Food and drink
It must be nice to know that you add lustre to your home town. The case in point here is Brebis, the Newbury-based restaurant that recently won high praise in a review from the website Edible.reading.
On a previous visit to Newbury, the website’s writer said that they had found Newbury ‘a lacklustre market town with little that Reading didn’t have’. Well, all that seems to have changed this time round, for not only did they profess to have had their socks knocked off by the artisan bread for sale in the market and the products offered in the wine and beer shop, the Inn at Home, but also by Brebis, which was described as “the real deal – an outstanding French restaurant that dished up one of the best meals I’ve had this year”.
We knew that Brebis was good and trilled as much when it first opened. But since then it has been included in various good food guides and, in view of the recent flurry of praise, we thought it timely to give this unpretentious restaurant on Bartholomew Street a further visit if, for no other reason, to give its rising star another little polish, now that it is getting the wider recognition it deserves.
Thankfully, not much has changed since we first went there – there are the same rustically scrubbed table tops, crisp white napkins, stripped floorboards, white walls and tasteful grey sage paintwork. Little, that is, except the menus, which change all the time, and which is maybe why Brebis has now gone paperless, chalking all the options on blackboards. This can be either good, in that’s quite sociable as you share the decision-making process with the other diners milling in front of them, or bad, as it highlights how long it takes you to make up your mind.
After much deliberation, though, we did decide – me on the the tete de cochon aux pistaches with bonemarrow toast for a starter while my partner opted for the house-cured Var Salmon, which came with beets, cream cheese and green tea and liquorice gels. Before the dishes arrived we were treated to an amuse bouche of crispy gougère which presaged well for the food to come. I’d never knowingly eaten pig’s head before, but I needn’t have worried because in the safe hands of chef/patron Samuel Mansfield, even the most intimidating-sounding dishes turn out to be tasty, in this case, slices of soft pressed meat, artfully complemented both in taste and texture by the pistachios and sourdough toast.
The salmon, too, was declared to have married nicely with the flavours of the green tea and liquorice, strange as it might seem. Well Samuel did say before that he’s always “trying out something different, experiencing new flavours”. For mains I chose a confit of Goosnaugh duck leg with braised red cabbage and parsnip purée. The duck was a divine mix of crispy skin and pull-apart soft flesh, accompanied by the earthy comfort of the cabbage and the sweet parsnip puree. When the whole roast John Dory arrived, it turned out to be a large, even challenging-looking fish, but at the touch of a fork it capitulated into flakes of moist white flesh, while the crab risotto, anointed with a jus gras, was a deeply savoury complement.
For the pudding course I couldn’t resist the bouchons au chocolat served with salted caramel ice cream (my flavour du jour) – I’ve hidden a salted peanut and chocolate habit for years, but now that salt and sweet seems to have become à la mode, I’ve joyfully come out. The ice cream was a perfect exponent of its type, and this went beautifully with the mouthfuls of chocolate delight, soft and squidgy on the inside, crunchy without.
My husband chose the cheeseboard, which came with sourdough bread, a good variety of soft, blue and hard cheeses, set off by a sweet and tangy fruit gel. Unusually for a cheeseboard, he scoffed the lot. Enough said. So far, I haven’t mentioned the wine, but that’s only because one of us was driving and the other commiserating. At Brebis, wine is an important part of the dining experience and while the wine list isn’t extensive, be assured that it’s good and, should you be in any doubt which to choose, the chalkboard usefully makes suggestions for each dish. Certainly the glass of Tournée du Sud Malbec suggested for the duck stood its ground against the robust flavours.
You can guess the bias of Brebis as soon as you walk in the door and see the Asterix comics on display, but what also makes Brebis seems like a little piece of Provence is the relaxed, family and friendly nature of the place. Samuel’s older brother James, who owns a small farm in Oxfordshire with some 200 sheep (Brebis is French for ewe) regularly works front of house and provides many of the seasonal vegetables, including the beets for the salmon, his friend Harry Quinn is his sous chef, and maman Mansfield still does all the “washing and ironing”. Top-notch cuisine and a happy ambience – it all adds up to a cachet for Newbury that not even Reading can compete with.