Ryan and Liam Simpson-Trotman are constantly adapting, from updating their tasting menu with seasonal produce to serving roasts and fish and chips in lockdown. Chris Gamm reports
Before the country went into lockdown, Ryan and Liam Simpson-Trotman were hosting a series of guest chef events to mark 10 years since opening Orwells in the well-heeled village of Shiplake in Oxfordshire.
In May 2010, the pair launched their first independent venture, three months after winning and promptly walking away from a Michelin star at the nearby Goose at Britwell Salome. The past decade has seen the Simpson-Trotmans collect many more accolades, including four AA rosettes, as well as The Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year award in 2017, and 28th spot in the guide's current list of the UK's best restaurants.
Orwells is housed in a free-of-tie Brakspear pub, and arguably the greatest journey of the past 10 years has been the reinvention of the chefs' culinary style, from the pub classics menu with which they launched through to a more refined offer and then to the fine dining experience they create for guests today.
"We want people to experience a really fun tasting menu, with dishes that are ingredient-led and second-to-none produce from the best suppliers," says Ryan.
This approach is underpinned by a first-class classical training – Ryan worked under the Troisgros family, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire in France – and has experience in some of the UK's best kitchens, including Sketch, the Elephant, Bovey Castle and Winteringham Fields.
"We've become more confident with our cooking now and have come to understand flavours better," said Ryan.
Diners choosing the tasting menu – which comes in either seven or 14 courses (£75/£105) and is taken by 60%-70% of guests – are immediately hit with an example of a dish "that all chefs love to eat" – fried chicken.
"It's a nod to our upbringing on council estates in Nuneaton and Liverpool, but a refined version, with Exmoor caviar and grated kaffir lime. The caviar works perfectly with chicken, with the contrast of soft and crisp with saltiness," he says.
We want people to experience a really fun tasting menu, with dishes that are ingredient-led and second-to-none produce from the best suppliers
Both the à la carte and tasting menus change seasonally, with four or five mid-season tweaks to keep things fresh for regulars. The chefs champion seasonal and local produce, growing 80% of fruit and vegetables themselves in the height of the season.
A new dish on the March tasting menu is a celebration of the wild garlic season, an ingredient the team forage weekly.
"We've made a spiced wild garlic brioche with bacon jam in the centre and lardo on top. It's served in a basket of moss and wild garlic, with dry ice and wild garlic tea that fills the restaurant with a massive smell of garlic. It turns heads."
Another new dish for March heralds the beginning of the Jersey Royal season by inviting guests to ‘unearth' their own potato. Jersey Royals are cooked slowly in roasted chicken stock, then barbecued à la minute and served in a mini terracotta pot covered in Jersey Royal foam and a textured ‘soil' of potato powder, burnt leeks and crispy onion.
"Pulling a potato out of the soil is a massive wow factor," says Ryan. "When you're coming for a dining experience, you want something you've not seen before."
Orwells' signature dessert is Mill Lane honey sponge (£10), which is an adaptation of a le gâteau du marquis de béchamel recipe Ryan learned working in France.
"It's like a flan cum sponge, but with more flour to give it structure, and honey instead of caramel. It reminds you of the tinned sponge pudding you grew up with in the 80s and 90s."
With the restaurant closed, the Simpson-Trotmans have launched the Orwells Community Shop, offering store cupboard essentials, freshly baked bread, meat, fish, vegetables and pre-prepared meals for delivery or collection.
"It's about being a lifeline to the community," says Liam. "There are lots of provisions in place and it's very safe as we drop it to customers' cars or doorsteps."
A three-course, ready-to-heat Sunday roast for £30 and fish and chips on a Friday night are also proving hits. "We developed a batter for the fish that can hold for an hour as we knew it needed to be really crisp – people could be travelling for 10 or 15 minutes," says Ryan. "The meal comes in a recyclable carton with triple-cooked chips, crispy battered haddock, crushed garden peas and a chunky tartare sauce (£15).
"The reaction has been phenomenal and orders are flying in for this Friday already. My goal is 120 portions a night."
Shiplake Row, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 4DP
From the à la carte
- Hand-dived Orkney scallops, smoked roe, sea kale, rhubarb, chicken skin £25
- Salt-baked celeriac, Tunworth, winter truffle, burnt apple, brown butter marigold £18
- Wiltshire organic guinea fowl, gnocchi, hen of the woods, mustard sauce, wild garlic £36
- Cornish turbot and squat lobster, vin jaune sauce, monk's beard, chervil root £38
- Mill Lane honey sponge, honeycomb, Ardbeg whisky, lemon curd, yogurt ice-cream £10
- Baked egg custard tart, rhubarb, ginger, shortbread £10
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