When a chef has held a Michelin star for more than 10 years, one of the first questions that came to our minds when we booked at Simon Radley's was: does he stick to the same dishes that got the star in the first place. Clearly this is a question that arises occasionally in the world of chefs too and one we subsequently heard expressed in a general context in a TV foodie programme. Happily we could see at once on perusing the tasting menu that this was not going to be the case with Simon Radley, who, as we found, reflects the kind of skills and imagination that has put modern British cuisine at the forefront. However, we did consider the service so formal as to be mechanical, and the "menu wines" were pointlessly served in mini decanters which meant we did not see any of the bottles. Furthermore, the sommelier was incapable of any interaction and it was impossible to have any discussion about the wine with him. The only flexibility he showed was to substitute the South African Chardonnay with a decent Txakoli. But let us get to the food: a good start was made with the canapés - salmon cracker with prawn and avocado; radish, toast and cheese cream dip, and very light deep-fried chorizo with smoked paprika, all three delicious and appetite-awakening and then we had paraded before us the most amazing bread trolley with an enormous selection of home-made loaves and rolls, more than enough to satisfy even the most ravenous diner. And this prompted us to muse, not for the first time, about the way people in British restaurants appear to be in a race to consume the greatest quantity possible of the "free" bread on offer; it's a bit like the attacks made on the English breakfast menu in hotels. The amuse-bouche was designated "tastes of Caesar", but it was far more than just salad with crispy bacon bits, a lovely celery foam, jelly parmesan and striking anchovy giving that extra touch. The asparagus dish that followed was fresh and lively with slivers of white asparagus perched on top of a delicate green asparagus panna cotta alongside some super Devon crab and with a base of seaweed jelly. Next, a nod to the Mediterranean in the form of top-class lardo di Colonnata, tender octopus on a base of crushed broad beans and with slightly acidic tomatoes to provide a very good contrast. Our next course was remarkable not so much for the exemplary hand-dived scallop as for the three-way take on garlic - smoked, as a purée, wild and green (leaves) - which was handled perfectly so as not to overpower the scallop but to provide a complex scale of intensity. "Feathered and Furred" took traditional ingredients and provided another exciting display of ingenuity with a counterpoint of foie gras de canard, grilled rabbit, smoked magret, rabbit liver purée, cauliflower foam and hazelnuts - quite stunning! Cheese came next, eventually. It was a shame that the sommelier, who was held up at a big table on the other side of the room, could not have delegated the pouring of our Chablis to coincide with our Alpine fondue of Beaufort cheese, leek confit and Jersey Royals coated with the cheese, since as far as we're concerned the idea is to accompany the dish with the wine rather than dig in and then wash it down afterwards with the liquid. In any case we were not entirely convinced by the choice of wine following the full-bodied Malbec we'd just had with the duck. The pre-dessert of sweet pea and mint was in just the right proportion with the ubiquitous gariguette strawberries and the meringue to make this worthy of full dessert status, and the dessert proper was almost dominated by the sugary beetroot which had a slightly earthy taste but was expertly balanced by the truly excellent almond blancmange, rhubarb and sesame crisps. As an apology for the Chablis delay, we were served a wine upgrade with the dessert, the absolutely wonderful Ornus dell'Ornellaia, a sweet Petit manseng and a classic by anyone's reckoning. Like all the top chefs we've had the pleasure of meeting, Simon Radley was utterly charming and open, and willing to discuss our opinion of the guides. To sum up, the meal was certainly first-class and well worth Top 50 and one star status, but let down by the loose, non-star front of house side.
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