Restaurant review - Artichoke, Old Amersham
PUBLISHED: 17:52 05 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:18 20 February 2013
Tom Fahey savours a seven-course tasting menu full of delicious surprises
The life of the Chef Patron is a far from easy one. Hours are long, work intense and seemingly never-ending, profit margins are small, staff hard to come by and then, to top it all, the customers always right. And all thats without having your restaurant burn down.
Youve got to hand it to Laurie and Jacqueline Gear; its something few would have the grit to come back from. Reopening in 2009 theyve since won many accolades and are expanding into next door, where the blaze began. No, its not fire safety gone extreme, its 25 extra seats and a brand new, open kitchen configured for maximum cheffy theatre.
But thatll be then, how about now? Bread is baked onsite; two little rolls, one brown and malty with Mackesons stout, the other buttery, fluffy and brioche-like, studded with Alsace bacon. In homage to the nomenclature, Jerusalem artichokes become glossy soup laced with truffle and topped with an air-light bacon cream; generously offered as a freebie.
Youll find a lot of generosity here. Set lunch is 25, but the real bargain and please bear with me here is a seven course tasting menu for 62. Yes, its special-occasion spending but, perhaps more than anywhere else in Buckinghamshire, youll see the value.
First two spirals of whipped goats cheese and a riot of beetroot; orange, yellow, candy-stripe, purple varieties you never knew existed baked, pureed, and the hands down star a gloriously zingy sorbet.
Now scallops; two fat specimens arrived that morning from Skye and toasted to caramel in the pan, served with crunchy coconut flakes, artichoke puree, pickled slithers of carrot and the merest dusting of curry powder.
Seriously savoury duck liver is blended to silk with yogurt and balanced by mellow prune puree,
Earl Grey tea foam and a crisp wafer of toasted ginger bread.
Remember rock, the now long-departed stalwart of our chippies? Well, in these times of unsustainable species, Laurie has revived the humble rock salmon, toasting it mahogany in butter to burst with saline juices not unlike a thick tranche of lemon sole. Berkshire crayfish and a cauliflower mousse go with it and honestly make you wonder why we ever bothered with cod.
With the best of the spring lamb not quite ready yet, Laurie uses hogget a one-year-old sheep with deeper flavour than lamb. The breast is braised to gooey, the loin seared pink and sat on turnips, radishes, spelt and crackling made from the skin.
Before dessert proper, another little freebie poached rhubarb with a stem ginger ice cream. Cleansing. And rightly so, as its followed by a puff pastry sandwich of poached pear, luscious vanilla custard, cubes of caramalised white chocolate and a poire William sorbet.
Aesthetics are smart but never stuffy, with polished wood subbing for cloths. Service takes a similar approach. Theres no snootiness or attempts to confuse; just prompt delivery and friendly advice.
Negatives? Well, if Im pushed, the tail end of this meal did crave a little fresh sharpness just to make light of its rich sauces and creams, and some might decry the frequent use of foams. See its a thankless business being a restaurateur even when you doggedly revive your restaurant and lay on a fabulous meal, someone goes and criticises it.
But thank goodness for its owners perseverance because the guidebooks are right about Artichoke. It presents a pleasantly informal yet accomplished alternative to the pomp of traditional fine dining. Faulting it as a cosy, local restaurant for those with an interest in food is very difficult.
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Bucks HP7 ODF