The Hand and Flowers can’t be a pub because it’s nobody’s local. Sure, it looks like a pub. It has low, uneven ceilings, and even lower beams – the type that require a sign of caution – and a few ale pumps standing to attention, pricked like a set of hare’s ears, ready to maintain the pubby frontage with every pull of a pint. But it isn’t a pub. It’s a high-end restaurant in boozy drag, one that’s bloody difficult to get into.
It becomes clear on entry. A handsome extension houses the bar, which, topped with polished pewter, gleams against the exposed brickwork and glows like bread oven, its under lighting exhibiting a thing of real beauty. And rightly so – the bar is supposed to be the chamoised jewel in the pub’s crown; but this is far slicker and more refined than your average. No one props it up with a nonchalant elbow (there are chesterfields instead), there aren’t KP nuts hanging from the ceiling like perpetual decorations to Phil Mitchell, nor are their fag machines or condom dispensers in the bogs. Instead there are H&F own brand soaps and smellies contributing to the faint whiff of privilege. It’s hallowed ground for epicures, fabled for its two Michelin stars and heinously long waiting list, and has the ability to make you feel special before you’ve even had a drink. And what other pub can to do that?
There was a card from the management and a couple of complimentary glasses of Poire Granit waiting at the table – it was a special occasion for many it seemed – a lovely touch that redressed the staff’s initial distracted reception as they tapped away on tills leaving us standing awkwardly to contemplate who in their right mind would want to buy a Marlow FC training top for £50, on sale in a glass cabinet by the door.
In the restaurant, chunky wooden furniture was matched by the tableware. Little blocks lodged cutlery in position, salt and pepper sat in the hollows of a hefty slab of hardwood, a ligneous butter knife was propped up with a wooden strut so that is pivoted like a see-saw and a pubby amuse bouche of lightly dusted whitebait came packed in a newspaper cone on another specially designed piece of timber. When all were on the table together it was like a grown up play set, a defiant choosing of rusticity over sophisticated silverware. The same carpenter may well have whittled some of the waiters too, their continental stiffness and formality a reminder that you were here to eat, and eat well – which we did.
A modest bowl of lovage soup was one of the more complex starters, concealing within its herbaceous depths, finely diced apple, smoked eel and a delightful tortellini that oozed ham and cheese – possibly gruyere. It was fragrant like celery, subtle and unusual but heavily reliant on its garnishes for interest and a good punch of flavour. Kerridge has the ability to make great things better, but fell short with his sausage and whole truffle demi ‘en croute’. At £16.50 it needed to be brilliant, but the dish, only marginally bigger than a golf ball, failed to deliver the heady intensity of truffle or the comforting hug of a sausage roll. It was a picnic snack with vertigo, elevated to giddy heights with dubious success.
A slow cooked duck breast, made famous by Great British Menu 2010, lacked nothing in the flavour department. It was perfectly pink, and boldly seasoned, bordering on salty for those with delicate palates. A livery faggot, buttery savoy and exceptional chips cooked in the fat of the bird were proper accompaniments, no messing around whatsoever.
The pork main had many more elements, some of which were truly memorable. Little pomme dauphines so light they could have floated away, a pickled mustard leaf which was a startlingly tasty mouthful of greenery, a meltingly-sticky cheek and the tenderloin itself, which was served pink – the way only consummate sous vide cooking can achieve. The garlic sausage was slightly underwhelming, a miniscule piece hidden beneath the wilted leaf, but an inexplicable slice of cold cooked ham was a piggy step too far. The crispy hock sprinkled on a side of kale ensured that every inch of the animal somehow found its way into my mouth.
The appeal of the dessert menu was great enough for even the most replete to perform a gastrointestinal reshuffle in order to make room. Crème brulee was thick and eggy under a brittle top; a shot glass of whisky beer came along side. A heavy malt gateau with malted milk ice cream was given sweetness by a caramel sauce and a vital sour note in the yeast tuile filled with crème fresh. They were simple, unfussy and meticulously created. You only have to read Kerridge’s cookbooks to appreciate how much time goes into getting them just right.
But two stars? I can’t see it. Pitching The Hand and Flowers as a pub seems to have moved the Michelin goalposts – they’ll let a few things slide as, after all, it’s not a proper restaurant. Rubbish. It is. It’s a very good one and should be judged accordingly, right alongside the watertight operation and haute cuisine of places like Le Manoir or Midsummer House. To me, a single star seems more befitting, but who am I to judge after just one visit. Perhaps ask the regulars, they’ll know better. That’s if you can find any.