The world of haute cuisine is unashamedly stuffy. Sommeliers prowl among linen clad tables clutching wine lists thicker than dictionaries. Immaculately coiffured waiters glide serenely through extravagantly decorated rooms, explaining in hushed, reverential tones the provenance of course sixteen of the tasting menu. This is the world of the michelin star and the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, culinary landmarks. So you can imagine the stir when a little pub in Marlow was handed two stars, easily ranking it among the top twenty eating experiences in the UK.
Set in a quiet little riverside village, around an hour outside London on the train, The Hand and Flowers is a shining example of all that’s wonderful with British food. Over the last eight years Tom Kerridge has honed and refined his vision of the perfect pub. There’s a bar with a great selection of real ales, the dining room is small, initimate and relaxed; and there’s ample parking with a lovely garden. That’s where the similarities with your local stop. Reservations are like hens teeth, for weekends and evenings they’re booked out six months in advance. The waiting staff are friendly and wonderfully efficient. The menu ranges from traditional pub fare (fish and chips) to the exotically gastronomic (whole baby truffle encroute – with foie gras). The wine list is a connoisseurs dream – several keenly priced bottles are available and the selection of ‘natural’ and biodynamic wines is second to none.
On a beautifully sunny April afternoon I made the trek out from London for a luxuriously late lunch. A gentle stroll through the picturesque village from the station was a great way to start the meal. We were greeted warmly and shown to our table in the centre of the small but perfectly formed dining room – it really does look like a normal, if rather nice, pub. The menu proved a real challenge though – I could have happily picked five or six starters and at least four mains. After much deliberation I went for the Duck and Foie Gras Parfait, followed by the Lamb Bun. My dining companion opted for the Blowtorched Scallops and the Venison.
While we waited, a lovely selection of breads was brought out with a funky vinewood butter bowl and knife. A lovely cone of whitebait also helped ease our hunger pangs.
Parfait of Duck and Foie Gras with Orange Chutney and Toasted Brioche.
The quenelle was beautifully executed – I snagged a small sample of the chilled parfait with the fork and was instantly rendered speechless. It was incredibly smooth and rich with a gorgeous ducky tang. Adding it to the brioche gave some lovely textural contrast and the sweet, fluffy bread worked really well with the rich parfait. The final flourish was the orange chutney – sticky, spicy and full of citrus flavours. Duck and orange is by no means inventive, but it works for a reason and i’ve never enjoyed the combination more. To create a dish where each element is executed perfectly is one thing – to make them all sing in unison is quite another.
Blowtorched Scottish Scallop with Warm Roast Chicken Bouillon,
Morels, Nasturtium and Apple.
This dish appeared on Masterchef: The Professionals and is deceptively clever. Cooking the scallops with a blowtorch helps prevent overcooking them while adding the lovely flavour of caramelised scallop. The warm chicken bouillon relies on a modern hydrocolloid to create a thick, warm gel. The flavours are matched and layered with real precision.
Essex Lamb “Bun” with Sweetbreads and Salsa Verde
This is another of Kerridge’s signature dishes – a beautifully presented bread/pastry sphere encases a protective caul-fat layer, cabbage, slow cooked lamb and sweetbreads and a final nugget of lamb in the centre. It’s a wonderful dish, I love the combination of sweetbreads with two different types of lamb and the salsa verde adds a really nice citrus note with just a delicate mustard hit.
Loin of Cotswold Venison, King Oyster Mushroom “Farci”, Blowtorched Gem Lettuce and Salt Baked Beetroot
The venison was immaculately cooked, the mushroom provided a lovely earthy note, the lettuce brought a smokey sweetness and the beetroot was sweetly divine. Venison is a great ingredient that doesn’t need embellishment – but if you’re going to do it, this is how. Every element helped support and show a different aspect of the flavour. Magic.
Hand and Flower Chips
Presented in a little copper pan – these are among the finest chips I have ever snaffled. Cylindrical, freakishly crispy and well seasoned.
I was initially concerned that we hadn’t ordered enough sides – but by the time we were done we were surprisingly full! With a dessert menu that tempting though – pudding was always going to happen.
Hand & Flowers Chocolate and Ale Cake with Salted Caramel and Muscovado Ice Cream
The immaculate cube of cake (with a lovely powdered coat) masks a salted caramel centre. The muscovado ice cream is inspired and adds a lovely nutty note. The dish was served with a small glass of strong beer which really helped bring out the flavours of the chocolate. It’s a cunning idea and one i’ll definitely be trying in future!
Banana Soufflé with Gingerbread Custard and Yoghurt Ice Cream
This souffle is nothing if not impressive – a towering edifice to culinary skill. They’ve managed to endow it with a deep banana flavour which marries well with the cinnamon spice of the custard. The texture is almost ethereal, but backed up by a lovely crunchy crumble on the top. Magnificent.
The Hand and Flowers is a fantastic experience – I adore restaurants that take an idea and polish it to perfection and this is the prime example. There is a daunting array of culinary skill on display and real care and thought taken with each element. They haven’t strayed from the pub format and the really relaxed, friendly environment and staff make it thoroughly enjoyable. The menu is reasonably priced for the ingredients and quality while the set menu represents incredible value – it’s the cheapest michelin starred food in Britain. My only criticism would be that it’s too far away and far too popular. Go – you won’t regret it.