Waterside Inn, Bray. A stately galleon on the Thames.
I’m not sure if you’re allowed to eat here under the age of 50. Other than Oslo Court, it’s the most oldie-friendly place I’ve been to in some time.
I’d tried a number of times to get a reservation and it was only by actually turning up in person that I managed to get in at all. I find that this tactic works better than the phone. Not always practical, but generally effective.
C and I were unable to wander onto the terrace to enjoy the glorious setting, as it was pouring down shortly after we arrived and our table had no view of the river. We had a brief glimpse of water as we walked in, but that was where it ended. My view of the view may have been more enthusiastic had I been at a table where there actually was one. Tip: when booking, ask for a river view.
This restaurant is set in an idyllic, time-standing-still sort of place, right on the banks of the Thames, in the postcard-pretty village of Bray. It would appear that time has been standing still inside too. Comfortable, yes, but a little tired and old-fashioned, in a going-to your-nan’s sort of way.
We started with some amuse-bouche. They came with a man attached and we were instructed to lift each one off the plate. Daikon and what appeared to be cream cheese, a chicken liver mousse, possibly foie gras and a puff pastry tapenade thing. Perfectly fine, the chicken liver was the clear winner.
As a self-confessed carb queen, I found the bread unmemorable. Disappointing, even. White or brown rolls, warm.
Then the menu. Prepare for sticker shock. It has been said recently that the cut-off point for fine dining in the UK is £150 per head. The tasting menu here is £160. Before service. Given that there are five courses and they are quite large, this is good value compared to the rest of the menu.
Know that you are going to drop at least £300 on the à la carte, before wine, unless you come for one of the fixed-price specials. That way, you won’t hyperventilate when you get the bill.
I chose stuffed seasonal vegetables for my starter, with visions of vegetables, stuffed, as you do. That’s not quite what arrived. A stuffed tomato, which was unmemorable. A courgette with a stuffed flower, which was much better, a strange cous-cous type moulded vegetable timbale which tasted good but wasn’t a stuffed vegetable and an asparagus and pea mousse which was the best of the lot, but again not a stuffed vegetable. When it says stuffed vegetables, call me a pedantic lawyer if you will and believe me, you won’t be the first, but I do expect that that is what might appear on my plate. I cannot say that it blew my socks off.
Much, much better was the seasonal special dish of chicken and truffle with crevettes, to be shared with C. They brought a whole roasted chicken to the table and did that whole kitchen-theatre preparation thing off centre-stage, leaving a couple of legs on the silver platter. At £102 for a chicken, I wasn’t going to leave that to chance. Er, those legs, I said, seems a shame to waste them. The chef cooks them separately, he said. managing to hide his pity . And the chicken was truly lovely, possibly the most flavoursome bird I’ve tasted, no mean feat, given how many I’ve had. Little known fact: my grandfather was a poulterer.
And I very much liked the triangular brick of puff pastry, filled with mushrooms. Puff pastry and mushrooms always transports me, in a Proustian manner, to those dreadful Abigail’s Party style “evenings” my parents used to throw once in a blue moon, in the 1960s, where one of the menu highlights would always be Jus-Roll vol au vents, fresh from the freezer, the mushroom filling (because it would always be mushroom filling) coming from a can of condensed soup. Gourmet.
Clarification: I am not in any way comparing them to the puff pastry and mushrooms on display here.
The discs of potato which accompanied the chicken were slightly lukewarm and looked like flying saucers, so delicate as to be fairly pointless, given the knockout flavour of the chicken. Of course I ate them all.
And to follow, we both had soufflé, mine being the cherry special, and C having the strawberry one from the menu. I made him swap at half time. Good call, as his was better. The soufflés were fine, but not devastating, in a praise the Lord, Pierre Koffman pistachio soufflé and pistachio ice cream sort of way or like the one I had at Le Gavroche in 1986, with hot chocolate sauce poured into the centre, the beauty of which I still remember to this day. But still.
And then we were escorted to a little room next to reception, to have the petit fours. Whilst there, a man wheeled in the spirits trolley and proceeded to regale the provenance of various bottles to the couple on the adjacent sofa. This bottle is made by women, he says. I know what you’re thinking, he says. I wasn’t thinking anything until he said that.
But I was mostly engrossed in trying to get the facts out of C about his Aunt’s jaunt to Chicago in the 1940s after having to leave Canada quickly, something to do with the Mafia. This sort of thing didn’t happen in North Manchester.
I think I might have gone on a bit too much because C got a bit irritated and accidentally broke his wineglass. Whilst pressing for more information, I was looking at the petit fours. There was no way I was going to eat them but there was also no way that I was going to leave them. I asked for them to be put in a box for me to take home. Breakfast? Sorted.
The Waterside Inn is an institution. A formal, old-fashioned, highly efficient restaurant, it knows its audience and it delivers precise, consistent yet in some ways quite homely French cuisine, of generous portions and classic flavours. It is not groundbreaking nor is it modern. Expensive, yes, but you can see where the money goes, although some of it could do with going into a refurb. I liked it, but I was not overwhelmed by it. My tastes these days seem to run towards the more modern. If you were a fan of, say, the Ledbury, or Hibiscus you might find this a little staid, but given that it has sat very firmly at the very pinnacle of fine dining in Britain for over 40 years, inspired many chefs and given pleasure to so many customers, it does deserve no little admiration. Such a fixture in the British dining scene, everyone should visit there at least once in their lifetime. Preferably as a guest.