Restaurant review: The Hinds Head, BrayBy Tom Fahey
December 19, 2012
Last year The Good Food Guide stopped using the term ‘gastropub’. Why? Because with pubs becoming so diverse it no longer has any real meaning.
The idea that pubs can still be conveniently lumped into either good-old-traditional or gastro-ponce-hole boxes is a concept more outdated than smoking at the bar.
Traditional pubs can be magical warrens of brick and beam forgotten by time, or they can be sticky-carpeted lager dens where new drinkers are greeted with death stares and silence, or, if they’re lucky, a small bag of nuts.
Self-appointed ‘gastropubs’ are now slick chain restaurants entirely undeserving of the epithet, their single concessionary bar stool and uniformed wait-staff sending a clear message to anyone not after three courses: “Have you booked, sir?”
Welcoming drinkers alongside diners, though, doesn’t automatically make a pub ‘honest’. In fact deploying a chav and a microwave to rustle up ‘ye olde English fayre’ seems anything but.
But decrying food in pubs on instinct is no nobler. Food didn’t kill the traditional pub; with regulars long gone for a supermarket Stella in front of the TV, it actually kept many of them open.
And it’s not like food doesn’t have a history in British taverns. It was only the railways that put pay to our many coaching inns – establish-ments as renowned for a good feed as they were for beds and stabling.
So why then, should buildings that were once pubs not become restaurants and be proud of the fact; celebrating their role in preserving a little bit of our architectural and social history?
Few meet such a brief as convincingly as The Hinds Head, a pub and restaurant in the Berkshire village of Bray, owned by Heston Blumenthal (the pub, not the village – no doubt he’s working on it).
Woven into the architecture, decor, food and drink is a sense of history polished and pervasive enough to border on theme park-like – a good thing, honestly.
The building is a pristinely-restored relic of black-on-white beams, ornate panels, and brick-edged fires.
A solid, three-sided bar proffers not just Cotswold lager and Rebellion ales, but also a serious cocktail list that seems like it might be plucked from the pages of Dickens.
Among its heritage English gins and rediscovered historic punches, Charles even gets a concoction of his own – materialising as an empty glass and a book, it would be a cruel for me to ruin the whimsical surprise that makes its potent blend of rum, citrus and brandy so memorable.
Having hopefully lingered over a drink you’ll notice that historical references also pepper the menu.
One starter, a “hash of snails”, (£11.75) is inspired by an 1884 recipe, although the finished dish couldn’t be more modern, borrowing garlic butter-poached snails and shaved fennel from The Fat Duck’s infamous porridge to perch on French toast with pistachio butter, caper berries and pickled walnuts.
For my money, it eclipses the three-star effort next door, but those unconvinced by something so unfamiliar will find more to like in robust British classics like pea and ham soup or Scotch eggs (£3.75).
Each is made over with considerable delicacy and finesse, the former vivid-green, frothing and dotted with melting chucks of gooey ham, the latter a precisely-formed ovoid of crisp crumb, silky sausage and molten yolk.
Fish pie bears a striking resemblance to the as-seen-on-screen version dreamed up by Heston in the days before his TV shows descended into ridiculousness.
Each chunk of fish – salmon, haddock and prawn – is individually poached to a specified temperature then doused in the lightest of sauces (ideal for triple-cooked chip dipping – make sure to order some (£4.25) to be tucked up beneath anchovy-laced breadcrumbs, crisp seaweed and a pungently savoury “sea water” foam.
If this sounds like a mean, over-complicated thing to do to a pie, be assured that its effect is to exponentially improve an inherently simple dish so often ruined elsewhere.
The same applies to a rhubarb trifle (£7.95) whose multifarious layers of jelly, custard, syllabub, fruit, almonds, crumble, sponge and perhaps a tinge of green tea read as complex but eat like a homely, comforting dream.
A tiny, foaming cup of purple accompanied by a small note detailing inspiration and a tiddly lozenge of millionaire’s shortbread, chocolate wine slush is perhaps the only misstep into novelty – maybe try an equally historic but substantially larger quaking pudding (£7.95) instead.
If you haven’t already guessed, approaching The Hinds Head as if it were some local ‘gastropub’ only invites disappointment.
There’s a Michelin Star, staff use stands and trays, and the food – quite rightly seeing as now it nudges iconic – is neither priced nor conceived as everyday dining.
You can stop in for a drink – and it’ll be a good drink in a proper bar – but many pubs in Berkshire offer something not too dissimilar for less.
What they can’t offer, though – and what makes The Hinds Head completely unique in our ever-expanding pub pantheon – is a special occasion dining experience that through cocktails and cooking, beer and beams is seamlessly steeped in British history.
- Telephone: 01628 626 151
- Website: www.hindsheadbray.com
- Address: Hinds Head