Restaurant Review

Crockers Henley: A foodie getaway in a league of its own

The newish restaurant with rooms is just simply wonderful – you’d have to be nitpicking to find anything wrong with it, writes Molly Codyre

Thursday 26 August 2021 16:47
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<p>Top dish: The scallops, served with a bacon jam, come from the Orkney islands</p>

Top dish: The scallops, served with a bacon jam, come from the Orkney islands

There are some places you visit that make reviewing a true joy. These are destinations where you can’t wait to tell everyone about how great it was because you can see how much it means to the people responsible for the good food and service. Crockers Henley is one such place. From the moment we walked through the doors to the minute we begrudgingly left, everything was wonderful.

The newish restaurant with rooms in Henley-on-Thames is the second Crockers outpost, having opened in August 2020. It seems reasonably unassuming from the outside, sitting on the riverside town’s market square. Inside, however, it’s like Narnia, somehow housing three restaurants – two chef’s tables and one more laid-back option – and seven boutique rooms, in a chaotic maze of corridors, of which I think I only saw about 35 per cent.

The rooms are masterful in their simplicity. Muted colour palettes allow the details to shine – and there are many. The well-stocked mini bar includes bottled house cocktails for a little pre- or post-dinner tipple. The in-room bathtub (separate to the bathroom) had a selection of toiletries and an ice bucket alongside it – a green light for the purity of a mid-afternoon bath with a glass of bubbly. Curtains are controlled by an electronic panel, something which delighted my inner 12-year-old, and plugs all featured USB ports – which isn’t always a given these days. We were just getting settled, unpacking and having a good nosy at every little detail, when two glasses of Gusbourne sparkling wine and a very naughty choux bun were delivered to the room. It is this kind of little touch that puts Crockers in a league of its own.

Henley-on-Thames is one of those places where you can almost smell the collective wealth. Every second car is a Range Rover and it all seems painted in distinct Farrow & Ball shades – sourced from the brand’s riverside store, of course. We did put in some kind of effort to explore the town, but brewing clouds and the faint rumble of thunder sent us scuttling back to our room, justifying a lazy afternoon reading on the gargantuan bed, through intermittent bouts of torrential rain – ah, British summer time. That’s the thing though – it was the kind of room you’d find an excuse to return to. Not just a place to sleep, but a place to marinate in the luxury of being on holiday, where you can spend four hours reading because there truly is nothing more important to do.

The kind of room you’d find an excuse to return to

Even better was the fact that dinner was just downstairs, meaning we didn’t have to battle the rain to get there. We dined at the Thames chef’s table – the other two options are the Gardiner table, where Iain Dixon serves up a Pan-Asian menu, and The Grill, a more relaxed, a-la-carte offering. Our choice meant we were in the very safe hands of Alex Payne, who has been at the helm of the Thames kitchen since May.

“Food is just so good,” I muttered to myself about halfway through our meal. The eight-course tasting menu blew my expectations out of the park and managed to be at once inventive, complex, simple and downright delicious. It kicked off with a selection of “snacks”, each one a take on a classic dessert: “cornettos” filled with flaky crab meat and topped with an avocado mousse; “jammy dodgers” seeing chicken liver mousse sandwiched between two crispy slices of chicken skin and topped with a Cumberland sauce; and “profiteroles”, fluffy cheesy pouffes filled with a cheese and truffle sauce and covered in a veritable mountain of grated parmesan and truffle.

‘Cornettos’ filled with flaky crab meat and topped with an avocado mousse

We were told each one was the brainchild of one of the three chefs in the kitchen, and their passion as they filled us in on every dish was infectious. It is such a pleasure to be served by people who so clearly love what they do. At one point I was asking Payne about the sauce on a dish – duck three ways (grilled breast, grilled liver and a mousse boudin served with pomegranate and rhubarb) – and he called over one of his sous chefs to talk me through it. “It’s his baby” he explained. What followed was an in-depth elaboration that proved the level of care, thought and pure talent that goes into each dish served at Crockers.

Payne and his team seemed to glide around the room with a considered ease. “This is the happiest kitchen I’ve ever seen” commented one of our fellow diners towards the end of the meal. He was right. This sense of calm didn’t come from an over-considered air of grandeur, but rather from an inherent ease – one that extended to their interactions with diners, whether that was explaining the mind-boggling number of ingredients that went into a sauce, or laughing about the 150-year-old starter responsible for the sourdough they source from a local bakery.

‘This is the happiest kitchen I’ve ever seen’, commented one of our fellow diners

There was much conversation among the other guests about what their favourite dish was – it was a hard choice. For some it was the tomatoes – dehydrated, rehydrated and consommé, all on one plate and serving as a testament to the power of good ingredients and great produce. For others it was the baby gem, one crisp boat of lettuce filled with parmesan mayo, baby gem gel and meaty anchovies, and topped with chicken skin, dehydrated baby gem and parmesan crisps.

For me, however, it had to be the scallops. Sourced from the Orkney islands, I need to know what they are putting in the water there – they were huge, the size of golf balls, and only the third largest size it was possible to order from the supplier, according to Payne. The enormous, beefy specimens were grilled until caramelised and served atop a celeriac purée with pickled apple gel, apple spears and the hero element – salty, slightly sweet bacon jam that fused the components together with a whack of umami.

If I was to look for drawbacks, I could find a couple; when you’re paying that much for a matching wine flight, you really shouldn’t be left for more than 10 minutes with an empty glass – top ups should be delivered to the lushes at the table. The skin on the duck breast could have been grilled a little further to offer an added level of crunch. But really, that would be nitpicking – and you would have to be properly searching to find anything to complain about.

For dessert, an Inaya chocolate mousse with passion fruit, yoghurt and peanuts

I have just waxed lyrical for 1,000 words about how wonderful Crockers was, but the best hint at how much I liked it could have been said in just one sentence – I left deciding a trip here would make a wonderful Christmas present for my in-laws, who I’m lucky enough to like very much (if you’re reading this, pretend you didn’t! Please forget by December!). Whether you’re visiting for a special occasion – like the newly married couple sitting next to us at breakfast – or simply for an indulgent 24-hour escape like us smug buggers, Crockers should be high on your list for a trip this year – no test to release required.


Counter culture

This week’s food and drink news

Cafe BAO launches breakfast The famed Taiwanese eatery is putting its hand to the most important meal of the day. Launching this bank holiday weekend, Cafe BAO will begin serving breakfast with dishes including the sausage hash brown breakfast bao and Taiwanese savoury soy milk.

Celebrate National Burger Day at Vinegar Yard The bank holiday weekend calls for indulgence, and is there anything more fittingly indulgent than a day of eating burgers with friends under the sun? I think not. London Bridge’s Vinegar Yard will be serving up a whole host of burgers, with options from Bleecker St, Black Bear Burger, BOB’s Lobster and more.

Dishoom launching home feast kits There are some silver linings to the pandemic, and depending on whether or not you have a booking, the ability to reserve tables at Dishoom is potentially one of these things. One the one hand, you no longer need to wait for limitless periods of time to indulge in their house black daal. On the other hand, if you don’t have a booking your chances of popping by for an impromptu meal are slim to none. Luckily, the group has launched a range of at-home feast kits. Serving two to three people, you get a range of Dishoom’s best dishes (black daal included, of course) to simply heat and eat – no waiting necessary.

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