A cosy little bistro in Windsor


I met my sister in Windsor on Wednesday for a belated birthday shopping treat. We loved the shopping and the catching up (the sunshine helped too) but our best bit of the day was lunch at the most wonderful little restaurant called Gilbey’s. And now you know about it too, lucky chops.

Gilbey’s it turns out, is a bit of an institution in Windsor and Eton. Run by the same family – the Gilbeys of Gilbey’s Gin fame – for the past thirty years, it is well-known and well-loved by locals. Brothers Bill and Michael, and their wives Caroline and Lin are currently in charge. Even Emma the GM has been here for 12 years, and she tells me her mum used to work behind the bar while Emma played upstairs as a child.

The restaurant itself, just a 5 minute walk over the bridge from Windsor, is cosy and informal with a light, bright conservatory out the back and a courtyard garden – a Summer visit is definitely on the agenda. With its terracotta tiled floor, topaz walls, scatter cushions, fresh flowers and modern art splashed about, it feels like the home of a very stylish and continental friend (I think I’ll call him Juan).

We are tucked into a charming window seat in the restaurant for lunch, but our lovely waitress (service is excellent btw – warm and welcoming) tells us that in the evenings they fill this front room and the conservatory out the back, and the place is buzzing.

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The a la carte menu is lively modern British – fizzing and banging with all kinds of excitement – potted ham hock and rhubarb with toasted ciabatta, spiced sweet onion and mustard seed compote or gilt-head bream with scallion and red chilli crust with basil and saffron quinoa and fennel ceviche.

The a la carte prices are more credit card than debit card – just short of £10 for a starter and £17-25 for mains –  not surprising given the restaurant’s location (I wonder if One has ever popped in for One’s lunch?) but depending on your hungry-ometer there are several levels of gluttony, and cost.

A la carte obviously, but there is also a set menu, £19.50 for two courses, £25.50 for three, and a one course lunch menu for £13.50. We opted for this, having already started the day with breakfast at Carluccio’s (don’t judge me – it was a birthday treat remember).

I chose smoked haddock, gruyere and sorrel fishcakes with anchovy aioli, purple cabbage and fig slaw and hot, crisp frites. Punchy flavours and a perfectly made fish cake with a crust to sink your teeth into. The strong aioli went brilliantly with the dish and the sharp, tangy slaw was the ideal balance to all the hefty flavours.


My sister went down the classic comfort route with the local outdoor-reared shoulder of pork sausages with creamy leeks and mash and onion gravy. The sausages were enormous and had a lovely dense meatiness to them. Again a beautifully presented dish, full of flavour.


Ooh, almost forgot, let’s talk wine. Apart from the gin link, the Gilbey family were previously wine importers too,  so as you can imagine, the wine list is sound. From around £16 and upwards you can drink very well indeed. They also have their own vineyard in Hambleden producing their Pheasants Ridge wines which you can buy in the restaurant, the sparkling they describe as their ‘pride and joy’.

It’s an absolute gem of a restaurant, but the Gilbeys have gone a step further with an elegant private dining room seating up to 18, and on the top floor, Emma shows us round the latest addition – a stylish studio suite as charming as the restaurant, with views across to Windsor castle.

It would make the perfect night away, to enjoy dinner in the restaurant knowing that you are just three steps to Heaven – your very own luxury bolt-hole with crisp white sheets and a lie-in. With or without Juan…

Gilbey’s Bar & Restaurant, 82-83 High Street, Eton, Windsor, Berkshire SL4 6AF. Tel: 01753 854921 www.gilbeygroup.com@GilbeysEton

Lunch at Jamie’s Italian, Reading (me old mucker)


We had a great meal at Jamie’s Italian in Reading on the weekend, and although I realise the cheeky chappie hardly needs the exposure, it’s only fair that I share it with you. He’s all about making good food accessible to everyone after all, so here I am, passing it forward.

We did actually eat here a long time ago and neither me nor Mr P could remember why we hadn’t been back. Sometimes, I think we avoid chains simply because they’re chains (which is loony considering Burger and Lobster is a chain, imagine going through life not having eaten there? Blog on that coming soon btw).

If you’ve not been, cue the usual interior shots taken on my iPhone (didn’t have my flashy new birthday Canon with me that day). It’s all very NYC industrial warehouse, bare bricks, iron girders, railways sleepers etc. with splashes of punchy hot colour and cool light fixtures. And of course it has that excellent buzzy, canteen feel that Jamie has cloned to perfection.




The menu is good, not too overwhelming but enough choice to bring you out in a sweat when the waitress closes in all too quickly, menacingly clutching her notepad and pencil: ‘AGGH! I’ll go last, I’ll go last!’. Actually, service was notably brilliant, to be fair. Staff were a mixture of old and young and our waitress got the balance just right between friendly and professional.

We had a couple of glasses of Classic Cola to drink – ‘all natural ingredients’ and it was really delicious, more of a root beer taste, with real zing. A carafe of iced tap water was put on the table and refilled during the meal.


We ordered some tapas style plates to start (we’re pulling out all the stops at the moment to encourage J&P to graduate from anything nugget-shaped). The spinach and taleggio croquettes (£4.50) were standout – creamy, crunchy, packed with herbs and scattered liberally with freshly grated Parmesan and lemon zest. I just got a picture in time…


We also ordered the crispy arancini (£4.95) which were tasty, even if the presentation let them down slightly (sometimes the dishes looked a bit like they’d sat on the pass for a minute too long). A generous portion, delicious creamy, cheesy risotto, and the spicy arrabbiata sauce had a really good kick. Hot dang!


Mr P chose ‘Jamie’s Italian Burger’ for his main (with chips, £13.45), a blend of chuck and flank steak with smoked mozzarella, mortadella, balsamic onions, tomato, pickles and chillies in a charred bun. Quite simply, stonking. I do hope that’s not a Jamie-ism, I’m trying my best to avoid them, honestly.



I was already feeling full having eaten more than my fair share of the starters, so I went for the lighter *ahem* option of aubergine parmigiana (£10.95). Again, not so pretty when it first arrived, but when I cut into it and tucked in, a really good dish. I was less impressed with the freshly baked garlic twists that came on the side. They were quite hard and greasy unfortunately, and I didn’t get a very garlicky taste, just olive oil overkill.


