The Hand and Flowers
126 West Street
Marlow SL7 2BP
Tel. 01628 482 277
Food type: British Gastropub
Nearest train station: Marlow
Website: The Hand and Flowers
The meals out for my birthday week continued thick and fast, with a visit to Tom Kerridge’s Hand & Flower’s pub in Marlow my next destination. Booking a table here has become a complete nightmare ever since they got their 2nd star, with tables booked up as far as 9 months in advance. The problem with my job is that I actually do not know what my rota will be like in 6 months and hence, for a while I had just completely given up on ever dining here. Thankfully, the restaurant saw some sense, scrapping the old reservation policy for one where you book 3 months in advance, much like you would at Gordon Ramsay or Fat Duck. In addition, they frequently advertise any late table availability (last minute cancellations) online and that was how I managed to snag a table here for a weekday lunch. For this visit, I would be joined by one of the ‘Pies’ who had also been wanting to dine here for ages.
The menu here is a simple 3 course a la carte affair. No tasting menus although one is available if you dine in their private dining room called ‘the Shed’. Items are individually priced with Starters £9.50 – £16, Mains £28.50 – £39.50 and Desserts £10.50. The set lunch menu is a bargain, 3 courses for £19.50. It is actually nice to see the restaurant still offer a set lunch menu as I am sure they could easily do away with it given how fully booked they are. From what I have been told, by a fellow chef, the Hand & Flowers do a solid 150 covers every day. That they are able to produce such consistent food for that many covers is remarkable.
Prior to the meal beginning, we were presented with some Sourdough and Soda bread which were both very good with butter as well as an extremely tasty Welsh Rarebit Dip. Alongside this was a packet of potato crisps which were flavoured with onion. The potato crisps were rather inconsistent, with some bites nice and crisp and a few duds which felt stale and lacking crunch. Also some pieces had good onion flavour and others, well, felt like eating cardboard. I am not sure the reason for the inconsistency here. Maybe there was an earlier batch which had been made and not stored properly.
All was forgiven though when my starter arrived – Gala pie with a Matson spiced sauce, in essence the sauce was a home made version of the curry sauce you commonly find in your local chippy. My waiter informs me that Kerridge was inspired the curry sauce he first encountered in Matson, Gloucestershire and set on recreating his own version. Hidden inside the golden pastry crust was a quail’s egg, runny yolk and all, moist sausage meat, spinach and some lardo. The seasoning was spot-on – very bold and taken to the very limits of what would be acceptable. A fine line between perfect and overseasoned. The magic though was the Matson sauce, so incredibly deep and complex, understated in its appearance, yet delivering a huge impact like a mighty sledgehammer. This may look all too innocent, but has to be one of the best things I have eaten in a long time.
For mains, I went for the ‘lighter’ option of Monkfish as I had a long dinner awaiting at Bonhams. This was a deceptively simple dish, the monkfish loin cooked with a curry spice with cauliflower two ways and raisins. Something you would be make at home? Possibly, but not to the degree of execution found here. For one, the monkfish was impeccably cooked. Timing, seasoning – both absolutely spot on. I am pretty sure the fish is first briefly brined, then cooked in a water bath before being finished in a hot pan with a mixture of curry spices and butter. It was an incredibly generous slab of monkfish too, a proper hearty portion. And the garnish of cauliflower puree – caramelised to the point of nuttiness, with an almost bitter finish which is balanced by the sweetness of the raisins and acidity of the verjus sauce. On the side, an extra portion of Hand & Flowers Chips which dare I say it, are better than Heston’s. Easily.
The grand finale was the Hand & Flowers chocolate ‘cake’. It really wasn’t a cake though. More like a denser ganache dusted with cocoa powder, on top of a small pool of a salted caramel disc and a perfect rocher of muscovado ice cream. Sweet, rich, indulgent chocolate with just a hint of bitter from the cocoa and maltiness from the muscovado sugar the perfect foil. To enjoy with the dessert, is a little thimble of Hog’s Back Brewery Bitter which was the perfect match for the cake. As an aside, when I tried making Kerridge’s Chocolate & Ale cake at home, I also used the very same bitter. The brewery is very close to where I live and does produce some fantastic ales.
I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at H&F. It is the type of place I would love to come back to time and time again as it serves the type of food I enjoy eating – unpretentious, bold, honest flavours and generously sized portions. Unfortunately, because of circumstances, namely the award of a 2nd Michelin star and how fully booked it has become, it is no longer a place you can visit on a frequent basis. There is however always the option of the Coach down the road (which does not take reservations and operates a first come, first served policy) if you want a taste of the type of food produced at H&F. The award of the 2nd Michelin star is a sticking issue for many. Whether that award is right or wrong, is for Michelin and Michelin alone to decide. For me though, stars and awards mean very little in the grand scheme of things. To put it into perspective, I enjoyed my meal at Hand & Flowers, a lot more than any of the 2* meals I had in Berlin this year, bar perhaps Tim Raue. Frankly, I’d rather eat a dish like Kerridge’s Gala Pie than the frogspawn at Facil. Ultimately though, the best accolade that I can pay the restaurant is that I am already booked to return in December and January.