Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Duck, dhal and disappointment: The Hand & Flowers, Marlow

Photo taken from here: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/41982501
In a sentence: I was disappointed by the Hand and Flowers. I had such high expectations, as I suspect many of the diners there do, given its chef patron Tom Kerridge has won Great British Menu's main course twice in a row. My expectations were only compounded by the fact that it has recently won a second Michelin star. I've only eaten in one Michelin-starred restaurant in my life, and that had a single star, so I was - legitimately, I think - expecting the Hand and Flowers to be twice as delicious.

Apparently, that isn't how the scoring system works. How it does work is a total and utter mystery to me.

The interior of the restaurant isn't exactly what you'd expect from the word 'Michelin'. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Instead of hushed silences and waiters fawning over you to place your napkin in neat folds in your lap or top up your water between sips, you have what basically feels like a cosy gastropub. Complete with ceilings so low that you have to be told by the waiters not to decapitate yourself as you walk to your table. The tables, incidentally, are wooden and sturdy, devoid of fancy linen, adding to the relaxed theme of the place. It's a very pleasant setting for a meal, and all the nicer for not being too posh.

The food, then, is where you'd expect it to get a bit more posh. The prices certainly do, with main courses ranging from £19.50 to £32. Thirty-two pounds is a lot of money for a transient gastronomic pleasure. As with all these places, though, there is a very good value set lunch menu, with three courses for £19.50 (the price of the cheapest main course on the à la carte). However, on the day I went it looked so boring that I couldn't bring myself to order it. Poussin may sound exotic, but it is basically chicken, and why would you go to a two-Michelin-starred restaurant to order chicken? The dessert was trifle, which I do not like. So I went à la carte, and didn't fare much better.

The menu, to read, is exciting and intriguing. It had a few things on that I had never heard of, which is always a good sign. I had a hard time choosing my starter, salivating over the prospect of a glazed omelette of smoked haddock and parmesan, tempted by a parsley soup with smoked eel, bacon and parmesan tortellini, and intrigued by braised pearl barley with Somerset hare, orange oil and foie gras. I ordered the latter, because I love the richness of hare and I'm also a big fan of the nuttiness of pearl barley.

I was really annoyed about the bloody foie gras, though, and more so when my starter actually arrived. What is it about owning a restaurant with a Michelin star or two that automatically makes the chef feel he has to put the stupid stuff on everything? I don't think it's that bad when it is actually relevant to the dish or adds something, but in the case of my starter it was literally a slab of foie gras plonked on top of the dish, and what's more, it didn't taste right with everything else, at all. I make a point of not ordering foie gras in restaurants because I don't agree with the ethics behind it, so in a desperate attempt to stick to my principles I left the piece of foie gras almost totally untouched in my empty dish. I was trying to make a point, but I bet they just scraped it into the bin without even noticing, which is even worse.

It really did annoy me, because some poor goose had died in vain for that starter - there is simply no need for its flabby liver to sit there on top of what was otherwise a very nice culinary creation. The barley was crunchy in places and tender in others, silky and unctuous with the orange oil, and serving as a bed for beautifully cooked loin of hare, juicy, gamey and wickedly dark. I'd never have thought of combining hare with orange, but it worked well, the zestiness of the fruit lifting what is a very acquired taste in the world of meat, such is its strong flavour.

Jon had a sort of Scotch egg made with chorizo and served with a spicy peppery sauce. It was very tasty, but to be honest most things you stick chorizo in are going to be tasty - it's an instant recipe-saver. I don't think it was as good as a smoked haddock Scotch egg I'd had at the York & Albany about a year ago, though, but it was very nice.

Incidentally, before we tucked into our starters we were given some excellent bread, and also some deep-fried whitebait served in a paper cone with a marie-rose type sauce for dipping. The whitebait were delicious, as was the bread. I do so love the con of amuse-bouches in restaurants, making you feel like you're getting something for free when actually you're being robbed blind by the menu prices. Still, those crispy baby fish were lovely. I wish we could have had more bread though, but you never feel like you can ask for it. I've never recovered from an incident in Venice where the bread was so nice that we kept emptying the basket and they kept bringing us more, only to find once the bill arrived that we'd been charged five euros for every refill.

