A brilliant special occasion meal: L’Ortolan, Reading
Sometimes eating out is a confusing business. You book a Michelin restaurants that looks like a pub. You choose a cafe that’s actually a bar. The pub offers formal dining. But when you turn into the gravel driveway of L’Ortolan, Reading’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, there’s no mistaking the kind of experience you’re going to get – this place is ‘formal special occasion’ through and through.
The 19th century former vicarage building is handsome with its grand red brickwork and Gothic revival outline, and the interior has all the high ceilings and elegant proportions you’d expect.
It’s a highbrow atmosphere at this modern French eaterie, lots of softly-spoken waiters, white tableclothes, grown-up spaces. Not snooty or pretentious, but definitely the place you’d take your mum and dad for a special birthday, your partner for an anniversary, or someone you really want to impress at the office or lunch. Or in my case, a really close old friend who, somehow, I hadn’t seen for 10 years what with kids, moving and all that stuff.
We had a drink first of all in the bar area – had it to ourselves which was rather lovely actually and ordered champers. The room is all velvety, dark, rather lovely and the kind of room that would massively come into its own in the evening.
There is always the slight inclination to giggle in very quiet rooms at posh restaurants but when you’re having bubbles with a girlfriend, frankly it’s a total fait accomplis, but no-one seemed to mind, and we didn’t feel self-conscious.
Then we were led through to one of the two main eating areas, both with lots of natural light, quite traditional in their white table-clothed carpeted style (together the two areas hold 58 covers so it’s an intimate venue).
You and three of your mates can also eat at the ‘chef’s table’ in the kitchen itself, watching him cook your meal and basically being a gastronomic voyeur while fishies in a tank swim behind you (a funky touch). Not the sort of experience I hanker after but I know lots of foodies who would die to have that proximity to a Michelin kitchen (here’s Head Chef Tom hard at work) so whatever floats your boat.
I kind of surrendered myself to this meal as soon as I entered the building, and went for the 10 course Surprise Menu with matching flight of wine. Shall we just stop right there? Does it really matter what I ate? Do you think for a second I was sober enough to remember?! Look at this meal, you can see for yourself – it was magnificent.
The food kept coming and coming, and every single course had so much care. I know it’s hard to justify a meal that edges into double figure, but I do think that the best food experiences are worth the investment, like a designer bag or a night in the theatre stalls.
Certainly it’s hard, on the basis of my meal here, to differentiate between L’Ortolan and two Michelin star venues like Le Manoir with the food. Maybe the only discernable difference is the ‘polish’ – the L’Ortolan carpets could do with replacing for example, and the Shinfield venue near the M4 doesn’t quite have the whiff of luxury that Le Manoir’s extensive grounds and five star rooms offer. Then again, nor does it have its prices, with the 10 course Surprise Menu coming in at £105 (or £185 with a flight of eight paired wines) versus 5 courses for £82 at Le Manoir. Seriously people, think about that price difference!
Upstairs there’s a small cookery school that is intimate and fun and I suspect a little underutilised, though I’ve been told that this area, like some of the ground floor interior, has been ear-marked for an update. There are also three private dining areas, again upstairs, that can hold between 8 and 22 guests. My nod would be to the Wine Cellar room – a bit more atmospheric and cool than the more uptight surroundings of the Pommery Room – but it’s all personal of course.
Having eaten at so many restaurants that trade on being approachable, unpretentious, normal, it’s actually rather lovely to be treated like royalty for a change. (*cough*, go on, bow!). Just to be made a fuss of, be presented food with a serious flourish, food that looks like a work of art and tastes like a dream, presented by staff who really feel passionate about what they’re serving and where they work but still manage to behave like normal human beings.
L’Ortolan has just been awarded 20th place in The Sunday Times Top 100 Food List and has retained its
Michelin star retained for the fourteenth consecutive year (the first for Head Chef Tom Clarke). It’s not hard to see why. Hop over the border and enjoy the theatre of a great restaurant holding centre stage.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Foodies, foodies, foodies. Tom Clarke’s attention to detail can be felt everywhere, from the exquisite nibbles with the bar drinks through to the palate cleansers and whopper cheese board. Private diners don’t need to pay room hire, making it an attractive proposition, and there’s an attention to your pleasure that’s very, well, pleasing – chaffeurs available, half bottles of wine to order, even chefs to come to your own house to cook!
Not for: Small children (obviously); lovers of more casual fine dining. Those looking for acres of grounds to wander post-meal – the walk will take you minutes. Sunday and Monday diners – tis closed, people.
£££: Mid range for Michelin. You get more than you pay for here in my opinion.
L’Ortolan, Church Lane, Shinfield, Reading, RG2 9BY. Tel: 0118 988 8500 Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday 12-2pm; Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday 7-9pm.