The children were happy with their mini sliders – two organic burgers, one beef, one chicken, served in a seeded bun with crinkle cut wedges – they ate the lot. The kids’ menu has some good choices and topped a survey last year for children’s menus in chain restaurants. There are ‘happy’ fish fingers, curly wurly tomato pasta bake, chicken lollipops – and for £5.95 they get their main with a shake-me salad (chopped cucumber, carrots, peppers etc. in a jar) and a fresh fruit juice. For an extra 50p they can have fresh fruit or ice cream for pud.


Being the big kids that we are, me and Mr P had ice cream for dessert – chocolate, vanilla and salted caramel with smashed honeycomb and butterscotch sauce. Oh my lord, it was AMAZING. Particularly the salted caramel, it really wasn’t too far removed from the creamy gelato you’d have on holiday in Italy (oh to be there right now as I look at then rain hammering on my window).


A little tip – join Jamie’s Gold Club if you don’t want to be the only person without a golden treacle tin placed on your table. The Little Ps were extremely put out when we didn’t get the magic tin. It’s a bit like a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket – you join online here and get all kinds of perks like complimentary tasters when you visit, priority booking, birthday presents and so on.

So, overall a really good meal, excellent service and the restaurant was lively and buzzing. I remember reading somewhere that the kitchen is the engine of a good restaurant, and all the energy comes from there and pushes out in waves to the front of house, customers and so on. The open kitchen running the entire length of the restaurant might have something to do with that, plus the boy from Essex who just seems to keep on fizzing like a human Alka Seltzer.

I’d sum it up as a perfect family restaurant, but also great for big parties, great for a night out with the girls, great for popping in for a quick lunch – affordable Italian tucker for pretty much anyone.

And, in case you haven’t seen it yet, Mr P and I are really enjoying Jamie’s new programme with best bud Jimmy Doherty on C4 at the moment, Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast. If you’re not being whisked off somewhere gorgeous for Valentine’s Day, then settle down on the sofa with the sweet cheeks in your life and watch it. I think it’s Jennifer Saunders tomorrow, cooking an Italian Porchetta for her hubbie, which I’m sure will be a hoot. In fact, it may even be pukka.

Jamie’s Italian, Unit 1, Riverside, Reading RG1 2AG. Tel: 0118 907 0808. www.jamieoliver.com/italian/reading @JamiesItalian

p.s. You can make a reservation, but they also operate a walk-in policy – we visited on a busy Saturday and still managed to get a table after a couple of minutes.


Tapas birthday lunch at Orwells, Shiplake Row


I am currently lying comatose on the sofa, unable to move, speak, and actually, breathing is proving rather painful. Yes people, I have been well and truly TAPASSED. Do let me explain if I can prop myself up enough to reach the keyboard…

I spotted on Twitter a while ago that Orwells was reintroducing its tapas lunch menu and having only eaten there in the evenings, I added it to my February wish list. The £10 mid-week set lunches had already been mentioned to me by lots of friends, who were big fans, but sharing plates are my idea of heaven *

(* Yes, food snobs and grumpy types will tell you they’ve been overdone in the last few years… meh. For me they are still a brilliant way to try a little of everything, including dishes you might not normally order, and they’re often a restaurant’s quick option – great if you do literally have a lunch ‘hour’. Fast flexible food.)

Then I thought, forget Feb, I can’t wait. I had a good excuse to squeeze a visit in before the end of the month as it was my birthday. So having managed to secure a table, I trotted down there with a few girlfriends to try it out today.


If you haven’t been to Orwells yet, then go. I’m not saying another word about the usual restaurant lures – decor, cosiness, quality of produce, exciting cooking bla di bla. Just simply, go. If you don’t, you are a plum. I’m sorry, but there it is. Now, back to the tapas…

Things started well when we sat down and Kurt (who, along with John, runs a very friendly and relaxed front of house) brought over a tray of glasses and a bottle of bubbly courtesy of Mr P, who had phoned ahead and arranged the fizz as a birthday surprise. Major points scored.

We left the decision of what to eat up to Chef, (chefs rather, Liam Trotman and Ryan Simpson are joint chef owners) and plates soon began arriving in waves. They had even put a dish back on the menu as I’d mentioned it on my blog as one I wanted to try – confit chicken wings with BBQ glaze. And it was really good, particularly the glaze/sauce which was plentiful for dipping, tangy, spicy and sticky sweet.


Confit chicken wings, BBQ glaze

The suggestion is to have three to four dishes per person (on average £3 to £4 per dish) so we started with three and it turned out to be plenty for us. Of all the dishes our favourites were the mussel gratin with a cider and bacon creamy sauce. It stopped us all in our tracks.


Mussel gratin, cider and bacon

A surprise hit were the battered gherkins served with a dill mayonnaise. A generous thick crunchy batter and a juicy gherkin, still hot, with a rich creamy mayonnaise, was a triumph of textures and flavours – the perfect compact mouthful. (I realise this has the potential to reach the innuendo heights of The Great British Bake Off, but do maintain focus). Sorry no photo of those, they got scoffed sharpish.


Haggis Scotch egg with Piccalilli

A haggis Scotch egg with a phenomenal piccalilli was popular, along with crispy, salt and pepper squid with sweet chilli sauce. The lightest most delicate peppery batter and perfectly tender squid… ahem, no photo of that one either.

The final dish to arrive was a delicate wobble of foie gras on a bed of ‘liquorice’ lentils and cubes of pretty as a picture blushing rhubarb (poached? sous vide? I don’t know but it was sweet and soft and delicious). As good as the lentils were, personally I couldn’t make out the liquorice – although others on the table could, so that’s my palette trashed. Anyway, what I thought would be a more challenging ‘eat’ turned out to be a delicious highlight.


Foie gras, liquorice lentils, rhubarb

Actually, that wasn’t the final dish. This was…


Happy Birthday to me! Now, will somebody please roll me home?

