The Clock House, High St, Ripley, GU23 6AQ www.theclockhouserestaurant.co.uk
Nick heads on down the highway, well the A3 actually, to take a very luxurious lunch in Ripley.
And so we had, the Clock House soon revealed itself to be what was formerly known as Drakes, which we visited a few years ago. It seems nothing much has really changed apart from the name, because while the old chef has now left for passes new, the new chef, Fred Clapperton, has risen from the brigade ranks to take over the job. The King is dead, long live the King.
Passing under the large clock hanging over the entrance, the Georgian building was once the hub of Ripley, we find the memories come back. The cosy bar to the right, perfect for pre-drinks and only beaten for that job by the glorious old walled garden out back. Sadly, this being an English summer, it soon begins to rain so we scurry back to the bar.
A glass of champagne and some elegant nibbles later and we’re sat down in the dining room, its decor as far as I can tell unchanged from our last visit. It’s hard to pin down style wise, it’s not Georgian nor oppressive, as it could easily be, just pleasant and relaxing. As are the staff, with sommelier Stephen Mostad who glides up to offer some wines by the glass, if we can’t handle wine decisions. We can’t, so thanks very much,
I expected things to cost more after the intervening years, but think that in fact they have gone down. It’s £30 for three courses this lunchtime. Certainly the tasting menu, a thing that has fallen into disrepute in London, is keenly priced at £70. Yes I know that’s not cheap but these things are relative. We’ll have it,
Dishes are in season and portions are well sized with no undue fussiness on the plate but instead elegant colour pairings and restrained use of blobs and, thankfully, no smears. Unusual crockery adds a further wow factor, with the first dish of red pepper, ham hock and lavender coming in a kind of bowl. The ham is richly flavoured, the lavender a breath of Provence and the red pepper a savoury dusting. A glass of Albert Mann Pinot Gris is perfect.
The pomegranate seeds I am not too fond off but then I never am, they crunch annoyingly and get caught in my teeth, but the quail is excellent. The meat cooked perfectly into the space between moist and dry. I like the rough kiss of the quinoa, which is not soggy or chewy.
Onwards we go, fortified by glasses of Minuty, a rather gorgeous wine that comes into its own with the slab of brill with smoked garlic, sea vegetables and shrimp. Real shrimp, not prawns and I had that argument with a restaurant a few weeks back. These are tiny, sweet almost earthy. I am not sure if I have a baby leek or a spring onion wilted on the top, but I like it either way.
Now it’s time for beef with sweetbread, kohlrabi, peas and mustard. I see a lot of peas on menus right now, I am not entirely sure why. Many restaurants will use fresh peas, but this is a mistake because unless picked just fifteen minutes previously they will not be as sweet or as tender as frozen peas. And there is something a little downmarket about peas isn’t there, they just don’t ooze class.
These are good though, not mealy, and do add a vibrancy of colour to the dish. The beef is cooked as I like it, just under medium, and is clearly well -sourced as it is delicious. Thin disks of kohlrabi, a vegetable sadly rarely seen on plates in the UK, add their own unique cabbage-like flavour and a melting texture that suits the beef. I love the sweetbreads and the crisped kale.
Again it’s a dish that restrains itself from going overboard, focussing on a few things well chosen and cooked well. A Lebanese red wine from the Bekaa Valley, Chateau Musar, is incredibly good, you can almost taste the dedication to make wine in a place far from easy to work or live in at times.
A pre-dessert is so astounding I don’t know why it’s not THE dessert. Thai basil, cucumber and lime. It’s a taste bud tingler that has us all nodding happily as the intensity of the flavours is so well balanced against the ethereal lightness of the structure.
And with a glass of Montes Gewurztraminer to hand, rich, sticky but not cloying in the way Sweet Bordeauxs can sometimes be, we tuck into blackberry, hibiscus, shortbread.
While we should never let London trends dictate what restaurants in the rest of the country cook (the rest of the country still watches Masterchef, after all, and doesn’t want stuff in a bun or smoke in its collective eyes), there is a move away from fussy, over-presented food.
The Clock House knows its clientele well, it knows what it likes. The new chef is evolution not revolution and a full dining room midweek at lunch proves that the Clock House knows what time it is.