The attractive Berkshire town of Cookham, just north of Maidenhead, has never been short of places to eat and drink. Its riverside walks, picturesque old village high street and famous Stanley Spencer Gallery attract large numbers of visitors each year, whilst its largely professional population, familiar with many celebrated restaurants in this prosperous part of the Thames Valley, are amongst the most discerning diners in the south east.
The White Oak is a well established pub located on the Pound, a narrow link between the older and newer parts of Cookham. The long, red brick exterior, designed in a neo Georgian style with sash windows presents an attractive facade. Inside, the reception, bar and dimly lit lounge lead to a long 55 cover dining room with French windows at the far end leading to a terrace and garden. Furnishing and fittings are a harmonious blend of rustic and modern chic. Oak veneered undressed tables, in a variety of shapes and sizes, are well spaced and paired with an assortment of chairs, including a few in a reproduction Louis XVI style. Along the length of the room, a banquette in reddish brown leather offers comfortable alternative seating. The décor is a pleasant coffee and beige, punctuated by faux 18th century mirrors, sepia photographs and a variety of prints. Chandeliers, hanging lampshades and spotlighting offer ample illumination.
Having undergone changes of ownership, The White Oak is now in the hands of Henry and Katherine Cripps, passionate restaurateurs who are also the proprietors of The Greene Oak in Windsor and The Three Oaks in Gerrard’s Cross. Although all three “country pubs and eating houses” offer delicious, well cooked food, it is The White Oak that is well on its way in achieving distinction. This is largely because of pedigree of its current chef, who has been in post since November 2011.
Clive Dixon has followed in the path of an increasing number of those in his profession who have forsaken fine dining for a simpler, more accessible style of cooking. Having gained a Michelin star at Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter, and with experience in the kitchens of top chefs such as David Everitt-Mathias, Pierre Koffmann and Heston Blumental, his CV would open doors to any restaurant of his choice. Instead, he has decided to become chef patron of his own gastro pub. With no shortage of competition from a variety of cuisines, his modern British cooking has nevertheless hit the mark, attracting a regular, enthusiastic clientele.
Not that “simpler, more accessible” cooking is less demanding on the chef; far from it. Ingredients have to be impeccable and there is nowhere to hide if preparation and cooking are not spot on. In these respects, Clive Dixon’s strong links with some of the UK’s top suppliers, notably Aubrey Allen butchers and Channel Fisheries of Brixham, coupled with his fine technical skills, have put him at a distinct advantage. Produce – whether humble or elevated – are treated sensitively, combined to showcase taste and texture, cooked with precision, and presented in a pleasing, unadorned rustic style. The lack of pretension, with the true flavours of prime ingredients shining through, is a major strength here.
A seasonally changing menu of eight starters, eight mains and six desserts including cheese, allows for the full range of cooking skills to be demonstrated, with some unusual as well as familiar options. Tea smoked salmon and hay cooked ham feature on the starters; confit duck, Wagyu burgers and steak and chips are amongst the mains; and crème brulee or hot brioche doughnuts are two of the dessert choices.
Fine Dining Guide visited White Oak on a Friday evening in June.
Olive and pumpkin bread were both well made, with crisp crusts and firm crumb.
From the main menu, a playful “Crab sandwich” starter was a delight. Instead of the usual white meat came a generous serving of the much underused but flavoursome brown meat, mixed with mayonnaise and herbs to cut its deep intensity. This was sandwiched between thin, melba toast like layers of crisp pumpkin bread called snippets and garnished with peppery land cress. Overall, the components formed a lively, fresh tasting dish.
Another more robust starter featured a stew of cuttlefish. Gently braised in red wine with a base of onions, garlic, tomatoes and stock, this underrated cephalopod was tastier than squid and softer than octopus. This was a fine example of slow food at its best.
The two main courses sampled were models of their kind – tried and tested classics.
Pan fried skate was precisely timed to do full justice to the soft melting texture of the mild, sweet flesh. The thick wing, dressed with capers, lemon and beurre noisette, had all the piquant vibrancy and nutty butteriness associated with dish. The vegetable garnish, a cauliflower puree, had a caramelised quality which worked well with the other elements. The generous portion of triple cooked chips, although expertly rendered, were not necessary to complete the dish.
A main course of Cornish lamb – favoured above more local breeds – again featured an underused cut, the neck fillet, which is sweeter than the ubiquitous chump or rump. Seared and cooked pink to maximise its flavour, this perfectly seasoned piece of meat came with deep fried sweetbreads, the creamy texture, crisp coating and pronounced flavour of which worked well with the fillet. The accompaniments – creamed cabbage, confit potatoes, roasted garlic came and a rich jus were skilfully executed, making this a well rounded dish.
Desserts demonstrated skill in execution.
A well made individual strawberry trifle was given extra texture with the addition of crushed meringue. The addition of lavender in the custard was precisely judged so as not to be overwhelming. Here was a successful twist on a classic dessert.
With starters ranging from £6 to £9, mains £12 to £25, and desserts £6 to £7, dining at The White Oak is accessible to most pockets. In addition, the Menu Auberge, three courses for £19, available at lunch and dinner offers exceptional value for money. A select list of wines, by the glass and bottle, also offers a good range at reasonable prices.
More important are the unquestioned quality of the cooking and the welcoming, friendly service. In particular, Jay, the engaging manager, spoke with detailed knowledge and enthusiasm about the restaurant in which he takes particular pride.
It is easy to see why The White Oak has become a successful neighbourhood restaurant. Far from producing food for the lowest common denominator, Clive Dixon has made a virtue of simplicity, attracting a sophisticated clientele who appreciate the care and attention needed at his level of cooking. We will follow his career at Cookham with interest.