9 Market Square, Old Amersham, Bucks, HP7 ODF, tel: 01494 726611
Cost per person without wine: £40
For a Tuesday evening, it wasn’t the usual sort of place to meet for dinner. From Baker Street we boarded a Metropolitan Line train to Amersham and, 50 minutes later, hopped out into the fog and clean air of what of what is technically Zone 9. Next, a short cab ride down a pitch-black stretch of road to Amersham Old Town, and there, by the market square, into the tiny but perfectly formed Artichoke we went.
With its Tube link directly into Moorgate, Liverpool Street and Aldgate, and the village feel of an old market town, it is no wonder Amersham is a desirable hub for City commuters. And – quite out of the blue, next to the Ask and the little tea shops – is this proper culinary gem.
Originally opened in 2002 by a husband and wife team, Laurie and Jaqueline Gear from Dorset, Artichoke quickly earned plaudits for its sensitive modern European food that competed with Zone 1’s finest, while Raymond Blanc called it his best restaurant discovery in five years. But then a fire destroyed the building and several others in the parade and the restaurant had to close for a year and a half, reopening in November after a painstaking rebuild overseen by English Heritage.
Now, with a freshly designed interior by the folks behind The Ledbury in?Notting Hill, the 24-cover restaurant is back up and running. The atmosphere is one of restraint – high-brow, low-volume conversations about Martin Amis wafted over from a table of four well-heeled, slightly Bohemian-looking 50-somethings. Elsewhere, a couple celebrating an anniversary kept their festivities to a murmur and the sombre, highly efficient staff certainly seem to discourage any raucous ribaldry.
Once faced with the menu, any desire for raised voices and high jinx vanishes, for it is the epitome of civilisation in itself and a very absorbing read. It instantly reveals a predilection for local produce alongside sophisticated cooking.
But first thing first. The warm bread arrived in three varieties – our favourite was also (we thought) the best we’d ever tasted. It was in the shape of a tower turret that you decapitated to spread the butter, and was a yellow blend of saffron and honey that carried ambrosial aromas without being sweet. Meanwhile, the 2008 Chablis – recommended by the austere sommelier – disappeared down our throats like nectar.
Onwards to the first course. We glided (sadly) past quail breast salad and Jerusalem artichoke soup with creel-caught Scottish langoustines, settling for some chunky Isle of Skye scallops which were lightly curried and served with shredded carrot and coriander, artichoke puree and toasted coconut. Such a fusion of Asia with haute-France could have failed miserably, but in Gear’s hands, it was a triumph with the heft of the hand-dived scallops at its core. A plate of English rose veal – fried in breadcrumbs and topped with a quail’s egg, a mustardy egg sauce and wood sorrel – was like a high-class schnitzel sitting down with an aristocratic fried breakfast. It would have been vulgar and out of place had the veal been less tender and the sauce less tangy.
At the top of the list of mains was saddle of wild shot Chiltern venison with glazed pears and pumpkin gnocchi. But we plumped for roast wild duck with croquette of leg, foie gras, orange pippin sauce, parsnip, brussel sprouts and chestnuts – a vibrant, juicy cross-section of the duck’s anatomy, awash in ingredients loaded with wintry, warming flavour. My fillet of Cornish sea bass was cottony and cloud-white, served with a single lobster ravioli, and a wonderful wet, pickly “spaghetti” of shredded vegetables, all doused in lobster bisque with saffron and orange. If the technical composition of these dishes sounds overbearing, it isn’t – each one is like a finely-hewn work of gastro-engineering that rewards a bit of faith on your part. We had no room for sweets, but if you do, the likes of artichoke mousse with apple sorbet and toasted hazelnuts await.
The wine list is clever and well-chosen – for us there was also an organic 2008 Languedoc and – unusually – a 2002 white from Chateau Musar in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Even the petits fours were impeccable – chocolate covered ice cream balls and passion fruit jellies were events in themselves.
Like Amersham, the country village in Zone 9, The Artichoke provides the best of both worlds – Michelin-standard fine dining in an unpretentious, tiny village restaurant. Whether you live there or not, it’s well worth hopping on the Met line for a taste of Buckinghamshire’s best.
IN A NUTSHELL:
A tiny restaurant in the pretty commuter haven of Amersham that combines a genteel, intimate atmsophere with accomplished, inventive and utterly delicious modern European cuisine.?The saffron and honey bread is to die for.