Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Pot Lunch

Its obviously a hard job being a TV chef. One moment you're in the studio, cooking up your latest dazzling dish. The next moment you are borrowing a shed-load of cash from your friendly neighbourhood bank manager and buying the local pub.

This is what Mike Robinson has done, by investing his life savings and a lot more besides in the Pot Kiln, in Frilsham, Berks. So what does a chef do with a century old, legendarily hard-to-find pub. He turns it into a gastro-pub, that's what. Food is big in the Rod K household, so we decided to check it out. The fact that I was a year older gave us an even better excuse.

Once you have navigated your way down the lanes of West Berks, you happen upon a beautiful valley with the pub set on one side, with a fantastic view from the beer garden, over the autumn scene. We didn't stay here long, as our date was with the restaurant.

Although newly extended, the interior is unremarkable, and decorated with things that should be, and in some cases are, on your plate. Mike's ethos is to cook with what he can source locally, which gets top marks for green credentials. It is no accident that the pub is set in woodland that supports wild muntjack deer, wonderful species of fungi, and is surrounded by a garden that provides a home for chickens and a new vegetable/herb garden.

All of this gives rise to Mike's earthy, country cooking. This is not Michelin-starred fine dining, but very good rustic fare, with strong flavours and robust textures. We ate from the Sunday lunch menu: I had the Goat's cheese roulade to start, which had been browned but cooled, and had aubergine, red pepper and vine leaves inside, served on a bed of lamb's lettuce, with olive tapenade. This tasted great with the variety of flavours that a great chef can bring out.

My wife started with salmon on the ubiquitous lettuce, with a flavoursome honey, lemon and dill vinaigrette, which she thought was excellent - although she had expected smoked salmon! The children had the vegetable soup, which was suitably earthy and laced with a dash of olive oil. They devoured this along with the home-made bread.

For mains, I had the seared tuna Nicoise, which was classically composed and presented. My wife had chosen the Poussin. I had shied away from this, but it was a revelation, being not plain, but stuffed with a seemingly impossible quantity of vegetables. This made for a taste extravaganza and was a interesting dish to see and eat. The children opted for the mushroom tagliatelle. Apparently the chef gathers the mushrooms wild from the nearby woods, which shows commitment to a cause. Our eldest likes mushrooms but I think was unprepared for the depth of flavour from these varieties. Apologies to the chef for the amount they wasted! Anyway there is plenty of time for the younger ones' tastes to mature.

We all chose the Lemon Tart with Guernsey Cream as dessert. The lemon taste was striking but neatly balanced by the deep-yellow cream and left us all suitably full.

The birthday boy, me, had a glass of the house Salice Salentino Reserva, Candido 2000 and with sundry drinks and service charge the bill for four was around £95. So was it worth it? To sample the cooking of a chef on the up, with a distinctive, earthy country-style menu, without booking months ahead, I'll say we were all very lucky.

Don't go there though - it will make it difficult for me to get a table!

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