"I thought it was just perfect for a restaurant. It looks a nice, interesting building. It’s just ideal. Tucked away. Near Reading. I mean, you’ve got to be near a big town.” The words of Richard Sandford—chef and owner in the infancy of what would eventually become L’Ortolan—go a long way to explain why we’re situated where we are, in the small village of Shinfield, approximately three miles out of Berkshire’s county town.
It also explains why the restaurant was established in what had been a private home. "I didn’t want to buy a restaurant because you have all the baggage that has gone before,” he adds, "and there will be customers that simply will not come. I didn’t want that.”
That was in 1978 and, of course, Richard’s restaurant wasn’t called L’Ortolan. To an extent, it wasn’t called anything. For the first year he didn’t even put a sign up at the end of the drive. No doubt it fostered the sense of making a delicious discovery for his guests. "People used to say, ‘We had terrible difficulty finding you, but we had such a wonderful time,” says Richard. One can, however, imagine their initial dismay.
These days getting here is much more straight-forward. For centre-of-town restaurants, Reading offers plenty of choice, but Shinfield itself is easy to find and L’Ortolan is well sign-posted from the main road. South of Reading on the A327, it is, nevertheless, a world apart from the busy town. It has a long history, dating back to Saxon times, and the medieval church, for which L’Ortolan was once the vicarage, is well worth a visit.
Some things change. Some things don’t. The village is bigger than it was in 1978. Peter Newman, L’Ortolan’s owner, says, "The restaurant didn’t have any private dining rooms then, and tables were crammed together, with only just enough room for the waitresses to move through, whereas now guests have a bit more room to breathe!” What certainly hasn’t changed, though, is that, forty years after guests were complimenting Richard on their experience, this restaurant still provides a wonderful time.
An Established Reading RestaurantThere’s a pleasing symmetry to our history. Four years after Richard opened his restaurant, Milton Sandford, it became one of only a scattering of Michelin-starred establishments in the country (it was then only 1982).
Although today the area is home to so many restaurants, Reading still only has one Michelin-starred establishment—yes, L’Ortolan, which gained its accolade in 2003.
The L’Ortolan Experience
One person you’re almost sure to meet when you visit is Restaurant General Manager Marco Nardi. In fact, you might find him at your table. "Managers sometimes sit down too much,” he says. "There’s a great deal of paperwork, but you must be involved in service. If I don’t do any service, then the day is not complete.”
It’s one way he ensures that everything runs as it should. "Hospitality is our lifestyle,” says Marco. "Any day, at any point, if a guest has a request, a problem—there is no such answer as no.”
While we don’t make a song and dance about it, we’re a restaurant that understands our guests have different tastes, different needs, and—increasingly recognised in our modern times—different philosophies. "If a guest wants no shellfish, or hallal, vegetarian or vegan—we’re happy to do it all by request,” he adds.
Since Peter took ownership in 2001, L’Ortolan has, in keeping with much of the restaurant scene, become more relaxed. "When John Burton Race was here,” says Peter, "if you were wearing jeans he wouldn’t let you in. And when we started, our guests used to be more senior. Now younger guests come and we’re deliberately more informal. No one wants to feel overpowered, and we’ve made sure of that.”
Meanwhile, in the kitchen…
Of course, given the ongoing fascination with TV chefs, it’s not surprising that so many of us have gained the impression of a certain type of personality in the heated atmosphere of a top-rated kitchen: the hard-hitting chef who shouts at his staff and throws things in frustration; the one who refuses to accommodate his guests because of his art—actually, that’s part of our history.
Nico Ladenis ran Chez Nico here for about a year in the mid 1980s before leaving Reading for London. He has become renowned for refusing his guests a second gin and tonic and for not allowing them to ask for salt.
History of a Reading RestaurantJohn Burton Race, who bought the restaurant in 1986 and christened us L’Ortolan, was also known to be a bit fiery. Richard on their experience Richard on their experience Richard on their experience Sandford, the original chef-owner here, was in the early 1970s, he says, the only Englishman working in a Paris restaurant ("I was laughed at—how can you be English and work in Paris? And these were three-star restaurants.”) has no time for these shenanigans. "It shouldn’t be stressful,” he says. "Stressful means you haven’t got it organised. If you go round the best three-star restaurant kitchens in France, they are just quiet, and they are quietly going around their business... They all know what they’re doing.”
So, what’s it really like in the L’Ortolan kitchen? Is there any similarity with the media presentation of professional chef-ing? Well, no. Our kitchen couldn’t be more different from the febrile environment so often depicted.
Tom Clarke has been Head Chef here since the beginning of 2015. L’Ortolan’s owner Peter Newman explains Tom’s style: "There’s no shouting, bullying or throwing. It’s very calm.” Restaurant General Manager Marco is dismissive of other styles. "If the chef thinks of himself only, it affects the rest of the staff and, eventually, the customer. Here we’ve built a nice relationship, have got respect for one another. That makes it easier to accommodate guests and any eventuality.”
What the televisual feast has changed over the years, however, is the knowledge and understanding of our guests. "People show a lot more appreciation than they used to,” says Tom, who has been working in kitchens since he was a mere stripling of sixteen years. "Because of the exposure in the media, people appreciate what we do more and show their interest in eating something that took so long to make.”
Taking a long time is so often the secret to serious depth of flavour—because of the stages involved in preparing fundamental ingredients. "A sauce, for example,” explains Tom, "It takes a day to cook the stock, then it needs chilling and a day to reduce it. It takes four days to make.”
