May 08 2010
It’s the first day of the new season at Ascot today, and regular visitors to the Royal heath are already salivating at the thought of the excitements to come at the Royal Meeting, which begins on June 15. The five-day extravaganza unquestionably stages the finest flat racing in the world. But thoroughbred punters need something special to sustain them during the battle with the bookmakers and this summer Ascot is offering them a unique opportunity to savour top-class sport alongside exceptional food – and I don’t mean a car-park picnic.
The distinguished chefs Michel Roux, who founded The Waterside Inn at Bray in 1972, and his son Alain, who presides over the Thameside kitchen, are taking over Ascot’s panoramic restaurant for the week. It’s a wonderful setting atop the Grandstand with its own balcony and roof terrace, which has an unparalleled view of the course and of Windsor Great Park beyond. The father-and-son team, one of whom will be cooking each day, are offering a special Waterside Inn at Royal Ascot package that includes a Royal Enclosure guest badge, champagne and canapés on arrival, a five-course lunch with wine and liqueurs, and a complimentary bar, with more champagne, throughout the day.
Prices start at £734 per person but the kind of mouthwatering fare that will be on the menu is a far cry from the overcooked school-dinner roast, preceded by a prawn cocktail, that once held sway on British racetracks. Michel Roux sees a natural overlap between his business and Ascot and he is almost as serious about the racing as he is about the food, having enjoyed many good days there as a member of the hugely popular Royal Ascot Racing Club. “A lot of the members are friends and clients of mine and, like me, they love their racing and their shooting. I think Ascot is one of the most beautiful racecourses in the world and I love the horses and the atmosphere with the good old-fashioned bookies. A lot of racegoers come to us for dinner in the evening, including the jockeys who come early, and they have the same table every year. It’s like a party.”
Michel is a particular admirer of the skill and athleticism of the jockeys and sees their position, entrusted with fabulously expensive raw materials and expected to deliver, as analogous to that of a chef. “You can give the best equipment to the people in the kitchen or on the racecourse but only the very best chefs or jockeys will provide you with a winner every time,” he observes. He is adamant that in order to serve a good lunch on a racetrack, “You have to understand that the primary objective is to race and, therefore, everything has to be done with speed and it has to be light food that shows off our skill but is quick and fresh and full of flavour.”
And what mouthwatering flavours are promised – including a tomato gazpacho garnished with basil-flavoured mozzarella cannelloni, a soft poached egg served on an artichoke bottom with smoked salmon and celery, The Waterside Inn’s signature dish of sauté of lamb and roasted best end of lamb with a saffron-flavoured celeriac and, for dessert, its famous pistachio-flavoured crème brûlée. There will also be a classic Battenberg cake at teatime, which would probably go down well in the Royal Box.
It’s a little early to be tipping Royal Ascot winners, since the line-ups for the big races have yet to be decided, but I’m hopeful that Aidan O’Brien’s classy filly You’ll Be Mine will improve for her first run this season and finish in the frame in the Oaks at Epsom on June 4, at 14-1 with Ladbrokes.