Editor's note: head chef Simon Bonwick has since moved to The Crown in Burchetts Green, near Maidenhead.
The Three Tuns in the centre of Henley opened in the spring of 2010 after a brief refurbishment, but the building dates back 700 years, at one time being a morgue. This brings its own issues, a listed building making it difficult to arrange heating, and with toilets that are partly outside. There is a little terrace at the back that is open in the summer. The dining area as you enter around the bar has an open fire and, with its low ceiling and wooden floor, has a fairly cosy feel, while the section at the back offers a peek into the small kitchen but is a little isolated from the rest of the room by pillars. The tables are plain wood without tablecloths, and a total of just 28 diners can be accommodated at any one time, being catered to by two chefs and a washer-up. The exposed beams show damp in places, and the paintwork is patchy, but the emphasis here is on the food. Simon Bonwick worked for some years at the Blackboys Inn, but in his past has worked at some famous kitchens, including with Bernard Loiseau in France.
The menu is short, with just four choices for each course, plus a fish special of the day. Starters are £7 - £9, main courses £12.50 - £16.50, desserts £6, or cheese from La Fromagerie at £10. There is a three course set lunch menu for just £10. The bread was made from scratch and was a choice of plain or onion rolls; both were very enjoyable with soft texture, served warm (15/20).
The short wine list had some interesting choices and was very fairly priced. Amalaya Malbec 2009 was £18 for a wine that retails at around £7, John Merriman Rustenburg 2007 from Stellenbosch was £27 for a wine that can be found for around £10 retail, while Rully Gassman Gewürztraminer at £19 was a bargain for a wine that costs about £15 in the shops. We drank the pleasant Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay 2006, which was listed at £29 for a wine that will cost you around £17 in the shops.
An extra course of polenta ragout and Pecorino crackling decorated with micro-leaves was the dish of the night, the polenta moist, the pumpkin ragout full of flavour, the Pecorino crisp; it is not easy to make polenta into something enjoyable, but this was (strong 15/20). I had a cold dish of duck liver and jellied duck stock with ginger jaggary and little cubes of spiced gingerbread. The gingerbread was nice and provided a good texture contrast, but the jelly, which was quite cold, rather numbed the palate so that the duck liver flavour did not really come through much (14/20, mainly due to the temperature issue).
I was a little disappointed by the pig rillette (meat that is chopped, salted and cooked slowly in fat then cooled with the fat to form a paste) made from Middle White (a breed once common in the UK in the 1930s and now rare, yet prized in Japan) pork, served with cornichons, pickled onions and croutons. The flavour of the pig was fine but, oddly given that the dish involves salting, I found that the seasoning was too light. The texture was not bad and the jaggery provided a welcome sweetness, but there was the odd shred of dry meat, suggesting that not quite enough fat was used in the mix (just about 14/20). My wife’s leek and goat cheese was just not that interesting, a little bland (13/20).
Things picked up with the main course. Magret duck with choucroute had nice duck, properly cooked, garnished with good carrots. My issue with this dish was the choucroute, which clearly lacked enough vinegar; however potato croquettes were nicely made (14/20 overall, though the duck was better than this). My wife’s monkfish with “cassoulet” i.e. with haricot beans, had carefully cooked beans, while the fish was a fraction dry, though certainly not badly cooked (monkfish can easily end up tasting like cardboard in the hands of a less skilled chef). The mash would have benefitted from a little more butter, and in the case of this dish the seasoning was fine (14/20).
Hot apple tart was served with vanilla ice cream and caramel. This was properly made and the apples had good flavour, though I felt the ratio of pastry to apple was a bit high, and the caramelisation was a little beyond the ideal golden stage; the vanilla ice cream was excellent, the tuile a little heavy (14/20).
Better was a lemon mousse with Morello cherry compote and little Palmier biscuits. The lemon mousse had smooth texture and carefully judged lemon flavour, while the cherries were good; the biscuit provided the necessary texture contrast (15/20). Coffee (I think this was Illy coffee) was good, served with chocolates that were of the current fashion for shrubbery (chocolate with rosemary, olive oil, liquorice and basil).
Service from our Polish waitress was very friendly, though as we were tucked away in a corner it was easy to feel a little isolated at times, but manager Oliver Reichhold seemed to be in control of things. Topping up was not bad; in a pub I really have no problem if the wine is just left on the table for me to pour, but if the wine is taken away out of reach, as here, then the serving staff need to be careful to check the topping up.
Overall this was a very pleasant evening, and the staff had real enthusiasm. The pricing is very fair for what is being delivered, which is at times very good indeed, though the standard throughout the meal was not entirely consistent. A recurring theme was a sense of slightly muted flavours, which surprised me a little: I think the seasoning could be racked up a notch. The chef, from a brief chat at the end, came across as having a real passion for food, and clearly loves what he does. This comes through on the plate, despite my odd quibble. Sorry the photos are rather murky, but the lighting levels here were low, with no directed spot lights. The camera was sending me signals that I think translate as “oh sure, why not leave the lens cap on as well and see how I manage then?” and “have you considered trying an infra red camera, matey?”. The bill for two came to just £109 for two with a nice bottle of wine and dessert wine, so the bill felt very fair.