DINING OWL AWARDS: 4th – dates; 3rd – pre-dessert
When I visited: February 2016
Team: Alain Roux (Chef Patron), Fabrice Uhryn (Head Chef), Diego Masciaga (maitre d’)
Rating in the Michelin Guide: 3 stars
What to wear: Men – shirt and jacket and nice trousers and shoes; women – a smart dress and/or smart trousers and a top
Course of the meal: Pan-fried escalope of foie gras with a thin slice of gingerbread, quince compote and mulled wine flavoured sauce
If I could change one thing: Better bread selection
For my partner Owl’s birthday, I wanted to arrange a treat. But what to get the person who has already been to most of the UK’s best restaurants? Well … why not visit the ultimate foodie village of Bray, which, as The Fat Duck regained its 3 stars after returning from Australia, has 8 (3 for The Fat Duck, 3 for The Waterside Inn, 1 for the Hinds Head and 1 for The Royal Oak)?
We were welcomed profusely upon both checking into the hotel and re-entering for dinner. Diego Masciaga, the maitre d’, made sure to speak to the guests at every table (although he didn’t linger at those where you were on romantic dates) and said goodbye to us at the end. We also had the same servers for both food and wine – our female sommelier was especially helpful and friendly. All the staff were very attentive throughout the meal, with our water and wine never going un-refilled.
The atmosphere in the restaurant was lively and not too formal, with a lot of groups and a few couples as guests. One mistake that the restaurant made was to give a menu with prices on to my partner Owl and not to me, when my name was on the reservation – a minor point but still a mistake.
We selected the ‘Menu exceptionel’ and started with a glass of ‘Michel Roux’ champagne each which was pleasant and quite dry. Our sommelier helped us select a bottle of white wine with a buttery edge to go with the whole menu – Saint Aubain “Le Banc” 2010 Domaine Pierre-Yves Colin Morey.
One surprising element early on in the meal was the fact that this restaurant actually uses its display plates for the canapés and amuse bouche – most restaurants, such as Texture, simply whisk these plates away as soon as you actually start eating.
We got some innovative and tasty canapés with our champagne: a mini anchovy pizza strip, a swirly cheese straw and a mini lemongrass mousse cone. These were followed up with a perfectly balanced amuse bouche of beetroot and horseradish soup with a crouton topped with horseradish mousse and dill.
The first course was one of my favourites: a ceviche of seabass and octopus slices marinated in passion fruit juice, served with a crisp vegetable salad. However, this was eclipsed by the pan-fried escalope of foie gras with a thin slice of gingerbread, quince compote and mulled wine flavoured sauce which came immediately after; the gingerbread especially was a masterstroke in elevating this course well above standard posh French fare. The traditional pike quenelle with langoustine tails was also gorgeously soft and tender.
For the ‘main’ course, we had to choose between the duo of seasonal game with a pumpkins subric, parcel of wild mushrooms and spinach, poivrade sauce or the spit-roasted Challandais duck with garlic-scented fondant potatoes, braised baby fennel, green olives and truffle jus (for 2 people). We chose the duck, which was lovely but too big – in a tasting menu, even the main course doesn’t need to be that substantial and it was the only time that I felt the portion size wasn’t right.
The pre-dessert was perfect: raspberry sorbet with lime, and tequila at the bottom. This was a great palate cleanser before the first of the desserts, a wonderfully tropical coconut meringue with pineapple and pomegranate sorbet. The final dessert was a warm orange soufflé with lingonberries, where the tart berries cut through the light but full-tasting soufflé.
To finish, we ordered green teas with our mignardises: a canelé, chocolate macaron, traditional nougat, chocolate nougat, lemon madeleine, raspberry sponge, Alain signature dark chocolate ganache, passion fruit tart, and a palmier (a heart-shaped caramelised pastry biscuit).
One slight negative was that neither Diego nor any of the other staff asked us early on in the meal whether it was a special occasion, and I got a bit edgy about the fact that other people around the restaurant were getting bonus candle-adorned desserts, as I wanted my partner Owl to have one for his birthday. Luckily our waiter rectified this towards the end of the meal and my partner Owl got a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a pastry base, with some of the best chocolate calligraphic ‘Happy Birthday’ writing I’ve ever seen. I would include a picture, but interestingly the restaurant has a no photos and no phones policy – I think this is a good move as it ensures more privacy and ‘mindfulness’ and that visitors to the restaurant aren’t just constantly Instagramming everything that’s put in front of them.
My partner Owl was too full for cheese, despite the comprehensive-looking cheese trolley, but did opt for an alcoholic digestif: a 1985 Armagnac. We were astonished at the age of some of the digestifs on the trolley – one of them was from 1929! – and our sommelier allowed my partner Owl to sniff the digestifs before choosing one, and let us see the prices and didn’t just try to suggest the most expensive one.
Luckily, after all that food we didn’t have a long journey home. We stayed in La Rivière Suite, which was gorgeous and had a lovely view of the river (with various perfectly-in-sync rowing teams going by). The suite also had a great selection of magazines and even a CD in the CD player with some old-school gentle music to enjoy while getting ready for dinner. When we got back after the dinner, the table by the window had been arranged for the morning’s French continental breakfast and re-lit and a box of chocolates had been left for us – always a welcome treat to munch on the way home while dissecting the finer points of the restaurant’s cuisine.
Upon leaving the hotel, we even got free bottled water and a copy of the hotel / restaurant’s own magazine, as well as complimentary Waterside Inn coffee to enjoy at home. If you can afford to go here and/or to stay for the night, I’d say to just book it – it’s an experience you won’t forget. The more traditional but friendly feel is better for those diners who prefer classic food to the theatricality of restaurants like the Fat Duck, and the village of Bray is picturesque and a welcome escape for city dwellers.