An individual almond sponge cake – as soft as eating a cloud – with (I think) toffee ice cream and a caramel sauce. A very nice touch, and blinking tasty. Although at this point I was starting to feel concerned as to how I was going to extract myself from the table – my tummy now being firmly wedged in for the afternoon.

Verdict? Tapastastic (try saying that after a glass or two of bubbly). All seven of us agreed the tapas menu is a hands down winner and we would absolutely come again, and recommend it to others. Great buzzy atmosphere (the restaurant was packed), fantastic lunch time option to enjoy with friends, family, work mates etc. so you can all whizz in and out quite quickly and enjoy a mixture of dishes, sharing (or not… hands off my mussels!) and generally having a fun, chatty, relaxed time for the bargain price of around £15 a head. Isn’t that what tapas is all about after all?

Nice one Orwells. Very nice one indeed. Now, show me the way to roll home…

Orwells, Shiplake Row, Binfield Heath RG9 4DP. Tel: 01189 403673

Where to eat next? My wish list for Feb


The Horns, Crazies Hill, Wargrave

So here we go, five places I’d like to squeeze in next month if money and muffin-top allows…

1. The Horns, Crazies Hill

This was recommended by my friend Rose who asked if I’d reviewed it yet on my blog. I haven’t but I’m really keen to go now that she has given me the lowdown. Apparently it’s a lovely cosy village pub which has a brilliant garden which you can see from the tables inside. So the children can run around safely while you wave at them from the cosy comfort of your banquette, throwing your head back and laughing gaily while you pop hot chips in your gob! The food is good, and the couple who run it are lovely. Can’t wait to try it out.

The Horns, Crazies Hill, Wargrave RG10 8LY. Tel: 01189 406222

2. Orwells tapas lunch, Shiplake Row

Orwells tapas menu is back, and it looks so good (take a look) I couldn’t wait till Feb, so I’ve booked a table for Wednesday! It’s actually my birthday, so me and a few girlfriends are going to try it out. I’m sure it will deserve a longer blog post all to itself, so I’ll keep you posted. Plus, my birthday present from Mr P was a new camera (even he admitted no amount of ‘auto enhance’ on the iPhone will turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse) so I might ask if I can take a few cheeky shots to share on the blog. On my hit list is definitely the crispy confit chicken wings with BBQ glaze, and for a challenge, fois gras with liquorice lentils and rhubarb.

Orwells, Shiplake Row, Binfield Heath RG9 4DP. Tel: 01189 403673

3. Sushimania, Reading

This was a recommendation posted on the Yahoo! forum, Henley Parents, last week. Sushimania is a small chain with just four branches in Reading, Edgeware, Brighton and Golders Green in London. The Reading one is tucked away at the back of the Broad Street Mall car park, but according to Ana Mari who had lunch there recently, it’s well worth seeking out. Here’s what she had to say:

‘Just came back from having a great lunch at a Sushi restaurant in Reading. Half price lunch times (until 4.30pm) and after 10pm. Really good value. We just had Nigiri, Uramaki and Tempura, but there were great big bowls of noodles and rice on other tables that looked delicious and knocked spots of anything you could get from Wagamama or YoSushi (at half price, less than £4 a bowl). They also do an ‘all you can eat’ menu for £15.80. Most of the customers were Japanese, which must be a good sign.’

Definitely worth a try don’t you think?

Sushimania, 9 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF www.reading.sushimania.co.uk

4. Andre Garret at Cliveden House, Taplow

I only had to read the opening paragraph of omni_frog‘s review of her meal at Cliveden’s Terrace Restaurant last week, and I was sold:

‘Delicate fillets of Dover sole rolled to a tight, arch-like curl, poached to juicy perfection, and draped in tangy beurre blanc. Fat, salted grapes that pop in the mouth, toasty braised fennel, crunchy little slivers of artichoke, leaves of crisped-up parsley, and a bowl of luscious mash loaded up with butter.’

Hungry? Yup, me too. Visit at lunchtime and the set three courses will set you back just £28. How tempting is that? Garret joined Cliveden in October last year as executive chef, having previously been head chef at Galvin at Windows where he gained his first Michelin star. He’s clearly got stars in his eyes for Cliveden. An iconic hotel, it deserves an iconic restaurant, so let’s hope he’s got his mojo on.

Cliveden House, Taplow, Berks SL6 0JF. www.clivedenhouse.co.uk, @cliveden_house


The Old Bell gets the pots and pans out again, hurrah!

5. The Old Bell, Henley

I have a soft spot for Henley’s Old Bell pub because I used to go in here quite a bit when I worked for the cheeky chappies at Redberry. It became our unofficial board room, perfect for a lunchtime drink and a quick bite. It was unpretentious – the chicken and chips came in a red plastic basket, and NOT because it was considered ‘retro’ – but tasty. It stopped doing food for what feels like an age, but new landlord Rob Hooton has just announced the kitchen is open. Chip butties, fish finger sandwiches, soup of the day with crusty bread all come in at around £4. And snack bowls for just £2.80 are a great idea, so you can enjoy some honey and mustard cocktail sausages or homemade roast potatoes with your drink at the bar.

You might have also spotted a nice piece on the pub in this week’s Henley Standard entitled ‘The Saturday morning hangover cure… visit the pub’. Rob is starting a Saturday ‘Recovery Club’, serving bacon and egg rolls, tea and coffee, ‘accompanied by soft music in the background.’

Love it. Shhh, plink plink fizz.

The Old Bell, 20 Bell Street, Henley RG9 2BG. www.theoldbell.biz, @TheOldBell

Dinner at The Quince Tree, Stonor

qunice_treeMr P and I hit the Quince Tree last Friday night around 8pm, part of a jolly band of revellers celebrating a good friend’s birthday.

I’ve shopped in the deli and eaten in the cafe dozens of times, but this was my first time eating in the pub. There is just the pub now by the way, the fine dining restaurant closed its doors in February of last year (‘Why?’ deserves its own blog post, so we’ll tackle that another day).

The restaurant (which is actually just another room leading off the main pub) is concentrating on private dining for now, and is also used as an overflow room when the pub gets busy. I stuck my head in to have a look and it’s a very nice set up. Seats about 30 to 40, beautifully decked out, very cosy – bear it in mind for the next big family bash or milestone anniversary.


