Paradoxically tempered tea, univalved porridge and nitro-blasted savoury puddings have no place in Heston Blumenthal’s rather quaint, rather modest pub, situated just next to The Fat Duck. This true-to-its-roots establishment can trace its history as far back as four hundred years, including being the assembly point for Prince Phillip’s stag do just before he married Her Majesty. The spirit of The Hind’s Head is a direct contrast to the modernity of the Fat Duck. The Anti-Fat Duck as it were. It comes as little surprise that, after visiting Blu’s triple starred shrine, I felt compelled to return to a week later to give his other take on Brit-cuisine a go. Back to Bray.
The pub lacks distinctive character, even with the wood-beamed ceiling so low it was nearly touching the top of my head, the mild claustrophobia failing to force an ambiance into my mind. The crammed bar is more of a departure lounge, prospective diners awaiting their turn in the restaurant, as opposed to a bona fide watering hole. The inattentive barman barely keeping up with a group of golf buddies, spreading their golf bags and themselves across the walkways. I wasted no time at this faux bar moving straight to our table. Saturday tea was an all-family affair, my brother – A loyal Raymond Blanc advocate – who drove from nearby Reading and who shares my enthusiasm when it comes to Heston-cuisine, and as usual, the missus duty-bound to her role as the better palate. Comparisons are inevitable of course, and it was not surprisingly that The Hind’s Head bore a semblance to its big brother minus the suits, table cloths, the Jack Bauer lookalike, the upstairs loos and the wine cellar. It also lacked a sense of excitement which was central to the theatre at TFD. THH being the Xtra factor to the X factor, Wark to Paxman, the blogger to the critic. The low-fi affair continues into the wine list, being contracted out to Berkmann Wine Cellars, when I was expecting more involvement from Isa Bal, the Fat Duck’s sommelier, perhaps crafting an ‘Isa’s choice’ or something of the ilk. A glass of mildly amusing Chilean tempranillo (£4.25) for yours truly, and two shandies for the driver and the lady.
Determined to try the entire menu between us, our meal began with snacks, scotch eggs. £2.95… each.
The egg was just a little too large to belong to a quail, so I assumed these were chicken eggs. Very soft egg whites, a beautifully runny yolk and a smooth pork paste, juicy and mild, encrusted in a crumbly crumb. It failed to blow my head off, no better than the local Waitrose I suppose. This review predates my eventual visit to Harwood Arms, which many claim serve some of the best scotch eggs around, so at least now I will be able to compare experiences. I was disappointed it wasn’t made with quail eggs as it is usually advertised and at nearly three quid each….. too expensive.
Devils on Horseback, £1.75
Ah these were better, two prunes wrapped in bacon and held together with toothpicks, caramalised sweetness. I can confirm that the excellent sourdough and unsalted jersey butter served at the Fat Duck is also served at the Hinds’ Head. Unlimited and complimentary…
I hadn’t even touched the scotch egg yet before our starters flew out of the kitchen. We did arrive for first dinner service at half past six. Only three other tables were filled at that time.
One from the specials: Grilled Squid £9.95.
The missus was a little taken aback with the minuscule portion. A single squid sliced, for £9.95, felt like daylight robbery. I was only allowed a sliver but we were both impressed with the quality of the smokiness. We could literally taste the flames in the squidgy squid, so juicy it may have well be alive.
Guinea fowl and duck terrine, spiced apples. £9.50
My brother opted for one of the signature dishes and he was also nodding along in appreciation. Particularly, he noted how the gamish terrine balanced with the sweet character of the caramelised apples. Again, the microscopic portions prevented me from trying more than half a spoonful. The little I previewed was indeed appetising.
Pea and ham soup, £6.35.
I had to give their famed comfort dish a try, and boy did I enjoy this. Much more respectably priced at £6.35, it was a large enough bowl of very comforting soup. If you buy into the entire sensory experience of food, I thought the vivid green colour amplified my senses, the crackling burst of bubbles from the foamy soup, mostly the wintry, warming sensations was unique. Little cubes of ham hock provided depth in flavour, and rather amusing whole peas brought texture. I soaked up all of the green olio from the bottom of the bowl with the excellent sourdough. I thoroughly enjoyed this, comforting indeed.
Time for the big show.
Oxtail and Kidney Pudding, £16.95. Triple cooked chip,s £4.50.
Resplendent! Look at the consistency of the suet pastry, and look at the gravy it is sitting on, what beautiful presentation. Like most of Heston’s recipes, the three times cooked chips has received intense media attention since inception. If I am right, he has a preference for maris pipers. As for the preparation: Potatoes are firstly gently boiled, then deep-fried in ground nut oil before cooling in a fridge. Once cold and hardened, it is deep-fried one last time in rendered fat and the result is a regal crunch that protects a hot and fluffy interior. It does work by the way. The extreme contrast of the dry crispy crunch against the fluff was perfect as far as I was concerned, especially the golden, crispy exterior – really robust crunch. I couldn’t confirm if the chips were cooked in goose fat or beef drippings, but either way, they were very good chips.
