Restaurant Reviews:  Southern England



The Fox Inn, Lower Oddington
Lower Oddington is a delightful, small, sleepy Cotswold village just off the A436 between Stow on the Wold and Chipping Norton.
Photograph of Fox Inn, Lower Oddington

Photograph of a sleepy Lower Oddington

On a day like that, a pretty idyllic setting.

The Fox Inn looks inside and out like a good old fashioned pub, resplendent with beams and low ceilings. The assortment of bare wood dining tables in the main bar area don't feel at all out of place, though there are some smarter dining areas too.

It's immediately noticeable that the young staff are very good: friendly and knowledgeable, as well as very efficient.

Jugs of iced water appear immediately meaning no upselling of bottled water. Tick.

A starter of lambs kidneys on toast with tarragon cream sauce had a good tasty sauce, with the tarragon evident, but not dominant. The excellent kidneys were lightly cooked and very  tender - unusually tender, indeed - with confident seasoning.

My main course of Cornish plaice with lemon and shallot beurre blanc was quite simply superb. The fish was neatly trimmed, perfectly cooked and served on the bone (though I noticed that they were happy to serve it off the bone for an adjoining table). There was a nice hint of a smoky note from the pan. Mixed vegetables and buttered new potatoes came in separate bowls: the vegetables were spot on, though the new potatoes were just a bit overcooked: they almost crushed themselves under their own weight. Really good plaice.

For dessert, I asked the waiter for his recommendation between a Bakewell tart made with local jam and a rhubarb and custard Eton Mess, and we settled on the latter. I didn't really detect much of the custard element and the meringue was a little chewier than I'd prefer, but nothing to complain about and still a good summery dessert for an unseasonably warm spring day. A bit of concentrated rhubarb poaching syrup would have really lifted it by adding an extra hit of flavour.

Coffee is cafetière only, but was good.

One thing I didn't understand: why have a dated daily printed menu and blackboard specials?

All in all, a very enjoyable meal that on its own terms was vastly superior to the Hand & Flowers the day before.
Since the above was written, I understand that the Fox has changed hands.

(April 2011)

Black Boys Inn, Hurley, Berkshire
As recommended to me by Michel Roux, so there was some living up to be done here at this roadside inn.
Black Boys isn't in the village of Hurley itself, but lies just to the west along the A4130, the busy main road between Maidenhead and Henley.  You scarcely notice the road, even in the bedrooms, thanks in part I presume to good old thick walls. On the other side, there is a spendid view across the Thames valley.
View from Black Boys Inn, Hurley
Although apparently a 16th century coaching inn, it feels more like a cottage or two rather than an inn: there's no sense of it ever having been a pub*. Instead, it's a reasonably classy blend of rustic and understatement. There's a good homely feel.

The menu clearly draws on French influences, but not so much as their website, which talks of the cuisine of the 'Mères de Lyons' would have you believe. There's quite a French feel to the wine list, which offered plenty of interest.

I had a bottle of 2008 Domaine Mourgues de Gres, Les Galets Dorés, AC Costières de Nimes blanc which had quite delicate roussanne marsanne notes on the nose blending hint of marzipan with stony minerality. Nicely balanced palate with a deft richness and unusually noticeable acidity. 89/100
Very comfortable markups, at least on this bottle, which I see is £10.45 from Slurp, and £25.50 here.

Some very addictive tapenade flavoured breadstick nibbles came with the menu, which is attractive in a comfortable sofa sort of way.
I started with a terrine of chicken, foie gras and pickled ceps. This was nicely constructed with a good loaf shape. Unfortunately it suffered from that all too common fault: it was served a bit too cold. The foie gras was clearly identifiable by sight and texture, but was curiously timid. It came with a good chutney. But putting balsamic on some rather tough salad leaves does not constitute dressing them.

Next, I had an Arbroath smokie pot with cheese topping, largely because I thought it would go well with the wine, which it did. Obviously not a dish drawn form the cuisine of the Mères de Lyons, rather this seemed to me a very 1970s dinner party dish. Very rich, but saved from being too rich by a nice touch of grain mustard in cream. But unfortunately the blasting under the grill meant that the haddock was overcooked.

Main course was some excellent bass which came with a crayfish risotto and (said the menu) a lemongrass and saffron sauce.
The bass was on or just over very limit of cooking, and the crayfish in the rather bland risotto similar. But the sauce! I didn't really detect any saffron or lemongrass in it. Rather it seemed much more like an insanely good shellfish bisque reduction. It was so damn good that I felt like asking for a syringe full of it so I could shoot it up.

They'd run out of the homemade sorbets that I really fancied for dessert, so had a good, but ultimately unmemorable crème brûlée.

Service was good, despite being under pressure from a large party.

I stayed overnight in a very pleasant room, though things like a really token wardrobe (about six inches deep!) mean this really is a restaurant with rooms to stay in after a meal, rather than somewhere to stay a few nights.

Pretty good breakfast in the morning: bacon was exceptionally good, though the fried egg had a crispy bottom which I abhor.
(April 2011)

Since my visit, the Black Boys has changed hands
*A correspondent tells me they remember it as an undistinguished pub.

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.

Photograph from across the road of The Hand & Flowers, Marlow

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.)

Photograph of the bread and whitebait
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."
Photograph of the parfait
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.
Photograph of the lamb bun
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.
Photograph of the interior of the lamb bun

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:
Pistachio cake with melons

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.

(April 2011)

Brown's, Oxford

Large, 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.

Grilled goats cheese salad was reported to be fine, though I thought the salad looked undressed. Salmon fishcakes were reported, by a Scot who thinks of fishcakes as a way to make a bit of fish go a long way, to be a bit heavy on the fish (!) - especially when served with mashed potatoes or (good) chips.
I had the one remaining dish off the blackboard: spicy cod with paprika and peppers. A decent bit of cod, well cooked, but rather spoiled by poor preparation: it hadn't been properly trimmed and it hadn't been pin-boned. The sauce was good, an oil and fish juices emulsion flavoured sensitively with paprika and lifted by a couple of slices of stewed lemon (though preserved lemon would have been better). The dish was marred by an absolute mound of very bland crushed potatoes - half the plate and about one and a half inches high: far too much.

With four bottles of cheap wine (a pretty foul merlot and an acceptable South African Chenin - I wasn't ordering them so don't know the details) and two bottles of water, the bill was £140 for six.

Not recommended.
(November 2004)

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Last updated: 15 February 2011