Two years ago The Hand and Flowers was cast into the national spotlight when a French tyre maker decided to endow it with the pressure of being the only two star pub in the world. I remember trawling across the internet reading up on it and coming across an article in The Daily Mail with a typically bashful comments section: “It’s not a pub, it’s a restaurant with a bar” some UKIP follower shouted, whilst a lady with a particular affliction to Princess Diana said something about them probably not selling pork scratching, which of course is the litmus test for any public house. It seemed tragic that the majority was more interested in the argument of whether or not it was a pub, rather than embrace the accolade that goes with cooking that is deemed worthy of “a detour”
Two years on and the two stars is still going strong. The chef here, Tom Kerridge, is everywhere; you can’t flick on BBC without seeing his ever decreasing frame and wonderful range of checked shirts. He has become the nations favourite chef through cooking gutsy, flavoursome food that you know will taste good. All very well, but I’ve eaten in enough of these places to know that gutsy doesn’t translate well in the world of Michelin. How wrong I was.
There is still finesse here, though it has to find its own place in amongst the big tastes, which is what Kerridge and his team do with ease. A starter of truffle demi en-croute may look sophisticated and sound posh, though really is all about the bold flavours. The whole truffle wrapped in sausage meat, itself encased in a hot water pastry that enhanced the meatiness of the pork. The jug of port sauce that came with it was a stunning thing, all glossy and deep, that highlighted at the core of Kerridge’s cooking is classic French cuisine. It wasn’t the easiest thing to eat elegantly, but Oh My, it was divine.
It was BBC2’s Great British Menu that cast Tom into the public eye, so 2011’s winning main course of slow cooked duck was an easy choice. The breast, as tender as it was, was overshadowed the other elements of the animal; a shard of crispy skin, a smear of liver parfait and a sausage with a tang of offal. Served alongside this was another stunning sauce, savoy cabbage with confit duck and the best chips I have ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a fitting tribute to a animal that had died with the sole purpose of being eaten, with every part of bird used to its full effect. Another poultry main saw half a chicken served alongside autumnal squash glazed with maple and malt. The chicken moist from the brining process, had a subtle beer flavour at its core and extra earthiness from a dusting of truffle at the table. The Hand and Flowers do protein well, but then again, maybe it was expected. The chef does look like a man that enjoys a good slab of meat.
The vegetarian main wasn’t listed on the menu, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be a bit of an oversight here. Wrong again. It was tart, with a pastry akin to filo containing flecks of onion. Sitting prettily on top of this were various veg, all cooked accurately. A serious amount of work went into assuring The Veggie was pleased, if a little overly full.
Desserts were truly top class. A perfectly risen blueberry souffle was given balance by an ice cream that tasted exactly as the childhood favourite, parma violets. I tried them both with a drizzle from the small jug of lemon verbena it came with and decided the dish didn’t need it. An apple tart had a bramley sorbet so good that we asked for the recipe and a chocolate and ale cake left us all speechless. It was of perfect balance – just sweet enough with a lingering savoury note from the ale. The salted caramel pool it was sat in and the muscovado ice cream it cradled adding moisture and further contrast.
I could go on and on about the well priced wine list and the charming service, but I’ll save you the time. All that you need to know is that The Hand and Flowers is an establishment of exceptional quality. The nayslayers who say that it doesn’t have the cooking precision or the service of other two starred restaurants should really consider their argument. You cant compare here to The Square any more than you could compare Sat Bains to Helen Darroze or L’Enclume to La Gavroche. What they all have in common (okay, maybe not Darroze) is food that makes you sit up and take notice, and the food here certainly does that. I left thinking it was as a nine out of ten meal, though having brewed over it for a few days, I realise it was the most I’ve enjoyed myself since I sat down to twenty-odd courses in Cumbria a couple of years ago. It’s proper food, just how the chef intends it.