The last time I was in Henley-on-Thames, I was bartending in the Bedouin tent for the Henley Festival, which is like a normal festival except you have to wear black tie and have a hyphen in your name.
When we weren’t charging Orlando and Cressida £10 for a ‘mocktail’ (fizzy juice), we were allowed to wander around. I saw Alan Titchmarsh on a lovely little wooden boat drinking pink champagne and couldn’t help but laugh. There’s something very intoxicating about such a concentration of wealth in one place and in Henley, at least when it’s on the surface like this, it’s quite charming. That is, until the sun goes down and people move onto the stronger stuff. It doesn’t matter where you went to school, who your dad is or how many horses you have, everyone looks like a pillock singing ‘Hey Jude’ at 1am – alcohol: the great leveller.
I’m pretty terrible at making cocktails more complicated than a lager shandy, a fact not lost on my employers, so it’s been a couple of years since I’ve felt the bucolic embrace of the riverside market town. This time I find myself with a very dear friend at the threshold of The Little Angel, a recently reopened, fully refurbished gastropub of clan Brakspear, who seem to own every other pub in Henley too.
The first thing the chap behind the bar said was, “You don’t want food, do you?” in the exact same tone of voice my girlfriend uses when she says, “You’re not going to wear those jeans again, are you?” Bless him, the lad was manning the bar solo after only a handful of shifts (he relayed rather candidly) and was a bit swamped. The relief was palpable as we reassured him that we had in fact booked, and after leafing through the million-buttoned till we were in.
You can’t help but be impressed by the décor. There are nods to its heritage and locale and the Henley brand more generally. Boater hats, oars, old posters and pictures adorn wood-panelled walls painted every shade of Waitrose. Nothing is so garish as to have been simply installed; everything is brushed and aged to give that most elusive sense of shabby chic. If by some miracle of science Cath Kidston and Emma Bridgewater had a child, it would be called The Little Angel.
The menu is laudable in its deviation from gastropub orthodoxy. There’s a smattering of ‘because we have to’ pub grub, alongside more adventurous dishes. Between a sirloin (£23.50) and a chicken supreme (£14.50) you find grilled salmon ramen (£15.50). Then there’s a ‘Little Angel Salad’ (£9.50) complete with candied pecans, vegan feta, quinoa, strawberries and carrot. This isn’t just cooking by numbers and, having been to a billion pubs replicating the same ‘British classics with a modern twist’ shtick, it’s refreshing. It’s all a tad self-conscious though, like someone over-checking their bowtie in the mirror. It reads like it was compiled by a committee, because it was, so I was left wishing that extraneous dishes were trimmed off to give gastronomic gusto and assuredness to the rest.
Arancini bites (£6.50) deliver a sumptuous textural gradient, from crispy exterior to a core of gooey Gorgonzola. The daily scallop special (£11.95) in front of me comes atop chorizo and spinach – all perfectly serviceable if a little heavy-handed. My vegetarian chum moved onto the vegan burger (£12.95) which was fabulous. The ‘Moving Mountains’ brand is gaining traction with its 100% plant-based products and I can see why. Here it’s dressed to the nines with a vibrant green chimichurri and a flat mushroom. I have a roast lamb rump (£17.95) with vegetables and a port sauce that I would drink by the pint if given the option. Here’s where I felt the place come into its own – it was a plate of food that knew what it was about, that didn’t have to check its bowtie.
Deserts come in portions the likes of which even my grandmother would think excessive. They do what’s asked of them, however. Sticky toffee pudding (£6) has candied pecans for texture and a lovely spiced date puree for depth. The choux buns (i.e. profiteroles) were well made, with a few toasted hazelnuts to balance the crème pâtissière (or ‘patisserie’ as it reads on the menu). The ‘Belgium’ chocolate sauce was split though which was disappointing and a shame – the only real culinary mistake was on the last plate of the evening.
The Little Angel is clearly a very versatile place. It’s there for a pint, for brunch, for lunch, for a bite and for dinner. It has firesides for the winter and a courtyard garden for summer. There’s some strong cooking going on and the place itself is simply beautiful, with charming staff and brisk service (even if the first chap seemed a little scared). It just needs to take a deep breath and decide what it wants to be.