Review: Orwells at Shiplake
"Finishing off a good meal with a bowl of sugar and cream often sends me past satisfied and into the realms of uncomfortable."
Hiding amongst the manicured lawns and winding roads of Shiplake Row at the very tip of South East Oxfordshire, Orwells is a remarkably unassuming building considering the soaring ambition of the chefs that reside within.
Whilst technically still a pub (Brakspear owns the building, but you won’t find any ale pumps inside), the food served at Orwells is as far outside of the usual boundaries of gastropub fayre as you can feasibly get. Headed up by the young partnership of Ryan Simpson and Liam Trotman, the modest artwork, exposed beams and clean but unfussy paintjob inside belie the spectacular sensory assault that Orwells can provide you with through fresh, well-sourced ingredients and culinary flair from the kitchen staff.
When I visited the place on a damp Thursday evening we ordered a three-course meal, but the starters as referred to on the menu were far from the first dish to be served up. What I first thought was a decorative pair of candles the waiter had brought to the table turned out to be whipped smoked salmon and cream cheese terrine, piped into jet black wafer cones and topped with caviar, served plateless in a glass dish of raw, wild rice. If you’re looking for sausage and mash, there are other pubs in the area.
The edible comedy doesn’t end there. Our second unannounced entrée was introduced as a “ploughman’s” but consisted of a thick, smoky cheese sauce layered over a sharp relish and a strong hit of celery, served in a wooden ramekin that fires sweet smoke into your nostrils when you remove the lid. The chefs also make their own (very, very good) sourdough and focaccia on site each morning, should you need a starchy anchor for the parade of slapstick appetisers.
When the menu begins in earnest you really begin to appreciate Ryan and Liam’s skill, not just in their ability to deconstruct British classics and assemble witty amuses-bouches, but in dreaming up exceptional flavour combinations and executing them with utter finesse. Squid and oxtail comes accompanied by ice-cold horseradish cream, samphire and a crisp, paper-thin sourdough cracker, a deft balancing act of meaty depth and ocean salinity. Smoked pork and pheasant egg with celeriac and tart brown sauce is like all the best elements of a fry-up condensed into a fleeting moment of joy.
I carried on the ‘land and sea’ theme into the main course, with lobster tail and claw meat draped over cuts of beef so tender they felt closer to a paté than whole cow parts. Juicy shiitake mushrooms provide an earthy richness and purple potatoes add some vibrant colour to what is a truly spectacular dish. The Cornish monkfish, onto which a steaming broth is poured, at your table, by the maître d’, is served atop a pile of clams, bacon, peas and mixed seashore vegetables, and as one of the simpler dishes on Orwells’ menu is a pleasure to behold.
At this point I have an admission to make: I don’t really like desserts. Sure, a proper baked cheesecake is a thing of beauty and nobody can honestly say that they don’t like key lime pie, but finishing off a good meal with a bowl of sugar and cream often sends me past satisfied and into the realms of uncomfortable. It’s all the more credit to Ryan and Liam, then, that their puddings manage to be inventive, confident and indulgent whilst remaining balanced enough to fully enjoy without enduring a hideous blood sugar crash on the drive home. Light, syphonated chocolate makes an appearance several times on the menu, and the coconut brûlée is just perfect, served tall with vanilla crumb and a gorgeous milk chocolate ice cream.
The gin menu is extensive and curated by the chefs themselves (do these guys ever sleep?) and 40 varieties are available, from classic London drys to those made with more outlandish botanicals like elderberries and Devon violets.
There are many restaurants that attempt to do what Orwells do, but very few manage to combine the ingenuity and showmanship of ‘modernist’ cooking with the sheer skill and choice of ingredients required to make the food taste as it does here. Hats off to Ryan and Liam – this is a truly special place to eat.