I don't know why it has taken me quite so long to venture out to Bray. What is effectively a village known predominantly for the quality of its food and drink should have been something of a mecca. Perhaps it was a fear of leaving the boundaries of the M25. I'm not proud of this but if I'm going to leave London I tend to do so properly by either embarking on several hours of long train journey that necessitates sandwiches and a mini bottle of M&S wine or it involves planes and Terminal 5. There is a whole swathe of the country lying within 50 miles of London that I have no idea about. Someone asked me where Winchester was the other day; no idea?! I also thought Kent was to the south of London; it appears not. This needs remedying. So enough of my geographic ineptitude and on to the Waterside Inn.
An hour on the train and a short cab hop from the station and we were deposited by the river on what has been the only sunny Saturday so far this year. We were led straight through to our table and deposited with a nice view of the river but in the corner next to the fire escape (have they heard something about me?). Its not going to come as a surprise to anyone to say that this place is very, very French. Its almost as though someone has cloned a small army of clean cut, long-white-apron wearing, terribly polite Frenchmen and deposited them in the middle of rural Berkshire. You get dizzy at the number of times you respond hello on the short journey to your table.
Gripe alert. I'm going to start off the meal on a moan but promise it gets better from hereon in. Within only a couple of minues of arriving at Waterside we are sat down with canapes and a wine list and a glass of Michel Roux's eponymous champagne (Very dry. Yeasty, biscuity flavour; not mind blowing but nice). Great, no problems there. Within the next five minutes someone attempts to take our wine order three times and remove the canapes (as yet untouched as due to the size of the wine bible I can't choose wine and reach the canapes at the same time). It is then suggested that I move my canapes to a side plate and hey presto! before I've ordered the wine or finished the canapes the first course is in front of me. To be honest I felt jammed in a corner surrounded by numerous waiters and distinctly pressured. This is meant to be a relaxing experience!
Once I finally got round to them, the canapes were pretty fab though, the best one being a steak tartare on a crisp topped with a soft boiled quail's egg. Other tasty little morsels included a welsh rarebit with pear chutney (good flavour and lovely idea but was served cold and in my book molten cheese is at its best when hot) and a smoked eel tempura. The anchovy cheese straws were well executed but really powerfully fishy. If you like anchovies you will love them.
So from whine to wine..........
I could have very, very easily spent the GDP of a mid sized country on wine at Waterside. It's one of those places where not only do they have an Yquem, they have multiple years spanning almost half a century. Lafites, Haut Brions, Pétrus' and Vintage Krug all nestle side by side. The wine list was the victim of someone having danced around the page with a pencil crossing through many of the better value or more interesting wines. The sommelier mentioned part way through the meal that Michel Roux senior was downstairs tasting new wines so I suspect that we arrived at the tail end of the old list.
I had opened a bottle of 1996 Sociando Mallet on Christmas Day to accompany my beef wellington so already knew that it worked well with a strong beef or game dish. 2000 being a pretty good year generally in Bordeaux, it seemed like a shout. At around £120 a bottle it was, of course, significantly marked up as you would expect in a three star restaurant but still comparatively good value compared to many of the other wines on the list.
A 2000 Ch Climens 1er cru Barsac acted as an effective straddle, working both with the foie gras and also with dessert. I've had the Climens a couple of times recently and its rapidly becoming a reliable go to on restaurant wine lists.
The first course was a "Crémeux de parmesan à la truffe et cornes de gatte, accompagné d’une allumette feuilletée aux amandes" - in essence parmesan cream with truffle shavings. I'm not sure how it is possible to make a heavy whipped cream taste more parmesaney that parmesan itself but they have somehow achieved it. Rich, salty, savoury and delicate all in the same mouthful. Dare I use the word "umami" without sounding like an idiot? If I did, it would be here.
Next came an escalopes de foie gras chaudes à la cardamome, racines glacées, sauce au verjus et raisins de Smyrne. The foie was pan fried to the point of having a crispy caramelised crust without being overcooked in the centre. The verjus was very intense in flavour with a sticky, rich oily texture. This was definitely my favourite course of the meal and the verjus nothing short of divine although we both struggled to catch any hint of the promised cardamom which was a shame as it would have made the dish more unusual.
Tronçonnettes de homard poêlées minute au porto blanc was the fish course. I'm not going to rave about how perfectly cooked the lobster was as so it should be in a 3 star restaurant. And yes all the usual adjectives apply, sweet, tender etc etc, all present and correct. What made this an outstanding lobster dish however was the presentation and the sauce. Very fine slivers of ginger were panfried with the carrot julienne and the port reduction giving a very delicate Asian style flavour. I love how this dish is all about the lobster and not just in terms of what was a very decent quantity. Virtually no unneccessary garnish - how tempting would it be to most chefs to fill that empty third of a plate with a handful of watercress or similar?
