Eat here: Alpine apres ski in Bray
Whoopee! It’s ski season. Like the Bisto kids I’m a sucker for hot wine and melted cheese. But forget the alps (well for now at least) head to the snow covered slopes of *ahem* Bray. Ok, you may need to use your imagination on the scenery, but you definitely won’t on the food.
Spend an evening of Alpine aprés ski dining at Caldesi in Campagna’s pop-up event on Thurs 19 Jan. You get the full ski lodge vibes: communal tables, checked table clothes and candlelight. You’ll be welcomed by the lovely Vincenzo with Vin Brule and winter cocktails, before devouring a menu including Speck, Torta Fritta, Beef Goulash and Apple Strudel. Tickets are £38 per person. But hurry tickets are selling fast. Salopettes and polo necks optional.
Alpine Apres Ski at Caldesi in Campagna, Old Mill Lane, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2BG. Tel: 01628 788500.
Here’s the original review in case you missed it the first time round. Enjoy. Ciao!
Someone tell me, how did Bray get so lucky? Aside from the fact it’s the one of the prettiest villages you’ll ever lay your peepers on, it’s also impossible to have a bad meal here. It’s home to the Roux brothers’ Waterside Inn – one of only three restaurants in the whole country with three Michelin stars. The Fat Duck, where Heston Blumenthal messed with our minds (not to mention our eggs and bacon) is also here. It too held three stars until last year when the restaurant shut for refurbishment and missed the Michelin assessment. Still, not exactly a Wimpy is it?
Heston made it a hat trick when he threw open the doors of 15-century hunting lodge turned gastropub, the Hind’s Head (one Michelin star, see Muddy Bucks & Oxon’s recent review) and later, The Crown. And finally, the Italian stallion – Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi’s Caldesi in Campagna (that’s Caldesi in the country, just in case you’re not fluent *cough* in Italian like me) where I ate a couple of months ago.
And that, dear readers, was the day I decided I am moving to Bray. This was news to my husband and children, but hey change is good and Muddy’s stomach always comes first.
Caldesi in Campagna was the Caldesi’s first move out of the capital. Giancarlo Caldesi was born in Montepulciano but married his English wife Katie and has lived here for over 30 years now. The couple opened the first Caldesi restaurant Caffe Caldesi in Marylebone in 2002, followed by their cookery school, La Cucina Caldesi and their Bray venture in 2007.
I really liked their Bray restaurant – goodness knows I’d heard enough about it from friends with their, ‘Can’t believe you haven’t been there?!’ and, ‘Wow it’s our favourite restaurant’ comments. It’s clearly a rite of passage to eat here if you live in Berks, and my visit was long overdue.
The restaurant from the outside is a very handsome Georgian house (plenty of parking directly outside and in the quiet residential roads). The muted coffee and cream interiors are comfortable and homely, possibly in need of an overhaul as it felt a little dated. But the restaurant has a gentle charm with its parquet flooring, cosy fireplaces, and silver-framed family photographs and knick-knacks (what IS a knick-knack?) dotted around the conservatory out the back. Well spotted, that is indeed a festive wreath. Clearly, we were here just before Christmas – they’re not one of those strange ‘let’s celebrate Christmas all year round’ oddities.
The menu, mostly Tuscan, is an absolute beaut with typical Italian flair – simple but exquisite dishes including slow cooked calamari with tomato, garlic and chilli sauce; pappardelle with wild boar in a red wine ragu; sea bass with Parma ham and sage leaves, and roasted local partridge with poached pear and black truffle sauce. Come to Mama! The a la carte is classic Italian with antipasti, pasta, fish, meat and side choices. There’s also an excellent set lunch menu, three courses for £29.50 – which sounds quite steep, but not for this quality of cooking.
I went for the sea bass ravioli – a signature dish – the ravioli was soft and light, with the delicate sea bass stuffing, and packing a punch was the most delicious lemon butter sauce I have ever tasted. Mr P was clearly happy with his choice – tortelli pasta filled with pumpkin and ricotta with butter sauce and black truffle shavings. We may as well have been filming culinary blockbuster ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ – nothing stayed on the plates long enough to even leave a sauce trail.
