Jan Moir Are You Ready To Order
Kate Winslet is not happy. Shortly after telling Vanity Fair magazine that she still feels like the ‘fat kid’, the actress has attacked suggestions that her body was airbrushed to improve her shape for a glamorous cover shot for the magazine. No! Yes! Kate is furious at claims that her body has been airbrushed. The only tweaks, she insists, were the usual adjustments in skin shades for glamour shots. Can there really be a skin shade called Flawless Silvery Peach? I’ve only ever seen that before when holding a scallop up to a cloche on a brilliant spring day at the Waterside Inn last year.
I digress. But only slightly. For Winslet’s eternal attempts to promote herself as just one of the girls have a bearing on this week’s review. When she married her first husband, the happy couple held their sausage and mash reception here, at The Crooked Billet. This intriguing place buried deep in a fold of the Oxfordshire countryside was in sharp contrast to the usual prinked Hollywood nuptials; Winslet’s decision, I must say, showed common sense and good taste.
For the Crooked Billet is quite wonderful. Unique, really. It will never win a Michelin star – too ramshackle! – but devoted regulars understand the warm atmosphere, good food and sense of contentment that only a well-run establishment such as this can provide.
You will find it at the end of a muddy road. The building itself is long and low, with tubs of flowers by the windows and a spruce, well-tended air. A sign on the front door says: ‘Wanted. Your Home Grown and Local Produce. Swap For Lunch?’
Inside, the restaurant – not posh, but not a gastropub either - sprawls across several rooms of what was once an old country pub. You want history with your pan-fried rabbit , seared duck hearts, roast pumpkin and squash with confit garlic? You got it.
The Crooked Billet was built in 1642, a time when Charles I was still on the throne, the Civil War was raging all around and fifteen miles away, Reading was under siege. Later, the pub would provide a hideout for highwayman Dick Turpin, who then dated the landlady's daughter, Bess. However, the most significant moment in the Crooked Billet’s history was the arrival of self-taught chef and proprietor Paul Clerehugh in 1989. One of those cooks who cares about everything, from the provenance of the flour to the happy factor of the black faced mutton sourced from local farms, it is Clerehugh - not Turpin – who has really put this establishment on the map.
The award winning Sunday lunches are deservedly popular, Saturdays are heaving, but those wishing rustic peace beside a log fire could do worse than sneak a weekday lunch here on a day off. As suitable for romantic trysts as it is for family get-togethers, the Billet is the kind of place that happily accommodates all-comers. Six of us arrive on a brilliant autumn Monday lunchtime and happily hunker down beside the crackling fire in a candlelit nook. The charming wooden interior can barely have been touched since Bess manned the barrels. There are racks of bottles, yellowing books and plain tables, some with cloths and some without.
Service is charming and the menu breaks every rule in the book. It is massive, with sixteen starters and fourteen main courses. The spicing and influences swoop from continent to coast around the globe, without even a blush. Yet everything works because the kitchen takes care with every dish.
Anyone for fun, happy food?
Our table is paved with a selection of starters; salt and pepper squid with a searing chilli jam; perfectly cooked slices of sesame seared tuna loin, served with some puckery pickled vegetables and a crisp won ton. Crispy duck salad is a terrific lunch option if it is done properly, as it is here. The biggest hits are the crispy scallops with mushy pea puree and the tremendous aubergine olive & garlic polenta cake. The only disappointment is the smooth foie gras & chicken liver parfait. It would have taken a better food inspector than me to detect any foie gras , This is fun, happy food served with elan, by a waitress who really makes our day. From the perfectly laid table, to the wines delivered instantly, she is the essence of good service.
For main courses we have roast halibut; it is okay, but has a soft texture (suggesting farmed fish) and has an open grain (suggesting frozen fish). In a land-locked pub on a Monday afternoon, is it right to expect anything else? Never mind, for there are consolations aplenty. These include a big dish of local Old Spot pork chop served with celeriac fondant, a Calvados baked apple, parsley carrots and a cornichion and shallot sauce. S loves his Black Face mutton from the chef’s own farm; a big hunk of shoulder cooked long and slow, then spiced up with a drizzle of harissa sauce and served with a stack of chargrilled peppers and courgettes and some fluffy cous cous flecked with herbs. The Aberdeen Angus sirloin is a good size and of quite deep flavour, nicely served with a side of mushrooms and tomato. Two portions of gratin Dauphinois disappear like snow in a heatwave. Other main dishes include pink carved roebuck deer, slow roast duck and a baked parmigiano. Portions are generous. Meat dishes seem a better bet than the fish ones. Desserts focus on family favourites; lots of ice creams, meringues and fruit sauces; perfect.
You can still get a good pint of organic Brakspear’s bitter here at a decent price of £3. A well made Macon Lugny (Montvallon E Loran En Fils) 2006 burgundy white is 24.50.
Any profits the restaurant makes from their sale of bread and olives go towards the meals they provide for the village primary school. Add this to the plea for local farmers for their surplus goods and you see how a restaurant can be good, do good and remain the beating heart of a community. Instead of being merely a cynical vehicle for a celebrity chef to become a brand. It is a honour and a pleasure to eat here. !
The Crooked Billet, Newlands Lane, Stoke Row, Henley On Thames. RG9 5PU. Telephone; 01491 681048. Lunch or dinner for two, excluding drinks and service £45
- The Crooked Billet, Newlands Lane, Stoke Row, Henley On Thames. RG9 5PU. Telephone; 01491 681048. Lunch or dinner for two, excluding drinks and service £45