Bray is a strange little place. About an hour's drive from London, it is currently home to Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck and Michel Roux's The Waterside Inn, 3 Michelin star heavy hitters. Heston owns a further two pubs in the village; The Crown and the Michelin starred Hind's Head. Phew. Imagine the amount of money and protruding bellies that go through this village. Who lives there? What if you fancied a supper of chips and curry sauce?
I made a last minute booking at The Hind's Head to break up our journey home from a weekend away. The ease in which I was able to get a Sunday lunch booking was surprising, though made less so once we arrived and surveyed the vast number of covers, both downstairs and upstairs. All exposed wooden beams and drab maroon carpets, you would be forgiven for thinking you were at a Carvery off the A12. The giveaway were the staff, dressed smartly and bustling around the tables, and of course, the menu.
This is no standard pub grub, no least because the roast sirloin of beef is twenty six of your hard-earned pounds. But before that, the starters. We shared three, and a scotch egg - a little oval puck, freshly fried and greaseless, a light meat encasing a perfectly runny egg. A smear of mustard was all it needed; it was a refreshing change from the more complex, heavily seasoned or spiced offerings you get at a lot of places these days.
Soused Cornish mackerel with radish and grapefruit was the first nod towards the Michelin standard; a pretty plate with a near-perfect balance of flavours. The richness of the mackerel, lightly torched on the skin, held the bitterness of the pink grapefruit well. Toasted wafers of bread and thinly sliced radishes added crunch, and a tartare of the soused mackerel was the bed upon which it sat. It was full of the joys of Summer eating.
Equally pretty was cured duck ham with asparagus and spring leaves, made delicious by a soft boiled quail's egg perched on truffled mayonnaise. Lightly charred artichokes nestled underneath the leaves, giving the dish some hearty structure. I don't recall there being any crispy bacon as advertised on the menu, but I'm not sure it needed it; the duck ham was sliced so thinly it was translucent, yet flavoursome enough to make its mark.
Star of the show though was the 'hash of snails'. Light on description, what it turned out to be was a lot of snails all chopped up and piled on a piece of toasted bread. A green smear of what tasted like a wild garlic sauce buttered the bread, and a tangle of thinly shaved fennel completed the dish. This was so good - the crunchy toast, the squidgy sauce, the slightly chewy snails - especially with the addition of toasted pistachios, nutty and salty, punctuating each mouthful.
Being that it was Sunday and we are British what what and such is tradition, we ordered both the roasts on offer. The pork, made with collar rather than the more traditional shoulder, belly or leg, was given a modernisation with a prawn-cracker-like puff of pork crackling. A cylinder of stuffing was herby and dense, the pork flavoursome and juicy.
The roast beef was perfectly medium rare, two hefty slices lined with creamy fat. The potatoes were perfection themselves; crisp on the outside and creamy and fluffy within. Sauces were as far from the jar as you can get; horseradish was spicy and astringent, whipped into a smooth and stiff cream, and apple sauce was perfectly smooth, cloudy and almost jellied in texture. My Yorkshire pudding looked suspiciously like our favourite Aunt's, but it was crisp and bronzed, with the structure to hold my gravy.
My only criticism, in fact, was that the vegetables were aggressively dressed in a herb butter. Spring greens, fine beans and carrots are a great accompaniment but coupled with the rich beef jus - it was so concentrated and clear, I steer away from calling it a gravy - I craved some simple vegetal relief. My friend's oxtail and kidney pudding proved that the rest of the menu warrants a return; rich suet pastry, steamed and glossy and stuffed full of tender shredded meat. I only had a taste but the glazed look of satisfaction on his face told all.
From an extensive list of desserts, we ordered the Quaking pudding and the chocolate wine slush. Little fact sheets were given to us to explain the origins of the desserts, but once the quaking pudding was set before me I only had eyes for the wobble. A pannacotta, basically, set most delicately. It was flecked with vanilla, smooth and creamy, a predominantly egg flavour and served with a slice of caramelised banana. Lovely stuff. The wine slush was less remarkable and I left the rest of the table to it.
So, all in all, a brilliant lunch, each component done as well as it could be. Those seeking Heston's weird and wacky molecular gastronomy may well be disappointed here, but flashes of it can be found on the drinks menu; we were treated to a taste of it by this Demerara Old Fashioned. A canister of dry ice billowed out a rum-scented mist so that it hovered within the glass. The liquid itself was dangerous; I couldn't taste a hint of booze, just a sweet maple fragrance.
For such an enormous place with various nooks and crannies, one might easily be neglected but the staff were plentiful and pleasant, unobtrusive but helpful. It's not a cheap lunch - the three of us paid £56 per head with a couple of drinks each but the quality of the food and the skill of cooking and preparation was apparent. It could do with a bit of a spruce up inside, though.
The Hinds Head
Tel: 01628 626151