Room at Heston’s inn for a demanding diner
MY best mate Lozza is as picky as all get out when it comes to food. Her list of culinary dislikes — mushrooms, lamb, shellfish, anything with an odd texture, the entire world of offal, stuff with fancy schmancy overtones — is seemingly endless. So I can hardly believe it when I find myself sitting next to her in Heston Blumenthal’s dining room in Bray, in the English countryside.
Not that Heston Blumenthal dining room, mind. The Fat Duck, with all its jiggery pokery and molecular wizardry, not to mention textures previously unheard of by mankind, would simply have been a bridge too far for a woman of such a delicate constitution.
Instead, by way of a nice, happy medium, we are ensconced in Blumenthal’s lesser-known eatery, The Hinds Head pub, a few doors down from his Michelinstarred Berkshire restaurant that’s repeatedly been voted among the best in the world.
And in a happy collision of the sublime and the ridiculous, the menu has something for everyone. Snacks including scotch eggs get a hearty thumbs up from Lozza and the rest of our party of four, so we order a round (to help wash down the beers we’ve just bought at the bar).
Starters run the gamut from ham hock and foie gras terrine with piccalilli to tea-smoked salmon with soda bread, and lemon salad with goat curd, cider poached pear and hazelnuts. Not your average pub menu, and cheers to that.
For mains, I can’t go past the oxtail and kidney pudding, one of several Tudor recipes on the menu created by Blumenthal with the help of food historians from London’s Hampton Court Palace ( there’s also an intriguingsounding quaking pudding from the same era). Lozza opts for a suitably unscary bubble and squeak cake with poached egg and mustard sauce for her main course, while our respective partners tuck into a chicken, ham and leek pie and a second oxtail pud.
The Tudor theme of some of the menu items is in keeping with our location. The origins of the 15th-century building in which we sit — all timber interiors and cosy nooks and crannies — are sketchy; it’s rumoured to have been either an old hunting lodge or a guesthouse for an abbot, changing hands over the years and operating as an inn until 1928, when it was bought by London nightclub owner Kitty Henry, who was looking for a restaurant to run.
Henry knocked the tiny pub together with the cottage next door to create her desired eatery, expanding further over time to meet demand.
Word got out about this gourmet watering hole less than an hour from London and a highfalutin crowd came calling; in 1963 a party of 51 guests, including the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Princess Anne and King Olaf of Norway, popped by for a lunch of Scottish lobster cutlets, saddle of lamb with redcurrant jelly, new potatoes, French beans and broccoli, followed by treacle tart with ice cream. (The Duke of Edinburgh was no stranger at the inn; he is said to have held his stag party here in 1947.)
The Hinds Head was later taken over by a brewery, which eventually sold it to Blumenthal in 2004, and he is now responsible for designing the menus that are brought to life by the pub’s talented head chef Kevin Love.
We happen by on a weekday with no reservations, hoping (though not entirely hopeful) for a quick bite to eat. The place is as full as a knee-high Tudor boot, so we order drinks at the bar and put our name on a waiting list. Within 15 minutes we’re ushered through to a large table on a raised platform to the rear of the room; the perfect, private perch.
Lunch turns into a lazy, drawnout affair. My oxtail and kidney pudding is fabulous; it’s a rich, suety pastry packed full of beautifully rendered meat, perfectly complemented by side dishes of buttered cabbage, smoked bacon and onion, and some watercress with chard, pickled shallots and walnuts.
Lozza is wolfing down her bubble and squeak beside me, so it’s safe to assume all is well there; and our chaps are similarly occupied.
At the end of the meal, our bill comes to a most un-Blumenthallike £155 ($242) for four, including drinks and service, which is an excellent result all round, particularly given The Hinds Head is also an award-winner ( it was voted Michelin’s British pub of the year for 2011).
Best of all, though, Lozza can say that she’s eaten at the table of Heston Blumenthal and loved every minute of it. And those aren’t words you hear every day.
Heston Blumenthal’s The Hinds Head is located in a 15th-century building in Berkshire