There are a number of things you can guarantee when you dine at Orwells: the proper welcome and the friendly, professional service, the certainty that there will be a whole bunch of courses on the menu that you won’t have had before, the quality of the top-class Coravin wine flight, that none of the courses will look or be obvious from the wording of the menu, and the outstanding cooking. The intriguing and spare descriptions of the dishes on the Taste the Season menu confirmed our intention to go for the tasting menu, and after a lively discussion with the excellent sommelier, Arnaud, we opted for the impeccable wine flight. Simple but surprising was our reaction to the first course, which somehow seemed more than an amuse-bouche - three types of home-grown tomatoes with goats cheese and sweet onion, a thoughtful composition which certainly got our palates primed. This led into a succession of “starters” beginning with delightfully delicate lobster contrasting with crunchy chicken skin and accompanied by chanterelles and samphire and a superlative, temperature-perfect lobster jus, followed by exemplary sea bass backed up by a wonderful match of ingredients such as red-flesh radish, seaweed, tiny balls of cucumber and a dash of dashi, and then something similar to a sweet jacket potato sprinkled with caviar, chives and sea purslane - unbelievably simple yet so striking! Duck & crumpet sounded a bit chain restaurant-like, but we were confounded once more by the duck actually being brilliantly finished hearts in a surprising match with the spongy crumpets in a duck jus. This was followed by what was basically one of the best vegetarian dishes we’ve ever had: home-grown, salt-baked pumpkin with a memorable parmesan crisp, pine nuts, walnuts, sea buckthorn, chicory and pear slices all combining to produce a lovely, mouth-filling whole. We were then lucky enough to be treated to one of the à la carte starters, staggeringly good breaded veal sweetbread with charcoal mayo and charcoal, really fresh salsify, cabbage and pickled cabbage, and lettuce, which somehow gave the impression of sweetness yet had a salt tang - a masterpiece of well-balanced tastes, textures and temperatures. From there we moved into the three “mains”. Firstly sea-fresh monkfish with moreish salty crispy kale, roast cauliflower, brown butter and cream, then local hare, the fantastic taste, which is sometimes lost by overcooking the meat, here pointed up against the sage and apple accompaniment and sauce, and finally tender juicy lamb (again local) with crispy artichoke, broccoli and broccoli purée. The perfectly-judged size of the dishes and their order of presentation meant that it was not difficult to find room for the two desserts on the menu. The pre-dessert of lemon curd, sorrel, raspberry and oats and nuts served very well both as a sort of palate cleanser and a dessert, and the dessert proper, delicious honeycomb in a heavenly chocolate cream was a triumphant climax to a brilliant fine-dining experience.
However, the Michelin enigma remains: How can this restaurant be properly ranked by The Good Food Guide in its Top 50 and given a score equal to that of a number of Michelin two-star venues, and superior to some others, and Hardens justifiably award it top marks, and yet not get even one measly star from the tyre company.