Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Food Escalator

After years of foraging in the one Michelin star and below restaurant forest, we took a fork(!) in the road which led to the plateau of the two star. It had to be done: there was no avoiding it. It shone like a beacon wresting us away from our usual habitat.

This is a route to a place where, according to head chef John Campbell, 'it is not just the food but the full dining experience that matters...'. That destination is the Vineyard at Stockcross, conveniently situated in the West Berks Jungle, a short distance from Newbury and its infamous bypass.

So, what is the experience like? It starts early, with attentive service that begins as soon as you draw up in your car whereupon the valet opens the doors and leads you through the reception to the comfortable sofas of the bar. You are handed the simple two-fold menu and the War and Peace-like wine list - no make that a wine book, to peruse over drinks and appetisers.

Your first decision is to choose between the tasting menu, where ten sample signature dishes arrive in a procession of culinary prowess, or the standard menu where you must pick from an array of six starters, six mains and six desserts. It all makes perfect sense - it's just enough choice to cope with at that time of the evening. The sommelier helps with wine selections that perfectly match the food we have ordered. This is invaluable given the size of the list and the paucity of our budget - this review isn't paid for after all.

The dining room is a large double height space, simply decorated. There is nothing to distract from the food, save for the impressive 'fire and water' sculpture in the courtyard beyond the window, into which the rain is now falling.

The pre-starter arrives unannounced, but when we sample it, the flavour of the asparagus and the truffle cream cold soup have been fortified for maximum effectiveness on the palate and we are beginning to realise the quality of the cooking is going to be high.

I have ordered the terrine of suckling pig with its own black pudding, and this arrives - a work of modern art on a plate - all beautifully layered and accompanied by a quince puree, pear jam and a simple slice of toast. The zesty fruit offsets the richness of the terrine and it is clear many chef hours have been put into creating this dazzling dish. My wife has fallen for the scallops - a perennial favourite of hers - and are perfectly cooked, but served with a modern twist - lemon curd, beetroot and shallots are the flavour-enhancers of choice. This also comes with a mystery ingredient: the 'chicken biscuit': a small sliver of stretched and oven-crisped chicken skin. I told you this is a modern treatment.

I have seen halibut combined with oxtail on television shows like 'Great British Menu', but to taste it is to realise what a heavenly concoction it really is. Halibut is a meaty fish anyway, but when it is placed on a bed of oxtail that has been cooked to the point where it almost melts away, this lifts the flavour of the fish in an extraordinary fashion. In turn the sheer sumptuousness of the oxtail is moderated by the halibut: they exist in harmony as if they were made for each other. Meanwhile across the table, a John Dory served with crab, coriander and tomato, is being consumed. My wife describes this as 'a complex dish, but certainly one of the best she had ever tasted'.

My dessert is possibly the most complex assembly I have ever seen on a plate. After the simplicity of the main course, this is a striking contrast. The main component with the fullest flavour is the cassis ice cream positioned in a quenelle at each end of the rectangular plate and in between is a horizontal piped line of lemon cream which is adorned with the pain d'epice (french gingerbread) and the chocolate oil. I also think that there are individual grains of tapioca liberally strewn along the length of it too.

There is a lot going on, but the overall effect is very pleasing on the taste buds. The effort expended in the kitchen really shows in the depth of flavour in all the dishes and the expertise in creating superlative combinations is what you are paying for. You pay handsomely as you would expect - eating food at this level of professionalism is not cheap, but for a special occasion it is a treat for everyone who enjoys fine dining.

My wife doesn't think that her dessert quite lives up to the promise of the earlier courses. She has chosen the 'Hazelnut, Chocolate, Moscatel' which turns out, in a basic sense, to be a piece of cake with fondant on top. Although equally complex in construction, it seems to lack the wow factor which is present in the taste sensation of the cassis.

Coffee and exquisite truffles are taken in the lounge and this allows a last lingering reflection over the whole evening. We have taken the food escalator to the second Michelin floor, will we ever want to descend? Or is the only way up - to the rarefied atmosphere of Gordon Ramsey or The Fat Duck? Only our wallets will decide.

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