My main of pan-fried veal wallet with pecorino cheese and porcini mushrooms sauce was so good I just couldn’t bring myself to offer Mr P a try. But he did the same with his pan-fried calves’ liver with butter and sage (sooo selfish). Staggeringly simple, but impeccable ingredients and utterly delicious. This really is top class cooking. Not many restaurants have the confidence to plate up liver, sage and mash (literally three ingredients on the plate). But that’s the beauty of Italian cooking – very few ingredients but all impeccable quality and cooked to perfection. And it really was (according to my husband, calves’ liver connoisseur) the most tender and delicious liver he had ever eaten.
Dessert was a tough call with flourless chocolate and almond cake with vanilla ice cream or panettone bavarois with chocolate ice cream and cranberry coulis OR Bombolini – Italian style donuts with vanilla custard and Samba and berry jam to choose from. Turns out, it wasn’t actually a tough decision at all in the end. Just take a look. At. That. I could have eaten at least a dozen more and did contemplate nabbing a few from the lady on the next table when she went to the loo. But I wanted to be allowed back, so sat on my hands.
I think this place is very special indeed. Sadly, it wasn’t as full as I would have liked to see it, but then it was a mid-week lunchtime pre-Christmas. The other diners were clearly regulars, chatting like lifelong friends with the staff. I would love to come back for Sunday lunch which I imagine would be a jolly and raucous family affair. A good friend told me she went to a 40th birthday celebration dinner here a few weeks ago and even though the restaurant still held a normal service for other diners, their party was looked after brilliantly – perfect plates of food arriving together and on time, glasses topped up, nothing too much trouble. These guys are total pros.
The service is typical warmer-than-a-wood-fired-oven jolly Italian style with Vincenzo, the restaurant manager slick and assured, and Neddo the silver fox recounting tales of his Sicilian childhood and cracking terrible jokes while expertly clearing our table without missing a beat.
In the warmer months they fling open the doors and you can eat al fresco on the canopied patio area. And the emphasis is on fun. They know their cooking is amazing so they can relax, enjoy their guests’ company and focus on everyone having a jolly time. I follow them on Twitter (@CaldesiCampagna) and they are often laying on crazy evenings such as when they transformed the entire restaurant into an Alpine chalet for an apres-ski night complete with red checked tablecloths and vin chaud. I can think of no better way to spend a few glorious hours than in this sunny little spot in Tuscany-on-Thames.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Without doubt, this is a wonderful spot for a romantic dinner, or special celebration. They are experts in extended gatherings, so big family get-togethers, anniversaries, 40th birthdays etc. they take in their stride. You’d be lucky to be invited here for a business lunch (there was a table of smart suits the day we ate). I would only bring my children here for a very special occasion (simply based on price and the proximity of the tables and intimacy of the spaces) but if you are a far more generous mother than me, it’s probably more relaxed bringing children on the weekends, or choose a table in the conservatory which felt less formal than the front areas of the restaurant.
Not for: Anyone who has an issue paying top whack. There’s no getting around it, the menu is expensive. Although the set lunch is better value if you want to experience this place and find the a la carte prices too eye-watering. The quality of the cooking however cannot be denied. If you’re fussy about your interiors you might find the furnishings and colours a little dated and bland. Although we are all suffering from gastropubenteritis, so just take it for what it is – a cosy Tuscan family home.
£££: The set lunch menu is good value at £29.50 for three courses with a choice of three dishes per course. For à la carte, you’re looking at £13 to £19 for antipasti and pasta courses; £25 to £29 for fish and meat courses and all sides are £5.50. But compare that to the other prices in this Michelin stronghold and it’s a no brainer. The wine list starts with some very reasonable bottles at the £20 to £30 mark.
Caldesi in Campagna, Old Mill Lane, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2BG. Tel: 01628 788500. caldesi.com/caldesi-in-campagna