As a devoted foodie in the Thames Valley, how have I not heard of Orwells before? Looking for a new place to go with my parents, we found this establishment with some top TA reviews so we thought we'd give it a try.
This review is a tough one. It is an absolutely superb establishment...BUT at its prices it had better be. £30+ mains and £15 starters either means (a) Michelin star quality, or (b) an exceptional venue (paying for the view, location, ambiance, etc.). Orwells doesn't have the latter, but might be nipping at the former.
SERVICE - Certainly the service was Michelin star quality. It was attentive without being officious. More importantly it had personality. A warm and effervescent engagement with the customers. I was intrigued by the plaice dish, but didn't fancy the plaice so they happily prepared it with turbot for me.
VENUE - The venue is classic gastro-pub. Nattily decorated with white linen table cloths, but still relaxed enough for casual attire. We ate in "The Room" which has large windows looking over the garden. With the summers evening light till late, we could look out on the abundant flowers and the expansive rolling valley in the distance. Unfortunately, the view was impeded by a large fence (if they found a way to get rid of this, then the experience would be quite a bit more impressive for the view) and the closed table umbrellas (they really should remove these eyesores completely in the evening). They serve lunch in the garden so we will definitely come back to try that some sunny day (hoping the lunch prices are a bit more down to earth).
FOOD - The very first course was the cocktails and this is what really got our attention. World class preparations from a superbly stocked bar. The challenge is the menu prices. When I saw them, all of sudden my expectations shot up.
The Smoking "Ploughmans" complimentary starter was fun, inventive and tasty. The bread was delicious (especially the brown sourdough, though Michelin quality would have served it warm). The asparagus soup was divine (soup is always an important acid test of a good kitchen as it is the chance to really meld flavours in different ways). So far so impressive.
The others had the duck and the beef. Everything was delicious. BUT for £30, I expected delicious. For £20, I expect delicious. £30 calls for some sort of "wow" in the dining experience. Either an amazing flavour, or an inventive twist or else a stunning venue. Unfortunately, none of the dishes has any real distinction at this level. My turbot was fine and that's about it. The caviar topping didn't really add any flavour. And my father had trouble distinguishing his duck from the duck my wife had cooked a few days before (she is a great cook). All of the mains were perfectly delightful on the night and instantly forgettable like some X Factor cover rendition.
A final note is that I would have made the portions just a tad larger. They were very nouvelle cuisine in scale. That's great if you are doing the trendy tapas thing or part of a tasting menu (which they offer), but if you are paying £30 for a main, I expect to have a satisfying serving. All of us felt we would have enjoyed one or two more bites of our plates.
The desserts went to the other extreme. A bit too much going on. Again, delicious and expertly prepared. But not award winning. I had the "Bounty Pebble" which is supposed to be a modern interpretation of a Bounty bar. The chocolate mousse with delicately coconut added was great. But then there was crumbled chocolate and honeycomb (?) sprinkled on top and a dollop of lime sorbet. It was just a bit all over the place taste-wise.
What I did appreciate was the British and even local touch to the ingredients. They served the locally produced (very fine) sparkling wine. Their cheese course option was a la carte so you could choose your cheese board with helpful descriptions with several from the nearby area. And the honey they use is from their very own hives.
SUMMARY - I instinctively compared Orwells to the Dog and Badger on the other side of Henley. D&B is our go-to fine dining preference in the area these days. I would struggle to say that Orwells is significantly better...but it is nearly 50% more expensive. If money were no object and you wanted a change of pace, then Orwells is a great night out.
Orwells also reminded me of the pre-star Hand in Flowers. Before Kerridge got all whimsical and inventive, he first distinguished himself cooking pretty conventional dishes with exceptional quality and a touch of panache. Maybe Orwells has that same potential and now is your chance to sample some of its delightful food and service before a Michelin star raises its profile and you can't get a table (the restaurant was only half full when we went). Just bring a full wallet.