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Toby Cottage, High Street, Ripley, Surrey

Clifford Mould found a paradise for retro dining enthusiasts

For a relatively small village, Ripley’s three restaurants cater for the widest possible range of culinary fads and fancies. Depending on your point of view, in one particular pole position is the Michelin starred Drake’s, (fabulous cooking, with portions so miniscule that a friend told me he’d had to make himself a cheese sandwich when he got home – oh, and waiters exuding Gallic attitude!). Somewhere in the middle is The Talbot, a genuine old coaching inn that’s recently had a multi-million pound makeover; its new restaurant is now the epitome of gastro-pub style.

At the opposite pole position is the Toby Cottage, where mine host greets most of his customers by name, since most of them have been coming since the year dot, and why not? Patron cum Maitre‘d Tony Trillo inherited a menu that continues to pack ‘em in and his very sensible mantra is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

When dining at the Toby Cottage, do NOT have lunch, or breakfast, and have a light supper the night before because you will fill every spare corner of your tummy! It’s quality food cooked according to classic recipes and served in enormously generous portions with scarcely a nod in the direction of fancy fashionable presentations.

The eyes of people of a certain age will grow misty at the sight of starters such as ‘a fan of Galia melon with smoked salmon and Marie Rose sauce’, or deep-fried Brie with cranberry sauce. They will turn light headed with anticipation at the mention of Tournedos Rossini, Beef Stroganoff and Chateaubriand (for two, naturally). But they will doubtless fall to their knees in ecstasy at the rumble of the sweet trolley, more of which later. Younger folk will discover such items will provide novel gastronomic challenges.

On arrival, the four of us were shown up to the cosy bar where we perused the menus (there is an excellent three course set menu for £18.50 as well as the more expensive a la carte. The wine list is very comprehensive with a really serious Spanish section that reflects Tony’s special area of expertise. We particularly enjoyed an inexpensive claret, Chateau Lamothe de Haux, which was expertly decanted well before it was required. Tony next reeled off several specials of the day that depend on seasonal availability and what the fish van and the meat market are offering.

From the set menu we were tempted by the Italian classic tricolore salad of avocado, tomato and mozzarella, basil pesto dressing reinforcing the green. In the end we plumped for baked goat’s cheese and rocket salad – which was everything it said it was and generous with it too. The baked scallops wrapped in pancetta were really tasty as was a salad with poached egg and black pudding. So simple, yet so hard to do well, the timing of the egg was perfect with a white just set and the yolk lovely and runny. The avocado, mango and crab mayo looked quite impressive and tasted very fresh, but underlined the necessity of not overpowering the delicate flavour of the crab.

From the set menu (and also to be found on the carte) came a mass of calves’ liver with caramelised onions swimming in a brown coloured sauce. The liver was tender and came just as requested – pink in the middle. But I have to say it was a sad sight, dumped anyhow on the plate; such first-rate ingredients, decently cooked, deserved more respect. Whilst I don’t advocate the triumph of style over substance, this was too far in the other direction – surely one’s meal needs to look appetising? The roast crispy duck with honey and almond sauce consisted of two huge legs. Duck is a rich meat and the sauce was equally rich. We felt we’d rather pay a little less than the £19.50 to have one good-sized leg, and maybe have more room at the end for the sweet trolley. A grilled fillet of halibut, on the other hand, looked very tempting, and the side vegetables that we were all offered were properly cooked – neither half raw nor overdone.

For my main course I really went retro and had Steak Diane, cooked by Enzo with great skill on his chariot of fire at our table. The flames from the brandy flew right up to the ceiling, which is probably why the wealth of exposed beams are so black! My steak was tender and delicious and the sauce rich and creamy – emphatically not everyday fare. But that is the point of Toby Cottage – it’s a place where you enjoy a treat, or a celebration, perhaps.

Try to leave room for the sweet trolley. In the past I’ve been a bit snidey about chariots in general and sweet trolleys in particular. But this one was pretty good. Everything looked very fresh – though even I myself did not risk the caramel oranges, which in the past have so often been a disappointment. Here, the deliciously wobbly crème caramel is made by the chef in a loaf tin, and generous slices were doled out by the steady hand of Enzo. My chocolate cake was very good, only a few cherries and a slug of Kirsch short of Black Forest Gateau. Oh, the thrill of a helping of BFG on one’s birthday, back in the 1970s!

The service was excellent and the staff work hard to create a complete evening out for you. All the really important things are done well. Without getting precioius, we felt that just slightly more appetising presentations would enhance the Toby Cottage dining experience even more.

Clifford Mould June 2009

A la carte: Starters £ 5.00 - £11.50 (mostly around £9.50). Mains: around £20.00
Sweet trolley: from £6.50 Three course Table d’Hote menu £18.50

Toby Cottage, High Street, Ripley, Surrey GU23 6AF
T: 01483 224225 W:

Open for lunch every day noon to 2:00pm
Dinner: 7:00pm to 10:00pm closed Sunday evening
Complimentary get you home Limo service, eight mile radius

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