There are certain ‘destination’ restaurants, and if you drop enough clangingly enormous hints, sooner or later you might even get taken to one. I had stamped my feet and said “But I want to!!!” like some kind of middle-aged Verruca Salt so many times that my girlfriend’s principal reason to take me to Tom Kerridge’s Hand & Flowers for my birthday was probably to shut me up. I didn’t of course, but I am beyond grateful to her and may well be quiet for an extended period now, especially if I’m given some of his pork scratchings to nibble on.
There may be more beautiful phrases in the English language than ‘Two Michelin starred pub’ but I can’t think of any. In this case, however, I would have to take certain issue with the pubbiness of the whole venture. Mr Kerridge’s recently enhanced TV presence and the clear brilliance of his cooking meant that the first thing we noticed on our arrival was the rather large extension being attached to the side of the building. Admittedly there is nothing inherently un-pubby about that, (although I wonder how many other pubs are expanding at this point in the recession,) but even the most battle-hardened CAMRA member would have to admit there are very few ‘proper’ pubs doing two sold-out lunch sittings on a Monday in late October. Again, that is not a criticism, but reading up on the pub, they have advertised four bar stools set up ‘for locals’, and I have to say that if I fancied a pint in Marlow, I’m not sure a stool squashed up against the bar of the Hand & Flowers would be where I’d have it. This is not a pub. It is a restaurant that happens to be in a pub, and if I sat at the bar, ordered a Guinness and took my paper out, I’d feel about as out of place as Marcus Wareing in a Wimpy, no matter how warm the welcome. The Hand and Flowers is all about the food, and I have very little issue with that.
We were taken to a sturdy table in the snug and slightly darkened main room of the restaurant – if I’m honest, a little more natural light wouldn’t hurt – and settled down with the menus and a palpable air of excitement. This was only heightened by the arrival of some light as a feather sourdough and a soda bread with a deliciously sneaky black pepper bite. We also got a slab of deeply satisfying salted butter that I half wanted to take to Dover and wave at the French to show them what butter should really taste of. We were also brought a little newspaper cone of fat whitebait and Marie Rose sauce, which pleased me no end. Not enough places serve whitebait to help you think, no matter how many times Jeeves tells us fish is good for the brain.
There is a very reasonably priced set menu at £15 for two courses or £19.50 for three, not to mention award winning fish and chips for £16.50 but, dear reader, it was my birthday. My crispy pig’s head was a joy to behold in every sense, a thin stick of perfect crackling setting off the unctuosness of the croquette (my other half even described it as “ a bit dirty – like really, really, really good KFC”, and I kind of knew what she meant.) The pigginess quotient was further increased by the addition of a beautifully rich sliver of pancetta and one of the best black puddings I have ever tasted and sharpened by a slice of pickled rhubarb, a coulis and a few fronds of chickweed. And yet this was not the best of the starters. Blowtorched Scottish scallop came in a densely satisfying mead and beef stock, further enriched with shavings of truffle and a flowery hint of nasturtium and apple. It tasted both familiar and yet unlike anything we had ever eaten before. While my starter may have been a wonder of technique and assembly, this was a veritable piece of alchemy, and probably the best thing we ate all day/month/possibly year.
Main courses were also excellent, although with a couple of minor reservations. As a complete sucker for The Great British Menu, I had to order the duck breast (winning dish 2010,) slow cooked immaculately, if not from the biggest duck. A juicy duck faggot, stickily rich duck sauce, duck fat chips and savoy cabbage with confit duck leg made this one of the duckiest dishes I have ever eaten even if the cabbage was a little over seasoned. Similarly, curly kale with crispy ham hock could have been improved with the crispiness not doing the meat any favours, but luckily I had a glass of very fruity Argentinian Trapezio to moisten it back up again.
A tenderloin of Wiltshire pork was a sublime piece of meat, accompanied by another deeply flavoured and sticky piece of malt glazed cheek and garlic sausage with a little ham, potato dauphine and a mustard mayonnaise. The one thing we couldn’t get our heads around was a pickled mustard leaf. Try as we might, we both just found it too pungent and over-powering. Tom must like it, as you don’t throw a flavour this robust at a dish without giving it some thought, but it wasn’t for us. Maybe we should have asked him as he bustled through the restaurant at this point in his whites – the fact that the chef who had gained the Michelin stars was doing the actual cooking probably allows us to forgive him for the mustard leaf.
There were no quibbles about dessert. A perfect glazed apple tart came with an almost nutty burnt milk ice cream, but did not quite match my tonka bean panna cotta, which was almost (but not quite) incidental to the fireworks of the poached plums, baby meringues, plum sorbet and ginger wine jellies that sat on top of it. This was another stunning looking dish that ate as beautifully as it looked.
I didn’t get to see the bill, but I’m sure it was some considerable way north of the hundred pound mark, and for this level of cooking, not to mention the sense of occasion, it felt well worth the price, which of course one would say when one’s not paying. The second sitting had begun, although we were not hurried along in any sense, and we left feeling happy and very well-fed – just not much like we’d been to a pub. Luckily, that evening we went along to see The Book of Mormon, and the amount of gratuitous swearing involved meant we redressed the balance somewhat. It’s not a traditional musical, in much the same way that, try as it might, The Hand & Flowers isn’t a traditional pub, but you won’t catch me complaining. Unless you’re a pickled mustard leaf.