We make no bones about it - Artichoke remains one of our favourite restaurants, and we are still capable of judging it as dispassionately as possible and making unbiased comparisons of it with other fine-dining destinations. The atmosphere is relaxed, something made natural by the confident and always friendly service, and enhanced by the variety of dinner guests, on the evening we were there ranging from ordinary citizens like us to a member of the House of Lords (and Times journalist). For the level of cuisine achieved the menu is remarkably reasonably priced, and Laurie Gear and Ben Jenkins have reached new heights in the quality of their cooking and the wonderful presentation of the dishes on the plate. We opted for the tasting menu, the prelude to which was a sensational Lancashire bomb mousse, served at just the right not-too-hot temperature. A great start and just the way to get you looking forward to the rest of the meal. This feeling was underlined by the smoked haddock tartare with its rocket, radish, microherbs, beguiling horseradish ice cream and russet apple - a perfect demonstration of the three t’s (taste, texture and temperature). Another example of how to match ingredients followed, roasted scallop with a mild curried cockle sauce, pickled cauliflower and cauliflower purée - a joy to eat and a joy to behold! An extra course was kindly served, a tribute to the game season in the form of Yorkshire grouse, blackberries and blackberry sauce, bacon, a little cornet containing a terrific concentrated foie gras ganache, and crunchy nuts; yet another winner. It appears to be a trend to serve one veggie dish on an otherwise conventional menu, and Artichoke came up with a stunning mix of roasted salsify, autumn truffle, a selection of mushrooms, puffed wild rice and rye bread, topped off with a delicious chervil emulsion. The fish course was a homage to Cornwall, superb cod loin, River Fowey mussels, “coastal” vegetables, chickpeas, which worked surprisingly well with the fish, and a sensational chicken tea adding a contrast. We chose different dishes for our mains, my wife had some excellent local Buckinghamshire venison saddle with smoked celeriac purée, a marvellous blue cheese crumble, fruity poached quince and cavolo nero, and mine was tender local partridge, nicely gamey, with classic golden raisins and traditional chestnuts, hispi cabbage and a suitably meaty sauce. The pre-dessert was another stand-out, the lightest blackcurrant and goats cheese mousse matched with a lovely biscuit crumble. After a surprise extra, an amazing, light, orange soufflé with ginger, we went for different desserts: a brilliant Brillat-Savarin cheesecake with pickled pear, an outstanding granola and poire William sorbet, and a truly great lemon Bavarois with a perfect arbequina olive oil jelly, citrus fruit salad, properly powdery lemon thyme sherbet and topped off with excellent almond biscuit crumbs. Just to complete this wonderful meal a delicious finale of chocolate sprinkle tart, chocolate ganache and pistachio came with our after-dinner mint tea.
And still 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.