When The Waterside Inn this year celebrated keeping three Michelin stars for 25 years, they threw a party. They invited every chef in the UK who holds a Michelin star (even if it's only, you know, just one). That meant 140 invitations to dinner. Amazingly, 116 chefs abandoned their kitchen responsibilities for a night on the tiles at Bray.
Michel Roux has that effect on people. He is the emperor of modern French cuisine and his influence has spread, through his acolytes, from Ascot to Sydney. But after all the shouting and celebration, what's his restaurant really like?
I'd be lying if I said that my main sensory experience on arrival was the friendly welcome in the lobby, the air of opulence radiated by the famous maître d', Diego Masciaga, or my first sighting of the dining room, with its banquette region opening onto the picture window over the river. My main sensory experience was blind panic at the prices.
I knew it was expensive. Everybody knows that. But a cold hand clutches your heart as you turn the pages of the menu, noting the chilled avocado soup with sea trout tartare (£33.50) and the foie gras terrine with pickled cherries (£51.50). These are the starters. You hardly dare look at the main courses. When you reach them, you're relieved to find a poached wild salmon fillet is "only" £51. How reasonable, you think. It beats me how they make a profit in this place...
Susie and I settled for the Menu Exceptionnel. It's less outrageous than the à la carte (by which I mean it costs – stand by, cardiac arrest – £112.50 per person), and you experience a crazy desire to eat everything on it, in a foolish attempt at getting your money's worth.
The room is wonderfully light, but not stylish. There's a suburban feel about the picture window, and the general air is of a middle-class wedding reception in a glamorous conservatory. A lot of foreign visitors are in tonight: a table of 10 Chinese toasting some breakthrough in population control; a septet of Americans high-fiving a computer-game deal, four Swiss-Germans doing a lot of forced laughing.
Amuse-bouches were lovely: a tiny steak tartare with a sliver of soft-boiled quail egg on a McCoy's-style crisp; some yummy anchovy and parmesan pastry; a tiny masterpiece of prawn with onion and pomegranate seeds exploding in your mouth. Susie and I divvied up the four starters. Her flaked Devon crab with melon balls and a salty mango jus was surmounted by a single prawn, lightly curried. It was pretty ("traffic-light colours," said Susie) and tasted terrific, but wouldn't stop traffic in Torquay. My foie gras terrine was a tranche of slimy goose liver given welcome friction by peppered pigeon breast and delicious pickled cherries – fine, but, like the single slice of brioche, not enough.
A single, pan-fried scallop was seared to perfection and served with slices of summer truffle (distinct from winter truffles by tasting of nothing much) plus a green Chinese leaf containing a sorrel risotto. It wasn't a happy union. They had little to say to each other. Susie's lobster medallion in a port sauce was "delicious and well-cooked, despite being too brashly sauced". Perhaps our niggles were something to do with cash. You know? The feeling that a £50 dish should be more than tasty, it should be Homeric, miraculous, achieving a transcendent flavour that's quite new...
We shared the main course: a whole Challandais duck with a lemon and thyme jus, potato and garlic mousseline. A trolley was rolled before us and, with lots of flailing, up'n'under knife-work and rolling wrist action, Diego the Magnificent sliced the thinnest slivers of duck imaginable, and served them with lemon cooked in duck stock and thyme. It was tender to an unearthly degree, ambrosial, and it came with a pathetic duck-shaped pastry, full of creamed butternut squash. A few minutes later, the legs arrived – they'd been cooked in oil elsewhere while the duck roasted. They were fabulous too – this duck had been the Cyd Charisse of ducks – and reeked with flavour.
Susie praised the groaning cheese-board and my platter of three desserts featured a stunning pistachio crème brûlée with the lightest cream in existence. Washed down with the cheapest Châteauneuf-du-Pape (£85), this was a banquet at which expectations couldn't help but be disappointed by the hype and the pricing. The duck was the best duck dish I've ever eaten, but the cooking wasn't transformational. The raw shellfish was nicely arrayed, the cooked crab was accurately cooked, but they didn't have you turning somersaults of ecstacy. And frankly, a melon ball is a melon ball. Michel Roux is the grand old man of French cuisine and deserves every award he gets. But while it's a lovely, friendly restaurant, with super-attentive waiters and confident flavours, The Waterside right now seems surprisingly low on ambition.
The Waterside InnFerry Road, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AT (01628 620691)
Four-course tasting menu, £112.50 a head before wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: River views
Bardwell Road, Oxford (01865 552 746)
This punters' favourite has become an Oxford institution: a top-notch family-run business with an emphasis on locally-sourced grub.
Belvedere Rd, London SE1 (020-7654 7800)
Enjoy a view of the South Bank from the grill and bar or dining room. Dishes include foie gras risotto – look out for lunchtime deals.
The Grove, Bristol (0117 914 4434)
This modern eatery gets the thumbs-up from the AA and Good Food guides. Try the organic salmon with elder- flower sauce (£16.50).