But The Hand & Flowers is no ordinary gastropub (someone invent a new word for pubs with food, please):
- The chef/patron is Tom Kerridge, who opened H&F in 2005. If you're a fan of Great British Menu, you'll have come across him. His bubbly, cheerful and gentle on-screen presence belies the nerves of steel, and indefatigable determination, he must need to run a Michelin-starred kitchen. He always struck me as too sweet a chap!
- The a la carte menu is a great read: seasonal British food cooked inventively with classic French techniques, such as Parsley soup with smoked eel, bacon and parmesan tortellini, and Essex lamb "bun" with sweetbreads and salsa verde.
- It's in Marlow. An impeccably turned out town in Buckinghamshire, a stone's throw from London, littered with upmarket restaurants. Marlow folk have plenty of money to spend on fine food.
The restaurant area takes up most of the pub floor, and is sensitively lit and furnished. Sanded bare wood tables are adorned with heavy cutlery, handsome glassware, starched napkins, and flickering candles. Sun streamed through the window at our corner table in the 'family room' (not as bad as it sounds, I promise), jolting us out of our winter blues, and the staff were warm and welcoming. A good start. Even better once I had a £6 glass of Reisling Louis Guntrum 2010 in my hand. (Well worth seeking out: it's around £9 a bottle online.)
Whitebait with marie rose sauce. This was a lovely surprise, not listed in the set menu. They were the best whitebait I've eaten. Simple, soft, delicate, and crisp, their saltiness and lightness whet our appetites.
Crown Prince Pumpkin Soup with Maple Walnut Dressing. A wave of salt knocked out my tastebuds. I objected at first, muttering about overseasoning, but two mouthfuls later, the sweet earthy pumpkin and smoky nuts and seeds burst through, reviving my tastebuds. Heavy-handedness with seasoning was overlooked, and the rich soup was happily polished off.
Bavette of Beef, served medium rare, with Roasted Onion and Mushroom Ketchup. Also known as flank steak, bavette is not a forgiving cut, but it's damn tasty (the cheapest cuts of any meat are often the tastiest - think chicken wings, pork belly). Provenance was not mentioned, but I'm pretty sure The H&F source their ingredients meticulously. The mushroom ketchup was a perfect accompaniment. Rich, yeasty, sweet sauce, a posh creamy brown sauce if you like. As were the double/triple cooked chips...
More fat than potato, granted, but they were perfectly crispy and fluffy. The perfect fat chip. The second best chip I've ever had. The best are, and probably always will be, the frites at Restaurant Les Pins in Sillans-la-Cascade, Provence.
Toasted Barley Fool with Oat Crumble and Goat's Curd Ice Cream. 'Decadent' doesn't come close. This was a big, beautiful bowl of light-as-air cream, infused with the warm malty note of barley, studded with crunchy sugary oaty bits, with refreshingly sour ice cream hiding in the bottom. Pure, heavenly indulgence. A perfectly judged combination of flavours, too.
20-month-old Charlie had Fish and Chips with Tartare Sauce, and a fair share of our food too. Scoffed the lot before I got to try it. Though it would have been better if they'd brought his meal before we'd got through starter and main.
It was an incredibly good-value indulgent meal, and I urge you to go there while the offer's still on, or splash out on the menu proper. Meanwhile, I'm saving up for the a la carte menu, and planning to make a weekend of it (the restaurant has rooms upstairs).