I made the disturbing discovery that the chef of the Royal Oak doesn’t taste the food he sends out from the pass
THE ROYAL OAK
The Royal Oak, a restaurant in a 17th century inn on Paley Street near Maidenhead, has a Michelin star. This means that, according to the little red book, it’s ‘a very good restaurant in its category’.
It also means, and I know this from having quizzed the boss of Michelin, that it is consistently good. Those secretive Michelin inspectors will have visited the place a number of times before reaching their conclusion that the establishment should be afforded an accolade that so many chefs dream of.
So I went for lunch there. Staff buzz about smartly dressed, grown men sport mini-bunches of grapes on their lapels – which tells you they fancy themselves on the wine front – the walls are adorned with modern art and the place seems to have had most of its 17th century charm wrung out of it.
Looking through the menu my eye spotted taramasalata, which tempted me because I like taramasalata, although a friend’s mantra that you shouldn’t order things you might regularly eat at home rung through my head. Then this was a Michelin-starred restaurant so I reckoned that their taramasalata would be a creamy, dreamy, pale-not-pink version. It would surely take my beloved tarama to new heights.
For this, surely, was why it was on the menu. It was ironic. The message seeming to be, ‘OK, so you think taramaslata has become an everyday item, a pink pot that you chuck into your supermarket trolley and dip into while you sip a glass of white wine in the evening as you think about cooking dinner, but taste our recipe and think again.'
Indeed this was what Marcus Wareing did at The Berkeley when he served it as pre-starter. He took the mass-produced pink stuff and made his own heavenly version.
So here I was again in another Michelin-starred restaurant – albeit with one less star – pondering on the taramasalata issue. I ordered it while others around me went for seemingly more adventurous potted rabbit or walnut salads with candy beetroot, goat’s cheese pear and honey.
THEN OUT IT came. And I made the disturbing discovery that the chef of the Royal Oak doesn’t taste the food he sends out from the pass. An extraordinary, fundamental error, the sort of unbelievable cliché error that you assume is only fabricated for Ramsay Kitchen Nightmare-style TV shows.
The colour was right, ie not pink. But all I could taste was lemon. A creamy, painfully-biting, lemony dip. I assumed the chef hadn’t tasted it because if he had he wouldn’t have sent it to the table.
‘Could you ask the chef to taste this?’ I asked a helpful waitress. A message soon came back that this taramasalata was from a batch made the previous day by a more junior chef. The head chef, therefore had indeed not tasted it. Another version prepared and made by the chef then arrived. It was better. But this was a cataclysmic, fundamental and terrible error for a place that heralds its star to the world.
Next course was pork. Slices of pork served on a bed of cabbage with thinly sliced al dente carrots and a jus criss-crossing the plate. The dish reminded me of the worst efforts that have come under my nose while filming Masterchef: The Professionals. The pork didn’t taste of much and if it did the over-sweet, over-rich jus, crowded it and dismissed it from the field, like a large sumo wrestler pushing his opponent over the rope and out of the arena, crashing to the floor.
So that was almost it for my Michelin-starred lunch. Worse than any supermarket taramasalata I’ve ever eaten followed by instantly forgettable pork. Great cooking combines deft, subtle touches with bold ideas. These courses had none of that.
Thank God they had someone good on puddings, because my apple crumble was perfection. In a bowl of its own, it had the sweetest, loveliest, nuttiest top, with a warming, stewed filling that – with wonderfully vanilla-flavoured custard – filled and rescued my otherwise broken heart and furious stomach.
34, on South Audley Street in Mayfair, meanwhile showed how the meat world can fight back against evidence this week from Oxford University that being a vegetarian can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to a third.
As my Aberdeeen Angus T-bone steak – chargrilled to tender, medium-rare perfection – showed, you might live longer if you’re veggie but life won’t be as much fun. The parilla in the open kitchen – a bespoke charcoal grill fashioned in Argentina – is quite a spectacle. Roaring flames lap round exquisitely marbled beef from Scotland, Argentina, America and Australia. And there's plenty of good fish, salads and other dishes for those who want to live longer, although they didn’t get my attention.
34 is an accomplished restaurant. A vibrant, cosy room, mixing Edwardian and Art Deco with really comfy seats from which you can watch men with grey hair and over-whitened teeth dine with dark and expensively-tanned women you get the feeling they really shouldn’t be with.
This un-Michelin-starred restaurant showed how the tyre company’s stars are floundering in today’s dining universe. 34 has energy, confidence, atmosphere, flair and style. The staff know what they’re talking about and don’t need to wear grape emblems on their lapels.
Next was a school reunion dinner, with some pals I hadn’t seen since I was twelve, at Chakra on Notting Hill Gate. This was the place where last year I ate the finest spiced lamb chop of my life. Chakra is owned by Andy Vama, who used to own – with his brother – a much-loved Indian restaurant called Vama in Chelsea.
Having closed it a few years ago, he’s looking for new clientele in W11. It’s a posh place with fat comfy chairs and smartly uniformed waitresses most of whom seem to speak London’s now second language – Polish.
We had the back room where we laughed and shouted about our school days. The teacher, Mr Flower, who looked like Hitler and called himself Uncle Adolf. The shell-shocked, war-torn kindly old Mr Johnson who took half an hour to write large Latin words on the black board. Mr Powell, the tramp-type kitchen helper who lived above a barn by the carpentry shop surrounded by cats and – we assumed – slept in straw.
Where, we wondered was Miss Daniels, the assistant matron we fell in love with aged eight? We recalled being stripped, tortured in an underground camp and thrown into nettles during break time in the wooded area called The Wilderness. We laughed at the traps – pillows, shoes, glasses of water – we set for Mr Porch above the door to the dorm for when he came for ‘lights-out’.
We recalled the day the whole school was summoned together as the staff attempted to track down the anarchist who had scribbled on the library wall. The culprit was among us at Chakra. He used to call me Sitoilet. I called him Hanoilet.
These good old days we pored over as we wolfed down rich baby lamb curry, yellow daal, chicken biryani and grilled chunk of garlicky butternut squash. It was delicious, although it took two hours for the main courses to arrive.
Not that we cared too much, being too busy remembering the day a low-flying aircraft cracked and shattered that commemorative glass bowl and the endless times we waited in a line outside the headmaster’s study while the head boy paraded his crimson slippers past us which would soon be used to administer pain for – in my case – not working hard enough.
After a row about the cost of the wine – £58 for each bottle of chianti – helpfully settled when they offered to take £200 off the bill, I cycled home with thoughts of those mad old days.