The Hand and Flowers is a pub with dining room in a 17th century building just on the outskirts of Marlow in Buckinghamshire, open since 2005 in its current form. The low ceiling has exposed beams and the room has a wooden floor (mercifully there is no muzak) and plain tables without tablecloths. Tables are closely packed. Chef Tom Kerridge previously cooked at Adlards in Norwich (sadly now closed) as head chef, and prior to that was a senior sous-chef at the late lamented Monsieur Max, following stints at a number of London restaurants.
On my previous visit I had a pleasant but hardly stellar meal here, so given its two Michelin star promotion I was intrigued to see what I had missed the first time. The décor is basic as befits a country pub. Lighting was, if possible, even lower than last time, mainly from candles, so much so that it was actually tough to read the wine list. We managed to get seated at exactly the same table as on the previous visit, though this time the waiting staff avoided bumping into our chair each time they went past. The menu is quite long, though if you do not eat meat there are limited choices; several of the seafood dishes actually have a meat component. Starters ranged from £9 to £17.50, main courses £23.50 to £32, with vegetables side dishes extra at £4 apiece, and deserts £9 each.
The mostly French wine list ranged in price from £23 to £350, but with plenty of choice below £50 a bottle. Example wines included Alamos Torrontes, Bodegas Catena Zapata 2011 at £25 for a wine you can find in the high street for about £8, Prophet Rock Pinot Gris 2010 at £65 for a wine that you can find in a shop for around £20, and Dublere Grand Corton Charlemagne 2007 at £190 for a wine that retails at about £70. We drank the pleasant Chassagne-Montrachet, Domaine Coffinet-Duvernay 2009 at £77 for a wine that retails at around £37.
There was a nibble of fried whitebait with Marie-rose sauce, though it is difficult to get excited about whitebait at the best of times; a friend once said to me of whitebait "that's what I buy for my cat". Bread was made from scratch and quite good, especially a sourdough bread with pleasant texture (15/20). Salmon tartare with poppy seed crackers was a little light on salmon, essentially a ball of crème fraiche wrapped around with a ribbon of salmon garnished with a little lemon zest, topped with pickled cucumber. The crackers were rather hard and dry, the salmon itself nice but this was more "crème fraiche with a little salmon" than a fish starter, though the pickled cucumber gave some welcome balance (13/20). Scottish scallop was blowtorched and served with morels, nasturtium and apple with a warm chicken bouillon. The scallops were of good quality, but the cooking left their texture a little flabby, though I liked the base of morels and apple, the latter adding some useful acidity (15/20).
The best dish of the evening by some margin was duck breast with a duck faggot, a little sauce on one side and chips made using duck fat, served with broccoli. The duck faggot had excellent flavour, quite boldly seasoned, and the chips were excellent. The duck itself was nicely pink but the broccoli, while properly cooked, was too salty even to my taste, though the sauce was nicely rich (16/20). I would have nudged this dish a point higher other than for the salty vegetables and if the duck itself had been of higher quality. It was from Somerset and was fine, but was not in the league of the finest duck that you see in France e.g. from Challons. Omelette of smoked haddock and Parmesan was nicely made, the fish having plenty of flavour, though there are limits to the levels of enthusiasm I can generate about an omelette (14/20).
For dessert, warm pistachio sponge cake with melon sorbet and marzipan was prettily presented. The sponge was good, moist and having a decent amount of pistachio flavour, and the melon sorbet had good texture (15/20). Glazed apple tart with burnt milk ice cream was less successful. The pastry was too hard, but above all there was very little apple relative to pastry, a fairly basic design issue; the ice cream was fine (13/20). Coffee (£2.75) was decent if a little on the bitter side to my taste.
Service was much better than on my previous visit. The staff were, as before, very friendly, but this evening seemed rather better organised, though one course arrived with a “who ordered what?”. One waiter (Gavin) seemed a lot more switched on than the others that we encountered, but this was reasonable service by pub standards. The bill came to £94 a head, though with a more modest wine it would be possible to eat at around £80 apiece. This was an entirely pleasant meal, but I remain baffled as to why Michelin regards it so highly. Personally I would prefer to eat nearby at the Hinds Head or The Royal Oak.
The notes below are from a meal in September 2010.
The wine list had tasting notes and plenty of selections from France, but also went further afield. Examples were Les Candives Syrah from Yves Cuilleron 2008 at £37 for a wine that you can buy for around £15, the enjoyable Donnhoff Riesling Kabinett 2008 marked up quite heavily at £50 for a wine that you can pick up for about £12, while at the higher end of the list Mersault Les Perriers Vincent Girardin Premier Cru 2006 was £125 compared to a retail price of around £50.
