Orwells at Shiplake near Henley-on-Thames lives up to its lofty ambitions to cook top-class sustainable food
By Emma McCall
‘It was a bright cold day in April…’ when we arrive with hungry anticipation at Orwells, a restaurant that has earned numerous accolades, including a 3 AA Rosette Award and Good Food Guide listing, thanks to the efforts of its Michelin star-winning chef, and owners Ryan Simpson and Liam Trotman.
This attractive 18th century restaurant, located just outside Shiplake, near Henley-on-Thames, is aptly named after the novelist George Orwell, who grew up in the Oxfordshire village.
After being warmly welcomed by Kurt, the knowledgeable, relaxed front of house, we soon settled at the cosy bar area. Faced with an extensive collection of bottles to shame most cocktail enthusiast, I reach for the gin menu—not something I was expecting to find out here in the sticks. Kurt expertly guided us through the gins—and the importance of tonic—they’re big fans of Fever-Tree here, so it’s no wonder that the gin tasting evenings they offer are a hit. While I’m savouring my Tanqueray No. 10, chef Ryan Simpson comes out to introduce himself and tell us more about the ethos behind Orwells.
Likeable Ryan and co-owner Liam both endeavour to make Orwells as sustainable as possible, a commitment that’s evident in the restaurant’s association with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). Most of the fruit and vegetables are grown on its smallholding and all meat is sourced locally. The duo also back ‘The Bee Cause’, part of a campaign to help stop the bee decline, which they actively support by substituting their own honey for sugar in their dishes. Ryan also mentioned that he and Liam are keen foragers. Indeed, they’re heading out the next morning to gather some wild garlic, but are hesitant to disclose the local hotspots. Best kept secrets and all that.
When we were ready, we were shown into the small, but neat, dining area, where we tucked into some delicious homemade bread and call on Kurt again for his wine recommendation—a topnotch suggestion of an Argentine red to match our dishes.
The menu is seasonally creative; and represents British food at its best, including some clever takes on traditional dishes, such as the deconstructed Ploughman’s—a delectable, smoking cheese and pickle hot pot, and the signature ‘Smoked Pork’ egg and ice cream starter that’s expertly reminiscent of a bacon sandwich.
My lamb is melt-in-the-mouth and beautifully presented portions are just the right size – you can happily tuck in without feeling too over faced. It’s interesting to see muntjac on the menu and try something a little different from my companion’s plate. Chef earned top marks in the creativity stakes at pudding, too. I indulged in a theatrical apple and salted caramel dish, including a wisp of candy floss, while their own take on the chocolate Aero—homemade bubbly white and milk chocolate with a satisfying crumble—is also a must.
We rounded off dessert with coffee accompanied by a delightfully light lemon macaron. Towards the end of the evening, Ryan came out to speak to all the guests and check everyone was happy, and it was reassuring to see so many guests obviously making a return visit.
Mercifully, capacity in the restaurant is 40 covers and there is no second sitting for dinner, so guests have plenty of time to savour the food without eating against the clock. We chose from the a la carte menu, but Orwells also offers a set dinner/lunch and a bespoke tasting menu during the week, as well as traditional Sunday lunches.
After such an incredibly clever and, above all, delicious dinner, it’s clear to see that everyone at Orwells is aiming for Michelin glory again. And, as the service is as just as good as the food, this restaurant is definitely worth a trip.
The prices match the high standards, but, for a special occasion or a treat, it definitely lives up to, and goes beyond, its reputation for fascinating fine dining.
(01189 403 673; orwellsatshiplake.co.uk)