Last week was my Birthday and once we put aside the problems of having a birthday so close to Christmas (rubbish presents, nobody wanting to come to your party, your best friend telling you that he’s probably going to be too busy to remember so it’s best if we just never talk about it again. Ever*.), then it’s always something to look forward to, right? These days, birthdays are a perfect excuse to tick off another restaurant from the “must visit” list. This year, we stayed local and went to Olivier’s. I always saw it pitched right up there in terms of swank factor, not only because it’s the in-house restaurant to the frankly gorgeous Woburn hotel but also because it’s located in the centre of Woburn and within a few minutes drive of Paris House, the Black Horse and the Crooked Billet. To survive going head to head with such serious competition is quite an achievement and so I was looking forward to suffocating my Birthday despair with the addictively merciful pillow of post-Christmas gluttony.
The restaurant itself is full of character, the decor is muted and understated class with lighting and comfy seats that call you like a siren to sit and enjoy a few drinks after braving the cold outside. We came to the dining room past a party of 20 who were mid-celebration just off to the side, so we got to enjoy the ambiance of the main dining room in total seclusion.
I loved the place with it’s definite deer motif running throughout, an inspiration understandably taken from the large herd that roam wild and free across the Abbey grounds situated at the edge of the village. The bust of the stag on the mantle piece made for a nice reminder to the connection. But, we weren’t there for the art or the sofa’s, I wanted some birthday grub and we started off with a complimentary slice of…
quiche. Heavy on the Mediterranean sun-dried tomato influence, the pastry was good and short, but look closer my friends and you’ll see that the layer of rubbery skin hides an all too thin volume of eggy filling. This meant that the slice as a whole was dry and just too damn crumbly. Not a great start.
To kick off proper then, Mrs P went for the scallops and prawns whereas I chose the oxtail bonbons. Things definitely started looking up here as both dishes were passable. The scallops and prawns were cooked well and the beef croquettes were actually rather nice with the caramelised onions underneath**. The only real downer here, other than the raw carrot shavings, which added precisely nothing to my plate, were the enormously salty shards of tough leatherised (and in some parts) burnt bacon presented to Mrs P. Bacon and scallops are a classic match, so the flavour was there but Olivier’s managed to miss the mark and hit the trees behind instead. But at least they were shooting in the right direction.
On to the main course; my duck and kale vs Mrs P’s venison loin (surely it would have been churlish to come here and not sample the local produce?). Again a game of two halves with my duck tasting good, and even though I had been asked how I liked it cooked, it arrived overdone being medium well rather than medium rare. A similar fate was suffered by the venison, which was also over cooked and woefully under seasoned. Both plates were still perfectly edible but certainly not prepared to as good a standard as promised. Plus points should be awarded though because my kale was simply delightful, the sweet sauce with chunks of chestnut and that salty bacon running through it was delicious (at least the bacon was good for something). Mrs P’s fondant potato and swede mash were both watery and flavourless which rather let the side down and delivered more disappointment. After some consideration Mrs P and I both agreed that the whole plate lacked seasoning, everything just seemed so bland. We also ordered a dauphinoise potato and some French bean sides which, contrary to expectation, where both utterly amazing and easily the best parts of the meal.
We pushed onwards to pudding as we had heard many great things about the twice baked banana soufflé and Mrs P had spotted a Chocolate Bombe with “Crème de Marron” which rather took her fancy (it’s a type of chestnut spread in case you feel the need to google it).
As you can see, the soufflé was disappointedly a bit more ‘sou’ than ‘fflé’ (the picture was taken seconds after the dish arrived). It tasted nice but as you would expect from seeing the photo, it was much heavier than you would want from a top class example of the breed. The custard and caramalised banana were tasty touches but the sugar work on the top was so thick that I can only hope that the more mature clientele are advised to order elsewhere from the menu if they have had any recent dental work. Mrs P’s chocolate bombe was shiny and beautifully presented, but the flavour was, like the rest of the meal, a little underwhelming. There was no ‘wow’, or ‘mmm’ moments that would have had forced her to fight off my invading spoon. She did make special mention of the honeycomb however, which was ‘as good as I’ve ever had’. So the pastry chef should give themselves a pat on the back for that achievement, it’s not an easy task.
So, did Olivier’s live up to the hype?
All in all, you can probably tell my dinner at Olivier’s was slightly disappointing. But in a moment of self judgment, I must ask if the reason for that was me? Perhaps my expectations were too high and my excitement just got the better of me. Certainly the price of the meal at a little over 90 quid for two with a couple of glasses of decent plonk was well below what I expecting, but again that puts it back squarely in competition with the Black Horse and the Crooked Billet, both of which have shown themselves able to really deliver. So what’s the problem? I genuinely think that Olivier’s are under selling themselves; in this area, with the serious quality that’s around and especially with the connection to the hotel, I would dearly love to see them properly differentiate.
Why not push up the prices and use that extra cash to justify serving something really special? I say that because they are getting left behind by relying too much on the hotel to fill their seats and in this food bloggers totally unjustifiable, indefensible and unasked for opinion; with the quality of the competition nearby, unless they make more of an effort that crowd won’t hang around for long. They did wish me happy birthday though and the marshmallow squares were lurverly.
*I think I may have shared too much, but that sort of thing can really make an impact on a seven year old.
**Were these out of a jar? Were they? I have my suspicions.