Hand and Flowers

126 West Street, Marlow, England, SL7 2BP, United Kingdom

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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.

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User comments

  • Robert

    After several visits here, we have finally decided that in this case Michelin have definitely got it wrong. We experienced many of the same faults as Mr. Hayler and other reviewers mentioned including over salted food, slack service, and a rather dull and sometimes uncomfortable dining space.

  • EatenAtTheH&F

    Having booked a table last year I finally managed to eat at The Hands and Flowers in August of this year. I have wanted to eat at The Hands and Flowers for a number of years now and literally could not wait. Whilst it was “nice” that was about it. I ordered the Treacle Cured Chateaubriand as did my daughter (aged 5). We ordered hers medium well done and mine rare and mine came more cooked then hers. Border line over done. The presentation of the plates in my opinion were quite basic – but then it was “pub food”. Reservation was confirmed at 10.20 am on day of booking (booking at 12.00). Usually confirmation is made several days in advance. I have eaten in several other two star Michelin restaurants in the past 12 months including The Square, The Ledbury & Hibiscus so feel justified in making the comments I have. If we had eaten at a random pub and had been served the food that we were served, then I would have been pleasantly surprised. However when you have to book close to a year in advance, the restaurant is as hyped as it is and has two Michelin Stars, I can only say that I am disappointed. One Michelin star maybe, but two? Really? Oh well – such is life.

  • Spike

    I have to agree with Andys rating. After looking forward to a visit here, we were left wondering how it got it's stars. There are better places to eat in Marlow with no stars at all

  • TheGreedySheik

    Hi Andy I agree a pleasant pub restaurant but not stellar. I had lunch on my own when a 1* and with my children when a 2*. We were mystified where the 2nd star came from. We were given whitebait as well which I think our cat would ignore. Good pork dishes and acceptable service in a comfortable environment but some way to go justify the accolades Michelin is bestowing.

  • vialaporte

    see our comment, perfectly agree on the review.

  • Name unavailable

    I just about managed to get through the ramblings in the previous review on The Hand & Flowers, about how it is outragous that it has 2 stars and therefore at the same level as Le Gavroche (and other 2 star establishments). I suggest the reviwer read what the star ratings indicate. Having eaten there last week, I'm in no doubt that in its category, the Hand & Flowers deserves a 2 star ranking: "excellent cuisine, worth a detour,". To start, I went with the Crispy Pig's Head, and my wife went for the Braised Pearl Barley. We were told that they use every part of the Pig's head to make the dish, with the exception of the brain and the eyes. Served on the Pancetta, with a crispy coating, it was gorgeous. A rich meaty flavour like good pork belly, I could have eaten double. The crackling was very thin and long, and perfectly crunchy. The Braised Pearl Barley was also really good. Not the dish I would immediately choose, Pearl Barley doesn't excite my taste buds (Foie Gras does though), but that shows I shouldn't judge the dish on one ingredient. For the main course, I went for the Duck Breast whilst my wife chose the Shin of Beef. The duck was cooked perfectly, nice and pink in the middle, and had lovely flavour. The cabbage came in its own little pot and went well with the Duck, and the duck fat chips were fantastic. The Shin of Beef was served on half of the shin bone, where the marrow would be, and it was lovely and tender. The carrot that came with it had an ever so subtle hint of aniseed to it that worked extremely well. We also had a side of the Crushed Swede which was lovely and creamy, and we just had to try the Salt Baked Potatoes which we had seen on last year’s Great British Menu, which were beautifully soft and creamy, and required no butter to be added. For dessert I went with the Glazed Russet’s Apple Tart, and the wife went for the Passion Fruit Soufflé. The Hazelnut ice cream had the perfect amount of flavour to go with the apple tart without being overpoweringly nutty. The tart itself was really good. The same can be said for the Lime ice cream which accompanied the Passion Fruit Soufflé really well. Both desserts were lovely but I’m a big meat eater, so will always prefer starters and mains to desserts. The service we received right from when we arrived was perfect. Friendly, attentive, and they answered every question we had about the restaurant and the food. They were happy to stop and chat if you wanted, but didn’t hang about or bother you if you were having your own discussion. In total we paid £130 (less that the cost of the taster menu at Le Gavroche for 1 person!) which I think is a bargain for a meal consisting of 3 courses, wine and coffee. You can't compare The Hand & Flowers to The Ledbury or Le Gavroche as this is very different. At The Ledbury and Le Gavroche we had the taster menus which were incredible, and whilst I wouldn’t describe The Hand & Flowers food as incredible, it was without question better than all of the 1 Michelin star restaurants that we’ve been to, but that's just my opinion.

