When someone describes a restaurant as “family-run” they don’t usually mean like this. Simon Bonwick operates on his own in the kitchen, with some occasional help from one of his nine (that is not a misprint) children. His son Dean runs the front of house, and his daughter India is one of the waitresses. The pub is simply but attractively decorated, with a little conservatory with a few tables at the front, and a small bar area with a real fire as you enter. Many of the pictures on the wall are painted by the chef who, when he opened, had no budget for artwork.
The chef starts the week with a completely empty fridge, and prepares everything from scratch, all by himself, with no sous or commis chefs. He regularly goes down to Cornwall himself to source the best fish he can find for the start of the following week. Operating on his own seems to me particularly arduous since many of the dishes involve manually intensive, old-school cookery. I have written previously about the attractively priced wine list and the “haggle board”, where you can haggle over the price to pay for certain selected bottles. Twenty customers can be accommodated at dinner.
There is an a la carte menu but we had a pre-arranged surprise menu tonight. A trio of nibbles began the meal. Hummus and shallot tart had delicate pastry and well balanced filling. Roast hazelnuts had been grown in the pub garden and had good flavour, but the star nibble was with eel horseradish and beer jelly. The eel was particularly good, and the jelly and the bite of the horseradish worked really well (average 16/20). Bread was made from scratch, a trio of semolina bread, baguette and pain de champagne. These were served warm and had excellent texture (16/20).
The first dish featured butternut squash with a bouillon (broth), and a garnish of scallop with green peppercorns and juniper. The bouillon was classy, clear and packed full of flavour, and the squash was very good. The Dorset scallop to me lacked enough inherent sweetness, even though it was diver-caught, but was carefully prepared. I would score this dish 15/20 with a better scallop, and I gather that a change of supplier here is anyhow in the works (14/20).
Better was a strikingly good “lentil paysanne” dish, puy lentils on a bed of creamed potato topped with a Parmesan crisp. The lentils had been slow cooked and had excellent texture and flavour, the potatoes enhanced by a béarnaise sauce being mixed in with some tarragon. The crisp was particularly delicate and I thought that, overall, this was a remarkably successful dish. I am always impressed by chefs that can elevate a humble ingredient, such as the lentils here, into something special (17/20).
Cromer crab had lovely flavour, paired with batons of apple, a layer of tomato, cashew nuts and a passion fruit and nut dressing. The acidity of the apple was an excellent foil for the high quality crab, a simple but lovely dish (nudging 16/20).
Halibut was beautifully cooked and came with a trio of large and exceptionally good prawns from Brittany, served with mash. This was an example of top notch seafood cookery (16/20 pushing on 17/20). Veal cheek was slow-cooked and very tender, served with a fabulous rich, heavily reduced sauce that had taken three days to make. Very good spinach and carrots were a good foil for the richness of the meat (17/20).
Chantilly cream came with Alpine strawberries grown nearby in Marlow, an extra texture provided by little pieces of crunchy meringue and a little compote of the strawberries. The fruit was lovely, with the kind of flavour that you never find in supermarket strawberries these days (16/20). To finish, a canele came straight from the oven and had excellent texture. There were also a pair of macarons: pistachio and raspberry, the latter particularly good. Coffee was from a Nespresso machine and was fine.
The menu is “market price” but it is feasible to eat here for barely £40, which is insanely good value given the standard of cooking. if you order wine then perhaps £55 a head is realistic. Our bill tonight came to £37 each. Service was charming. This is a restaurant that thoroughly deserves its Michelin star, and the food seems to get slightly better at every visit. Any chef operating on his own in a kitchen deserves considerable respect. To do so and produce food of this calibre is something special.