Back last summer, we were having a lazy morning snuggled up with the children in bed watching Saturday Kitchen. Tom Kerridge was the guest on that show and whilst I now can’t recall what exactly it was that he cooked, it was impressive enough for us to run downstairs and book a table online. That booking was for yesterday as part of Matt’s fortieth birthday gift. And oh my word, it was worth waiting for!
The Hand and Flowers is one of just twenty restaurants in the UK to have received two Michelin stars, the other notable one close to us being Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. They’ve also just been crowned the UK’s best gastropub for the third year running earlier this week. You can’t really call it a pub, it’s far too nice for that and they have an exceptionally well stocked bar, which made me extremely envious and rekindled my love of being behind a bar. The vodka range alone was fantastic and there was far less of those than there was gins, whiskies and bourbons! Anyway, not being drinkers, we were there for the food. We’d studied the menu in great depth prior to the visit so pretty much knew exactly what we were going to order. However the menu had a few changes to what had been posted online so it took us a few minutes to really decide. Eventually, we were ready!
For starters, Matt chose the crab ravioli with roast calcot onion. Normally Matt doesn’t like pasta so this surprised me and being a Channel Islands boy, he is VERY picky about his crab. When you grow up used to just-caught spider crab, the taste of most other crabs pale into insignificance! I went all out and chose the blowtorched Scottish scallop with beef and mead bouillon, trompettes, apple and nasturtium.
BUT… before this arrived, we were presented with warm, crispy, fat whitebait with a Marie Rose dipping sauce, warm bread – sourdough and brown, and butter all served in wooden blocks with H&F engraved on the side. These whitebait were more sardine size than the usual scrawny bitesized fish and were beautifully fresh.
These were devoured in seconds but there was just time for a short chat and glass of continually but discreetly filled water before our starters arrived. By this time, we could hear Tom in the kitchen shouting orders!
Matt was really impressed with his ravioli, a light citrussy sauce on plump pasta pillows stuffed with white crabmeat. The slight chargrilling of the onion counteracted the sweetness perfectly. And my scallops just blew my mind and made my toes curl with happiness. Three fat scallops, blowtorched to provide a caramelisation, just cooking the interior and giving a lingering smokiness in the mouth similar to a Lapsong Souchong flavour. The beef and mead bouillon was softly set with the trompettes giving a dark, earthy and slightly nutty flavour before the tiny cubes of Granny Smith apple give a little burst of acidic sweetness and a few nasturtium leaves provided pepperiness. I will admit to swiping my finger round the empty bowl to catch any last remaining flavours!
I could have stopped here, in utter happiness but we didn’t. Oh, we so didn’t! For our main course, Matt had selected tenderloin of Wiltshire pork with pickled mustard leaf, malt glazed cheek, garlic sausage and potato dauphine. This came as a thin slice of garlic sausage at the bottom, which allowed its flavours to permeate gently through. The pork loin was juicy, the pork cheek had an intense smoky, malted flavour and the potato dauphine – small balls of mashed potato mixed with savoury choux pastry then deep-fried to give little puffed balls of potato just made Matt smile a lot.
Wiltshire pork loin
I chose Tom’s winning dish from The Great British Menu 2010. Slow cooked duck breast, a little glazed ball of chopped up duck, savoy cabbage with crispy duck, rich duck gravy and chips cooked in duck fat. I honestly don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to explain how amazing this dish was. Just stunning. The duck breast was like velvet, honeyed sweet and tender. What I thought was a teensy piece of crispy duck skin exploded in my mouth with a massive amount of the most intense duck flavour ever. The buttery Savoy cabbage had crispy almost Peking duck scattered throughout. The duck fat chips were tubular, made with an apple corer, hot, greasy in a good way and fluffy. Perfect dunked into that rich gravy! And a long puff of something I don’t quite know gave the plate an extra crispiness. Like a long strip of pork skin puffed up – more on those later! The whole plate was ridiculously rich and flavoursome but there was no way I was leaving any.
Duck and those chips
We also had a side of curly kale with crispy ham hock. How two simple ingredients managed to taste so good is beyond my comprehension! Amazingly after all that, we still had room for dessert. Another addition to the menu was the warm pistachio sponge, accompanied with melon sorbet and marzipan. I went for the Hand & Flowers chocolate and ale cake, with salted caramel and muscovado ice-cream. Matt’s dessert came with a special message for the birthday boy! Pale green sponge with sharp sugar shards and a good pistachio flavour. Under the scoop of fresh melon sorbet was a checkerboard slice of melons, like a pressed terrine. A crunchy thin stick of marzipan completed the plate.
Pistachio sponge dessert
My cake and it really wasn’t fitting to have such a mundane description as merely cake, was a cube of rich darkness encasing a liquid salted caramel centre. Topped with a quenelle of muscovado ice-cream, smooth and treacly with a caramelised pecan, the waiter then produced a small shot glass containing a stout from Shropshire, apparently made with four different types of hops and coming in at a potent 10% alcohol! For a very occasional drinker like me, that’s a pretty strong drink! But paired with the “cake” it absolutely worked a treat. The maltiness cut through the rich chocolate, the sweet caramel and the creamy ice-cream perfectly. Again, I managed to clear my plate.
Chocolate and Ale Cake with accompanying stout in the background
Stuffed to the gills by this, we decided to repair to the lounge for our coffee. Double espressos were needed by this point! The bar was full of glamorous ladies and men in suits waiting for a lunch table to come available. The couple behind us had been waiting so long for a table that they had given up and ordered bar snacks instead. First, a glass jar of spiced nuts was delivered to them and then came the pork and paprika puffs. Huge puffs of pork crackling, liberally dusted with smoked paprika. We couldn’t help ourselves. Despite being barely able to move, we discreetly asked the waitress if we could have a portion to take away. She explained that they wouldn’t reheat well at which point we guiltily admitted that we’d probably eat them on the drive home! Five minutes later, a foil parcel appeared on our table and we are probably the first people to leave the Hand & Flowers with a doggy bag! Of course, our dog didn’t even get a sniff of them….
So, how much did all of this gluttony cost? Well that’s the interesting part. Service charge was automatically included at 12.5% but given the extremely attentive yet unobtrusive staff, I was very happy to pay that. A five course similar lunch at our other local 2 star restaurant, Le Manoir, would set you back around £200. I can’t tell you how much local gastropub, the Magdalen Arms would be as they still don’t have a website but from memory, about £50 a head so £100 for two. The Manor at Weston on The Green also charges £50 for three courses. Local favourite, Jacob’s Inn would cost you around £70 for two people. Newly opened The Oxford Kitchen would be fifty quid a head. These places are all good but with the exception of Le Manoir, don’t have one, let alone two Michelin Stars. A grand total of £136 including our drinks, coffees and of course those pork and paprika puffs made me feel that not only had we had an exceptionally good meal but it was also damn good value.