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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Hinds Head, High Street, Bray

Every truly brilliant chef faces a choice sooner or later: refine, improve and experiment by focussing on what already exists; or expand, whether in the form of more restaurants, more TV appearances, more endorsements or more cookbooks. Most try to tread a middle path, wary of Gordon Ramsay-like dilution of standards and public profile on the one hand, and becoming the answer to a quiz question that nobody’s ever asked on the other. 

Heston Blumenthal ran The Fat Duck in Bray for several years before he had any significant personal profile. During that time, those lucky enough to attend the restaurant spoke in tones of bemused awe when asked to describe it, as perplexed by the dishes as they were delighted. The Fat Duck is still an unutterably glorious restaurant, with a menu that perfectly combines high magic and low wit. But this is not a review of that, so to the point...

After that initial period of propelling British cooking to previously unknown heights, Blumenthal expanded his portfolio. Rather than go big and brash, he took over a pub just down the road from The Fat Duck, promising old classics cooked brilliantly, with occasional modern twists if and when it aided the flavour. So far, so low key. When it opened, the Blumenthal Hinds Head seemed to have everything right, from the spectacular quail’s-egg-scotch-eggs in the bar, to the marvellous steak and kidney pudding in the restaurant. It very nearly managed to disguise itself as a proper pub too, especially if you were fortunate to bag a table downstairs, in sight of the bar.

Since then, the Blumenthal empire has continued to grow. Heston is on TV more or less every week, he’s producing cookbooks by the series, he’s revamped the Little Chef in public, he’s made an expensive Christmas pudding, and he’s about to open a massive restaurant in Knightsbridge. And you can hardly blame him for that. He clearly deserves every reward, if only for being the absolute best chef around. But...

The Sunday before Christmas, I had an unsettling experience. I had a meal at a Heston Blumenthal eatery that wasn’t excellent. Indeed, elements of it were no more than adequate.

My ham hock and foie gras terrine proved a case in point. It was decent enough, though the primal flavour of the foie gras was entirely overwhelmed by the ham, to the point where ‘foie gras’ looked suspiciously like menu dressing, rather than adding anything desirable to the dish. Cute Letts’ soused mackerel left a better impression, sharp and oily. 

The steak and kidney pudding remains, and remains excellent, but the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were both pretty disappointing. The beef could have come from most carvery trolleys in the country, while the Yorkshire was dry and larger than necessary. 

A joyous smoked chicken and mushroom pie made sure that Cute Letts stayed happy – small but perfectly formed, it looked liked the kind of dish you’d photograph for an advert. The smoked chicken taste was intense, while tarragon buzzed around the periphery most pleasingly.

Our final tablemate went for fillet steak on the bone, with a bone marrow sauce. This came pretty much as expected: very good, but not as good as Hawksmoor, though triple-cooked chips helped it along.

Dessert provided a highlight and a lowlight: my apple and blackberry crumble was beautifully sweet and tangy, with crunchy crumble near-saturated with butter and sugar, and bubbling, sticky fruit; Cute Letts’ rhubarb trifle just didn’t match up, drenched as it was with unadvertised rosewater flavour. When will people realise that rosewater’s disgusting? No one really likes Turkish delight, do they? 

Now I’m not saying that Heston Blumenthal has allowed himself to be distracted from his primary business (serving food to paying guests) by all the fame and all the tie-ins. That would be premature. But The Hind’s Head felt neglected just before Christmas. The awful upstairs seating could have been a Beefeater, given a salad bar, and this is surely not the aim, even allowing for Blumenthal’s love of all things nostalgia. The food, though generally fine, was simply not up to the impeccable standards we’ve come to expect from his restaurants. At £250 for four including wine, it needs to be better. For about half the price, you can and should go to The Magdalen Arms in Oxford.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10
Hinds Head on Urbanspoon

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