Restaurant review: Douglas Blyde beats the critics to Berkshire's Oakley Court
Douglas Blyde: from horror to hedonism at Oakley Court
Oakley Court, the distinctive gothic mansion by Bray Studios, starred as the set of several horrors including Hammer’s “Brides of Dracula” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, as well as - in a more light-hearted role - the St Trinian’s series.
I checked-in not to trace the scenes, but discover what turned out to be beautiful, brave and calibrated cuisine by head chef, Damian Broom. Here for 10 months, Broom previously worked at Marlow’s Michelin-starred Danesfield House, and The Old Vicarage Hotel, Shropshire.
At just 22, wine expert, Alex Futcher dispensed wines from an old-school mobile trolley alongside Broom’s seven-course tasting menu (£55 plus £35 for six paired pours). Like Broom and sous chef, Scott Meaden, it transpired Futcher had also worked at Danesfield House.
Following tasty, brittle canapés including Parmesan cream-centred “Oreo” and fresh fish skin crisp, the meal began with winsome crunchy-crusted bread baked using what Futcher called “perfect” London Pride. This was successfully served with a warm shot of ultra-savoury, bread “tea”. Futcher admitted on first hearing of the accompaniment he thought “chef was joking.”
Next, mackerel, often a staple of set lunch menus on account of its ubiquity, was spruced as a decadent dinner dish. Chicken skin shards provided texture to the smoked gratin, interlaced with passion fruit seeds. Futcher matched the latter’s flavour with Errázuriz 1870 Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley, 2013) which also “cut through the dish’s smokiness.”
Next, beef matured so long (90 days) that Broom “has to sign a contract with the butcher” to condone its use, according to Futcher, was so supple it belied its age. Emerging lightly smoky from an indoor “Green Egg” ceramic barbecue, it was presented with raw, skeletal slices of king oyster mushroom and an aromatic celery leaf “ash”. The fine dish gained seasoning from the vital, peppery, oak-free Rioja (Bodegas Exopto, Bozeto, 2013). An interesting alternative to more typical Pinot Noir.
Next, Louis Jadot’s Chablis (also 2013) brought a citrus-like freshness lacking in the dish to cod the colour of a Hollywood smile, contrasting earthy cauliflower purée, bold, sweet sultanas, fragrant almonds and albeit slightly intrusive Moroccan spices.
Even more successful was the duck, not from the high, surging Thames which Oakley Court overlooks but France’s Landes. It was wrapped in chicory fanned into a “spade”, with hazelnuts and perky pink grapefruit. Alongside, Ravasqueira’s Calantica Rosso from Portugal’s Alentejo (again, 2013) is a new acquisition from London’s Vagabond Wines (Futcher is migrating from core supplier, Matthew Clark). Proving the top match, it initially unappealingly mimicked Italian bitter, Fernet Branca on the nose, but lived up to what Futcher described as “a satin feel” on the palate. I noted another diner described it as “slightly seedy – but in a good way.”
Next, cheese was a model of confident minimalism. Rather than offer from a crowded cart, Broom served just one: golden Lancashire Blue with honeycomb from hives near the hotel’s entrance and slim biscuits. LBV Port (Graham’s 2009) brought easy-going sugar and mild tannins to the sturdy cheese. “We moved the bees to bergamot after watching them go to the lavender,” said Futcher, excitedly.
Wise given the dish’s perfume, Futcher left pre-dessert of lavender cream with poached rhubarb unpaired. Finally, liqueur rather than wine in the form of clear hazelnut and herb-based “Frangelico”, dovetailed, as Futcher advised it would, with the whole roasted vanilla pod ice cream component of a pudding which also featured neutral milk crisp, but failed to synchronise with the somewhat argumentative lime. Although sweeter wines, Futcher acknowledges, are an area he intends to apply greater focus on with the help of Vagabond, the liqueur remained, for me, a joyously guilty pleasure.
Tonight’s meal, realised by sous chef, Meaden was bright, meticulous and very edible while being dramatically at odds, stylistically, with the presently drab dining room. However, when plans to redecorate are enacted, I predict a healthy tremble of critics will visit given the team’s inventiveness and energy. Indeed, I learnt at my 9am breakfast that Futcher had only finished hand-washing his much-loved comprehensive range of Riedel XL glassware a few hours before…