By Jonathan Hatchman, Food Editor, @TLE_Food
With the grand re-opening of The Fat Duck, statistically one of the globe’s finest restaurants, there’s a great deal of excitement within the West Berkshire village of Bray at the moment. In fact, there’s such a great deal of hype that the taxi driver who picks us up from Maidenhead train station automatically assumes that we need a lift to Heston Blumenthal’s pride and joy. He even seems quite disappointed that we’ve actually come down from London to visit The Hinds Head – another of Heston’s gastronomic temples with an SL6 postcode. The Hinds Head, however, is just one of the chef’s three establishments within the small high street – not forgetting The Crown pub just seconds down the road. It seems as though Heston has taken over Bray to such an extent that this village acts as the molecular gastronomy equivalent of Disney Land, and as if these three institutions weren’t more than enough – The Waterside Inn (another three-star restaurant owned by Michel Roux, now headed up by his son Alain) is also just a stones throw away from the village’s Heston district. This makes the tiny village one of the most ‘foodie friendly’ in the UK.
Arriving for lunch at The Hinds Head, the first thing that’s noticeable is the sheer size of the bar with its drinks list of almost biblical proportions, a huge focus within which is a strong variety of Gin infusions – then again, The Hinds Head is primarily a pub after all. They also serve an incredible Rum Old Fashioned with three different types of Rum, including plenty of dry ice to add to the whole element of science: theatre ratio that we’ve come to expect from the celebrity chef. Sinking into our recommended glasses of gin and tonic we’re soon escorted towards our table within the pubs dining space. In fairness, The Crown has far more internal character, but the food here is really quite impressive, paying tribute to a plethora of quintessentially British dishes. Quite surprisingly, there’s less focus on scientific eccentricity than a restaurant from Mr Blumenthal would suggest (there’s not an egg and bacon ice cream in sight, which is probably for the best) yet there’s no compromises when it comes to depth of flavour. A range of starters includes signature dishes such as hash of snails on thick toast and classic pea and ham soup. But with so many curious choices, we opt into tasting some bar snacks. These provide an extra splurge of midweek gluttony, and a few more minutes to finally decide on our meals. The famous Scotch egg is an ovoid ball of perfectly boiled quail’s egg wrapped in an outrageous portion of luscious sausage meat and panko breadcrumbs, served with a sharp mustard dip. The succulent sausage and runny egg, however, cast away any necessity for dipping; it’s a thing of real beauty. Devilled horsebacks, on the other hand, are a little on the sweet side – more of a post-dinner/pre-dessert remedy, it seems. Followed by a pork and Cumbrian ham terrine – this is a very promising example of one of my favourite dishes, served with tangy piccalilli, the balance is perfect and doesn’t overpower the remarkable pork flavour. Paper-thin slivers of venison Carpaccio also provide a pleasing onset, accompanied by flavours of horseradish, turnip and shallot.
Next, my companion’s bone in sirloin of veal is served under a bed of wilted cabbage and a truly delicious sauce ‘reform’. The slab of meat has spent far too much time on the grill for my personal taste, nonetheless, having been given no opportunity to ask for anything less than a well-done steak. Although the veal is the most expensive main course at £29.50, it’s not the best of the bunch – my oxtail and kidney pudding is, in fact, a taste sensation. The pastry used for the steamed suet pudding alone would’ve been enough to satisfy this diner, but the internal filling of slow-cooked, shredded beef works magnificently with the often unforgiving texture of kidney plus an overwhelmingly rich gravy that’s poured over the dish and oozes from the inside. I’d walk back to Bray from my home on the complete opposite side of London just to taste it once more. The accompanying triple-cooked fries, invented by Heston himself, are the icing on the cake, so to speak – so crispy that the real taste is the fat of which they’re cooked in, making the humble chips taste more like pork crackling than of potatoes – what’s not to love?
Keeping with the classic British menu, a 17th century ‘Quaking Pudding’ is the jewel in the crown of the dessert menu; a gently flavoured dome that wobbles like a plate of jelly, offering notes of generous cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s delicious, and following the rest of the food on offer, it’s a delightful end to a tremendously enjoyable lunch at this historic pub.
The Hinds Head can be found at High Street, Bray, West Berkshire, SL6 2AB.