Now, I wasn’t going to blog – not because our evening was bad, in fact the food was very good – but because I was concentrating more on the evening itself than the restaurant experience, the menu, wine etc. Plus, I only took a couple of very rushed, and incredibly ropey photos on my iPhone that don’t really do justice to the food.

But I’ve decided I will blog after all, because it would be a shame not to share the highlights. So please forgive the rubbish photos and lack of detail and just fill in the blanks by booking a table. Essentially, it’s worth the long and arduous trek out to deepest darkest Stonor (but don’t forget your GPS, blanket, torch…)

As I’m sure you know, The Quince Tree opened with quite a bang in April 2012 – cafe, deli and pub – with absolutely no holds barred. Money was definitely not too tight to mention, in fact it’s all Henley talked about for months (it cost HOW MUCH to build?! Holy bank balance Batman!) And the site as a whole is indeed, a beautiful thing.

In the pub however, if you’re looking for any evidence of the previous Stonor Arms with gnarly old beams or battered floor boards, you’ll be disappointed. In fact I’d say this is a pub that isn’t really a pub. It’s a very attractive contemporary room, a shrine to Farrow & Ball with muted mousey shades, faux panelling and subtle soft furnishings, all very easy on the eye but some might find it a little bland.

An attempt at character is the quirky secret bookshelf door leading you down to the loos, and there are some great black and white prints of locals on the walls. It’s just a little muddy as to whether it wants to be a pub or a restaurant, but it’s a pleasant enough room and perhaps they thought they’d let the food do the talking.


And the food did speak to me. We were lucky enough to have two Stonor locals in our party who virtually have a table with their name engraved on a plaque they’ve eaten here so often. Mrs H suggested the crayfish cakes with coriander, sweet chilli and avocado to start, and I’m glad I listened. Really fresh flavours, really tasty and clearly popular as several others in our group ordered, and loved it.


Crayfish cakes with coriander, sweet chilli and avocado

I would have been quite happy with any of the starters – a scallops dish, a confit of rabbit leg and a ham hock and piccalilli Scotch egg with white bean puree all caught my eye (the veggie Scotch egg was a nice touch too). The mains were a mash up of fine dining and more classic pub dishes – beer battered cod, a steak and stout pie and steaks served with mushroom ketchup, triple cooked chips, onion rings and béarnaise.

In the end I chose the roasted fillet of brill on a bed of crushed squash, charred leeks and spiced lentils. Those lentils. Wow. It’s not often the humble lentil gets such adoration from a chef, but these were so delicious and had such depth of flavour they pretty much leaped around my plate waving their little lentil arms and doing a lentilly version of ‘Riverdance’. The brill was beautifully cooked and the whole dish had a delicate but commanding touch to it.


Roasted fillet of brill on a bed of crushed squash, charred leeks and spiced lentils

Ooh, and the bar, there’s a bar, hurrah! (Sorry, I did warn you I wasn’t fully focused on the task at hand). As soon as you walk in, a small but splendid little bar stocking local ales (Rebellion and such, brilliant).

There is also a seriously impressive wine list, though I doubt we did it justice. I had a few glasses (ahem) of a very delicious Sauvignon (£23.50 a bottle) and there were plenty of decent mid-table choices £25 to £30 with some amazing finds at the higher end. A Chateau de Tertre described as ‘Broad and sexy with supple tannin offers notes of toast, blackcurrant, violets and liquorice in a seductive, opulent, accessible style’ sounds incredible and one to try next time (I bet it goes really well with dancing lentils).

We were a pathetic bunch on the pudding front I’m afraid, with only one of us girls, Mrs F, managing to squeeze in a cheese course or rather ‘Plated cheese selection from our farm shop with Quince Tree chutney, apple and fruit bread’ to give it its full, glorious title. And it did look fantastic when it arrived with a generous mix of beautifully presented hard, soft and blues to delve into.

So, head chef Peter Eaton continues to do a very good job here. With previous success at The Feathered Nest, Cotswolds (AA Pub of the Year), The Vineyard, Newbury (two Michelin stars while he was in the kitchen) and classically trained at Le Manoir he is used to awards and stars a-go-go. Under him, The Quince Tree has maintained its Michelin bib gourmand for the second year running and recently won ‘Editor’s Choice’ at the Oxfordshire Restaurant Awards.

The Quince Tree Stonor Oxfordshire

A good photo, clearly not one of mine. All credit The Quince Tree.

My only slight grumble on the night was the service, which has been my only grumble with The Quince Tree as a whole since it opened. They seem to hire younger staff lacking experience and I never feel they are fully in command of their role.

Staff issues in the cafe seems to have been addressed since the introduction of Jolly to the team. Yes, that is his real name, and yes, he probably finds Christmas a rather trying time with all the quips. But he has worked wonders and the service in the cafe has improved dramatically over the last six months.

In the pub however, I was served by five different members of staff, which in itself feels a little unprofessional when you’d rather one, or perhaps two people looking after you at most. They were all ok, but none went above and beyond to make our experience special, which was a shame.

One chap approached us nervously holding two plates of food, so we finally asked what it was, to which he replied: ‘I don’t know.’ He then asked us if it was ours. My friend (agog by now) said: ‘Well we don’t know because you haven’t told us what it is!’ I know, I can feel you cringing just reading it, imagine if you’d been there?! Basically, the service just didn’t match the quality of food and they need to sort it out.

That said, I would return, and I’m excited by the prospect of such quality cooking on our doorstep. If you’ve visited I would love to know what you thought. Did those lentils dance for you too?

The Quince Tree, Stonor, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 6HE. Tel: 01491 639039. www.thequincetree.com, @thequincetreeuk

Photo credits: All ‘not rubbish’ photos courtesy of The Quince Tree, Stonor. All ‘incredibly rubbish’ photos courtesy of yours truly.

Pub review: The Royal Oak, Yattendon


What a joy to walk through a pub door and know instantly you are in safe hands. I guess we had a pretty good inkling, having heard such good things about The Royal Oak. No one I asked had a bad thing to say about it, plus it has a ridiculous amount of awards, medals, gold stars, OBEs (ok, not one of those. Yet.)

