Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Mash Inn, Buckinghamshire

The Mash Inn, nestled in the Chiltern Hills fifteen minutes drive outside of High Wycombe, would be well worth a visit even if just to sit by the wood fire in one of the cosy corners of this ancient building and nurse a pint of local ale. It's one of those places that just the pleasure of occupying a part of it for an hour or two is worth the cost of the trip out of London alone, and though I'm sure it's delightful whatever the weather outside, this particular weekend a light snowfall the night before had lent its ancient aspect an extra touch of winter magic, and its warm, dark interiors beckoned even more enticingly.

But the Mash is not just a very pretty face. Inside, one of the aforementioned cosy corners is taken up by a bijou but well-appointed open kitchen, with a butchery table in constant use and one of those Extebarri-style winched wood-fired grills looking like some kind of medieval torture device. It's a kitchen that means business, and the attitude carries through to the menu, which lists a number of niche ingredients that would evade the sourcing talents of many lesser restaurants - sea urchin, muntjac deer, pheasant. What exactly we were going to be served was to be a mystery though - our table of ten, assembled from far and wide (OK most of us got the train from Marylebone) were to be in the hands of chef Jon Parry for the afternoon, and after a few moments huddled in the bar nursing a traditional local... gin martini, we were ushered into the brighter dining room in the back to eat.

As a philosophy, "getting hold of the very best seasonal ingredients and presenting them simply, and well" is hardly unique in the culinary world, but it's surprising the number of places that either get the basics wrong, such as timing of meat or fish, or alternatively can't resist the urge to add one or two unnecessary extra flourishes to a dish. Everything at the Mash Inn is exquisitely tasteful, and nothing is unnecessary - such as these vibrant radishes, lightly dressed and seasoned, with a clever hay-smoked mayonnaise.

Next an impressively gooey burrata, studded with fermented cherries (anything you see that isn't strictly seasonal has most likely been kept pickled, and with so little room in the kitchen the jars of weird and wonderful ingredients appear in all corners of the pub, lending the place an air of an eccentric alchemist's study). On top, a pile of fresh black truffle, because why the hell not, and on the side a completely wonderful grilled flatbread slicked with fermented wild garlic which was like God's own garlic bread. Oh yes, we were enjoying ourselves by this point alright.

"Burned leek and bog butter" was something I'd been thinking about ever since scanning the sample menus on the pub website a few months back, and did not disappoint. The leeks are charred on the grill, then the outer blackened layers removed to leave a supremely tender and sweet core. This is then dressed with a hollandaise made from butter that had been, well, literally stored in a bog, taking on all the peaty flavours. Where exactly one finds a bog in the Chilterns I'm not sure, but I suppose the Mash would need to keep the exact location under wraps in case anyone stole their carefully ageing butter under cover of darkness. Anyway this was a brilliant dish, with more shaved truffle exactly the right way of finishing it off.

I don't know where the Mash get their scallops from, but I need to find out, because these were the sweetest, plumpest and most perfect scallops I can remember eating in a long time. But it wasn't all just down to clever sourcing - bucking the 'rawer the better' trend that seems to be the norm these days, instead this beastie was caramelised to golden brown on the outside and with a satisfying solid, meaty texture within. Lifted with some foraged succulents and a bit of pickled ginger, it was pretty much the perfect seafood course.

Then the Main Event. Now, Mash weren't to know that not two months ago I'd sat down to lunch at what is generally regarded as the best Asador in the world, Etxebarri in Northern Spain, and eaten the best bit of txuleton I've ever had in my life. They weren't to know that, having seen the rack-winch grills in the corner of the kitchen at Mash that I had high hopes for their way with a bit of protein on the bone, and despite trying to keep my expectations in check, they weren't to know that there would be a part of me that was always likely to compare the one real-fire restaurant with the other. But they really needn't have worried. True, the Galician steak is that extra level of marbling and beefiness above even the finest of UK cow, but the way it was treated - with a delicate dark crust from super-precise grilling, and perfectly rare inside - was absolutely Etxebarri level. I mean just look at it.

Plus, Extebarri didn't do chips, and Mash Inn do excellent matchstick fries, cooked in beef tallow if I'm not mistaken, for that extra deep richness of animal fat. They also served grilled baby gem lettuce with crunchy, chillified XO sauce, which were lovely, and everyone got a bit of breadcrumbed bonemarrow too which we first scooped out and ate, then used for making bonemarrow sherry luges.

Ah yes, about that. There were ten of us, we took up a good portion of the restaurant, it was a birthday celebration, we'd started drinking Cava before we'd even left Marylebone station, and I'm afraid by the time the (super, though don't expect me to tell you what they were) cheese course came around there was a certain atmosphere of, shall we say, exuberance. I don't think we made a nuisance of ourselves, or annoyed any of the other guests (I'm always fiercely aware of how bloody awful it is when you're sat next to a noisy table) but thanks to the giddy exceptionalism of the food and the ease of ordering yet another bottle of wine, events did rather run away from us. Those of a nervous disposition may want to avoid looking at the following bill.

But you know what, it was worth it and then some. Only very rarely is fierce ambition like this - to cook everything over fire, and to use only the finest local and seasonal ingredients - matched with enough talent to not have the results lapse into some kind of hipster gastropub cliché, or to be overbearing and pompous. The menu at the Mash is serious, and seriously impressive, but also effortless, borne of the joy of being able to serve exactly the kind of food they want to cook. As winter turns into spring and them summer, the idea of revisiting the Mash to try asparagus, or grouse, or even oysters prepared on that wood-fired grill becomes deliriously tempting. And as I've never been very good at resisting temptation, I imagine I'll be back as soon as the snow melts.



William Leigh said...

Did some good booze damage there - is the set menu only £60?

Matteo Sacchini said...

I like the idea of rating some restaurants their food, their service and more, but i think it can work out very bad for the restaurants when you give them a bad rating. You have many readers and if you say a specific restaurant is bad, too expensive or has any other problem it can become worrying for the restaurant and they will lose customers. Also showing the bill directly to the readers might not be a good idea. Apart from that i like the idea of rating restaurants, but maybe only do it positive, and don't tell your readers that some restaurants are bad or too expensive for the food and service they give out to their customers. This comment is not a hate comment let that be clear, i'm only giving out my opinion to you.