The Gannet likes to spread his wings, but when forced into emergency refuelling on a typical British high street, he scans the shopfronts more in hope than expectation of finding a ruby in the chainstore-and-charity-shop dust.
Sometimes, happily, hope triumphs. Take the Surrey towns of Egham and Dorking, which both now boast excellent restaurants on main thoroughfares.
Acquolina in Bocca – Italian for “mouthwatering” – is a collaboration between chef Andrea Beccaceci, whose family have long run restaurants in the Abruzzo, and Giuseppe Mascoli, the Neapolitan founder of Franco Manca. Housed in an old butcher’s shop on Egham High Street, Acquolina boasts a vast wood-fired oven that turns out terrific sourdough pizzas from its 435˚C depths. Try the Gloucester Old Spot ham with ricotta and mushrooms: a billowing, crackling, flavoursome crust topped with first-rate ingredients.
Beccaceci’s pasta dishes are a cut above too: tagliatelle made from spelt, sauced with a ragú bianco of slow-cooked beef onglet and ossobuco; ravioli stuffed with wild boar, dressed simply with sieved tomato; and casarecce (homemade quills of pasta) with sublimely smoky guanciale from the Abruzzo, tomato and a generous handful of grated pecorino. Acquolina is a gem: the prices, absurdly low; the dining room, relaxed and casual; the cooking, anything but.
Further south, in Dorking, opposite a pharmacy and a plumbing supplier, is chef Steve Drake’s new venture, Sorrel. Drake held a Michelin star for many years in nearby Ripley, but he seems to have set his sights higher still. His new home is a charming, wood-beamed, 28-seat dining room with a huge, gleaming, state-of-the-art kitchen tucked behind it.
Drake, a former Roux Scholarship winner, has technique by the lorryload, but what most impresses is the intensity of flavour he wrings from his produce. This was evident from the start of lunch: a sliver of red mullet, for instance, atop a snappy little wafer of filo specked with nigella seed, topped with a blob of mayonnaise infused with the vigorous, celery-on-steroids taste of lovage.
A single, perfectly bronzed scallop is plated with smoked cauliflower purée and cannelloni of cucumber, ethereally light and perfumed with curry, topped with an oat-y “granola”: two mouthfuls, and about a dozen flavours and textures. And pork cheek, yieldingly soft and properly piggy, paired with the sharp sweetness of blood orange and bitter, hoppy tang of chicory.
Even the culinary cliché of beetroot and goat’s cheese is exalted into a masterpiece by clever ideas (vacuum-packing a fine dice of apple with parsley oil) and supreme technique. The beetroot is variously salt-baked, puréed and pickled, a wafer of this most versatile of vegetables set at a rakish tilt to one side.
If all this sounds rather fiddly, rest assured: Drake’s superlative technique eschews fussiness on the plate. This is clever, confident, inspired cooking from a chef at the top of his game.