Can wine lists be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature? Michael Gilbey’s wine list is pure poetry, a work of art, sharing a lifetime’s passion for fine wines. It is worth making the journey to the quaint town of Old Amersham, in Buckinghamshire, just to drink in his wine wisdom.
Gilbey’s tome reads like advice given by a trustworthy old friend, “Drink with shellfish soup, egg-based dishes and grilled sardines.” The tone is gossipy, “bit of a crowd-pleaser” and brutally honest, “it cannot match the steely grip of a great Sancerre but ..”
There are some epic wines in Gilbey’s extensive cellar described with flair and epic rhetoric, “Here there is a real sense of terroir …” With so many gems on offer sometimes the issue at Gilbey’s is not so much choosing a wine to complement the food but vice versa.
Michael Gilbey is a fluent French speaker with an encyclopaedic knowledge of French wines but his interest extends to New World Wines too. Given his pedigree, his passion is not surprising.
His great, great grandfather returned from the Crimean War in 1857 to found Gilbey’s Gin Distillers. Remarkably Michael Gilbey’s wife and fourth cousin, Lin, has the same heritage. The answer to that riddle? Their great, great grandfathers were brothers.
Adam Whitlock, a Chef who has been at Gilbey’s for 11 years, starts with quality sourcing – fruit and veg from Covent Garden and seafood from Cornwall’s Flying Fish – but he is driven by the seasons. “Nothing worse than food served out of season,” says a chef who is something of a forager. He has “a haul” of elderflower from last year that he is experimenting with.
Classically trained, Whitlock enjoys bringing contemporary techniques to his food. He is a great fan of sous vide cooking, particularly with asparagus to maintain its texture. He is very excited by using spherification to create a mango purée that solidifies like an egg.
Whitlock’s classicism shows through on dishes such as the Pavé of North Atlantic Cod. But he often experiments tastefully on a theme. The rich flavours of Outdoor-bred Suffolk Porchetta are enhanced with a citrus note of orange, a twist of fennel and a nudge of chilli. A long straw-like crispy wisp of crackling and pine nuts bring a contrasting crunch to the textures. Whitlock’s creation of sage and ricotta gnudi, a light variation on the gnocchi concept, advances traditional sage and onion stuffing by several light years. Another clever innovation is the gentle crunch of almond-crusted bream and a gentle pairing with sweet potato bombas.
For vegetarians, for the main course, there were two options when I visited, baked beetroot falafels and avocado purée or spinach, feta, leek and filo parcels. But with Whitlock’s love of seasonal produce, this is an area of the menu that is constantly developing and evolving.
Lin Gilbey has the task of producing the menus and liaising between two chefs: Adam Whitlock in Old Amersham and Amaury de Olivier in Eton – who have a healthy professional rivalry.
With the prime address of 1, Market Square sat at the heart of pretty Old Amersham amongst pink rose-framed doorways, trellis-climbing honeysuckle, pots of lavender and geraniums – Gilbey’s has an enviable prime location.
Exterior stonework proclaims that the building was once home to Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, back in the 17th century, but blackboards, desks and slates are long gone. Amongst the exposed interior brickwork there are some surprises.
It is a family affair with the Gilbey’s niece Alexandra Haynes bringing Mediterranean zest with her vibrant paintings of life on the Côte d’Azur. Seas and skies of aquamarine are the backdrops to rainbow colour plates of fish and vegetables, rural scenes and rustic lifestyles. Walls are painted a joie de vivre sunflower yellow.
Gilbey’s has been keeping Amersham folk contended and full since 1975. Regulars enjoy introducing their friends, “The chicken’s always very good here …you’ve got to have the skinny fries they are unbelievable … last time I was here Michael recommended a superb Rioja … it’s some wine list …” Plenty of satisfied locals, who become loyal regulars, but it’s a welcoming restaurant well-worth travelling for.
Tell Me More About Gilbey’s Old Amersham
1 Market Square, Old Amersham, HP7 0DF
T: 01494 727242 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Starters are usually under a tenner, main courses are late teens and early twenties.