Wednesday, 4 June 2014
The Hinds Head, Bray
Last weekend I was very kindly invited over to the Chase farm and distillery in Herefordshire, where they have been working on a very exciting new project with the Pizza Pilgrims guys - a limoncello, made with real Amalfi lemons. It's going to be great, like everything Chase do (I am a fervent fan of their marmalade vodka), with a lovely smooth taste of fresh citrus and naturally cloudy (this is a sign of good limoncello, apparently, and why most supermarket versions use clouded glass to disguise their inferior product). But this post isn't about Chase, or Pizza Pilgrims, or even the fantastic local Hereford beef I tried in the Verzon hotel (a revelation). This post is about a reservation we made on a whim for lunch on the way back into London on Sunday, at a pretty old pub in the commuter town of Bray.
OK, so, the Hinds Head is hardly unknown. The owner is Heston Blumenthal, arguably one of the most famous chefs on the planet, and has been part of the Fat Duck group for a decade. Last year, as well, it won a Michelin star, which won't have hurt its profile, and let's not ignore the fact that it's situated slap-bang in the middle of Bray, a town most famous for hosting two 3* Michelin restaurants and where the income of the local population seems to sit somewhere between Richard Branson and the Crown Prince of Dubai. This is a place that would never struggle to get by.
That it impresses on pretty much every front, then, is not just a surprise but a delight. The temptation would surely have been there to rely on the Blumenthal name to draw in the punters and serve a menu of Fat Duck Lite, perhaps snail porridge and liquorice smoked salmon and desserts with popping candy and dry ice, keep anyone too impatient to have a reservation over the road happy, and make some easy money. Or even go down the Ramsay/Oliver route of a proto-chain, laminated menus and short-order food with an eye on a nationwide rollout.
Instead, the food at the Hinds Head is unique, classy and full of personality, a million miles away from the usual celebrity chef fare and one of the most enjoyable lunches I've had in many years. It's best described as a sort of fantasy gastropub, with favourites like Pea & Ham Soup and Shepherd's Pie given a complete ground-up reworking, tweaking and the full range of clever cheffy techniques to make every element of every dish the absolute best it can be.
Take, for example, the straightfoward-sounding "Soused Cornish mackerel, grapefruit, radish and spring leaves". Sounds attractive enough on paper, summery, familiar, safe. Not so. The meticulously bone-free fillets of mackerel were not just gently (and very successfully) pickled but also - I think - roasted over an open flame, giving the skin a great crunch and colour. The vegetables performed a medly of form and texture, the soft grapefruit and bitter leaves combining particularly well, and a few slivers of fried bread added yet another level of interest. A joy.
"Cured duck salad" was, again, on paper a gastropub standard, but pimped by the Hinds Head into something approaching a masterpiece. The translucent folds of cured duck were extraordinary enough by themselves, a real achievement by whoever's in charge of this stage of the process. But it came with a precisely soft-boiled quail's egg planted in a blob of heavenly truffled mayonnaise, and a selection of wonderful summer vegetables, asparagus and artichoke and the like.
And completing the perfect trio of starters was this, "Hash of snails", which placed lovely meaty molluscs (gastropub gastropods) on fried bread just the right distance between crunchy and chewy, and was topped with toasty roast pistachios and fennel. And doesn't it just look beautiful? One of the very nicest things I've ever had the pleasure of eating.
We also found room for a Hinds Head Scotch egg, which was still every bit as good as I remember from when they entered the Ship Wandsworth's venerable Scotch Egg Challenge and came a very creditable 2nd place back in 2012. Soft, moist meat, a greaseless coating and - of course - perfectly runny yolk inside.
I know there'll be some people who see the photos of these roasts and think the portions look a bit on the small side. I think the problem is that as a nation we're used to piling our plates sky high with commodity beef and packet gravy in some misplaced idea of "value" when in fact it would be a lot better for all concerned if we just ate a normal portion of much, much better ingredients. So here's (not very good photo sorry, I do still make mistakes despite my new hardware) a gorgeous roast pork collar with a little sausage of stuffing, a pork cracker - very clever - and with it a compote-like silky apple sauce and gravy so good I wanted to eat it like a soup. And, in fact, did.
Roast beef was every bit as good. Quarter-inch slices of rare aged beef of obvious quality, and a delicate Yorkshire pud like the fanciest French patisserie. Potatoes were hardly anything so straightforward as roasted; they were golden-brown casings of delicate chip containing an interior so soft and creamy it was as if they'd injected it with butter mash. Who knows, perhaps they had. As with the pork, each element of what would otherwise had been a standard Sunday roast had been pumped-up, tweaked and upgraded to the very best you could possibly imagine it could be.
Oxtail and kidney pudding sat in a bowl of glossy reduced stock gravy, and contained the richest, most powerful mixture of oxtail studded with bouncy chunks of kidney. For once I'm going to let the pictures do the talking here - I bet you can almost taste it yourself.
Desserts now, and each came with a little bit of paper explaining the history of the dish. One of us thought it might have been rice paper and I nibbled the corner to check. It wasn't. So apologies for whoever got the slightly eaten description after us but though backstory is interesting, far more exciting was what was on the plate - a panacotta-style dairy pud studded with vanilla, and a lovely caramel-roasted banana topped with chunks of roast nuts. Texture, flavour, presentation all top-notch.
"Chocolate wine slush" is, as the description might suggest, a vaguely chocolate-y but mainly wine-y sorbet, paired with a salty caramel shortbread looking like a domino piece. With this our friendly barman had paired an Innis & Gunn oak-aged beer flavoured with maple syrup - the drinks list having clearly had the same level of care and attention as everything else. We also enjoyed, at various stages in this long, life-affirming afternoon, a Belgian blonde called St Stefanus and - more theatrically - a rum old fashioned finished with clouds of demerara-spiked dry-ice.
There were also petits fours - weeny chocolate cups of lemon (I think) cream. And even the coffee was good.
It was all rather overwhelming, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. The attention to detail made for some stunning food, but the monumental effort that must have gone into the dishes made me feel exhausted just thinking about it. How many sackfuls of potato must they have gone through to get those roasts so utterly right? How many combinations of meat and egg went into the development of the Scotch egg? How many duck farms and curing methods before they settled on that starter? It's boggling.
But the beauty of the Hinds Head - the sheer, blinding beauty - is that they've done all the hard work. All you need to do is rock up with a reservation and a wallet (oh yes, it's not cheap, but it is value) and let them do their thing. The charming Tudor building and equally charming staff (I'll forgive our French waitress not knowing what a shandy was; she didn't put a foot wrong otherwise) are just the icing on the cake of what is surely, unquestionably one of the best restaurants in the country. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how it's done.
EDIT: The petits fours were lime & ginger. Thanks Lizzie (read her report here)