ELEGANT without being pretentious, charming without being twee, quiet but not too remote … Chipping Norton has always struck me as a pretty perfect kind of place.
With it’s elegant town hall, pretty market place, interesting shops and harmonious jumble of rather grand golden limestone houses, it’s the match of better known Cotswold honey pots but without any of the gawping crowds. And despite that daft lingering ‘Chipping Norton set’ label, it has always been refreshingly down to earth – the further out towns and villages being where the real money is.
And it is those places – Churchill, Kingham, Paxford, Chipping Campden et al – which also provide the best eating. Or, so I thought … for there’s a new contender snapping at the heels of the Michelin Guide’s Cotswold darlings, and it’s right in the middle of dear old Chippy.
Nestling among the cobbles of the Market Place, Whistlers was previously the haunt of pizza and comfort food fans, but with talented Cotswold chef Nathan Phelps and his sparky Australian partner Kerry Foley at the helm, it is now making waves in gastronomic circles with the kind of intricate and beautifully executed cooking which deserves to see the place embellished with a good mention by the Michelin Man, if not a star.
I visited with the photographer Ed Nix, who, it turns out, is quite the cook and an unforgiving food critic. We were there to try Whistlers’ new seven course tasting menu, and while Ed assured me the place was a bit special, I wasn’t sure I was up for an eight-course endurance event. I’ve had some inspiring tasting menus, but also some hefty long slogs through a procession of red meats and game which have left me praying for the whole thing to be over.
A glance at the menu looked promising though – as did the accompanying flight of wines. Fish, game bird, fruit and vegetable; there was no red meat, just fresh and light sounding creations sprinkled with surprises. It promised genius, but could they pull it off?
The place itself is a delight, submerged at the bottom of the multi-layered town center, it appears cozy but its intimate nooks and corners are little havens of secrecy – and even full on a Saturday evening it felt surprisingly spacious, the subdued lighting affording a sense of privacy or conspiratorial mischief!
All pictures by Ed Nix
We started in promising, if hearty, fashion with a generous chunk of Nathan’s bread – half a loaf no less – with a little pot of whipped butter. It looked, and smelled, wonderful, but we are no fools, and knew it would be crazy to fill up on that block of deliciously scented carb. Better things were surely to come. And soon – starting with a beetroot agnolotti (a ravioli parcel made from a single piece of pasta) with jalapeno and goat’s cheese. It was served with an impressive sesame and lime crisp and was divine. The sharp beetroot balanced the tang of goat’s cheese and the gentle chilli heat. Likewise the brittle crisp and the yielding folded pasta treat.
The plate was perfection. Small but beautifully executed – which proved to be the motif for the whole evening. It evaporated in a smear of purple beetroot juice, washed down with a suitably sharp and intense Marlborough Riesling – Lawson’s Dark Hills.
From then on, it was delight after delight in surprisingly (given the attention to detail) quick succession.
John Dory came next – a pleasing little square, bursting with fresh flavor and teamed with pureed celeriac and sharp Granny Smith apple – a wafer thin slice balanced on a Jenga-like arrangement of tiny chip-sticks. It was finished with just the right amount of rich fragrant truffle oil. It was a minimalist artwork of pure beauty but packed a seriously maximalist taste.
It was gorgeously proportioned, but I could have eaten just all night and come out a very happy chap indeed. It was served with a good, crisp Chablis (Domaine Fillon & Fils) with which to take on that sharp Granny Smith.
Then we were roller-coastered onto poultry – but of the very finest kind – a roast quail breast and stuffed leg – a fabulously-executed roast in miniature and accompanied, in a blaze of color, by a fried quail egg – sunny side up – on a parcel of wilted spinach … and a whole hazelnut. It was a true symphony of taste and texture which looked almost as good as it tasted. Sadly it, and the creamy, lingering, complex apple / pear Kiwi Pinot Gris (Domaine Road Vineyard, Otago) went all too quickly.
Never mind though, as we were barely half way through – and there was more fish. Red mullet, to be precise, and, again, perfectly cooked, with super-fresh flaky flesh and a crisp browned skin.
It was perched atop a little pile of smooth pureed aubergine and beside a tangle of peppery rocket and chives. A drizzle of tomato vinaigrette gave some welcome sharpness and was amazingly, freakishly tomato-ey. Again, the attention to the most precise details is incredible. True perfectionism.
The paired wine was that old fave, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (Honu). Zesty, intense and oozing lingering citrus it wrapped its tentacles around the fish in a triumph of opposites attracting.
By this stage we were filling up, and there was more delicate game, but as part of the most intensely-flavored plate of the night. Roast Guinea Fowl, insanely tender but fabulously browned and crisp on the edges, was joined in this little taste party by a sharp red cabbage, soothing squash puree and a rich mushroom and tarragon jus, the lightness of which belied its powerful punch of flavor.
It was a powerful combination and deserved an equally feisty wine. A Fleurie, Presidente Marguerite Beaujolais Cru did the perfect job, with subtle tannins and oodles of autumn fruit. It was so drinkable I went out the next day to get myself a bottle to enjoy in my own time.
We were almost beat, and turned down the offer of a little cheeseboard, going straight to a pre-dessert of cheek-suckingly zesty lemon parfait and comforting chocolate sorbet, and the actual finale: a dark choc marquis with orange curd cannoli – a crisp rolled creation looking like a brandy snap’s distant royal relative, balanced like a see-saw on a rich bauble of almost-but-not-quite- too-chocolatey goodness. Having now entered the realm of serious luxury, it was served with a glass of Grand Marnier over ice. My word!
There was just time to applaud our dynamic duo of chefs before we rolled out into the Chippy night, full, but not uncomfortably so, but with minds most definitely blown!
Go … while you can still get a table.
- Whistlers, 9 Middle Row, Chipping Norton OX7 5NH.
- Book on 01608 643363 or whistlersrestaurant.co.uk
- The seven course tasting menu costs £ 85 per person. Add a flight of tasting wines for £ 35
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