Sunday, 11 May 2008
The Hinds Head, Bray
I have been cruelly teased about the fact that I have never been to The Hinds Head – Heston’s “perfect pub”. Cowie snuck off their for a friend’s birthday last year and Oli managed to orchestrate a client lunch there recently. Worse still Ed’s family are from Maidenhead, so he regards Bray as pretty much being his feudal dominion.
Cowie, being the legend she is, decided that we deserved a treat. As an alternative to refuelling at Fleet services on the M3 she managed to book us in for a late table on Bank Holiday lunch time. Given the recent rumours that Heston may be on the brink of becoming the head chef at the Little Chef it seemed very apt that we should be dropping in to the Hinds Head coaching inn to change our horses and recharge our energy levels. A glimpse of the future, present and past in gaze through the prism.
A major incident on the M4 made our journey a little less relaxed than it might have been. It resulted in Cowie declaring that all women drivers should be banned. An exclamation I wasn’t sure I should shout “Bravo” to or point out that she’d be out of a driving job!
We arrived on time smirking at how twee and immaculate Bray looked on this sunny lunch time. A very self important man was busy clipping his topiary into the shape of a Mr Whippy ice cream helter skelter. A couple, having just eaten at The Hinds Head walked off down an alley hand in hand and then started arguing ferociously. Or at least, as ferociously as is allowed in polite middle class society.
Cowie and I ducked and goosed to get under the low oak door and were welcomed by a charming man in a blue shirt. This friendliness continued throughout our experience – it was the best service I have ever had the pleasure to be on the receiving end of. Nothing was too much trouble, dishes that had been struck off the menu made a comeback just for us and we were allowed to go for a walk between our main course and desert in order for us to work up an appetite again. It just added to what was otherwise a perfect Bank Holiday pub lunch experience.
We were lead upstairs and shown to a table next to 3 large families out to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and just being together. It set the jovial tone for the wonderful food that was to come. Our only minor gripe was that we could have done without the curtains impeding in our personal space – a tiny thing, but if you have sat at one of their upstairs tables for 2 for lunch, I am sure you will agree with.
Cowie, an expert in the Hinds Head by dint of her one previous visit, ordered us some snacks to keep us going. One of Heston’s famous scotch quail eggs each and a portion of devils on horseback per person too. Sweet Mother of God! They are amazing. How they get the yolk to be so runny whilst the outside is so crispy is beyond me. And the bacon and prune chaps were pretty special too. But we certainly didn’t need a portion each.
Cowie opted for some tea smoked salmon to start with, which came with some slightly set sour cream and brown soda bread. Very simple. But very good.
I could have had the entire menu. But it was love at first sight as soon as I saw the asparagus and hollandaise option. Rich, thick, sharp, smooth, buttery and with a hint of cayenne pepper, the hollandaise was majestic. By far the best I’ve ever had. And the asparagus was gorgeous. Beautifully cooked so that it was soft but had retained an iota of bite I could barely keep Cowie’s fork from crossing the DMZ in the middle of the table! The simplicity in terms of what you are confronted with belies the fact that some serious skill has gone into creating something so perfect.
Cowie chose the whole sea bass with fennel only to have her heart broken when she was told they had run out. Given that it was a hot day and Cowie isn’t really into seriously heavy food the alternatives of pies, steaks, chops and steak and kidney pudding were not ideal. We asked for some more time to think about things. A minute later our waitress returned saying that they had one last sea bass left! Cowie’s face beamed with delight. (What a shame the fish was sea bass rather than bream as I could have squeezed a pun in).
The bass was so well cooked it was translucent, succulent and meltingly good throughout with gloriously crispy skin. Cowie is a bit of a Philistine and isn’t much of a fan of fish skin so it was happy days for me! And the fish was so tasty it kept Cowie quiet for at least 12 minutes. For those of you who have spoken to Cowie you’ll realise that if a dish can do this to her it must be seriously good.
I fell in love again. This time with my pork chop. Normally I wouldn’t have written this in such a possessive way, but I liked it so much I can’t help myself! It was juicy, medium rare and caremilsed on the outside – classic Heston. He just loves his Maillard reaction and I love being on the receiving end of it.
My chop came plonked on top of the best mash in the world. Soft potato with mustard, capers and cornichons. The sharpness of the cornichons, saltiness of the capers, kick of the mustard and sweetness of the pork transported me into a state I can only describe as nirvana. I rambled on to Cowie, eulogising my pork chop, praising Heston’s fabulous cooking, vowing to replicate it myself. I was seriously close to doing a lap of honour!
Rather greedily we had ordered a bowl of Heston’s famous triple cooked chips. I only ate 4. Partly because I was so full. But mainly because the mash was so good it knocked the chips into a cocked hat!
At this point we both sighed, looked at each other and said nothing. We didn’t need to. We had just had the best lunch of the year. But we were also so full we needed to go or a walk. Half an hour of looking at the extortionate menus around the corner at the Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn was enough for us to muster up the courage to tackle one of Heston’s deserts. I probably made a bit of mistake railroading Cowie into sharing a treacle sponge with me. But she compromised and we had two scoops of milk and yoghurt ice cream on the side. She’s wanted to have Quaking Pudding, which is an ancient custard concoction that looked really good but sounded a bit weird. Needless to say the treacle pudding was fantastic. But the ice creams were incredible. Sheer genius.
Hats off to Heston. He’s conquered the world of molecular gastronomy, TV cooking, cookery writing and now he has perfected English pub cooking. What’s next? Little Chef perhaps?