadbray.com

The Hinds Head, High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AB

tel: 01628 626151

Restaurant Review: The Thai Orchid, Maidenhead Monday, May 3 2010 

To talk of eating my way across England might be a bit of an exaggeration. I’m actually not very well-travelled. In fact, Birmingham, Cambridge, Coventry and Edinburgh are the only places I’ve been to in the UK that are north of the Watford Gap (unless Oxford also counts? I’ve never been much of a geographer). So I’m really quite the Southern fairy at heart, and as you can imagine I’ve sampled a fair few of its gastronomic delights. My 10-day trip to England last week was full of culinary wonder just by itself.

However, as you will see from this first wave of restaurant reviews, not very much of the food I consumed this week was very ‘British’ at all. Sure, there were goodly amounts of Jammy Dodgers, fruit crumbles, Waitrose sandwiches and whathaveyou (and certainly there will be a few reviews from this trip of outlets selling British food), but perhaps reflective of Britain’s culinary diversity, plenty of it wasn’t.

And so we arrive at our first review: THE THAI ORCHID, located in Maidenhead, a fairly middle-class suburb about 40 minutes west of London. I had visited once before, and the restaurant is a general family favourite. Part of this is probably the fact that it’s less than 15 minutes’ walk from the family seat, meaning that everyone can drink as much as they want. But there’s more to it than this. If you can ignore the restaurant’s proximity to a petrol station and main road, and look the other way, the fact that it’s opposite the Thames (with a nicely picturesque bridge to boot) means it does actually have a rather prettier setting than it first might appear.

Then, of course, there’s the restaurant exterior and interior.

The elephants got nicked, sadly. (You know I said Maidenhead was middle-class? Well, it is – as perhaps evidenced by the copious numbers of flash cars, leafy estates, and brand new yuppie apartment complex round the corner from the Orchid – but it also has a considerable population of chavs.) You also can’t really see it, but to the left there’s also a pretty water feature, which is at its best seen at night. Indoors, you can look forward to sumptuously traditional Thai interiors, including extremely detailed wood carvings on the walls and tables.

The restaurant is always busy, and the night I went was no exception. The restaurant is extremely popular in the area (while this is partly down to the excellent service it provides, it’s also perhaps due to the lack of Thai competition in the area. Chinese and Italian restaurants abound, but this place is more unusual and this is likely recognised by its clientele) and you are advised to book a table in advance. However, this does not seem to affect the rapidity of the service, with waiters and waitresses being attentive, friendly, accurate and speedy.

Speediness in a restaurant is not always a good thing; chances are there’s something wrong with a place that can dish up a risotto in five minutes flat. At the Thai Orchid, though, the quality of the food is definitely not compromised in any way: while no vegetarian food was ordered on this occasion, pork, seafood and chicken were all deemed excellent. The starter plate is perfect for sharing, shows excellent portion control, combines vegetarian and meat dishes effectively, and is beautifully presented. The main courses were kept warm successfully on the table throughout the entire meal and there was enough to go around, but again, portion control was very good: we were satisfied, but not stuffed to bursting and not in a situation where we were leaving a lot of food on the plate.

This left only two things – dessert and wine – and these both carried small disappointments in one way and another. While the wine list was comprehensive, on the occasion that we visited they were unfortunately all out of Thai wine (so it was to the good old faithful Pinot Grigio for us, which, even though it complemented the meals well and was wonderfully cooling and fresh against the spices used, is not exactly authentic). Equally, the desserts trolley is always impressive, providing everything from fruit salad to Crunchie cake (yes, really), this lacks authenticity, and the restaurant would benefit from adding a few more traditional desserts to its trolley (such as coconut ice cream).

After that a few of us had mint tea, which was adequate, but ultimately did not have a patch on the mint tea served in good Moroccan restaurants.

Nevertheless, the Thai Orchid offered a pleasing experience all round – and, of course, living so close meant that we were able to walk off at least a few of the calories we’d just consumed.

********

Address: 2 Ray Mead Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 8NJ
Tel: 01628 77755 (you might need to stick a 6 in front of that first 7, though)

Average cost per person: £31 (excluding drinks, taxes and tips, as calculated by http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk)

Website: http://www.thaigroup.co.uk