The Thatch

legend has it there’s a fish and chip shop up in Hartlepool where the guacamole is to die for

So the memory of another general election fades away into the night, much like an enfeebled Peter Mandelson divested of his supposed ghoulish powers. You might think that this election was particularly uninteresting. And you might be right.

In terms of dullness, the leaden grey of Spitting Image’s pea-eating John Major initially limps to mind. But after reading Stuart Heritage’s piece in Teh Grauniad that made reference to, and I quote, “his engorged penis (that’s John Major’s penis and not Peter Mandelson’s, I hasten to add) repeatedly penetrating Edwina Currie’s moistened labia”, I’m not so sure that is such a useful analogy. Clearly not as boring as we all thought. And yet… Oh, come on! What the hell is the matter with you all? John Major has sex, why wouldn’t he? Even John Prescott and Lembit Opik have sex (though I’m sure not with each other). We all remember Prescott’s alleged Whitehall cocktail sausage shenanigans in between games of croquet. And wasn’t Montgomeryshire’s finest inexplicably involved with some Romanian twins at one point?

The offending article (not John Major’s penis, or indeed John Prescott’s penis…) was a principled (…or Peter Mandelson’s or Lembit Opik’s) if tongue-in-cheek (by ‘tongue in cheek’ I don’t mean that John Major would give Edwina Curr… well anyway) counter punch to the Daily Mail’s then ongoing and really rather squalid, personal campaign against Ed Milliband. It was the Mail’s usual combination of behind-the-net-curtain tut-tutting and censorious moral outrage at the possibility that a left wing man may have at one time engaged in pre-marital sex. Not just any sex, mind; sex with women. That right there is like some unholy trinity for the Mail – the very three things it detests more than anything. You can picture it, can’t you? Though of course this time the engorged penis would have belong to Ed Milliband and it would surely have been skewering a succession of Swivias and Augustines, over and over and over like some frenzied Duc de Blangis, in one – or both – of his kitchens. All dildos and dogs no doubt.

Right, well, that’s enough of the politics; shall we talk restaurants?

As you can clearly see, what I wanted to do was – let’s call it critically evaluate the existence of the Shy Tory, which I think relevant in light of the general election. And that is why in fact this election was interesting. It told us more about the inner lives and scruples of the British than any opinion poll ever could. There was no high drama. It was not about manifestos or politicians or pledges or promises. Was it even really about politics? Sure, there was the usual spectacle of gaffes and personal failures but we have seen it all before. Milliband’s Tombstone was really just Kinnock’s Sheffield all over again. Balls Out was a bawdier yet equally as gleeful re-enactment of the Portillo Moment. Best of all was Farridge’s [sic] reviled, 70’s seaside comedy club sideshow, closed for business, limping out of Margate with the shutters pulled firmly down. It ultimately came down to you lot quietly, firmly, re-asserting your will: you were all Shy Tories all along. But I can’t see how this is in any way whatsoever newsworthy let alone surprising. But again, enough with the politics. Maybe there’s a better way to take the nation’s pulse?

Restaurants are the next obvious thing. We all know You Are What You Eat is a cliché too far… but is it, though? If you asked the public to visualise their ideal kind of dining out experience, the median response would be something very much akin to the gastropub.

The Gastropub. Everybody seems to know what one is but nobody actually does. They are impossible to describe satisfactorily: ‘a pub with a wine list’ might be as close as you will get, though this forever begs the question. The gastro- prefix is really just a marketing gimmick. A pub? Don’t kid yourself: it’s a restaurant. Or rather, it is the template that more and more restaurants seem to follow these days.

Gastropubs represent the mainstream of eating out. Like a reassuring Radio 2 of restaurants they are for most people and for most tastes: something nice in a rustic-y sort of pub. And let’s be honest, eating food in a pub is an inherently good thing. Who would ever argue with that? Gastropubs are populist, democratic and inclusive. They are relaxed, informal and family-friendly. Many are able to turn out an admirably wide choice of food and do so consistently and at reasonable prices. Most crucially of all, gastro-style has seen eating out in restaurants become one of the nation’s most popular pastimes.

But as a fulcrum of provincial middle class life the majority of gastropubs typically look, feel and taste pretty much the same. Décor and menus alike tend to the steadfastly conventional. There is little room for idiosyncrasy, individualism or character. Never mind not frightening the kids, let’s not frighten the adults. The worst of them are unashamedly middle aged, middle-of-the-road sorts of places. If they were music they would be Adele or Ed Sheeran. If television, Downton Abbey. If a person, most certainly Alan Partridge. There really is something so irresistibly and quintessentially Partridge about the gastropub that even the phrase sounds like something he might conceivably have come up with back in his Travel Tavern days. Besides, (and correct me if I’m wrong here) Alan would never be seen dead in a proper pub.