Bread was made daily from scratch, and the choices of white roll and salt and pepper bread, served warm, had pleasing texture. The salt and pepper bread had occasionally eye-watering bursts of pepper, which was a little disconcerting (15/20 for the rolls though). Cep risotto, fried duck egg yolk and local ceps (£9.50) had very enjoyable ceps, carefully cooked and with plenty of flavour. The rice itself was also fine, the stock having been absorbed nicely and the texture of the rice about right. What detracted was the very heavy use of salt (when I complain about something being too salty, things have gone wrong). Maybe 14/20, though if the seasoning had been toned down it would have been a comfortable 15/20.
Crayfish Scotch egg (£10.50) was a single Scotch egg made with a mix involving crayfish bound with quail meat and a quail egg, covered in a coating of brioche crumbs before being deep-fried. This was very nice in itself, the quail and crayfish an interesting change from the traditional pork. On the side was a little pot of wild garlic mayonnaise, which was clearly made from scratch and had pleasant texture, though the wild garlic flavour was quite subdued. I would say that in terms of volume, this was really just a snack rather than a starter. What I found bizarre was the presentation, the egg lurking in an undergrowth of cress in what could pass for a plant pot. I am not quite sure why some chefs these days seem feel obliged to serve up something that looks like an allotment, but certain Scandinavians have a lot to answer for; it does nothing for me. I have always felt that if something is put on a plate then you should be able to eat it. Apparently Oliver Peyton described this dish as “more golf course than fish course”, which summed the presentation up very well. 15/20 for the food element of what arrived, though for me The Harwood Arms still wins on the Scotch egg front, and bear in mind that their superior version costs £2.50 rather than £10.50 (though no gardens were dug up in order to serve the Harwood version at the table).
Slow-cooked duck breast (£22.50) was served with gravy and an unannounced pot of peas a la Francaise (i.e. vegetables cooked in stock)., served on a little wooden block. On the side were chips made from duck fat. The duck was very pleasant, cooked pink and having plenty of flavour, though there was perilously little actual duck in what, after all, was a main course. I found the duck to be good rather than dazzling in taste; I am not sure where it was sourced from (the menu did not say) but this was not of the calibre of something like Challons duck. The chips were very nice, I suspect double rather than triple-cooked based on their texture but having a pleasing taste from the duck fat used to fry them (comfortably 15/20).
Weymouth plaice (£18.50) was served with sweetcorn puree, brown shrimps, girolles and Chablis shallots. The fish tasted fresh and was carefully timed, and a garnish of cucumber appeared to be pickled, which added a certain sharpness (15/20). Side dishes were priced at £4; the one I tried, hispi cabbage, was actually quite disappointing, undercooked and lacking flavour, which was odd given the distinctly robust seasoning elsewhere in the meal (barely 12/20).
I only briefly tasted the blackberry trifle (£8) with gingerbread, yoghurt and blackberry sorbet, but it was, for me, an unsuccessful dish. Although the blackberries themselves had some taste, the overall effect was of some fruit resting in yoghurt. Since the sponge appeared missing in action and the gingerbread had little ginger taste; adding some ice cream on the top was not enough to rescue the dish, which was not unpleasant but just bland (12/20).
The best dish of the night was the cherry soufflé (£8). Although the cherries themselves (a few were used as garnish) were not of exceptional quality, the soufflé itself was technically excellent, with lightly, fluffy texture and plenty of incorporated cherry flavour. A pot of chocolate ice cream on the side was also of high quality, rich and avoiding any graininess of texture. This dish was easily 16/20 level. It was all the odder to me that the same pastry chef could produce this fine soufflé and such an ordinary trifle.
Coffee was good, my double espresso small in volume (a recurring theme here) but having a fairly rich taste (15/20), at a chunky £2.75 given there were no petit fours. A cup of coffee, with the best will in the world, costs a restaurant maybe 20p for even very high quality coffee, and if there are some lovingly hand-made petit fours then at least you feel the kitchen has added some value in the process. The menu also offers “builder’s tea in a mug” at £1.50, and how much does this cost to make? Coffee and tea mark-ups are a bit of a pet peeve of mine.
Service was a mixed affair. This is a pub rather than a restaurant, and so I don’t expect wine to be topped up or to be fussed over in such a setting. The waitresses that we encountered were uniformly friendly, though one waiter managed to bump into my wife's chair almost every time he went past, which lost its novelty after a while. I grant you that the dining room is small, and despite booking way ahead our table was what described in an episode of Frasier as “the enchanted grotto” i.e. the worst placed table in the place: poorly lit, the nearest one to the ladies bathroom and just in the path of waiters leaving the kitchen, but even so. The manageress seemed pretty sharp though, and overall the service was entirely adequate for a pub.
However, the very fact that it is firmly set out as a pub is also an issue when it comes to pricing. I don’t mind tables crammed in and casual service in a pub, but the pricing of the food here is very much at fine dining levels: £10.50 for a Scotch egg, £22.50 for my main course (plus vegetables). This price level raises expectations, and makes the odd slip less forgivable. Overall I am little surprised, based on this meal, at the Michelin star accolade, though overall it was an enjoyable enough meal. The bill came to £80 a head.
The slightly murky photos are a function of the lighting at our table; which was of the single candle variety.