Another no-show from the Ayles­bury Duke

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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.

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