My abiding memory of chef Dom Robinson’s Renaissant, a fine-dining restaurant in Bagnor, Berkshire, is of witnessing the greatest standoff over a tasting menu I’ve ever seen. A couple had foolishly arrived for their Saturday-night booking, imagining there to be an à la carte menu, rather than just a bespoke seven-course experience that lasts about three hours. “But we went out for lunch,” they pleaded. “We’re too full to eat the full seven courses. Can’t we have just, say, three?”
Sadly, this was impossible. Unthinkable, even. It was the full shebang, or nothing. A painfully polite, low-volume “discussion” then ensued, during which the server made no attempt to consult the chef. Or even offer a goodwill gesture to cancel, say, the “baguette française, Normandy butter” course, or the Victoria pineapple plate that comes around the midway point. It was almost as if the staff already knew that not one amuse-bouche could be missed. “Well, we’ll go then,” the customers eventually said, calling Renaissant’s bluff. A long silence hung in the air, followed by the sound of footsteps crunching across the car park gravel as the pair huffed back to their car. It was only 7pm.
I hasten to add that the handful of staff at this beautifully restored, 17th-century pub were charming about our own request to take pork off the menu; they’re not tyrants. Yet Renaissant, the rebirth of the Blackbird, which was also run by Robinson and his wife, Marliz, is a determinedly serious restaurant. Not that its predecessor wasn’t itself pretty serious – the Blackbird had a Michelin star but at least you could get a Sunday roast or even a burger there – perish the thought. Renaissant is much more scallop à la russe and wild boar africaine, with a framed menu from Marco Pierre White’s Harveys on the wall and Edith Piaf on the stereo. As one arrives on a crisp winter’s evening, the outside is secluded, glowing and pristine, and all quite heavenly. Inside, the decor is sleek, but still strangely rustic.
Robinson describes the place as a “sauce restaurant”, which, for a certain contingent of readers, I must add has nothing to do with his love of HP and everything to do with Georges Auguste Escoffier’s kitchen brigade system and the culinary tradition of classic sauces such as Véronique, lie de vin or Nantua. Producing top-tier sauces, gravies and stocks is a long-winded, highly skilled labour of love that has been known to break the spirit of many an adequate chef and is the crux of a traditional Michelin-starred meal. Which is possibly why you can’t just pitch up here and say: “Just sling me the fillet of brill lie de vin. I need to be back before Ant and Dec’s Limitless Win.”
So, yes, three hours we stayed, with course one being warm bread, then a fairly long gap before the second act, a play on Russian salad involving brunoise potato, beetroot and carrot set in a mould and topped with scallops – a bit like a shuba herring salad and delicious, if a touch stodgy. Up next was a large, delicately executed crayfish raviolo featuring good fresh pasta enveloping a crayfish tail that came on a scallop and salmon mousse, and was served with a very sweet sauce Nantua made with crayfish stock, parsley and rather a lot of diced carrot.
There is no doubt that Robinson is a confident, technically brilliant chef who worships at the altar of kitchen gods such as Nico Ladenis and the Roux brothers. His cooking is a paean to butter and time spent huddled over pans, and to dancing a fine line between the almost-too-rich and the almost-too-much. It’s just that type of cooking, and it won’t be for everyone. It certainly wasn’t for those two guests who “amicably agreed” to go home. But there’s a reason a certain type of chin-stroking, star-watching food obsessive is pitching up at Renaissant.
After another long intermission, a very delicious plate of thinly sliced Victoria pineapple appeared topped with ricotta, powerfully scented marjoram leaves and a scattering of pine nuts. Hour two heralded my favourite course – seared brill with pomme puree in a world-class, glossy, red-wine sauce and topped with a clove of mellow roast garlic – followed some time after by a cheese course that included comté and bleu d’Auvergne with a highly unpretentious half-dozen Carr’s water crackers, and I now fully expect to be barred from my home city for raising an eyebrow.
Over the course of the third hour, there was a pear-based, egg-cup-sized palate cleanser and two choices of dessert, of which the better was a slab of dark-chocolate Negus mousse – fiercely rich, yet deceptively light – with armagnac-soaked prunes, which are one of my favourite things on Earth and technically one of your five-a-day.
Renaissant is a bizarre, 19th-century Cannes aristocrat’s supper room hiding in a hamlet outside Newbury. If you’re into that type of thing, by all means give it a go. Just don’t ask them to make you a quick sandwich.