Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Feast with a Chef: Orwells Restaurant

I've clearly had my blinkers on; for some reason Clare Hargreaves' Feast with a Chef events have completely passed me by. On Saturday 1st October I found myself at my first one, despite it actually being the 16th *bangs head on the table*.

Feast with a Chef brings great food, cooked by some of the country's top chefs, to the simple, informal setting of a village hall. There's quite the lineup when you look at the list of previous chefs; Ottolenghi's head chef Ramael Scully, The Kingham Plough's Emily Watkins, the king of fish Nathan Outlaw and Le Champignon Sauvage's David Everitt-Matthias, among many more. Mostly held in Bristol, though a few dotted around elsewhere, 100 guests sit supper club-style at long tables, making it a true community event. "Fine dining without the starch."

Leaving Gloucestershire behind, The Chap and I made our way to the pretty little village of Kirtlington, just outside Oxford. Chef-owners of Orwells Restaurant - situated in Henley-on-Thames - Ryan Simpson and Liam Trotman were in charge of cooking a four-course Harvest Feast. Not only very timely as we celebrated Autumn's arrival, but Orwells had just been named The Good Food Guide's Restaurant of the Year, and Ryan had made an appearance on BBC One's Yes Chef in that week leading up to the event.

Partners both in and out of the kitchen, Ryan and Liam have quite an interesting background; they famously walked out of their previous job at the Goose at Salome (along with other members of staff) over a dispute with the then owner Paul Castle. This was just weeks after earning themselves a Michelin Star. but prompted them to pursue their own venture - hurrah! 

Six years after opening, they've not only got Restaurant of the Year under their belt, but a GFG Cooking Score of 7/10, a place in the Top 50 list, 4 AA Rosettes and a 3 Gold Star rating for sustainability, possibly their proudest achievement. Ryan and Liam have become known for their planet-friendly approach to cooking, and try to utilise all aspects of their produce in order to offer more reasonably priced menus. They follow the nose to tail philosophy, grow 75% of the restaurant's fruit and veg from their own garden and, having beehives themselves, are particularly passionate about saving our bees.

Kirtlington Village Hall was full of chatter from locals, Clare's usual pop-up fans, a few new faces (like The Chap and I), and a bunch of Orwells regular customers. Little did we know that Ryan and Liam had actually closed the restaurant to be here... On a Saturday night! Lucky us. So with a brief introduction, the chefs squeezed themselves back into the sparse kitchen they had to contend with and the Harvest Feast began.

On the table we had semi-sourdough bread, still with the gaping holes you'd expect from a sourdough - perfect crevasses for the Rodda's Cornish farmhouse butter - just without the intense tang. From nearby Bibury, we had smoked Oxfordshire trout '99'; the mini ice cream cones never fail to make me smile with their childish charm, and the salty pop of the caviar ensured our taste buds were ready for the first course.

Sleightlett cannelloni with Riverford Farm organic beetroot, fermented garlic and watercress was handsomely dressed. The creamy goats cheese, delicately flavoured with lemony nutty notes, was a fine match to the sweet earthy beetroot and was wolfed down in minutes.

Next up, crayfish and pork, with sweetcorn, apple and celeriac. An interesting combo where land meets sea; the apple complimenting the crayfish whilst at the same time cutting through the richness of the pigs cheek. I felt the crayfish was getting a bit lost at times, so perhaps a smaller piggy piece would have created more balance in the dish. But who asks for a smaller portion of pork? No one. Ever.

The main event was Wiltshire lamb (from Walter Rose & Son Butcherswith Riverford Farm brassica, squash, pearl barley and salsify. Probably one of the finest lamb dishes I've had in quite some time, it epitomised the nose to tail ethos through using the rump, breast, sweetbreads and tongue (though you wouldn't have been able to pick out the latter as it was hidden in the barley). A tasting plate of lamb, and an example of expert cooking. Every mouthful was a dream, though I definitely felt myself craving a few more greens.

Dessert saw the appearance of honey on the menu, and cued Liam to explain his love of bees and why we should be doing more to save them. To cut the story short, bees are essential in pollinating the crops that form our food, and also the wild plants that grow across the country and provide food for much of our wildlife. If our native bees die out, the very fabric of our lives will change considerably and we're likely lose a whopping third of our diet. It's for this reason Orwells have their own beehives producing their own honey, and the Mill Lane honey sponge with salted caramel ice cream and honeycomb made sure we took note. It was the lightest sponge, heaving under the weight of the ice cream, with the fragrant sweetness being met with bursts of pomegranate sourness. Beautiful.

As the kitchen cleaned down and the last few glasses of wine were drank (there was a well priced 'by the bottle' list c/o Enotria & Coe), cafetieres of Origin Coffee and pots of Tregothnan Tea made the rounds. With this, we received our final little taste of Orwells Restaurant; homemade petit fours. Zippy passion fruit jellies tried their best to impress, but the raven blackberry and custard macarons were a clear winner amongst ourselves and our fellow diners. 

Clare's got a fabulous thing going on here; I'm still kicking myself for not having come across Feast with a Chef sooner. This Harvest Feast truly felt like a celebration of wonderful produce, and if that was what chefs Ryan Simpson and Liam Trotman could do in such a tiny village hall kitchen, then I'd love to see what comes from the pass at their restaurant... So let's all go to Orwells, yeah?

The next Feast with a Chef with Michelin Starred Chris Harrod from The Whitebrook is sold out, but keep an eye out for Clare's events next year. Visit her website or follow her on Instagram @larderloutuk to stay in the loop. 

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