Cookham is one of those charmed towns: a place in the English countryside where the houses are beautiful, the shops are chi-chi and dogs gambol on the green. Oh, and a river runs through it. When I was growing up, it was somewhere we drove to for a spot of rubber-necking from a hired rowing boat.
On one of the first days that hints at spring, I drive back out to Cookham to see if it's still as idyllic. It is. And now it's getting the attentions of hoteliers and restaurateurs who – quite rightly – sense money in them there lawns.
If I'd waited a week, I could have had lunch at the nearby hotel Sanctum on the Green, which is in the news because 18-year-old Luke Thomas launches his restaurant there this Wednesday. But I think that's somewhere to visit once the novelty of a teenager running a smart dining-room has worn off (hopefully to settle into a fine destination).
I'm at The White Oak, one of three "country pubs and eating houses" – the others are the Greene Oak in Windsor and the Three Oaks in Gerrards Cross – owned by Henry and Katherine Cripps, who obviously know where and how the affluent like to dine out.
The White Oak is far more restaurant than pub; a few armchairs occupy the first yard of the venue, then an expansive space full of tables stretches back to glass doors on to the garden. We arrive at 12.20pm and are the only diners, so we get the undivided attention of two waitresses and the manageress. She's on hand to give a fuller explanation of beef liver and pork collar – two interesting elements of a short, well-focused menu. Mr M is mulling his choices over a pint of Old Speckled Hen and as designated driver I stick with lime soda.
He has whiting tartare with horseradish and a shallot dressing (£7.50) to start; I would have had the minestrone with beans, pork and duck, but I fancy the pork collar for main, so divert to chicken-liver parfait (£8.50).
Alarmingly quickly, they're on our table. I've barely had time to register the soothing beige, greige and brown tones of the wooden furniture, walls, elaborately framed art and ornate chandeliers. (Can you tell it was a bit much?) I'd rather a country pub went with the buttoned leather chairs and hokey pictures if it's done under low lights and with dark tones. That or light and bright with a hint of the domestic "downstairs" (wood panels, utility lights, the odd scrubbed-up utensil). This is trying for both at the same time and not quite pulling it off.
So, back to those starters. I feel sad as soon as I start eating. Mr M's whiting is icy-cold. It's been plucked straight from the fridge with no time for the flavours to develop and mingle. All I get is cold, with too much oniony texture. My parfait, served in the obligatory kilner jar – though this one is pot-bellied for added fiddliness – is also cold, but has very good flavours and a thin layer of chilled consommé on top, a deft touch. Alas, the person on the toaster had no such touch and burned the brioche, then didn't think it worth the 90-second delay to redo it. We have chilled and charred mouths.
Mains are better: the beef liver is not a dish I've seen; the younger, daintier calves' liver is more popular. But, as Mo the boss says, if you really like liver, you'll like this. And it's rich and earthy. The bonus is that while the centre is quivery and creamy, the older cut can take a good searing. The outside is almost steak-like. It comes with potato purée, onions and black pudding (part of the menu auberge, £15 for two courses).
My pork is billed as being hay-cooked, but there's nary a hint of the hay. It's a tender cut, but the crackling crust is crumbed almost into oblivion and, with the accompanying cauliflower and macaroni cheese, smacks of three elements introduced to each other at the last moment. Claggy and bland – a shame.
The room is now half-full and it's clear that The White Oak is attracting the locals. Our puds, meanwhile, are par for the course. A rum baba is pleasant without blowing the mind; rhubarb Eton mess is just a mess. Everything is uniformly pink and soft – and unadvertised clumps of hazelnut cracknell on top are not terrific (plus a bit bonkers in our nut-allergy-aware days).
The White Oak needs to smooth its edges to garner loyalty, especially with a new kid in town. I wish it good luck.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook,. 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
The White Oak, The Pound, Cookham, Berkshire, tel: 01628 523 043 Lunch daily; dinner, Mon-Sat. About £65 for two, including drinks
The Waterside Inn
Ferry Road, Bray, tel: 01628 620 691
The Roux family's blissful Thames-sider is 40 this year, but remains perfect in every way – not least its traditional Gallic cuisine; prices are ludicrous, naturally, but hard to begrudge.
High Street, Cookham, tel: 01628 520 085
The cuisine is sensational – and quite unlike your normal Indian – at this busy former-boozer-turned-tandoori restaurant.
The Crab at Chieveley
Wantage Road, Newbury, tel: 01635 247 550
This popular thatched country restaurant offers consistently good fish-heavy cuisine, and has a lovely location (though the interior can seem a bit business-like)
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.com