Like many major international cities – London is resplendent with Michelin stars. Outside the capitol the inspectors are less kind – Bray in Berkshire is a bit of an anomaly (hosting seven), but otherwise they’re very thin on the ground. I like to think of the anonymous judges trudging off in search of brilliance, suffering roadworks, public transport and service station breakfasts. When they finally arrive at some far flung brasserie or gastro-pub it must have to do something really special to overcome the fatigue, grumpiness and pasty induced indigestion. In Ripley, a tiny town among the wooded hills of Surrey – Drakes have done just that.
They start with an excellent pedigree – Steve Drake founded the place in 2004 after starting his career in London at the Ritz and ending up in the Surrey countryside via Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, Tom Aikens and 2001 Roux Scholarship. A year after opening it received it’s star, alongside three AA rosettes, and has held them ever since.
The restaurant itself is a lovely property on Ripley’s main road, dark red Surrey brick and an antique clock over the porch. Inside it’s far more modern – white walls, pale beams and a scattering of small tables. They offer a couple of tasting menus and a la carte, we went for their Flavour Journey, a six course meander through some of their best dishes. Their wine list is extensive but unusually for somewhere with a star, has some very reasonably priced bottles – a fruity little Beaujolais kept us company for the night. The staff are equally refreshing for high-end dining – polished, friendly and endlessly helpful without being overbearing.
A few little bites arrived to start the meal, crispy rice crackers with avocado, blue cheese biscuits and a lovely savoury meringue with chicken liver parfait. Each was a beautifully executed burst of flavour.
With the bread came an appetiser – a watercress soup with poached quails egg and smoked tomatoes. Light and airy with a healthy hit of peppery smoke.
Charred Mackerel, Ceviche, Dashi, Beetroot Snow
The first proper course finally appeared – tender smokey mackerel, tart ceviche wrapped in a little dashi gel cigar with beetroot snow. The savoury dashi underpinning the sweet fish and the beetroot bringing temperature and texture contrasts.
Pork Cheeks Cooked in Vermouth, Cockles and Pineapple
Pork cheeks were at their unctuous best and the pineapple was a lovely retro throwback. The cockles get a little lost amid the big flavours, but the saltiness was welcome.
South Coast Turbot, Broccoli Kombu, Mussels and Sesame
The second fish dish was some very good turbot – just barely cooked through and served with a single deep fried mussel. Discerning diners should have the option at this point to halt the tasting menu and scarf a bucket of them with a variety of sauces.
Scottish Venison Loin, Lapsang Souchong, Parsley, Orange Puree
At this point our dainty cutlery was removed and replaced with a steak knife that has more in common with a machete than a piece of flatware. Nervous about the intended use of such an implement, the dish that came out was far more sophisticated. The venison was everything you could wish it to be – rich, gamey and unbelievably tender. The orange and lapsang souchong add some delicate notes to the background, but don’t get in the way of the meat. It’s the perfect main course – incredible ingredients, cleverly combined. The steak knives aren’t for cutting through the meat, but protecting it from your dining companions.
Grapefruit Curd, Peanut Praline, Passion fruit and Condensed Milk Sorbet
It’s become de rigueur to serve a pre-dessert – something cold and acidic to cleanse the palate after the rich mains. Drakes have turned it into a proper pudding, Grapefruit pannacotta and passion fruit sorbet are individually fab and together brilliant with peanut brittle adding a bit of crunch and sparkle.
Pistachio Cake, Lime, Banana and Black Olive Ice Cream
The final piece in the jigsaw was a very nice little pistachio cake and some black olive ice-cream – I loved the savoury hit with the sweet cake, though it divided my companions. Several people just found the idea of olive ice cream weird. I’m more than happy to let them continue in that opinion, provided I get to scoff their portion too.
Drakes is a fantastic restaurant, they’re cooking smart, clever and downright delicious food. This is fusion cooking done right – drawing on other cuisines to enhance and highlight rather than blindly sticking ingredients where they have no right to be. It may be a little out of the way, but it’s definitely worth the journey.