Ryan Simpson and Liam Trotman, former chefs of the Michelin-starred Goose, are now finessing their culinary skills at an affordable, fine dining restaurant in Shiplake, Oxfordshire. Neil Gerrard paid a visit.
It's hard to believe that it's just eight months since Ryan Simpson and his partner Liam Trotman left the Goose in Britwell Salome in dramatic style. For those who have been living on the moon since the start of the year, the pair quit just after the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star, allegedly because owner Paul Castle criticised the food for being 'too poncey'.
The ensuing national newspaper coverage attracted the attention of Tom Davies, operations director of Oxfordshire pub company Brakspear, who tracked down Simpson and approached him to take on a 16th-century pub called the White Hart in leafy Shiplake.
The new pub-cum-restaurant opened in May with a 62-seat pub, 30-seat garden and a 15-seat fine dining area known as The Room. The pub was renamed Orwell's to pay tribute to author George Orwell whose childhood home was in the village - although it might equally well apply to the fact that Simpson, its 27-year-old head chef and co-owner, spent the formative years of his career in kitchens in both Paris and London.
The set-up means that Simpson is able to split his menu between the kind of fine dining experience he mastered at the Goose and a more accessible, and crucially more affordable, pub menu. "I think this is a more sustainable business," he says. "The pub is there for people who want to eat pub food. But it is also about creating awareness that fine dining doesn't have to be stuffy or expensive."
And what the brigade of just three chefs is really about is rural cooking with a modern approach - what Simpson describes as the "terroir [local] cooking of England". While he makes the most of the best of British produce, the influences from his time working for French culinary heavyweights Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, as well as at Maison Troisgros in the Loire Valley are clear to see.
The muntjac and hazelnut burger with sweet onion compote, mustard mayo, triple-cooked chips and herb salad (£14) on the pub menu, for example, takes its inspiration from a venison and hazelnut terrine at Maison Troisgros. "I wanted to do a burger, but I didn't want to just do a beefburger," Simpson says. "Muntjac is a fussy animal and it will only eat the best of things so it is a nice meat.
"The hazelnut works really well with it, and we spice it up with a little ras el-hanout, some cumin, a bit of cayenne, and some Parmesan which helps retain the moisture."
The venison, which Simpson gets from Vicar's Game in nearby Ashampstead in Berkshire, makes another appearance on the menu in The Room. This time, though, it forms part of the Chiltern Hills muntjac carpaccio with lobster, mango sorbet and shiitake mushrooms (£13.50). The meat is dressed with colza oil and seasoned with long pepper, while the shiitake mushrooms are braised and marinated in a ponzu dressing. Meanwhile, a piece of naked lobster is served poached in a ginger butter - designed to refresh the lobster meat rather than to come through in the flavour of the dish.
Alongside it on the menu sits the Torbay crab with pink grapefruit, red pepper and apple (£14), which Simpson has transplanted from the Goose to appeal to the foodies and young urban professionals who frequent the fine dining side of the business on evenings and weekends.
Back in the pub, starters are a little less than half the price of The Room, with dishes like local rabbit scotch egg (using rabbits from the farm adjoining the pub garden) with a rocket and fennel salad and sauce gribiche (£7.50). The Orwell's prawn cocktail with soda bread (£8) is also a popular option with the lunching ladies who crowd out the pub during the week.
Another top seller is the pan-seared Brixham sea bream with Parma ham, basil, and garden mint (£14.50), which sees the fish layered with the basil and ham to form a skin when fried.
In fact, so popular has the new venture become, that the business has now settled into doing 250-300 covers a week, despite opening just four months ago. And it is the Goose, not Simpson's Orwell's, that has ended up down and out.
Shiplake Row, Binfield, Oxfordshire RG9 4DP
Tel: 0118 940 3673
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
• Pan-seared Rougié foie gras, liquorice lentils, brioche, rhubarb compote (£16, The Room)
• Confit tomato and lavender tartare, courgette flower, balsamic, olive oil sorbet (£11.50 - The Room)
• Poached Sonning hen's egg, caramelised onions, summer peas, croute (£5)
• Pan-roasted Torbay skate wing, polenta, fennel, pak choi, caper sauce (£15)
• Grelot onion fine tart, Vulscombe goat's cheese cromesqui, beetroot, spring onion and sultana ver jus sauce (£18, The Room)
• Berkshire Royal Estate pork belly, boulangère potatoes, spinach, celery sauerkraut, compressed apples (£21, The Room)
• Sticky toffee pudding, ginger cream (£5.50)
• Pink praline tart, sorrel sorbet (£8, The Room)
• Gateaux marquis à la bechamel, ras el hanout ice cream, crème Anglaise (£8, The Room)
• A five-course tasting menu is available for £95 including selected wines