Owned by Nick Parkinson, and backed by his father Sir Michael, The Royal Oak in Paley Street has progressed from a country pub also serving food to a sophisticated fine dining destination restaurant. With its origins in the 17th century, the original building’s white and black frontage with picture windows gives way to a classic pub interior with a bar and reception area, wood burner fireplace, low beamed ceilings and wooden floor. The warm, cosy ambience is ideal for dining in colder months, but in spring and summer guests might prefer a table in the extension, the far end of which is sectioned off as a private dining room. With doors opening onto the new pebbled courtyard featuring large planters and waterfall designed by Richard Vines, and a high pitched beamed ceiling, this is a brighter more airy space. Throughout both parts of the restaurant, well-spaced polished wooden tables, elegant high backed leather chairs and an eclectic mix of artwork, some from Sir Michael’s private collection, make for a comfortable and relaxed dining experience.
Being just five minutes’ drive from my home in Maidenhead, I have taken The Royal Oak for granted. To my regret, having visited only a few times since it opened in 2001, I neglected to submit reviews of the excellent meals I enjoyed during the time when Dominic Chapman and his successor, Michael Chapman (no relation) were head chefs. Now that James Bennett is in charge of the kitchen, a recent meal showed he is emulating the achievement of his predecessors who gained a Michelin star, three AA rosettes and a strong showing in The Good Food Guide.
A major restaurant guide might encourage its inspectors to sample the set lunch menu, as consistency should be evident across ALL menus on offer, whether lunch or dinner and regardless of price is crucial. True, luxuries may not feature, but it is the skill of the chef that is being tested. At The Royal Oak, the dishes on the set lunch menu are the same as the carte, so this distinction does not apply (apart from the higher price at dinner). At £30 for three courses, £25 for two, Monday to Saturday, the lunch offer is a real bargain, made more agreeable by the generous choice – six options in each course – and large portions. Main courses are fully garnished, although side dishes are available. A range of snacks such as quail Scotch egg and smoked eel with apple and horseradish is also on offer.
The quality of the artisan breads more than justified its £1.50 charge. Warm glazed buttery Marmite brioche was outstanding in its balance of sweet and savoury flavour. Delicious too were the slices of rosemary and potato and caraway and rye, with their crisp crumb and firm crumb. Equally accomplished was the fennel flatbread which provided a flavour and textural contrast. My only reservation is that their irresistibility could lead to gorging oneself before the first course arrives!
A starter of Lobster raviolo, was generously filled with succulent pieces of the seafood, although the pasta was a touch too thick. This did not detract from the full crustacean flavour, enhanced by an intense bisque , (the taste of which extended to the foam) and a fondue of leeks, samphire and fennel. A cold quenelle of cherry tomato added colour, flavour and a contrasting temperature, although the dish would have been equally accomplished without it.
A tasting portion of tagliatelli was precisely cooked al dente and coated in a sauce of crème fraiche, herbs and summer truffle, the heady fragrance of which pervaded the whole dish. Although this portion was slightly claggy, perhaps due to the amount of crème fraiche needing adjustment. This rich, indulgent and luxurious dish will be difficult to take off the menu.
A main course of Navarin of Spring lamb proved a model of its kind. It featured two well seasoned cuts, the sweet, slow cooked shoulder and a cutlet, accurately cooked and rested, the fat well rendered and the flesh a blushing pink. Baby carrots, turnips, and onions retained the crisp texture and vibrant colour, wilted chard gave a gentle, spinach like bitterness, and Jersey royals a creamy richness. A light lamb jus brought the elements together well.
Finally, a crème fraiche mousse was lightly set and not too sweet. Garnished with dainty gariguette strawberries, shortbread discs, nastursiam flowers and a quenelle of mint ice cream. The balance of this beautifully presented dessert was perfect.
Good coffee and petit fours completed a memorable meal, made even more enjoyable by professional service that was at once welcoming, solicitous, knowledgeable and unobtrusive.
Clearly, James Bennett’s cooking is worthy of greater attention, so visits to The Royal Oak will be more frequent in the future. Although the occasional tweak may be of benefit, the clear flavours, harmonious combinations and clean presentation show classical skills of a high order. In an area of intense competition amongst high end restaurants the focus on consistently producing a quality product is essential. In this respect, Nick Parkinson can rest assured that this prerequisite for success will be maintained by his latest head chef.