The brilliant Jay Rayner wrote (years ago now) about the idiosyncrasies of Surrey in the Observer, and he couldn’t have been more spot on. Although I myself hail from the Midlands, Surrey has been my second home for well over a decade – and even my first for over eighteen months; I agreed with every point Jay made on the subject – especially on the issue of restaurants. He pointed out the obvious fact that Surrey is indeed a wealthy, if not the wealthiest county in England. Shock. The bit that left the reader with a head to scratch, though, was why, with all this wealth and a huge pool of discerning customers with cash to burn, is it so utterly appalling when it comes to restaurants?
Surrey is terrible for restaurants. The pub scene is booming and they have domination over the dining menus for pretty much the entirety of the countryside-based parts of the county. You’d have more luck getting the 8.30 res at Dorsia on a Friday night than getting into the White Hart in Pirbright on a Saturday for some overpriced, bland, defrosted queenie scallops followed by a wagyu burger so overcooked and leathery it has Goodyear scorched into the face of the patty.
Jay did find a solution however. Stovell’s in Chobham seemed to offer more than satisfactory sanctuary and a glowing victory for fine dining. Following this endorsement, I was soon to pop along and try the tasting menu myself: overall, I too was satisfied. The dishes were creative when they needed to be and restrained also to see out the duration of the menu. For instance, the compressed melon and prawn dish was like nothing I’ve ever tried before or since (it was great) and the halibut dish was executed to perfection. I’ve returned to Stovell’s on several occasions and alas, I’ve only had one follow-up experience to remotely match it. The à la carte dishes look fantastic; however, style has very much triumphed over substance. Pretty, dainty dishes, which may look amazing on the palate of Instagram, fail to deliver on the fundamental: flavour.
We’re back at square one it seems. I’m glad to report a new oasis of gastronomic refreshment has been unearthed. One Saturday evening recently I was asked to join friends for supper at the Clock House in Ripley. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. That’s because it was the long-established Drake’s until the beginning of the year. A cocktail and some amuse-bouches in the restaurant garden, as the sun began to set behind the mighty orbs of globe artichoke flowers reeling in the last of the day’s light, was a good start. There was evidence of croquet facilities available also to remind us we were in Surrey.
At the table, two tasting menus of either six or seven courses were the choices, as is the custom with many fine dining restaurants on weekends. The quirk alert had to be the “shave your own” Himalayan pink salt cube presented with a wasabi root grater. Something I’d never seen before, and a great gimmick for those who like to grate crystals onto their bread and butter. We opted for the full works, to be lubricated with the wine flight for another £50.
I tend to avoid wine flights for two reasons: one, you get boozed quickly with all the mixing – especially if you’re regaling the table with a thrilling anecdote or two rather than concentrating on the glass in hand and having to end up skulling it before the next course and wine arrives. Secondly, quite simply, I’m a creature of habit and tend to rigorously to stick to Burgundian wine. However, this pairing was curious and testing – as a good wine flight should be – so full marks to the sommelier.
The menu overall was genuinely a joy to eat, and was put together with much thought and care; it was seasonal, contemporary fine dining for what I would imagine fine dining would be like in Surrey if I’d never been to Ripley before. The quail with fennel and black curry was a real winner whereas the standout dish for me was the brill with smoked garlic, sea vegetables, and juicy wee brown shrimps. Every dish was perfectly seasoned, well-textured, and delivered totally on flavour, while being presented in a modern yet natural-looking way. I don’t think I could fault any of the dishes. The service was warm and friendly, and I look forward to returning once the season turns and the menu reflects what in the garden bears fruit for autumn.
Bar one or two exceptions, Surrey is still overall in need of an overhaul with its restaurant scene. Nothing has really changed. When Jay Rayner visited this wasteland and found Stovell’s, that really was the only option (aside Michael Wignall at the Latymer, who has now moved to Gidleigh Park) in the county for modern, regional fine dining. The Clock House may have only recently begun its journey, however they know how to make it tick better than anything else you’ll find in the area. Bravo.
Since IGT visited, The Clock House was awarded its first Michelin Star in October 2017.
The Clock House High Street Ripley Surrey GU23 6AQ 01483 224777 www.theclockhouserestaurant.co.uk