Berkshire has enough Michelin twinklers to light up the night’s sky. But the county’s gastronomic genius isn’t unique to the village of Bray. L’Ortolan is Reading’s only Michelin starred restaurant – a gong held for 17 consecutive years (and retained by Head Chef Tom Clarke since 2015), plus 3 AA rosettes. Fancy.
There’s nothing to confuse you here, L’Ortolan wears its fine dining formality like a badge of honour. From the moment you swing into the gravel drive, the handsome red brick Grade II-listed 19th century vicarage comes into view, surrounded by manicured gardens. It’s grown up and screams special occasion.
Hello Reading! Well, Shinfield, to be exact – a pretty village that’s being sucked into the Reading ‘burbs judging by the number of executive homes popping up. It’s close proximity to J11 of the M4 explains the urban sprawl, but L’Ortolan is tucked away in the oldest part of the village in a, quite frankly, a stonking gothic revival building with elegant proportions.
This modern French eatery is very grown up. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Eating out is all the more memorable when it encourages you to get dressed up and talk about something other than your kids’ social calendar or the sociological merits of Love Island. The atmosphere is formal with softly spoken waiters and hushed conversations. It’s not snooty or pretentious, but it’s definitely a place for special birthdays, anniversaries or schmoozing the boss. In my case, an indulgent mid-week lunch with Mr M.
The bar has a sexy vibe with its dark walls and vibrant art. Perfect for pre-dinner drinks on a mizzy June day. As you would expect, a good gin menu, cocktail list (my Bellini was heaven), extensive wines to suit all tastes and budgets and artisan beers. An amuse bouche is served to tease your tastebuds, before being led through to the main dining room. Here you’ll find a room flooded with natural light, surrounded by white table cloths, cream carpets and walls with large mirrors. I suspect it is acts as a blank canvas for Chef Tom to introduce his culinary art, but I think punters appreciate it when the creativity crawls off the plate and into the decor too. Blame Instagram.
The food is put on a pedestal and rightly so. There are a few different dining options: The Chef’s 10-Course Surprise 10-course menu (£105 or £185 with accompanying wines by the glass, £255 for fine wine flight); 7-course Gourmand (£79 per person, £139 with the sommelier’s wine selection; £194 for fine wines), the A La Carte and the three-course set menu (pudding is essential, obviously). Shall we get stuck in?
The one thing I love, is that you think you’re in for three courses and you little extras keep turning up. Thank god for elasticated trousers. I ordered the confit of salmon with limoncello, potato, crispy fish skin and horseradish but, before that arrived, we were treated to a cheeky crab dish with mango and a crab claw in a crispy squid ink batter. Both felt clean and light to eat, packed full of flavour, with great texture. Chef Tom is a master at balancing sweet, sour and savoury to produce a delicate sometimes surprising plate of food.
Up next was the bream served with a fregola salad and fennel, Mr M had lamb rump with asparagus and rosemary jus. My dish was summer on a plate, which was nice as torrential rain was battering the windows. I’ve never had fregola (a Sardinian speciality) but the nutty flavour and texture was lovely with the softness 0f the fish. As for Mr M’s lunchtime meat feast, well, any top flight chef worth his salt should be able to make a damn good sauce, but this was something else. He’d happily bathe in a this pool of meaty gorgeousness.
A cheeky additional course was sent out before puds. Rather unusually, it was cheese. Something you’d expect at the end of your meal, but I’m down with it. I LOVE CHEESE! You’d expect from a French restaurant a vast selection of native fromage, but Brexit has even got its claws into the cheese trolley. So we were treated to mostly British varieties – and I’m down with it: a ash rubbed goats cheese, Perl Wen (a cross between a traditional Brie and a Caerffili, with citrus and salty flavour – it was epic); a brown ale washed harder cheese and a Harrogate Blue. There are many awesome artisan cheese producers in the UK kicking the derrieres of our French neighbours, I think it is great move and the L’Ortolan selection is interesting and delicious.
The grand finale… Pud! Strawberries and cream and a coconut cheese cake. But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the title. The plates of food were like modern art and Mr M’s coconut cheesecake with mango and passionfruit was so good it almost made him cry. “The best dessert I have ever ever tasted”. My strawberries were pimped up with a custard tart, lemon verbena and white chocolate soil and aerated white chocolate. Faultless and vastly improved by a Italian red dessert wine – and I don’t really like dessert wine.
Special mention has to go to the sommelier. What a talent. The paired wines were absolutely spot. By far my favourite was Orbitofrontal Cortex 17 – made by a slightly eccentric South African wine producer who hooked himself up to an EEG to taste different mixes of his five grape vino. Once he got the physical response, that was the blend he bottled. If you like whites with texture, crunch, ripe fruit and with a story, then this is for you.
Er no. Unless they have a more sophisticated palate than cod goujons, but in all fairness why you wouldn’t want the little buggers spoiling your fun? Keep the stress levels low, the enjoyment factor high and embrace kid-free time out
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Foodies looking for top flight fine dining action to tantalise their tastebuds. Special occasioners clinching a big deal, celebrating birthdays or creating a memory. This is a food experience from start to finish – from the bar nibble teasers and course prequels to delicious petit fours. L’Ortolan also offers private dining rooms, chef’s table, cookery masterclasses and they’ll even send a chef to cook for you at home.
Not for: Families unless you have older children with incredibly sophisticated tastes. Nope, mine neither. Casual diners might struggle with the formality, but personally I love being treated like a princess. The interior is stylish enough but don’t expect any designer boundary pushing. Sunday and Monday diners will be disappointed, they’re not open. Just saying.
£££: Pretty good for Michelin. You get more than you pay for here in my opinion. The 3-course a la carte menu is from £65 per person, but you can pay as little as £40 for a 3-course lunch menu and as much as £190 for the taster menu matched with the finest wines.
L’Ortolan, Church Lane, Shinfield, Reading, RG2 9BY. Tel: 0118 988 8500.