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Whenever a restaurant has a sizable waiting list you seem to get one of two experiences; either it blows your mind and is worth the wait or you leave thinking that all the build up and anticipation was really not worth it. The Hand and Flowers refers to itself as a ‘pub restaurant with rooms’ and we had over a 3 month wait for a table and a chef, Tom Kerridge, renowned for cooking food with ‘big flavours’ (in other words, my favourite type of food) who has wowed on each TV appearance; things were stacking certainly stacking up to go one of two ways here.
We arrived on a dark spring evening to eat during the last service of the day; we thought that maybe we could have a sneaky pint before our booked in time but any chance of it being sneaky were rather dashed on arrival. There are bar stools but just a couple with all other space used for eating space; there is an outside area for drinks but on a cold day it didn’t look so inviting so instead we huddled in the doorway as people left and others entered – so not the best of starts.
We finally got seated and were presented with the menu (a document we could probably now by now recite from memory after all the build up to eating from the time we booked) and a fantastic basket of bread, butter AND deep fried whitebait; a dish that I had eaten for years on numerous UK coastal holidays yet have probably never had better than this. After a shaky start with the door huddle we were certainly back to 1-1 on the amazed/disappointed scale.
I went for a slightly controversial starter – a mackerel scotch egg. I do love a scotch egg but how good can one actually be? Does it have a place on a 2 star Michelin menu? It certainly looked the part as it made its way to the table but in reality it was ‘just’ a scotch egg; the fish gave it a unique taste but the largest flavour was of the herbs the flesh was mixed with, the egg (a quails egg) was perfectly cooked but far too small to provide enough yoke-fuelled goodness to the dish. That and the fact that a number of the other started looked so appealing (and indeed were as my dining companions didn’t think twice about ordering them) meant that we were down to 2-1 on the review scale with just two courses to go.
And then we had main course.
The menu said ‘Slow cooked duck breast with peas, duck fat chips and gravy’, my eyes said ‘meh, that looks a bit on the mean side’ but my mouth said ‘ooohhh baby’. Following on the rough football theme this was like when Arsenal would keep Thierry Henry on the bench for a second half onslaught on the opponents goal if things weren’t going to plan. Cheesy analogies aside comparing this dish to Henry is as good as I can do in regard to explaining just quite how good it was, everything was perfect and every ingredient added it’s own thing to each fork-full. Not only was the duck cooked perfectly but the added flavour from the Chinese tasting rub from the skin, the crispy shelled and fluffy chips and the bacon infused and butter-rich cabbage combined to hit every taste-bud, every positive receptor in my face and leave me with a huge grin as cheesy as the English I’ve just used to describe it. This was a winning dish on the Great British Menu in 2010 and nearly 4 years later it’s very much a winner now. Slow cooking food in a water bath has never excited me all that much but this dish showed the technique off to perfection.
At this point the scores were off and regardless of whatever happened with pudding the meal was going to be a winner but the standard set before was very much kept up as the come from behind victory was sealed at 3-2 by an amazing souffle. It had impressive size as if it had exploded from it’s case yet an even more spectacular taste and texture. It wasn’t quite a Koffmann souffle but it was very very close and the addition of both a cold ice-cream and a hot custard meant that if you aimed well you could get two awesome puddings in one.
So yes, it is very much worth the wait (whatever it might now be) to get a table at the Hand and Flowers. The food isn’t fancy, refined and in some cases not all that pretty to look at but while this isn’t a pub anymore by any stretch of road this is where it’s food essence lies, it’s food that you want to eat cooked as perfectly and as skilled as you’ll likely find with more flavour than you can imagine possible. Loved it, would go again (and choose a safer starter).Tweet