Most people will have heard of the Royal Oak at Paley Street in Berkshire because it's owned by chat-show host and journalist Michael Parkinson. But you really should check out its food, because since the beginning of this year its culinary path has been guided by Dominic Chapman, the chef who opened Heston Blumenthal's highly successful Hinds Head pub in nearby Bray.
Blumenthal recruited Chapman because of his British food credentials. Before the Hinds Head he spent five years at Kensington Place, Rowley Leigh's seminal Brit brasserie in London, and he imbibed the ethos of the modern British culinary movement during his formative years at his father's hotel, the Castle in Taunton, Somerset.
Take a mouthful of his food and you'll experience clean, direct, punchy flavours. To achieve these he relies on careful sourcing of produce and adjusting his menu with the seasons. It's no surprise to find good British meat dishes, including offal - lamb's kidneys or oxtongue, for instance - always on his menu, garnished with locally supplied ingredients such as duck eggs and foraged food.
He uses longhorn beef for a lunchtime Sunday roast, a staple at the 55-seat Royal Oak, but also, since changing to a more autumnal menu last month, to create a salt beef stovey (£12). Developed from the traditional northern English potato patty, it's made from a piece of cured silverside which he cooks slowly before shredding the beef to mix with potatoes, herbs and Cornish onions. It's served with a fried egg and mustard sauce.
The longhorn beef is supplied by Richard Vaughn, but other suppliers provide the Angus beef, a rib of which he uses for steaks for the Royal Oak's ever-popular steak and chips served with home-made béarnaise (£34 for two). The chunky chips, naturally, are triple-baked and perfect: crunchy on the outside, fluffy when you sink your teeth into them.
The steak never slips from the menu, but varieties of fish come and go according to the season. In early September, for instance, Chapman was able to put on a starter of fried anchovies at the tail-end of the fish's season. Served plain and unadorned with a wedge of lemon and a little bowl of béarnaise (£5.95) they are a clever, light, tasty starter with a bit of crunch. The anchovies were wild, but fished from French waters, he admits ruefully. Turbot, scallops and crab, on the other hand, all come from Cornwall. And he replaced the anchovies with Devon sand eels once the little fish's season had passed.
Cooking with wild fish is a point of principle for Chapman, but he's also well aware of the sustainable fishing issue and because of this sometimes uses Scottish farmed halibut as well as the wild Icelandic variety. Halibut sells consistently well and, being a denser-fleshed fish it works well as colder months set in. Garnishes change according to what's around, of course, but it was served recently with samphire and cockles (£15.50).
Autumn is a prime game season and Chapman has offered grouse as a special since the beginning of last month, served traditionally with bread sauce and game chips. At £25 it's not cheap, but customers have snapped up the dish whenever it's been available. "I'll use mallard, teal and partridge when I get them, too," he adds.
Many chefs forget about the seasons when it comes to desserts, but reassuringly Chapman is not one of them. Recent autumnal treats have included nostalgic winners like greengage tart made with a frangipane base rather than puff pastry, and apple and blackberry crumble (both £5.95).
The food at the Royal Oak undeniably, although not exclusively, leans towards British. However, wines are another matter. Given the relatively tiny size of the British wine industry, that's as it should be, yet the wines on the 100-bin list are cleverly selected to complement Chapman's food by restaurant manager Gherras Mo, whose career includes stints at London restaurants Zaika and Pétrus. Like Chapman, he operates by the rule that "a little bit of care and attention goes a long way". It's a philosophy all chefs and restaurateurs should adopt.
Tel: 01628 620541
Chapman relies on careful sourcing and adjusts his menu with the seasons
What's on the menu
î¬ Dandelion salad with duck hearts and quail eggs, £6.50
î¬ Smoked eel with beetroot and horseradish, £6.50
î¬ Lamb's kidneys with scrambled duck eggs, £6.95
î¬ Old Spot belly pork with mushy peas and braised onions, £14
î¬ Peppered haunch of fallow deer with creamed spinach, £14
î¬ Line-caught Cornish sea bass with braised celery, £16
î¬ Cambridge burnt cream, £5.95
î¬ Bread and butter pudding, £5.95
î¬ Poached pear with clotted cream, £5.95