Forty years ago in those PC (Pre-Conran) years, you would have struggled to have found half a dozen outstanding restaurants in any of the villages and squares which made up the Kensington and Chelsea communities.
Today, we are spoiled for choice and the knock-on effect has been considerable. “Celebrity” chef television programmes assail us ad nausea; we have witnessed the growth (and shrinkage) of wine-only retailers, plus the arrival of the deli and those weekend farmers’ markets. And the online experience – Ocado, Waitrose, Naked Wines, and Laithwaites et al – is only just beginning.
Food is no longer an adjunct to our way of life; it has become central to our cultural experiences: more live to eat than eat to live. Today, Lebanese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants vie with those family favourites: ASK and Pizza Express. It has truly been a quiet revolution.
So it takes a brave decision not to have a lazy summer lunch on a Sunday at the Inn on the Park in St James’s or upstairs at the Tate Modern and instead head for the hills which is what I did the other Sunday. I was intrigued that a country bistro pub just off the M40 could attract not just one star, but two! And so that is how, dear Reader, I ended up at The Hand and Flowers in Marlow.
First, a warning: book. You will need to book a month or two ahead. Turning up on the day may leave you without a table or a very, very long wait – though that’s always a good sign for a restaurant. I booked, but the earliest they could fit me in was 3pm as they try and squeeze in two sittings….Of course, you could have been smarter than me (not difficult) and booked one of the adjoining cottages and made a weekend of it. The Angus Suite has a spa patio whilst the Charles Suite has a Jacuzzi terrace and two waterfall showers: next time.
I know that a critique of a restaurant should mean I tell you about the courses which consumed me alongside the odd glass of vino but that won’t tell you about the range of the platters on offer. So let me give you an inkling: there were nine starters ranging from Kohlrabi and Bone Marrow Fritter (£14.50) to Salt Cod Scotch Egg with Chorizo and Red Pepper Sauce (£8.50) to Crispy Pig’s Head with Artichokes, Crackling and Pancetta (£9). Tempted? Then there were thirteen mains from Loin of Cotswold Venison with Ox Tongue, Berigoule Mushroom, English Lettuce and Prickly Ash (£26) to Essex Lamb Bun with Sweetbreads and Salsa Verde (£23.50) to Line Caught Cod with Pastrami, Morels Herb Crust and English Asparagus (£26.50). I hope that’s whetted your appetite: have you reached for the phone yet?
If you had room for a dessert, the range was just as eclectic and I plumped for the Liquorice Meringue and Strawberry Ice Cream from a selection of seven (all £9) plus there was a full cheese board (£11).
First things first: there was plenty of parking to the side of the pub, which is rarer these days. The staff were unfailing courteous – not always a given outside of London – and couldn’t have been more helpful. I no longer eat meat so they were especially attentive as I said as much when booking online.
I had the Moules Marinière cooked in Warm Stout (a first) and Brown Bread (£9.50) – a simple dish with an edge. I followed this with the Whole Lemon Sole with Fine Herbs, Smoked Puy Lentils, (Bacon), Pistachio and Swiss Chard (£24.50), which was an attempt to try something different with the fish which I am finding can be a tad boring on its own. To wash it down, I had a couple of glasses of a New Zealand Sauvignon, or at least I think I did. My sense is that the Chileans and the Kiwis are beginning to give the French a run for their money at the medium end of this market.
The pub is tight for head (and occasionally room) space – though you can eat out once a year when summer graces us with its presence. As a day out it was just what the doctored ordered. I’m not a foodie but I have yet to see the range of dishes on any bistro pub menu in or out of London. Give it a try you won’t be disappointed.