Monday 11 December 2023

The Dew Drop Inn, Hurley

I think the Dew Drop Inn must exist, because I have photographic proof I was there on Saturday afternoon, sheltering from the wind and rain in their front bar, cozying up next to a log fire and sipping on a pint of ale. I can see the payment on my credit card statement, I can see the return to Maidenhead on the GWR app, and I have a friend who I met for lunch that day who will also confirm all of the above to be true. In all probability, the Dew Drop Inn does exist.

And yet barely two days later, my memory of eating there is so blissful and surreal that if I didn't have a paper trail of receipts and visual aides-mémoire I'd genuinely start to question whether it happened at all. To begin with, there's the location, buried deep in the Berkshire countryside, surrounded by thick forest and at the end of a long (and frequently flooded) dirt track so far from passing trade it's like they're trying to be as inaccessible and mysterious as possible. All the way down that impossibly unlikely road you convince yourself you must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, or the sat nav is out of date, until all of a sudden you turn a corner and there it is, a quaint little 17th century pile, a quiet puff of wood smoke from the chimney the only sign, at first, anyone is home.

Inside are stone-flagged floors, low-beamed ceilings, a cute bar serving local beers and various immensely comfortable looking tables, most tucked into the corners and within hand-warming distance of the fire. For an English pub fanatic like me, this would be more than enough - these are my happy places, these ancient pubs - the first thing I'd miss if I moved abroad, and the first places I'd seek out on my return. If I'd only had a pint of Brakspear then headed back to the big smoke, it would not have been a wasted journey.

Except, perched on each table in charmingly florid handwriting, is a five-course menu of sophisticated French classics, exquisitely tasteful and desperately tempting, with the frankly unbelievable price of £39 stated underneath. Now, I don't know the last time you had a five-course lunch for £39 but I'm guessing a) it likely wasn't in the last decade and b) didn't look anywhere near as exciting as this. And the first thing to arrive wasn't even listed - some completely brilliant crunchy batons of - I think they said - fermented yoghurt bread, hot out of the oven and served with a dreamy salted butter.

First course proper was a dainty little pile of white crab meat studded with tiny cubes of grapefruit, then on top of that a lattice of gently pickled apples. I've had a variation on this dish at chef Simon Bonwick's previous place the Crown at Burchett's Green (which is still going, headed by Dom Chapman formerly of the Beehive) and enjoyed it, but here it seemed improved and elevated, with a more robust crab element bound by a light mayonnaise, and more interesting citrussy accompaniments.

Next came a stupidly generous slab of pâté en croûte, bursting with salty, porky filling and with a very clever central layer of some kind of mousse. It came with a selection of house pickles, my favourite as ever being pickled onions. I don't know why I don't have a picture of them - probably too busy eating them.

The pâté en croûte would have been a perfectly decent main course in its own right, but the Dew Drop weren't done yet, not by a long shot. The main course - duck, from Crediton in Devon, was a hundred different masterclasses at once, and describing just how brilliant every bit of it was could easily run to thousands of words, but I'll try and keep it brief. Firstly the animal itself was cooked perfectly, pink and tender with a layer of fat on each morsel just enough to season and provide an irresistable burst of expertly rendered fat, but then you might expect at least that from a kitchen with such pedigree. It came dressed in a stunning glossy sauce, the kind of thing it takes lifetimes to learn, balanced and beautiful and studded with juniper berries which popped delightfully in the mouth.

That would have been enough - more than enough - without two little shapes of pickled beetroot which packed full of zingy flavour, a roasted chestnut and roasted clove of garlic which were great fun eaten together, and a fondant potato so buttery and smooth it almost dissolved in the mouth. And yet, that still wasn't all. Alongside this wonderful plate of food, we were served a dollop of silky smooth mashed potato topped with crispy shallots, as well as a pot of honey-glazed (I think, apologies if I'm wrong on that) carrots and broccoli. It was all quite overwhelming, and I had every intention of just trying a mouthful of each element until I realised how good it all was and nearly did myself an injury attempting to shovel it all down. And remember, these weren't extra sides - they came as part of that £39 lunch. Included.

Dessert was something called a "Crème Chiboust", not a phrase I'd come across before but eating Simon (and increasingly his son Charlie) Bonwick's food is never anything less than an education. It was a kind of a light cream dessert studded with tiny bits of meringue, served with a fantastic pistachio ice cream, and it all disappeared in record time. Oh and they also served a little cube of house baklava on the side, because why not.

We still weren't done. Alongside a giant bucket of excellent Armagnac ("You must drink it all," I was told; I was hardly about to disobey) was a piping hot caramel canelé, equally the match of any of London's best patisseries. And though I might have suspected that Armagnac and canelé make a good match, it is my pleasure to report that they most certainly actually do.

Now, full disclosure, that Armagnac didn't turn up on the bill, so many thanks to them for that because it certainly put a spring in my step for the rest of the afternoon. But something else that didn't turn up on the bill was a service charge - they leave it entirely up to you how much to add - so we happily added on the standard 12.5% and ended up with a total of £54 each for what was easily one of the most mature and sophisticated classical French menus of recent years. It's no exaggeration to say that if we'd paid three times that each, we still would have considered it value.

So it's not just the generosity of spirit and portion sizes; it's not just the complete mastery of classical French technique evident in every last morsel of food served from that tiny kitchen staffed by two people; it's not even just the sparkling service and magical atmosphere of this ancient building nestled deep in the English woods. It's all of these things, and more - a miraculous, singular anomaly which is hard to believe exists at all. There's only one thing for it - I'll have to go back. Just to be sure.