Politics, though: that’s your business. And this is not what this is about. But is the gastropub really just dinner plate personification of today’s (not at all) Shy Tory? That’s perhaps a bit facetious and not a little sneering. Just take a look at the Duke of Cambridge in Islington or The Sportsman in Seasalter to know this cannot be true. And besides, if you were dying to know where us champagne socialists go out to eat; well, legend has it there’s a fish and chip shop up in Hartlepool where the guacamole is to die for. Just ask our man up there in the opening paragraph. But for now though we’re at The Thatch, a gastropub in Thame, Oxfordshire.

Thame is a small Oxfordshire town known for a good sweet shop (now sadly closed), a great record shop (also sadly closed) and its own folk festival. But it’s not all bad. There is a great independent bookshop and the ever-expanding annual food festival too. Housed in an eye-catching 16th century building on the main road into town, The Thatch looks the part with the requisite Tudor wonkiness, oak beams and eponymously thatched roof.

Its charmingly haphazard rooms once enjoyed a brief flirtation with the world of celebrity when they featured on reality television programme The Restaurant a few years back. Couples competed for the chance to run a restaurant with financial backing from Raymond Blanc. The whole thing was similar to The Apprentice but for the fact that participants were likeable, inept dimwits as opposed to unlikeable, inept ones. One of the series winners was an Oxfordshire couple that eventually set up their own restaurant in the building we are currently in. They lasted a few months…

you only tend to find cap, or ‘picanha’ steak on the more recherché of menus or at South American churrascos. Very nice to see in an Oxfordshire pub

In its current incarnation The Thatch has been nominated in consecutive years in two Observer Food Award categories suggesting there’s a bit more to it than that which meets the eye. Like a Dutch still life, the menu does not necessarily thrill on first viewing. But it is not overly long and neither does it make puffed up promises of things you know the kitchen will be never be up to the task of delivering.

There are sharing boards to start. There was some good, earthy chorizo; pork terrine; fine locally cured ham; some brisk chutnies and a very decent celeriac remoulade. Elsewhere: just-right crispy squid, smoked mackerel, pitta bread and hummus. The mackerel’s deep, smoky hum was definitely the highpoint. Also a selection of salads: a salad of confit guinea fowl I liked. A ‘superfood’ salad was merely an amalgam of Pret-A-Manger-bits-and-pieces that had no reason to be sharing a plate together. The clear winner was a plate of bouncy leaves heaped with brawny nuggets of black pudding and a poached egg.

Main courses ploughed a similar furrow, a sine wave of the forgettable through to unanticipated goodness. Wild mushroom and Gruyere pancakes were as mundane as expected. A chicken and ham pie promised much with thick pastry burnished to a wonderfully glossy, golden-brown sheen but was just too dry and underseasoned inside.

Pea and mint risotto is something you see on menus everywhere yet this particular rendering was slinky, loose and light. Again, could have been heavier on the seasoning. Aged rump cap steak plus trimmings held its end up very nicely. You only tend to find cap, or picanha steak on the more recherché of menus or at South American churrascos. Very nice indeed to see in an Oxfordshire pub. This particular cut had decent char plus those unmistakeably minerally, beefy characteristics of grass diet and dry aging.

And here it gets interesting. A dish of mulled lamb was good. Really, surprisingly good. The meat was dark and sticky and was steeped in deep, treacly flavours. Liberal use of cinnamon, cumin and other spices provided warm spikes of flavor and complexity. A Coq au Vin was every bit as impressive and had some serious ambition above its station. Gamey, fall-apart meat and a full-on, inky sauce managed to convey a real sense of provenance brimming with fusty Burgundian bistros. Canon of venison with dauphinoise potato more than passed muster as a satisfying plate of gastro-grub. To have a dauphiniose made this well – creamy and just soft enough – shows some culinary chops.

The wine list was good for a gastropub: plenty for under twenty quid and plenty more over as well.

For me The Thatch ranks well in ‘best of its type’ and ‘best place locally’. The food is absolutely fine, the atmosphere agreeable. Above all it understands its public. I rather like it. Now if only that could be said of our politicians.

Opinion: 7/10

Details:

The Thatch

29-30 Lower High Street

Thame

Oxfordshire

OX9 2AA

Tel: 01844 214340

Web: www.thethatchthame.co.uk

Twitter: @ThatchThame

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The Hand and Flowers

what manner of benighted arcanery takes a perfectly innocent black pudding and liquifies it into sludge?

