Nestled on the banks of the Thames by Marlow bridge, The Compleat Angler, a leading hotel of the MacDonald group, has rarely offered a level of cuisine to match its luxurious accommodation. Guests could usually choose from informal or formal restaurants inside the hotel itself or choose from the variety of – until recently mediocre – eateries in the town itself.
This is all set to change with the arrival of Augberine, the latest addition to the Thames Valley restaurant scene; and not just for a limited season, but the start of a (hopefully) fifteen year lease. Executive Chef Billy Drabble, who gained a Michelin star for his Fulham restaurant, now divides his time between London and Marlow.
This is an ambitious transition that will test the most dedicated restaurateurs and chefs. Coinciding with the beginning of an economic recession, in which restaurants have often been the first casualties, it will need to make a bigger impact than usual to survive. This part of the Thames Valley, on the Bucks / Berks border is replete with stiff competition. In Marlow itself, the well established Vanilla Pod and the Michelin starred Hand and Flowers have attracted a loyal following, whilst Danesfield House has hosted a succession of distinguished chefs. Moreover, a few miles away lie the three-starred Waterside Inn and the Fat Duck at Bray.
On arriving at Aubergine, one is immediately impressed by its spectacular setting overlooking the weir on the Thames, the well spaced tables, and the tasteful refurbishment. Whilst the original paneling has been retained, Aubergine is everywhere else: the colour of the wall decoration, carpet, lampshades and menus; the still life painting and the decorative plates. There is a complete sense of welcoming calm and assured professionalism. The attention to detail drills down to the aubergine embossed cutlery handles.
A previous visit, which sampled the bargain lunch menu (£29), gained a positive impression of the high standard of cooking, firmly rooted in the French classical cuisine. Warm foie gras mousse, braised pigs cheeks and raspberry soufflé all showed great technical skill, strong earthy flavours and a delicacy of touch.
The tasting menu (seven courses for £65) is the best way of sampling William Drabble’s repertoire: it is generous both in the number and size of the courses. As with the carte, there are no major surprises: no attempts are made at molecular gastronomy and only one dish mixes meat and fish (in the carte only) and no foams (although the ubiquitous smears appear here as in any fine dining establishment.) The emphasis is on precise cooking producing depth of flavours, balance of textures, and clean presentation.
The amuse bouche comprised a sweet, caramelized scallop offset by drops of aged balsamic and a base of celeriac puree. Tortellini of Lobster was a brilliantly executed dish of great refinement. Delicate pasta encased succulent nuggets of the crustacean, bound in a light mousse of intense flavour. The lobster butter sauce enhanced with saffron added even more richness, making this a tour de force.
Seared foie gras with black pudding provided a luxuriant earthiness that worked well with the caramelized apples. A perfectly timed roasted fillet of sea bass had a crisp skin which contrasted well with the soft flaking flesh. It stood up well to the robust flavours of the braised Jerusalem artichokes, parsley puree and red wine reduction.
Best End of Lune Valley lamb was cooked to a perfect pink of melting tenderness. The roasted garlic puree provided a muted and subtle sweetness to the dish.
Cheeses were offered but not accepted as the succession of dishes had left the diner fully satisfied.
Puddings were first class: chocolate mousse with a dark ice cream were exemplary in smooth textures and intensity of taste. A warm blackberry soufflé was complemented by a dark chocolate sauce.
Seasonality extends to a special truffle tasting menu at £140. Otherwise, celeriac puree, girolles, Jerusalem artichokes and bramley apples all gave an autumnal feel to the tasting menu. Regionality of sourcing has yet to be established, but it would be hard to improve on his current suppliers: Lune Valley for lamb, Scottland for hand dived scallops and langoustines and Brixham for fish.
In this age of innovative modernity, Aubergine is not a restaurant at the cutting edge of gastronomy – nor does it aspire to be – but one which delivers an individual style based on classical techniques. Its chef has held a Michelin star at his Fulham restaurant for ten years. It is this very consistency that will provide the key to the success of this new venture. Even in times of
economic recession, people will still want to escape by eating at such establishments, which can guarantee excellent food and drink.
Aubergine is certainly an exciting new addition, offering as it does generous new classical French cuisine in the most beautiful of settings. Should Billy Drabble’s passion and commitment be a signal to his team, as well as to the outside world, then this venture is sure to succeed.
Review by Daniel Darwood, 31st October 2008