After a devastating fire gutted the Artichoke restaurant in Amersham, owners Laurie and Jacqueline Gear changed the focus of the menu as part of the refurbishment, with award-winning results. Hilary Armstrong reports.
This year's tenth anniversary celebrations at the Artichoke in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, must have been all the sweeter for chef Laurie Gear and his wife Jacqueline after all they'd been through. In June 2008, a fire gutted the 16th century building, forcing their 24-seat restaurant to close for 18 months. It would be insulting to call such a traumatic turn of events a blessing in disguise, but Gear admits it ushered in an "explosion of creativity".
The enforced sabbatical gave Gear (largely self-taught but for six years at Coombe House in Gittisham, Devon) time to reflect and the opportunity for a stage at Noma. Gear's three weeks in Copenhagen were "eye-opening", convincing him that "you can have super sharp food and focus on the customer".
**A NEW FOCUS
*The Artichoke reopened in November 2009 with double the covers (having extended next door), a Scandinavian-influenced interior, an open kitchen and a redoubled focus on local produce. The cooking became more complex; the service and ambience quite the opposite. The Artichoke was straight back in the guides by 2011 with a Michelin rising star and best newcomer award from TheGood Food Guide*.
The Lyme Regis-born chef, brought up collecting winkles on the beach, didn't need René Redzepi to convert him to the joys of foraging but what he did bring back from Noma was a renewed interest in preserving, pickling and brining. This you can see in Gear's sea trout cured with local Pioneer hops ground with salt then hop-smoked and served with cucumber panna cotta, rye bread and pickled cucumber. This dish is individually priced at lunch (£19.50) but part of a £45 three-course-menu at dinner. Artichoke's flexible, customer-friendly pricing structure is further evidenced by a three-course lunch at £25 and a tasting menu which runs to seven courses at dinner (£65) or five at lunch (£35).
"Several years ago some very influential people told me the day of the tasting menu was long gone," says Gear. "I don't think so. Certainly not in my restaurant."
On the menu since day one, although adapting to the seasons, is Gear's caramelised white chocolate galette (£8) - buttered, sugared filo sandwiched with "good old-fashioned crème patisserie" - currently with pears and Poire William sorbet. A hot soufflé (£8.50) also always features.
Changes to the menu are seasonal, and are made a couple of dishes at a time.
Scallops and quail have always been favourites at the restaurant, but the duck (£22), reared exclusively for Artichoke by Stokenchurch Farm, is particularly popular. A take on the Chinese classic, it puts confit leg meat and spring onion, rolled in an English pancake with a square of sherry vinegar jelly, alongside the breast (cooked sous vide and maple-glazed) and a garnish of fresh plum purée, Chinese cabbage and young turnips. Using two parts of the beast (one prime, one braised) is a classic Artichoke touch.
One of Gear's personal favourites - a starter of charred mackerel, Isle of Bute seaweed jelly, pickled mushrooms, pomelo and brown shrimp cracker (£13) - is similarly international in inspiration. Mackerel, in fillet and tartare form, is paired with a British seaweed stock, set to a jelly, and an Asian-style cracker made from sushi rice cooked down to a purée consistency, then blended, seasoned with fish paste and sauce, dried shrimps and salt, and spread thinly on mats to dry before being fried to a good crisp snap.
This is creative stuff from a restaurant that is both "neighbourhood" and "destination", and still with plenty to prove. "We just want to keep on cooking, keep on coming up with new ideas," says Gear. He, more than anyone, knows how valuable that is.
Artichoke, 9 Market Square, Old Amersham, Buckinghamshire HP7 0DF
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU
â- Red wine braised snails, parsley and garlic wet rice, rye breadcrumb, enoki mushrooms, grelot onions, parsley cress
â- Pan-fried Isle of Skye scallops, Wee Three Pigs peanut-fed ham, star anise carrot purée, heritage carrots, pork sauce
â- Braised Dorset lamb breast, tongue, pan-fried sweetbreads, green olive purée, salad of tomatoes, peppers, baby courgettes, aubergine purée, Parmesan gnocchi
â- Roast hake, purple cauliflower purée, pickled Romanesco, baby spinach, chervil foam
â- Michel Cluizel white chocolate ganache, amaretti biscuit, Amalfi lemon and olive oil jelly, lemon thyme sherbert
â- Blackcurrant almond crumble soufflé with lemon verbena ice-cream