It’s known to gastronomes the world over. Mention the word ‘Bray’ to anyone and the words Heston and Blumenthal are bound to pop up in the conversation. Nicknamed ‘Braymenthal’ because of his influence, this chocolate box village, close to Maidenhead, is home to three of his ventures.
Heston is the King of culinary alchemy and the Michelin starred Fat Duck sits prominently in the high street but blink and you’ll miss it. The Crown is a 16th Century inn but the more obvious is The Hinds Head pub in a building which dates back to the 15th Century. Dark wood and brass plaques adorn the walls inside, alongside framed pictures of various royals past and present. It’s here the engagement of Princess Margaret to Lord Snowdon was celebrated and was also the place Prince Philip held his stag do before his marriage to the Queen.
So for today’s lunch I’m more head of table then head of state. Six diners, none of us shy, made even less so by fine wine, great conversation and excellent food. We weren’t disappointed.
The boys ordered drinks at the bar and they swiftly made their way to the table, arriving before us. The offer of aperitifs was a lovely touch although after much reminding both Kir Royales (£22.50) arrived at the same time the wine course did.
A quick eye over the menu and there was plenty of regular well-priced pub grub and some dishes that had been given the Heston twist. Versions of Tudor recipes were evident with both oxtail and kidney and Quaking Puddings contrived with the help of food historians at Hampton Court Palace. Kevin Love, formerly of Claridges and Gordon Ramsay is the head chef here just now, and took charge when Clive Dixon went off to head up Pierre Koffman’s kitchen at The Berkeley.
Immediately we order 6 plates of Devils on Horsebacks. Two swollen prunes, which are soaked in Armagnac until they resemble mahogany sponges, they’re then ‘injected’ with mango chutney, wrapped in pancetta and baked until the pancetta crisps. (£1.80).
The Scotch Egg (£3.50) was exceptional; it’s mustard mayonnaise accompaniment pale yellow and just the right amount for dipping. A lightly blanched quail’s egg is wrapped in thick, well-seasoned sausage meat and deep-fried in the lightest Panko breadcrumbs. The yolk predictably oozes on breaking and the pork meat cooked well.
If you’re a fan of Heston’s range at Waitrose, then you’ll already be quite familiar with his tea-infused smoked salmon. Under the heading ‘Specials and Signatures’ he serves a Hinds Head tea-smoked Salmon (I had lots) with soda bread. This comes with ribbons of wafer thin cucumber and a food crusted soda bread (£9.50).
The South Coast Crab on Toast (£9.50) was piled high on thinly cut and well-grilled toast. Well seasoned with a creamy binding, enough to keep the ingredients together, but not too much to overpower that distinctive taste of the sea.
I had hoped our table would order six different dishes but as it was Sunday lunchtime the Roast Pork Collar with Crackling, Stuffing and Apple Sauce (£19.50) was the winner.
Plenty of snap crackle and pop and that was just the crackling that sat on top of the dish. The request for two Yorkshire Puddings was met without fuss or additional cost and was much appreciated by those not having beef. Light fluffy, crispy and soft inside, the pudding mirrored the potatoes and the pork was well seasoned and cooked well. The good thing about this cut of meat is the fat. Because it’s slightly fatty it benefits from longer cooking times. It doesn’t allow the meat to dry out which is a bonus.
I don’t think I’ve tasted Rib eye Steak so good. Period. 10oz of pure bred Hereford beef, cooked medium rare and served with a jug of bone marrow sauce and a bowl of the famous triple cooked chips (£26.50). The exterior charred, yet cooked enough to melt the marbling throughout, still allowing it to remain a healthy pink. The sauce was rich and glossy, with nuggets of marrowbone bobbing on the surface. The size was shall we say healthy and most everyone shared a generous forkful with plenty left for the person who ordered it.
The Veal Chop, Cabbage and Onion Sauce ‘Reform’ taken from an 1830s recipe (£29.50) must have been good. I sat beside the man eating it, took my photos and then I don’t think I heard a peep from him until the plate was empty save for the massive bone he couldn’t eat. What I can tell you is that Reform Sauce was created in the 1830s by the French chef, Alexis Soyer. He was Chef de Cuisine at the Reform Club in Pall Mall. It’s a rich sauce that traditionally should include cooked salted ox tongue, gherkin, and hard-boiled white of egg, mushrooms and truffle. As to its recreation here, sorry, I can’t comment.
I ate from the set menu, 3 courses (£27.50) and my main was Wild Mushroom Macaroni with Poached Egg. A panko-topped cheese crust balanced a perfectly poached egg. When broken, the fat macaroni was so rich I had to keep checking there was no meat in it. But no, the strong flavour of the mushrooms carries this dish and married with the creamy yolk it was the perfect combination.
The sides are worth mentioning. Crisp green beans and perfectly cooked new potatoes sat in a dish with slow roasted cherry tomatoes (£3.50). The main dishes came with carrots, buttery cabbage and green beans. The Champ (£3.00) was buttery, salty, and coloured with bright green spring onions. Two dishes weren’t enough. Not because the portions were on the mean side, just because the comforting taste was all too good and we’re a greedy bunch.
The dessert menu has something for everyone. Chocolate Tart with Milk Ice Cream (£7.95) was ordered on a high followed quickly by a low when we were told it had run out. The famous Quaking Pudding was another winter warmer; a cream baked nutmeg rich wobbly pudding, with an infinite apple ribbon on the side.
My only criticism is that everyone wanted to try it and there wasn’t enough in the end for me. The Peach Tart with Yoghurt Ice-cream and Rosemary Caramel (£7.50) was another stunner. Crispy dessert pastry enveloped its peach jewel, varnished with a lush caramel glaze.
The boys shared a full selection of cheeses (£15.00) but all six of us dived in. Raisin and Macadamia nut bread arrived on a board with oatcakes and apple chutney. Cherwell (soft goats); Wigmore (semi-soft unpasteurised Sheep’s Milk); Crofton (Cow’s and Goat’s Milk pasteurised); Double Berkeley (Hard, Cow’s Milk Pasteurised); Stichelton (Classic Blue Cow’s Milk Unpasteurised); and Wensleydale (Hard, Cow’s Milk Pasteurised).
We ordered cappuccinos (£3.50) and an Americano (£3.00) which was served with hot milk. Cubes of salty, creamy fudge arrive and are inhaled. We pretend the signature fudge doesn’t arrive and with a wink we get fridge-fresh more. You should bag these beauties up and sell them. I think I would have paid any price to have a bag to munch on right now.
As for the wine, one of our fellow diners knows a thing or two about wine and a little bit about food too – he’s a chef. So we all sit back and know we’re going to get a good drop. He orders a dry Petit Chablis (£32.50), and a Fleurie (£33.25) the final red was a recommendation by Edward Crame our most excellent waiter, a Pinot Noir les Parcs which was (£28.50) nice but didn’t quite live up to expectation.
It’s Michelin’s Pub of The Year 2011 and when you’re mid-meal you do forget you’re in a pub. It’s not until you order water and it’s left without being poured that it dawns on you. Not just that but when the bill arrives too. For six of us, including a few pints, the two Kirs, three bottles of wine, and an apple juice the total was £425.36, which included a discretionary service charge of £47.26.
We discussed carrying on through until dinner; lucky for them they don’t Sunday’s are off the menu.
The Hinds Head, High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AB