Another no-show from the Aylesbury Duke
First things first: there’s no sign of Kate and Wills. The Mole & Chicken, a ramshackle, ivy-clad pile perched on a ridgeway in rural Buckinghamshire, is almost as famous for its glittering clientele as its food. Despite its remote location, everyone from the Blairs to Richard E Grant has been spotted dining here – including, apparently, the future king of Britain, who popped in with his other half last summer after a wedding, just to give the staff a bit of a shake-up.
When my companion Craig and I arrive on a dour Sunday afternoon, the celeb count is disappointingly low, but the pub’s cosy atmosphere is more than enough to lure us in. It is exactly the kind of inn you pray to stumble upon on a rainy November day: all exposed stonework, roaring log fires and comfy sofas (the inside is actually vastly superior to the pub’s exterior, which is less picturesque than others in the area).
As you might expect in leafy Buckinghamshire, the crowd is almost comically well-heeled: at the table in front of us, an immaculately coiffed woman is quizzing her daughter, who can’t be more than six, on what Cath Kidston bag she’d like for Christmas, while to my left a couple are discussing holidays on the Italian lakes. It’s a gastropub with a capital G – and a long way from its former life as a worker’s cottage.
The interior is divided into several snug rooms, all dimly lit with lamps. At the back, there are breathtakingly lovely views across multiple counties – the gardens must be beautiful in summer – though we aren’t lucky enough to score a table there. Instead, we are directed by the efficient waiting staff to a charming-butawkwardly-narrow window seat overlooking the road. It’s the kind of seat which means a protracted wrangle with cushions every time you need to squeeze out to go the loo – but it does mean you can see exactly who is arriving at the door.
The menu, mainly British with a few slightly eccentric Mediterranean and Asian touches (chef-proprietor Steve Bush is a well-travelled gent), isn’t cheap – a main will set you back about £16 – but is pleasingly unpretentious. Scallops with kale crisps and bacon jam is about as trendy as it gets. The wine list manages to be both comprehensive and accessible – glasses start at an eminently reasonably £3.50, enough to make those of us used to London pubs sob in gratitude, while bottles rise to £110, if you’re brave enough to leaf to the back of the list.
I opt for the aforementioned seared scallops to start. It is a triumphant marriage of flavours – the scallops are well-cooked, scorched on the outside and tender on the inside, and perfectly complemented by the sweetness of the chunky bacon relish, the salty crunch of the crisps and the creaminess of a Jerusalem artichoke purée. Craig, who is an unashamed offal addict, has devilled lambs’ kidneys on sourdough toast. I find it a little rich for lunch but it’s well executed, especially the creamy, cider-spiked sauce.
It being a Sunday, we are both tempted by roasts, but I magnanimously decide to let Craig have one, so I can explore the à la carte. I don’t regret it. The saffron risotto topped with golden girolles is like autumn sunshine on a plate: creamy, comforting, and oozing with Parmesan. I find out later that the Duke of Cambridge had risotto, too, which confirms what I have long suspected: I belong in royal circles. Craig’s pork belly is so tender that he can almost cut it with his fork, and is accompanied by a satisfyingly hefty wedge of crackling.
While the roast potato I steal from his plate (such is the prerogative of the reviewer) is a tad underdone, the veg has the opposite problem – why do pubs always serve those grim little side dishes of limp carrots and broccoli? – but he is far too besotted with the meat to care about such fripperies.
Desserts are of the old-school pub variety, and a mixed bag. I order the rather tautologically christened “apple tarte tatin” with cinnamon ice cream. The apples have all the requisite caramelised jamminess, but the tart sits in an unnecessary pool of sauce that makes the pastry rather soggy. Craig’s sticky toffee pudding, always a good benchmark for this sort of food, ticks all the boxes, however – it is dark, moist, and treacly. Despite claiming to be stuffed, he manages to polish it off within five minutes.
The bill settled, we cast our eyes around once more for any craftily hiding royals, before wriggling out of our window seat. As we head into the rain, I can’t help but think I wouldn’t have minded sitting by the fire for a little while longer.