Woodspeen, Newbury, RG20 8BN
Tel. 01635 265070
Food type: Modern French
Nearest tube: –
Website: the Woodspeen
It is now more than half a decade since John Campbell decided to leave the Vineyard at Stockcross and the 2 Michelin stars he had won there. He had a short stint helping the Dorchester group launch Coworth Park Hotel, winning a star in the process with his eponymous restaurant. Campbell subsequently parted companies with Coworth Park and heading into the sunset. That was until he was tempted out of his self-imposed retirement to open up the Woodspeen in 2015. Unsurprisingly, with a chef of his immense talent at the helm, the restaurant quickly won a Michelin Star within a year of opening. Although Campbell was very much present when we visited, the day to day cooking is left to his head chef Peter Eaton who worked with him at Coworth Park.
Set in rural Berkshire, the restaurant is a converted pub with the cookery school cum private dining/ chef’s table located opposite. They also have a small vegetable patch where some of the dishes served here utilise their plot grown produce. The dining room is airy with plenty of natural light coming through the glass panelled rooftop and much like plenty of restaurant openings in the last year or so, the decor is minimalistic to give a casual, laid-back feel. The menu is simple 3 course a la carte with a few dishes designed to be shared by 2 diners. Items are individually priced with starters £12-15, mains £22-34 and desserts £11. Although not entirely necessary since all dishes come complete, there are side dishes at £4 each. A lunch menu is available on weekdays priced at £25 for 3 courses. There is no tasting menu available at the main restaurant although they will create one for the chef’s table.
I started my meal with a game terrine – served cold and beautifully marbled with a quince puree and smoked apple and raisin chutney. The terrine itself, made from foie gras, mallard, partridge and guinea fowl, was well seasoned – very important since it was served cold, meaning that some of the flavours will be naturally be muted. On the side, an aerated foie gras and chicken liver parfait, light and textured for want of a better word, but with a deep, rich liver flavour. The chutney and quince provided balancing acidity for the rich elements on the plate. I would have loved for a small slice of toasted sourdough to spread the lovely parfait on.
Chef Eaton kindly sent us a a complimentary intermediate course of mackerel and crab croquettes. This was a cross over of old classical cooking (crab cakes) and more modern techniques (cured and blow torched mackerel). It has been a long time since I had an old school crab cake (called a croquette here just because you can) and this version makes me wonder why restaurants don’t serve it more often. It was immensely light that you wonder how it manages to hold its shape. The mackerel had a lovely cure with a notes of sweet, salty, umami and a smokey note from the blow torching, balanced by the refreshing fennel and remoulade.
I shared my mains with one of my friends – a seasonal roast mallard. On the main plate, two slices of pink, crispy skinned mallard breast sat on top of a bed of wilted spinach, garnished with grated Wilshire truffles. On the side, a crispy potato terrine and a a piping of the same quince puree from my starter (I was aware of this when ordering the dish). If you think this was rather measly portion of food, that was only part one of the dish. A central sharing board was placed in front of us with more of the roast mallard breast and the pièce de résistance – a pithivier (called a pasty here) of the leg meat and foie gras. They really should put a disclaimer on the dish because the jus served here was really good. How jus is meant to be made back when chefs actually knew how to make proper sauces – intense, rich and gamey. Maybe call it ‘Really good game jus’ on the menu. Nothing like the thin, anaemic excuses for jus that you get in most modern restaurants these days.
Finally to finish, a classic custard tart. It actually took me all of 10 seconds when glancing at the dessert menu to decide on this, given that it is one of my favourite desserts. If it were not for the calories and how unhealthy it is, I would eat a slice of custard tart everyday. The version here eschews the traditional grating of nutmeg on top instead including the nutmeg element in the form of an ice cream. I think this is a very smart idea, as it allows the diner to taste the quality of the custard in its unadulterated glory. This was a glorious custard tart – deep filled, wobbly, barely set eggs and pastry so short it disintegrates in the mouth. Dare I say it, this was the best custard tart I have eaten. Better than the version cooked by a certain Masterchef Professional judge.
I really enjoyed my meal at Woodspeen. I never got a chance to eat Campbell’s food when he was at Vineyard and his time at Coworth Park was so short that by the time I had planned to go, he had changed to a consultancy role (also reads: I will design the menu but I will not actually be in the kitchen). Although the dishes here may seem more pared back, it also features good technique and and wonderfully tasty food. Unsurprisingly, the residents around the area have come out in full support with a packed Saturday lunch dining room.