Tuesday, June 19, 2012
The Hand And Flowers: Can A Two Star Michelin Eatery Really Still Be Called A Pub?
I’d been wanting to go to the Hand And Flowers for a long time. The last time I’d drunk there was as a youth, when it’d been an unassuming country pub perched on the fringes of an upmarket town, and I’d thrown up in the garden. But, unlike me, it’d done a lot of growing up in that time, and was now a two-star Michelin eatery owned by fast-rising celebrity chef Tom Kerridge.
So a few days after returning from my 17-month sojourn in SE Asia, I drove to Marlow in Buckinghamshire to try out the grub. As I walked up to the front door, I was delighted to see Kerridge dealing with a van driver in the car park. The 38-year-old cook appeared rather red-faced and stressed - much more chef-like than the relaxed, smiley-faced man who stole the show on the BBC’s Great British Menu.
The fact that he was there at all, not just propping up the bar signing menus and regaling customers, but actually in whites cooking in his own kitchen, spoke volumes. Compared with the number of absentee sleb chefs you get in restaurants these days, it was a hugely refreshing sight knowing he would be behind the stove, driving on his team of nine cooks in his newly-enlarged kitchens, rather than flouncing around in front of cameras.
But as it turned out, he’d just returned from a three-week jolly to Singapore, where he’d been showcasing British pub food with his sous chef. I don’t know who’d been covering for him, or whether standards had slipped in his absence, but I was glad to be eating there when the big man was behind the stove, even if he did look a touch jet-lagged and frazzled.
The venue is hailed as the only pub in the world with two Michelin stars...but hang on a minute. Pub? Alright, it serves draught beer, has a bar, and is decked out in dark wood, but surely a pub is somewhere you drink? Somewhere you can order beer without anything more than crisps, cockles, or pork scratchings and not get frosty looks? It’s not a place that sells bottles of 1995 Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Amoureuses, Dmne Roumier for £1,100, or have I been away too long?
For me, there’s an easy test. If you can drink there happily without having to order grub, it’s a pub. If you can’t, it’s a restaurant. So the Hand And Flowers definitely isn’t a pub. I mean, there’s a line at the bottom of the menu saying minimum spend £15. You wouldn’t get that in a proper pub, would you? So just to check, I gave them a ring, pretending I’d just moved into the area and was checking out the local venues. Could I have a drink in there without buying food, I asked, expecting an immediate: “No, of course not. Fuck off.”.
I was wrong. The manager seemed quite well versed on the subject, schooled even. She said I was welcome to have just a drink. But only if I was standing at the bar, or standing or sitting in the garden. In short, the only way I could sit down without being rained on was by ordering food. So that’s settled - the Hand And Flowers IS a pub and is quite correct when it describes itself as “the first pub to have been awarded two Michelin Stars”. I just don’t know anyone who’d want to drink there. Five minutes of being jostled by never-ending waiters would be enough.
But as it turned out, I ate at the bar anyway. I’d booked the day before, and the only free table was at 2.45pm. “Isn’t there anything earlier?” my dining companion asked, so I tried again. The manager, who’d clearly forgotten about space needed for drinkers, said I could have a table at the bar at 12.45pm, 1pm, 1.15pm, 1.30pm...and presumably would have gone right the way through the afternoon at quarter of an hour intervals, until I said 1pm was fine.
So there I was. Kerridge looking red-faced dealing with a supplier in the car park. Me sat at the bar in candle-light. It’s for this reason, I have to apologise for the very poor quality of these photos. The place was so dark, it was like eating in a mine shaft. I ordered a pint of Greene King IPA, and my dining companion went for a similarly splendid gin and tonic. You might think there’s little that can go wrong with a gin and tonic, but apparently not. And there must be something in it, otherwise Michelin inspectors wouldn’t test the quality of a restaurant’s, sorry pub’s, beverages by ordering orange juice (is it freshly-squeezed etc) and a G&T (don’t ask).
