In 1973, when John Betjamin made his documentary about Metroland, the semi rural commuter belt to the north west of the capital, fine dining in the UK was in its infancy. Amersham, with its attractive old town and modern housing and shopping developments, typified the economic and social attractions and slower pace of life that many found appealing. Like many other towns in the area, however, it lacked a restaurant of true distinction. Those in search of a gastronomic experience would still travel to London. Now, almost 40 years later, the Metropolitan line and the improved road network are helping to bring Londoners and those from further afield to dine at a restaurant that can easily compete with many in the capital.
Chef patron Laurie Gear modestly describes Artichoke as a “successful neighbourhood restaurant”, but this is to underrate his own achievement. Whilst it does retain a strong local following built up since it opened in 2002, Artichoke’s reputation has been nationally recognised with a host of awards, the most recent being placed 37th in the Top 50 UK Restaurants Good Food Guide 2012. A year earlier, the same guide crowned it the Best New Entry whilst the Michelin Guide named it a Rising Star.
To describe Artichoke as a phoenix risen from the ashes would be appropriate both in terms of its reopening and rejuvenated cuisine. The fire of 2008, which almost destroyed the interior and six years’ of hard work, led to an 18 month closure. With its reopening in 2009 and subsequent expansion into the fish restaurant where the fire started, Artichoke has doubled its covers to 45, with an additional 15/16 in the private dining room.
The décor and furnishings successfully harmonise the original features of the 16th century building – sash windows, fireplace, oak beams and low ceilings – with stylish modern additions such as exposed painted brickwork and clever spotlighting. Particularly impressive is the glass partition through which diners can view the chefs at work in the open kitchen. Polished dark wood tables are well spaced in the three seating areas – kitchen, garden (in the original room) and private dining (upstairs). Leather upholstered chairs and banquettes provide sophisticated, relaxed seating.
The fire of 2008 might also be seen as a blessing in disguise by allowing – forgive the pun -Laurie’s cooking to move up a gear. Although he developed his classical skills in the kitchens of variety of establishments including a fish restaurant, a top end country house hotel and a gastropub, Laurie’s epiphany came with his experience during the closure at the celebrated Danish restaurant, Noma. Its emphasis on freshness, locality, seasonality and sustainability, with the use of foraged ingredients and employing the latest modern techniques, injected new life into the food served at Artichoke. Not that Laurie’s modern European cuisine has lost its own identity, rather the influences are employed in moderation and in suitable collaboration with a classical repertoire. Molecular techniques are noticeable by their relative absence.
Precise technical skills, consistently applied and combined with imaginative but not outlandish creativity have produced elegantly presented dishes which maximise flavour and balance tastes and textures. The main ingredient takes centre stage, so plates are pleasingly free from extraneous garnishes, each accompaniment contributing harmoniously to the composite whole.
An ambitious menu structure offers both a la carte and tasting options for lunch and dinner. At lunch the three course set menu at £25 is justifiably popular whilst the five course lunch tasting menu for £35 (with a flight of wines for £18) must surely rank as an outstanding bargain in any top end restaurant.
Fine Dining Guide visited Artichoke on a Tuesday evening in May and found plenty to admire in the dishes sampled.
Much can be ascertained about a restaurant by the quality of its bread and the two offered here were not found wanting. A sourdough made with Mackeson stout had a crisp crust and firm textured crumb. Equally appealing was the bacon brioche which was rich, buttery and crumbly.
An amuse bouche featured a shot of warm beetroot soup gently acidulated with apple juice and spiked by a cold horseradish cream. This served its purpose of stimulating the taste buds well.
A signature starter saw beautifully fresh white crab meat from Lyme Bay encased in a delicate tube of passion fruit jelly, a marriage that worked particularly well. Avocado cream and shellfish mayonnaise added richer elements, whilst the whole dish was lifted by a quennel of cucumber sorbet, and slices of frozen cucumber, which had cleansing, crisp qualities. This was an inspired starter, with its carefully judged combination of tastes, textures and – with the addition of edible violet flowers – colours. The crisp white wine, with its apple aroma and hint of spice, set off this dish well. (Wine: Pinot Gris, Château Ste Michelle, Columbia Valley, Washington, 2008)
A ballotine of marinated and poached foie gras was satisfyingly dense and melting. It was offset by a lively grapefruit curd and a chicory marmalade, the gentle bitterness of which balanced the rich creaminess of the liver. A tuile of pain d’espices added a crisp texture which finished this luxurious starter perfectly. The lively sweet white wine, with its citrus and tropical aromas, was a well judged accompaniment. (Wine: Jurançon, Château Jolys, Cuvée Jean, 2009)
Next came dishes which reflected the distinct yet restrained influence of Noma. – Red wine braised English snails were soft, succulent and highly flavoured. These were set on a savoury “bed” of warm Valencia wet rice, and rye bread crumbs garnished with enoki mushrooms emerging from the “soil.” Wild garlic leaves added to the “earthiness” – in both senses of the word – of the dish. In flavour, texture and visual appearance, this was a stunningly original dish.
Equally accomplished was an assiette of carrots: steamed baby Heritage carrots which were delicately tender and sweet; carrot tops cooked al dente; and a carrot puree of contrasting smoothness. Balancing these in taste and texture and adding a heady fragrance were truffled goat’s curd – a current favourite amongst leading chefs – black truffle shavings and a Wee Three Pigs Farm fennel salami salad. This was another well conceived, brilliantly executed dish.
The two main courses sampled were slightly less innovative but showed equal skill in their combination of ingredients, execution and presentation.
Breast of free range Chiltern duck, cooked pink in the classic French manner, maximised the flavour of the bird. A boudin blanc of the confit leg was well made. The garnishes of this dish were particularly memorable: wafer thin, crisp pomme maxime; an ethereally light foie gras yogurt; earthy morels; a rich jus and an intensely fresh puree of peas, given added texture with whole young peas and pea pods. The red wine, with fresh red fruit aromas and elegant feel matched this dish well. (Wine: Cairanne, Domaine Richaud, 2010)
A “surf and turf” main course featured deliciously succulent and melting slow braised pork belly with its separate puffed skin, deep fried. It worked well with the tangy poached pineapple and puree and baby bulbs of fennel garnish, which added a gentle aniseed touch. Scottish langoustine gave a lively freshness, whilst the whole dish was bought together by a well flavoured jus and a scattering of pollen. The red wine, with blackcurrant, liquorice and spice notes suited this dish well. (Wine: Carménère Equus, Haras de Pirque, Maipo Valley, Chile, 2009)
The strengths of the pastry section, located upstairs in its own kitchen, were amply demonstrated in the two desserts sampled
A rich ganache of piped Michel Cluizel white chocolate was cut by a sharp jelly of Amalfi lemon and olive oil. Lemon Thyme sherbert gave a refreshing herby fragrance whilst shards of Amaretti biscuits added a contrastingly crisp texture to this composite dessert.
The second dessert was a veritable masterclass in the art of puff pastry. Marie de bois strawberries and creme patisierre were sandwiched between thin layers of crisp pastry perched on a delectable caramelised white chocolate cream. The accompanying strawberry sorbet was of perfect texture and flavour. Visually stunning, this dessert tasted as good as it looked.
Well made petits fours -tarragon marsh mallow, truffle, cherry and fudge – and good coffee completed this memorable meal.
Service, overseen by Jacqueline Gear, Restaurant Director, was welcoming, knowledgeable and solicitous. Ludo, the Maitre d’, used his considerable expertise in selecting the flight of wines.
Overall, Laurie and Jacqueline Gear have created a restaurant of which they can be justifiably proud, one that operates like a well oiled machine, but with personality and character. Their hard work in overcoming adversity commands our full admiration. Moreover, they have earned the respect of their fellow chefs such as Raymond Blanc, who actively recommends Artichoke, Prue Leith and Alyn Williams who have made, or will be making guest appearances. Perhaps most importantly for its future development, Artichoke now needs to the Michelin starred recognition it so richly deserves. We await the 2013 guide in eager anticipation.