A favourite restaurant of mine was awarded a Michelin star not so long ago. For me, and I suspect for many, this is an irrelevance. Although not quite. For once an establishment becomes a member of the club, as it were, then both it and its clientele change. Michelin puts you on the gastronomic map – a view reaffirmed by Spanish food critic Julia Pérez Lozano. Within the industry Michelin-awarded chefs becomes Names. They gain renown and prestige and often, regrettably, their own TV show. Their restaurant becomes a destination. These are all things that naturally appeal to the competitive nature of practically any professional chef – how could they not?

With this implied improvement in quality of dining experience usually (but not always) come the attendant upsurges in price, public expectation and pretension. Michelin-starred restaurants begin to look and taste exactly the same, according to Adrian Gill: oleaginous service; verbose menus; ridiculous pomp; food complicated beyond appetite and all at ridiculous expense. And in certain kitchens and for certain chefs Michelin becomes the ultimate godhead: better to cook for the Stars than for dumb punters who know nothing. If this is the case then something, surely, has been lost rather than gained in such restaurants.

It is this nebulous concept of what Michelin is – michelinese – that causes consternation. Nobody is able to pin down with any certainty what ‘Having a Michelin Star’ actually means. What exactly is Michelin-starred food? You probably have a sort of idea: something Masterchef-y maybe, perhaps eaten somewhere a bit “posh” or “stuffy” (“not for the likes of me” in other words). Michelin’s definition does not exactly help: “a very good restaurant in its class”. Great, thanks.

Most of all Michelin stars are not very… well they’re not very ‘British’, are they? Food is eaten in our self-image so Brits would probably all prefer it to be no-nonsense, apologetic and free of any gratuitous pleasure. And in many places up and down the country it most certainly is. You see, it just doesn’t do to luxuriantly indulge in and effuse over the contents of one’s dinner plate. Eating as carnal and sensual pleasure? That’s what the French do isn’t it?

So posh, stuffy and French: and you would almost certainly be right. According to the 2012 guide there were 594 restaurants in France with varying amounts of Michelin stars. Italy had 295. It is plainly bonkers for anyone to suggest that the food of Italy is only half as good as, or even half as worthy of recognition as that of its neighbour. Not only is Michelin accused of consistent and blatant bias in favour of French-style gastronomy it has had to fend off more allegations of corruption than a Metropolitan Police chief constable. To some the organisation is little more than an echo chamber narrowly represented by a coterie of untouchable chefs whose position is sacrosanct and who consistently retain their Two and Three Stars come what may: a veritable Cosa Nostra of antiquated French establishment wax work figures. And here in the UK too, the self-celebrating, ego-driven reality TV boys’ club of ‘slebrity [sic] cheffery is a not too distant memory when it comes to the world of Michelin-level dining.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Michelin Guide comes under fire from the critics. Not just the characteristically intractable Gill (“in both London and New York the guide appears to be wholly out of touch with the way people eat nowadays”) and Lozano but the equally renowned (and French) Gilles Pudlowski who claimed only last year that Michelin had “lost the plot”. But chefs? Frederick Dhooge of ‘t Huis van Lede in Belgium recently handed back his star with the calm self-possession of a man who truly knows his own and his restaurant’s worth, a chef who wanted the freedom to cook simple, authentic Flemish dishes without any need for Michelin’s endorsement. He probably has the sympathy of every chef in Italy.

So wouldn’t it be good if the very best bits of British gastronomy were rewarded in this way? Somewhere unfussy; modern yet nostalgic though without being mawkish or twee; great and British, as opposed to The Great British.

Tom Kerridge’s fabled The Hand and Flowers might be that Eden diners and critics alike have been waiting for. A humble boozer, the only in the UK, to be awarded two Michelin Stars for its food. That is something unique and special right there: un table excellente qui mérite le detour, rubbing shoulders and swapping spit with the rarified likes of Le Gavroche or Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, though with none of the attendant pomp and flummery.

How can this be? Has Michelin actually lost the plot this time? A pub? Does the cheese trolley have to navigate around the pool table and fag machine? Perhaps they do a meat raffle between courses? The most cursory glance at any of his TV programmes shows Kerridge is in fact the new Nigel Slater rather than just another boring, blokey, bloke’s bloke. He quite simply cooks exactly what you want to eat and appears to love doing so. Just imagine: pub grub with not one but two – two – Michelin stars. It would be Proper Lush – wouldn’t it?

