The French Horn | Sonning-on-Thames (UK)

The grandeur of the old days is still there.
A slice of culinary history that needs to find the balance between tradition and innovation.

Just over the bridge from the desirable village of Sonning-on-Thames (UK), home to the Clooneys and Theresa May, you’ll find the archetypal English restaurant The French Horn where tradition leads both the dining room and the kitchen. Originally a coaching inn, The French Horn has been providing hospitality for over 200 years. Now a restaurant with rooms, it has been run by the Emmanuel family since 1972, when it was bought by restaurateurs Ronnie and Carole Emmanuel. Since 1994 The French Horn is run by their son and daughter, Michael and Elaine. Michael trained in Lyon under Paul Bocuse and in Mougins under Roger Verge.

Head Chef Josiane Diaga is only the 3rd Head Chef of The French Horn in the last 25 years. Born and raised in Marseille (France), Josiane got her certificate there. She worked in different restaurants in France, including Le Casse-Croûte in Nice and Alsace, before moving to the UK. After working in the Waldorf in London she then worked at The French Horn as Sous Chef. She left for America to work as a Head Chef in Cape Cod and when she came back, quickly returned to The French Horn as Sous Chef. When Gilles Company left, Josiane took over as Head Chef in 2012.

The French Horn is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. They offer an à la carte menu with 11 Starters (at £18-£26.50) or 50 g Oscietra Caviar (at £181), 8 Fish & Shellfish Mains (at £30.50-£43), 7 Meat & Game Mains (at £27-£39), 6 Sides (at £3.50-£5.50), 7 Desserts (at £12-£16) or Cheese from the trolley (at £14). On Sunday they offer a special 3-course Lunch menu (at £66). An Early Spring Menu is offered daily, except on Friday and Saturday. This menu offers 2-courses at £27 and 3-courses at £33.50.

We went for lunch last week and made our selection from both the Early Spring Menu and the à la carte menu.

Thin toasted bread, cheese sticks and olives

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen olives being there next to the cheese sticks. It’s sets the tone nicely.

Serving trolley

Throughout the restaurant you see these serving trolleys. A bit of history that goes perfectly with the ambiance and the overall atmosphere.

Love the water goblet as well!

Frogs Legs from Burgundy, Pan Fried in Garlic and Parsley Butter (from the spring menu)

When I saw the frogs legs on the set menu, I couldn’t resist to order them. Perfectly prepared with the right amount of garlic. Presentation could be modernised I suppose, but then again, maybe this is the right way to do it. Like stepping back in time. Love it and loved the flavours and taste!

Pan Fried Foie Gras served on a Warm Pear Bake and a Hibiscus Sauce (£23.50)

A classic dish, but oh so well prepared again. I say classic, but this time with some innovative touches. Instead of toast or brioche, the foie gras is served on a warm pear bake, which adds a subtle note to the richness of the foie gras. The tangy sweet hibiscus sauce supplies the right balance.

Pan Fried Seabass on a bed of Spinach with Girolle Mushrooms on top (from the spring menu)

Cuisson of the seabass is perfect. Succulent fish with a nice crispy skin. Creamy Hollandaise and a good amount of girolle mushrooms on top. Lovely! And the sprig of parsley on top keeps it right in that 70’s feel.

Turbot backed in pastry with Spring Onions and Chilli. Served with a Creamed Vanlla Sauce (£31)

Again a perfect cuisson of the turbot. This lady knows her fish! Crispy pastry with a nice amount of spring onions and chilli underneath, which delivered a nice heat to the turbot. The vanilla sauce, which has a strong vanilla flavour, goes surprisingly well with the dish, I was afraid it would taste like a dessert, but it didn’t. I did miss a bit of lemon though, to cut through the richness of the dish. Or actually I would add lime which would go perfectly with the chilli as well. And yes, there is the parsley again!

Steamed and Buttered Spinach (£3.50) and Gratin Dauphinois Potatoes (£3.50)

The sides are kept traditional as well. Proper, old school, gratin dauphinois potatoes, like I hadn’t tasted for a while. Nice guilty pleasure.

Trolley with digestives

The digestive trolley is perfectly in it’s place in these surroundings. Like stepping back in time. It feels like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot could walk in any minute and order his usual crème the cassis. Love it!

Tarte Tatin (from the spring menu)

The tarte tatin was disappointing after the dishes we had so far. The pastry was too thin to play it’s part and the sticky caramel you expect oozing down from the apples was not there. The apples were not really caramelised as well. The taste was okay though, but this is not a proper tarte tatin.

Rhubarb Soufflé (£13)

The soufflé didn’t impress too I’m afraid. I had to send the first one back as it was still raw inside. The second one was only just cooked. Instead of ice cream, a rhubarb flavoured water was poured into the soufflé. Maybe it was supposed to be syrup, but it wasn’t. The flavour and taste was way to flowery. Unfortunately it didn’t work. I tried to eat the soufflé without the flavoured water, but then there was no taste of rhubarb. The granulated sugar along the sides of the ramekin was too coarse, so it grinds between your teeth, Not pleasant. A disappointing dish. It’s clear that desserts are not the strength of this kitchen I’m afraid.


The service is old-fashioned and impeccable. Maitre D’ Michael runs the dining room with style and charm. But the waiting staff seemed a bit bored and walked around a bit too much checking tables too often. They need to be trained a bit more on how it worked in the old days.

The decor is classic and so is the food. It exudes old-fashioned rightness, service and polish and it’s no surprise it’s lasted 40 years. But will it last another 40 years? To me it could well do, but it needs work, especially when they want to attract new (and younger) clientele. It’s not so much a case of this famous Thames-side restaurant having seen better days as not having been spruced up at all. The bar area looks great, but the restaurant has a museum-like quality to it, albeit a dusty one in need of a cash injection.

The same could be said for the food. Those nostalgic for the Seventies, when rich French cooking ruled the roost, will love it. But the kitchen really needs find the balance between tradition and innovation. The foie gras dish is a good example of what The French Horn should aim for. Nice traditional flavours of the classic French cuisine with a bit of modernisation. That would also maybe justify the prices on the à la carte menu again, which are clearly too high at the moment. However the set menu is very reasonable priced and the dishes were as good as the à la carte one.

Overall I loved the experience and I really see the potential as well. The grandeur of the old days is still there. A great restaurant that stays loyal to tradition. A slice of culinary history that needs to find the balance between tradition and innovation.