The Waterside Inn, Bray, Restaurant Reviews (July 2004)

Posted on: July 11th, 2004 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Evolution not Revolution by Simon Carter

Michel Roux began his career as a chef at the British Embassy in Paris before taking the position of private chef to Mlle Cecile de Rothschild. It was in this role that Michel developed his palate as well as his cooking talents and started to look ahead to England and a joint venture with his brother.

Le Gavroche opened its doors for business in 1967, the young Michel and Albert Roux were about to revolutionise the UK perception of fine dining with the first true gastronomic restaurant. They found themselves packed night after night, Michel and Albert would alternate weekly between front of house and kitchen. Albert became more known for meats and sauces while Michel’s reputation grew in patisserie.

The brothers gradually expanded in London before, in 1972, purchasing The Waterside Inn, where they handed the head chef reins to the up and coming Pierre Koffman. When it came time, several years later, for Pierre to set up on his own, The Waterside had become an established gastronomic restaurant. Michel decided to take on the fresh challenge and moved to Bray permanently, while his brother remained at Le Gavroche.

The reputations of these two restaurants continued to grow throughout the 1980s, both receiving the coveted Three Michelin Stars. Only their protégé Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire, Nico Ladenis and Raymond Blanc were to rival their supremacy.

It was during this time that Silvano Giraldin – “The Godfather of Service” – was nurturing a group of front of house talents that, to this day, remain world leaders in their field. Michel Lange – now restaurant manager at Louis XV in Monte Carlo, Denis Courtiade – now the same at Plaza Athenee, Benoit Radenne – now the same at The Waterside Inn and, in my opinion, the greatest of them all, Diego Masciaga – recently promoted to Director at The Waterside. These men worked together and developed their craft under Silvano at Le Gavroche.

This is a significant point because the front of house philosophy is fundamental to the dining experience, in fact you do not eat at The Waterside, you have a relationship with The Waterside.

Today, (as seemingly for ever) Diego orchestrates his well drilled and professional team and always smiling, he entertains his guests with natural warmth and charm (right from stepping inside to the point of opening the door for you to leave.) There is a clear sense of passion about all that is The Waterside – passion for the food, passion for service, passion to please.

Over the last 32 years the menu has developed and progressed significantly. This fact might be contrary to the typical perception; there have been no knee jerk reactions to changing fashions, no sea changes; development has instead been steady, purposeful and well thought out – always holding true to guiding Roux principles. The dishes of today bear little resemblance to those presented in 1972; cleaner flavours, lighter sauces and more focus on allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. The menus are still very much gastronomic, in fact the pinnacle of gastronomy in the 21st century, just as those of 1972 were the pinnacle of their time.

The lounge, the summer houses and the terrace continue to be key parts of the ‘experience’ – the latter two particularly in summer. The dining room is light and airy with a view across the River Thames. Table 11, a table for two, looking in on the restaurant from the window is reserved for visiting local celebrities (such as Terry Wogan and Michael Parkinson) and considered the height of achievement for more mortal regulars.

The canapés arrive and, in spite of usually including a foie gras concoction, remain light. The three course set lunch is always consistent and for a Three Star restaurant £40 is affordable. Upon being seated, still mineral water is offered and if accepted is complementary, sparkling is charged. The wine list is not a mine field – there is considerable diversity thanks to the expert knowledge and channelled enthusiasm of Benoit Radenne; the customer has a good choice at reasonable prices as well as the range of expected heavyweights. The house policy is to buy en primeur and as a result the Sommelier is invaluable in helping take advantage of the restaurant’s educated gambles.

Plates arrive with silver domes, simultaneously lifted. The Challandais duck is brought to the table and carved, with the blade always moving toward the carver. Cheeses are expertly explained and presented in clockwise order of increasing strength. Ingenious desert wine recommendations complement the variety of puddings.

Michel Roux has now handed the baton to his son Alain, even this has been gradual and smooth; the institution continues to press forward without a blink. The Roux scholarship still develops talent for the future and Michel remains a Vice President of Relais & Chateaux – The Waterside is one of the handful of Relais Gourmands in the country. To him, life truly is, a menu.

