7 January 2011

No poncing about at Orwell's

It’s always disappointing when a pub you have enjoyed starts to go downhill, yet after a series of sorry changes typical of landlord’s Brakspear’s the White Hart in Shiplake Row was ripe for reinvention. Luckily for Shiplake a similar catastrophe had befallen The Goose in Britwell Salome, where the owner had deemed Chef Ryan Lamb’s food to be “too poncy” just weeks after winning a Michelin Star in early 2010. Opening Orwell’s with partner Liam Trottman in May 2010 the alleged “poncy” food has quickly become a favourite with both locals and Henley residents.

Named after the eponymous author who spent most of his childhood in Shiplake, the exterior has been spruced up while there have been few changes to the interior which retains the feel and atmosphere of a comfortable country pub, albeit one with white linen on the tables. The decor is simple with a few paintings and small sculptures provided by a local gallery and seasonal flowers placed on the tables. When we visited just before Christmas the bar was struggling as deliveries in the snow had been intermittent, so there was very little beer available on tap however the bottled ale was excellent (Brakspear’s Ferryman’s Gold), while the Bloody Mary making skills at the bar were exemplary.

Front of house is one of the elements that sets Orwell’s apart. I’m sure we all expect a friendly, warm welcome yet so often it is missing to be replaced by arrogance or indifference. Not so the case with Orwell’s where Michael and his young team genuinely seem to be pleased that you are their guests. Throughout the meal they are efficient, friendly and just as importantly knowledgeable about the food.

We were at Orwell’s for lunch to celebrate a birthday and would probably have welcomed a bit of “poncy food” however what appeared was far from it and all the better for that. Meat and veg are sourced locally wherever possible, with a daily delivery of fish fresh of the boat from Brixham. The local, fresh element was reflected in all of our meals such as the starter that two of us opted for, Rabbit Scotch Egg. This is an immaculate little ball of crunchy breadcrumbs, full of soft aromatic rabbit with a still runny quail’s egg at its core. Delicate and light this gem of a dish belies the heavy reputation of the Scotch Egg. Of our two companions one had a simple starter of smoked salmon on toast which looked and indeed was reported as being “very tasty”, while the other had a poached hen’s egg with watercress and an unidentifiable and possibly unnecessary green foam. All very simple, all full of flavour.

My Venison and Ale pie, served with very good crisp but fluffy chips was slightly, but only slightly, disappointing. I like a pie to be a pie with the lid an integral part of the dish, not an afterthought cooked separately and then placed on top. Hidden beneath this lid however was a rich, meat packed delight. Indeed I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a high density of meat in a pie, and while relatively small it was thoroughly filling, with hints of rosemary and juniper amongst the deep flavours of the local deer. I could quibble that the species of deer wasn’t mentioned, as we know venison is not generic, however this is entirely forgivable.

The birthday girl also had pie, but in her case a very hearty, unctuous, rich and flavoursome Cottage Pie. Birthday girl’s partner had yet another version of pie, the steak and ale, it was after all well into the minus figures outside and internal heating was order of the day. Completely stuffed all of us were reluctant to view the desert menu, yet our weak wills and temptation prevailed. A smooth Burnt Cream (Crème brûlée) with the correct depth of vanilla was served with Chocolate short bread that was crunchy, crumbly, fresh and light.

Orwell’s is delightfully free of “poncy food”, it is in fact the complete opposite; good, contemporary and hearty, executed with skill while the service is warm and charming, all at a price point that will keep you coming back. Our meal for four including starter, mains and two puddings, with two beers, a G&T and a large glass of red came to £99. There is a short but good wine list, though as we had two drivers with us we didn’t indulge. Look out for Orwell’s offers too, currently a two course lunch for £10 and dinner for £19.95.

Orwell’s Shiplake, Shiplake Row, Binfield, Oxfordshire, RG9 4DP. 01189 403673 eat@orwellsatshiplake.co.uk www.orwellsatshiplake.co.uk

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