A pretty red brick building, the pub sits at the crossroads in the equally pretty village of Yattendon opposite Yattendon Village Stores est 1877 (Laura Ingalls Wilder eat your heart out). I’ll admit, the 40 minute drive from Henley had put Mr P slightly on edge, but once we drove into the village he visibly relaxed, and the little muscle in his cheek even stopped twitching.

This is an English country inn if ever there was one, with a shooting party standing at the bar when we walk in as if to make the point. There are plenty of cosy corners, tastefully decorated – oak beams, earthy tones, black and white prints, checkerboard tile floors – but without trying too hard, and a lovely feel of casual country elegance about the place.

I nervously ask if Digby, our border terrier puppy – straining at the leash and panting like a banshee – is allowed in and Andrea, front of house, smiles ‘of course’ and points out the garden in case he needs to pay a little visit. The walled garden is a highlight btw, can’t wait to come back in the Summer.

The menu is quite simply stunning. Chef Toby Barrett uses local ingredients with great skill and style. I could quite happily have eaten any of the dishes, they all spoke to me. Even so, choosing was a breeze because the Specials board was screaming ‘Pick me! Pick me!’

That’s how wild mushroom, prosciutto and goats’ cheese ravioli, crisp pancetta and thyme cream (£8.50) arrived as my starter. Good job too. No sooner had I picked up my knife and fork one of the staff called out from the back that the ravioli was finished and it got chalked off the menu.

I tried to ignore the burning eyes of the couple in the corner who missed out. Not to rub it in, but it really was uhh-mazing. I could taste every single ingredient in delicate layer upon layer of flavour, and the thyme cream was sublime.


Wild mushroom, prosciutto and goats’ cheese ravioli, crisp pancetta, thyme cream

Not to be outdone, Mr P tucked into pan roasted scallops, Champagne and pancetta cream (£9) washed down with a pint of very local ale – all the beer comes from the West Berkshire Brewery, literally 2 minutes round the corner from the pub. Scallops cooked to perfection, beautiful sauce, Mr P announced (practically to the entire pub) it was ‘outstanding’ and sat back in wonder.


Pan roasted scallops, Champagne and pancetta cream

For my main I chose roast Berkshire pork belly with beetroot gratin, swede mash and grain mustard sauce (£16). Just look at this dish. There are no words.


Roast Berkshire pork belly, beetroot gratin, swede mash, grain mustard sauce

That is a piece of pork belly, with obligatory crispy crackling, the size of my hand. Delicate slivers of beetroot cooked down to a buttery softness and a spicy swede mash, all held together with a tangy mustard sauce. Oh, there are words after all.

Mr P had no trouble choosing his main as the word PIE lifted from the page and hovered in front of his glazed eyes. Lamb, rosemary and apricot pie with roasted roots and gravy, I can assure was absolutely delicious, as I snaffled a couple of mouthfuls when he nipped to the loo. You snooze you lose in our family.


Lamb, rosemary and apricot pie with roasted roots and gravy

For children they do a very simple two courses for £8, with a bowl of ice cream or fruit salad. They can choose from macaroni cheese; fish fingers and chips; sausage, chips and peas or steak and chips. What I loved was there was absolutely no scrimping on the quality of food served to the children – Miss P’s steak was cooked pink, beautifully charred on the outside and seriously good.

The pub is proud and very open about the food suppliers they use here’s the list – and some really good guys there are too, including Greys Cheese Shop in nearby Pangbourne and Henley’s own Gorvett and Stone.

I also loved the idea of hosting your own dinner party in one of the pub’s private rooms (there are three). You can have the a la carte menu, or with a minimum of 8 guests, opt for the pub’s Feasting menu and choose from roast suckling pig, roast rib of beef or venison and chestnut Wellington. The price ranges from £24 to £27 per head but that includes the room. You then add starters and puds if you wish. I might well be doing this for my birthday which is creeping up all too soon.


One of three private dining rooms

If, like us, you’re in need of some fresh air and a yomp after your meal, there are walks-a-plenty in the locality. We took a very simple walk following a footpath just round the corner from the pub, but check out Visit Newbury’s walking routes for more suggestions.

In short, this is a pub making the most of the beautiful local ingredients our counties have to offer, and doing it with supreme style and grace. The staff without exception were friendly and professional with a calmness and confidence that made us totally relax. The Royal Oak is doing everything right. I hope you pay them a visit soon, but a little word of warning… hands off that last portion of ravioli. It’s MINE. *Smiles sweetly*.

The Royal Oak, The Square, Yattendon, Berkshire RG18 0UF. Tel: 01635 201325. www.royaloakyattendon.co.uk @oakyattendon The pub also has 10 rooms (doubles/twins) ranging from £85 to £130 per night.

Pub and a lovely long walk: The Chequers Inn, Fingest

If you’re looking for a totally relaxed and unpretentious pub with beautiful rural walks on its doorstep, potted shrimps or a simple steak and chips, nothing too fancy, then walk this way my friend, walk this way…

Full to the brim with the excesses of Christmas we were in need of a long country romp so decided to head out to Fingest knowing that there were walks-a-plenty in these parts (we’re already fans of The Frog at Skirmett just down the road – btw, did you know it was named after a Muppet? Skirmett the Frog. No, really. Just remember you heard it here first.

Fingest, in case you didn’t know, is a small village at the head of the Hambleden Valley on the edge of the Chiltern Hills. There is a beautiful Norman church opposite the pub called St Bartholomew’s part of which was built in the early 12th Century. Here endeth the history lesson, back to the pub.


St Bartholomew’s church

Using my usual reckless method of pub roulette I called at about 11.59 to see if they could squeeze us in for lunch. With a very friendly ‘can do’ manner they said if we could come sooner rather than later they’d manage to find us a table in the bar area. But may I politely suggest you do as I say and not as I do, and book ahead (this was a Saturday btw, yes I know – late posting again, soz).

When we arrived, J&P immediately ran into the lovely big garden out the back. Not suitable for very little ones as the car park runs down the length of the garden and inquisitive children can easily wander round to the road. There are swings and, randomly, a bush plonked in the middle which has been cut away in the centre to make a den. Kept children aged 5 to 15 amused for hours it seems.