Located in the well-heeled Buckinghamshire town of Marlow The Hand and Flowers does indeed look like any other pub as you draw near. Sadly, the whole thing is an exercise in how Michelin can get things so bafflingly, hubristically wrong. The Hand and Flowers comes with massive hype, massive prices, timed tables – for which it was necessary to book one 15 months in advance, and do not even think about making a reservation if you object to having a £100 deposit snatched from your purse. This was not how it was supposed to be. Plus ça change, mon brave, plus ça change

We arrive 40 minutes ahead of time in order to check in to our room and have drinks in the bar. Within this time they managed to put on a clinic in farce. Everything was of the Fawlty school of absurdity: miscommunication, misdirection and missing drinks. One person asked as if we would like to check-in – this did not happen. Another asked us if we wanted a drink – this did not happen either. We were given the bar menu and promptly forgotten about. There were only about four other people in the room. Both room-checker-in-er and drink-offerer repeatdely said over the course of the next fifteen minutes “someone will be along in a minute”. “In a minute” they kept saying. Why ‘in a minute’? We’re here; you’re here. I don’t understand. The air hung thick with impending Blithe Spirit style tragedy: mine, I suspected. I guess this is what it must feel like to be ignored to death.

After sitting there with our coats on and drink-less for twenty minutes we were eventually whisked off to our room. Bags dumped, back to the bar. “Hello there, will you be dining with us this evening? Can I take your names please?” No…what?…no, no we already… The person who had this instant taken us to our room was standing by during this humorous little exchange. “Oh ok then, would you like a drink? If you would just like to take a seat and someone will be over.” Ten more minutes of sitting. I was eventually able to catch the eye of a barman with flag semaphore and drinks were ordered.

Call time (still no drinks) and we were led into the crepuscular gloom of the dining room. It was pleasant enough, though one that Matthew Norman of the Telegraph described, accurately it must be said, as “generic Home Counties gastropub”. Another fifteen minutes passed and still nothing. Every atom of me so dearly, so profoundly – from gout-tormented toes to receding hairline – wanted to march back into the bar, fuming with as much bunch-backed indignation as I could muster, and scream “A gin and orange, a lemon squash and a scotch and water, PLEASE!!” Oh, if only.

Well dear reader; we got our gin and tonics, even if it did take an hour…

First up, an appetizer to share of floured and fried whitebait in a paper cone and a snappy, sweet-sharp Marie Rose sauce. A great touch. This came with a thick crusted and wonderfully spry homemade sourdough, about as good as you will find. And about as good as you are likely to encounter in this dining room too.

Potted artichoke with truffle and cured pork was full of promise. This was a dish that foretold of the fat, sybaritic pleasures of Gascon farmhouses. It was not to be. There was that pleasingly heady fug of truffle on both nostrils and palate, and the pork, a single slice of cured lardo draped indulgently over the top was high and sweet but none of this was enough. Quite literally. It was ridiculously tiny. The pork, once disturbed with the prod of a fork, shrivelled and rolled instantly to nothing like polythene and the whole thing was less than a mouthful. Potato ‘risotto’ (their quotation marks) with ‘baked potato stock’ (mine) was just odd. Neither of us had the foggiest what it was trying to be. It was a couple of spoonfuls of potato-y granule-y bits with a large wedge of cep mushroom squashed on top – very much like Monty Python’s Foot of Cupid in fact.

Then there was grouse, black pudding purée, cherry ketchup, game pie and frosted almonds. Though intrigued I admit I struggled to see how this Mystery Bag Challenge of ingredients would piece together. The struggle continued once the plate arrived, even with two of the things (game pie, almonds) missing altogether. (I concede, the forgotten game pie was brought out later). What arrived initially was hardly Babette’s Feast: two grouse breasts (which are tiny) and some slicks of brownish sauce for a penury inducing £35. Accompaniments of chips and kale had to be purchased separately. Why could it not have been, say, grouse with (actual) black pudding, kale and chips along with all the embellishments and swirls you might expect? What is wrong with that? And black pudding purée: what manner of benighted arcanery takes a perfectly innocent black pudding and liquefies it into sludge? It was thoroughly unpleasant and did nothing whatsoever to serve the dish. Neither did the game pie which was unidentifiable ground-up stuff and blisteringly over-powered with cumin and allspice of all things. The grouse was also raw. Quivering, purple and as raw as anything you might find on an autopsy table.