  • Name unavailable

    I don’t even know where to start, seriously. Hand and Flowers is this kind of places, not being their fault, but trapped into the endlessness vicious circle of Michelin establishment. Granted 2 stars by the Michelin guide in the 2012 edition. OK this is nice, this friendly, this is overwhelming, but STOP. This is a fact. From 7 years being living in the UK I’ve always been easy with the rating of restaurants in the country, trying to identify the difference and understand. From most starred restaurant in the world, to the best places in France and the UK, I’ve to say, that in this particular occasion we’re reaching the level of the ridiculous. Not for the respect of the chef, certainly not. After a full meal I think I had quite a decent experience for 3 hours. But come on, this is not acceptable to compare some places in the UK to the Hand and Flowers. This is not acceptable to compare the Green House in London to this pub, the Pied a Terre, the teams in the world suffering every day to bring an experience, a moment in the life of you and me. This is not simply acceptable to compare the Gavroche or Joel Robuchon to the H/S. Even the MidSummer which I detailed over a full post was to be applauded in this instance. Something in going wrong in the Michelin rating establishment and we will have to understand what is happening. Is it a kind of mafia surrounding the French established born guide ….. carrying what they did for the some recognized Chef in the world, and almost being creating a subsidiaries of connection with some grown up chef. I’m fed seriously fed up with this outrageous way of the Michelin guide to establish new scales, new benchmarking where there is definitely none. Established for a while in the world. I will take the example of some Taillevent in Paris. How dare would you rate Taillevent the same level as the Hand and Flowers? Am I missing the point here? Are we saying the UK Michelin got a different rating as the rest of the world? Then if the anwer to that question is a Yes, then I’m giving up. I though Michelin was establishing a global and standard level of rating all cross the world. This would be my mistake. Here Tom Tom Kerridge, with all the best respect I got for his talent since I’ve seen him in Great British Menu, I can’t understand how you could have the respect to be part of the group of established Michel Roux or Joel Robuchon and not being ashamed of been awarded the same level on a simple pub in the middle of Marlow. I would be you, I would write to the Michelin headquarter telling that there must be an misunderstanding. The first minute of this moment are just living the sum up of all the rest of the experience…… Nill…close to nothing. We arrive, we see a nice pub, a team chatting, unusual hesitation on taking your clothes and then the noisy dining room….are you sure this is the place you’re coming to have a Sunday roast?? Almost surreal. Two Stars? This is a joke!! My god… Michelin Guide UK is driving the people nuts by doing this kind of analogy. This is really bad, and these not even the fault of mister Kerridge. Seriously. The Michelin star in the UK is not on the first time proceeding to this kind of operation. They did it recently for Arbutus in London. Same scenario, as the total surprise was astonishing. Even from them from really close sources. Come on Michelin team, you can do better and be realistically independent. Stop trying to ruin the level you established in other countries by just rushing and creating stars where there is none. I’ve been recently to the Elephant in Torqay and this was a far better experience than the Hand and Flowers. Worse than that, something happen which never happen to me, and which was even worse for this poor chef…..a hair….seriously I’m not joking….this is a first time I had a hair in my dish. This was a joke. I’m not even doing any fuss of it ….expect that I and my friend had to wait 20 minutes to get another dish ready to replace. Also I’ve to say, on top of that, we’ve been recommended to leave the table for a certain time….what the hell is that…if you’re a 2 stars, you deal with that? I can’t wait to see serious people coming to your restaurant (pub) In essence…..forget about this place. If the food can be nice…..I’m not even commenting about it….as I’ve been so much disgusted by the treatment and the rudeness of the management and staff. I even had to claim to cancel the price of counted replacement dish???? …….in a history of good food and Michelin star, this is a pure disappointment. Leaving me with anger against my favorite guide and the fact that some people are currently committing into the selling of the quite old and established guide. We’re losing in quality and independency. This is a shame. I hope this is not the start or even continuity of a downfall. I’m working to make people understand the real rating established a long time ago by people with passion. Recently the Michelin guide has committed suicide by promoting too many places ….and not real looking to their own rating benchmark. I would recommend to those people currently working at Michelin to travel more. To experience more places in the world. You should go to Tokyo messieurs. You should go to Paris or Spain messieurs. How can you rate Noma, Robuchon, Gavroche, Carré de Feuillants, …..or even Mid Summer with a 2 stars when you are rating 2 star at Hand and Flower. This is OUTREAGOUS. I would recommend you to extend your bib gourmand to different level…..this would be wiser. As a lover of food and quality…….I’m sorry Hand and Flowers is a nice pub…maybe the best….but this is a PUB. Please enjoy the food…….unfortunately on shade by the silliness of an international rating established by currently falling regulator. To the image of the big financial rating agencies… seems that some food rating agencies are currently overwhelming their power…..this could be their downfall soon….

  • Mark Skene

    My wife and I ate here back in February and I'd agree with most of this review. I had duck en croute which was very good, and an apple souffle which was outstanding but i also had a starter of terrine of pork with pickled pineapple which was frankly bizzare and not good at all. Variable with some highlights seems to be the order of the day here. I also agree that if you are serving it as pub food and having the less attentive service that this represents then the price should also reflect this. Overall though it was an enjoyable meal. They also have a number of rooms and we stayed in one of them for a couple of nights and had a very pleasant stay.