High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AB 01628626151
Background:Our dear friend Jeffery is moving back to the States and to send himself off, he had planned a wonderful boozy lunch out in Henley the other Sunday. So what is one to do when they find they need to be out in the countryside on Sunday for lunch? Well, schedule two meals around it, of course! It was this magical thinking that brought us to The Hinds Head. The Hinds Head is the pub of the world renowned Heston Blumenthal whose claim to fame, The Fat Duck, is just down the road. The pub, built in the 15th century, has been operational for over 400 years and although its original function is unknown some say it was a royal hunting lodge while other the guest house of the Abbot of Cirencester. In an unusual turn of events, I was not burdened by the responsibility of making a reservation but was told by my friend, Michelle that her new boyfriend, Dawid (pronounced Daa –Vid, try it once more) had made a reservation and we would be having a double date. Fantastic! Luckily the skies were pouring down with rain so there was nothing more we all wanted to do then sit down to a nice pub lunch.
The Meal: One glance at the menu and it is obvious that a measured pace is advised although it was pretty clear that was not going to happen. We started off with two “snacks”, Devils on Horseback and Scotch Quail Eggs (we opted out of Warwickshire Wizzers); all of which needed to be explained by the waitress as there wasn’t not an Englishman among us and I was too embarrassed to admit just how familiar I already was with Scotch Eggs. That being said, The Devils on Horseback were exactly as good as any meat lover (pork in particular) can imagine sausages wrapped in bacon would be and the Scotch eggs were cooked to perfection.
For the starters we elected to go for some of the lighter options on the menu; the Duck and Smoked Guinea Fowl Terrine with Spiced Apples, the Picked Anchovies with Tomato and Garlic, the Scallops with Smoked Pollack Champ and a grilled squid that was not on the menu but an additional special. All of the starters were very good but the anchovies and the scallops were the stand out favourites. Fish, like aubergine, has never been a particular favourite of mine, strangely I am a diehard fan of anything shellfish. The anchovy, therefore, poses several problems; a) it is fish shaped, b) it is a fishy fish, and c) it has lots of little bones in it. Imagine my surprise when this rather large anchovy melted in my mouth without a hint of fish or bone. It was a delightful dish. The scallop was also very good but in a very different way. Where the anchovies were simply and beautifully prepared in a classic Mediterranean style the scallops were more inventively put together a la late 1990’s with a foam to represent the sea and breadcrumbs the sand. As cheesy as it sounds, I was still extremely tasty.
For the main courses, Dawid chose the Blade of Highland Beef with Savoy Cabbage and Black and White Pudding, Pascal got the Oxtail and Kidney Pudding, Michelle opted for the Wild Boar and Apple Sausages with Mash and Caramelised Onion Gravy, and I ordered the Aberdeenshire Beef with Bone Marrow Sauce and Triple Cooked Chips. Given that it was Dawid who brought us all together at the Hinds Head, it was only fitting that his choice would be the winner among champions. The beef shoulder was cooked sous-vide (in a plastic bag in water) for 17 hours! (I believe the hype) It was rich and tender and succulent and really anything you could hope for in a braised shoulder of beef with the crisped Savoy cabbage balancing the flavours very nicely.
The second favourite were the Wild Boar and Apple Sausages; a step up from your traditional bangers and mash and very good. My steak was lovely. And although am not such a kidney fan for those around the table who are more smitten with offal, the Oxtail and Kidney pie was also a winner.
Dessert: It’s hard to imagine that after such a feast we could muster the energy for dessert. But desperate times call for desperate measures and we dug deep; deep enough to order two desserts among the four of us. I choose the Caramelised Apple Crumble with Vanilla Ice Cream and Dawid chose the Chocolate Wine ‘Slush’ with Millionaire Shortbread. The crumble was a very good, solid, stand-up crumble, certainly worth another pass. The ‘Slush’ was an entirely different matter. If you were to analogize it would go like this: anchovies are to scallops as crumble is to slush. Make sense? It seems that culinary inventiveness was not just limited to the late1990s but also to the 1660s (there is a nice symmetry or palindromeness or something to that). Chocolate wine (made by whisking a strong wine like claret or port with sugar and chocolate) hit the scene in the days of Charles II and was seen as an aphrodisiac. The resulting dessert was very good in an “I can’t really figure it out but I like it” kind of way.
Closing Thoughts: It’s hard to say that you were blown away by a pub. Emotionally I find that difficult, but this place was really good. The beef shoulder is up there with best pieces of meat ever. Everyone walked out of lunch into the rainy afternoon and said, “Man, do I want to go to Fat Duck for dinner ... and come here for lunch.” I hope to find a reason to venture to Bray again, and soon!
Silverware: Classic and substantial
Silverspoons: 8.5 / 10
Damage:£50 / person including wine