The main courses were even more difficult to decide between than the starters. Unfortunately the roast hog that you may remember from the Great British Menu banquet had been taken off the menu only a couple of weeks before. I was gutted, as Jon and I had planned on sharing it (it was only available to order for two people, minimum, presumably given that it is quite literally almost a whole hog). That left me torn between Tom Kerridge's winning duck dish from the year before (slow cooked duck breast with savoy cabbage, duck fat chips and gravy), and two fish dishes: spiced sea bream with smoked aubergine, 'dahl' (I believe it is actually spelled dhal, but I could be wrong), sea aster and moilee sauce; and Cornish day boat skate with bacon roast parsnip, trompettes, clams and lardo.

In retrospect, I wish I'd gone for the skate. Or anything else. Because my sea bream was...odd. That's the best word I can think of to describe it, and I've done two English degrees.

The fish was fine - crispy skin, cooked well, but I had clearly forgotten when I decided in a moment of madness to order it that sea bream is possibly the most boring fish on the planet. Tom Kerridge had clearly realised this too, so he decided to chuck a load of weird and wonderful things at it in an attempt to rescue the poor thing.

The dhal was lovely - earthy and satisfying, it made up for the fact that there were no other carbohydrates on the dish (why is this so often the case with fish dishes? Is it because they assume only women on a diet are going to order them?) The smoked aubergine was delicious, although I heard a woman at the adjacent table complaining that it was burnt (it wasn't. She was just clearly an idiot). The moilee sauce, which I had to ask a waiter to explain as I'd never heard of the term before, was a lovely velvety, coconutty liquor that was great with the fish. Sea aster, a coastal vegetable like samphire that resembles spinach leaves in appearance, was fairly tasteless and added mainly for aesthetics, I think.

The dhal was nice. The aubergine was nice. The sauce was nice. But none of them went together. I really couldn't figure out the thinking behind this dish. It sounds like a lot of my homemade salads - just chuck a load of things I really really like onto a plate or bowl and hope they work together. In this case, they did not. The moilee sauce and the fish - great. The dhal and the moilee sauce - great. The smoked aubergine and the dhal - great. Put it all together, though, and it really didn't work. The individual flavours were far too strong, wrestling with each other for pole position in the mouth and ending up creating a rather unpleasant flavour explosion on the tastebuds. A flavour explosion is normally a positive concept; in this case, I wish I'd been able to put it out.

The whole thing came garnished with what I think was meant to be an anchovy fritter. However, the ratio of batter to contents was a bit mad - I may as well have been eating battered batter, judging by how thick and greasy it was. The only indication I had that there might once have been an anchovy in there before it got battered into sheer oblivion was the overwhelming saltiness of the whole thing. I drank a couple of litres of water during our hour-and-a-half lunch, largely due to this ridiculous salt fritter. It was actively unpleasant, and if I hadn't been trying to consume every last morsel on the plate given the absence of carbohydrates, I would have left it. In fact, halfway through my main course I considered not finishing it, simply because I couldn't be bothered.

I couldn't be bothered to finish a plate of food costing £19.50. This sort of thing should never happen.

Jon fared a bit better. He ordered the Great British Menu duck, which in hindsight is what I should have done, instead of daring to be different. The presentation was lovely and rustic; it all came on a wooden board with the accompaniments in individual pots and pans. It was also delicious - perfectly cooked duck breast; rich, meaty gravy, the kind you dream of; a little copper pan full of savoy cabbage flavoured with (I think) crispy duck pieces; and those duck fat chips, which brought such delight to everyone on GBM and to me, sitting there staring at my carb-free main course.

However, what I thought was utterly ridiculous was the portion size. It wasn't even a whole duck breast. It was a slice from out of the middle of a duck breast, a little piece about two inches square. For TWENTY-TWO POUNDS. A duck breast costs about £4. Surely the chef, no doubt raking in all the cash from new customers attracted by his newly acquired star, could afford to put the rest of the breast on the board? Apparently not. This sort of thing makes me a bit cross.

So it was with a sad face and a heavy heart that I finished off the rest of my weird fish dish, eyeing Jon's chips longingly and hardly daring to take more than a wafer-thin sliver of his duck to try, given its scarcity.