Restaurants Reading no comparisonWhile some aspects take a slow-food approach, Tom likes to remain fast on his toes when it comes to keeping the menu fresh. The multiplicity of TV cooking shows has also raised guests’ expectations of restaurants in general and here at L’Ortolan Tom and his team are always pushing the boundaries of our own style of unique and creative cuisine. Tom enjoys flexibility for the challenges it gives him. "I like to cook things I find interesting,” he says. "The secret to a good menu is a fear of boredom.”
Across our menus, you’ll find plenty to interest the palate. "We’re modern French with an Asian twist,” says Tom. So you’ll find intriguing additions of mooli, dashi custard and wasabi to more traditional ingredients. And while Tom enjoys exploring new dishes, regular diners needn’t worry that they will miss their favourites. Our signature Goose Liver Parfait remains firmly on the menu, merely freshened during the year with seasonal ingredients which harmonise with it to use the best produce of the current month.
Marco Nardi is also a creative. Trained as a sommelier, he’s embraced the new interest in non-alcoholic drinks with his own array of mocktails, which he’s happy to put into a "flight” to accompany your choice of dishes. All the syrups are home-made. He recently discovered Binary Botanical Ale, for example, which he de-alcoholises and reduces for a flavour that melds with the freshness of other ingredients and adds an indefinable something.
Naturally, the importance of the freshness of ingredients can’t be overstated. Foraging is a skill that has attached itself firmly to restaurant menus in recent years. Tom does his own spot of roaming the countryside around Reading and has a map in his mind of places to visit at certain times of the year. "I take one of the guys,” he says, "and train him up. We find blackberries, elderflowers, greengages, mirabelles, hazelnuts—I show them where they are.”
An Established Reading RestaurantSeasonal flavours are a spur to invention. "We use the produce but not to just stick to one dish,” says Tom, who runs friendly competitions for the young chefs in his kitchen, in which they create their own dishes, with the winning one given a spot on the menu, possibly with a little tweaking from Tom. "It keeps me on my toes, and the guys on their toes. It would get boring plating up the same thing all the time.”
Some of the flavours arrive from a much shorter distance—just outside the back door. "We’ve got some beds in the garden and a gardener. We have radishes, nasturtiums, carrots and different herbs and refill the beds when they’re ready. We’re looking at what’s unique, what we can put in a L’Ortolan salad, and difficult-to-source ingredients that we could grow,” says Tom. In the long run, the plan is for a kitchen garden, while Tom also has a plan for an orchard. "To be able to pick a lot of different apples and cook them different ways—find which are best roast and which boiled,” he says.
For Tom, the two years he spent, when he was only twenty-two, at the Manoir au Quat’ Saisons under Raymond Blanc taught him a different way to view fruit and vegetables. "We were running out of quinces and I was told to take care of it, so I ran out into the orchard and started pulling some off the trees. Raymond stopped me and told me to take them off the tree with care. It made me think, and learn to have an appreciation and respect for ingredients.”
Of menus generally he’s noticed that dishes are getting simpler, with fewer ingredients on the plate. And his own style has become more pared back over the years. "Over time you become more confident with what you’re doing. You don’t feel the need to showcase too much and make dishes too complex. In the end that’s a struggle for kitchen, and a struggle for the front of house.”
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of innovation at L’Ortolan. A Bonnet range is a case in point. Restaurant owner Peter Newman was so determined his team should enjoy its state-of-the-art engineering that he had a wall removed in order to get the massive piece of equipment installed. "It’s second to none,” he says.
Front of house has benefited too from his interest in engineering. "I found air-conditioning without a draft,” he says, pinning down a problem that most people have experienced in restaurants at some time—the cold rush of air down the neck. "It’s subtle and sends the cool air out across the ceiling so that it sinks gently without causing a draft. Lovely and cool in summer.”
Restaurants Reading no comparisonWith a background in computing, he’s also introduced automation to the kitchen, reducing the need for waiters to rush in and out. Orders go through to dot-matrix printers in the kitchen. Dot-matrix? "They’re noisy,” explains Peter, "so they alert the chef to orders coming in.”
Reading between the lines
All this background gives you the chance to, shall we say, read between the lines? There’s nothing like knowing something of the hard work that is going on behind the scenes to add a certain satisfaction to a relaxing experience. Not that this knowledge is necessary to enjoy a visit.
Only a short trip out of Reading, L’Ortolan offers the special feel of a peaceful oasis, in surroundings that take you away from the rat race. Have a little mooch while you’re here. Shinfield is imbued with history. St Mary’s church, which is open daily between 10am and 4pm, repays a visit, with its Elizabethan and Jacobean fittings, a superb funerary monument admired by John Betjeman, and a tower rebuilt from bricks created from clay in a nearby field after it was partly demolished in 1643 by Parliamentarians shooting at Royalist troops during the Siege of Reading.
If you’re coming from further afield, don’t forget that, apart from its restaurants, Reading and the surrounding area are full of fascinating properties and attractions to visit: The Duke of Wellington’s property, Stratfield Saye; Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre; The Museum of English Rural Life; the Museum of Berkshire Aviation; and the REME Museum of Technology, only down the road at Arborfield Cross, among others.
So, for exploring new vistas and gastronomic delights, we recommend putting Reading on your culinary map. We’re looking forward to welcoming you to L’Ortolan soon.
RESTAURANT BOOKING & ENQUIRIES+44 (0)1189 888 500