Royal Ascot is all about Michelin-starred chefs and Mad Hatter’s tea parties – and apparently there’s some racing too
Before we begin, I must confess something to you: I am both rubbish at, and disinterested in, horse racing (there may be a link between those two statuses). I’ve gambled less than £80 on horses in total over the course of the past two decades – a tediously cautious fiver here, £2 on the Grand National there. The fact I have kept a running total throughout my life, and that it is so very meagre by almost anyone’s standards, probably tells you a lot about who you shouldn’t come to for tips.
So when I was invited to a day out at Ascot, I must admit I was initially a bit blasé. Horse racing? Well, that’s a fine way to lose a good £3.50. I could buy almost one pint for that.
Then I actually read the invite. This was not normal horse-racing. What’s that? Food from Tom Kerridge? And from Benares superstar Atul Kochar? A Mad Hatter’s tea party? This I could get into. For this was clearly not a day of mere fillies and furlongs – this was a foodie extravaganza of the highest order, with three Michelin stars shared between three excellent chefs (Ascot exec chef Steve Golding being the third). I’ve been on corporate days out to the races before (well actually, just the one, and it was the first £10 I’d ever laid down on the horses – oh the RISK!), but this looked like something very special indeed.
It was. The Royal Ascot Preview I attended a few weeks ago will be a lifelong memory of my culinary quest through life. And I really like restaurants – as did the collective of other food and wine writers in the room, who had also come along to see if the crown jewels of the Ascot kitchens were all they were cracked up to be.
But before I even begun on the food, there was the view outside: a verdant blanket of Berkshire landscape, virtually uninterrupted by buildings, dotted with dense forestry. I can see why people might want to hang around getting excited about equestrian uncertainties when they happen to surrounded by such a stunning view of the English countryside, from Ascot’s Panoramic Restaurant. (Architecturally, it does exactly what it says on the tin.)
And then, and then – an endless banquet of delights. Canapes by Rhubarb included foie gras rocher, which looked like giant hazelnut-studded Malteasers on lollipop sticks, and melted on the tongue after a satisfying crunch through the shell. Garden pea pannacotta ushered in spring flavours for those who like the lighter end of indulgence, and there was a rather tasty salmon something too, complete with a pipette of something else delicious.
We began to Bollinger our way into the day, and sat down smiling after some genuinely unique and delicious first tastes.
A tipster came to, well, give us his tips. People made excited noises. It all sounded very good, but, as you might by now be able to guess, I was more focused on the starter.
It came from Kochar. Hello sea bass, with a delicious coconut sauce. Beautiful on the plate, with a warm current of turmeric and sweetness washing around the freshness and delicacy of the fish.
Kochar came to talk us through his signature England-meets-India flavours, which was a wonderful bonus. He was humble, passionate and clearly excited to have designed the menu for the Panoramic Restaurant for Royal Ascot. He told us: “Indian culture and horses go back a long way, and Royal Ascot is of course one of the great British Institutions.
“It is a special occasion where people come to celebrate and I think we’ve come up with a menu and experience in the Panoramic Restaurant to reflect this.” A day in this restaurant during Royal Ascot (17 to 21 June) comes in at £995. Not cheap, obviously, but if you’ve got it, then Kochar will actually be in the kitchen, which is pretty special. And I’d expect his food to be as delicious as ever, judging by this course.
Next up we had Tom Kerridge’s treacle-cured beef fillet, which came as beautifully as you would expect from a two Michelin-starred chef: sunset pink bleeding into a cocoa-brown caramelised edge, with two fat crispy-melty onion rings plopped on top. And, of course, Kerridge’s legendary triple-cooked chips, which were well worth the effort of all three cookings, I’d say.
Kerridge is also going to be cooking in the kitchen during Royal Ascot, in new restaurant On Five – a multi-million-pound investment for the venue, with sweeping views of the course. A day there will set you back around £800. We were very lucky that he also joined us. He said he was “thrilled” to be cooking at Royal Ascot, following on from his time there last year, which was “a lot of fun”.
And then: “After Eight” dessert by Ascot’s executive chef Steve Golding was like seeing Kandinsky interpret an adults’ sweetshop on a plate: dots of raspberry, white chocolate balls and curls, a spherical nest of spun sugar, sorbets and mousses, and, obviously, all the mintyness and chocolatiness you’d want from the greatest of the 1990s dinner-party chocolates. It takes a bold chef to tackle retro confectionary in a posh pudding – but in a world saturated by popping candy everything, it was refreshing (in every sense) to be reunited with the After Eight gone pimp.
Then I actually did do a bit of gambling. It was unsuccessful. I’ll get back to the food.
We finished the afternoon with a Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea, which will be recreated in the Royal Ascot Village this summer. It was stunning. When you are faced with a thousand different wondrous elements, sometimes you need a picture to paint a thousand words. So here you go:
A day out at the finest dining establishments at Royal Ascot certainly isn’t cheap. (Although there are dining options for under £20 for the 35,000 guests, and there are days out before royal Ascot that come in at more like £120).
But Royal Ascot is a world of sheer indulgence, where almost 52,000 bottles of champagne are drunk in just five days. And one thing is a safe bet: if you have got the cash for it, you’re going to eat well.
Apparently the horses usually put on quite a good show, too.
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