There is also a very sweet little gazebo out here that would be perfect in the Summer (although a couple of romantic tough nuts were ballsy enough to be sitting in it on this frosty day, brrr).



Inside, the bar staff were chatty and we just fell into conversation with them and the other people sitting in the bar area. There were dogs sitting under tables, welly-clad walkers, families traipsing back and forth looking aimlessly for children/their table/the loo, and a few locals sitting at the bar catching up with the latest village gossip. It was cosy and a little bonkers and we felt totally at home.


The steak menu had a choice of rump, rib eye, sirloin, fillet and a chateaubriand for sharing. Prices for the steaks hovered around the £20 mark and all the beef is from Mill End Farm in Hambleden.

Mr P tucked into a ‘very tasty’ Homemade Venison Burger with fries (£11.50). I went the comfort route and tried the Wild Mushroom & Parmesan Risotto (£12.50). It didn’t need the scattering of warm and wilted baby leaf lettuce on top, but it was deliciously creamy, with perfectly al dente grains and good flavours going on.


Venison burger


Wild mushroom and Parmesan risotto

For children they offer a kiddie size portion of their haddock and chips (£6 instead of £12.50) but that’s the only dish on the menu they’ll downsize. Little P was happy with her adult minute steak and fries (£12) it was actually a little on the small side and she polished it off in, well, a minute.


Minute steak and chips


Children’s haddock and chips

The food, though not outstanding, is very good, and combined with the relaxed atmosphere, cool rustic interior and warm welcome from the staff – this is a place I’d definitely like to revisit and spend time in again and again.


We then headed outside and with great determination to walk off at least 500 50 5 calories, headed straight down Chequers Lane in front of the pub, keeping the beautiful church on our left. We turned at the first footpath on the right and just wandered happily along for about an hour, then turned round and walked back down the bridle path for a change of scenery.

It worked beautifully for us with two children aged 5 and 7, but if you fancy something longer there is lots of choice around here. Have a look at this mammoth 14 mile suggestion from Hero on Muddy Stilettos.

Here are some pics of our walk, on what turned out to be a rather glorious crisp and sunshiny afternoon. I know, ugly old spot we live in isn’t it? Sheesh, what an eyesore.

Happy New Year x





The Chequers Inn, Fingest, Henley-on-Thames RG9 6QD. Tel: 01491 638335 www.thechequersfingest.co.uk (website currently having a makeover).

The Plowden Arms, Shiplake (yes, again!)


Salmon en croute

No, you are not having a deja vue moment. We did indeed head back to The Plowden Arms for lunch today (having only eaten here last Sunday). But when you find a good pub/restaurant it’s like buying a new album on iTunes, you play that thing to death and go on and on and ON about it. Well, I make no apologies for going on about this great little find. If you haven’t been yet, what is wrong with you? You’ve had a whole week since the last review to book a table?!

I’m not going to bore you with too much wordage. We’ve all had quite enough of that this year. If you like a few more words you can read my review of The Plowden Arms from last weekend here. This is a photo-heavy tribute to the delicious meal we had today. And, instead of ordering my usual Sunday pub staple of a roast dinner, I asked Ruth the landlady for her suggestions. Here are my pics with a short description underneath.


Baked Goats’ Cheese

This was my starter – Baked Goats’ Cheese with a lightly toasted crumb on top, served with a leaf salad with chervil and toasted hazelnuts (£6.50) There was just the right amount of goats’ cheese to salad and it was beautifully creamy. I’m afraid I forgot to ask where they get their cheese from, but it was absolutely delicious so I will find out and report back.


Duck pate

This was Mr P’s starter of duck pate (£5.50) which he adored. He’d do anything for pate (no, not that) and it was gone before I’d even taken two bites of mine. The glutton. Plus, he didn’t share. We’ll have words later.


Salmon en croute

This little beauty was my main course – Salmon en croute with an excellent chive Hollandaise, buttery boiled potatoes and kale on the side (£12). Huge portion, absolutely stonking piece of meaty, perfectly cooked salmon in a beautiful casing of crispy pastry. An absolute triumph.


Haunch of venison

This was Mr P’s main course which he chose from the standard menu, Haunch of Venison with roast potatoes, honeyed parsnips, Brussels sprouts and chestnuts (£18). I mean, just look at that meat, crazy good. It was such good quality, so beautifully cooked, and again really generous portions.


Bloggers of the future tucking in

J and P asked for a roast and what a roast they got. The pub does a half portion of the adult roast for children for a very reasonable £7.50. But quite honestly, far from being a half portion, it was a really generous plating of roast sirloin of beef and all the veggies (cauliflower cheese, creamy carrots, the MOST amazingly delicious red cabbage) and my two couldn’t finish it. Not to worry, the vultures descended within seconds.

Unsurprisingly, we had no room for pudding. We’ll just have to go back again… shame.

The Plowden Arms, Shiplake Cross, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 4BX. Tel: 0118 9402794, www.plowdenarmsshiplake.co.uk@PlowdenGeorge (follow the pub’s resident ghost on Twitter!) Facebook.

Sunday lunch at The Plowden Arms, Shiplake


Hello peeps, hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! No doubt the last of the turkey leftovers have gone and you are in recovery mode on the sofa. Well, put those little feet up (resplendent in your Christmas slippers), lean back (don’t worry, we can’t see you in your reindeer onesie) and read on for my suggestion of where to go for lunch this weekend. Groan all you like, I know it’s only been two days, but be honest, you’re a bit peckish aren’t you?

This is a slightly delayed posting as we actually ate here the Sunday before Christmas, so apologies for my tardiness – but the festive season is a pretty good excuse for not switching the laptop on for a few days.

If like me you’ve driven past The Plowden Arms a hundred times (at 30mph of course, ahem, we’ve all spotted that speed camera) and never stopped, then you definitely need to apply the brakes next time.


Yes indeedy.

For starters the pub made it into the latest Michelin Guide in October, it was also a finalist for two Oxfordshire Restaurant of the Year Awards, AND it has a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence for 2013. A pretty good year, and several good reasons to try it out, at last.