Although the choice of items on the a la carte menu sounded fantastic - crispy pig’s head with rhubarb; loin of Cotswold venison with ox tongue; parsley soup with smoked eel et al - we went for the set lunch menu of two courses for £15, or three for £19, because I was paying. I was also intrigued how they’d pull off two-star cooking at the price of an all-you-can-eat Sunday curry buffet.
A plate of “free canapés” quickly arrived, delivered in a bounteous fashion as if they were a special favour for us. But it turns out they do this for everyone. A couple of slices of delicious bread, tiny saucers of flaked salt and freshly-cracked pepper, and a fish and chip-style cone of whitebait in a wonderfully light batter.
The cone arrived on a wooden board next to a small pot of Marie Rose sauce - which was as bad a match as it was made. Why anyone would want to dip whitebait in prawn cocktail sauce is beyond me. But when it’s the sort of pedestrian mayonnaise and over-riding ketchup flavour you’d expect from a James Martin airline meal, it’s far harder to stomach. But perhaps I’m being too harsh? They were “free canapés” after all.
The next blip was the “cauliflower soup with potato pakora and curry oil”. Cauliflower soup is never a particularly brilliant dish, for my money, but it works best when it’s done simply with just cauliflower and stock. This one was so drenched in cream, the cauliflower was left peeking out like a pervert in a Soho booth.
The soup was topped with a huge and deliciously-spiced pakora. But where was the curry oil? Normally you can’t miss it, because chefs can’t stop themselves doing fancy patterns with squeezy bottles. Then came the question of how to eat it. Do you dip the pakora in the soup? Or wolf it down, then get to the soup? Or sink it and eat spoonfuls of pakora and soup?
I went for the latter, and clearly this wasn’t the right way because as soon as I put my spoon down for a second, mid-bowl, the waiter - obviously noticing there was no longer a massive pakora terrifying my broth - snatched our plates away.
“Finished our soups gentlemen?” he said, not waiting for an answer. “How were they for you?”
Normally, I’d be annoyed. But I was pretty much creamed out by that stage. And it was the only fault in the otherwise excellent service. Sadly, in many Michelin-starred restaurants, or far worse prissy restaurants overlooked by the tyre guide, the service can be so affectedly solemn it leads to the sort of constipated atmosphere that does little for the indigestion. But it was just right at the Hand And Flowers. The Dereks were friendly and relaxed without too much pushy, while being extremely professional and attentive throughout. The only exception was the soup snatcher with the silly hair. But there’s always one.
Next came “belly of Wiltshire pork, spring turnip puree with marmalade and Italian leaves” - which was an absolutely sensational dish. Kerridge is known for his pork, and this showcased every bit of his talent. It was quite simply out of this world. It wasn’t the most generous portion of meat, but what do you expect at that price?
The belly, garnished with kohlrabi shoots, was juicily moist, and the skin beautifully crisp. It was perched on grilled and pickled endive, which was wonderfully bitter, and balanced the sweetness of the turnip puree and marmalade. The toffee-coloured gravy was divine, and having worked in a couple of Michelin restaurants, I can only guess at the fuss that had gone into creating it. Almost as good were the tiny copper saucepans of pomme boulangère we ordered from the sides to go with it. It really was a wonderful plate of food.
We were asked if we wanted desserts, but settled for coffee. I was tempted by the wonderful looking cheese board perched near my elbow - camembert, Wookey Hole Cave aged cheddar, Golden Cross, Barkham Blue, and the strongest of them all, plaisir au Chablis - a cheese from Burgundy washed once a week in wine.
Overall, it was a very relaxed, charming place to eat with brilliant service. And perhaps it’s unfair to judge a restaurant, sorry pub, by its lunch menu, but if it hadn’t been for the brilliance of the pork dish and boulangère side, I could have shut my eyes (or blown out the candles) and imagined myself in any one of the thousands of mediocre gastropubs that have spawned across Britain. I'd need a lot more convincing to accept it's the best one of the lot.
:: My new book 'Down And Out In Padstow And London' about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE