As part of our pilgrimage to the Hand and Flowers in June we thought we’d continue the eating by checking out the finest restaurants that nearby Henley on Thames has to offer. And as you’ll read, they did not disappoint!
Henley is a beautiful Thameside town with Georgian architecture, boutique shops and a full array of warm and inviting pubs. Our plan was to eat (and drink around) the place. Having done a bit of research there was no doubt that the most popular place was new kid on the block, Shaun Dickens at the Boathouse. This eatery is already number one on trip advisor and has only been open since April! Located right on the river in the centre of Henley, diners can sit in the clean and airy dining room or right out on the sun deck, which is exactly what we did!
The standard ala carte menu was fairly pricey and having already had our wallets hit by the Hand and Flowers the previous day we opted for the set lunch menu – which at £22 for 3 courses was undeniably good value. As we chose what to eat elegant slates of canapés were brought to us. These, as the rest of the menu went on to prove, showcased the kitchen’s ability at executing modern, stylish and innovative food. On offer was a cube of asparagus panna cotta dusted with bacon crumb, mackerel rillettes on crostini, and Lincolnshire Poacher toasts. All in essence very simple but full of flavour to excite the tastebuds for the rest of the meal.
The lunch menu, despite being one of the set variety, actually had a good 5-6 options on offer for each course. Some of us went for the confit salmon which came soft and plump and served with beetroot served 4 ways – a rich puree, roast wedges, spaghettified, and beautiful carpaccio slices rolled up in the shape of blooming flowers. The beetroot gave the dish lots of colour and the sweet crunchiness was a great accompaniment for the rich and oily fish. The element that pulled the dish together was the unusual sorbet of horseradish. This was slightly scary on its own but the combination with the fish and beets was outstanding. Our fellow diners enjoyed starters of new season asparagus served with a poached egg and goat cheese crumb – the crumb was reported to be not overpowering. Also eaten was the duck terrine, a thick and meaty slice that came with a crispy quails egg atop and a bizarre orange oil or butter that didn’t quite work with the rich meat. As you’ll see from the pictures, all dishes were plated with an artistic eye and portions were not stingy, which can be the downfall of some set menus.
Most of us went for fish for our main course as we were due to eat out again that night and didn’t want to overdo it too early in the game! The dish was sea bream that came with a red pepper relish, braised baby fennel, squid ink pasta and a bouillabaisse foam. This is exactly what I wanted form a lunch dish – light, fresh and full of colourful goodness. I felt my fish was perhaps a little over cooked (only by a few seconds though) but this meant my skin was nice and crispy. The pepper and fennel were rich accompaniments for the fish and pasta nicely aldente. Our dining partner had the roast suckling pig. He reported the pork to be deliciously moist but was disappointed that the skin was not crispy. He also enjoyed the sweet, salty, umami flavours of the black garlic present in the dish.
The dessert menu did not give many clues as to what diners could expect. It basically listed some of the elements of each dish – such as peanut butter and jelly – without fully telling you what it was to be. I went for the amaretto and coffee, which ended up being a coffee panna cotta, coffee ice cream, chocolate biscuit crumb and homemade amoretti biscuits, all artistically scattered across the plate. I found the ice cream to be delicious, deep and creamy and well paired with the crunchy biscuit. The panna cotta would have been fine on any other plate, but when paired with the ice cream did not shine so well, the flavour being a bit more subtle. My fellow diners went for the peanut butter and jelly, which was a colourful terrine paired with raspberry sorbet and peanut tuille. Across the table from me was a dessert from hell (for me!) which was compressed spiced melon and cucumber sorbet. This was perhaps the most inventive and innovative of all dishes served up to this that lunchtime. Colourful cubes of melon were presented up almost unrecognisably, dusted with a spicy crumb that was evocative of Christmas. The sorbet provided an element of freshness against the spicy cake.
In terms of drinks we enjoyed a couple of bottles of French Picpoul de pinet (2011) which was fresh yet rich and juicy – perfect for a lunchtime when you want a glass of wine but can’t afford to polish off too much! I think the drinks menu overall is one of few weak points for the Boathouse. The bar is fairly standard and it didn’t excite us into buying anything additional as there was nothing unusual. As it was sunny we were glad to be sat outside, enjoying the passing rowers. The dining room is nice and clean, but almost verging on clinical. We felt it lacked some atmosphere but given this is such a new restaurant we felt that this would develop over time as it finds its true identity. The service was impeccable, without being too formal or intrusive. Overall the Boathouse is a great addition to the restaurant scene and I’m pleased it’s enjoying so much success so early on. We expect to see a lot more of Shaun Dickens on the foodie scene.