Don’t be put off by its busy road location – it has a large car park out the back, and once inside you can’t hear the road at all thanks to secondary glazing and the general hubbub of happy diners.


If you’re expecting a fancy pants gastropub then you’ll be disappointed – the decor is very much ‘trad pub’ with swirly carpets and bygone prints on the walls. Personally, I couldn’t give a hoot as long as the food is good. The obligatory roaring fire was present and correct so I was immediately sold.


Specials board. Tick.



Don’t let the empty table fool you – I took this 1 minute after the last party left, and 2 minutes before the next lot arrived!

Now, Mr P and I have eaten our fair share of pub food in this mighty fine county we live in, and I can honestly say he has never, ever, EVER been so complimentary as he was about the Plowden Arms food (so much so he wrote his first review on Trip Advisor! You can read it here). And I have to agree, the food was the best we’ve had in a pub in a very long time.

He chose a starter of Blue Cheese Croquettes with Endive, Pear, Walnut and Grape Salad (£6) and after the first bite, his little face lit up like a Christmas tree.


Mr P’s dreamy little starter of blue cheese croquettes

As we were only a few days away from Christmas, I decided to skip on the starter and plumped for roast turkey for my main instead. And I mean this in the highest possible esteem, it tasted as if my mum (or Grandma, or any good cook in our family) had been right there in the kitchen cooking it for me. It was just so homely, and richly flavoured and delicious, and had obviously been cooked with care and love.


Roast turkey, oh go on then.

My mother-in-law and Mr P both chose the roast beef, and agreed it was cooked to perfection. We all thought the accompaniments were fantastic too – creamy leeks, beautifully sweet carrot mash – I even ate the sprouts, and I hate sprouts!


Roast sirloin of beef. Get in!


Of course, the littlest P’s went for their ‘usual’ (I swear they do eat things other than fish and chips at home, honest) and gave it the big thumbs up.

We all particularly liked the fact our meals were served on beautiful old crockery, just like the set your mum or grandmother might have at home. Desserts were equally ‘Best in Show’ – we shared a Sticky Toffee Pudding and as soon as the waitress set it on the table and it did a little wobble (pudding not the waitress. Behave.) I knew it was a winner.


Two words. Sticky. Toffee.


Two more words. Rice. Pudding.

J our eldest, chose rice pudding for dessert. Apologies – it did look even prettier than this, but he stirred his jam in before I could get a photo. But as you can see below, he was very happy with his choice.


Seconds please!

Now, if I had one tiny little gripe, it would be that of the three girls that served us, two were absolutely charming, while one was a tad grumpy and was perfunctory rather than loving her job. I totally understand that some people have an off day, and I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. It certainly didn’t ruin our meal, but it would be a shame if she didn’t raise her game.

Everything else was brilliant, including booking the table which I did online and it was simple and efficient, and actually worked! I think it’s so important for pubs and restaurants to do this sort of thing well these days, you just can’t not get it right. The pub has a great online presence with a well updated website, and good Twitter and Facebook pages (links below).


Happy customers.

Ruth and Matthew only took over The Plowden Arms in October of last year, but what a year it’s been with all those awards. Matt is clearly a very accomplished chef (he most recently worked under Gordon Ramsay) and I really loved their menu which was a good mix of classic dishes and some lovely twists based on old English recipes (Hannah Glasse, Eliza Acton, Mrs Beeton).

This is the December menu that we ate from (although the roast dinners were from the Specials Board) and I’d love to come back and try the more unusual dishes – roasted bone marrow with tarragon butter and toast, or the monkfish, bacon and pease pudding.


Books and games a plenty for keeping little hands busy


Yep, you should look nervous Mr Ramsay… this place is coming after your stars!

This is a pub trying to do something a little different, at a fair price and with real love for what they do. Please don’t drive by next time. I urge you to give it a try like we did. It’s now top of our list of places to eat. And we have already booked to go again this Sunday. Might just see if roast turkey is still on the menu…


The Plowden Arms, Shiplake Cross, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 4BX. Tel: 0118 9402794, www.plowdenarmsshiplake.co.uk, @PlowdenGeorge (follow the pub’s resident ghost on Twitter!) Facebook.

Lapland UK review – we meet Santaaaaaa!


So we took the plunge and visited LaplandUK for the first time yesterday. Before I tell you about it, let’s get to the nitty gritty. You’ve heard it’s expensive and you want to know if it’s worth the money. My verdict after seeing my children’s little faces at various moments throughout the day and wanting them to believe in the magic for as long as possible, is that it is worth the cost… just! So read on if you don’t mind some *spoilers* (grown-up eyes only please!)

LaplandUK is a walk through Disney-esque theatrical experience set in a specially created ‘snowy’ forest in Ascot. Your Christmassy tour lasts three and a half hours and along the way you stop in log cabins to help the elves build toys in the workshop and decorate gingerbread men with Mrs Christmas. There is some free time to ice skate, eat lunch, meet real huskies and visit the sweet shop, post office and gift shop. The experience culminates in a one-to-one with the real Father Christmas.


We booked the first tour of the morning at 10am and it wasn’t even half full, which could be a reflection on the price, or perhaps the mornings are quieter. Also, not all the schools had broken up at this point. It did get busier around lunchtime. We paid £69.50 each plus a transaction fee of £2, making a stomach-churning total of £280. Which by the way is not best revealed to your husband 5 minutes before walking into the experience. He went all peculiar on me and nearly passed out – what a waste of a ticket that would have been.

Parking is free and they ask you to arrive 30 minutes before your tour starts. There is a waiting area where you can buy tea, coffee, cakes etc. (and so the up-selling begins…!). We checked in and the children are given coloured wrist bands (jot your mobile number on them) to say they are on the Huskies tour (you join Huskies or Reindeers, both are exactly the same but just go in different directions) then we followed our elf into a woodland glade setting (all under cover).


Will you be Team Husky or Team Reindeer?

