Michael Parkinson's pub may have his greatest chat-show hits all over its walls, but the real star is out in the kitchen
The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire, tel: 01628 620 541
Opinion is divided as to Sir Michael Parkinson's best interview. Oldies would probably go for one of the first, in 1971 – Orson Welles, perhaps, or Muhammad Ali. Others would vote for the brilliantly bizarre Peter Sellers in 1974, when the comic turned up in a Nazi helmet and greatcoat; or the comedian Rod Hull and his very aggressive Emu puppet in 1976.
For me, it has to be the time Dominic Chapman was interviewed for the job as head chef of Parky's Berkshire pub, the Royal Oak. Sir Michael and his son Nick had owned the pub for five years, but the appointment of Chapman in 2007 turned the Royal Oak into a serious food destination overnight. Being the head chef at Heston Blumenthal's phenomenally successful gastropub the Hind's Head, a couple of miles away in Bray, Chapman didn't have far to come. He has, however, already gone further, rewarded with a Bib Gourmand in the 2008 Michelin Guide, the gong for the 2009 AA Restaurant of the Year (England), and Best Pub Chef by The Good Food Guide 2009.
The Royal Oak has the requisite oak beams, snug bar and open fireplace, although the dining-room has the settled, confident, decorous air of a restaurant rather than a pub. It is hard to escape the "Parky's Pub" tag, what with the walls hung with photos of past interviewees and cricket scenes, and the sound of Elton John's "Rocket Man", courtesy of Parkinson's My Life in Music CD in the air.
There are hints of the Hind's Head on Chapman's menu, but the effect is now more in tune with the seasons than with reinventing British dishes from the past. Thankfully, the world's best-ever Scotch egg came with him, made of lightly spiced Denham Estate pork-and-sage sausage meat, wrapped around a lightly boiled quail's egg and covered with a crisp, golden crust of Japanese panko crumbs. Crucially, the egg is boiled for precisely two minutes and 15 seconds. "Any less and you can't peel it, any more and it won't run when you bite into it," says the chef.
The kitchen's attention to the seasons is obvious in a lightly frothy new-season's garlic soup (£6.50), studded with wild mushrooms and cleverly offset by a toast soldier of intensely salty anchovy paste.
Not at all seasonal is macaroni cheese with ham hock (£8), which lifts what can so easily be mindless stodge into a treat of perfectly cooked small pasta and shredded ham hock in a light, creamy, Gruyère-scented sauce.
The old "he's having meat, she's having fish" conundrum is solved by a light, fruity, smoky Trimbach Alsatian Pinot Noir (£26) taken from the sturdy, Bordeaux-strong list. It takes both dishes in its stride, particularly the picture-pretty red mullet (£21). Sensitively cooked and arranged on fat little soused cockles, mussels and seaweed-like strands of samphire, it's like a day at the seaside.
More folksy is a meaty, buxom, roasted breast of Cotswold White chicken served with a ladleful of soupy Scotch broth vegetables (£17). Good, but obvious; the chicken just too solid, the vegetables too firm for comfort. The famous, crisper-than-crisp triple-cooked chips (£3.50) are even better here than at the Hind's Head.
A rather serious trifle (£6.50) uses the last of the season's rhubarb in a smooth, rich layering of crushed nuts, cream, custard and sherry-soaked sponge.
The Royal Oak is no sleepy, quaint country pub, but a smart restaurant with smooth, anticipatory service and astonishingly light, fresh, bright, clean-flavoured seasonal food, cooked with intelligence and consistency. Fellow diners all look like faded celebs – but don't we all? One local actually comes in every day, and goes around chatting to everyone, but no one seems to mind. After all, it's what he's done, in one way or another, since 1971.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire, tel: 01628 620 541 Lunch daily; dinner Monday-Saturday. Around £110 for two including wine and service
Second helpings: Celebrity-owned pubs
Ye Olde Punch Bowl Inn
Marton, Marton cum Grafton, North Yorkshire, tel: 01423 322 519
Co-owned by Neil Morrissey, this revitalised pub features a beer garden, an on-site micro-brewery and a modern Brit menu from chef Gordon Gellately
Tredunnock, Monmouthshire, tel: 01633 451 000
Chris Evans' pretty pub sits on the banks of the River Usk with views over the Usk Valley – the perfect spot to enjoy a ribeye of Usk Valley beef
41 Farm Street, London W1, tel: 020 7493 6841
Guy Ritchie's lively Mayfair pub is more about the scene than the food, attracting the likes of Piers Morgan, Jude Law and even Prince William.
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