Araminta Power reviews L’Ortolan

Hurrah for Tom Clarke – head chef at L’Ortolan, a Michelin-starred restaurant on the outskirts of Reading.  To us Londoners, it may seem a tall order to schlep down the M4 for dinner, but if you’ve got something to celebrate, it’s undoubtedly worth the trip.  Housed in a very pretty old vicarage of Regency brick, with symmetrical windows and chimney stacks, a large lawn and mature trees, this is a place that demands special occasions.

My guest, Frances, works for a private family living somewhere between Reading and Oxford, so she seemed a perfect person to check out all it offers – and it offers a lot.  You can go for a straightforward a la carte (as we did), or a 7-course Gourmand, 10-course Surprise, the cosy 4-seater chef’s table or one of three private dining rooms.

There’s a fine line between stylish and silly and L’Ortolan walks it carefully.  The food comes arranged on a variety of materials and surfaces. The first amuse bouche – a faultless and delightful mouthful of arancini – was displayed on a bed of pebbles in a wooden box, which was slightly disconcerting.  Our bread came with a soft “egg” of creamy butter perched on a piece of quartz.

The chef’s starter, came in a little black bowl, a foaming green veloute of potato and leak.  It was so light it was barely there on the tongue, before dissolving into flavour only.  We were told that some smoked eel lurked in its green depths, and when none surfaced we asked our young waitress where it was.  She rushed back to the kitchen, returned and apologised.  It was mistake she said, the eel had been in a previous dish.

All the staff were young – sweet, smiling and impossibly young.  But then I suppose, like policemen, they become younger and younger as you grow older.  And maybe it was their youth and eagerness to please that made them just slightly over-attentive, coming back to us again and again to no particular effect, checking that all was OK and describing in minute detail the content of every dish.  Sometimes you just want to talk.

Having greedily eaten our two pre-starters (and the bread!), we both ordered gazpacho to begin.  Two huge white bowls arrived.  Slightly alarmed I peered deep into the dish at the tiny, shiny heap of cherry tomatoes and yellow peppers at the bottom.  There was a comforting mound of goat’s cheese mousse on top but it wasn’t my definition of soup.  Oh me of little faith.  Our waitress returned with a frosty decanter of cold pink soup which she poured around the veg at the bottom, where it mingled with the basil oil.  It was fresh and smooth, without that faint bellow of garlic that gazpacho often has, cleansing and cleanzingy, tiny croutons and the confit vegetables providing that all important texture.

We also both ordered the lamb which came arranged into pink leaves among a veritable constellation of greens and yellows: the curve of an asparagus spear, scattered peas and beans, wilted spinach and a neat square of potato, a dusting of mushroom powder, freckles of rosemary jus.

By the time our pre-pudding arrived (buttermilk panna cotta with a giant Little Gem of raspberry mousse), the tables around us were gradually filling: a family get-together, a father and son bonding, a group of young business people.  Some enjoyed the last of the sunshine, sipping pre-dinner drinks on the lawn.  Behind us in The Glass Room – a sort of long conservatory – the table was set for a large party.

The puds are the piece de resistance.  Masterful architectural constructions – and utterly delicious.  Frances chose the cherry-themed dessert. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but it came a perfect giant bright red cherry – like a shiny circus prop.  It seemed too unreal to be edible, but it was the real thing, sitting on chocolate crumble and filled with soft cherry mousse.

Mine was the coconut sorbet, decorated with tiny dice of kiwi, batons of coconut flesh and blobs of pureed mango that sang high notes of flavour above the more muted coconut tones.  And whoever invented micro greens?  Those miniscule sprigs which bring little bursts of flavour and lift pud to another level.  The whole was light, delicious and beautifully presented.

As I say, this is a place to go for celebrations, for special occasions, for gatherings.  Upstairs there are two private rooms: The Wine Cellar (although it is upstairs) has wine red walls and curtains, huge mirrors and a circular table which seats up to 16.  Across the landing is the Champagne Room, for up to 12, appropriately decorated in pale honeyed colours, artful bubbles in the glass of the oval table.  There is also a tiny Chef’s Table, with uninterrupted view of the kitchen and upstairs, rather surprisingly, a cookery school.

And this I suppose is my problem: that I felt L’Ortolan can’t quite decide what it is, it offers so much.  The pebbles and the porcelain of the tableware, are almost a metaphor for its lack of decision. The décor doesn’t quite hang together, the rooms don’t talk to each other or to the Regency architecture of the house; the quirkiness of the presentation is interesting, or even fun, but slightly at odds with the white tablecloths and long curtains.

I also felt it could do with bit of a refresh; despite the Michelin star, it is just slightly scruffy. I couldn’t help noticing chips in the paintwork in the Ladies, scuffs on the carpet upstairs and bald patches on the lawn.

The cooking is exquisite – don’t get me wrong – the staff adorable and I wouldn’t ever say it wasn’t worth the drive from London.  And if you’re tucked upstairs in the Champagne Room, enjoying a fantastic meal with a group of happy clients, it probably doesn’t matter in the slightest that downstairs a gang of friends are having a cookery lesson.  If I couldn’t quite put my finger on the core of L’Ortolan’s identity, Tom Clarke, paying incredible attention to detail in the kitchen, knows exactly what he’s about.

Love, Minty

Church Lane
Reading RG2 9BY

01189 888 500