The Royal Oak Paley Street
Berkshire, SL6 3JN
Tel. 01628 620 541
Food type: British Gastropub
Nearest tube: N/A
Website: The Royal Oak Paley Street
I recently revisited Royal Oak, Paley Street without knowing that Michael Chapman had left. Michael was a very capable successor to Dominic Chapman (not related in the slightest) having been his right hand man at Royal Oak and although he adopted a slightly different style, the cooking was still top notch. It was only at a recent meal at the Beehive did I find out that Michael is now heading the kitchen at Hurley House (formerly Red Lion) which I am due to visit soon. He is replaced by James Bennett.
Although I live fairly close to the Royal Oak, I don’t go there as much as I should. One of the reasons is their pricing which is slightly more expensive than neighbouring pubs like the Crown (at Burchett’s Green) and the aforementioned Beehive. I guess this is the Michelin star premium. Plus the restaurant still has to fund their dining room expansion. Admittedly they do have a cheap lunch menu (available Monday to Saturday) with essentially all the same dishes on the dinner a la carte priced at £30 for 3 courses which is exceptional value for the level of cooking on offer. There are a couple of dishes with supplements – £12 for a fillet steak. The
restaurant pub, also has an exceptional wine list with verticals of Penfold Grange and grand Bordeauxs but mark-ups are London-esque (read: three times or more the market price).
We started our meal with a couple of nibbles. I could not resist a scotch egg when I see one on the menu and the version here does not fail to disappoint – crisp coating with moist sausage meat and a runny quails egg in the middle. It is not groundbreaking by any stretch but it does not have to be. A tomato tartare had good quality tomatoes with a nice depth of flavour served with slices of wafer thin croutons. There was a small quenelle of creme fraiche to add richness and provide body for the tartare. The last nibble was smoked eel with cubes of apple, pickled shallots and dotted with horseradish cream, a combination which was very sensible with the garnish providing necessary acidity to balance the richness of the eel. My problem here is that the eel was cut wafer thin so there was a higher ratio of garnish to actual eel itself. There is also something satisfying about biting into a nice chunk of fatty, oily eel which was missing here.
For starters, I tried the chef’s signature lobster raviolo served with a lobster bisque sauce. Sat on top of the raviolo was a small quenelle of confit tomato. The raviolo had generous amounts of lobster meat stuffed in there – many restaurants, including Gordon Ramsay choose to bulk up the raviolo with other types of seafood, but here there were nice big chunks of tender lobster within. The bisque sauce itself was heavenly, reduced down to the right consistency so that it was jammed packed with lobster flavour but without being too heavy or cloying. What I did not enjoy though was the pasta – it was simply too thick and as such was chewy. Which was a shame really because it really took away from the whole eating experience.
I then tried their grouse which was served with the traditional garnishes. The bird itself was roasted beautifully pink and tender. This was early in the season and the tenderness was unsurprising as was the mild flavour. It was also nice to see the legs on the plates. On the plate was some parsley root and cauliflower puree, the former giving a nice earthy, almost smoky note to the dish. To accompany the grouse was of course the traditional bread sauce and gravy. For me, the bread sauce was missing a trick here – it could have been infused longer or with more spices – but the end product just felt a bit tepid. As a comparison, Medlar do an excellent bread sauce with their grouse and the Beehive’s version is not too shabby either. One final thing – 6 game chips. A whole six. Seriously, I counted. Even last year, they were more generous with the amount of game chips…
At least the meal ended on a very good note. Loved their chocolate moelleaux – delicious, rich and chocolatey with a gooey centre. What I really enjoyed was the textural crunch added to ensure the dish was not one dimensional soft and gooey. There was also a aniseed ice cream which worked brilliantly with the chocolate. It gives a freshness to balance the richness of the chocolate. If I were to be extremely picky, you could argue that the centre should be more liquid but I actually quite enjoyed it being more soft-set like this rather than having a totally runny centre. It gave the dish a lovely, unctuous mouthfeel.
The cooking at Royal Oak is still very tasty and I appreciate the level of ambition and skill that goes into each dish. For sure, this is not your average pub fare. However, I also felt the cooking this time around was slightly more inconsistent – the thick pasta and the very mild bread sauce spring to mind. My wife and a friend dining with us did not encounter any issues with their dishes though, so this may be just a case of me being unlucky. It is not terrible or bad by any stretch. In fact the cooking here is still pretty decent. But sometimes, decent may not be enough especially when I have had many excellent meals here in the past. And finally – six game chips.