It is this latter point that is the source of our angst: there are only a handful of restaurants in the UK that scare us and this is one of them. They don’t scare us because they have scary French waiters, we can deal with those. They scare us because they are so incredibly expensive that we’re afraid our credit card(s) will all be declined, one after another as they snap in two under the strain of the intergalactic bill. Of all the restaurants that scare us, The Waterside Inn scares us the most. Looking briefly at their a la carte, ‘warm escalope of foie gras with cardamom, glazed root vegetables, verjuice and sultanas sauce’ as a starter is on the menu at £51.15. What are the vegetables glazed with, gold? After 12.5% service charge, you’ll hardly have enough change out of £60 for your next meal to be at McDonalds.
Nor is that the most expensive starter, that award goes to the pan fried lobster at £58. Desserts meanwhile start at £29 and max out at the selection plate at £39. Feeling squeezed by this point? You can have a filter coffee for a mere £12. And don’t even start us on the wine and the whisky.
The Waterside Inn therefore is probably the most expensive restaurant in the UK. Now, somewhere has to be and that’s fine, but that carries with it certain responsibilities, not least, the expectation that you’re going to get something like the best dining experience in the UK also. Given the fact that there will be no theatre involving nitro poached lobster with a foam of line caught fisherman, the experience must compete on quality alone in a crowded field of fine French cooking. Simply put, this had better be bloody good.
A big ask perhaps but they’ve had 25 years of three Michelin stars to get it right. So how did they do? If you want to cheat at this point, scroll down to the final paragraph.
On entering the dining room, you’ll be instantly aware of an abundance of staff, each and every one of them there for you. Smartly dressed of course in their shirt, tie, apron combo, for the duration of your visit, you’ll never have to do anything yourself – that’s the three star way. Chairs of course are pulled out for you, and pushed in after you; ladies too get a stool to rest their handbag on. After a few drinks, you might want to use the toilet, you push your chair back two inches and check left and right hoping to guess where the toilets are but don’t worry, a staff member is instantly on you with a polite ‘this way Sir’. You’ve not even asked, they’re reading your mind, they know what you want almost before you do. They know what it means when your left eyebrow twitches – that’s 25 years of practice for you. It’s almost spooky.
Almost bizarrely, the way to eat ‘cheaply’ (ha ha I know) at The Inn is to go with the tasting menu (Le Menu Exceptionnel) which consists of three ‘starters’, a choice of two mains (game or duck), two desserts and their (clearly world famous) £12 cup of filter coffee (ou espresso).
So go on, guess how much. £200? £300? A million?
Absolutely bizarrely, £140 inclusive of service. We don’t know why, we don’t care why. At a £140 a head for all this, we kind of feel like we’re robbing them, like a mistake has been made printing up the menu but we're not going to tell them. We feel naughty. We feel that our credit cards might be able to take it after all. We feel like we’ve got out of doing the washing up. We might even enjoy our meal. This ‘menu exceptionnel’ is definitely the way forward; we order.
This is classic French cooking done as well as it can be done, the quality shines. Le Gavroche, that other Roux venue is also classic French and boasts two stars of course but it is not in the same league as The Waterside Inn in any aspect. It feels like it’s not even in the same country.
Among the dishes that impress (well all of them really), the pan fried lobster medallion stands out. Vibrant red, it looks the essence of lobster, inside the seeming undamaged shell, the lobster has been cooked to perfection. The flesh pulls out without resistance and anything troublesome like cartilage has already been removed so the big piece of lobster meat in front of you is wholly and deliciously edible. The white port sauce compliments the lobster perfectly and the ginger flavoured vegetable julienne adds a final mild ginger note to the dish, subtle, not overpowering: the kitchen knows the lobster is the star on this plate.
The date soufflé seemed the only disappointing dish of the evening but being the last course, as indicated, it was possibly us who were jaded toward facing more food, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
The service too was impeccable throughout the night. Those 25 years of three stars means that this is a place that knows how to treat guests but not just in a sycophantic servile way but in a genuinely friendly helpful way that gives you both impeccable service but also informality to allow you to be comfortable. At the start of the menu in a statement by Alain Roux, he invites you to “take your time, talk to each other, and ask us questions. We are here to make your time at The Waterside Inn a pleasurable and memorable experience” and they do. What’s more, Alain Roux walks the dining room toward the end of the service and spends time at each table to ask you if you enjoyed the evening. He too is friendly and charming.
A cynic might say that at those prices, of course they’re smiling but they do appreciate that if the food and service is not good enough, their trade can walk at any time. If they’re faking it, they’re very good indeed and I can’t tell the difference so it probably doesn’t matter. You are paying a lot of money to eat there and they want to reward that by giving you the best dining experience possible.
Overall this is a restaurant that sets a benchmark standard in food and service. They can’t be criticised for lack of innovation for theirs is not the Nitro way. They have three stars for executing perfectly classic cuisine. They’ve held those stars for 25 years; this is a restaurant that knows its soul. Eating there, you are the beneficiary of that cumulative experience and it shows. Forget the money and what’s not to enjoy?
On the occasion last year of our Bray Spectacular, I said it was The Waterside Inn where I'd return for the food but the experience of The Fat Duck I'd remember. This time however, it is again The Waterside Inn where I'd return to eat but the experience of The Waterside Inn that I’ll remember also. Sorry Heston. You only live once and everyone deserves to feel special from time to time and that’s what they do oh so well. In fact, The Waterside Inn delivered a little piece of heaven for the night and by achieving that, it really did feel good enough to justify the price. Even we didn’t see that coming.
Related post: Le Gavroche
Related post: The Fat Duck
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