A French fancy
Ooh la la... L'Ortolan has held its Michelin star for 15 consecutive years, so this fine dining experience is well worth la voyage.
I’m feeling a bit dark on Rachel, Muddy editor in Berkshire, for not inviting me as her plus one for the glutton-fest that is L’Ortolan. Really Rachel, your husband?! But of course I’m above sour grapes (just about) and it’s a restaurant you’ll really want to know about, so read Rachel’s verdict below…
Berkshire has enough Michelin stars to light up the night’s sky. But before your think this culinary genius is confined to the villages surrounding Maidenhead, you’re wrong. L’Ortolan is Reading’s only Michelin starred restaurant – a gong held for 15 consecutive years (and retained by Head Chef Tom Clarke since 2015), plus 3 AA rosettes and named in the Sunday Times Top 20 UK restaurants in 2016. Fancy.
There’s nothing to confuse you here, L’Ortolan wears its fine dining formality like a badge of honour. From the moment you swing into the gravel drive, the handsome red brick Grade II-listed 19th century vicarage comes into view, surrounded by manicured gardens. It’s grown up and screams special occasion.
Hello Reading! Well, Shinfield, to be exact – a pretty village that is being sucked into the Reading suburbs judging by the number of executive homes popping up. It’s close proximity to J11 of the M4 explains the urban sprawl, and although it lacks that whiff of luxury you might find at other fine dining restaurants boasting extensive grounds and epic views, the gothic revival building and elegant proportions are a great scene-setter for the real star – the food!
This modern French eatery is very grown up. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Eating out is all the more memorable when it encourages you to get dressed up and talk about something other than your kids’ social calendar or the sociological merits of Love Island. The atmosphere is high brow with softly spoken waiters, ironed white table cloths and hushed conversations. It’s not snooty or pretentious, but it definitely a place for special birthdays, anniversaries or schmoozing the boss. In my case, it was a dolled up date night with Mr Muddy.
I loved the bar. Its dark walls, strokeable seating and colourful art created a sexy vibe perfect for after-dinner drinks. It was a nice evening so we were ushered into the more traditional conservatory for an aperitif and amuse bouche. As you would expect, a good gin menu, cocktail list, extensive wines to suit all tastes and budgets and artisan beers. Once chef is ready, you’re led through to the main dining room, flooded with natural light with a traditional but modern vibe. White table cloths, cream carpets and walls with large mirrors, but I suspect it is acts as a blank canvas for Chef Tom to introduce his culinary art.
I started with the confit of salmon, elderflower and horseradish with crispy fish skin and caviar. Chef Tom is a master at balancing sweet and sour and savoury to produce a dish that is delicate, surprising, but when you combine all the elements together exceptional. Mr Muddy went for the richer goose liver parfait with cherry and chocolate. He loved this meaty dish. It was delicious, but I struggle with liver so it’s not something I would order off a menu.
The glazed duck, apricot and lavender, served with duck leg bon bons, was lush. Any top flight chef worth his salt should be able to make a damn good sauce, but this was something else. I’d happily bathe in a this pool of meaty gorgeousness. I wasn’t sure about the apricot, it was quite sharp and jammy but slather on that sauce and all was right with the world. The panfried stone bass, soft shell crab and yuzu looked as pretty as a picture and I even managed to nick some soft shell crab off the plate without being stabbed with Mr M’s fork.
Dessert – raspberry parfait, marshmallow and tarragon and caramel, blackberry and sour dough ice cream. The raspberry and tarragon hit the pot and the sour dough ice cream reduced us to a fit of giggles (could have been the wine). It tasted just like bread. Not in a weird way, either. Genius.
Er no. Unless they have a more sophisticated palate than cod goujons, but in all fairness why you wouldn’t want the little buggers spoiling your fun? Keep the stress levels low, the enjoyment factor high and embrace kid-free time out.
Good for: Foodies looking for top flight fine dining action to tantalise their tastebuds. Special occasioners clinching a big deal, celebrating birthdays or creating a memory. This is a food experience from start to finish – from the bar nibble teasers and course prequels to delicious petit fours. L’Ortolan also offers private dining rooms, chef’s table, cookery masterclasses and they’ll even send a chef to cook for you at home.
Not for: Families unless you have older children with incredibly sophisticated tastes. Nope, mine neither. Casual diners might struggle with the formality, but personally I love being treated like a princess. The interior is stylish enough but don’t expect any designer boundary pushing. Sunday and Monday diners will be disappointed, they’re not open. Just saying.
The damage: Pretty good for Michelin. You get more than you pay for here in my opinion. The 3-course a la carte menu is £65 per person, but you can pay as little as £28 for the 2-course set lunch menu and as much as £190 for the taster menu matched with the finest wines.
L’Ortolan, Church Lane, Shinfield, Reading, RG2 9BY. Tel: 0118 988 8500 Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday 12-2pm; Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday 7-9pm.