The magical setting of the Waterside Inn is unrivalled, whatever the weather. It is nestled in a tranquil setting on the banks of the Thames at Bray, where often the only sounds are those of lapping water and quacking ducks. The terrace, ideal for pre and post prandial drinks in the summer, commands glorious views of the river.
Not that all this is immediately apparent as guests approach the original white pebble dash building at the end of Ferry Road. The modest entrance and reception, insulated from the sounds within, give little idea of the Waterside’s spacious, understated luxury. The restaurant, built as an extension in the early 1970s, comprises two distinct halves: the semi- circular back section with panelled mirrors and sumptuous banquettes has a more intimate feel, whilst the front, overlooking the terrace, is fully glazed with sliding doors, giving a light, airy effect.
Only on entering this dining room is the theatre of the bustling restaurant fully unveiled. Besuited front of house staff chatting with guests; silver domes simultaneously lifted to gasps of delight; ducks expertly carved in gueridon service; the provenance of cheeses being explained; and sommeliers offering expert wine suggestions. Against the conversational buzz of contented diners, the service is executed with seamless effort and great aplomb.
Overseeing the operation is the charismatic and engaging master of house, Diego Masciaga. He has rarely missed a service and ensures he visits every table at lunch and dinner. As restaurant director, he has elevated service to an art, giving it equal importance to the food in making the Waterside experience a truly memorable one. Professional but not stiff or intimidating, the service is genuinely welcoming and friendly. Guests are quickly put at their ease, with deputy manager Frederic Poulette injecting a little wit and humour into the proceedings. Guidance on menu dishes is well informed whilst anticipatory service is excellent. How amazing that just as one is thinking of asking for a little more sauce or bread or a fresh napkin they suddenly appear. Constant yet unobtrusive observation, attention to smallest detail, and a genuine love of the craft, all qualities cultivated by Diego, have helped to produce a level of customer care second to none.
Although it has retained three Michelin stars for 27 years, a unique achievement for any British restaurant, to describe The Waterside as a temple of gastronomy does it a disservice. Whilst some might come to worship a chef who has reached the height of his profession, discussing in reverential tones the qualities of the cooking, the atmosphere is far less serious than this. Indeed, a feeling of relaxed formality, reflecting real enjoyment, pervades the room: “pure gold happiness” as Raymond Blanc would have said.
This is testament to those in the front of house and the kitchen in equal measure.
Alain Roux’s creativity and technical skill, initially emulated his father’s move towards a lighter style of modern French classical cooking. Now he has stamped his own seal on the cuisine, each dish being an expression of his personality. Both luxury and more humble ingredients are treated with equal care and attention, producing skilfully crafted, impeccably balanced and beautifully presented dishes. As a master patissier, Alain’s forte for desserts, as shown in his Péché gourmand selon “Alain,” is unquestioned. Whilst not cutting edge in style – the Rouxs have never, thankfully, been slaves to culinary fashion – the cooking has, in moderation, embraced foreign influences and contemporary techniques. The menu moves with the seasons, showcasing new creations but retaining some distinguished signature dishes such as Filets tendres de lapereau grillés aux marrons glacés, Caneton Challandais roti, and Tronçonnettes de homard poêlées minute au porto blanc. These are likely never to leave the menu.
A birthday celebration on a January lunchtime began with champagne and a generous array of canapés: delicate olive straws; flavoursome Welsh rarebit; creamy salmon mousseline on crisp, cool cucumber; and moist, well-seasoned steak tartare topped with a soft boiled quail’s egg. These dainty mouthfuls served their purpose in exciting the palate without stealing the thunder of what was to follow.
The first course, the classical La Quennelle de brochet a la Lyonnaise,was probably the most labour intensive of all the savoury dishes eaten. Ethereally light and soft textured, the warm pike mousseline had a delicate earthiness which worked well with the intense shellfish flavour of sauce nantua. Succulent langoustine tails, barely cooked to preserve their sweetness, also provided a contrasting texture to the dish.
Next came an escalope of foie gras, seared to give caramelised crust and melting interior. Spiced with the gentle warmth of cardamom, the rich, creamy quality of this delectable piece of offal was balanced in texture by glazed root vegetables and in flavour by a well-judged sauce of verjus, the acidity of which was tempered by saltanas, giving a slightly piquant taste.
Poaching in sea water emphasised the clean taste and firm, dense texture of a fillet of halibut. A layer of oscietra “Royal Belgian” caviar acted as a seasoning and added a decadent luxurious edge. The accompanying sauce, enriched with sea urchin roe added colour and depth of flavour. Visually, also, this dish was stunning.
A main course of lamb was prepared two ways: precisely timed roasted French trimmed cutlets topped with a pine kernel crust; and braised osso bucco. Both cooking techniques maximised the flavour and texture of the different cuts – the sweet soft cutlets and the firmer, deeper notes of the leg. Einkorn risotto gave a nutty texture whilst the whole dish was lifted by a rich jus infused with rosemary.
Roasted Challandais duck, a sharing dish for two, is presented at the table and carved effortlessly with swift upward strokes. This spectacle, one of the great highlights of Waterside theatre, always draws the attention of other diners. The thin slices of duck have the texture of rare roast beef and a gamey flavour without fattiness. Paired with a ball of cabbage stuffed with a farce of leg meat and offal, and served with a spiced damson jus, which cut the richness of the meat, this is one of the Waterside’s great iconic dishes.
Given all the variety and complexity of preceding flavours, a palate cleanser was more than welcome. The lime sorbet with raspberry, drizzled with tequila successfully filled the brief, refreshing and enlivening the taste buds.
For dessert, a Frasier gateau of sponge, strawberries, cream and marzipan was ordered in advance. This beautiful construction in red, white and green proved remarkably light, the perfect birthday cake after four savoury courses.
Alongside this was the celebrated peche gourmand selon Alain, a veritable masterclass of miniature desserts. Amongst these, an exemplary rum baba was liberally soaked in the alcoholic syrup; fragrant pistachio crème brulee was a model of its kind in taste and texture; tarte tatin was beautifully caramelised; and a smooth and well flavoured vanilla ice cream had a velvety texture.
Strong coffee came with petits fours, another tour de force from the pastry section. These included tuiles, palmiers, nougat, passion fruit tartlet, fruit jellies and chocolates.
The Waterside Inn, under the strong leadership of Alain Roux and Diego Masciaga, continues to delight the guest as a progressive restaurant. While evolution not revolution remains the mantra, the ongoing passion for excellence in all things is apparent. No detail is too small, nor too unimportant. Everything is just so. From a visit to the kitchen to a relaxing drink in the summerhouse, The Waterside Inn has nothing to hide, a seamless well-oiled machine but one that comes with a welcoming humility.
The inspector-led guides (such as Michelin) and reader-led guides (such as Trip Advisor, Hardens and Zagat) share equally in their admiration – a rare feat by any standards – reflecting the status of The Waterside Inn as one of the long standing restaurant greats, not just in Bray, Berkshire or Britain but in the world.