“It is grouse and it is a very dark meat,” said the floor manager, jaw set. “I know.” “It is served rare,” said with jaw set even more. “Yes, I know”. Then came the punch line: “It probably isn’t undercooked, it’s just that the lighting is very dim in here…” You’re telling me. “…and you probably can’t see properly”. Her jaw had now taken on a positively granite-like solidity. What another delightful piece of farce. There is neither espirit nor escalier in the world of sufficient magnitude to even begin to think up a retort and I do not think I ever shall. The offending plate was whisked back into the kitchen with the cold brutality of a child abduction. Moments later she brought the same plate back with a challenge-me-if-you-dare glare and instructed me that “chef is happy with it.” We Know Best Here was the not so subtle message. The rudeness on display was like a spiteful and unexpected kick to the shins, though really it was just more of what was played out in the bar earlier. It was pitch perfect passive aggression intermingled with unintentional comedy and so very provincially British. After what seemed like an age: “Well we could flash it quickly in the pan for you.” “If you would, yes.” “It wouldn’t be a problem,” a parting shot hissed as if I requested the building be moved slightly to the left.

this is what it must feel like to be ignored to death

Our other main of beer roasted chicken and maple glazed squash and truffle came with a blow-by-blow explanation of how the bird had been brined and then sponged down in a water bath (sous vide) yet oddly nothing whatsoever about any actual roasting. Now eating roast chicken is one of the most instantly and hotly satisfying things you can do with your mouth so you desperately want it to be done well. Here it tasted of spam, minus the flavour. It was weirdly, off-puttingly mushy, was barely warm and was like eating papier-mâché babies. There was no hot, fibrous meat you wanted to tear off and gnaw, no golden crispy skin. It was moist as a result of the sous vide but only in the same way a wet sponge is. “I can’t finish this, it’s really unpleasant. It doesn’t taste anything like roast chicken at all.” I had to agree. Again, odd.

“Well,” I reasoned, “perhaps the Michelin stars were awarded for the their puddings?” And I was almost right. Chocolate and ale cake with salted caramel and muscovado ice cream was a winsome, seductive thing. Especially the ice cream. It was all I could do not to “ooh” and “aah” through every mouthful the way Robin Askwith might if ogling a negligéed housewife through her bedroom window. That this was a thing of such finesse was so infuriating. Why couldn’t everything else have been this good?

I need not have worried. Just as no good turn goes unpunished, a pistachio cake and melon sorbet was unwaveringly average in its ambition. “Quite nice, I guess. Nothing special. The cake was nice and moist but none of it really goes together.” “Odd?” “Yes, incredibly odd.”

And that was that. No offer of after dinner drinks or coffees. Not even a nice little dish of homemade chocolate truffles or petits fours. I thought all Michelin starred chefs enjoyed flaunting themselves with these little flourishes and edible curlicues. For once I wanted the pomp and the flummery. Even my local Indian gives you a dish of cash’n’carry own brand After Eights. Nothing. Not even a suggestion of an offer of a post-prandial back in the bar, though to be honest this came as something of a relief.

It was just a massive let down in every way possible. Even the (very small) side order of Hand and Flowers Chips were feeble, greasy things. And the best thing about breakfast next morning was the Nespresso machine back in the room. More slow and haphazard service carried out through gritted teeth included a twenty minute wait for a single glass of orange juice and a curt “it will be along in a minute” when asked of its whereabouts. A Tom Kerridge bacon buttie could surely not go wrong. Even this turned out to be the meanest, stingiest bacon sandwich I have come across. Ever. No, really. The thinnest bacon rashers ever looked as though they had been individually counted out, fussily arranged and snipped into shape. This was bean-counter food, an accountant’s breakfast assembled by the Swiss Inland Revenue.

Everything was off. Nothing clicked. This was the only time – ever – that I have had to send food back. Service always felt like it was too much of an effort. It either wandered about lost and forgetful like an old man with Alzheimers or it was replete with tuts and sighs. The food was nothing that would tax a good ‘gastro’pub and even at times a pretty lousy one. There was no love, no largesse. Dishes did not work. There was no intent to provide pleasure or sense of occasion. None of the seduction and drama that high-level Michelin dining invariably tries to impart. Was this just a bad night or are there much bigger problems? The double star may be baffling, but worse than that nobody seemed to care.

The Hand and Flowers is an ass of a restaurant – Buridan’s Ass to be exact. It is neither pub food nor fine dining; neither one nor t’other and seems incapable of deciding which it should be. Thus it ends up doing neither, badly. It presents the Aristotelian dilemma of what something should be. It is Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Yet here it is possible to be both. In any case we departed feeling utterly deflated. This was not Proper Lush.

Opinion: 2/10

Details:

The Hand and Flowers

126 West Street

Marlow, SL7 2BP

Tel: 01628 482277

Web: www.thehandandflowers.co.uk

Email: contact@thehandandflowers.co.uk

Twitter: @HandFMarlow