We’re greeted by two elves – Sage and Eeko – and given a chatty, singsongy introduction to what we’re about to experience. I thought everyone on the tour – elves, reindeer herders, Mrs Christmas etc. – was brilliant without exception. They are all fully immersed in the experience and give it their all. The children are given Elf Passports before the magic door is opened and we headed off with our reindeer herder to the Elf Workshop.

The workshop was really well done. The children (‘Small Folk’) enter through the smaller elf door while the grown-ups (‘Big Folk’) go through the big door. There is a toy train chugging around the wall, work benches and toys everywhere. The children sit at the benches and help the elves to make a wooden Pinocchio toy and a teddy bear. Elf passports are stamped and it’s off to the next log cabin to meet Mother Christmas.


Toy making in the workshop


Making teddies (no, you don’t get to keep it!)

We meet three more elves – Treacle, Dough and Nutmeg (Dough by the way should have his own show. Hilarious. Mr P and I were genuinely laughing out loud at his dry delivery and various antics). Mrs Christmas greets the children, and she is cuddly and perfect. There are aprons and chef hats on each bench and the children are given a gingerbread man to decorate with icing and sweets. This is popped in a paper bag for them to take home. Mrs Christmas reads them a story and then our reindeer herder tells us we have free time for about an hour and a half.


Mrs Christmas and her elves


Two happy bakers and a slightly grumpy Daddy who has been asked to sing the Busy Elves song one time too many

At this point we’re taken outside to the Village Square. We went ice skating first, which is included in your ticket price (hurrah!). It’s a good sized rink with gliding penguins for children (and wobbly parents, ahem!) and a skating elf on hand to help nervous skaters. We skated for about half an hour, but could have stayed on longer, there was no time limit.


Skating, or falling with style


There are a number of real husky dogs around the square for you to stroke and some ‘reindeer’ available for cuddles and photos. You can visit the gift shop which to be fair had a good mix of things to buy and prices were reasonable (ok, maybe not the £14,000 rocking horse…) but there are some great pocket money toys, t-shirts, small cuddly toys, tree decorations, books, colouring pencils etc.





There is a lot of talk about ‘Elf Jingles’ on the website, and you’re encouraged to buy these before you visit to pay for everything at the Square. We didn’t, and it wasn’t a problem. Most of the places take cash or cards. The restaurant doesn’t take cash, but does take cards (or Jingles!). We visited the Elf Bank (naturally) and got the children £5 of Elf Jingles each to spend.


Hello Rudolph!


Meeting one of the pack

We had lunch at the Log Cabin Restaurant. The food is very good (far better than the food at Legoland) and prices are reasonable. You can see the full menu here. The children had proper butcher’s sausages in rolls with twice cooked chips and bottled water and we had the slow cooked pork roll. The meal deal is £11 for adults and £7 for children and includes a main course plus chips and a drink.



Lunch is gooood!

Lunch done, we head to our meeting point and here the excitement really started to build. We were finally going to meet the REAL Father Christmas! You are led to a tented room with a roaring fire, logs to sit on, reindeer skins and so on. An adult from your party is asked to check-in (at this point they make sure they have all the correct details for your child). You then go through to another smaller waiting area (bear with me) where an elf FINALLY comes to take you to see Santa.


But which way to Santa?!


We’re getting closer…


This is it… we are about to meet the big man!

We spent a good 10 to 15 minutes inside Santa’s grotto and he was really wonderful. Chubby, jolly, genuine – I was totally taken in! He chats away asking the children lots of questions and peppers the conversation with the facts that he magically seems to know about them. The children are then given a beautiful toy husky and a few official photos are taken which you can then purchase later (you’re not allowed to take your own).

On the way out you see some real reindeer in a pen (they looked a little dopey it has to be said, I’m not sure if they’d been on the Christmas brandy…) and Father Christmas’ sledge.

All in all, I’m pleased we spent the money on the experience. It is a slick, high class operation but it may leave some people with a slightly sour taste in the mouth, simply because it is incredibly expensive and it does have that Disney gloss to it that might not suit everyone. For me, to see the look on my children’s faces when they saw the *real* Father Christmas… well you can’t put a price on that.

Top 10 tips for visiting LaplandUK

  1. Dress for outdoors and wear wellies – it rained a little when we visited and the woodland paths get quite muddy.
  2. Take spare socks for the skating and possibly even spare leggings/joggers. The boots we got were wet inside and the children got wet bottoms falling over on the ice!
  3. For everyone to spend so much time with Father Christmas, there is more than one! Be very careful if you have older children – my 7-year-old with his eagle eye spotted that other families were being led off to different log cabins. Although it is done quite cleverly, be a little careful when your elf comes to collect you – if you all skip off too quickly you can accidentally see other families in front heading off in different directions. Hold back a little and catch your little one’s eye by pointing out something in the forest.
  4. The food is excellent and the children’s meals are plentiful – you could easily share if you’re on a tight budget. We shared two portions of chips between four of us and it was plenty. The meal deals are good value too.
  5. You are given 90 minutes free time to spend in the Village Square, but once you leave there and head off to visit Santa, you can’t come back in. This is where you eat, see the huskies, cuddle the reindeer, ice skate, shop… everything. So make sure you pack it all in and take plenty of photos.
  6. Don’t worry about purchasing Elf Jingles before you visit, everything is priced in Sterling and the only place that doesn’t accept cash is the cafe which takes cards. You can also buy Jingles easily from the Elf Bank in the square.
  7. Opt for the first tour of the morning if you want to avoid the crowds as it definitely got busier as the day progressed. Although, if you go in the afternoon, it would probably look even more magical with the fairy lights switched on that were strung throughout the woods.
  8. Do buy your photo with Father Christmas at the end. They are good quality and they take several shots so you’ve got plenty of choice. We got the £20 package which gives you three large photos and a code so you can download them when you get home which I thought was pretty good value.
  9. Throw yourself into it and BELIEVE! The more you put in, the more you and your children will get out. And unless you want to end up doing a solo, sing up loud and proud when asked!
  10. Ooh and a bit of goss – some of the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special was filmed at LaplandUK this year so watch out for it on BBC1, Christmas Day.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!

LaplandUK, Whitmoor Forest, Swinley Road, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 8BD. Tel: 0871 6207063 www.laplanduk.co.uk, @LaplandUK