When a restaurant has its own official road signage just off the M4, you know it must be a little bit special. It gets even better when you realise this listed 19th-century country house, a former vicarage and private school, is literally seeped in 41 years of culinary history.
The long line of Michelin-starred chefs who have graced its stove burners is practically stuff of fine-dining legend. Richard Sandford, Nico Ladenis, John Burton Race, Alan Murchison (twice over 14 years), Daniel Galmiche and finally Tom Clarke, who has been at the helm since 2015 and still retains L’Ortolan’s Michelin star.
A Saturday lunch reservation was a very civilized way to kick off a weekend and warm summer sun the perfect motivation to have a cool drink out on the garden terrace. Sitting there surrounded by the fauna of the mature gardens it felt light years away from Reading’s corporate business parks. Veteran GM Marco Nardi materialized with menus; a six-course Flowers of Summer tasting menu or a mercifully short but perfectly formed à la carte. We chose the à la carte, silently thankful that, despite the name and that the dish was now illegal, there was no hint of a tiny songbird poached in Armagnac and ate whilst wearing a napkin over our head.
The splendid isolation was short-lived as we were called to our table, the room already buzzing with lunchtime chat from a clutch of well-heeled locals.
It’s a soothing space with soft pastel tones set off by ruby chairs; the elegant wall lighting contemporary but with a touch of art deco about it. Head Sommelier Lucian was quickly over to discuss the best wine match for our food choices. An inspired Riesling suggestion complemented my companion’s torched mackerel starter with fresh mango and wasabi (£15.50). A quite extraordinary combination of flavours it has to be said.
My starter, in the true spirit of summer, was an excellent chilled gazpacho elegantly poured over a patiently-waiting trio of extra ingredients; goats cheese mousse, basil and tomato (£14). In the spirit of full disclosure I had pondered and cogitated over a starter I’d spotted at the next table; a spectacular-looking confit salmon, with limoncello, potato and horseradish (£17.50). As it turned out, my gazpacho ticked all the right boxes for me; a perfect lunchtime starter.
The brief lull in proceedings gave me a chance to ponder on L’Ortolan’s culinary lineage. I swear I could feel the burning gaze of chefs past. The drama. The tantrums and tiaras. These walls could tell a tale or two.
My reverie was interrupted by the triumphant arrival of our mains. My dining partner had opted for lamb rump with asparagus with rosemary jus (£29). But Lucian was back clutching a bottle of Sicilian red and regaled her with the tale of Frank Cornelissen, a former racing driver who founded an organic winery on the slopes of Mount Etna. He promised her the Susucaru, with its unusual smoky flavour, a result of Etna’s magma infused soil would be a match for her lamb. I have to say, she always loves a good story, but in this case, it was entirely justified. A cracking combination of a melt in your mouth lamb rump and a red wine to die for.
Unusually for me, I chose a vegetarian main, but one that entertained my palate from start to finish. Pea risotto with pickled shallots, oyster mushrooms and tarragon cream (£16) may sound run of the mill, but take it from me, this was an explosion of citrus flavour I was assured came from the tarragon. An absolute belter of a dish.
With the news of my dining partner’s need for a sugar-free dessert, a bespoke sugarless and entirely fabulous coconut panna cotta with mango was proudly delivered to our table. A huge statement about what customer service means was right there.
With no such restrictions for me, I eschewed a dessert menu of cherry mousse, raspberry parfait, and chocolate yoghurt, for a deliciously satisfying tour of British cheeses and accompanying accoutrements (£14.50).
Few long-established enterprises can claim to have had silky smooth rides during their existence and L’Ortolan has certainly had its fair share of colourful characters at the helm. Yet Michelin has remained a constant companion throughout the years and now, under Tom Clarke, it looks like the future continues to shine very bright indeed.
Food images (c) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about L’Ortolan Restaurant in Shinfield.
L’Ortolan Restaurant, Church Lane, Shinfield, Reading RG2 9BY
T: 0118 988 8500 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
The six-course Flowers of Summer tasting menu is £99 for two people or £189 for two with Sommelier’s Wine Selection.
The six-course Gourmand Tasting Menu is £79 pp and from £139 pp with wine pairings.
L’ortolan Wine Dinner Dates
Inama Italian Volcanic Wines – £70 for a 5 glass wine flight – Thursday 11 th July
Greyfriars UK sparkling wine dinner – £70 for a 5 glass wine flight – Friday 16 th August
Brännland Ice Cider dinner – £70 for a 5 glass wine pairing – Friday 20 th September
Truffle Pairing Wine Dinner – £70 for a 5 glass wine pairing – Friday 18 th October
Amber Wine Night – £70 for a 5 glass wine pairing – Friday 15 th of November