Simply the Best by Daniel Darwood

What makes the perfect restaurant: a regularly changing menu, with inventive, fashion conscious dishes: an army of waiters ready to do one’s bidding at the click of the fingers; luxurious seating, with chairs in the Louis XV style; a glamorous cocktail bar; and a host of celebrities eating regularly at their favourite tables? The Waterside Inn has none of these. Its menu has evolved at snail-like speed, with classics such as Aiguillettes de Caneton Challandais featuring on the carte. The waiting staff, although extensive, attends to one’s every need without prompting. Apart from the banquettes, the seating remains remarkably unsophisticated, indeed slightly uncomfortable with armless chairs. The bar doubles as the reception and cash desk, with seating for a dozen and not a pre- prandial drinks menu in sight.

Nevertheless, the Waterside, set idyllically on the bank of the Thames, has been able to retain its three Michelin rosettes – the pinnacle of gastronomic achievement – for much longer than any establishment in the UK. Michel and Alain Roux, co director Diego Masciaga and restaurant manager Benoit Radenne understand admirably the essential prerequisites for success at this elevated level: a consistently high standard of cooking using well sourced, impeccably fresh and seasonal ingredients; a wine list that caters for the connoisseur and those of more modest means in equal measure; and a front of house team which maintains professionalism without being intimidating.

Visits to the Waterside are occasions, not just meals out. None of the times I have been there since 1976 has failed to satisfy and each has been utterly memorable.

The curtain to this culinary theatre opens with a tray of canapés – rich but not over complicated or heavy. The bread rolls, unfortunately, are not in the same league, with rubbery crusts and elastic texture. This is the only gripe I have.

Diners can choose the menu Gastronomique (three course, set) at lunch, the seven course Exceptionnel at lunch or dinner, or choose from the Carte. The lunch menu often involves for starters a soup – consommé or veloute – and a terrine containing game and foie gras, all amazingly light and perfectly balanced. They do not steal the thunder of what is to follow. More ambitious dishes such as sautéed foie gras with cherries can be sought from the carte.

Main courses from the set menu offer fish or meat or game or poultry. Consider, for instance, a perfectly timed grilled fillet of salmon, cooked rare with a melting texture, accompanied by a light jus, waffled potatoes and tiny seasonal vegetables. This was a perfect summer dish. For crustacean lovers, the lobster in ginger and white port, garnished in spectacular fashion with the head, is not to be missed, if choosing from the carte.

All of the restaurant’s shellfish are cooked to order from the tank, so benefiting from quick, intense cooking that avoids the resulting dish having the texture of cotton wool. Meat and game dishes are equally well executed. Ducks are poached before being roasted rare and carved – with masterly technique – into paper thin slices at the table.

Cheeses should not be seen merely as an alternative to pudding, given the relative lightness of the two previous courses. The trolley groans under an embarrassment of riches, predominantly French: strong and mild, soft and hard, cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, all in perfect condition.

Puddings, a Roux metier, show more evidence of development than the savoury courses. Intensely flavoured ice creams or sorbets often decorate these composite and imaginative creations. For those who

have difficulty in choosing, the assiettes, whether fruit or chocolate based, are ample for two and give an excellent indication of the skills in preparing patisserie, mousses, crèmes, and sables.

The petits fours that accompany the coffee initially appear too much, but prove to be irresistible and delectable morsels of chocolate, fruit, pastries, jellies and macaroons.

Diego Masciaga oversees the front of house, welcoming regulars and newcomers alike with his engaging charm. Benoit Radenne, well known in the industry as an excellent all-rounder, manages the restaurant cheerfully and enthusiastically.

The staff’s attention to detail and a general awareness of what is happening in the various parts of the building – the restaurant, riverside terrace, the pagodas and the lounge – ensure that the operation runs like a well oiled machine, but one which retains individuality and the personal touch.

The Waterside, now in the transition phase from Michel Roux Senior to his son, Alain Roux, goes from strength to strength, comfortable but not complacent in its disregard for culinary fashions and fads.