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.
The Hand and Flowers
126 West Street
Marlow, SL7 2BP
Tel: 01628 482277