Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AB
Fasten your seatbelts, we’ve gone international. The following blog is broadcast live from London. Follow our journey via the wonders of the internets. Wot-ho old chaps!
We landed in London two days ago and are still trying to find our feet as the jet lag has taken a series toll on our ability to sleep well. Pushing through nonetheless – the first food destination on our itinerary was in a small village called Bray – probably best known as the sleepy little place that houses The Fat Duck – the number five restaurant in the world (it was number three in 2010 – Spain continues to reign supreme on the leader board).
Bray has two pubs and two restaurants – the pubs are both owned by Heston Blumenthal as is The Fat Duck. The other restaurant is The Waterside Inn, which is run by the Roux brothers and is also one of the best restaurants in the UK. For such a fine dining destination it is interesting to note that Bray is literally one street surrounded by green rolling fields. To celebrate being back in the UK we invited WordMonkey’s parents and my brother and his girlfriend to join us. And before I go on, WordMonkey said I shouldn’t keep banging on about it, but all I will say is AU$40. I will explain more later.
Pre-dinner we went for drinks at Heston’s newest purchase – The Crown at Bray.
The Hinds Head was built in the 15th century and although the building’s original function is still the subject of speculation (some say it was a royal hunting lodge, others that it was a guest house for an abbot), we know that it was converted to a hostelry around 400 years ago.
In more recent history, The Hinds Head has attracted both the famous and notorious, from King Hussain of Jordan to Errol Flynn and Walt Disney. It has also provided hospitality to the British royal family, entertaining Queen Elizabeth II in 1963. It is said that Prince Philip held his stag night at the Hinds Head before his marriage to the Queen in 1947.
It has seen the likes of many a celebrity and hosted the wedding reception for Kate Winslett and (her now ex-husband) Sam Mendes, who is directing the next Bond film. Through the front doors you will find yourself at the bar, where Heston has been known to hang out as he also lives in town. Being winter, there are numerous fires roaring in different parts of the building. Should you have no booking it is possible to rock up and have the barman pull you a few pints while you gorge yourself on Heston’s limited but excellent choices of bar food.
We were escorted to the second floor I never knew they had and instantly I recognised the room from Heston’s TV program Little Chef Big Chef. We were seated in Heston’s boardroom in which he held meetings to be told he needed more ‘blue-sky thinking’. The room is usually reserved for private parties and important meetings but otherwise the table is broken up and used as part of the dining area.
Now comes the exciting part. To everyone I know, including myself, London has always been known to be a pricey-son-of-a-bitch. So my question to you is where in Australia can you go and have a three-course dinner to the standard of a dinner by Heston and it cost less than AU$40? Keep in mind this was offered during both the weekday and weekend over the Christmas break so there was no shortage of customers. I decided upon the set menu as two of the three dishes offered were going to be what I was going to order off the al a carte menu anyway. I was also amazed that two glasses of wine and two pints of local ale which would usually cost around $35 came in at only $15. And this wasn’t exactly the local bowls club either. How the hell is Australia still able to trade with these crazy prices? But this is a conversation for another blog post. But what I will do is show the Australian equivalent price.
We started with Heston’s bar food, which we had previously had on a visit a few years ago and have since ben unable to match anywhere else in the world. Just good basic beer snacks of devils on horseback ($2.40), where prunes are wrapped in bacon and grilled.
Not bad, but the real deal is his perfect scotch eggs ($4.60). It is funny how many Aussies are yet to have heard of this dish, but for those of you who do not know what it is – a soft-boiled egg is left to cool, then wrapped in sausage meat, then coated in breadcrumbs before being deep fried. The difficulty is ensuring the egg is still runny in the centre after two bouts of cooking. As you can see this was no problem for the maestro.
Heston is one for offering what sounds like the most basic of dishes but then wowing people once the plate hits the table. The bog standard-sounding pea and ham soup ($10) was elevated to another level with the subtle ham flavour in a sea of bright fresh green soup. Perfectly balanced without being too thick and filling as a first course.
I have heard much about The Hinds Head tea-smoked salmon with soda bread ($12) and was not disappointed. I received a good-sized serve of salmon, which had gentle tones of tea infused within it. This matched perfectly with the lemon butter, which was spread liberally on the dense – yet thinly cut – soda bread.
Two of our party decided that fish pie and ‘sand and sea’ ($24) was too intriguing not to try. The waitress informed us that the pie would be served warm and not piping hot so that the fish – sea bass, cod and salmon – would not dry out. The one drawback of the dish was that both thought it was too salty, which hindered the other flavours. Be that as it may, the dish did encompass the ‘sand and sea’ theme as you can see. Foamy mash with pan-fried kale before a crunchy sandy section. I wouldn’t be surprised if this dish was developed during on one of Heston’s TV episodes.
Never one to order chicken at a restaurant I wondered what Heston would do with the dish chicken thigh with liver butter, bacon, onion, mushroom and red wine sauce ($23). The food on the plate looked small but once you started, the richness of the flavours between the liver and red wine started working together to produce a fantastic sauce. By the time we finished we all agreed that the portion size was perfect.
And who could come to The Hinds Head and not order Heston’s triple-cooked chips ($5)? We had previously visited on two other occasions and the last time the chips were unavailable due to the type of potato that is used not being in season. So since they had them we went for two serves. And where in Melbourne can you get a side serve of anything for less than $10 let alone world-famous chips perfected by a world-famous chef for half that price? Who knows, we might even be back again before we leave.
Desserts were interesting as two of the six choices were based on recipes from the 16th and 17th century. Quaking Pudding (c.1700) ($10) was the olde English equivalent of panna cotta and was served with thin slivers of apple to add to the texture. We agreed that the pudding reminded us of baked custard and rice pudding and had a lovely subtle hit of spice. It definitely needed the apple to give it some body otherwise it would have been too one dimensional.
As it is Christmas and winter, most of the table decided upon the spiced treacle tart with brandy ice cream ($10.50). This dish was a little too much for some as the treacle tart – not usually known for having fruit – was very similar in flavour to mince pie and the ice cream had a heavy hit of alcohol in it. Off-setting the brandy was cranberry jam hidden under the ice cream.
I decided to order another of the historic dishes as the name made me wonder what would come out of the kitchen: mulled chocolate wine ‘slush’ with millionaire shortbread (c.1660) ($10.50). This was a dessert that fired on all cylinders and wowed everyone on the table. We were told to break a bit of the shortbread and dip it in the slush and eat it while sucking up the mulled wine with the straw. The flavour combination was fantastic.
So there you have it. Our first post live from London. This is one of three Heston restaurants that we are going to visit while over here and I am looking forward to see how different they all are.
And I want to hear from you dear readers – looking at the prices here am I right to be up in arms at the prices we are being charged back in Aus? Or do you think restaurants in Australia are justified in charging what they do?
Either way, I never thought I would ever say it but – London is looking cheap people.