Shinfield, Reading, RG2 9BY
Tel. 0118 988 8500
Food type: Modern French
Nearest tube: –
Apologies for a lack of posts. With our wedding coming up very soon, there is plenty to sort out – from table plans to ensuring people get paid. Between wedding stuff and work, there is just not enough hours in a day for me to blog consistently.
I have visited L’Ortolan in the past. Twice to be exact. On my previous visits, Alan Murchison was in charge of the kitchen. Both visits were 5 years apart. What I can remember from both meals was that the food was overworked and the pricing was very ambitious, for a 1* restaurant. On my more recent visit, I was also particularly annoyed with the wine service – we were presented with a dusty bottle and the waiter did not have a Scooby how to handle the wine with a lot of sediment poured into the glass. There was strangely no sommelier around that night. Perhaps it was an off night or perhaps it was because L’Ortolan, then under Murchison’s 10 in 8 Group was heading towards liquidation. Murchison eventually left L’Ortolan after 13 years and in his place is his former protege Tom Clarke.
We visited on Good Friday for lunch. This would be my first visit for lunch with my previous visits here during dinner. We decided to have a drink in the conservatory before our meal. Service here is now led by Sylvain who was formerly restaurant manager at Medlar. While looking at the menu, a few canapés were brought to us to enjoy with our glass of champagne. Of these, my favourite was the haggis fritter which was crisp with a good deep offal flavour. There were various menus on offer – a cheap lunch menu, the a la carte menu with 3 options for each course, a short 7 course tasting menu as well as a longer 10 course ‘surprise’ tasting menu. We opted for the full tasting menu to allow us to see more of Tom Clarke’s cooking.
Our meal began with an amuse bouche of mushroom tea. In a small black cup were some dehydrated mushrooms and soft herbs. A little hot mushroom consommé is then poured table side to rehydrate the mushrooms. I loved this little number with the consommé which had good mushroom flavour and had a nice cleansing touch to it.
The first official course was mackerel, cooked two ways. The main element was a fillet of mackerel which had been marinated in a miso-soy concoction before being blow torched. On the side, was a very tasty mackerel rilette. The mackerel was sensibly paired with cucumber and finished on the table with a little wasabi ‘snow’. I enjoyed the contrast of textures and temperatures and the torched mackerel had benefited from the umami-rich marinade.
This was followed by another crowd pleaser – crab with papaya with an orange and yuzu sorbet. Carefully picked, sweet, Cornish crab meat was paired with slices of barely ripe papaya with the orange and yuzu sorbet providing the necessary acidity to balance the dish. On the side was a cracker with brown crab meat, caviar and some blood orange segments which was a pleasant distraction. I really liked the simplicity with this dish – not messing around too much with an excellent core ingredient and allowing the flavour of the crab to shine through.
We next were in more classic French territory with a foie gras parfait served with pineapple in various forms – chutney, charred and puree. A little dusting of a spiced gingerbread crumb provided a lovely contrast to the richness of the foie and sweetness of the pineapple. A little smoked duck ham was a sensible addition to add a salty, smoky note to the dish.
Our fish course was stone bass paired with chicory, pomme puree and a red wine jus. There was some unannounced blood orange chutney which was unfortunately too sweet for my liking. I have no problems with having a sweet element with the fish, but because there was a huge generous quenelle of the chutney, this resulted in an unbalanced dish. Perhaps the chutney could have been made to be more bitter or a lot less of it should be on the plate. A shame really because the fish itself was beautifully cooked and the mash luscious and rich. Unfortunately however, with the chutney, it just felt like eating fried fish and marmalade which was not very pleasant. To be honest, the whole blood orange component could have been omitted and the dish would have been equally as good.
Things got back on track with our main course of lamb loin which was wrapped in a herbed chicken mousse and rolled into a ballotine, accompanied by lovely nuggets of sweetbread popcorns. The dish was finished by a lovely morel jus which had lovely depth of flavour. The lamb was accurately cooked and the accompaniments sensible. In particular, I really enjoyed the addition of anchovies which added a nice salty hit to the dish. If there was a small gripe, it would be that the portion size was on the small size particularly for a main course.
Instead of a traditional cheese board, we were served a designed cheese course. Truffled Oxford isis was sensibly paired with apple and honeycomb. For some reason, despite my love for truffle, I am not really a big fan of truffled cheese. I find it often times overpowering. And I’m not one to shy away from strong flavoured cheeses. The accompaniments here did well to provide freshness to the palate without the truffled cheese being too cloying. There was a cheese board on offer and Sylvian did kindly offer us a plate from the trolley but we were getting full by this stage and declined.
Desserts were interesting and showed a decent amount of skill. First a palate cleanser of white chocolate mousse with blueberry was harmless enough. The first official dessert – apple parfait was shaped to look like an apple. I loved the combination with pecans and the caramelised white chocolate ice cream. The ice cream in particular had a lovely silky texture. The final dessert was an unusual combination of sesame, blackberry and sake. However, when eating the dessert, the elements came together to give the impression of eating a peanut butter sandwich! Ingenious! After our lunch, we retired to the conservatory to enjoy some tea. Although some petit fours were brought out, by this point we were so full we just ignored that they had even showed up.
I have to say, I was a lot more impressed with my meal at L’Ortolan this time around compared to when Murchison was cooking. Although both of them share equally complex cooking styles, the Tom Clarke’s food felt more natural. There felt like there was a purpose for each element on the plate rather than a chef trying to show off different techniques. Clarke is not afraid for simplicity when it is called upon – the crab dish was a prime example with crab, papaya and an orange/yuzu sorbet as the three elements. It is also nice to see that the kitchen is making an effort with the canapés rather than the token effort under Murchison’s team (fried whitebait and truffled popcorn). Of course there are places where things can be improved. The stone bass was perhaps one element too far. I think if the whole blood orange component was removed, the net result would still have been a very tasty plate of food. That being said, I do think that the restaurant is cooking at a very solid 1 star level.