Restaurant Reviews: Southern England
The Fox Inn, Lower Oddington
The Hand and Flowers, Marlow
Boasting a cracking reputation, a Michelin star and
as I'd been quite impressed by Tom Kerridge on last year's Great
British Menu, I felt I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try the Hand
and Flowers at Marlow while I was in the area.
Recession? What recession? They were fully booked. Fortunately the sun was beating down and a small patio area with unreserved tables between the restaurant and the car park could be pressed into service, and I was able to get a table there. It was a bit exposed to the traffic noise and fumes (don't be fooled by the photograph above: I was luck to get a break in the traffic in order to take that), and very exposed to the sun. Thankfully, they were able to provide a number of parasols to prevent the diners getting sunburn, but they couldn't do anything about the road. (I didn't really take in the interior, but it all looked quite basically pub-like and more than a bit cramped: I think outside was actually the better deal.)
Bread (sourdough and soda) was excellent, though they appear not to believe in butter with it.
Whitebait seem to be becoming the amuse bouche of the moment, which is odd as many people don't like the idea of eating whole baby fish. I'm never sure about whitebait. I love them, but they are invariably frozen. Not that frozen fish can't be excellent, but particularly in high-end restaurants, frozen fish never feels right. Also as frozen, who knows where they come from? Are they sustainably fished? Can whitebait ever be sustainable, given that they're the fry (babies, if you will) of other species? More importantly from the gastronomic point of view, they still need careful preparation so they don't become a soggy lump when fried, which I suspect is at least one reason why it's now possible - at least for the catering trade - to buy them frozen, pre-floured. Though I've no idea about where and how they get them at the Hand & Flowers, and as they're not on the menu, there's no description there to check.
Here at the Hand & Flowers, the whitebait come as a handful of some nicely plump fish, presented in a very neat little cone of real newspaper. But unfortunately they were very limp. A little bowl of marie rose sauce with the whitebait did not seem to me either to show off the kitchen's skills nor be the greatest accompaniment.
While the crispy pig's head with pickled rhubarb sounded attractive, I remembered how often I am disappointed by such dishes, tending to be little deep fried, breaded cubes of soft meat, rather than giving you the full joyous textures of a more rustic presentation. So I went for something which should really show off the kitchen's skill, the more classic "parfait of duck and foie gras."
Presumably the dish's name referred to it being made with regular duck liver as well as foie gras? It was nicely made: very, very smooth, though a little cold (but any warmer and it might have melted into a pool on the plate). I'd have preferred a little more flavour in it, though you could argue that it's that level of 'refinement' that Michelin like. The parfait benefitted hugely from an orange chutney (out of shot) that managed not to be marmaladey. A large slice of toasted good brioche also came with the parfait.
The menu had a coyly named dish, Essex Lamb “Bun” with Sweetbreads and Salsa Verde. The waiter careful explained its preparation: lamb wrapped in sweetbread and chicken farce then in cabbage leaf then in a brioche dough. Sounded good. Looked pretty good too, very neatly done. Though there's a clear trend in the plating here: of acres of white plate surrounding a single item in the middle.
The lamb was nicely cooked, though not the most tender I've come across. The pastry was a little tough too. But the most disappointing was the farce which had a very strange flavour that I didn't like. It really seemed to be a dish where execution outweighed enjoyment.
On its own, the lamb bun was a bit dry, hence why it needs the accompany sauces. Unfortunately, the gravy tasted of little, while the salsa verde (which had been processed and passed to absolute smoothness) dominated the lamb completely. I think the highly processed salsa verde was a mistake: part of the joy of salsa verde is, in my view, in the mix of textures, and blitzing it to complete smoothness seemed to bring out too many of the bitter notes.
Dessert, however, was a most magnificent save. Like everything else on the menu, it sounded excellent, particularly on a hot sunny afternoon: "Warm Pistachio Sponge Cake with Melon Sorbet and Marzipan." When it came, it looked even better, with a checkerboard melon terrine on the plate too:
The mosaic terrine of melon was beautiful and pure, and ingeniously made by - or so the waiter explained - vac-packing it to condense it until it all stuck together. I suspect there must have been a bit of gelatine or some fruity transglutaminase-like substance brused over each layer. The melon sorbet was perfect. And the two melon elements were a superb counterpart to the pistachio sponge. I had a pistachio sponge at Van Zeller in Harrogate which was a bit heavy and dull. This one at the Hand and Flowers, was at once light, vibrant and sticky from the gently caramelised pistachios on top. The marzipan element mentioned on the menu is the little ultrafine stick perched on top of the sorbet in the photograph. My one criticism would be that I would have liked a little more of the marzipan, as it was effectively just an extra thing that went in half a mouthful, and so didn't really play a role in the dish that merited its billing on the menu.
Coffee was really good, though no petits fours, which I might have expected in a place with the aspirations Tom Kerridge clearly has.
I was also going to say that service was really good: helpful, efficient and very knowledgeable. But then they committed the cardinal sin of turning my table while I went to the loo at the end of the meal. There is really nothing worse than returning to your table to find someone else sat there, and having to ask them if they could pass you your things from under the table. Extremely embarassing for all, apart from the restaurant's staff who happened to be around.
Brown's, OxfordLarge, bustling, wooden floors, lots of mirrors - all rather Parisian brasserie. The food runs in the same vein. The menu is divided into nibbly things, starters, light mains, mains and desserts; and there is a blackboard, though at 19:30 all but one had been crossed off marked sold. We shared a small ramekin of mixed olives and feta and a baked camembert to start with. The olives were a bit mean in a disproportionate ratio to cubes of feta that were so small and perfect they must have been out of a jar. Baked camembert was just that - no attempt had been made to season or flavour it with slivers of garlic before baking.
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Last updated: 15 February 2011