12 April 2011

Hidden French Flies the Flag in Henley's Food Wilderness

With such a rich restaurant scene, boasting Michelin stars and creative chefs within 10 miles of the centre of Henley, it is a real suprise that the town itself has such a sorry culinary landscape.

In Bray you can't move for Michelin stars and Heston's gastro pubs. Marlow has the Hand & Flowers and Danesfield House where Adam Simmonds has just won a star. It also has the inspired but under rated Vanilla Pod. In Maidenhead you can visit The Royal Oak, also now boasting a star. Even just outside Henley there are excellent and thoughtful restaurants, Orwells in Shiplake Cross,The Olde Bell and the Black Boys in Hurley, stand out as does Ruchetta in Peppard Common.

Yet in Henley itself there is a series of chains, Hotel du Vin and a couple of independents, that are complacent and/or tired. Hotel du Vin is a perfectly servicable French bistro and does a very good Sunday lunch but always plays it safe. Two Italian's resting on their comfortable laurels in Villa Marina and Antico are competent but dull and expensive to boot. As for the Spanish tapas bar/restaurant La Bodega, all I would say is that it helps to have downed a few drinks first then you won't notice how poor an interpretation of tapas it is, or indeed how much you have somehow spent. Finally in this litany of sorrow I have never forgiven The Little Angel for trying to tell me a sorry pile of shredded lamb in gravy was lamb shank. It wasn't.

Sad then that one of the few places in the town itself that was trying to produce interesting flavours with some wit, the Three Tuns, seems to have closed. Yet the scene is not an unrelenting tide of gastronomic mediocrity filled by Brasserie Gerard's, Strada's, Zizzi's and Cafe Rouge, though God help us we have them all.

There is a little gem somehow concealed opposite Domino's pizza (and how I weep as I write those two words), Le Parisien, offering good quality French classics in a small former cafe flanked by Henley's book shop. Open now for more than six months, the restaurants darke exterior decor and discreet position on Bell Street make it easy to miss, which is perhaps why I haven't eaten there until now. Chef Patron Phillipe Brillant has worked in some top kitchens in his native France and in the UK, including Joel Rubichon, so has a very good classic pedigree. This shows in his simple execution and smart presentation.

As to the food I wasn't there to gorge myself just to have a nice Friday night supper, so I opted for the set menu while my companion chose from the A La Carte. An unexpected touch was the amuse bouch of artichoke and black truffle soup served in small elegant coffe cups. Full of complex flavours the earthy tones of the artichoke ofset by the truffle's richness it was a very pretty way to start the meal.

With only 20 covers that I counted, this is a restaurant that has to work hard to make its money, so on the Friday night that I visited it was disappointing that my partner and I were the only diners. This did lead to a certain amount of guilt on my part for though the maitre d', very French by the way, seemed happy to be there it still felt like something of an intrusion.

I can't imagine this happening in any part of London or even a few miles down the road in Marlow. Perhaps its a problem of marketing because its not a problem with the food, and they did tell us they were fully booked the following night.

Main courses of Confit de Canard and Emince de Boeuf with black peppercorn sauce, both served with saute potatos were good though I found the potatoes lacking crispness and was only happy once I had added extra seasoning to everything. Yet for all that this was still probably the best steak I have eaten in Henley, while the duck disappeared in double quick time.

A plate of four French cheeses followed. I confess to not knowing what they were, apart from a mildish roquefort, despite asking I just couldnt understand the answer from the maitre d' and was too embarrassed to ask more than once! However they were very good and helped us to finish an excellent value bottle of Cote du Rhone Villages.

So a very good French meal, served with class and care and unusual for the town of Henley. I am worried that Le Parisien won't last though. You just can't survive on 2 diners on a Friday night. From a purely selfish point of view please go and eat there and save us from chain food hell and complacency.

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