The sentence screams at you, unavoidable like a shocking beam of light in your face on a dark night: ‘Storytelling on a plate’! That’s the mantra of chef Adam Smith’s fine-dining restaurant at Coworth Park, a smart country-house hotel near Ascot.
Adam, one learns, is weaving his personal history around the ingredients on the plate. Really? I mean, does he have to? Must we know? Are we in for an afternoon groaning with explanations of every snack, every dish, every morsel dispensed from the kitchen?
That word ‘storytelling’… I remember when I first heard it used in a corporate context 15 or 20 years ago. Guff spouting from some marketeer’s mouth relating to a thing called branded content, or was it native advertising, or customer publishing… ‘It’s about storytelling, for deeper engagement.’
And there I was, thinking it was about a shop trying to shift food. Storytelling was what I did in the evening with my children. And now Winnie the Pooh and Paddington and the Mr Men and Hans Christian Andersen were tarnished with this gobbledegook abuse of the beautiful English language by philistinic media and retail executives.
Fittingly, then, I had a friend with me for lunch at Woven – a little friend, my small blonde mop of a three-year-old. We’d have Beauty and the Beast and The Magic Porridge Pot later, read so many times he knows them by heart. That’s proper storytelling. So I decided we’d completely ignore the Woven guff and just have lunch.
And rather extraordinarily wonderful it was too. The curtain-raiser for the Wee Mop was a trio of starters: a prawn cocktail as a tempura, a soft cheese puff and bits of Wagyu in a pastry shell with a green dip for entertainment. He took bites but was more interested in the colouring-in the staff kindly provided; I thought they were excellent.
Smith showed an almost visionary touch with dazzling versions of muntjac, jellied eels and Coronation chicken – snacks for me. They were a delightful flight of dancing swallows (compared to his menu prose where he talks of ‘opening doorways… slowly layering blossom and grain’).
Then there was the bread. Oh the bread, the bread. Sourdough, mini loaves, crispbreads and croissant. Yes, croissant: a quarter-way through lunch. Unnecessary, bonkers, wrong-time-of-the-day lunacy. But, really as good a croissant as you’ll get in the chicest Parisian café. It was like an aside from the chef: ‘Yeah, just FYI, I also make the greatest croissants.’
The Wee Mop went mad with the bread and yeasty – Marmite on steroids – butter. He then ignored a mini wild-garlic pizza and his beef fillet, but hearing he liked tomatoes the waiter brought him a bowl of them, simply chopped, which he wolfed down.
I worked through a perfect mini pie of grouse, with a dark gravy of outrageously fun largesse containing a reduction of foie gras, and a fabulous rectangle of turbot, topped with lobster and caviar (yup, all the big guns came out), but its richness was tempered by oysterish salsify and salty sea purslane.
I then found space for a vast plate of English cheeses, mainly to excuse further glasses of the game-changing English Danbury Ridge Pinot Noir the excellent sommelier had introduced me to. Finally, a serious English pinot. There goes the climate but, hey ho, here comes the proper vino.
In a room of Japanese minimalism and sleek spot lighting, Smith surpasses his prose and through his food has woven a fine fairy tale.