The Hand and Flowers, 126 West Street, Marlow
Every year, the publication of the new Michelin Guide generates congratulations and controversy in the catering industry whilst, at the same time, a crowd of naysayers pop up to point out how the whole system is flawed, antiquated or elitist. Neither reaction has ever really interested me, I can't get excited about stars because I'd so rarely choose to eat in that sort of restaurant. Yet whilst I'm no Michelin apologist, I do see its value - I'm a Bib Gourmand girl. However, the early publication of this year's results did have an impact on my Michelin equilibrium; we had booked the Hand and Flowers for a family meal, inadvertently throwing ourselves in the path of a gastronomic super star. Having never eaten in a Michelin starred restaurant, all of a sudden the Forks were booked at a place with two.
Naturally, I was beside myself with excitement. As well as the double star, there were other things to recommend the Hand and Flowers: a flurry of positive reviews over the summer and Tom Kerridge's triumph in Great British Menu for the second year in a row. As is always the case though, there were a few sneaking doubts and that horrible sensation that any disappointment would be magnified by the expectations it failed to live up to. Fortunately, there was only one tiny area for improvement; and it was so small it hardly touched the sense of well-being that comes from eating the best of a nation's cooking. Particularly when that nation is your own.
Mr F and I were the first to arrive, so tucked ourselves in to our comfy corner and waited for the others. We waited at the table because, and this is the only real criticism I would make of the Hand and Flowers, there's nowhere else to wait. Of course it makes sense for every available space to be used for tables which generate income, I understand that. However, said tables are also turned with quasi-military precision and the first sitting doesn't have much time to get out of the way of the second. Later in the evening, as I watched the people arrive for our table and wait by the door, I thought it would be nice is there was a little space for them. Or just a little more time for us. Although we knew the deal when we booked, one hour and 45 minutes for a table of seven was always going to be tight.
Fortunately, the rest of the party arrived promptly and we got on briskly with the process of ordering. All credit to the staff though, they did have to rush us along at some points but they did it with charm and efficiency, so none of us could object. Mr F's starter of foie gras parfait and orange chutney was elegant. Perhaps it lacked some of the inventiveness of the other dishes, although the brioche came in a little toast stand, but its flavour and texture were spot on. Mr F judged it to be better than meat fruit. The smoked haddock and parmesan omelette was also extremely good: a well-matched combination of perfectly wobbly egg and smoked fish, and a worthy interpretation of a famous dish. I didn't try the moules mariniere with its little cap of stout foam, but others spoke highly of it.
I managed to persuade two others to order the roast hog, the winning dish in this year's Great British Menu, so I could try the duck. The pork was as visually stunning as any dish I have ever seen. Coming in three parts - the trotter, the deep fried head and the rolled, roast belly - the diner is left to build their own roast pork dinner. As others have observed, the potatoes come in a sack made of inedible dough which, whilst another pleasing visual gimmick, is very difficult to crack open with anything remotely resembling decorum. All of the hog was excellent but the trotter and the head were the clear leaders in terms of flavour and texture, we particularly liked the contrast between the flaky, unctuous middle and the crispy exterior of the deep fried pig head. The duck was less spectacular, in the original sense of the word, but no less delicious. As well as the beautifully tender but still pink breast, there was a little duck faggot and a pot of wonderfully sticky gravy to pour over it. Along with a cocotte of buttered cabbage, it was a well-balanced and satisfying dish.
We didn't have dessert. Instead, they happily plated and candled a home made birthday cake, and sang when they brought it out. I was impressed that we were able to do this, and it wasn't something I would have expected from a be-starred establishment. Aside from cost, it is the reputation for elitism and reserve that puts me off the multi-starred places, so it was good to see that the Hand and Flowers still had the down to earth charm of a good English pub.
What I liked most about the Hand and Flowers was its approach to traditional pub food. Before our visit, I wondered how they would elevate solid, simple dishes to the point of Michelin recognition, without losing sight of their less glamorous origins. After our meal, I am inclined to think it is through inventiveness and attention to detail. From the little cup of cider to drink with the pork to the stout foam on the mussels, all of the dishes are proper pub food at heart, but with more effort put into making them delicious than I have seen anywhere else. My experience at the Hand and Flowers may not have enticed me to join the red book fan club, but only because I doubt there many are places in the book like it.