Henley-on-Thames, renowned for its annual Royal Regatta has also attracted visitors to a host of literary, musical and and food festivals. This idyllic Oxfordshire town has no shortage of restaurant and coffee house chains, pubs and tea shops. Surprisingly, however, the well to do residents and the ceaseless influx of tourists have, until recently, been deprived of restaurants of quality. Unlike its Thames-side neighbour Marlow, which has witnessed a gastronomic rejuvenation in recent years, Henley has remained largely untouched by such developments. This is why the opening of Shaun Dickens’ eponymous restaurant three years ago marked a watershed in the culinary fortunes of the town. No longer do those looking for high end, serious cooking have to seek it outside the town. Indeed, Shaun Dickens at the Boathouse is becoming a destination restaurant in its own right.
With three AA rosettes, entries in Michelin and the Good Food Guides, and local and national distinctions – Oxfordshire Best Restaurant and Best Gastronomic Restaurant of the Year 2014, and Tatler Best of Britain the same year – it has impressed in a short period of time. Surviving a flood just nine months after opening proved a blessing in disguise, allowing for restructuring and redesigning which have further improved its fortunes.
A discrete canopied entrance leads to the bar where a dramatic gossamer like curtain separates it from the restaurant. The elegant, wooden floored dining room with a maximum of 43 covers has well-spaced polished tables and comfortable upholstered chairs. The décor, in masculine tones of brown and cream is unfussy, with only a few abstract prints to detract from views of the Thames. In summer, al fresco dining on the terrace is popular, although a table by the open bifolding doors is equally attractive. In the evening, clever spotlighting creates a seductive, warm ambience.
Having trained in the Michelin starred kitchens of Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, Per Se and L’Ortolan, Shaun Dickens has coupled their influence to his own fertile imagination and technical skill to create a distinctive style of modern British cookery. He acknowledges his debt to other inspirational chefs. For instance, the deft use of marigold leaves in a watermelon dish was inspired by Oliver Dabbous. Working with trusted local and regional producers ensures quality ingredients as an essential prerequisite.
Novel yet harmonious combinations, often including lesser known or used ingredients, excite the diner. Pork neck braised in liquorice featured on a recent signature menu. His experimental cooking eschews conventional flavour combinations, being instead an exploration of the infinite variations of contemporary cuisine. Classical and modern techniques such as sous vide, compressing and torching maximise flavour and texture. Timing and temperatures are finely tuned, with a pleasing subtlety of taste in composite dishes, allowing each element to shine. Presentation is clean and precise, with a refreshing absence of smears and foams. There is a conscious artistry in the plating of dishes, without being too contrived. In chatting with Shaun, a youthful enthusiasm with a persistent desire to improve pervades his whole approach to his craft. He is a dedicated chef who, thankfully, does not take himself too seriously – after all, food “should be fun.” This is perfectly exemplified in a dish on his signature menu:
Smore, based on a traditional North American campfire treat, features marshmallows – diners are given a mini burner to toast them – and chocolate sauce sandwiched between two pieces of graham cracker. Messy, do it yourself, and hardly fine dining, but interactive and enjoyable.
A team of five in the kitchen create a la carte, tasting and signature menus and a good value fixed price option at lunchtime. Prices are realistic given the range of quality ingredients and the finesse in cooking. Menu descriptions are minimalistic, giving no indication of cooking method, adding an element of surprise.
A recent Lauren Perrier Dinner saw both innovative dishes and more conservative pairings.
Linseed and sorrel wholemeal breads, made on the premises, were exemplary in their crisp crusts and firm crumb.
A well flavoured amuse bouche of salt cod mousse, potato and leek veloute and potato crisp revealed strong attention to detail which augured well for the successive courses.
The first course featured watermelon as the star ingredient. Compression and charring – both fashionable techniques – produced a lively sweet and smoky taste with contrasting warm and cold temperatures. This worked well with tuna carpaccio and creamy buratta and stracciatella which balanced this dish with a creamy richness. Viola and Marigold leaves were not mere decorative flourishes but added a distinctive floral fragrance which lifted the dish. (Champagne: Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut NV)
Scottish beef carpaccio, the main element of second course, had perfect texture. It was eclipsed by a generous portion of accurately timed butter poached lobster, dressed with lobster oil. The shellfish was spankingly fresh, sweet and soft. Cauliflower florets roasted in beurre noisette, along with its puree, gave an earthy flavour and textural contrast. However, although the separate elements were well executed – apart from the carpaccio needing more seasoning –the pairing of beef with lobster seemed like two separate dishes. (Champagne: Laurent Perrier Cuvee Rose)
A breast of Creedy Carver chicken from Devon took pride of place in the main course. Gently cooked in a water bath, it was finished in the pan to crisp the skin, adding colour and flavour. Moist and tender, here was a superior ingredient treated with respect to enhance its inherent qualities. Partnered with braised salsify and turnip carpaccio which added crispness, truffle shavings which gave a heady but not overpowering fragrance, and a smoked potato espuma dressed with a hint of truffle oil, the components were bought together by an intense, rich jus. This well balanced dish, less adventurous than the other savoury courses, was nevertheless a triumph of taste and texture. (Champagne: Laurent Perrier Vintage 2006)
The complex, well executed dessert revealed the strengths of the pastry section of the kitchen. Chocolate parfait encasing a liquid centre of Henley honey was topped with blackberry puree and Italian meringue. Paired with frozen blackberry pieces, shaved chocolate and yoghurt sorbet, sweet and acidic elements were in perfect balance, making this a truly memorable composition.(Champagne: Laurent-Perrier Demi Sec.)
With only one minor blemish, this was a highly successful meal, and a good reflection of the restaurant’s consistently high standards. The seamless service, overseen by Gemma Dickens and Igor, the maitre d’, was welcoming, courteous and professional. Christie, who served us, showed a pleasing in depth knowledge of the dishes and presented the tempting selection of British cheeses – of which we were too full to partake – with interest and enthusiasm.
Like all chefs of his calibre, Shaun wishes to be recognised by his peers. In this respect, there could be no greater compliment than to have Raymond Blanc, his mentor for four years, name his restaurant as one of his favourite places to eat. Fine Dining Guide has enjoyed its visits to Shaun Dickens at the Boathouse and will follow its progress with interest, confident in the knowledge that further accolades will be awarded.