For dessert, we shared the glazed cox apple tart with eggnog ice cream, and the chocolate cake with salted caramel and muscovado ice cream.

They were fine. The apple tart was fine, the eggnog ice cream gave a big hit of alcohol and not much else. The chocolate cake was less of a cake and more of a fancy kind of chocolate cube with a soft centre, the kind of thing you might find on a foil tray in a gorgeous French bakery surrounded by equally beautiful cousins. The muscovado ice cream again was fine, but not as rich and treacly as its name led me to anticipate, and the cake wasn't really warm enough to make ice cream a perfect partner for it.

To be honest, I'm having a hard time remembering the desserts we had, which tells you everything you need to know - they weren't brilliant. I always, always remember good desserts. I still remember the incredible tarte tatin I ate at a restaurant in Nice three years ago, how giant and billowy and juicy the apples were. I remember the sticky toffee pudding I ate last summer in a small country pub in Dorset, how it had little chunks of crunchy dark sugar interspersed throughout, an exciting surprise in every mouthful. I salivate over the memory of a Sicilian cassata cake I ate at Bocca di Lupo in Soho a good three years ago, a taste sensation I'd never experienced before and which has left me longing to return. My mouth waters at the thought of the hot chocolate waffles my college used to serve on special occasions at formal hall.

But my memories of the Hand and Flowers' desserts have faded already. They were perfectly edible, but not as promising as their menu description had suggested.

And that, dear readers, pretty much sums up the entire experience. I'd gone expecting greatness, and experienced mediocrity. I really cannot fathom the system that gave this place two Michelin stars, when the Yorke Arms, worth every penny, only has one. Nothing about the food we ate suggested two stars...or maybe it did, in which case two stars is definitely not the accolade it appears to be. I'd love to say it was a case of bad ordering, or we went on an off day, but a £50 lunch should never be the victim of either of those.

As usual with these sorts of scenarios, if I'd paid half the price, I would have been a happy bunny. Instead, I handed over my debit card with a lump in my throat, such was my complete disappointment with the whole affair. The setting was nice, the service was perfectly fine, but the food was totally lacking in any sort of wow factor. Such a shame.

Do you agree? If you've been to the Hand & Flowers, I'd love to hear what you thought!
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5 comments:

  1. I wish we'd had the time/money to go to Yorke Arms when we were there. Sounds like you had an... interesting meal, at least?

    Also, the lentil dish is in fact spelled "dahl" (or "dal", also acceptable).

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  2. A shame that you didn't like what ought to have been a great meal; it sounds fairly lacklustre to me.
    But, I had to comment and say MERTON CHOCOLATE WAFFLES, OH GOD SO GOOD, because now you've mentioned them I can't think of anything else.

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  3. As someone who is so protective of my Indian heritage, I always say it's not worth having a foreigner making Indian food - I don't think chefs necessarily understand the full range of spices used in Indian cookery, and will generally make food that is catering to some sort of foreign ideal, even at the 'best' restaurants... It's sad that you had to find out at such expense!

    Ginger, I agree, I wouldn't use dhal. But daal is best, followed by 'dal' - the use of the 'h' indicates an aspiration in transliterated Hindi/Urdu, and there simply isn't that sound there, whether after the d or a. The Hindi for 'daal' is दाल, which under standard transliteration is daal, and sounds like that too, no hint of an h anywhere!

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  4. Ginger/Henry - I swear I've seen it written as 'dhal' on the internet loads of times. Maybe it's all wrong! Ah well. And Henry, you're probably right - the sea bream dish did rather stand out on a menu that was otherwise fairly classic English/European cooking, so I should have spotted the danger signs there...alas.

    Katherine - they're the only reason I applied back to Merton for a PhD.

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  5. I've only ever eaten at one Michelin starred restaurant - Raymond Blanc's one in Oxfordshire. There were so many more staff than diners that I was worn out by thanking them all the time. Not an enjoyable experience for me. What really annoyed me was that before each course arrived, someone came and told me what I was about to eat, but they didn't speak English very well and spoke so quietly that I caught about one word in ten. I shan't repeat the experience.

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