A glass of white Pessac-Léognan Chévalier 1996 was rather a disappointment unfortunately (although H loved it). Nothing wrong with it as such, just not to my taste. Very mineral and chalky in taste with a splash of petrol on the nose and lacking in fruit to balance it out, perhaps due to the age. I think if white wines are over 5 years I should probably stick to a nice buttery Burgundy chardonnay for my personal taste. Seeing that I wasn't a bit fan the sommelier brought me a mystery wine to try. I managed to not entirely embarass myself by identifying it as chardonnay but guessed Chablis instead of St Véran. Apparently the St Véran is one that was open for Michel Snr to try as they are hoping to add it to the new season list. They definitely should, it would be a great summer drinker.
What became very clear is that Waterside is very much a labour of love for the Roux family. Michel Snr was in the restaurant to try and approve the new season wines, the sommelier told me that Michel's taste buds are so sharp that he will literally work along a line of glasses saying "oui", "non" or sometimes just a raised eyebrow.....
Caneton challandais rôti, feuilles de chou farcies en surprise et jus aux prunes de Damas légèrement épicé. As you can see from the picture you got a lot of meat. The cabbage was stuffed with minced duck meat and whilst tasty was not my favourite. The roast onions however were a burst of sweetness that balanced the dish perfectly.
H ordered the Duo de gibier de saison, subric de potiron et champignons sauvages enrobés d’épinards, sauce poivrade. The gibiers in question were partridge and venison. On the basis that H is not a fan of pepper I'm guessing that the peppered sauce was not very strong as he didn't comment.
Being greedy, we added a cheese course having been seduced by the huge trolley that we passed on the way in. So greedy in fact that the maitre d' stopped by to check that we were really sure we could manage an extra course. Stupid question....
Our cheese plate choices included a bleu d'auvergne, Comté another blue and the more unusual side was a paprika coated ewe's milk cheese (nice but would have been bland without the paprika). I loved the way that the stilton was hidden on the lower level of the tray as the token British cheese in a kind of "it is not French so we will hide it away" move. I have to admit that I was surprised to have the trolley wheeled away immediately after selecting my 5 slivers of cheese before H got to choose any. Apparently 5 little slivers does constitute 2 separate portions however as we were charged the full whack of nearly £20 per portion on the bill. This does annoy me slightly since the quality of cheese is the same between a 3* or a 1* restaurant, they generally come from the same suppliers and the restaurant has to do nothing to the cheese in order to serve it other than not let it go dry or mouldy. Even with a huge mark up we were nowhere near beyond a total of a fivers worth of cheese retail.
Around 3pm Alain Roux came and did a circuit of the restaurant leaving the last of the desserts to the well trained hands of his kitchen chefs. He showed more than a passing interest in what diners had especially liked or disliked and a definite focus on what wines we were drinking. Apparently I achieved something comparatively rare these days by managing to get both Michel Snr and Alain to sign my menu.
The tasting menu listed dessert was a Larme de chocolat lacté au caramel, cœur de mangue et fruits de la passion, sorbet mangue, unfortunately my stupid food allergies to fruit struck again (no lovely mango or passion fruit for me) so the waiter kindly offered an alternate option of a pistachio creme brulee. In my experience many things that claim to be pistachio tend to taste pretty much like the unflavoured version but are just a slightly scary, lurid green. No photo at this point as I got the settings wrong on my phone in my booze fuelled mission and managed to take a picture in black and white. Believe me, not even the tastiest creme brûlée in the world looks good in black and white. The larme (so named due to a tear shaped chocolate craquant casing holding a milk chocolate caramel mousse) did look lovely and much prettier than my brûlée but hey ho.
The second dessert on the menu was a soufflé chaud à l’orange et airelles. Light as air just as you would expect and with a much more pronounced flavour than you might think for a soufflé. Cranberries were also in the base of the ramekin as well as purely decoratively on the top. Really just perfect.
The petit fours included a giant palmier (why not make two smaller ones?!), by this point in all honesty I was so chock full of wine that you could have given me a honey roast spider and I'd
probably have raved about it so I would ignore pretty much anything that I say from hereon in. There may well have been some sort of macaron, a passion fruit tartlet, a nice dark chocolate truffle thing and probably a perfectly executed nugget of nougat but I was beyond noting or describing it.
We (probably sensibly) retired to one of the outside smoking huts with armagnac (less sensible). Strange contraptions, they look like hexagonal wooden huts from the outside but inside are like some kind of Marie-Antoinette style fantasy tardis. The inside ceiling is lined in pleated pink silk and the walls are hung with elaborate light sconces as well as chintzy watercolour paintings. Heavily cushioned banquettes line the inside walls of the hut with fringed cushions for added squish. Curtains cover the windows resulting in your own private mini Versailles. I dread to think what kind of shenanigans those wall sconces have seen behind closed doors.....
Yes it really was that late by the time we finished lunch...
In a Roux vs Roux family cook off for me Waterside Inn beats Le Gavroche hands down despite the schlep to get there.
I am now very poor indeed but was it worth it? Definitely! Would I go back? Yes, but I think it would have to be a special occasion. I'd love to revisit on a sunny summer's day when you can hire a boat and cruise the river with your aperitif, just bliss.