For this particular food review, we’re rolling out the big guns. The only two Michelin star pub in the country, in possession of four AA rosettes and numerous awards, Tom Kerridge’s abode in the quaint town of Marlow has built up a bit of a cult following. Not only due to its relaxed, informal approach to dining, but also for its famously likeable West Country proprietor.
Having placed our reservation for Sunday lunch over a year ago, there was, inevitably, a certain sense of anticipation surrounding our visit. With such a long waiting list, lay the danger that the experience would go one of two ways; either it would prove worth the wait, or infuriatingly disappointing. It was in fact, a bit of both.
Finally finding a space in the tiny car park, we arrived at the busy bar area grateful for the crackling fires and cosy atmosphere. Unfortunately, we were immediately herded back outside into the cold, as there were no seats available. Not the greatest of starts. Perched next to a small chimenea, clutching an overpriced glass of gin, we waited patiently for a table in the bar area to become available. However, whenever one became free it was promptly offered to another group. “Perhaps it’s because they don’t let the riff raff inside” we joked, as Rowan Atkinson waltzes up to door and procures a table by the fire with ease. Half an hour later though, we were both freezing and furious in equal measure. It took nearly an hour for us to be ushered inside, and finally seated at a cramped, dingy table in the restaurant area.
The restaurant décor itself is quintessentially rustic- your standard low ceiling, pine furniture gastropub. Exposed brickwork here and there, varnished wood tables adorned with magnolia candles; it’s not unappealing by any means, in fact its rather refreshing for a fine dining restaurant to tone down the extravagant interiors. It can however become a tad claustrophobic at times, with waiters frequently brushing my head with plates and bottles for the adjacent table. Whilst appreciating that the relatively low prices of food inevitably puts a pressure on table spacing, I found this a bit of an interruption to my ‘relaxing’ experience. I therefore buried my nose into the wine list, where I finally began to find some sanctuary after a rather shaky start.
From this point, the rest of our visit ran much more smoothly. Chatty and knowledgeable staff managed to coerce me into a better mood (along with some delightful French wine) who quickly delivered a free basket of sourdough bread and small contraption for the butter. Superb as the sourdough was, I was particularly impressed with the arrival of a small newspaper cone filled with fried whitebait, accompanied by a small pot of Marie Rose sauce. The sauce was the best of its kind I’d ever had, which quickly reinstated my gastronomic expectations.
Choosing to skip starters in order to save myself for pudding, I watched with envy as my boyfriend’s parents tucked into a pork and mushroom terrine with dill, pickles and toasted sourdough, and a beautiful glazed omelette of smoked haddock and parmesan. After taking pity on me, I was permitted to sample a forkful of the omelette; tasting both familiar and refined, it was creamy, light and exquistely cheesy. The terrine, in its meticulous layers, also proved a worthy plate, and finally put an end to our previous misgivings.
With the wine flowing, I was slightly merry by the time our main courses arrived. With all four of us opting for classic roast dishes, I was pleasantly surprised to find my dish of half beer roasted chicken with citrus braised chicory, pumpkin, maple and coffee puree with oak gravy, was of a substantial size- it was in fact huge by fine dining standards. Nothing infuriates me more than small portions, so this gained some much-needed brownie points. Although potatoes and veg have to be purchased separately as side orders, my dish included various extras including dehydrated mushroom crisps (they looked like rice krispies), crunchy chicken skin, and shards of a kind of pumpkin caramel. These additions brought more than a certain aesthetical charm to my dish- the perfect harmony of taste and texture elevated the dish to something I had never quite experienced before. With my own personal jug of gravy thrown in for good measure, there wasn’t a single element that I could fault. Classic, sophisticated cooking at its finest.
By the time pudding was served, I was entirely appeased. The only person at our table to plough on with dessert, I tucked into a blueberry soufflé topped with hazelnut crumb, lemon sauce and cheesecake ice cream. The soufflé was a real treat with its perfect rise, but it was the cheesecake ice cream that stole the show. Creamy and indulgent, the end to our meal was more than satisfactory.
If you’re judging it on food alone, The Hand and Flowers is faultless. Whilst a pub at heart, the quality and skill in its menu is impeccable. It’s just such a shame that the service lets it down slightly. I hate to be the pernickety diner, but I really don’t like having to wait for my table- especially if I’ve booked it a year in advance. Perhaps it was my own heady expectations that took the shine off our experience, or because of certain diners turning up without booking a table and making us wait even longer (Len Goodman and Rowan Atkinson, I’m looking at you) but The Hand and Flowers doesn’t quite deliver the five-star experience I was looking for. Although it comes exceptionally close.