Heston Blumenthal's new brasserie is hidden in a rather scruffy hut among 700 beached gin palaces but perseverance pays.
For over 20 years I have been reading Caterer & Hotelkeeper, the UK restaurant trade weekly magazine, without ever getting excited by anything it has covered. The magazine is apparently one of the parent company's most profitable because of its extensive classified ad section but it never seems to invest that income in new journalists, first-class photography or extensive coverage of anything outside the UK.
And then last week came a breakthrough. Over a double-page spread the magazine highlighted the recent opening of a new restaurant, The Riverside Brasserie, by Heston Blumenthal, the inspirational chef at The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, a chef who loves to push back the boundaries of flavours and textures by using science to understand just what the cooking process involves.
I happen to love The Fat Duck but it is a one-off and so any recommendation has to be qualified by a comment that it may not be to everyone's liking - it is, like a trip to Mark Veyrat at Auberge de l'Eridan near Annecy, France (tel +39 4 50 60 24 00) or Ferran Adria at El Bulli outside Rosas (tel +34 972150457) in Spain - a restaurant for the adventurous eater rather than the faint-hearted.
The article alluded to the fact that this new opening would be more mainstream, more appealing to the local market, and so one dark December Sunday we set off with our 17- and 10-year-old children to discover just what Blumenthal and his team are up to.
When you do head there - and our family's recommendation for The Riverside Brasserie is wholeheartedly unanimous - do not follow the signs for the village of Bray itself but look for the left turn a mile further along the road towards Windsor (if, that is, you are coming off the M4 at junction 8/9 from London) for Bray Marina and Bray Water Treatment Works. Follow the main road towards the Marina office, but if you do go there over the next three months prepare yourself for a shock.
As you enter the Marina you come face to face with hundreds of beached gin-palaces. These are the large motor cruisers which from spring to autumn ply up and down the Thames but during the winter are hauled out of the winter to be tarted up for the following season. Drive past this stationary herd and you come face to face with the main Marina office in which the restaurant is housed.
Although the Marina office itself has not been refurbished, the restaurant, which has a good view of the Thames, has been. But most importantly there is also a large outdoor area that has been completely decked out with tables and chairs and will be a lovely area for eating and drinking when the sun returns. When we were there it was so cold that we just ran from the car to the restaurant.
The decor is pretty simple, bright and modern but the attraction here, as at The Fat Duck, is the cooking which combines several of Blumenthal's signature dishes with excellent renditions of what will appeal to families and, presumably, boat-owners.
Three terrific first courses included an artistically layered terrine of chicken and duck; two pequillo peppers delicately stuffed with a mackerel rillette on a salad of french beans whose dressing added a vital bite of acidity and vinegar and, best of all, a featherlight boudin blanc made from pheasant meat and foie gras on lentils and winter vegetables. The other (untried by us) first courses were a white bean velouté with truffle oil and an escabeche of red mullet, saffron and carrots.
There were six main courses: roast gilthead bream with couscous; braised lamb shank with haricots blancs; grilled salmon with fennel; spaghettini with marinated anchovies, cockles, chilli and garlic; jambonneau of duck, green coffee sauce and pommes purée; and by far the most popular dish (from what I witnessed over 50 per cent of those in the restaurant ordered this) a rib-eye steak with french beans, chips and a bone marrow sauce.
But even this was first class, or so our children reported as they tucked in. My duck had been slow cooked and gently and conveniently fell off its thigh bone whilst the spaghettini, cooked in fish stock, packed far more flavour than most pasta dishes in traditional Italian restaurants. The dessert list reads simply - lemon tart, creme brulée, chocolate tart and pears cooked in red wine - but once again showed an exemplary level of execution.
As we were finishing lunch we were spotted by Nigel Sutcliffe, The Fat Duck's highly personable general manager, who came over and rather anxiously asked us what we were doing there as they were not seeking any publicity for several months (bad luck, Nigel). I explained how I had discovered the restaurants and that I would not be writing about it for the FT but that we had had an excellent meal.
According to Sutcliffe, 'The Marina is going to move its offices to a new building closer to the gate so that we will be able to take over the whole building and expand along the entire frontage that faces the river. It is still going to stay simple - our main market will always be the boat owners and those who live nearby - but in a year's time it will look and feel a lot nicer.'
In the interim if you fancy a drive out of London, this is a hot tip that you won't read about in the papers for a while with any luck. There is first-class cooking, willing if as yet fairly rudimentary service and a wine list carefully chosen and fairly marked up from Berkmann Wine Cellars.
Riverside Brasserie, Bray Marina, Monkey Island Lane, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2EB (tel 01628 780553). Open lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, approx £25 for three courses without wine.
The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ (tel 01628 580333). Closed Sunday night and Monday.
For those who want to pursue the scientific angle of cooking do get hold of a copy of Dr Peter Barham's The Science of Cooking, 244 pp, published by Springer (www.springer.de) Barham teaches at Bristol University where he and Blumenthal plan to open a small department researching flavour in autumn 2002, funds willing.