There are 20 restaurants in the UK with two coveted Michelin stars. Only one of them is a pub. Tom Kerridge's The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, holds that honor.
With a high profile television chef as its patron and a star rating that puts it in the same class as Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and Michel Roux Jr's Le Gavroche, the wait for a confirmed table reservation is more than a year.
Luckily, we'd heard about the four comfortable leather seats at the bar (not widely publicized and available on shorter notice at lunch). So we were able to nip in with less than two weeks notice to have a go.
Still, if you want a guaranteed reservation on a specific date, you have to wait out the calendar. Is it worth it? I'll be honest - I'm not sure.
Setting the Scene
The Hand and Flowers occupies a 17th century pub on the Marlow to Henley Road, just west of the pretty - and well-heeled - village of Marlow. It looks the part with its rambling, whitewashed brick exterior, red tile roof, hanging baskets overflowing with geraniums and mullioned windows. Inside, the pub ambiance continues with dark beamed ceilings topping off three dark wood-floored, white washed rooms filled with bare wooden tables. An addition on the side houses the bar - with its four, not so secret, bar seats as well as several more tables.
Only the table settings, with their squadrons of glassware and candlesticks, hint that this is a pub in name only.
The Service and Fare
I'd been worried that sitting at the bar would be awkward but the soft, vintage leather padded stool seats, with arms and backs were quite comfy. The only shortcoming, no convenient place to stow a handbag within reach.
Perhaps some hanging hooks under the bar would help. An added bonus of sitting at the bar is that the barman is close at hand to answer questions and to provide whatever you need so the level of service is virtually personal. That, of course, makes me unqualified to comment on table service elsewhere other than to say that all staff seemed friendly and welcoming.
Extra bits and pieces
There is a relatively long wait for food to arrive but that is understandable, given that everything is cooked to order. An assortment of pub inspired little treats arrives to help pass the time. On the day we visited, these included:
- a glass of Poiré Granit, a beautifully scented pear cider from France,
- a newspaper cone of whitebait
- several slices of chewy sourdough bread with sweet butter
- a small bowl of lemony pickled vegetables
- And the standout - Kerridge's version of the pub favorite nibble, pork scratchings. These, chosen by the Guardian as one of their Ten best British recipes in 2014, are incredibly light and bubbly with a melting texture more akin to prawn crackers than the usual hard and crunchy pub snack.
Just don't get carried away as the best is yet to come.
The style of cooking is described as modern British and is generally rather meaty with dishes such as slow cooked duck breast with peas, duck fat chips and gravy (winner of the "Great British Menu" competition in 2010), loin of Cotswold venison with boudin noir(black pudding) purée, tenderloin of pork with pickled mustard leaf, malt glazed pig cheek, garlic sausage and potato dauphine, beef, chicken, lamb, cod and bass.
Many of the dishes are highly refined riffs on classic pub grub.
UK Travel Tip: Unless you plan ahead, vegetarians in your party can be left high and dry. If you let the restaurant know, well before your arrival, they will prepare a vegetarian option for you. But, unless you are the only vegetarian in your group, this restaurant is probably not a good choice for you.
A starter of vegetable flower fritter with pork farce and quail egg was actually a high class version of a scotch egg. The pork farce, wrapped in a squash blossom and deep fried, contained the hidden surprise of a perfectly cooked, and still soft, quail egg. My companion chose a summer courgette tart with chevre, pesto and cured pork. It arrived pretty as a picture and draped in an unidentified transparent layer. That, it seems, was the "cured pork" an Italian speciality known as lardo.
She declared it delicious.
The main course, described as "Herb Crusted" stone bass with a crab pancake arrived with a thick "blanket" of herbs (see a picture). It was a nicely cooked and generous piece of fish that was wrapped in a pancake filled with crabmeat and perfumed by the herbs. Lovely but not what I would call a "crust" exactly. Maybe a little licence with the menu description at work here.
