November 8, 2019
L’Ortolan – a gem in the Berkshire Countryside
You can’t go wrong with this Michelin starred restaurant on the outskirts of Reading, the county town of Royal Berkshire. Set in the picturesque village of Shinfield, you can avoid the hustle, bustle and parking problems of the main town and enjoy some of the finest dining in the country.
L’Ortolan is the French name for a small bird, a brown bunting, which was a delicacy hundreds of years ago – but there are no buntings eaten here! Just exceptional, quality food, and very well deserving of its Michelin star rating. This restaurant has a prestige list of previous chefs but is currently headed up by Tom Clarke – and what finesse he shows in all avenues, from quality ingredients to amazing presentation. His career has spanned working at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and working under such prestige names as Raymond Blanc (Manoir aux Quat Saisons) and at the legendary Loutau de Baumaniere, located in Provence. Such a career deserves a huge tick in the box.
This delightful restaurant is housed in a Grade II imposing old vicarage, with impressive Gothic doors at the entry. As soon as you step inside, you can feel the warmth and ambience of this eatery and be met by excellent hospitality from the well-trained staff. It’s comfortable but at the same time, luxurious, but of course, we were here to sample the food that we had heard so much about.
There are several menus to choose from, including a set lunch, but as we were there for dinner, we decided to go for the ‘Menu Gourmand’ to experience as much as our stomachs would allow! Both the menu and the wine list are quite diverse, including wine destinations that may not appear on an average menu. Vegetarians need not worry – there is a separate 7-course menu if you happen to exclude meat or fish from your diet. It is worth noting, however, that the Menu Gourmand is only available from Tuesday to Saturday evenings, or Wednesday to Saturday lunch.
Creative cocktails and mocktails are on offer by the very efficient bar staff and sommelier. Around us, we could hear other diners talking about the ‘iced cider’, which we didn’t sample, but the word on the street was that it was ‘fabulous’. The sommelier can talk you through all the wines on the list with great aplomb – many of the wines are from Madeira or Sicily, but the list will suit even the most discerning wine buff. If you choose the gourmand menu or any of the other tasting menus, you can match your choices with a wine flight – well worth the opportunity.
Once we seated ourselves comfortably at the table and perused the menu, we were presented with an ‘amuse bouche’, a choice from the chef which changes regularly. On this occasion, it was a delightfully tasty arancini displayed on a bed of pebbles and perched in a wooden box. Bread with an ‘egg’ of creamy butter was delicately placed on a piece of quartz – stunning presentation and a definite ‘wow factor’. We couldn’t wait to taste the rest of the menu, as this was only a taster of what was to come.
Confit salmon followed which was served with baby Jerusalem artichoke and truffle, and a goose liver parfait which was meltingly smooth and delicious, sprinkled with spiced powder and presented with roasted pineapple and caramelised apple – so soft and subtle on the palate, and a favourite in the restaurant for the last 15 years. These starters were a perfect lead in to the main courses – Poached halibut cooked to perfection, gently flavoured with orange and nasturtium, with glistening flesh that flaked away as soon as you touched it. The light addition of black caviar certainly gave an extra dimension to the fish. Venison was the other choice, with a bitter chocolate jus (again, subtle so as not to spoil the taste of the tender venison) and served with a crispy braised red cabbage.
A versatile cheeseboard followed with 16 different varieties to choose from, and freshly made raisin bread and biscuits. After this, we needed to cleanse our palates, which we did with a small but effective Buttermilk Pannacotta and a perfect raspberry mousse to cut through the sweetness. This was not our dessert, but a ‘pre-dessert’ chosen once again by the head chef, Tom Clarke.
The full dessert was a triumph both in flavour and presentation. As it approached the table, it looked just like a normal apple from the tree, but was, in fact, a lovely apple parfait, filled with ice cream and crunchy pecans – absolute heaven!
A quick mention of one of the drinks that we had never tried before – Maturano Orange Wine from Madeira. Unusual, but we could imagine that over time, it could become a favourite with the right menu.
A: L’Ortolan, Church Lane, Shinfield, Reading, RG2 9BY
T: 01189 888500
Written by Rafa Zurita for Luxuria Lifestyle London and International