The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire
Saturday 17 April 2010
For Radio 2 listeners of a certain vintage, Sunday lunchtimes will always belong to Michael Parkinson. Twinkly anecdotage and a trot through the papers, plus user-friendly jazz and swing: what better soundtrack when you're cooking the Sunday roast? But since Parkinson packed up his Diana Krall records a few years back, we've had Michael Cheese-Ball and his showtunes foisted on us, which just isn't the same.
So Sunday lunch felt like the right time to visit the Royal Oak, Paley Street; more popularly known as Parky's pub. Co-owned and run by the broadcaster's son Nick, it opened seven years ago, with clear ambitions to be much more than a cosy retirement project. The signal of serious intent came with the recruitment of head chef Dominic Chapman from The Hinds Head, Heston Blumenthal's gastropub in nearby Bray. Since then, the Royal Oak has been gathering critical mass, culminating in the recent award of a Michelin star.
From the outside, the Royal Oak looks like a bog-standard roadhouse, more Alan Partridge than Michael Parkinson, right down to the comedy sign in the car park: "Parking for Ferraris only" (although in this prosperous Stella Street stretch of the Thames Valley, that could well be for real).
Behind the unprepossessing frontage, however, lies a haven of glowing wood, distressed leather couches and polished flagstones. There's a tiny lounge area, containing a couple of sofas, but despite the clutch of blazery chaps at the bar, this is clearly a restaurant in pub's clothing.
The dining room may be unexpectedly posh, but the welcome, from a shirtsleeved manager, was unmistakeably warm, and there was so much great-sounding stuff on the daily-changing menu that we soon forgot to feel inhibited.
Chapman's menu takes great British produce as its starting point and wild ingredients as its inspiration – that day's menu included roast North Sea cod with samphire, cockles and mussels, Cornish lemon sole with morels and celery shoots, salad of smoked Somerset eel, and oxtail and kidney pie. But there's a cosseting generosity about Chapman's cooking which sets it apart from the austere Modern British school. What could be more indulgent than his take on the Scotch egg? Served hot, it yields a puff of steam as you cut through the carapace of panko breadcrumbs into the super-savoury sausagemeat, before puncturing the lightly cooked quail's egg in the centre.
We began with fresh sourdough and one of those legendary Scotch eggs, which only missed out on greatness because of an unnecessary sprinkling of sea-salt. The simplest of starters presented an unadorned plateful of Scottish sea kale, pale and shimmering as braised celery, to be dipped into a hollandaise flavoured with blood orange. As delicately worked as the sea kale was simple, a superb lasagne interleaved silky pasta with a dice of rabbit and morels.
We stayed traditional for the main courses, and were rewarded with perfect versions of two often disappointing dishes. Oxtail and kidney pie combined meltingly soft meat with lardons, carrots and mushrooms under a dome of suet-rich pastry. Rib of beef, served pink but with a blackened crust, came with Yorkshire pudding and impeccable roast potatoes.
Service moves with such a snap that we barely had a chance to enjoy the Parkinson memorabilia. Vintage shots of Barnsley FC and paintings of WG Grace rub shoulders with photos of our host interviewing greats like Cassius Clay and Kenny Everett. The background music, too, is pure Parky, moving between dinner jazz and big band, and we noticed a poster for a forthcoming cabaret night with Bobby Davro.
When a handsome man sat down, sporting the triple threat of sunglasses propped up on head, jersey casually thrown over shoulders and glam younger girlfriend, I nudged Harry to have a look. "You don't know who that is, do you?" he hissed, mortified at having been caught gawping at Nick Faldo. Hey, we've got half a chat show right here! Now we just need Parky and the headline guest...
The presence of Yorkshire rhubarb on the dessert menu was perhaps inevitable; after all, the Royal Oak owes its very existence to Yorkshire rhubarb. Disappointingly, it was folded into a trifle which needed more of an alcoholic kick. But baked Alaska was a superb reinvention of a classic last enjoyed when Parky was at his peak; the castellated meringue encasing the vanilla ice cream looked stunning, while candied fruit in the panettone base and griotte cherries added personality.
There's a serious wine list, but plenty of affordable wines by the glass, including the Vergelegen cabernet sauvignon the manager encouraged us to try, saying: "It's fantastic. If you don't like it, I'll have it myself." That's the kind of plain-speaking charm you would hope to find in Parky's place. The Royal Oak, like its owner, isn't trendy or groovy in any way. It's just very good at what it does, eager to please, and obviously destined to stick around.
The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire (01628 620541)
About £40 a head before wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All service charge and tips go to the staff"
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