You have got to see what’s inside the pudding…
Chunks of very tender oxtail meat and chopped kidneys created a rich gamey aroma. Though, like most of the food, the flavour didn’t go off-rails, well balanced. A softly bitterness on my palate sitting alongside the robust beefiness of beautifully slow cooked oxtail which combined to make a very deep flavour. The superiorly gentle oxtail texture coupled with the chewiness of kidneys was inspiring, most of all, we loved the suet pastry, it was mushy, sticky and pasty. It carried a mild sweetness, dense enough to soak up all the lovely juices. A lovely dish, simply well-cooked.
Steamed Mussels, £13.95.
Over on the other side, the missus was tucking into a colossal bowl of wholesome steam mussels, finished in a homely garlic infused broth.
As for myself, T-Bone with bone marrow sauce and triple cooked chips, £25.50. Landcress, parmesan and pinenut salad on the side, £4.75.
Generous shavings of cheese along side a zesty dressing with pinenuts were the perfect companion to the landcress leaves. As for the T-bone, it looked fantastic, if a tad skinny. Scotch angus, dry-aged for an undisclosed amount of time was used. It smelled great, of the kind which reminded me of burning wood under intense flames.
I asked for mine to be bloody and rare, and appreciated that it was as requested, blood still poking through the charred exterior. Let’s start with the the sirloin – a tad chewy, as British beef should be, with a mature flavour, normally associated with Scotch on a diet of grass. The fillet on the other side of the bone was exquisite, I was amazed at how tender it was, as it disintegrated like hot butter. There was wonderful roastiness, as opposed to full-bodied smokiness from say the charcoal of a Josper. Quality of beef was mostly secondary to the pièce de résistance that is the bone marrow sauce. I suppose all the good stuff – red wine, shallots and butter – that usually goes into a Bordelaise sauce were involved in creating this richly beefy gravy to compliment the steak. Again, it is the visual appeal that give this sauce an extra special touch, in the very pleasant parcels of floating bone marrow bits, seemingly like little edible balloons which held liquid flavour, bursting as you spread it and the sauce across the steak. Joyous, joyous. Judging by the tenderness of the fillet attached to this T-bone, I wondered if the fillet would have made for an even better choice. Given the roastiness and sauce provided firepower, all the beef needed to be was simply to be tender. Umami everywhere. To be honest, I was actually looking for Heston’s blue cheese butter as he had crafted in his Perfection book, though the blue cheese was to replicate the flavour of Prime USDA aged beef fat, which our cattle distinctly lacks. Anyway I digress. I loved the bone marrow sauce, proper fire in the lake.
Initially, I wanted to try the Chocolate ‘Wine Slush’, an overspill from an older iteration of the Fat Duck menu, though our waitress had informed that there were far decadent choices. So instead, we went for the Strawberry trifle and the Sussex pond pudding.
Strawberry Trifle, £6.95.
Layers. Heston loves layers doesn’t he? Our waitress described one very complex trifle. Starting from the bottom, ladyfingers soaked in green tea, strawberries, rose infused jelly, chopped black olives and mascapone finished off….. with something good enough that I forgot to write it down. My mouth was full of cream, mild sizzling acid from the strawberries, perfume from the jelly, an intriguing faint hint of black olives. The tea infused ladyfingers absorbed much of the sharpness – very charming trifle. No custard I don’t think, but the mascapone was a good substitute.
Sussex pond pudding, £6.50.
The sussex pond pud is made with the same suet pastry as the oxtail pudding, but instead of the bovine, we were greeted with a thick lemon caramel sauce, candied lemon slices and bags of tart. Another excellent showcase of competing flavours, the zest taking the edge off the sweetness of the sugar and vise versa, here the pastry is the perfect platform to hold the pudding. Regal.
I was shocked with the bill, £139.75 for three… so much for straight forward pub food then. We weren’t too impressed with the London-like prices, slap on the extra £9.80 return fare to Paddington and one might be compelled to spend that money on any one of the new London openings from Bar Boulud to Viajante, or perhaps Harwood Arms. Money aside, I liked the Hind’s Head, food was approachable, well-cooked and boisterous. As we deliberated on the way home, we thought it was good enough to return with more from the extended clan. I am already eyeing the fillet on the bone, as well as the Shepherd’s pie for my next visit.
This was no Fat Duck, it couldn’t be more different, for one, I left feeling utterly full. It is ironic how one remembers simple pleasures, the triple cooked chips, the steak and the pea soup – that’s dinner I could do on a daily basis. And at one point in my life, pub food was indeed a daily affair. I had spent weeks at The Old King’s Arms in Pembrokeshire, wolfing down Welsh breakfast (that’s cockles, bacon and laverbread) , Welsh black fillets and roasted pawn mawr cheese. Oh the good old days. As I exited the Hind’s Head, I noted the cautionary sign which hung above the entrance – ‘Duck or Grouse’ – it was heraldic as it emphasised how far British food had progressed. We are truly living in a golden era now. I’m not sure where THH stands in the grand scheme of British things, while it is good, it didn’t challenge my palate, and I find it a tad overpriced. As it is a golden era of sorts, The Hind’s Head faces stiff competition in the form of The Royal Oak, The Sportsman, Harwood Arms perhaps even London’s premier ‘gastropubs’ such as the likes of 32 GQS. Regardless, I think it is safe to say that we can at least be proudly boastful of the reinvigorated status of Great British Cuisine.
… and my Fat Duck review for reference.
The Gist of It
Hind’s Head Official Site
£50 per head, British Innit.
High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AB
Tel: 01628 626 151