Tom Kerridge's restaurant offers top-notch food, but is its laid-back vibe a little too ordinary?
When is a gastropub not a gastropub? It’s a question that leaves us slightly baffled as we make our way through the dining room of chef Tom Kerridge’s celebrated offering, The Hand and Flowers.
Opened in 2005, this was Kerridge’s restaurant debut, which had bagged its first Michelin star in its first year. By 2012, the Hand and Flowers won its second and proudly became known as the UK’s first two Michelin-star gastropub.
It certainly looks a bit like a pub, with its quaint, chocolate-box exterior on a semi-rural lane. It feels like a pub, with its leather banquettes, exposed brick walls and wooden beams. But this ain’t a pub, Toto. It’s a luxury restaurant, and we’ve got the bill to prove it.
The beautiful town of Marlow, nestled along the banks of the River Thames in Buckinghamshire, is deluged with old drinking establishments, cocktail bars and late-night party venues. Not for a second do we ever suspect that The Hand and Flowers is a fixture on the locals’ pub-crawl circuit. In fact, given that the ‘bar’ area seats perhaps ten people, most of whom are waiting to be called to their table in the restaurant, we’re not really sure Kerridge and co. truly believe this is a gastropub, either.
Perhaps it’s a slice of marketing genius. The first in the UK! A trailblazing, two-Michelin star idea by a young and exciting chef. Or maybe it’s a subtle hint to future customers not to expect white table cloths and an over-polished, stuffy atmosphere often associated with posh restaurants. Whichever it is, it works. At just past 2pm on a Saturday, the restaurant is full. And, having tried at length to find a date for our booking, we can say with confidence that the Hand and Flowers spends a lot of its time at capacity.
Undoubtedly, the restaurant is as homely and unassuming as a family-run pub. A bronze cast of Kerridge’s trainers hangs on the wall; his old chef whites - signed by his team to celebrate his 40th birthday - are framed in the corridor by the toilets and the sign on the kitchen door reads, “Danger! Do not enter - Pirates with knifes and fire.” The Michelin star awards sit, cheekily in the beams above our heads.
In the image of its larger-than-life owner, the Hand and Flowers is warm, inviting and relaxed. But as you’d expect from one of the UK’s most celebrated chefs, it’s the food that does the talking around here - and Kerridge’s upmarket take on ‘pub grub’ is a galaxy away from your local boozer.
We’re brought a basket of freshly baked sourdough bread with pickle butter, alongside a mini sausage roll amuse bouche served with mustard mayonnaise. It’s a pleasant enough way to begin the meal, although my partner and I both whispered that it wasn’t a patch on the Ginger Pig offering served up in the Wheatsheaf in Borough Market.
But onwards we go, to a three-course menu. While technically à la carte, it feels a whisper away from a set menu with just four dishes available for each course. For starters, we order the Duck Liver Parfait with Orange Chutney and Toasted Brioche and the Pork and Mushroom Terrine with Dill Pickles, Poultry Glaze and Toasted Sourdough.
The Parfait is beautifully smooth, creamy and rich - so rich, in fact, that half remains on the plate for fear of overindulging too early - but the flavours are exquisite and the orange chutney adds a welcome zing to the dish.
The Terrine arrives with three dill pickles that unexpectedly become the star of the course, providing a perfect partner for the earthy, mushroom jelly that covers the slab of mushroom and pork.
We’re comfortably settled in to a bottle of Gran Cerdo Rioja by the time the mains arrive, and it proves to be a perfect accompaniment for our Malt Roasted Pork Tenderloin and Cheek and 30 Day Dry Aged Fillet of Beef.
The beef is as tender as you’d expect from a chef of Kerridge’s standing, tumbling apart at the drop of a fork. It sits atop a Potato Buttermilk Waffle which, by the time we find it, has been drenched in the delicious Sauce Bordelaise with chunks of bone marrow and shallots.
The roasted pork is crowned with a huge pork cracker, which retained the deep, rich flavour of a pork scratching without the risk of a stray hair or piece of gristle - a winning combination midway through a meal. The Smoked Butter Sauce was delicious, though the Cod’s Roe was overpowering and a step too far for me, although it was a highlight for my partner.
With two, rich courses already tackled, we’re forced away from the Chocolate and Ale Cake and into the open arms of two, lighter options for dessert: English Apple & Cinnamon Soufflé and Vanilla Crème Brûlée.
It’s no bad thing, as both are sensational. The Crème Brûlée has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. Its thick, heavy caramelised lid was pleasingly challenging to crack with the perfect, nutty and bittersweet flavours. Kerridge’s secret is using minimal sugar and whole eggs, which means the vanilla, egg and caramel flavours harmonise together beautifully, without being too sickly.
The soufflé succumbed instantly to a pouring of hot, Calvados Caramel and took the Custard Ice Cream and Stem Ginger deep into its mushy centre, where it became an almighty stew of quintessentially English flavours.
And so, as we crawled, happy and perhaps uncomfortably full, back to the bar area to unwind, we received the bill for £421, which is where we lay our cards on the table both literally AND metaphorically.
The food at the Hand and Flowers is wonderful. The atmosphere is relaxing and enjoyable. The staff manage to the perfect balance between fantastic service and intrusive, over-fussiness. But as we walk back towards the bustling Marlow High Street, we begin to wonder whether it was a truly, top-tier experience. Of course, ‘experience’ is a hard word to define. I’ve eaten at Cornelius Seafood Restaurant in Bergen, where my food was plucked from the floor of the Fjord by a diver and brought straight to my plate. I’ve picked at a cheese board and glugged wine under the twinkling lights of Bacchanal in New Orleans. I’ve stuffed my face with pulled pork at an unnamed barbecue joint in a Nashville alleyway on the recommendation of a man in a Honky Tonk piano bar and I’ve eaten lobster tossed straight from the boat to the pot on a beautiful island in Maine.
Those are all experiences that will last long in the memory. But will the Hand and Flowers stick with me long after the credit card has been paid off?
I’m not sure it will, despite the truly fantastic food on offer.
In the world of Michelin-starred dining, the idea of a gastropub seems quaint and idiosyncratic. But even with plenty of warning, it feels strange to walk away from a restaurant like this with a £400 bill in your back pocket.
And as we chatted to a local barmaid later in the evening, she hit the nail on the head. “I heard it’s nice. Have I ever been there? No. Too expensive for me. I don’t think people from Marlow go there - it’s just for tourists, really.” A pub without locals isn’t a pub. But it’s a first-class destination restaurant if you’re feeling flush.
The Hand and Flowers, 126 West St, Marlow SL7 2BP www.thehandandflowers.co.uk