THE first thing to say about the Lord Nelson is that it is a fair way off the beaten track. Despite living in the Chilterns for 16 years I’d never before ventured to Brightwell Baldwin, a small chocolate box village on the road between Benson and Watlington.
The second thing to say about it is despite its remote location it was packed. That’s not bad for a Tuesday night in August, when half the country is abroad on holiday.
Carole and Roger Shippey bought the pub 12 years ago. Before that, they owned the Highwayman in Exlade Street, near Checkendon, for 16 years, and so are seasoned gastro-pub hosts.
The Lord Nelson can now cater for up to 100 people as there are several tables in the garden, but it’s the 18th century interior, where tables are arranged in cosy corners and snugs, that gives this place its distinctive ambience.
As well as regular customers from the local area including Henley, Oxford and Reading, the weekends often see diners and lunchers arriving from as far afield as London, and as we were shown to our table next to an inglenook fireplace Carole informed me that Sunday Times journalist AA Gill had sat in this very seat (incognito at the time) to eat a Sunday lunch which he then reviewed in that esteemed publication. No pressure, then.
The house menu offers a range of fairly traditional dishes such as tempura king prawns and garlic mushrooms for starters and calves liver with bacon and mash and steaks for mains. There was plenty of choice, with a good combination of meat, fish and vegetarian options and at least half a dozen dishes my dining partner and I could easily have opted for. But then we spied the specials boards.
If given a choice I will always opt for something on the specials board because it makes you feel that little bit more spoilt and that’s what dining out is all about. You know the chef has probably had a number of conversations that day with his suppliers — you imagine him on the phone to some connoisseur at Covent Garden or Billingsgate, talking about what’s new, what’s fresh and what’s seasonal — and then scratching out plans on a notepad on how to assemble those various ingredients into something creative and new.
My twice-baked brie and chive soufflé starter was perfect: crunchy on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside, with a good strong cheese flavour and lashings of cream sauce, offset with wilted baby leaves. My partner chose the coarse pork terrine from the main menu (he can’t resist pork in any of its variations) which came with hunks of hand-cut toast and a spicy home-made chutney.
In keeping with my romantic — some might say Victorian — visions of butchers and fishmongers and grocers delivering their goods from London, Carole informed me that the restaurant runs the crab and lobster festival every summer, with seafood supplied by an old friend from Acton. The shellfish are hoicked out of the sea in Cornwall and arrive on your plate as fast as the wheels on the van can carry them. That was enough to sell me.
I ordered my half lobster hot with garlic butter — thermidor or cold with salad were the other options — as a dish as delicate and luxurious as lobster should be, in my opinion, as simple as possible. It came with the house special thrice-cooked chips, which were fat and chunky, and salad. My partner opted for the whole Cornish lemon sole.
Everything about this meal was simple, fresh and excellent. And there are many other things to recommend this restaurant — the fact you can order Pouilly Fumé by the glass, for example, and that all the desserts are home-made (our shared banoffee pie was delicious, with an unusual ginger crunch to the base).
But I think it’s the homely welcome and unpretentious atmosphere that really made this place stand out.
AA Gill gave it four stars for food and five stars for atmosophere, and I have to say I think he was spot on.