I once referred to Matt Cheal on Twitter as ‘Birmingham’s Phil Howard’, a massive compliment I’m willing to stick to based on a recent lunch. I’ve eaten his food several times before, back when he was Head Chef at Simpsons, and it has always struck me as a style similar to how The Square used to be; bold flavours, classic French sauces that shimmer, and conventional ingredient combinations tweaked with modern flourishes. In my humble opinion, he is a chef that is defined by a desire to feed, something that reflects on his menu’s, which read like a Shakespearian sonnet.
Cheal’s has been open just over a year now, housed in the black beam and white plaster building where Le Filbert Cottage won one of the countries first Michelin stars. The downstairs is a maze of rooms and open doorways, with crisp whiten linen adorning the well spread tables. It wears it’s ambition proudly. The menu, the service, the interior. This is a place that wants a star, and, I firmly believe, will get one this autumn.
We get a teeny nibble of cod croquette that accompanies the crisp champagne, followed by an amouse bouche of soup of cauliflower cheese sent spiralling with an umami rich parmesan foam and drizzle of curry oil. There is sourdough bread that is better than a wholegrain option, both with salted butter and whipped pork fat topped with crispy bacon bits. I told you the ambition was obvious.
We start with a rectangle of pork belly, softly cooked and compressed so that the fat is nothing but a glue holding the layers of meat together. It sits on an Asian inspired dice of smoked pineapple and leek, some crushed hazelnuts, and bitter chicory to cut through the richness. I’m not crazy about the jus being poured directly on to what started as a crispy piece of skin, but the rest is an assured bit of cookery that manages to balance out some big flavours.
A crispy duck egg yolk is the centrepiece for another starter, bread crumbed and deep fried so that the oozy centre is released by the teeniest of pricks (pun intended – I was holding the knife). There is a jumble of asparagus, peas, broad beans and shallots on to which the silkiest of asparagus veloute’s was poured. A grating of Old Wincester provides enough tang to counteract the fresh spring flavours. Fish comes in the way of skate, seemingly pan cooked in browned butter, with the plumpest of mussels and a collection of things found on coastal ground. It whacked of the sea, with the salt flavour bolstered by strips of crisp salsify that offered more than merely texture. The metallic notes of a saffron infused cream an inspired choice.
Back in my favoured land of protein we get a roast chicken and chips. Well, kind of. The supreme is perfectly cooked with a bruleed skin that melts to a nothing on the palate, with a confit leg that can be deconstructed with the lightest of tugs. I have no idea what they have done to the tomatoes to make them sweet and sour at the same time but it works. Triple cooked chips on the side snap and fluff as they should.
Spring lamb is perhaps the lightest course in terms of flavour we try all day. The rack is a consistent medium, the fat correctly rendered down. It needs the little croquettes of shoulder to smash that ovine flavour in fully. The accompaniments of peas, potato terrine, sheep’s curd and artichoke puree all make perfect sense on the plate. It’s food that you want to eat every week if the budget allowed.
For the second time in seven days we have a seriously good beef dish. Fillet comes as rare as we’d requested, crowned with a flurry of trompette mushrooms. There is a square of brisket, and carrots, both roasted and as a rich orange puree. The best thing on the plate was the beef fat mash, an indulgent thing that works in harmony with the red wine sauce at holding everything together.
Of the three desserts ordered, I find it hardest to get excited over a wave of vanilla parfait with various elements of strawberry. It’s technically accomplished, in particular the buttery shards of shortcrust biscuit, but it’s all a bit too obvious and all a bit too sweet. Far more balanced was a moist honey and chrysanthemum cake with lemon sorbet. The floral note from the chrysanthemum cake in unison with the honey, the sorbet providing the acidity to cut through it.
The star dessert was the milk chocolate and banana delice, draped in a ganache that reflects light like a disco ball, and topped with popcorn. It’s beautiful to look at, and made with obvious skill. A passionfruit sorbet is the ideal sharpness, and yes, the four components are hardly ground-breaking in their use together, but I’ll say it again, this food that you want to eat.
They do carafe’s of wine around the mid teens, and we take food off both menu options (at lunch either £30 or £50 for three courses), leaving a total bill that almost touches £70 a head. The value of that is there to be seen with your very eyes. I am going to state the obvious here, but the food was of a similar ilk and quality to the time when Cheal was fronting the kitchen at Simpsons. If the cooking then was worthy of a star, the food here surely must be. Mark my words, come October the B postcode is gaining its seventh Michelin star. And that star is going to Cheal’s of Henley.