Offal occasionally appears on the menu here and I'm not a fan so I can only report that my companion had a beatific expression on her face as she consumed her Essex lamb "bun" with sweetbreads and salsa verde. Looking more like a candied apple on a stick than a bun, the dish is a tender chop cooked to melting point and wrapped in sweetbreads, the lot coated with an ultra-thin crust of polenta and glazed a golden brown. The accompanying salsa verde, a blend of fresh herbs, garlic and lemon zest really lights up your mouth with unexpected flavor - though perhaps a bit on the salty side for me.
We ordered sides of broccoli in hazelnut mayonnaise and hispi cabbage. The broccoli, like the courgette that accompanied my starter, was so undercooked I could not actually spear it with a fork to serve myself from the little copper pot it came in. My companion reported the cabbage - a small, sweet and pointed variety - perfect.
For pudding we shared a rich and fudgy milk toffee tart with roast grapefruit sorbet. The tart, on its own, could have been cloyingly sweet; the sorbet eyebrow-raisingly bitter. But together, what a perfect combination. Magic.
Is dining here expensive? Well the chef is a celebrity, there are two Michelin stars and four AA rosettes on the sign and the wait for a table is at least a year - so what do you think? But actually, for the quality of our meal, the £119 we spent for lunch for two (tips included but no wine) is about right for a restaurant of this class.
The á la carte menu is the same for lunch and dinner. You could save a bit by choosing the set menu, available at lunch Monday to Saturday. In the spring of 2015 it cost £15 for two courses and £19.50 for three courses. There's no choice on the set menu and while I'm sure Tom Kerridge's way with cottage pie is fabulous, it does seem rather a shame to wait a to dine here for such a simple menu. Why not spend the time saving up instead.
- interesting, well executed takes on British pub classics and rustic French dishes
- comfortable, informal atmosphere
- surprising extras
- a well curated, fairly priced - and massive - wine list that includes separate lists of organic and biodynamic wines, at least 20 house wines by the bottle or glass, an extensive champagne list and an eye-popping collection of vintage wines for those who really want to splash out
- You can bring your own wine. There is a corkage fee for that.
- very hard to get a table when you want it
- food occasionally let down by too much salt and undercooking (vegetables)
- tables are a bit crowded
- if you're idea of a special occasion meal includes table linens and flower arrangements, you'll be disappointed. The prices and the anticipation may make this a special occasion restaurant for most people but the atmophere is very much that of a nice country pub
- Tom Kerridge is often not present.
Is There Really a One Year Wait for a Table?
Pretty much. The reservations page on The Hand and Flowers website has a list of the next available table reservations. When I checked (in July 2015) there was a Friday or Saturday night and a Sunday lunch in July 2016, a Saturday lunch and weekday dinner in March 2016 and a weekday dinner in September 2015.
The upside of this is that, with people having to book so far in advance, there are bound to be cancellations. So there are also waiting lists. Get yourself on the waiting list for the specific lunch or dinner you want and see what happens. And, if you are happy to sit at the bar, you might be to get in, as we did, on short notice. It's always worth asking.
UK Travel Tips: There are two seatings for lunch. If you have a choice, take the later of the two. That way you can linger over your meal as long as you like.
Try the Coach instead. Kerridge and his wife have opened a second pub just up the street which operates on a no reservation basis. A meal there in Kerridge's style might only set you back £30 but arrive early because it's small and fills up quickly.
The Hand and Flowers Essentials
- Where: The Hand and Flowers, 126 West Street, Marlow SL7 2BP
- Contact: Tel: +44 (0)1628 482 277, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- How to get there:
- By train - Marlow train station is a 10 minute walk. Check National Rail Enquiries for schedule and prices.
- By car - Marlow is about 32 miles from Central London. Take the M4 west to Windsor and Maidenhead, then the A404 into Marlow. At the end of the high street, turn left at the T-junction onto West Street. The Hand and Flowers is about a quarter of a mile from the junction.
- UK Travel Tip - The M4 is often clogged with traffic so give yourself plenty of extra time to get there. Marlow is a very pretty town with a scenic bridge over the Thames, historic 17th and 18th century buildings and lots of shops for retail therapy. There's inexpensive parking behind the supermarket. If you're early there's there's plenty to do.
- Open: Mon - Sat lunch: noon to - 2:45pm, dinner 6:30 to 9:45pm, Sun lunch noon to 3:15pm
- Visit their website for more