Reading, home of The Oracle, birthplace of Jeremy Kyle (long departed to upmarket Windsor), host to The Reading Festival, and um… Well let me tell you something that’ll shock and inspire, they’ve also got a Michelin star restaurant, and this really does put Reading on the map.
Set just outside of Reading itself, the restaurant sits in an attractive house, built in a gothic revival style that could be someone’s actual home, albeit rather a posh friend, and doesn’t really look restauranty at all. It’s the first sign that this isn’t your average restaurant, with limited signage and a sense of discretion. ‘You’re a guest in our home, not a customer’ is the implied message.
Passing by the landscaped gardens and entering through the front door, the staff are attentive and quietly usher me to the terrace to enjoy a glass of wine in the sun. The other option is the bijou but sumptuous bar, all dark wood and a marble topped bar, but who wouldn’t want to make the most of the short-lived English summer? A glass of Champange to celebrate the sun, and Reading, and I’m keen to get stuck in and, right on cue, a waiter spirits onto the paving stones and presents a box of pebbles containing a chef’s apperitivo.
I’ve been wanting to come to L’Ortolan for ages, they’ve had a Michelin star for longer than I’ve been an actual person, gaining their first in 1982. Three owners and five chefs later, they’re still going strong and burnishing that Michelin star as they go. Following a highly successful run under chef Alan Muchison, Tom Clarke took over and in no way disappoints.
Wandering into the dining room, you’re immediately struck by the scale. Or, rather, lack of it. You might as well be in someone’s actual front room, there are fewer than a dozen tables. The decor feels perhaps a little 1990s, but the overall effect is impressive, with comfortable chairs and large tables. There’s a hushed air, as couples on dates talk in whispers, this is clearly where Reading romance is made.
Thanks, of course, to the food. Clarke was Acting Head Chef under Murchison, so stepped up to the top role with more than a run up, but his own pedigree includes cooking at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. So little surprise that everything I ate was fit for a king.
The cuisine is modern French, and the ham hock terrine, served with smoked apple and picalli is presented as beautifully as it tastes, with little gastronomic dollops of puree providing hits of flavour.
Wine, at the suggestion of the sommelier, was matched to each dish with uncanny precision. Lucian Obreja, is entertaining and friendly in the role, but most importantly he’s exactly the sort of wizard you’d want choosing from the restaurant’s wide array of wines to match the dishes exactly.
People-watching becomes a near professional sport in this industry. I’d expect the clientele to be broadly, much older, mum-and-dad-with-grown-up-kids sorts, dare I say rich and dull (sorry, Mum and Dad!). Instead there appeared to be a pretty broad social sweep, with a young couple who looked no older than 19 on the table next to ours (I’m pretty sure you can find their meal on Instagram), what looked like a business meal on the other side of them, a one-year wedding anniversary celebration on another and an older couple in their 60s in the corner. After London restaurants packed with businessmen accompanied by suspiciously young and beautiful ladies, or else wall-to-wall social media fiends, L’Ortolan is a respite.
Onto mains, and fillet of beef. Delectable, served with braised oxtail, horseradish. You can imagine Prince Philip smacking his lips on the days that Tom Clarke was on; it’s no wonder the royals live so long when they’ve got so much to look forward to! All the food is sourced locally and the vegetables are, obviously, seasonal. Clarke’s passion is clear from the quality of the food on the plate to the way that it’s presented.
The portions are relatively small, this isn’t a pub-style, plate filing fodder, but rather delicate yet perfect cuts and amounts. And yet, it must be a quality thing, you’ll be full by the time the pudding menu comes round. And, of course, it won’t stop you for a second. Running my finger down the list the raspberry parfait was a no-brainer, and indeed this was the case, truly melt-in-the-mouth.
Summing up over coffee it became increasingly obvious that L’Ortolan is something special. Restaurants outside of the London bubble have a hard job gaining, let alone maintaining, Michelin stars, creating a buzz about a restaurant anyone other than a Reading-ite would have to travel to isn’t easy, and yet L’Ortolan does so effortlessly. It’s a wonder that Jeremy Kyle left Reading, if L’Ortolan was on my doorstep I’d never leave town!